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Postmodernism and the Future of Humanism

An essay by Michael Werner, 1991

Visualize for a moment that you are living during the "Dark ages". Do you think you would see them as dark? Do you think that if you lived in the Enlightenment that you would see those years as enlightening years? It's very hard to see the overriding ideas or paradigms that define an age while one is living in them. So I ask you here today: What will our age be called 100 or say 500 years from now? I'd like to suggest that there is a good chance that it will be called the postmodern age. This is a term of which probably most of you are only peripherally aware, and if you are, it might be related to the Postmodernist architectural style. Still, I feel it is incumbent on us to understand it better because it is the water we swim in. These are the assumptive, unchallenged premises of our culture that permeates everything in our lives. These premises mold all our thinking as individuals, dictates the nature of our society, and indeed molds our religious thinking as religious liberals. Most of our debates in society today are in essence debates over whether the Postmodernist view is true or whether alternative views are.

So what is Postmodernism? Simply put in looks at all of our ideas of truth and our basic sense of reality as being constructed in our heads. It defines reality as merely a social construction. There is no ultimate foundation for anything you believe, the Postmodernist argues. What you believe is just a collage of ideas given by your culture and your own rationalizations for power and control. Some have declared the end of philosophy, the Enlightenment and reason itself. In fact they have declared that any "ism" including Humanism, capitalism, democratism, and even postmodernism itself are not choices we make, but entirely determined. They have declared that there are no transcultural, transhistorical or universal truths. Now you may say this is the rantings of some intellectual determinists, but I ask you to consider your own beliefs and your own culture. Have you ever said something like "Perception is reality", or "image is everything" or "truth is all relative"? I certainly have. Underlying these seemingly innocuous statements is a profound skepticism that ultimately has led to the postmodernist malaise we live in.

Postmodernism has been a movement of ideas led by continental Marxist intellectuals. The premises and assumptions of Postmodernism are now accepted uncritically as the most modern of views. Intellectuals in all areas are reformulating their specific fields in the light of Postmodernistic dogma.

Look if you will at the political scene where both Republicans and Democrats have essentially given up on any rational discourse. Spin doctors are the ultimate Postmodernists whose whole existence is to create reality. This is done very deliberately and cynically.

In the field of law, Robert Bork's confirmation hearings for the supreme court became a debate over interpretation vs. original intent of the law. This debate asks whether words and law in particular have any real meaning or do we just interpret words as we go through time ignoring what was the original meaning.

Virtually every debate in our society today is in some way a debate over Postmodernist assumptions. The debate over political correctness, the debate in psychology over constructionist therapy, the debate over values clarification in schools, in English literature over deconstruction analysis.

In art and advertising, the collage represents the ultimate postmodern art. The collage visually represents the postmodern fragmentation, disorientation and incoherence in our society. In religion, the new age, neopaganism, and ecofeminism represent religions built on postmodernist assumptions. All these positions ultimately debate the same issue. Is there truth and is there any basis for it? Are we really thinking or do we just mouth rationalizations?

Postmodernism is in many ways a rejection of Modernism. Modernism, as a child of the Enlightenment, saw the world as having knowable, universal, objective, and in many cases absolute truths when reason was applied. Progress was a historical, rational, and scientific project. A better social order could be developed as we uncovered our common human nature and applied science to human problems. A technocratic kind of utopianism underlies this secular Modernist vision.

Postmodernist ideas come from many lines of thought. The Romantic movement was a reactionary movement to the Enlightenment. The Romantic movement rejected the cold utopian reason that some of those in the Enlightenment thought would usher in a progressively better society. The Romantics, in contrast, saw their life guided by the light of inner personal experience. Intuition played an important role in subsequent movements such as existentialism that also emphasized the subjective over the objective and the emotional over the rational. These western ideas were enhanced by the awareness of older eastern religious thought.

