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An Ancient Message, through Modern Means, to a Postmodern Mind
In April 1981 Daniel Yankelovich, a social analyst, wrote a very insightful article in Psychology Today. His principal thrust was to analyze how Americans were thinking about life and where we were headed should such ideas go uncriticized. It was a warning to the West. In his opening remarks, he defined the role and the imperative of culture. Quoting sociologist Daniel Bell, he said, 'Culture is the effort to provide a coherent set of answers to the existentialist situations that confront all human beings in the passage of their lives' (Yankelovich 1981, 36).
To define culture even in these terms may well be outdated now. Some months ago I was lecturing at one of the universities in the country when a student stormed up to the microphone and bellowed, 'Who told you culture is a search for coherence? Where do you get that idea from? This idea of coherence is a Western idea.' I replied by reminding her that all I had done in that instance was to present a sociologist's definition that culture sought coherence. 'Ah! Words! Just words!' she shouted back.
'Let me ask you this then,' I pleaded. 'Do you want my answer to be coherent?' Some laughter rippled through the auditorium. She herself was stymied for a few moments. 'But that's language, isn't it?' she retorted.
I asked her if language has anything to do with reality. 'Must words not point to a referent? If you are seeking an answer that must be coherent, but culture itself does not have to be, from whence do you get this disjunction?' One could sense the turmoil within her. Indeed, later on I was told that this individual was a rather outspoken person whose lifestyle was radically aberrant from the normal. Her struggle for coherence was rooted in her very physiological dissonance.
This student may well be the quintessential postmodernist. Our bodies and proclivities are defining our reason for being. That is how intense I believe this struggle is becoming. Friedrich Nietzsche and Michel Foucault both brilliant yet tragic figures can be seen as the definitive bookends of the twentieth century. Foucault, of course, was a leading French intellectual who, owing to a very promiscuous life, died of AIDS at the age of fifty-eight. He was a lover of the writings of Nietzsche, who, ironically, had died at age fifty-four in the wake of his pitiful bout with venereal disease and insanity.
So even as we look for our cultural moorings and try to understand the radical shifts that have disrupted the shared meanings of the past, attempting a coherent answer becomes a prohibitive challenge.
Walter Truett Anderson humorously gives us an insight into this in his book Reality Isn't What It Used to Be. He reflects on our predicament by presenting an analogy from baseball. A premodern baseball umpire would have said something like this: 'There's balls, and there's strikes and I call 'em as they are.' The modernist would have said, 'There's balls and there's strikes, and I call 'em as I see 'em.' And the postmodernist umpire would say, 'They ain't nothing until I call 'em' (quoted in Middleton and Walsh 1995, 132-33). In brief, all reality is subject dependent. The postmodernist frames reality by naming aspects at his or her whim.
You and I have in some ways been so influenced by this culture that we too cannot get ourselves completely outside of it. We are locked into this postmodern mindset, or at least some elements of it. Perhaps the most radically affected of all are our children. If you talk to your teenager after a movie that your son or daughter wanted you to see, you suddenly hear comments such as, 'I'm sorry, Dad, but I hadn't noticed all the bad language until you were sitting next to me.' It is almost as if they live in that world, and they don't even notice it anymore until somehow, someone with a counterperspective is sitting next to them. And then they mutter, 'Oh-oh. I've blown this one.' The disorientation is thus double-edged, both external and internal. Reality is redefined, and our own thinking is unwittingly reshaped.
The Century of Change
How did we get where we are today? I perceive that five major shifts in this century have brought us to where we are. No doubt there are others.
The first major shift was the popularization of the death of God movement, the bequest of Nietzsche. Remember how poignantly he talked about the madman running with a lantern, looking for God and unable to find him? That parable stabbed at the heart of reality, offering a different way of looking at things. Then Nietzsche says, 'Indeed, this has been such an enormous shift, even as the philosopher's blade has dug into the heart of theism.' He warns his readers of the disorientation that would ensue: 'Who gave us a sponge to wipe away the horizon? What sacred games will we need to invent? Is there any up or down? Must not lanterns have to be lit in the morning hours? Are we not straying through an infinite nothing? Can we not feel the breath of empty space?' He writes of this radical shift that has come about there is no up; there is no down. New lights have to illuminate our path. New sacred games need to be invented. Finally, he concludes that the shock is too staggering to immediately gain a footing. 'Maybe my time has not yet come,' he says. 'It takes time for ideas to completely take hold in the mindset of a culture' (Nietzsche 1954, 125).
Nearly one hundred years later, his time has come. There is a popularization of the death of God. The idea of God's nonexistence now either explicitly or implicitly permeates almost every major discipline in secular universities. In fact, a parent recently told me of his daughter's initial orientation at a prestigious university not far from here. In their video presentation, the closing testimonial to the university's intellectual strength was given by a young graduate. Borrowing from Richard Dawkins, she looked into the lens of the camera and said, 'One of the best things this university has done for me is that it allowed me to become an intellectually fulfilled atheist.' Imagine promoting a very sophisticated university with a testimonial of atheism to prospective students.