Wordsworth wrote an endless poem in blank verse on” the growth of a poet’s mind.” I shall attempt a more modest feat for a more distracted age: a blog, “Things which a Lifetime of Trying to Be a Poet has Taught Me.”
On the Origins of Post-Modern Criticism
For David Hume
(The radical Empiricism of the Endarkenment entails treating the Good as an abstraction, rejecting Truth for fact, and reducing the Beautiful to a subjective response. Thus it undercuts the docere of Literature, leaving us only with a truncated diligere. This epistemology applied to Art can only lead to Aestheticism, which inevitably degenerates into Structuralism, Post-Structuralism, and Deconstruction. Once the actual Values of the Sages have thus been destroyed, they can now be replaced with Marxism, Feminism, Freudianism, or whatever other Ism we wish to impose on Texts left defenseless by the death of Truth. To get beyond this impasse, we must abandon the skeptical philosophy that produced it as question-begging Nonsense.)
That skeptic, David Hume,
Gained philosophic fame
Committing to the fume
Of metaphoric flame
Whole libraries of pages
By metaphysic sages.
Unless it could be measured
By his empiric wit,
It never could be treasured,
And so, away with it!
Mere sophistry, illusion,
Divinity ( ! ), confusion.
Augustine and Aquinas,
Isaiah, Moses, Paul,
Nothing but a minus;
Better burn them all:
The penalty for treason
Against enlightened “Reason.”
Erasmus, Calvin, Luther,
Dante, Milton, Spenser:
What could be uncouther,
More worthy of a censor?
Life seen through the prism
Of rank empiricism.
To keep them as purveyors
Of just imagination
Is but to be betrayers
Of all their conversation:
Dead, white, oppressive pigs
For mere aesthetic prigs.
Good critics can’t arise
From bad philosophy.
It should be no surprise
That we have come to be
Despisers of the True—
Of Goodness, Beauty, too.
If only what the senses
Can see or smell or feel
Is able to convince us
That it is really real,
How’d the sensation grow
That tells us this is so?
We’d really like to know.
Remember: for more poetry like this, go to https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/ and order Stars Through the Clouds! Also look for Inklings of Reality and Reflections from Plato’s Cave, Williams’ newest books from Lantern Hollow Press: Evangelical essays in pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. And look for Williams’ very latest book, Deeper Magic: The Theology behind the Writings of C. S. Lewis, from Square Halo Books!
In recent years, we’ve been told we, as readers and writers, must choose between two mutually exclusive propositions: either we must accept the author as tyrant or promote ourselves into his/her place.
“Hogwash” and “poppycock” are two appropriate technical terms.
While there is something to the critiques of both extremes, the idea that we must accept one or the other is nonsense. In my own opinion, there is a better, deeper, and more truthful answer to the question–one I hope to introduce you to this month. Maybe you’ve already thought of it, but regardless, I hope you find the discussion of it as engaging as I do.
This week I am speaking specifically to Christians, particularly those who take their Christianity seriously. Therefore, I am assuming a few things I know I would need to defend elsewhere. Perhaps it will “sound like a sermon,” but I think the ideas important enough to take that risk. Choosing to accept postmodernism and the relativism it brings with it–often through the back door–can appear on the surface to be both beautiful and empowering. Unfortunately, postmodernism is also philosophically shallow, and it doesn’t take much digging before you reach the rotten parts underneath. For Christians, the postmodern way of reading in particular is deadly to a living, breathing belief in Christ and cannot be lightly held.
To say that postmodernism, properly understood, is completely incompatible with Christianity seems to be a drastic, over-the-top statement to many these days. After all, postmodernism is thinking outside the box and giving voice to your own, unique ideas. It opens the doors to your imagination by defying the stultifying structures of the past that arbitrarily box us in. As we mentioned last week, it clears away the possibility of authorial idolization, and it encourages the reader to search for new insights in the text. It has, for Christians, helped people to move beyond simple “hellfire and damnation” legalism to a freer, more caring belief that focuses on God’s acceptance and love–something that was definitely needed at points in the Twentieth Century. What could possibly be so wrong about it that I think I’m justified in calling it “deadly“?
To be a “Christian” is to strive to be “like Christ.” We base our lives and our beliefs off the incredible fact that the Son of God deigned to debase Himself and enter into our world in mortal form, just like us. More amazingly, He didn’t just do it to stop by to say “hi” or to try out something new as a way to escape cosmic boredom. He intentionally suffered one of the most painful deaths imaginable to a human being in order to span the gulf between us and God. In doing so, he took on the sins of an entire race’s existence* on His shoulders. Christ is the centerpiece of the Christian uni-multi-verse, and the main theme of the Story that God has written into the foundations of space and time, from which our own stories emanate. Further, Christians are People of the Book. Without the Bible, we have no reliable knowledge of Christ or of His Story other than to say He existed. There is the testimony of nature and the “inner light” (for lack of a better description), but the backbone of it all is the Book, and Christians explicitly say they worship the Author of the Universe.