There were other lines of thought at work as well. Linguistic analysis in this century has found that language itself is not neutral, but can actually create reality. The arguments are subtle and end in some saying that philosophy is reduced to language. Of course sociologists argue that philosophy is reduced to sociology and psychologists argue that philosophy is reduced to psychology. Eventually the whole Enlightenment project was rejected as an oppressive, hierarchical system only devised for rationalizing the gaining and maintaining of power. Reason instead of being a liberator became an oppressor.

Two basic forms of Postmodernism have developed, the European dominated skeptical Postmodernists and the more American dominated affirmative Postmodernists. The Continental skepticals argue that reality is pure illusion and conclude in a nihilistic, pessimistic view of individuals, the political process and all "stories" we might make up about life. The American "New age" affirmative version projects a more positive utopian vision of pluralism and tolerance.

Humanism is rejected on several grounds. While we don't have time for a complete analysis, I urge everyone to explore the arguments they present. First of all there is a rejection of the self as a rational independent agent. Secondly, Humanism is rejected as an oppressive philosophy to woman and minorities primarily because it does set up a hierarchy of values. It is argued that any hierarchy is always a disguise for white male privilege. Thirdly, Humanists support the use of reason and science, which Postmodernists say has no validity. Fourthly, they argue that Humanism has been used to justify Western superiority and cultural imperialism. Humanism is just the views of dead European white males. Lastly, they reject the inherent dignity and value of the individual.

Table 1 is a list modeled after one by Hassan that contrasts some of the paradymic differences between Modernism and Postmodernism specific to the liberal religious movement. The Postmodern mind starts with the particular rather than the universal. It emphasizes the intuitive, mystical aspects rather than the evidential, or cognitive aspects. It stresses communitarian, supportive behavior rather than individualistic, confrontational methods. Inner directed human potential programs take precedence over outer directed social action ones. An ethics of words and language is irrelevant because all symbols are mere metaphors.

What, you may ask, as a Unitarian Universalist and Humanist am I to make of these views. I believe both the Modernist and the reactionary Postmodernist positions are ones of extremes. We should not be apologists for either position. I would describe myself as a repentant Modernist. I will explain as I go along.

The Postmodernist critiques are essential towards a modern understanding of the prejudices that shape our thinking. Postmodernist awarenesses lead us toward a humility of our beliefs. They have opened new windows in my life of the mind and transformed my own Humanism. Let's look at one area where Postmodernism applies that of liberal religion.

Epistemological insecurity, for example, is pervasive in both the laity and the ministry. The noncredal organizational stance of Unitarian Universalism is curiously creedaly reinterpreted that the denomination should have no focus, temperament, or exclusivity. The phrase "widening circles" of inclusiveness is canonized by some to discourage any theological critique or discrimination in a new "salad bowl" utopianism.

There is a renewed interest in mysticism. Mystery seems all that is worthy to be a God in the Postmodern era. The metaphysically crippled of our age seem drawn to an awe and reverence of ephemerality. A "new spirituality" is the most talked about subject in liberal churches as people search for some theological grounding in immanence rather than transcendence.

The functional, communitarian aspects of liberal religion now take priority over the ideological aspects of trying to explain the world and our role in it. Paradoxically, religion has historically been foundationally defined. Most definitions revolve around "ultimate" concern, faith, moral code's, devotion etc. Humanists in this culture come across as Modernists since they are some of the few people who will defend the use of reason, science, and progressive knowledge. Moreover they defend a definitive metaphysics, i.e. naturalism.

Fifty five percent of Unitarian Universalists identify themselves as Humanist/existentialists, and another ten percent as agnostics/skeptics/atheists. Still, the ministry and the denominational hierarchy in general believe that in order to survive, they must accommodate to a more relativized position. To be sure, there is a real dilemma for most ministers concerning the compromises they must make between pastoral support and theological leadership. The postmodernist culture and capitalist growth oriented marketing, forces most ministers to the acquiescent side of the minister equation. As one retired minister I interviewed put it, "They (the ministers) just lost their nerve."

