A friend who’s about twenty years older than I am makes occasional exclamations about my identity as a “postmodern.” Admittedly, I understand very little about this label and I need to learn more. I’ve been intending for some time to start with Brian Walsh and J. Richard Middleton’s Truth is Stranger Than It Used to Be.
One impression I have of the postmodern belief system, which looks ironically like a doctrine, is that all opinions are equally valid. Just within the past few days, I’ve heard two eerily similar stories from college-level teachers: a student approaches the teacher to disagree with the grade given on a paper. The teacher defends the grade as valid. The student assumes that the root cause of the undesirable grade is a difference of opinion and “concedes” that they’ll have to “agree to disagree.” The teacher is stunned at the student’s audacity, for the grade is not based on difference of opinion, but on lack of comprehension as determined by the teacher’s own authority and expertise in the field.
There are several labels we could give to the student in this type of situation to understand his social context, from postmodern to “firstborn” or “baby of the family.” His communities have certainly shaped his identity and enabled him to have such an egalitarian view of opinions, but some, including myself, would blaspheme against postmodernism by contending that his communities and the stories told by those communities must be ill. The student, while effectively resisting being backed into a corner, appears to be wrong.
In putting together the “In Case You Missed It the First Time” articles for Catapult, I rediscovered an article by Grant Elgersma that we published. Jumping off of Marilynne Robinson’s essays in The Death of Adam), Elgersma writes:
The cultural elites dismissal of [John] Calvin assumes that our judgments about the value of something are correct because they are our judgments. And if our goodness is confirmed by our own judgments, which most often happens to be the case, our judgments take on a certain authority that cannot be challenged by the people we are judging.
Elgersma’s statement, in the context of this editorial, is less about John Calvin than it is about the current tendency to coddle our personal opinions and get upset when someone doesn’t think our opinions are as cute as we think they are. Students like the aforementioned come across as arrogant, when really, they are afraid. Agreeing to disagree is nice, but it also allows us to create hard shells around ourselves that protect us against conflict, humiliation, regret and ultimately the messiness of human relationships. As Elgersma notes, the idolatry of our judgments is, in a sense, foolproof because we only need to give the objects of our judgment as much validity as we judge that they are worth.
Fortunately, the gospel of Christ offers a different way. In the way of Christ, we are free to acknowledge the unique abilities, gifts and knowledge of others within our community, submitting in a childlike way that paradoxically makes us mature (Ephesians 4:11-16). If a student is able to state that his opinion on a subject is equal to that of his teacher, perhaps he has never experienced or seen within his community the gospel truth that “the greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matthew 23:11-12). Indeed there is rest and freedom in the ability to humbly open one’s self to what is to be learned from others and to openly acknowledge another authority in a particular area.
Now I’ve heard it said that one of the values of postmodernism to Christianity is that, in spite of all the ways in which Christians have worked throughout history to discredit the gospel story, the story (according to postmodern theory) is worth being heard and listened to. But that’s a theory I’ll have to explore in relationship with those who know more about the postmodernism than I do.
In your opinion, are we experiencing a “tendency to coddle our personal opinions?” Do you agree that this amounts to “idolatry?”
Editor’s Notes: This article was first published by Catapult magazine and is used by permission. The artwork above is quoted from here.