The postmodern pursuit: Always departing, never arriving

In his review of Matthew Levering’s “The Theology of Augustine: An Introductory Guide to His Most Important Works,” Carl Trueman describes the postmodernist’s penchant for pursuing truth in the hope of not finding it.

“Augustine [however] was cut from different cloth. For him, it was not the pursuit of truth or some nebulous ‘journey’ which was the important thing; it was finding and resting in truth, real truth, God’s truth. Thus, he spent much of his early life pursuing that truth, through education, through Manicheeism and through neo-Platonism; it was only when he found Christianity and came to rest in God himself that he found the truth, beauty, and the fulfillment that comes from the same. That is not the secular mindset. Indeed, when I played Augustine in a debate with Bertrand Russell last Christmas, I was struck by how my antagonist found Augustine’s claim to have discovered truth to be so obnoxious; is it coherent, I thought, to characterize the good life as the pursuit of truth, rather than the discovery of truth? How can the best life be located in seeking truth and yet never finding it? Is it not the truth of the end point which gives the pursuit its value? And yet the restlessness of this secular mentality would seem to be no different to aesthetic of our post-evangelical arrivistes who seem to believe it is better to be always traveling than ever to arrive.” (Review of Carl Trueman).

A while back, I was in conversation with a friend who said this about Jacques Derrida’s view of truth and a Messiah:

The question of the messiah seems eternally interesting. Derrida opined that the point about having a messiah is the promise, the hope, the aspiration, NOT that (he) comes. So what’s the deal with having a messiah who’s arrived? There’s a question for you. Where is the mystery once he’s exposed and had his say?”

Michael Patton, an evangelical Calvinist, sympathises with postmodernists. He believes that since there is nowadays much greater exposure to different cultures and religions through travel and the internet, people become more confused, and consequently don’t know whether (my summation of Patton’s message) they’re a Christian Arthur or an agnostic Martha. Here is Patton:

“I have a deep sympathy toward the confusion that postmodernism has brought about. The global culture that has been created in the last 50 years has caused us to change our perspectives on many things. The internet, world news, and globalization of culture has made it less likely that people can stay sheltered in a naive understanding of truth, religion, and morality even if they are right. The ever changing currents in science, exposure to world religions, fractures in the family unit, divisions in Christianity, and subjective change in personal beliefs and certainty have caused Christians to question the reliability of any source of truth. People are suspicious, disillusion, bewildered, and uncertain.” (M. Patton, “Would the real emerger please stand up”).

Patton, in his “Understanding the Postmodern Mind and the Emerging Church” distinguishes between “hard” and “soft” postmodernists:

“Hard postmodernists would see truth as being relative to the time, culture, or situation of the individual. In other words, truth does not exist beyond the thoughts of the subject. For example (and let me dive right in!), homosexuality, to the hard postmodernist, is right or wrong depending upon the person’s situation.”

“Soft postmoderns are different than hard postmoderns. In general they are suspicious of all truth claims. Their suspicion, however, is not rooted in a denial of the existence of truth, but a denial of our ability to come to terms with our certainty about the truth. In other words, the soft postmoderns believe in the existence of objective truth, but deny that we can have absolute certainly or assurance that we, in fact, have a corner on this truth. To the soft postmodernist, truth must be held in tension, understanding our limitations. We can seldom, if ever, be sure that we have the right truth. Therefore, there is a tendency to hold all convictions in limbo.”

What is so postmodern about rejecting the revelation of an other-worldly destination? Wasn’t that the “Enlightenment’s” claim to fame two centuries or so ago? The Lord Jesus Christ’s view is that if you pursue, you discover. For a Calvinist, the initial pursuing of truth is not done by you but by God, who grants you the desire to pursue both natural and supernatural truth. “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit–fruit that will last…” (John 15:16). The Bible has a centre, an “arriving” (salvation), a destination, a final destination, which can only be attained through revelation.