A deeper ministerial problem, documented in several studies, is the quality, orientation and training of new ministers. They simply do not have the background in Humanism and philosophy in general. Approximately half the Unitarian Universalist ministers are trained in nondenominational (usually Christian) schools. Even the denominational schools still place a large emphasis on Christian theology along with a variety of postmodernist dominated theologies such as feminist theology, process theology, and neopagan theology. By promoting their theological openness, the UU schools have attracted a disproportionately large contingent of nonrepresentative theologies such as the neopagans.

Traditional religious language such as God, holy, prayer, heaven, etc., have been long been problematic. Emotionally evocative, these words carry deep metaphoric meaning, but have generally been replaced by nonsupernatural terms in the interest of clarity by most religious humanists. The relativization of language has revitalized the "religious redefinition game". Many in liberal churches use the word God in a strictly metaphoric definition disregarding the historical supernatural definition. The Humanist is forced by this Tillichian scheme to use the word God for whatever he/she feels is ultimately important. This deliberate obfuscation serves the theist, and implies that the idea of supernatural beings is inconsequential to religion. It teaches a form of language duplicity.

The Postmodernist sociological basis for knowledge has meant that ethics reduces itself to aesthetics and agreement. Since there are no universal norms, we are told, democratic agreement is all that is required. One UU theological professor, for example, espouses a "democratic theology" as a complete theology. Reason, it is argued, will automatically emerge in the process of democracy. Also, many feminists thinkers argue for a situational ethics based only on care and responsibility.

Postmodernism provides good new perspectives for Humanism. Humanism has always treated knowledge as fallible and tentative, preferring not to link itself with any foundational knowledge. The early Humanist skeptical intuitions are now supported so that it appears that there is no one foundation for truth and no real certainty on anything. We better understand today the limitations and insidious potential problems of rationality. We understand that the context of our knowledge tells, in some cases, more than the content. Our unconscious power driven motivations, our culturally laden subjectivity, the problems translating our reality to others, the lack of a single a priori thought system to rely on, and our linguistic bondage all humble our pretenses of rightness.

As William James said, "A great many people think they are thinking when they are rearranging their prejudices." This is, I think, at the heart of the Postmodernist critique. We Humanists, many times, have laid too much emphasis on rational aspects of living, while not developing an appreciation for the experiential how we do our religion.

The last twenty years have shown mostly younger people in America how to use experiences rather than ideas to illuminate their religious lives. The human potential movement has awakened in many, keener intuitions about the world and themselves by nonrational approaches. Through direct experience from support groups, therapy, ritual, dream interpretation, meditation, hikes in the woods, or any of the thousands of other approaches, people have found a holistic, integrative awareness of their reality when they dropped all rational pretenses. Just as many people use superstition to deflect the harshness of reality, so too rationalists can screen themselves emotionally behind a web of rationalizations and comfortable intellectualizations.

Yet, there is an unmistakable romantic utopianism at work in postmodernism. As Jurgen Habermas says, "The new value placed on the transitory, the elusive and the ephemeral, the very celebration of dynamism, discloses a longing for an undefiled, immaculate and stable present." A pluralistic utopian, tolerant brother/sisterhood without any superiority of beliefs is supposed to emerge. We are told that this offers a new world humanist religion that will resolve old differences by acceptance and caring.

Others and I are troubled by Postmodernism. There is an insidious absolutism of the subjective. Even Richard Rorty, the most prominent American Postmodernist, cautions that "we should not become so open minded that our brains fall out." Many are now calling for a new view of the Enlightenment. Others are discovering that reason and rationality are minimum propositions at the heart of any discourse. Somewhere along the line we thought we needed certainty, rather than accepting all truth as fallible.

The Postmodern condition may, in fact, be an unavoidable condition. David Harvey powerfully argues that a relativistic world is a necessary result of a world caught in a space time cultural, economic, and geographical compression. The acceleration of world processes disorients, and alienates. The geographical compression of various cultures, dislocates us culturally from any roots.

