Monday, September 07, 2009

Time, Certainty, and Social Constructs

Over my vacation I immersed myself in authors and works relating to the issues and substances of postmodernism. This "label" is itself a topic of great controversy with many suggesting that we are, in reality, entering what might better be thought of as "hypermodernism" since at the core, many postmodern (hereafter "pomo") ideas are actually being put forward in purely modern ways, such as books that follow the "modern" paradigm of evidence-argument-conclusion. However, since it is always more cool to use the newest idea-scheme, I'll go with the flow for now.

One of the primary cries of pomo adherents is that absolute truth is actually a fiction, mass produced by what are called "social constructs." These constructs are those elements of society that dictate the values and cultural mores by which things are critiqued as good and bad, valuable or worthless, laudable or worthy of ridicule, and on and on. The natural turn happens when these venerable constructs - having set themselves up as the dictators of the social conscience - are seen to be themselves bad, and worthy of ridicule. Regardless of your views, you'll have to agree that this has happened in our time at an alarming rate of consistency.

Examples abound. Some of the more noticeable constructs are medicine, education, politics, science, and of course, religion. Take medicine. Forty years ago, it was common to believe that progress in medical research would clear the field of the notorious diseases that plagued us. So high was our confidence in this field, that we granted them almost divine status. Even 25 years ago, when you went to the doctor, you left ready to believe what he said, and do what he prescribed. Medicine promised better living through prescriptions, surgeries, and of course, research. But, today we find that America is in worse health, battling diseases and syndromes and conditions we'd never heard of before. Pomo theory tells us that medicine - this monolithic social construct to which we had delegated our health and well-being - was nothing more than an arrogant, power-hungry construct that told us half-truths in order to gain our monetary and intellectual support.

This same story might be told in the field of education (we'll educate the masses and show them how to get along), science (we'll land on the moon, and usher in the age of scientific certainty, and modern convenience), politics (we'll get the right people elected and trust them to rid the country of poverty, racism, disease, and injustice), and of course, religion (follow our way of life and there will be peace on earth).

In all of these realms, we can see that no construct lived up to its promises. We have racial divides still; we have all the modern conveniences, yet no time for family, and the complexities of life are worse than before; our economy is broken, and the politics of factions and competition is worse now than ever; and lastly, our religious institutions are seen to be the source of some of the worst hypocrisy and unrighteous behavior among its leaders, and "culture" wars in the name of religion continue to erode the public trust that God really exists or cares.

I believe all this started in the wake of the Viet Nam War. As our soldiers returned home, they found a nation that no longer trusted in the political/military leadership. We had seen through the promises of peace and stability in that region, and had come to believe that our soldiers and nation were merely ponds in a bigger game. Our distrust in the policical/military leadership fanned the flame of general unrest and distrust in all the organizational social constructs we now saw were dictating "truth" to us. At first, we just became cynical. We stopped believing in the promises of the social constructs, and just wallowed in cynicism, mockery, and despair. But, along the way, we moved from contempt to outright anger, and finally to rebellion. We started looking at the constructs, not merely as institutions that were run by flawed people, but as intentionally designed to push their view of "truth" on us. We considered that what they were, and what they were trying to do to us was unjust, and that, in reality, they didn't have the truth at all. In fact, what they called "truth" was just their construction of it, and should be rejected as a power play.

Today, the pomos are trying hard to shove aside all social constructs. They have followed the above path of "logic" to conclude that there really is no "absolute truth". Their favorite reasoning is that, since nothing can be known perfectly, nothing can be known certainly. Thus, we are asked to replace flawed certainty, with complete ambiguity. All of pomo philosophy flows from this.

Of course, pomo theory cannot stand. It is self-refuting. The statement that there is no absolute truth is put forth as a statement of absolute truth! But, given that pomo ambiguity allows us to hold to opposing truth claims at the same time (turns out something can be both A and NOT A at the same time!), it is not likely that logic will win the hearts of those committed to the pomo ideals.

So, I'd like to propose that there is a fatal flaw in the pomo realm, and it is that most of the pomos I know wear watches. They also have Blackberrys that hold their daily schedules, filled with appointments at specific times. So, given this, I'd like to ask them why they trust "time" when, as Chicago taught us many years ago no one "really knows what time it is."

It is true that you and I can never know, even less express, exactly what time it is. Time is the greatest social construct, simply because society invents it, and says what it is. Somewhere in Greenwich there is an atomic clock, that sets the standard. But, of course, the clock doesn't set it, the guy who sets the clock sets it! And everyone else in the world has it "dictated" to them what time it is. What's more it is impossible to say that my wristwatch matches the atomic clock perfectly. Turns out I can never know what time it is perfectly, and neither can anyone else, including those pomos who insist that you can't ever know anything for sure. Yet, they set appointments for 1:00 pm, just like we all do. And, when they run late, they still call to make sure that the potential new client doesn't think they're flaking out. See what's happening? They are, by their actions, saying that "time" is real, and it matters, and 10 or 15 minutes can make all the difference. Even though we can't know the time perfectly, we still live with the certainty of it as the fundamental backbone of our society.

There are so many other fallacies in the pomo viewpoint that could be easily demonstrated. To dismiss medicine, education, science, and religion because they have not been perfect certainly builds a standard that the pomos won't want for themselves, and it is only by very selective history that these institutions can be so easily written off as destructive overall. But the greatest flaw of pomo thought is that it is primarily destructive rather than constructive. It offers many appropriate critiques of the modern way, while offering little in constructive solutions to the problems of the world. What's more, if and when pomo thinkers begin to provide their answers, they will be hard pressed to develop, design, and communicate them in ways that are not, in themselves, modern. They will write books, provide formulas, use evidence and argument, and largely try to get us to believe that they are not just the latest social construct that is trying to dictate truth on how to live better lives and build a better world.

At the end of the days of my vacation, having read so much of the pomo literature, it was so pleasant to retreat to the sure Word we have from God in the Bible. It occurred to me time after time that the foundation for my confidence, my well-being both now and eternally, isn't grounded in any social construct, even though I believe they exist and can have a beneficial place in society. As the hymn writer J. Wilbur Chapman wrote "Men may fail me, foes assail me; He my Savior makes me whole". The great answer to the modern failures, and the postmodern angst, is the pre-modern message of the Gospel: "Come unto me all you who labor, and are laden down, and I will give you rest." And that's no social construct; that's the Word of God ... eternally true.

Hope this helps,



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