Postmodernism, Charlottesville and the Hope to Come….

BY BRUCE HILLMAN

“Are you Republican or Democrat?” “Liberal or conservative?” “Yankees or Red Sox?” “Star Wars or Star Trek?” Life presents us with lots of important choices and often times they are presented to us as binaries. Binaries are opposites of which one must choose a side: Yes/No, Gay/Straight, Either/Or, Both/And, Light/Darkness, Being/Becoming, Spirit/Flesh, Light/Dark, Justice/Injustice, Saved/Unsaved etc. We can’t live without binaries as sometimes choices really are as simple as staking claim to one thing or another. Often times by making any choice we exclude the opposite and stake our claim to one side of the equation.  

One person who didn’t like binaries was the French Post-Structuralist, Postmodern philosopher Jacques Derrida. Derrida argued that the problem with binaries was that they totalized reality into very specific extremes that are themselves always just interpretations of vast amounts of data. For Derrida, the problem with binaries is ethical and political. Binaries function as “power structures” that attempt to force people into taking sides—and not just taking sides but sides against each other. Binaries are overly simplistic interpretations of complexities that when examined from different perspectives show their inability to be accurately reduced to such extremes. Binaries totalize and therefore politicize reality into strict choices. For Derrida, the solution to this problem is not picking a third middle way that cuts between the two extremes. To do that would only add another binary (ex. “I’m not Republican or Democrat, I’m a libertarian” would be just another binary = Republican/Libertarian and Democrat/Libertarian). Middle-ways don’t end binaries they only create new ones.

Derrida was keen enough to understand that there is no escape from binaries and yet refused to accept them as accurate all the same. For him, they lead to much of the injustice and suffering in the world. His solution was not to attempt to get rid of them (which is impossible because trying to get rid of them always just leads to more binaries) but to undermine their stability. Hence, Derrida begins his project called “deconstruction.” I don’t have time to get into the details of deconstruction here, but essentially deconstruction is the attempt to undermine binaries or totalizing statements by undoing their supposed stability to say, “This is how things really are.” Let’s take an easy example: patriot/rebel.  Obviously, these two are opposites—but only depending on what side of the conflict you are on. Deconstruction would point this out, attempt to complicate each side of the binary—any binary—to show that what it attempts to communicate in such X/Y contrast is simply not really true. Things are always more complex and more perspective makes this clearer. But for Derrida, all we can do is deconstruct, take apart, reanalyze.

Deconstruction doesn’t give us “the truth” it only gives us “undecidability,” that is a sense that things are not as simple as binaries and that whenever we choose to accept a binary we are making another choice as well—to exclude a lot of information. Deconstruction leaves us with “hesitation.” For Derrida, this is the best chance we have at getting justice in the world—by ever and always deconstructing totalizing statements and binaries we resist the power structuring of reality into simplistic either/or’s that inevitably excludes a lot of information, and often people.

Most of you have probably never heard of Derrida and many more probably don’t necessarily care to. It is probably obvious that Derrida offers quite a challenge to traditional Christian understandings of truth and justice. But I give you this brief introduction into Derrida because he gives us a window into the postmodern sentiment that is characteristically cautious, fearful of anything that claims strict or totalizing vantages. For Postmoderns this is an ethical issue because too many people-African-Americans, gays, women, and others have been excluded and victimized because of rigid categorical (binary) thinking.  Postmodernism resists any totalizing statement, anything that says with God-like omnipotence that things are one way or not. Hence you get the current debates on gender and race, feminism, and sexuality, being and becoming etc. These are not bad things. They are a response to lots of injustice, unfairness, violence, and racism that existed in the 20th century. Postmodernism is trying to put things right while preventing new manifestations of the old ways.

