Paul Richardson considers the dilemma of Post-Modernism

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jnr, a Justice of the American Supreme Court who died in 1935, was one of those people whose entire life was marked by his youthful experience of war. In his case it was the American Civil War. Until the day of his death he kept the uniform of the Unionist forces he had been wearing when he was wounded in action. The bloodstained tunic was a reminder of the great lesson he believed the war had taught him: that certitude leads to violence.

Bostonian Brahmins

Holmes grew up at the heart of the Yankee establishment. His father, Oliver Wendell Holmes Snr, was Dean of the Harvard Medical School, a quintessential Boston Brahmin who is credited with first describing Boston as the ‘hub’ of the universe. The younger Holmes dropped out of Harvard College to join the Union army in a flush of enthusiasm for the abolitionist cause. The disillusionment he came to feel as a result of his wartime experiences and the impact his views were to have on American thought have been chronicled by Louis Menand in The Metaphysical Club, winner of the 2002 Pulitzer prize for history.

In Menand’s account, the post-Civil War era in America witnessed a major intellectual revolution as others joined Holmes in the drift away from certainties and absolutes towards an acceptance of the limitations of human thinking and the embrace of pluralism and relativism. Pragmatism was born when, to quote Menand, thinkers like William James, Charles Sanders Pierce, John Dewey and Holmes came to see that ‘ideas are not “out there” waiting to be discovered but are tools – like forks and knives and microchips – that people devise to cope with the world in which they find themselves.’ If ideas prove useful, they can be retained; if not they must be abandoned or adapted to fit the circumstances.

Warring Faiths

Menand’s analysis has not been without his critics but while he simplifies and personalizes a complex development, there can be little doubt of the importance of the change in attitude he sets out to describe. The events of September 11th and the growing fear that the world is menaced by competing religious fundamentalisms have strengthened the rejection of certitude among many of our contemporaries. ‘The terrorist events of 11 September 2001 and their aftermath’, writes David Jenkins in The Calling of a Cuckoo, ‘embody the harm that theistic belief is used to justify. They remind the whole world of the way the patriarchal authorities of the theistic faiths – whether mitred, turbaned or skullcapped – vociferously proclaim their possession of definitive truths of faith in the one, true and only God in contradiction of one another, each using their own certainty to exonerate themselves from personal responsibility for the evils perpetrated in crusades, jihads and persecutions across the world’ (page 4).

Such opinions are widespread in our culture and lie at the heart of the movement of thought known as ‘post-modernism’. Post-modernists reject meta-narratives and replace commitment and certainty with irony and contingency. They see texts as open to a variety of interpretations and oppose any attempt at ‘closure’. Instead of rigid adherence to a given creed they go in for the playful mixing of beliefs and styles in smorgasbord of dishes drawn from many different cultures and philosophies, selected according to need and taste. Truth claims are deconstructed as bids for power and authority denounced as a threat to self-expression. Belief systems are interpreted as rooted in social structures and cultural patterns. As it is sometimes put, so-called objective statements of fact or attempts to draw up an impartial conclusion usually emanate from a particular address.

Education and Social Tolerance

While many join David Jenkins in condemning religious belief as the main source of aggressive and harmful dogmatism, more perceptive commentators have drawn attention to the terrible price in human suffering exacted by secular ideologies in the twentieth century. More people died as a result of Nazism and Communism than died in religious conflict. But whether certainty flows from religious belief or political commitment, there is a general agreement that the world would a happier place without it.

Apart from the horror of war and the emergence of post-modernism, other factors have combined to arouse suspicions of certainty. Multi-culturalism is a fact of life in Western societies. We live side by side with people whose beliefs and world-views are very different from our own. Instead of forever arguing or attempting to convert each other, we want to co-exist in peace. There is evidence to suggest that the spread of higher education leads to increasing levels of social tolerance. When you recall that the proportion of graduates among young people in Britain will soon reach 50 per cent, you can see how important this is. Research from Holland and Canada, quoted recently in The Times Higher Education Supplement, indicates that the subjects most likely to change the values of students are those in the social sciences that teach empathy and interaction with others.

Suspect Reason

In philosophy the widespread rejection of Cartesian foundationalism has led to suspicion of the idea of universal reason. Epistemological foundations are recognized only within a given conceptual framework; we cannot validate a framework by appealing to exterior foundations, to external rules or standards of truth. It is not possible to arrive at foundations for truth-claims that are independent of a particular cognitive stance, to dig deep down to a bedrock of knowledge, as it were, that commands universal assent.

Scientific materialism that reduces human thinking and feeling to electro-chemical processes in the brain or accounts of human beings that see them as little more than machines for preserving genes further undermine confidence in reason.

The result of all this is that tolerance has become a key value of our time. In the process it has changed its meaning. Where once it meant allowing people the freedom to hold their own beliefs or to practise their faith undisturbed, now it means not disagreeing with other people or presuming to challenge their beliefs. When John Locke wrote his classic A Letter Concerning Tolerance in 1689 he was using the word in the old sense. He set forth the case for giving people the freedom to follow their religion within clearly defined limits. Today this would not be regarded as enough. Tolerance has been expanded to include respect so that it is judged intolerant if we say anything that challenges the truth of another religion or set of beliefs. As an Evangelical scholar, Professor Harold Netland, points out in his book Understanding Religious Pluralism, we are now confronted by the ‘misguided expectation’ that ‘one should never do or say anything another group might find offensive and thus intolerant.’ He adds, ‘any time one disagrees with someone else’s sincerely held convictions one is necessarily intolerant’ (see page 144).

