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In Defense of Postmodernism

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By Neal Schindler

In a June article about the Rachel Dolezal controversy, FAVS writer Eric Blauer stated:

“I am appalled at how easy it is for some people to embrace a new definition of once agreed upon [sic] realities about what it [sic] right and wrong. The cultural conversations about objective reality are sliding faster and faster into the subjective world of personal preference and self-identified reality. Personal opinion has become the faith of the god of postmodernism. The altar of “I” is bloodied with the sacrifices of objective reasoning, moral absolutes and community accountability. People can say whatever, do whatever and when they don’t like how people respond, they sputter, spin, splice and split.”

As a proud postmodernist, I took exception to this portion of Blauer’s piece. But it is not, I think, out of sheer defensiveness that I feel compelled to respond to Blauer.

Postmodernism is widely, and sometimes wildly, misunderstood. “Once agreed-upon realities” were, indeed, agreed upon by some set of people during a particular era. They are social constructs, and while they may be based in or on some amount of seemingly objective truth, they themselves are not necessarily true. For example, the idea that lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) identity is pathological, once broadly accepted in the U.S. and elsewhere, has cropped up again recently in the wake of Caitlyn Jenner’s gender transition. Many media outlets and individuals have rashly compared Jenner’s transition to Dolezal’s supposedly transracial identity. I’m not especially interested in talking about Dolezal, but I do want to focus for a moment on Jenner.

Among other factors, correlation/causation mix-ups might have contributed to the pathologizing of LGBT identity. In the U.S., LGBT individuals have been more prone to self-harm, including suicide, than non-LGBT people for as long as social scientists have kept records of such things. One way to interpret this information is to posit that there must be something so dysfunctional about LGBT identity that it can lead a person to self-harm or even suicide.

Another viewpoint combines sociology and psychology rather than focusing solely on the latter. In a society that has historically oppressed, marginalized, persecuted, and even killed people simply for being LGBT, depression and self-harm behaviors would naturally be more common within the oppressed population than among the oppressors.

As a graduate student in psychology at Eastern Washington University, I studied many theories, from Freud to the present day. One that especially caught my interest was narrative theory. The basic idea is that humans think, feel, and behave based on narratives they have internalized, i.e. accepted as true. Society at large and the people immediately surrounding an individual — friends, family, coworkers, community, etc. — have considerable impact on the kinds of narratives we believe.

This is a postmodern theory inasmuch as it deemphasizes the idea of objective truth in favor of focusing on what tends to actually influence our actions and beliefs. People who sincerely think that Jade Helm 15 is a direct precursor to martial law and the collapse of American democracy may behave quite differently from those who find nothing of value in the conspiracy theories. Whatever one’s views may be regarding objective truth, it’s those views that guide our actions, thoughts, and feelings. Our worldview is the inescapable lens through which we see everything, and narratives — interrelated and sometimes contradictory — comprise that worldview.

It has not been easy for mainstream American society to flirt with gender theory. I wouldn’t say we’ve embraced it by any means, but we’re giving it more attention than we did before. Decades upon decades of work by academics, and centuries of lived experience by non-academics, have gotten us to the present moment. “Transamerica,” “Transparent,” “Orange is the New Black,” Laverne Cox, and Caitlyn Jenner didn’t come out of nowhere, and neither did the marriage equality movement. Far from it.

The conservative notion that we’ve just been blindsided by the arbitrary redefinition of traditional institutions is, itself, a narrative, and I don’t find it to be a very convincing one. Gender theory is more than just countless people’s personal opinions. Psychology, sociology, anthropology, biology, and many other fields have contributed to its development, and so have thousands of testimonials by non-academics.

When you read studies in the social sciences, you remember that they are based on the input of actual people. If the study is scrupulous, it won’t create “facts” out of thin air, based solely on what the authors were hoping to see. Social scientists report on what people in various populations self-report, either directly or through experiments. It is conceivable, if highly unlikely, that generations of LGBT people have been completely wrong about their own experience. But unless LGBT communities and their allies across the world start interpreting the Bible as a call to live chaste or closeted lives, the conceivable wrongness of their beliefs doesn’t matter. By and large, they won’t be acting based on Leviticus.