Particularly Postmodernism traces a lot of our problems from what they call “big stories” or metanarratives. Metanarratives are giant stories that “make sense” out of everything in the world—why people are the way they are, what is good and bad, what is our purpose, etc. Christianity is a metanarrative because it gives an account for all reality, and so is Marxism and even Science.  The 20th Century was a century of competing metanarratives-and look what that got us. Postmoderns resist this (and any) attempt to dominate the world with one story or account of everything because they believe that such dogmatism creates a us/them zero-sum-game that leads to lots of the problems we face and have faced: violence, exclusion, racism, injustice, genocide, wars, nationalism, etc.

We can debate the merits of these arguments if we’d like. But I’d like to just make one observation. Postmoderns and Christians share the same hope for justice to arrive and violence to end. In many ways, Postmodernism takes more seriously the call to love others than Modernism and Christendom ever did. Postmodernists love equality, they love tolerance and they love justice. While many Christians have reservations about their view of truth, among other things, we’d be blind to not realize the reach and influence postmodern thought has had on our young people, on our politics, and in our society. Thus postmodernity offers both an opportunity and challenge to traditional Christian ethics.  

As I watched the violence this week that erupted in Charlottesville Virginia, the power of a race-narrative to incite violence, the ACLU’s support of free speech despite that speech being vile, and the peaceful protests of many who descended there to be a presence against hate, I couldn’t help but see postmodern and modernist notions clash. I, like many of you, am deeply disturbed by what I saw even if I am not surprised. And you don’t need to be a Christian or postmodern to long for justice, for peace and for racism to end.

The hope of Christianity is the very hope postmodernity longs for. It is the hope of a world where justice arrives, where evil is put away and where people are treated with love and respect. Postmodernism as a whole, which makes room for God but ultimately cannot accept him, can only do best with deconstruction, with returning again and again to the strict, totalitarian dogmatic statements and reveal their weaknesses, their biases and the exclusions they made to make their case. Postmodernism undoes but has a harder time doing.

Ultimately postmodernism cannot grab hold of the One who “makes all things new” including this world of sin and death.  Not that I am saying there are no postmodern Christians, that is not true. But postmodernism as a formal project of resisting objective, universal truth claims, is ultimately incommensurate with the God who is the Way, Truth, and Life.    

But this does not mean we need fear postmodernity. In fact, postmodernity shows us people hunger for righteousness, they reject the modernist notion of “progress” where knowledge and science would make us better people, and they embrace people as people, flawed, broken and waiting, waiting for the good to come. Postmodernity undermines hierarchy by showing us we all suffer from the same predicament, that we are all broken, hurt longing, ignorant and in need rescue.

We can offer that hope to hearts longing for rescue. Christianity is primed to speak to postmodern hearts because it has always been the religion of the cross, of the rejected, the Innocent who bears the guilt of the “other,” the promise of a Father who will bring justice, love, and a lasting home. Amidst the brokenness of our lives, amidst the power structures and manipulation, the violence, racism, hurt, and binaries of totalizing side-picking, comes the God who breaks in, who shares our flesh, who carries our burdens, who bears our sins, who exchanges our shame for his glory and calls us to be the very light of the world-a light that is not ours but his, gifted to us for use to undermine the darkness which cannot stand against it. So let us be that light. The world is hungry for salvation. Be the city on a hill, let your light shine, show the world its Savior. Preach, teach, baptize. Trust, pray, proclaim, repent, believe. And Come Lord Jesus. Yes, Lord, come.

Bruce Hillman is Lead Pastor at Hillside Lutheran Brethren Church (www.hillsidelbc.org) in Succasunna New Jersey. He Holds a BA in History and Political Science from Quinnipiac University, (Hamden, CT), an MDiv. from the Lutheran Brethren Seminary (Fergus Falls, MN) and an STM in Patristics from Drew University (Madison, NJ); his research involves Augustinian studies and Early Christianity. He is former pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, Henning MN. He is co-founder of Fifth Act Church Planting, having served on their board (www.fifthactchurchplanting.com) Bruce enjoys cooking, reading, all things British, exploring the world of wine, and conversations with good friends.

Twitter: @HillsideLBC