To return to the interminable indeterminable departure lounge and the Messiah. There is Derrida, again, sitting on his suitcase again. Did Derrida really want to find the Messiah? And if he didn’t want to, was it because, once found, the Messiah would no longer be of any value. Is it true – as my friend (above) says – that Derrida believed that “the point about having justice or a messiah is the promise, the hope, the aspiration, not that justice or the Messiah comes;” because “what’s the deal with having a messiah who’s arrived? Where is the mystery once he’s exposed and had his say?” As the TV “Discovery Channel” puts it: “If we had all the answers, there’d be nothing left to discover. Ignorance is bliss.” Go on finish it off: “and it’s folly to be wise.” Sure if you mean the wisdom of man:

…when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. 2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, 4 and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Corinthians 2:1-5, ESV).

Most “educated” people are soft postmodernists: although they believe that objective truth exists, they say no one can be sure what it is. André Gide, a hard postmodernist advised the softies: “Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it?” Only someone who doesn’t believe in (objective) truth talks like that.

The question is, how does one do science or literature (tone poems excluded) without a coherent, stable reality? Indeed, how can one have an intelligent conversation if words and thoughts keep toppling into one another? Scientists and all those blessed with noggins seek to know what’s going on, not only in their heads, but also in the world– theologians too. Everybody – including Derrida – hopes, if not believes, that Truth exists. And a messiah? Is Derrida waiting for a messiah? If so, what kind of messiah? “Derrida’s Messiah is not a person but an opening of experience.

What’s the deal with having a messiah who’s arrived? Where is the mystery once he’s exposed and had his say?” (My friend’s question above). It is unremarkable that sinful man would ask such a question? Undergirding this question is perhaps not the fear that a Messiah, a Judge, exists, neither the conviction that Truth can never be found. What such a question implies is rather the chutzpa (hubris) that nothing higher than man has the right to exist, for man is the measure of all things. Satan asks Adam “Did God really say?” (Genesis 3:1). And therein lies the genesis of the question “What’s the deal with having a messiah who has arrived – unless he’s arrived at another departure lounge?” (The deconstruction of Messiah).

Aristotle believed that virtue was the means to life’s goal, which is happiness. Virtue strives for happiness and the good, the good of all. Indeed, Aristotle’s happiness (and Plato’s for that matter) IS the good. In Aristotle, every human life has a departure and a destination; the reason why you travel is – surely – to arrive at a specific place. That place, for Aristotle, is here, in this world. Since the 19th century, the place to find happiness hasn’t changed, but what has changed since the “Enlightenment” is that its all about departing and no more about arriving unless arriving at another departure lounge. Enlightenment, modern style: Bums on suitcases, all packed and ready to leave for the next departure lounge

And what about the Victorian postmoderns? – always departing never arriving. Here is Martyn Lloyd Jones:

The Victorians said,’To travel hopefully is better than to arrive.’ Stuff and nonsense. If that were true no one would get married, they’d say courtship is better than marriage. But you see this is the sort of phrase that fascinates people and it sounds so wonderful. Ah, they say, we don’t want any of your Christian evangelical dogmatic certainty. We are seekers after truth,we like the great quest after reality. There was no such thing as the knowledge of truth; that was the nonsense they talked, based on nothing but sheer ignorance.” (Martyn Lloyd Jones’ sermon,“By faith, Abraham”).

What about our own postmodern generation? Should we like, Michael Patton, sympathise with them or should it be a plague on both their houses! For both the soft and the hard say “we don’t want any of your Christian evangelical dogmatic certainty.” (Lloyd Jones above). The “Christian” postmodern generation is epitomised in the “Lutheran” theologian Walter Brueggemann for whom theology and Bible interpretation is not a matter of certainty but of fidelity; fidelity to 1. the “divine office of creative imagination” and 2. to the “other.”

For Brueggemann, the Lutheran, any interaction between 1. certitude, which he considers limited because it is restricted to a single meaning (univocity) and 2. fidelity, should be frowned upon. We should, therefore, be open, as Jacques Derrida says, to “an unlimited number of contexts over an indefinite period of time,” and thus to unrestricted interaction between suffering persons desiring to tell their personal stories. For Brueggemann and Derrida, and all postmodernists (who believe there is no metaphysical centre, no fixed structures), there exists no such entity as Being, no such entity as essence, no such thing as a True story, but only suffering beings telling their true-ish stories, which are the only stories that ultimately matter. So, the only Lutherans who understand suffering and love are the postmodern ones.