Increasingly, LGBT people and their allies, including many people of faith, are instead acting based on the notion that same-sex attraction isn’t any more problematic or “unnatural” than what religious conservatives tend to see as “traditional,” God-ordained attraction. On the ground, “traditional values” are becoming the source of pie-in-the-sky theorizing. At the same time, an understanding of LGBT identity as perfectly valid is driving thoughts, actions, and lives.

Blauer mourns the loss of “objective reasoning, moral absolutes and community accountability.” I can’t think of any objective reasoning that isn’t either scientific or biblical. Science says two plus two equals four, so we accept it. Scientific theories suggest certain things may be true, so we consider them. The Bible strikes some readers as objective and unequivocal rather than necessarily subject to cultural and personal interpretation. Those readers see ultimate truth and act accordingly. However, those of us who don’t see the Bible that way can believe in moral absolutes as well. I believe, for example, that abusing children is always wrong. I believe that abusing animals is always wrong. I believe rape is always wrong.

A critic of capitalism, or at least a fan of “Les Miserables,” might tell you that theft isn’t always wrong. An NRA member in a “stand your ground” state might tell you that violence isn’t always wrong. So might a person who believes bombing ISIS is the way to go. I can find a few universal truths in this life, but most issues seem morally muddy. Community accountability may help resolve some of the gray areas. If a community agrees, in whatever manner it has of doing so, to forswear “modern” technology, then it has resolved — at least for some period of time — a tricky question of our age: How do we reap technology’s benefits without suffering its ill effects? Answer: We don’t. We shun it. The baby goes out with the bathwater.

Of course, a community that gives up iPhones and laptops and Netflix this year, or this decade, may want something different down the road. Few societies, to my knowledge, condone child abuse and rape. When a community can come to a genuine agreement, rather than being ruled by cruel, power-hungry overlords, it tends to maintain a few, quasi-universal behavioral taboos.

It can feel supremely satisfying to say, with certainty, that many things are “just plain wrong,” period, end of discussion. A moral landscape of black and white offers much more comfort than a sea of gray. But comfort alone isn’t a good enough reason to force moral monochromatics upon a largely gray universe. We form international organizations, such as the United Nations, so that we can, as a species, shout from the rooftops that we think certain things (e.g., child abuse) are always, always, always wrong. But the beauty of humankind, as well as its maddeningness, comes from our tendency to “sputter, spin, splice and split” in response to each other.

Some nations don’t allow much sputtering, spinning, splicing, and splitting. Our First Amendment, so beloved of American conservatives, puts our right to engage in these behaviors front and center. However, it doesn’t guarantee that our free speech won’t have social, emotional, or political fallout, for us and for others.

Communities may form or fall apart based on how well they can tolerate — accept and include, or exclude and penalize — their most fringe elements.  As Blauer himself has noted, FAVS does the sputtering, mixed-up business of connecting disparate people and moving forward with greater understanding better than many, perhaps most, online forums. We even do it pretty well in person.

Postmodernism means a lot to me because it serves as a container for the vexing, fluid, regularly self-reinventing thing we know as human nature. In Judeo-Christian religion, there’s the idea that God loves us all not despite but because of our differences. I like to think postmodernism gives us all space to explore and invent ourselves even if, as of yet, there isn’t a ready-made explanation on the books for each of us.

About Neal Schindler

A native of Detroit, Neal Schindler has lived in the Pacific Northwest since 2002. He has held staff positions at Seattle Weekly and The Seattle Times and was a freelance writer for Jew-ish.com from 2007 to 2011. Schindler was raised in a Reconstructionist Jewish congregation and is now a member of Spokane's Reform congregation, Emanu-El. He is the director of Spokane Area Jewish Family Services. His interests include movies, Scrabble, and indie rock. He lives with his wife, son, and two cats in West Central Spokane.

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17 comments

  1. Oh goodness, here we go, dragged into another article thanks a bunch Neal.

    First, can you put all this academic brain meat back into the grinder and pump out a patty us “non-academics’ can chew on! You know us conservative nincompoops just watch people eat brains on tv…not use ours! Come on help an East Central knuckle-dragger out! Nonetheless I will try to drool out a response…

    I am not sure if postmodernism as a family is so unique, it’s been around for along time, it’s huggie kissy party uncle dressed in a toga in was dolling out similar pronouncements in Jesus days:

    “Pilate said, “So you are a king?”Jesus responded, “You say I am a king. Actually, I was born and came into the world to testify to the truth. All who love the truth recognize that what I say is true.” “What is truth?” Pilate asked. (John 18:37-38)

    In my understanding of truth, it’s realities and values that are true for all people, in all times, in all places.