The fundamental premise of all forms of postmodernism I’ve ever encountered–relativism–undoes and invalidates all of this. Indeed, it assaults the very idea of the author, not only in the text but in our lives. If we regard God as postmodernism regards the author, then at best we’ll be gracious enough give Him a passing nod; at worst we’ll be taught to completely disdain Him and to actively rebel against Him. Simply put, we set ourselves in His place. (This is starting to sound familiar….) Can we trust the Bible–a book–if we don’t believe that books have meaning or that they convey the mind of the author? Should we believe that there is Meaning to the universe if we don’t believe there is meaning in even the little piece of it we hold between two covers in our hand? Should we share a faith with someone else if we don’t believe that any one narrative is truer than another?
The short answer is that we if we accept a postmodern worldview, we have no compelling reason to say “yes” to any of those questions. We can try, and that is what many Christians who have incompletely understood postmodernism attempt to do. They accept contradictory premises: The Bible is accurate and Christianity is the exclusive way to salvation while also insisting on and applying a worldview that denies authors matter, books can communicate objectively, or indeed there is anything we can know is true. The result is the lukewarm Christianity that we see around us.** People accept a premise from scripture to be true only while it is convenient. When it ceases to be easy, they invent a new interpretation of it that suits them better, imposing their will (more often, that of others) onto the plain meaning of the text. It is, in fact, the death of Christianity by any real, historical definition and the realization of the serpent’s promise to Eve: We are defining our right and wrong over God.
But there is a better way. Christians don’t have to accept the false dilemma posed by postmodernism. The Biblical worldview provides us with a way to understand both author and reader that will allow us to transcend the cold confines or modernism without having to drink the poison of its successor. We can give respect to the author without neglecting the reader, and the combination of the two can allow for powerful new evolutionary ideas. More of that, next week.
Next Week: A Better Way
*Perhaps He was righting the entire universe. After all, He has only told us our story. Other stories might be more incredible still–and that is saying something!
**You might say, “But I don’t believe that, and I consider myself a postmodernist!” Perhaps you don’t, but you are feeding your mind and your spirit on a steady diet culled from a society of thinkers who do? Further, what premises did you unknowingly have to accept in order to decide you were a postmodernist in the first place? For example, in deciding to express a postmodern love and respect for all points of view did you accept the reasoning behind it–that they are all equally valid and no one is “more true” than another?
C. S. Lewis, best known as the author of The Chronicles of Narnia, was also one of the most profound thinkers of twentieth century Christianity. Along with J. R. R. Tolkien, he has inspired millions of people, include all of the authors at Lantern Hollow Press. On Sundays we would like to take a moment to offer up a little Lewis for your consideration.
A great many of those who ‘debunk’ traditional or (as they would say) sentimental values have in the background values of their own which they believe to be immune from the debunking process.
—The Abolition of Man
Debunking values in general is a dangerous game, and it is one that most philosophers and educators undertake without giving proper thought to the possible outcomes. They always seem to presume that when they are done there will some solid moral ground on which they will be left standing. Unfortunately, as Lewis notes here, they always seem to cut their own feet from under them, and society as a whole is left to clean up the mess.
This is evident in the continuing spread of Lewis’s old enemy, naturalism, throughout western culture. The idea that there are no moral absolutes but those which nature can provide has spread like an intellectual oil spill. At first the idea was billed (and often still is) as freedom from the outdated mores of a dying religion that held back human development. Over time, though, it became clear that what its adherents really meant was that we should believe in “only the morals we agree are pretty good.” It hasn’t taken long for people to ask the next logical question, “Why stop there?”
Some fell into the belief that nature itself authors our moral code by imposing its own absolutes through evolution. The highest and most important of these absolutes is often the struggle for improvement through natural selection. As they began to re-evaluate human activity based on these standards, they took steps to act on their beliefs, leading to the eugenics movements of the first half of the twentieth century, and culminating with Adolf Hitler’s attempt to purge entire “unfit” races from the human gene pool. Others, while not so drastic, still took the logical step of treating humans like the animals they believe we are.
A later group fell into what eventually became post modern relativism–the idea that since there is no truth imposed upon us, we define right and wrong entirely on our own. That sounds attractive, until someone defines it as “moral” to lie to you, cheat you, steal from you, hurt you, murder you, etc.
In most cases, the moral debunkers do a far more effective job tearing down than they do building up. Humans dethrone God and religion in morality, and they place themselves in the empty seat. In the former example above, humanity takes control of its own evolution in the pursuit of natural moral law. In the latter, they literally become god-like themselves; they are the final arbiters of their own reality. In either case, can anyone give one convincing reason we should not commit any “crime” we like, as long as we can get away with it? Their replacement morality cannot seem to survive even the most basic scrutiny, but they never seem to figure it out until after the fact.
