Much that is written on this website—and indeed, most writing anywhere these days—can be categorized as critical. That is, writing that critiques, analyzes, induces or describes something—whether art, a public figure, etc. This kind of writing is largely subjective, marginally informative and dominates public discourse today. Thanks to the influence of decades of postmodern theory, cultural and technological transformations (the Internet and other digital communication) as well as the general deconstructed “information age” in which most of us have grown up, this rather new phenomenon is not just a passing fad.
Lest you shrug off the influence of this “populist critic” phenomenon, just turn on the news. The media today is less about reporting facts and much more guided by talking-head orgies of analysis. There are head-filled squares all over the screen, prattling on about who’s to blame for this and that, or what the latest polls about thus and such mean. It is all a wild game of speculation, and the viewers eat it up. Why? Because we too are obsessed with deconstructive critique. Look no further than the mirror to see your own favorite critic.
The problem with a culture in love with criticism is obvious, however. Amid all the accusatory rambling, partisan bickering and self-serving questioning, there is a massive dearth of the one thing we used to find helpful: answers. Unfortunately for us, postmodern life has infused in us a general disposition away from answers, largely because they proved so ineffective in the modernist, totalitarian chaos that was the 20th century. Questions are much more fun, less judgmental and certainly less dangerous than answers. But where, if not eventually to some sort of answers, will our questions lead us?
Before I go further, I want to make a distinction that I think is important when we talk about questioning. On one hand, questioning is a very good thing. Neil Postman called it “the most important intellectual ability man has yet developed” (Teaching as a Subversive Activity). When it is done out of a sincerely inquisitive, awe-inspired spirit, questioning is a beautiful thing. We were made for such reflection. The sort of questioning that plagues our society today, however, is that which we first learned in school: questioning to learn what we must to get by; questioning for our self-advancement. It is this spirit that leads us away from serious, unpretentious inquiry and toward a perverted skepticism that thrives on passing off blame, purging self-guilt and demolishing all that comes close to threatening our subjective paradigms.
Where will such a philosophy take us? To a cultural meltdown I think, and perhaps much sooner than later. It is only logical to assume that in a society where answers are forbidden and objectivists are burned at the ideological stake, we will eventually run ourselves into the muck of useless existential filibuster. It is all too apparent that if our politics continue to phase out dialogue in favor of bloody-knuckle turf warfare, our government will collapse under its own identity crises. Finally, it is eerily evident that in these days when men so aggressively downplay their own culpable characters in favor of arbitrary value judgments against forces outside of themselves (parents, gender, governments, hurricanes), C.S. Lewis was dead right: “Stepping outside the Tao, they have stepped into the void … They are not men at all: they are artifacts. Man’s final conquest has proved to be the abolition of Man.”
In an effort to not defeat my own argument here, I must now take this discussion away from doomsday speculation and back to a practical level of application. For therein lies the heart of what I am saying here—it is fun, easy and (sometimes) productive to critique the world, but only helpful if there are suggestions or answers to be offered as well; or at least directions we can be productively pushed.
So that I do not sound like one of those “postmodernity is the devil” Christians, let me make clear: I do not advocate a return to a dogmatic, “we have ALL the answers” faith. Part of postmodernity’s value is in its reminder that truth is far more decentralized than Western rationalists might like. That said, we must recognize a key difference between possessing truth and proclaiming that it exists. The mindset today is that since truth is relative, a la carte and localized, its broad relevance or application is negligible. This attitude quickly becomes a sort of teleological defeatism, with study and inquiry ultimately to a rather undefined, paltry end. What Christians and most religions proclaim, however, is that there are Answers with a capital A, and that they apply to everyone and everything under the sun.
To acknowledge the existence of Answers and universal truths is a big step. If Christians can reconcile this reality with the notion that we do not, in fact, possess all such knowledge, we might start to become truly progressive. Progress builds upon what we know already (which is not everything) into the world our senses and intellect can explore. Progress comes when questions, probes and queries about the nature of being, art, origin and end become the driving force of a culture willing to expand its mind.
This section of RELEVANT is known as “Progressive Culture,” but is that title aptly descriptive? Too often the section seems bogged down by culture critique and entertainment analyses that offer little in the way of progressive advice or engagement. Progress can be as little as raising a genuine question that will instigate needed discussion; it can be as much as a cultural call to arms. What it can not be, however, is self-gratifying ranting which proclaims, “This is how it is, we have nowhere to go from here.” That is the opposite of progression.
My cultural call to arms, then, is this: Christians, embrace dialogue, thought and search for that elusive frame of mind in which, as Lewis describes in The Abolition of Man, the love of truth exceeds the love of power. Do not sit back and join the choir of carefree criticism that dominates our culture. Mark Noll is right to warn, in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, “If we take this action by inaction, we are saying that we want our lives to be shaped by cultural forces—including intellectual forces—that contradict the heart of our religion.” To be passive in a culture that seems to define progress as the destruction of traditional truth seeking will surely be our downfall.