Monday, April 06, 2009

Postmodernism

How do we know what is really true? It is the question at the core of postmodernist philosophy. My first real encounter with postmodernism was in a church group. Sometimes we'd go to other churches and temples and have discussions with people of other faiths and denominations. In order to be polite we glosses over the real rifts in religious belief. A good friend in our group who refused to do it. He couldn't get over Jesus said "I am the way, the truth, and the light" and that "there is no other way to the Father but through me." He pointed out that we believed that all Jews are going to hell. Now to him this seemed pretty cut and dry, but everyone looked at him like he was crazy. When it came down to it people didn't believed what they profess to believe. The consequences of such beliefs never seem to penetrate the walls of their sculls into their actions. If all the Jews were going to hell then why didn't we stand up now and try to save their souls? Because no one actually believe this to be literally true.

Another time we were at the temple I spoke with the rabbi and were were talking about Moses and the Torah. We talked about how the book speaks of things Moses couldn't have known say about his own death and things that happen after he dies, but traditionally it is said that Moses wrote the Torah. He said something remarkable to me. "There is literal truth such as what happened and there is the traditional truth, the ideas that shaped the thinking of Jews for hundreds of years" and he said "the historical Moses probably existed". He probably existed? Not only only didn't he write the Torah he probably didn't even exist? How does he read for the Torah each Sabbath and say the prayers and and claim t be a rabbi without being a hypocrite. He's a postmodern rabbi, or at least that how he described himself. He believe the truth of the Torah in a general and traditional sense that it's shaped his life and that of his ancestors, but that specifically none of it may have actually happened. I asked him if he felt conflicted by it. He didn't. In fact he seemed like the most peaceful person I'd ever met. His level of intelligence and profundity of his speech about God is one of the most impressive people I've ever met. And so while I still have some trouble wrapping my mind around this idea of postmodernist philosophy, I have a certain reverence for it because of my respect for him.

The next time I heard this term postmodernism was in the comment to an earlier blog post called When I Tell The Truth I was talking about self identity and how defensive people can get over their worldviews. In the comment my friend spoke of how he is a postmodernist and that it's possible that light and sound as we currently understand them are tentative truths that will one day be proven to be more complex or completely different than what we now believe them to be. At first I was admittedly disturbed by this. Disturbed because this is a pretty intelligent guy and he just said something really stupid, but did he? I started to think about it and about postmodernism and about the rabbi. It wasn't stupid it was challenging, and far from stupid. The more I looked into it the more I realized that my aversion to what they were saying may be in part to do with my own postmodernist philosophical beliefs. I'm probably in the same place as the rabbi and my friend. Does Jesus have any historical significance, or course he does, but does that me he really existed? No. And half the stuff people exclaim to be actually true I take a face value but I don't believe.

How is it possible to believe something is true and false at the same time? I must have compartmentalized believe and scientific reasoning because clearly I do believe in Jesus and science and they conflict and it doesn't bother me at all. I love being a christian and I love going to church. What does it all mean if it isn't literally true? I've learned so much about life from christian theology. Beyond the usefulness of the church's teachings is the fact that I love the stories of the bible and the traditions of my faith. I mean there is no better book than the bible to find depth and complexity. It seems the serious way in which people interpret passages kills the spirit of the text. My brother is perfect example. He may be considered an agnostic. In discussions about theology our core views on the literal truth of christian theology doesn't differ much. The major difference is that I have a great deal of respect for religious people and religion in general where as he does not. Our mother has often tried to reason with him to try to get him to pray or to believe in God or go to church. Her arguments are rational and it isn't going to convince him. He needs an emotional connection with the tradition.

And so there's this split where intelligent people aren't going to believe in the reality of ghosts or angels or demons or men in bellies of fish or man living a thousand years. I remember Bill Maher saying that "If Jack and the Bean Stalk were in the bible these people would believe it's true" and I don't disagree. Because the actual reality of it is ridiculous. But Jack and the Bean Stalk isn't of the same sort of story as the Prodigal Son or the Good Sumerian. The people behind the phenomenon that is Christianity include many profound thinkers that describe in religious terms what is real. We can speak of the psychology of the religious mind or we can respect the intelligence and sincerity of the tradition and speak of it as if it were real. We can do this because the consequences are real and because it could be real. I don't know if that makes me a hypocrite, in someways I feel like I am, but if my the rabbi and my friend are hypocaust's that puts me in good company.
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