William McGurn in the Wall Street Journal writes, “’When I use a word, ‘Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’ Like the famously cracked egg in the Lewis Carroll fantasy, [President] Barack Obama refuses to be bound by conventional English. Words like “choice” and “competition” are thrown around in ways that mean the opposite of how most Americans understand them. Once Americans do understand how he’s been using a word, moreover, it changes—in the way that a second “stimulus” suddenly becomes a “jobs bill.” Other words simply disappear.” Our president, God bless him—and I mean that—is a quintessential post-modern. Words, to him, are have no permanent address, no solid, irrevocable meaning. He would admire Richard Rorty (See Fire That Burns). Richard Rorty (1931–2007) developed a distinctive and controversial brand of pragmatism that expressed itself along two main axes. One is negative—a critical diagnosis of what Rorty takes to be defining projects of modern philosophy. The other is positive—an attempt to show what intellectual culture might look like, once we free ourselves from the governing metaphors of mind and knowledge in which the traditional problems of epistemology and metaphysics (and indeed, in Rorty’s view, the self-conception of modern philosophy) are rooted (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). In fact, to Rorty, and President Obama, “language” is the root of reality. In other words, if something is not said, and presumably heard, it is not real. So, to use a tired metaphor, in President Obama’s forest, if a tree falls, and it is not heard, it is not sound. If it is heard, it is sound, and it has meaning, according to the pragmatic purposes of its falling. Thus, to a squirrel it might mean the end of an acorn factory. To a squashed ant, it might mean the end of this existence. And so on. So the meaning of words, the meaning of truth, in other words (no pun intended), is totally dependent to President Obama upon the purpose of need of the speaker. So “recovery” means one thing in 2009 and something else in 2010. “Choice” means one thing to an auto worker and something entirely different to an unborn child. Oh well, let’s hope we are the squirrel and not the ant, the auto worker and not the unborn child!
Archive for March, 2010
Walter Brueggemann in his book A Prophetic Imagination (Augsburg Publishing, 2001) traces the lines from the radical of Moses to the solidification of royal power in Solomon to the prophetic critique of that power with a new vision of freedom in the prophets. Here he traces the broad sweep from Exodus to Kings to Jeremiah to Jesus. He highlights that the prophetic vision not only embraces the ordinary world of the people but creates an energy and amazement (which he calls “imagination”based on the new thing that God is doing. Bruggemann’s position is that the Kingship in Israel was a step backwards from the Mosaic “revolution” and that the Prophets and then later Jesus called Israel away from Kingship back to the original vision of Moses, the prophetic imagination. Bruggemann writes“to address the issue of a truth greatly reduced requires us to be poets that speak against a prose world. . . By prose I refer to a world that is organized in settled formulae… By poetry I mean language that moves, that jumps at the right moment, that breaks open old worlds with surprise, abrasion and pace. Poetic speech is the only proclamation worth doing in a situation of reductionism.”
Bruggemann has his faults, but I think he says a few things that the 21st century evangelical community –especially my own community, the home school community–should incorporate into their vision. For one thing, we must maintain a prophetic, hopeful vision in a world that is embracing materialism and hopelessness. We must, at the same time, affirm objective truth in a postmodern world that is preaching subjectivity. We must not be post-modern hippies, wandering around spreading alternative communities, subversive narratives, and anti-secular sermons. Rather, as one social critic explains, “the Old Testament prophets came to announce to Israel their sin before God by going after other gods, playing the harlot to God-their-husband, revealing their liturgical and corruptions, and laying before them their sins. They were God’s covenantal lawyers bringing to bear upon Israel the lawsuit of the covenant.” Our social criticism must be purposeful and constructive, not destructive. For example, we disagree with post-modern morality that argues that morality should be based in one’s own subjective belief system, as long as that belief structure is sincerely held and harms no one. Our biblical, prophetic message must be that that is hog wash. Our feelings, our notions, of what is right is irrelevant unless it lines up with the Word of God.
Scientists know that absolute objectivity has yet to be attained. But ask poets. Theologian Walter Bruggemann, in The Poetic Imagination writes, “to address the issue of a truth greatly reduced requires us to be poets that speak against a prose world. . . By prose I refer to a world that is organized in settled formulae… By poetry I mean language that moves, that jumps at the right moment, that breaks open old worlds with surprise, abrasion and pace. Poetic speech is the only proclamation worth doing in a situation of reductionism.” Are people better at making observations, discoveries, and decisions if they remain neutral and impartial? No. As Alice in the rabbit hole looked for truth learns, as the poet eloquently probes into the cosmos understands, truth is not dependent upon objectivity.
Knowledge will be pursued and it will be found, but only by those who love and who find truth. Objectivity, as Alice found in her crisis, as the poet understands in his craft, is impossible. And undesirable. Are people better at making observations, discoveries, and decisions if they remain neutral and impartial? Absolutely not. And, by the way, Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life!
The British author G. K. Chesterton writes “The madman’s explanation of a thing is always complete, and often in a purely rational sense satisfactory.” While this author agrees that absolute objectivity has yet to be attained, it is not the same for absolute truth. In any event, the idea of objectivity as a guiding principle is too valuable to be abandoned. Without it, the pursuit of knowledge is indeed hopelessly lost. As Aristotle argues in his seminal work Nicomachean Ethics, “. . . the great majority of mankind are agreed about this; for both the multitude and persons of refinement speak of it as Happiness, and conceive ‘the good life’ or ‘doing well’ to be the same thing as ‘being happy.’ But what constitutes happiness is a matter of dispute; and the popular account of it is not the same as that given by the philosophers.” Objectivity is as allusive as happiness, but truth is real. Are people better at making observations, discoveries, and decisions if they remain neutral and impartial? Only if they pursue truth. Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Alice in Wonderland falls into the rabbit hole and knows that she is lost. “Read the directions and directly you will be directed in the right direction,” the doorknob tells Alice. She has lost all objectivity. She is in trouble. She knows it. But she still has truth—the doorknob has given her truth. Read the directions! Alice is not neutral, and in her crisis, it making observations and decisions galore. She has lost her objectivity, though. She wants to go home. The truth will lead her home. Impartiality, then, is immaterial. She has a need, a stated objective, and she can have the truth. The truth will lead her home. Objectivity is as allusive as happiness, but truth is real. Are people better at making observations, discoveries, and decisions if they remain neutral and impartial? Only if they pursue truth.
O’Neill is by far the most famous and most people think the best American playwright. His combination of character analysis, emotional power, and artistic versatility commend themselves to the reader.
The Emperor Jones is a powerful story about the consequences of unforgiveness. The expatriate African American, Emperor Jones is escaping from his rebellious West Indian subjects. Jones’ heart is full of guile, evil, and, most of all, unforgiveness. As his pursuers draw closer Jones nervously imagines that he is still a slave. “What you all doin’, white folks? What’s all dis? What you all lookin’ at me fo’? What you doin’ wid me, anyhow?” Jones suddenly convulsed with raging fear and hatred. “Is dis a auction? Is you sellin’ me like dey uster befo’ de war?” Jones drew his revolver and fired at the imaginary white person. “I shows you I’se a free nigger, damn yo’ souls!” As the play progresses, O’Neill shows the Emperor Jones self-destructing.