The Ironic Vision

Netland traces the new understanding of tolerance to the political correctness of the 1980s and 1990s. I have tried to paint a broader picture, following the development back to the rise of pragmatism and post-modernism (particularly in its Anglo-Saxon form). The philosopher Richard Rorty can be seen as the contemporary high priest of the movement with his praise for irony, pluralism, and individualism and his defence of what he terms ‘antimetaphysical, antiessentialist views about the nature of morality and rationality and human beings’ (see Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, page 85).

Clearly this whole way of thinking poses great challenges to Christianity and to a number of other religions. In particular, it raises questions about any claim to have received a revelation from God or about the possibility of any form of evangelism. Archbishop Rowan Williams tries to meet this challenge with a subtle and illuminating theology in which revelation does not destroy human autonomy or supply ready-made answers to every question. It raises questions, invites us to adopt a new perspective, overturns presuppositions, and opens up a new understanding of what is means to be a human being. Such a process involves much more than hitting upon some interesting new ideas; on Williams’ account, revelation really does come from God. But it does not merely require passivity and acceptance. Instead we are called out to live the meaning of revelation and discover its significance in the changing circumstances of our lives.

Sustained Puzzlement

Robert Jensen, a distinguished American Lutheran theologian, reviewed Archbishop Williams’ book On Christian Theology in the Summer 2002 issue of Pro Ecclesia. Jensen recognizes the importance of theology opening up questions and unsettling complacency but he worries about what he sees as Dr Williams’ fear of closure. ‘Is it really the proper place of dogma and other theology’, he asks, ‘indefinitely to sustain puzzlement?’ As he points out, the confession of faith begins with ‘I believe’, not with ‘I wonder about’. Dr Jensen directs his comments to a book by the new Archbishop of Canterbury but in doing so he raises questions that should trouble all of us.

How can we respond to what I will term the new cult of tolerance? A number of points need to be made. In the first place, we should note that in the end everyone ends up making some assertions or expressing certainty about something. Dr Jenkins may be loud in his criticism of jihads or dogmas but he is not above launching the occasional anathema himself. He has no doubts, for example, that among his own clergy those opposed to the ordination of women were ‘medieval and tinged with misogyny, and that they displayed the symptoms of being neurotic’ (The Calling of a Cuckoo, page 148). The motives that drove people to oppose the ordination of women, he assures us, are ‘primarily psychological and neurotic in nature’ (ibid, page 151). The certainty displayed here is breathtaking.

In the second place, we should note that ultimately any rejection of certainty is self-stultifying. If we cannot be certain of anything, then we cannot be certain of our rejection of certainty. Scientific materialism suffers from the same problem. If we give an account of human reasoning as no more than the product of electro-chemical processes in the brain, then this particular account must have precisely the same basis. Non-foundationalism does not share this difficulty. Alasdair MacIntyre has given a carefully worked out understanding of human reasoning where we begin with certain traditions that are embedded in a particular narrative but allow these traditions to be modified and tested as they interact with other ways of thinking. Over time certain traditions fade out of use while others show their value in enabling us to make sense of the world around us.

Thirdly, we need to ask whether any society can live with the kind of radical pluralism recommended by Richard Rorty and the apostles of the new tolerance. Is moral relativism a foundation on which we can build a stable society or do we not have to say that there are certain values to which everyone has to adhere, no matter what may be their cultural our religious background? This is a key issue posed by multi-culturalism. In the nineteenth century the United States of America tried to live with two views about the issue of slavery. In the end, this proved impossible. The young Oliver Wendell Holmes and many others in the North felt that slavery was a moral issue for which they must be ready to give their lives. Others felt that the right to own slaves was so vital that their state must secede from the union. This point of view led others in turn to support Abraham Lincoln’s battle to preserve the United States as a single nation. Looking back, the older Holmes came to see abolitionism as standing for the sense of certitude that drives men to kill one another. He judged that our sense of right and wrong is shaped by the circumstances of our lives. Many of us would disagree. Some things are wrong in every circumstance and in every culture. The fact that there are some values so important that a person is ready to die for them does not turn such a person into another Osama bin Laden. It all depends on the nature of the values.

The dialogue of certainties

Tolerance is a virtue and so is respect for other people and their views. But we also have a duty to struggle to come to the truth and to respect what we genuinely and sincerely believe is the truth. Ironically people of faith who share this perspective (even if they differ in their actual beliefs) have more in common with each other than those who think beliefs are unimportant or purely relative. Lesslie Newbigin once quoted a Marxist who told him that the only kind of Christian he was interested in talking to were the ones who wanted to convert him. Newbigin went on to add that he had found the same experience when he entered into dialogue with Hindus. The Hindus who became his friends were the ones who cared enough to try to convert him, not those who came along for an academic discussion. We may disagree on our beliefs, but people of faith are united in their conviction that truth matters and that coming to know the truth is of vital importance.

Paul Richardson is Assistant Bishop of Newcastle.