It is therefore usually only a matter of time before someone calls the debunker’s moral bluff. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the Columbine High murderers, exhibited traits of both of the above approaches. Both specifically called themselves gods in their private journals. Harris even wore a shirt that read “NATURAL SELECTION” on the day of the massacre, and saw himself acting on behalf of evolution. Defenders of the above positions often try to hide behind the pair’s obvious madness, but that falls far short of providing a full explanation of how and why it happened.
The possibilities are terrifying, but these are completely “reasonable” conclusions to reach when we begin an assault on traditional values assuming that we will stop somewhere “moral” by default, as Lewis noted. In the end, if a moral system has no sufficient answer to two little words (“Why not?”) then perhaps we would all be better off if it kept its debunking ways to itself.
Click here for the entire run of “Meditations with C. S. Lewis” so far. Interested in more about C. S. Lewis? Check out Passing Through the Shadowlands–an extended project where I am blogging through his life in letters, essays, and books.
Francis Schaeffer used to stress Martin Luther’s observation that unless we are defendingthe faith at the point where it is being attacked in our generation, we are not defending the faith. He was right. There is a Scandal of the Cross for each generation and each people, but it changes as the shifting stratagems of the Enemy vary. For the Greeks it was the resurrection of the body; for the Jews it was the loss of their status as a privileged people defined by their keeping of the Mosaic Law; for the Modernist it was the supernatural, especially the miraculous; for all men at all times it is our absolute dependence on God’s grace, his unmerited favor. What is the particular sticking point for our own time? A good case can be made that it is the existence of objective truth, or, more subtly, the ability of human beings to know objective truth, and hence to be responsible for knowing it and accountable to God for what they do about it.
Current pseudo-philosophies reduce all truth claims to personal perspectives and power plays, and people influenced by them refuse to participate in any discourse (“logocentric”; “totalizing”) that does not acquiesce in those reductions. There is therefore a strong temptation to think that we have to play by those rules in order to gain a hearing for the Gospel at all. But if we yield to that temptation, are we still proclaiming the Gospel? If I speak in such a way that I have already admitted by the form of discourse I adopt that the Gospel is and can be no more than my personal perspective on religion, have I not denied the faith, however much I may still mouth the prescribed formulae about Jesus dying for our sins? For a Jesus who is lord only of my perspectives is not Lord of the cosmos and is therefore incapable of saving anyone.
It is good to be humble about our pretensions to knowledge and to admit that, while we know absolute truth, we do not know truth absolutely. But in the current climate it is one small step from that admission to becoming intimidated about asserting that the truth claims Christ makes on our lives are absolute and come with God’s absolute authority. That is ultimately the bottom line: is Christ Lord of all whether any of us perceives or accepts it or not, or is He just one of my opinions?
Are robust truth claims offensive to our generation? No one can doubt that they are. Should the soldiers of Christ then tiptoe away from that breach in our battle lines, or should they flood into it lest the entire phalanx of the Gospel message advancing into our culture be subverted and swept away? The ancestors of modern theological liberalism began by downplaying and soft-peddling the supernatural elements of Christian truth, because they thought modern men could no longer accept them. Their intentions were (at first) good and sincere, but they left their followers with only an impotent shell of the biblical faith. Can we afford to repeat their mistake with the epistemological elements?
C. S. Lewis saw the importance of this question as clearly as anyone, and his answer was a resounding “No!” He urged mere Christians to choose their Room off the great Hall by its truth rather than its paneling and its paint. He commended Christian faith for its truth rather than its helpfulness in book after book. He presents the choices perhaps most starkly in the essay “Man or Rabbit?” in God in the Dock. “Either [the faith] is true, or it isn’t. . . . Isn’t it the job of every man (that is a man and not a rabbit) to try to find out which, and then to devote his full energies either to serving this tremendous secret or to exposing and destroying this gigantic humbug?” Lewis’s own devotion to serving the secret was unambiguous and unmistakable.
Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. His claims on our belief are absolute. If we flinch at this point; if our trumpet gives an uncertain sound; if we present a Christ who is inoffensive because He is after all only one perspective among many; if we allow the enemies of truth to dictate the terms of engagement; if, in other words, we compromise on the issue of truth, then we betray the next generation to unrelieved darkness. If we do this, then may God have mercy on their souls—and, even more, on ours.
Donald T. Williams, PhD, is R. A. Forrest Scholar and Professor of English at Toccoa Falls College. His most recent books are Mere Humanity: G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien on the Human Condition (Broadman, 2006), Credo: Meditations on the Nicene Creed (Chalice Press, 2007), The Devil’s Dictionary of the Christian Faith (Chalice Press, 2008), Stars through the Clouds (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2011), his collected poetry, and Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2012).