On earlier blog posts, I took on humanism, arguing that it is a fundamentally played out moral view of the world resting on assumptions that were conclusively debunked in the late 1700s. I have taken the position that building a faith on a humanistic worldview is doomed to failure and that we, as a movement, have to look beyond mere humanism.
This article takes on the next step of development – post-modern pluralism. If our modern church was founded on humanist values, it is now dominated by post-modern pluralism.
What do I mean by pluralism? Specifically, pluralism refers to a post-modern understanding of the world that recognizes the relative nature of “truth” and the central reality of human experience. With the breakdown of epistemological certainty ushered in by Hume and later Kant, it became evident that what can be known is extremely limited if, indeed, it is possible to know anything at all with an appreciable level of confidence. As is often the case, it took awhile for humanity to catch up to the implications of these philosophic conclusions. However, by the early 20th Century, the philosophic schools of phenomenology, logical positivism, linguistic philosophy, semiotics, existentialism, structuralism and a few others reflected the full blown attempt to come to terms with the notion that “man” is not the measure of all things. By the 1960s, these intermediate ideas had penetrated the general culture and “post-modernism” in art, literature and social criticism. Representative intellectual apologists of this post modern movement include Thomas Kuhn, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Richard Roty and Jean Baudrillard.
While this is a diverse crowd and any generalizations are bound to oversimplify, for the sake of this blog, it seems the central theme is the general consensus of these schools of thought that our reality is, largely, constructed by human beings. There is no “objective” truth which is out there that we perceive. Rather, we attempt to make sense of a maelstrom of phenomena and in the process construct reality. Schools differ as to whether the primary drives of this construction lie in language, political structures, or cultures. On the positive side, this leads to recognition that no one has a corner on the truth. Truth can be found in all cultures and in all peoples and all cultures and value systems must be honored. This world-centric understanding is profoundly important on the level of political action.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
Post-modern Pluralists, at their best, have a deep desire to act politically on behalf of oppressed peoples. being deeply sensitive to matters of race, sexual orientation, gender, poverty and marginalization. On a societal level, this postmodern worldview has accomplished much: the civil rights movement, feminism, environmental protection and ecological sensitivity, the beginnings of health care reform and an awareness of political marginalization in all manner of forms
However there is a very real downside to this world view. Postmodern pluralists share a common and fundamental mistrust of the spiritual, especially when experienced at the individual level. They are also thoroughgoing materialists. Given a lack of any basis for determining validity claims, and a radical mistrust of individual subjective experience coupled with a denial of the notion of transpersonal reality, they end up with a highly relativistic world-view. Because everything is constructed, there is no place to stand to evaluate value systems. You, in your perspectives, are as conditioned by language, society, culture and so on as everyone else and so you have no authority to “judge” the value systems of others. This leads to is a significant distrust of subjective experience, a rabid dislike of hierarchy, and spiritual experience and as a logical consequence, the result is a relativistic moral despair. (In its inevitable extreme, we can’t condemn Hitler because, after all, his value system is just one of many and who is to say, in any absolute sense, that his viewpoint wasn’t valid.) Indeed, it becomes very difficult to ultimately justify actions of liberation and political action – if every system is as valid as any other, then what allows us judge the oppressor’s way as “wrong”. Ultimately, postmodernism ends up becoming form of moral nihilism. Foucault recognized this, rejected his deep constructivist approach in the middle of his career and began working towards a different model.
In response to this moral quagmire, Pluralism hypocrically simply asserts an elitist moral system. All systems that are less broadminded are simply declared to be inferior on the grounds that they are not inclusive. Thus, in the name of inclusiveness, the Pluralists exclude vast swaths of human culture. Their ire is directed towards what are perceived as dominator worldviews – namely mythic religion and rationalist scientism. In self-contradiction to the notion that there is no morally superior worldview, the pluralist sees any moral system that cannot tolerate other systems as intolerable. There is also a tendency to romanticize and exalt cultures that are indigenous or non-Western. These are seen as pure and the victims of the dominator cultures of Europe. Moreover, feminine values are exalted over male values. The former are seen as inclusive and connective while the later are seen as destructive and purely agentic. Thus for all of its vaunted open-mindedness, the pluralistic worldview cannot admit even the partial validity of the moral stance of religious or scientific worldviews.
Consequently, postmodernism tends foster the apotheosis of victimhood. Victims should be rescued from the dominating forces of Western culture (whether religious or scientific/industrial). There is a great deal of anger and judgment against those who are perceived to be seeking the imposition of their value system on others. On an individual level, this leads to a certain degree of narcissim (which I will explore in a different blog entry).
Politically, pluralists tend to have a very difficult time figuring out how to address “evil”. They are deeply conflicted around issues of crime and punishment, terrorism, use of force and other agentic action. They simply don’t have the bandwidth or the categories to figure out how to address such issues from their framework. They recognize that lower tier responses are wanting, but they have nothing compelleing to offer in their stead.
The Fundamental Failure of Open-mindedness
While the entire ethos of this worldview is a purported open-mindedness, the irony, of course, is that this elitist and monoptic view of the world denigrates any value system perceived to be less open-minded. Despite that fact that it has a deeply nihilistic moral fabric, it seeks to impose its view of what is moral on anyone it perceives to be less morally developed. In fact, postmodern pluralism is a very closed system. Political correctness and thought policing are endemic. Straying from relativistic notions is met with fierce opposition and castigation.
If humanists are alive and well in the UU church, so are post-modern pluralists. Our denominational academic institutions are predominately pluralistic (as are most higher level academic institutions). Post-modern pluralism is also easy to spot in our churches. Most Unitarian Universalists claim open-mindedness and tolerance, yet cannot tolerate political or religious conservatives. There are certain things which could not be said in a UU church without provoking a virulent response. There is a stark dualistic thinking that takes hold of many with certain things declared to be good and other things declared to be evil. Our ability to think in nuanced and creative ways is hampered by the fact that we simply write off vast amounts of cultural and intellectual legacy that could be used as fodder for advancing our understanding of the world.
So why do I bring all of this up. A few posts ago, I talked about Jean Gebser and his view that humanity is on the brink of a significant transformation. Pluralism may well be a way station in the evolutionary development, but it is a mistake to linger there for too long. Indeed, post-modernism may represent the final stage of the mental structure with its insistence that material reality is all that exists. Gebser would encourage us to recognize that there are orders of consciousness that are above this worldview.
© 2007. Matthew Wesley. All rights reserved.