The Postmodern Dilemma

NOTE: The following is very, very tenative

There’s a discussion going around on the relationship between culture and individual choice. As far as I understand it, the terms of this discussion are that postmodern America is a post-cultural vacuum wherein by making cultural traditions optional we ensure that there will be no such traditions in any but the most superficial fashion. Similarly with faith. Everything is assumed to be arbitrary, a matter of personal preference. That, I suppose, was the concern of Mr. Deneen in his article against great books schools. It was likewise the concern of a book I reviewed a while back and elsewhere called Why the Rest Hates the West. It’s the major fallacy of the Lockian social contract.

I’m inclined to wonder, though. I wonder because of Christianity; I wonder because my, as Hart would say “inexcusably impressionistic” understanding of the counter-argument to individualistic relativism seems made up mostly of Christians carrying on an argument in fundamentally non-Christian terms. Christianity teaches that the fallen human person is essentially on a quest and a pilgrimage: we go about seeking, knocking, and asking after the kingdom of God; we hunger and thirst after God, in whom is found truth; and we believe that God answers. In the meantime, we tend to fall down and have to get back up a lot. The “and we believe that God answers” part is essential. For Christianity to preach that we are blamable for our lack of belief and for believing wrongly must mean that we have a capacity, however tarnished, for recognizing truth, goodness, and the work of God. Our choices must not be merely arbitrary. I don’t know how or why it is that different people are able to search for and to find truth and goodness in different ways and at different times, and how it is that there comes a opportune moment to hear a command from God resonate in one’s own soul as it hadn’t before, or to truly hear the Gospel as one was unable to before, though it does seem certain that whatever God offers and whenever He offers it, we’d best accept that, then, however perplexed we might be.

This is very garbled; I think what I’m trying to say is that existentially, the essential things about who we are, how we live, and what we believe are no more an arbitrary choice than they’ve ever been. If I treat finding a tradition as though I were shopping for a blouse, then of course, I’ll be faced with all manner of arbitrary choices. If I treat it as the work of the Holy Spirit, however, then there’s always some possibility, and I have to learn to look. A choice presents itself, but perhaps it doesn’t look very significant at the moment: will I go to church this morning? Will I read that book? Will I try praying tonight? Will I accept the consequences of the truth I just saw? Will I try to take the commandments seriously? Will I keep on looking, asking, knocking, seeking? Will I stop being pigheaded about some desire I have for a particular pleasure, and repent? Will I trust that I can not think about myself for a while without somehow ceasing to exist? Will I risk making a fool of myself in order to know that person? And so on…

Then, trying to see life as just a person, it’s not so distressing that some people like lousy music, and some people like lousy food, and some people make a lot of money and become famous from selling lousy music and food, as though I were some god responsible for making everything all right and ensure that there are only good choices for people. Is it unfortunate that people often choose something worse over something better? Of course. Should I try to choose the better thing and help others do the same? Of course. Does it matter whether I do something culturally constructive, like learning to sing or reading Plato or making some nice art, or something culturally useless, like playing a video game or going to a stupid movie, or gossiping about someone famous? Yeah, probably. Can I tell the difference? Generally, yes. can other people tell the difference? Generally, I would suppose yes, should they think about it. Of course, if I or anyone else should not bother asking at all, and only do whatever presents itself as most pleasant or the least trouble at this moment, then of course it’s arbitrary and up to chance and preference that the result of that choice will be. More often I think we look for a compromise between preference and duty: I have a preference for academics and a duty to love God, so I’ll try to compromise by studying theology. We’ll see if that will work. People have a preference for adventure and a duty to help the poor, so we compromise by helping the poor somewhere we find interesting and exotic. Sometimes our help is actually helpful, and sometimes it probably isn’t.

All this is, I know, a mixed kind of answer. It is neither true that each of us does not bear responsibility for doing our best to build up the other, nor is it true that we can somehow “fix” other people’s “problems” by some kind of “prime directive” featuring cultural preserves, protected from the great imperialist capitalist monster that is the rest of us. It’s true neither that we can determine our beliefs and traditions by some arbitrary process of choice independent of our upbringing and the world around us, nor that someone else can unburden us of the necessity of choosing, looking, thinking, and bearing responsibility for who we become. Both person-hood and community are true. Or, as in War and Peace, both the existential and the historical are true (though not necessarily in the relations Tolstoy outlines).

So I wonder whether the discussion of abstract cultures being passively destroyed or preserved by various historical forces, and people choosing from among the wreckage, while presenting some image of what’s going on in the world historically, is nevertheless a bit misguided, the way discussions of statistics tend to be rather murky. “There’s a correlation here.” Ah, yes, a correlation. But a correlation is not an explanation by any means, for it makes no account of how the world is experienced by those involved.

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One thought on “The Postmodern Dilemma

  1. I must whole heartedly agree, and especially with your choice of analogy: statistics. That study, of course, really has only two things in mind: the behavior of the population, which it models very well, and the behaviors of an individual, about which it can say very little other than “probably,” and that only in the context of an individual’s population of origin.

    And so it is in the discussion of culture. Patterns and correlations apply to a culture, and to that degree we can say things about an individual, probably. But there is little accounting for an individual who owns his culture fully, while seeking to understand human nature and God through that culture, his experience in it, and through study of other cultures. Such a man, owning his inheritance, merges the conflicting forces of the discussion: determinism of his culture, the freedom to choose his life. It is the man who is a slave to either force, oblivious to the other, who is fodder for the culture wars.

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