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Dialogue with a Postmodern Nephew

Eighth in a series on the search for meaning in a world that doesn't want to bother with it.

by Everett Wilson
May 11, 2005

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Dialogue with a Postmodern Nephew
The gap between the last article and this one came about because of a letter I received from a nephew who shares my interest but not my perspective. I no longer had a straw man to talk to, but a real one. This makes the conversation more interesting and a lot tougher.

I don't like the term "postmodern." It makes me think of squashing a circle and calling the resulting shape a "postcircle." Neither do I use it pejoratively.

Postmodernists can't call themselves anything, because by definition they cannot be pinned down; they are stuck with the label assigned to them. My nephew Robert is a postmodernist, more or less, because "more or less" is the only way to be one.
'In the postmodern understanding, interpretation is everything; reality only comes into being through our interpretations of what the world means to us individually. Postmodernism relies on concrete experience over abstract principles, knowing always that the outcome of one's own experience will necessarily be fallible and relative, rather than certain and universal.'
Robert and I share a common interest, though not a common perspective. The five statements that summarized the first six articles in this series, are definitely not postmodern. Interpretation is not everything; "isness" (or ontology, if you are academic) is everything.
  1. For God to be known, He must reveal himself and everything about himself; he is not open to our discovery without this revelation.
  2. God must be known on his own terms, not ours.
  3. As God enters our reality from outside of it, so we must enter his from outside of it.
  4. We cannot impute more than the idea of God's  existence; we cannot assign any meaning to him that goes beyond his self-definition.  
  5. We believe in order to know; we learn in order to believe.
—Everett Wilson, "Credible, Not Verifiable," February 28, 2005
We can engage in dialogue because he is not so far into postmodernism as to believe that his way of thinking precludes all others. He understands me even when he disagrees with me. He is also not a solipsist, because a solipsist, believing that the self comprises the whole of reality, has no one to write letters to. Instead, Robert has become the sort of thoughtful secularist that I am trying to engage, one whose interest in meaning is more vital and personal than mere academic interest.

While my responses will not do his observations justice, they may move the conversation along. His comments are in bold type, mine in plain.

[Our debates on science versus religion] almost always end with the agreement that both are faith based and neither can be treated as fact.

Whether or not we should treat them as fact, we do: technicians whenever they follow instruction manuals, believers when they pray. Even technicians with the knowledge to check out the system do not have the time to do it; they put their faith in those who did have the time. Faith is the opposite of theory. Faith is treating belief as fact. That is what both professor and preacher are encouraging people to do. The student who refuses to follow the directions of his lab instructor because he has made the a priori judgment that the proposed experiment is "stupid" will flunk the course. The laboratory environment is one in which "faith alone" will save!

Of course the high school freshman who grumbles that the experiment is stupid is himself stupid. If he proceeds with the experiment and it doesn't come out right it will be because he didn't do it right. But move to another laboratory, where all the scientists are at least Ph.D's and they are trying something that has never been attempted before. They proceed by faith. If the experiment turns out as they expected, well and good. If it doesn't, they will check out why. It may have been a missed calculation or an equipment failure. Or it may have been that the premise on which the experiment was based was flawed in a way they did not see beforehand. Whatever it was, these scientists will not lose faith in the scientific method. It takes more than failure for that to happen, because of the uncounted successes that the method has provided over the centuries.

Believers treat faith as fact when they pray. For the same reason that the scientist does not give up on the scientific method after a failed experiment, believers do not give up on prayer when it goes unanswered. Just as there can be all sorts of unseen reasons why a scientific experiment fails, so there are all sorts of unseen reasons why some prayers are unanswered. Persons whose habit it is to pray live in an environment of answered prayer, however, just as professional scientists live in an environment of successful experiment. We do not keep score on the numbers of successful experiments or answered prayers, because just one of each may change the world or change a life.

I think it is safe to assume that any explanation of the contents and origins of the cosmos is hypothesis and nothing more.

While it's true that the history of thought is littered with discarded hypotheses, they were discarded because they were demonstrably untenable. That doesn't mean that the next one, or the one after that, will also prove untenable. Since the cosmos exists, there is a reason why it exists. That reason may not be discoverable within the cosmos, but it may come to us another way from outside the cosmos. Revealed or not to us, at the level of "isness" there is a reason that is not a hypothesis but a fact.

I have faith in a lot of things, most of which are worldly, but also in a higher power or natural order of things. This faith in a higher power gets garbled, however, as soon as titles are applied.

It may also be argued that until titles are applied, faith does not exist. You have to ask, "Faith in what?" Of the higher power you have to ask, "Power over what?"

For example, to believe in Jesus I would have to believe in the Bible, and to believe in the Bible I would have to have faith in its authors and editors. This is something I can't do. To have faith in the actions of many men whom I've never met would be absurd, as I very rarely have faith in my own actions. The written word is one worldly thing I do have faith in, not in its credibility however, but in its ability to mold men's minds.

Right now, we are engaging in written words. But unless we clash with the intent of persuading each other, the most we can do is affirm "I believe that you believe what you are saying." If that is all the further we go, then no one's mind is molded. We remain unchanged because we are uncommitted. Life-changing faith means commitment: "I believe that what you believe is true." Only then will my mind be molded by your words.

It is just as possible to have faith in the authors and editors of the Bible as it is to have faith in the authors and editors of a cookbook. The Bible even uses the analogy of cooking: it says we can "taste and see that the Lord is good." 

All Installments of this Series:
1. The Possible Possibility, 10/2/2004
2. The Legitimately Weird, 10/16/2004
3. Nature and Supernature, 11/29/2004
4. Designer Jeans, Designer God, 1/6/2005
5. What Mathematical Certainty?, 2/2/2005
6. Credible, Not Verifiable, 2/28/2005
7. The God of Ultimate Meaning, 2/28/2005
8. Dialogue with a Postmodern Nephew, 5/11/2005
9. Why the Bible?, 5/21/2005
10. Why Jesus?, 6/4/2005

Comments (1)

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R McNaughton from CT writes:
May 12, 2005
Everett: This was a fine conversation with your nephew, and us. Thanks to both of you. And postmodern is like saying that we are in the post-present. It's a strange term, reeking with self-satisfaction and self-importance.

And God is equally available to all, or to none.

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