Posts tagged ‘Post-Modernism’

The Shadow-Side of Freedom

Credit: Khairul Nizam / Pexels.com

Last week, the latch on our backdoor handle got stuck. After working it loose, I discovered that the whole handle was worn out and needed to be replaced. I groaned inwardly because I am not known for being handy. To put it mildly, I am “home improvement compromised.” But, after trudging to Lowe’s to purchase a new handle, I scoured YouTube and found a guy with a thick southern accent who walked me through the process of replacing a door handle step-by-step. Everything was replaced, rekeyed, and ready to go within a few minutes. And I was more than a little thankful for the YouTube handyman who was wiser to the ways of door handles than I was.

In a famous 1946 lecture, existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre quipped:

Man cannot find anything to depend upon either within or outside himself. He discovers forthwith, that he is without excuse.

Sartre argues that when it comes to living, you just have to “figure it out.” He goes on to tell the story of a young man, who was once a student of his, who struggled to decide whether to stay and care for his mother in Paris or join the Free French Forces and fight the Nazis. Sartre asks of this young man’s moral dilemma:

What could help him to choose? Could the Christian doctrine? No. Christian doctrine says: Act with charity, love your neighbor, deny yourself for others, choose the way which is hardest, and so forth. But which is the harder road? To whom does one owe the more brotherly love, the patriot or the mother?

If values are uncertain, if they are still too abstract to determine the particular, concrete case under consideration, nothing remains but to trust in our instincts.

According to Sartre, this young man was just going to have to “figure it out.”

Sartre concludes his lecture:

Life is nothing until it is lived; but it is yours to make sense of, and the value of it is nothing else but the sense that you choose.

Sartre’s lecture, at first glance, carries with a lucrative offer of freedom. There is no higher authority of power, he argues, to which you can appeal to make life’s decisions than yourself. You can choose for yourself by looking to yourself. But, as my door handle experience reminded me, there are times where looking to yourself is not freeing, but frightening. Sartre admits as much when he says:

Man is condemned to be free. Condemned, because he did not create himself, yet is nevertheless at liberty, and from the moment that he is thrown into this world he is responsible for everything he does.

Too much freedom, it turns out, can feel like condemnation because, as initially nice as it may be to jettison a higher authority who looks over your shoulder and tells you what to do, you are still not truly free in one very important way – you are not free not to choose. You must choose something and then live with the consequences of your choice, no matter how awful. Everything rests on you, and you just have to “figure it out.”

The promise of Christianity is not that it removes or avoids all human responsibility and choice. There are plenty of calls in the pages of Scripture for humans to live morally and to choose wisely. But all of this human responsibility is placed inside a larger story of divine sovereignty. God is ultimately in control, offering guidance so that we may make righteous decisions and offering forgiveness for all the times we do not. We are not left merely to our own devices to “figure it out.”

One of the implicit criticisms Sartre levels against Christianity is in the story of his young student who is trying to decide between remaining in Paris to take care of his mother or joining the Free French Forces to fight the Nazis. Sartre explains that divine guidance will do this man no good because there is no divine guidance to tell this man what to do:

What could help him to choose? Could the Christian doctrine? No. Christian doctrine says: Act with charity, love your neighbor, deny yourself for others, choose the way which is hardest, and so forth. But which is the harder road? To whom does one owe the more brotherly love, the patriot or the mother?

But Sartre misses something in his characterization of God’s guidance. The young man in Sartre’s story faces two choices that could be considered moral. But just because there is no divine command that will make this young man’s particular decision for him does not mean that there is no sovereign help.

The Psalmist says:

The LORD is with me; He is my helper. (Psalm 118:7)

A lack of specific guidance from God about a specific decision does not mean that there is a lack of the presence of God through every decision. God will be with us – in our best decisions and our worst – with a freedom that removes burdens instead of one that creates them. For even when we don’t know what to do, He will help us through, and He will work things out, even when things – or when we – go astray. We don’t just have to “figure it out.” Instead, we can trust in Him.

March 8, 2021 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

ABC Extra – I Didn’t Invent The Truth And Neither Did You

The former anchor of World News Tonight, the late Peter Jennings, once said, “There is no one absolutely essential truth for all people…Every time I look at a coin, I instinctively want to look at the other side.”[1]  This statement, proffered by a prominent and well-respected news anchor encapsulates for many the truth about the truth.  A truth, according to many, resides ultimately in the minds and hearts of those who believe it and cannot be universalized or externalized to all people in all places in all times.  This position on truth is popularly known as post-modernism.  To quote the famed French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard’s definition of post-modernism, “Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives.”[2]  In other words, a grand, unifying, universally true narrative that gives meaning to life, such as we find in the Bible, is not possible in post-modern thinking, nor is it desirable.  Everyone has their own personal narratives – their own personal truths.

With the onset of the new millennium, this take on truth has thankfully waned.  In some ways, its ebbing was inevitable, for its central tenant is internally incoherent.  When Peter Jennings claims, “There is no one absolutely essential truth for all people,” one almost wants to chide him with a friendly chuckle and ask, “So is the fact that there is no one absolutely essential truth for all people an absolutely essential truth for all people?”  One cannot escape the fact that post-modernity’s claim against universal truth is itself a claim of a universal truth!  In addition to being internally incoherent, this stance against universal truth is also impossibly impractical.  It is a stance that cannot be argued for because there is no essential truth over which to argue!  Thus, people who hold this view are finally left with nothing to say and no position for which they can persuasively argue because their position, by its very nature, must be contextualized ad infinitum into extinction.

Even though the absurdity of the popular version of post-modern position on truth has been well documented, this does not stop many from using the “no universal truth” argument against those with whom they simply do not care to have a discussion.  “Well, that truth may work for you,” a common cop out goes, “but it doesn’t mean it works for me.  You have your truth.  I have mine.”  Rather than presenting a well-reasoned rebuttal to a point with which one disagrees, this statement retreats into an ad hominem excuse for whatever one might think or however one might act.

From a Christian perspective, the problem with the “personal truths” of post-modernity is their insufferable self-centeredness and arrogance.  To think that one individual could be the arbiter, holder, or creator of truth, even if only for themselves, should make even the proudest person wince at least a little.  In this regard, post-modernity seems to be a tragically logical consequence of the rugged individualism for which Americans are so famous.  Furthermore, to deny people a “metanarrative,” or a grand story, into which they can fit makes life awfully grim.  After all, for all of post-modernity’s incredulity toward metanarratives, metanarratives remind us that we are part of something bigger than ourselves.  As Christians, we believe that we are part of a broad, sweeping story of redemption and love, revealed unambiguously for us in the person and work of Jesus Christ.  This is the truth Christians believe and confess!  Finally, post-modernity is a direct affront to the Gospel because while the Gospel always and only looks outward to Jesus for the truth of salvation, post-modernism can only look inward for personal opinions.

Truth is bigger than you.  Truth is outside of you.  Truth is given to you by Christ and revealed by Holy Scripture.  And happily, you will find that, believing the truth of the Gospel, this truth will work for you because Christ will be working in you, even unto salvation.  No personal truths needed.

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[1] Peter Jennings, “In Peter Jennings’ Own Words” (8.8.05).

[2] Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. G. Bennington and B. Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), xxiv.

September 19, 2011 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


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