    Which Christian of these values below are so threatening to postmoderns?

    “But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things!” (Galatians 5:22-23)

    The nonviolence of Jesus’s teaching and example value?

    The embracing and expanding of marginalized people groups in his ministry and teaching?

    Feeding the poor?

    Bringing health to sick?

    Decentralizing worship from temples, priesthoods and placing it in the hands of common folk?

    Sanctifying the life of family by calling for commitment, celebration and honor in family life?

    The celebration and sanctification of work by the son of God working as a carpenter for most of his life instead of coming from the priest class? Ushering in a community called church made up of slaves, the poor, the marginalized, as well as wealthy and educated people.

    I don’t think any of these values are probably the real issue, these matters don’t change. The real issue is the biblical moral matters and its boundaries in sexuality? You brought up Leviticus in your article, I am sure one of your favorite Jewish books. If one reads it, most people probably agree with a whole lot of moral boundaries mentioned.

    Which of the Leviticus sex prohibitions are so outrageous?

    Don’t have sex with your mother (18:7)

    Don’t have sex with your father’s wife (18:8)

    Don’t have sex with your sister (18:9)

    Don’t have sex with your granddaughter (18:10)

    Don’t have sex with your half-sister (18:11)

    Don’t have sex with your biological aunt (18:12-13)

    Don’t have sex with your uncle’s wife (18:14)

    Don’t have sex with your daughter-in-law (18:15)

    Don’t have sex with your sister-in-law (18:16)

    Don’t have sex with a woman and also have sex with her daughter or granddaughter

    Don’t marry your wife’s sister while your wife still lives (18:18)

    Don’t having sex with a woman during her period (18:19)

    Don’t having sex with your neighbor’s wife (18:20)

    Don’t have sex with a man “as one does with a woman” (18:22)

    Don’t having sex with an animal (18:23)

    Yes, these sexual boundaries are being redefined and I am sure more will be revisited as well if your presentation of postmodernism is as liberating as you make it out to be.

    • Okay, I’d like to bracket the hot potatoes of sex and gender here, and address postmodernism directly. Then, if anyone thinks it has merit as a methodology, they are free to apply it to these controversies with at least a baseline understanding of what it is. Also, in the interests of full disclosure, I was trained in the analytic tradition–essentially the mortal nemesis (in academic terms) of postmodernism, so my account won’t be as good or as friendly as that of an acolyte, but I’ll do my best.

      At its root, postmodernism arises from the insight that most of what we hold true is, in fact, socially constructed. This in turn means that they are contingent (they could have been otherwise had the society that created them unfolded differently), but they are not arbitrary (there is a limited range of possibilities, and that range is defined by, among other things, “human nature” [which I will not attempt to define here]).

      So let’s apply this insight to the (non-sexual) examples you raised, Eric. Look at, for example, “[d]ecentralizing worship from temples, priesthoods and placing it in the hands of common folk.” In the particular when and where that Christ walked the earth, it was an “agreed-upon truth” that some people were born, bred and raised to mediate between God and His people. They were the priests, and it was their job to tell people what God wanted of them and guide them in the proper ways of offering sacrifice and supplication. It is unlikely that many (if any) first-century Jews gave this arrangement a second thought. It was the way it was because G-d had ordained that it be so.

      We now, of course, know better–and we do so in large part because of the example Christ modeled for us. The new “agreed-upon truth” is that Christ stands as mediator *and* sacrifice, and also as God, so that through Christ (and the Holy Spirit) we can direct ourselves towards God without mediators. The walls were torn down and the gatekeepers scattered as dust in the wind. And again, we know this with the same confidence and for the same reasons that the first-century Jews “knew” the exact opposite. Postmodernism tells us that such shifts have happened before, and it is absurd to assume they won’t happen again. (Indeed, this is how science moves forward: yesterday’s “agreed-upon truth” is tomorrow’s lamentable hubris.)

      And this, of course, is not an isolated instance. Jesus shattered the rules and conventions of his day, and showed them to be unjust. As Christians, we are called to worship a God who walked the earth as someone who was conceived out of wedlock, born in a barn, raised by an itinerant day-laborer who wasn’t his father, who “broke bread with outcasts,” who was tried as a enemy both of the state and of the religious authorities, and who was executed in such a way as to guarantee that he would forever be alienated from God (cf. Galatians 3:13). But just as no human edict could alienate God from Godself, neither can any human edict, any “agreed-upon truth” alienate us who were formed in the image and likeness of God from the God whose love for us could not be contained in the systems we built around it. Postmodernism is, in a very real sense, another name for Christian humility.

      (For a better example of postmodern principles in Christianity, though without any hint of the methodology, reread the beatitudes. Each of them takes a conventional structure, a general rule about the way the world is/should be, and stands it on its head.)

      • As a follower of Jesus and someone who is involved in the ministry of the gospel, I am commissioned to go into all the world, no matter the culture, and do what Jesus said to do:

        Matt. 28: 8 Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. 19 Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. 20 Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

        What that looks like in Acts and the Epistles guides me in how that looks in those “nations”.

        Dead center in much of the outworking of it all, was a lot of teaching about sexuality, you just can’t get around that fact. People can ignore it, redefine it, argue it, etc etc. But if you claim to be a Jesus follower, your sexuality comes under the Lordship of Christ. That is true for all time, all people and all places.

        The Apostolic Council in Jerusalem hammered out the challenge of law following Jews and and lawless gentiles and how the gospel should advance into gentile lands. They summed it up pretty simply:

        Acts 15:28-29 “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay no greater burden on you than these few requirements: You must abstain from eating food offered to idols, from consuming blood or the meat of strangled animals, and from sexual immorality. If you do this, you will do well. Farewell.”

        Pre or Post-modernism all have to wrestle with the claims and commands of Christ.

    • What on earth is wrong with having sex with a woman during her period?

      Also: 18:22 is the verse cited as being against same-sex sexual relationships, right? That one I can do without.

      Poly peeps might have sex with their neighbor’s wife. If she and her mate are consenting, is it for us to judge?

      I’m not convinced that poly relationships among consenting adults are a problem for anyone. Though being married to two sisters at once is probably unwise.

      I can certainly support the avoidance of incest.

      I can address more of this later when I’m on my laptop rather than my phone.

    • “But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things!” (Galatians 5:22-23)

      I like these values, but self-control can be twisted to mean something agenda based.

      The nonviolence of Jesus’s teaching and example value?

      I like nonviolence.

      The embracing and expanding of marginalized people groups in his ministry and teaching?

      I mean, inclusiveness is good.

      Feeding the poor?

      Sounds good.

      Bringing health to sick?

      Hard to object to that.

      Decentralizing worship from temples, priesthoods and placing it in the hands of common folk?

      Decentralization seems wise.

      Sanctifying the life of family by calling for commitment, celebration and honor in family life?

      “Family life” can probably be twisted, but yeah, as long as people’s idea of family life predominates, not some temple’s or priest’s.

      The celebration and sanctification of work by the son of God working as a carpenter for most of his life instead of coming from the priest class? Ushering in a community called church made up of slaves, the poor, the marginalized, as well as wealthy and educated people.

      Yep, include all ya can.

    • “Yes, these sexual boundaries are being redefined and I am sure more will be revisited as well if your presentation of postmodernism is as liberating as you make it out to be.”

      Incest between consenting adults is still widely considered unhealthy… unless they’re second cousins? I think sexual abuse, pedophilia, etc. are the Big Bads, and incest between consenting adults is a Very Bad Idea that occasionally people engage in anyway, and then they end up on Jezebel in a semi-sensationalized story. And then everyone forgets about it.

    • Do we need a road map to morality? I think we need some boundaries and standards, of course. I refer in my article to the universal truths I think I’ve found (not as in discovered, just come to understand as universal). Genocide = bad. Rape, child abuse, animal abuse = bad. And so on.

  2. Eric, you forgot a couple of important ones:
    “Do not plow with an ox and a donkey yoked together,” Deut. 22:10
    “Do not wear clothes of wool and linen woven together,” Deut. 22:11
    Hybrid cars are particularly sinister, since they combine a gasoline engine with an electric motor under the same hood.

    • Actually Bruce I was just addressing the point brought up by Neal’s article regarding sexual morality. Trying to stay on point and have a meaningful discussion.

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