By Frederick W. Schmidt
For a variety of reasons over recent years, I have found myself reflecting on the increasingly fractious nature of public dialogue, even among people of broadly similar commitments and particularly among Christians. It is painful, to say the least, to watch people attack one another who believe that we are made in the image of God and who are also committed to combatting any behavior that denigrates the value of other human beings.
That kind of bitter division has become increasingly common of late, and the accusations that accompany that division appear regularly in articles and social media posts. One measure of just how desperate things have become is that most of the ensuing bitterness goes well beyond a difference of opinions. Motives and character figure into what could be more accurately described as character assassination, not debate.
There are undoubtedly a number of factors at work that have helped to create this climate. The very existence of social media has made it easier and more attractive to fuel differences and to rely on ad hominem arguments. Politics have become the dominant language of difference, and contrary to its best purposes, political language has become a vehicle for leveraging power, not for building consensus. To make matters worse, we no longer debate individual issues, we join affinity groups, and joining affinity groups makes it far harder to concede that someone who belongs to another group could think anything worth believing.
But I have also become convinced that postmodern ways thinking about how we know what we know (i.e., epistemology) have also made it impossible to talk about the challenges we face. Postmodern epistemology rejects the possibility of objective truth, arguing that knowledge is ultimately and irreducibly subjective. In so doing, it is able to claim that all one need to do in order to argue that a particular reality is in play is to report that you have experienced the world around you in that fashion.
One might simply treat this bit of epistemology as a purely personal choice that (at worst) could cripple a person’s ability to engage the world around him or cut him off from a conversation with others. After all, taken on its own terms, this way of seeing the world exalts a personal and privatized experience of truth. One imagines a world, then, in which individual knowers take their seat in a room where each person has a different experience of what happens in the room and advocates for a different truth about their individual experiences. But, logically speaking, no one can pronounce on what actually transpired there. Indeed, one could rightly argue that there were as many experiences and truths as there were people in the room.
The difficulty, of course, is that postmodern thinkers, as wide spread as they might be, also include educators and activists, who are keen to advance their point of view and order society accordingly. Because they are, they often make a series of deeply, self-contradictory moves. They argue that, notwithstanding the subjective nature of their knowledge, there is an objective truth about the reality around them. They assume that this objective reality applies to the behavior and motives of others. They operate on the assumption that even though truth is subjective in nature, their report about their experience can be understood by others. They believe that others are obliged to agree with them, and the subjective-objective truth that they have discovered is incontrovertible. On the basis of that truth, they also argue that society should be ordered accordingly.
To return to the “room analogy” used above, it turns out that it is not safe to assume that we are in a room shaped in a consistent fashion by the postmodern understandings that brought us there. The subjective report of some people in the room is enough to legitimate the claim that injustice was done in the room, but those experiences are not just a few among many experiences. They are, in fact, windows into an objective truth about what happened in the room, particularly as it applies to the behavior and even the unseen motives of still others in the room. And, it turns out, those “other people” are precluded from speaking about what happened in the room, because — intended or not — the reality is they perpetrated the injustice.
This shift in logic from the subjective to the objective is not hard to explain. Without an appeal to an objectively real injustice, one could hardly expect to be convincing. It would be enough to simply respond, “That is your reality, not mine.” Martin Luther King, Jr. and his contemporaries clearly understood this and believed that they lived in a world marked by those realities. Accordingly, he appealed to both objective principles and shared dreams to great advantage in order to make his case in King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. But postmodern epistemology cynically pivots away from the logic of his world and his approach and is hamstrung as a result.
Postmodern Epistemology and the Common Project
The power of this departure from the logic of King’s message to destroy civic dialogue is enormous. For centuries, Americans have assumed that we are engaged in a common project into which all Americans are invited. We have often failed disastrously to honor that goal, and there have been times when many have been excluded. But in spite of those failures the dream King described has claimed our attention as a social, moral, spiritual, and political priority. On the basis of that common project, Americans have scrutinized their behavior. We have challenged structures that militate against that dream. We have modified our laws to ensure that access to it is reinforced, and we have shed blood in the effort to ensure that those who have been refused their place in that common project are given a voice.
There is still work to do. There will always be work to do. But postmodern epistemology turns its back on that effort. To shift metaphors slightly: if it, at first blush, a subjective understanding of reality suggests that everyone has a place at the table, that is clearly not the case. Not as participants, at any rate. In the sleight of hand described above, in which subjective knowledge becomes objective reality, there are those who do not deserve a seat at the table, or if they do, they should be silent.
There is no longer a common project, and there is no progress toward a shared goal that is measurable or enduring. If, as some have argued, the (subjective-become-objective) truth is that we have failed and always will, then both cynicism and despair set in. On that reading of things, the brilliant vision outlined in Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” and the opening affirmations in the “Declaration of Independence” are either deeply naïve or a part of the problem. In any event, they are hardly worth the investment of time and treasure.
Postmodern Epistemology and Christian Hope
For Americans this way of thinking is a tragedy and threatens the common project that has governed the trajectory of our national life for over two hundred years. But for Christians — whose commitment to Christ transcends our civic commitments — the logic of postmodern epistemology is not just problematic, but inimical to what we believe.
The logic of the Christian faith holds that the Triune God is an objective reality, not a subjective one; that God speaks to us and can be heard; that God is at work in the world as a redemptive force, renewing, repairing, and healing the world; and that God will bring that redemptive effort to a successful conclusion. Postmodern epistemology renders those beliefs untenable, denying that an objective knowledge of God is possible.
But that epistemology does not simply fly in the face of what Christians believe. It also mitigates against the hope that informs and shapes the Christian life, touching both the lives of individuals and the body of Christ. It specializes in identifying saints and sinners on the basis of birth and social location and then defines redemption on its own terms. Out of its activist passion, it is forever finding new forms of sin in others, and one can only know what to do to make amends by consulting the self-appointed arbiters of what is now, in this moment, politically correct.
A Christian Response to a Regressive Epistemology
It is difficult to understand why “Progressive” Protestants repeatedly align themselves with such a regressive and anarchical world view. The best that might be said for it is that, as I have said above, postmodern epistemology appears, at first blush, to offer everyone a seat at the table. But, of course, that it is not the case. There aren’t seats for everyone. Many by definition don’t deserve one, and if by some misfortune a few make their way to the table, the best that they can offer is their silence.
Christians who believe that the gospel is a profoundly liberating message and is in no need of postmodern epistemology have no choice but to resist its logic and manipulation. It is not enough, however, to simply affirm what that epistemology denies. It must also form Christians who dedicate themselves to living out of the objective promises of the God who can be known and who renews our lives.
That effort will not be easy. There will be considerable social and cultural pressure brought to bear on Christians who give themselves to that task, and it will be a minority of Christians who will embrace it. But, in that respect, the call on our lives is no different than the call of God on the lives of Christians in every generation.
The Rev. Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt is a vice rector of Church of the Good Shepherd, Brentwood, TN as well as senior scholar and the inaugural holder of the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL.