Tuesday, August 14, 2012

O Postmodern! Spare Me Your False Humility

Don't get me wrong, I identify with postmodernism in many, many ways. I am more right-brained than left. I embrace doubt. I consider narrative to be the definitive context for all meaning and I believe communities guide the meanings of texts. I am suspicious of hierarchy and authority. I am content with a plurality of Christian communities. I am deeply aware of and concerned for the Other. Etc. Etc.

Most of all, I appreciate the general postmodern trend of epistemic humility. This humility offers a way through modernity's arrogance and, in my field, such humility might just save the church altogether. As I wrote in a previous post, postmodernism offers the church a way to return to a confessional community of witnesses to the Christ Event. 

But there is a point at which I cannot take postmodernism's humility any longer. There is a point at which such epistemic humility turns into an idol in itself. The humility becomes no longer the means to genuine dialogue of ideas, but rather an easy escape from the risk of holding convictions. Allow me to explain.

It is not uncommon to hear many a postmodern lady or gent confess "But this is just my view, and I might very well be wrong." Of course you may very well be wrong! - such is the premise of postmodern reality.* Why, then, enunciate this confession? The reason, I believe, is because many a postmodern would rather hide behind false humility than stand with conviction - which always includes the risk of being wrong. In other words, it is much easier to presume one's view "might be wrong" and still hold that view, than to believe that one's view is right. This approach offers only the illusion of humility, while embodying the reality of a lethargic escape from risk and anxiety.

The irony, however, is that confessing one's humility ("I might be wrong") does not negate the fact that the one who confesses still believes s/he is right! G.K. Chesterton explains this well in Orthodoxy:

"At any street corner we may meet a man who utters the frantic and blasphemous statement that he may be wrong. Every day one comes across somebody who says that of course his view may not be the right one. Of course his view must be the right one, or it is not his view!" (p. 37)

On this Slavoj Zizek comments, "Is the same falsity not clearly discernible in the rhetoric of many a postmodern deconstructionist? Chesterton is quite right to use the strong term 'blasphemous', which must be given its whole weight here: the apparently modest relativization of one's own position is the mode of appearance of its very opposite, of privileging one's own position of enunciation. Compare the struggle and pain of the 'fundamentalist' with the serene peace of the liberal democrat who, from his safe subjective position, ironically dismisses every full-fledged engagement, every 'dogmatic' taking sides." (Welcome to the Desert of the Real, 78)

The problem with what I have deemed a postmodern "false humility" is that it attempts to eschew the responsibility of holding a viewpoint. One cannot hold a view without simultaneously embodying the hope that it is "right."    

The Difference Between "Right" and "Better"

All of this reminds me of a conversation I had with my sister years back wherein we argued whether or not persons should believe their own opinion is the "right" opinion. As the above indicates, anyone who holds a viewpoint invariably believes the said view to be right, regardless of whether or not s/he confesses that it might be wrong. Thus, in that conversation long ago I argued that everyone ought to believe their view is the right one until convinced otherwise.

Now, however, I would change this slightly. Instead of believing we are "right," I think that it may serve our day better to believe that our view is "better" (or, in the right context, "best"). This slight nuance changes the ethos of dialogue by using comparative language rather than dualistic, zero-sum language. The term "better" does not invalidate all other views as "wrong," yet still stands with conviction that it is "better" given the circumstance. Moreover, the term "better" is open-ended, leaving room for improvement and future adjustments, while at the same time taking responsibility to stand up for itself in the moment.

This terminology also takes into consideration the plurality of contexts in which viewpoints can be "better" (or "worse") rather than simply "right" and "wrong." It is also advantageous because, unlike the term "right," it does not automatically apply universally to every person in all situations. Instead, this language leaves room to learn from new experience. 

Much more could be said about the benefit of this language.

Be Humble... Be Confident... For Now.

We are blessed to live in an age where millions of people critique the metanarratives of our world. I am so happy to have inherited a tradition of doubting the metaphysics of oppressive institutions and the assumptions of Enlightenment ideals. Yet, as per usual, we must find the balance rather than ride the pendulum all the way to the other side. Epistemic humility is a necessity if we deeply spiritual beings are going to find our humanity in the way of faith. So hold your views with humility and openness, knowing that we see through a glass darkly. Yours is not simply the definitive "right" answer, but rather the "better" or "best" one... for now.

At the same time, remember that faith is not only the embrace of doubt, darkness, and death, it is also the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things unseen. So spare me your false humility and ideological escapism. Hold your view with conviction and believe in it... for now.


* In my opinion, such is the premise of reality; and it was modernity's pride in science that gave us the false reality of certainty from which postmodernism offers liberation.


  1. Wait, let me guess- are these mostly young people you're talking about? I think lack of confidence might be mixed in there somewhere. People get better at posturing as they age- if not actually more confident.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Dani. I was not necessarily picturing only young people (and what defines "young"? adolescence? 20's? 30's? young intellectually?). But I do agree with you that posturing gets better with age.

    I've encountered many - and read about this phenomenon in books about PM culture - to affirm this post's embedded assumption that a lot of "PM people" are hesitant to BELIEVE & CONFESS they are "right" or their view is "the best" etc.

  3. Hi Josh,

    You have written another challenging essay, Josh. I share your suspicion that Uriah Heep, the falsely humble villain in Dickens' David Copperfield, lurks behind many a qualification of our convictions. Your recommendation of the language of comparison intrigues me, for now :) Though I wonder if it could evoke the impression of competitiveness, i.e., my view is better than yours.

    In my experience, anecdotal though that necessarily is, concern about the impression we make often is at the root of the language you object to. We don't want people to think we are inflexible, dogmatic or unwilling to consider other possibilities. But I think your criticism of conditional language includes this motive too. In which case, I am still hiding an actual conviction.

    I agree that, if I am sincerely not dogmatic, but, nevertheless, a person of conviction, "better" does render, and, in affect, confesses, my greater confidence in the stance I might through other language rather peddle softly. But my question is, Is that adjustment of language worth the impression of competitiveness?

    I am reminded of a way of thinking that I recommend at the beginning of Systematic theology. I say that in order for there to be learning there must be communication, and in order for there to be communication there must be "provisional doubt." I explain that provisional doubt provides space for two equally held possibilities: 1) that the other person may be right and I may be wrong, and 2) that I may be right too. In this way I bring my convictions as such to the conversation, while being open to changing them. The result is "real dialogue" and, therefore, greater possibility for mutual learning and discovery.

    My next question is, will the language you have recommended be helpful to recommend as part of that ground setting part of my introduction to theology? That is not a rhetorical question. What do you think?

  4. Brescia,

    That our concern for the impression we give is at root of our language is a great point. Moreover, you're correct to note that the "alternative language" I offer ("better") does not necessarily deal with this root motive. I am still certainly concerned with the impression I give to the other, but I am trying to figure out a way to be BOTH respectful and confessional, both flexible and confident, to hold a view with both humility and conviction (while not trying to hide it). I think that this motive is a good thing, but we need to be aware of how much we care about our "projected self" and how we can maintain integrity.

    Does it imply competition? A good question. Then again, isn't intellectual dialogue quite naturally competitive? Of course we want to foster a cooperative spirit where "real dialogue" can occur. But it seems that comparison of ideas is somewhat inherently "competitive." (even the words are similar) From my point of view, the terms "Right/Wrong" are more competitive than "better/worse" because the former implies the necessity of defeat (there must be a wrong to have a right).

    Nevertheless, the concern is still valid and I surely don't desire to foster an environment of competition. I just happen to think that using terms like "right/wrong" (especially the term "Right") seems to squelch dialogue. It conveys the feeling that the finish line has been reached. If it is theology that we are discussing then the finish line is never reached! Moreover, I have noticed that many people who hold convictions with the term "right" hold on to there "right" opinion with a death grip. The reason, of course, is that anything other than being "right" is death: it means being wrong! There is a fundamentalist, all-or-nothing manner with which people hold their view when they believe it to be "right."

    Should you recommend such language to your students? If I were in your shoes I would challenge them to relinquish using the term "Right" and try using "Better" - at least as an exercise. Might be useful when discussing various views of atonement. For example, if one says that substitutionary atonement is "right," then it would seem they have come to conclusion, end of discussion. If one says that substitutionary view is "better" then there is an open door for "competition" between theories. Now the views must compare and dialogue with each other.

    Perhaps this is all semantics. But then again, language is everything. And in my experience, people I know are uncomfortable with black/white language like right/wrong. Hence, my perspective.