At the heart of this matter is a conflict of paradigms. These are not rationally paradoxical or even polar opposites. They do, generally, represent tradeoffs in the practice of religion. Both the Modernist and Postmodernist positions are ones of extremes that need to be integrated and reformulated for any healthy Humanism. In fact I feel that Humanism is best positioned to do this.

The traditional way to handle extreme positions in western tradition, as formulated by Aristotle, is to seek the middle ground. Bravery, for example, is the moderate point between foolhardiness and cowardice. In contrast, the eastern way of ying/yang might be a better approach. It seeks to hold both views in a dynamic tension eschewing the moderate point as nonvital and compromising. Both eastern and western ways can help us derive a new Humanism. We don't have to have an either/or; we can have a both/and.

Looking at table 1, we must be both centers of principles and openness, social action and personal growth, cognitive and experiential, ethical and aesthetic. Our use of reason and intellect does not have to negate the intuitional, mystical aspects of our being. We only need to get these to work together in a healthy way. We must learn techniques of both the supportive community and the one that takes risks of skeptical confrontation.

Our religious communities must open their doors to creative new ideas and people, but not self destruct due to the centrifugal effects of divergent agendas. These are not easy tasks, but central to our purpose.

We should resist any reactionary tendencies that make us apologists for the Modernist position. As Samuel Butler said, "Life is the art of drawing sufficient conclusions from insufficient premises." We need to develop an experiential basis of education for religious humanism. That is why we need new stories to root our message. Nietzsche's warning about "metaphors which are worn out and lack sensuous power" should be heeded as Humanism enters the next century. By the same token, we should not be deluded by the neoromantic siren song of Postmodernism's world utopianism. Beneath that loving facade lies a nihilistic relativism. We can look at life relatively without resorting to looking at it arbitrarily. Intuitionism at its extreme is mere solipsism.

There is a crises of intellectual nerve right now. There is a spiritual crises. We are told that since we can't believe in anything for certain, that we should only believe in our intuitions and emotions. As Robert Heller of the Federal Reserve said, "Never ignore a gut feeling, but never believe it's enough." Intuition and reason inform each other and integrate our knowledge into a whole story. But, critical reason with all it's problems is all we have as a community to expose our errors. Truth is what's left when we get rid of all the lies, and that includes lies of both the emotions and the intellect. Is the concept of quality, without resorting to elitism, not applicable to religion?

Truth, hope, freedom, justice, reason, equality, responsibility, love, and devotion to progress still stand as virtues to which we should light the Enlightenment torch not because they are true, but because they work.

But this is not enough. Reason and science can explain, predict, and control aspects of the world, but they can never direct us to our goals and meanings, our religion if you will. Humanism, if nothing else, is that ongoing critical search for an integrated world view of meanings and purposes using reason, science, experiences, and intuitions. We cannot give up the powers of our minds to those who would tell us they have the truth or those, just as absolute, who say there is none.


    Modernism           Postmodernism

    Universal           Particular
    Cognitive           Experiential
    Individualistic     Communitarian
    Progressive         No Progress
    Becoming            Being
    Elitism             Egalitarianism
    Truth               Truths/Notruth
    Uniformity          Diversity
    Outer Directed      Inner Directed
    Transcendence       Immanence
    Content             Context
    Ethics of Words     Words as Metaphors
    Principles          Openness
    Skeptical           Supportive Behavior
    Evidence            Intuition
    Hierarchy           Anarchy
    Creation            Deconstruction
    Utopian             Heterotopian
    Phallic             Androgynous
    Ethics              Aesthetics
    Centralization      Decentralization
    Design              Chance
    Melting Pot         Salad Bowl
    Selection           Combination
    God the father      Goddess/Holy Ghost

By Michael Werner; modeled after Hassan (1985, 123 4)

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