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Either/Or Or Both/And?
About liberal, conservative, postmodernism, and the spirit of our times.
By Jarmo Tarkki
(This article was written by Pastor Jarmo Tarkki for a local paper where he serves a congregation in Solvang, California.)
Recently I had a chance to spend some time with a 13 year old girl and a 12 year old boy. I survived, and I surely learned a lot. My hope is that they learned something as well.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of these premature teens’ lives is that they seem chaotic, disorderly, irrational, and outright insane at times, possibly even most of the time.
Adults have difficulties in the world of teenagers because it lacks rational order. The more there is rational order the better we can control our environment. But the fact is that even the adult world seems irrational and chaotic. If you do not agree please check the news of the day, any day!
In the late 1960’s French philosopher Jacques Derrida presented a major critique of traditional Western thought. Derrida’s philosophy, called deconstruction, became a major part of postmodern thinking. In short, Derrida asserted that language has many, often conflicting interpretations. These interpretations are fundamentally determined by the individuals who make the assertions. A postmodern world is a world of significant relativism.
For example, what comes to your mind when someone says “liberal” or “conservative”? If you are liberal the term “liberal” has a good meaning and the term ”conservative” does not. If you are conservative the meanings are reversed. Who is right? Is there an objective reality, such as God or some sound ideology by which we can ultimately decide the correct meaning of words?
The answer to this question is not independent from the interpreter either. Conservatives would undoubtedly claim God as one of them, a good conservative. Liberals would claim that God is progressive. Even the “objective reality” seems to be very subjective.
The spirit of the time, Zeitgeist, has its roots in a time that has come before. Postmodernism, where the world is understood as relativistic, irrational and chaotic has been a reaction to the 2nd World War conceptions of right and wrong, good and bad. Life was in some ways easy when we had the really bad and the really good; Hitler was bad, Roosevelt was good, the Soviet Union was bad (“evil empire”), America is good. Ozzie and Harriet, Father knows best, a family with 2.7 kids, stay-home mom, working dad, station wagon, a house with a front yard and a dog -- those were the good old days.
The popular culture of our time, in turn, seems to manifest a backlash against postmodernism. George Bush reflected this nostalgic change when he declared to other countries that you are either with us or you are against us, you are either on the side of the right and good, or the wrong and bad. Others are evil and evildoers and we, by implication are good and good-doers. The Taliban in Afghanistan were delivered divine judgment called “Infinite Justice” until Donald Rumsfeld decided on a less offensive name, “Enduring Freedom”.
Today’s talk radio is full of raving and ranting ideologues spouting judgments against those who are perceived as misguided and ignorant. Beware of this foaming; most of the time it is “all hat and no cattle”. There does not seem to be room for any uncertainty or ambivalence, most likely because uncertainty and ambivalence are not commercially viable media material in the anti-postmodern world.
According to traditional theology only God knows the ultimate right and wrong, good and bad. We mere mortals are unable to deliver “infinite justice” to anyone because we do “see but a poor reflection as in a mirror”. And those who claim to know how things really are should remember that while “knowledge puffs up, love builds up. The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know”. These are profound and tested wisdoms that we seem to be too eager to forget. To admit one’s limited capacity to know would be seen as a weakness. So we puff up ourselves to appear strong. From history we know, however, that true and enduring strength has often come from weakness.
Either/or thinking is very appealing because it is easy, orderly, rational and controllable. It makes us appear bigger and better than we really are. But it is also intellectually lethargic and arrogant. Those who are not with us are not necessarily wrong and bad, nor are we necessarily the ones who are right and good. Your spouse may not always “be with you” on various issues but it hardly means that she or he is wrong and bad.
The fundamental question is: “Is our world an either/or place or is it better described as a both/and world?” Is the world, after all, more like the lives of teenagers, chaotic, irrational and uncontrollable? And if it is, we might not particularly like it but we certainly should learn to live with it and even embrace it in all of its spicy contradictions.
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