All of us in our natural state live in “a sort of diaboliccd trance, wherein the soul traverseth the world; feeds itself with a thousand airy nothings ; snatcheth at this and the other created excellency, in imagination and desire ; goes here and there, and every where, except where it should go. And the soul is never cured of this disease, till overcoming grace bring it back, to take up its everlasting rest in God through Christ : But till this be, if man were set again in Paradise, the garden of the Lord ; all the pleasures there would not keep him from looking, yea, and leaping over All human beings in our natural state live in “a sort of diabolical trance, wherein  the soul traverses the world; feeds itself with a thousand airy nothings ; snatcheth at this and the other created excellency, in imagination and desire ; goes here and there, and every where, except where it should go. And the soul is never cured of this disease, till overcoming grace bring it back, to take up its everlasting rest in God through Christ : But till this be, if man were set again in Paradise, the garden of the Lord ; all the pleasures there would not keep him from looking, yea, and leaping over the hedge a second time.”

(Thomas Boston: “Human nature in its four-fold state of primitive integrity, subsisting in the parents of mankind in paradise; entire deprivation in the unregenerate; and consummate happiness or misery in all mankind in the future state.”)

In conclusion, each generation is responsible for the lies they tell the next. Yet, those who feed on those lies are also responsible – and no social or psychological or theological system can make that biblical truth disappear. At the same time, it is right that Michael Patton has sympathy for postmodernists, for who desires anyone to be always departing and never arriving; worse, lost? Inexorably, God has decreed it so. Yep, unlike (Mike) Patton, and unlike the General, I’m a, a, a, a Jewish Calvinist.

Must pack.

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3 thoughts on “The postmodern pursuit: Always departing, never arriving

  1. The journey IS more important than the destination.

    Take writing, for instance. The writing of the book is everything, not the publication. Take music: the playing of the instrument is what counts–both the practice and the performance–not the applause. A true musician (or artist of any kind) knows that perfection is unobtainable; there is always a higher level to reach for . . . you never ‘arrive.’ And if you are conceited enough to think that you HAVE arrived–what’s the point of writing another word or playing another note? It’s over.

    It is better to travel than to arrive. Which is just as well because one never does arrive. Not even you. You or Bertrand Russel or Plato or your beloved Paul have no more arrived at the truth than I have! To be human is to search, to reach for, to ask questions. I’m not saying that there is no absolute truth. I’m saying that we will never know it. And–so what?
    When Gide wrote, “Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it, ” he meant that those who claim to have found the truth have found nothing of the kind. None of us can find the truth, we can only search for it. You think God has shown you the truth. That wasn’t God talking. That was one or two–or many–ordinary mortals just like you and me.

    As for postmodernists regarding human beings as the highest on the ladder, GOD FORBID! If humans are the best that we can expect then we’re in deep, deep shONEt. No, we postmodernists don’t see humans as gods. We aren’t the ones who claim that God made us in his own image. We’re not the ones who say that we are the only living creatures who have a soul. We are not the ones who liken ourselves to God. We aren’t the arrogant ones. We postmodernists see humans as a step on the evolutionary ladder–only a step.

    • How do you I know you are telling the truth that’s there’s no truth?

      “Take writing, for instance. The writing of the book is everything, not the publication. Take music: the playing of the instrument is what counts–both the practice and the performance–not the applause.”

      Publish or perish is what it’s about for all but a few like you.

      In your state, it is indeed better to travel than to arrive, for your destination – so far – is the wrath of God.

      John 3: 35, 36 “The Father loveth the Son, and hath given all things into his hand. He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life; and he that believeth not the Son, shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth on him.”

    • As Thomas Boston says in my post, you’re in “a sort of diabolical trance, wherein the soul traverses the world; feeds itself with a thousand airy nothings ; snatches at this and the other created excellency, in imagination and desire ; goes here and there, and every where, except where it should go.”

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