I returned, a few days ago, from keynoting a retreat based on my book, Open Source Church: Making Room for the Wisdom of All. Part of the book centers on a survey of the history and foundational principles of Wikipedia, one of which is that “Wikipedia has a neutral point of view.”
The idea that Wikipedia is after is that our contexts are so diverse that there is no way that we are going to come to an agreement on “the truth” or “the best view.” As a result, Wikipedia often has to present multiple points of view side by side. I submit that the church should also learn to cultivate a space in which multiple points of view can exist. There already are several different ways of understanding the work of Jesus Christ or the Church. This thing we do is all relative – we ought to just acknowledge it and account for it.
Of course, wherever I go, I hear the same basic critique of “postmodern relativity”: If all things are relative, then you have your truth and I have mine and there is no truth. You can’t build a society/community/church on that kind of thinking. Things are not “all relative.” There is one Truth.
My response is usually two-fold: One, while I do believe there is a truth, I don’t believe that I know what it is and I don’t believe you do either. Two, while I do believe that all things are relative, I also believe that some things are relatively better than others.
Wait… Better?… Really?
The dirty little secret that I rarely share is that, at heart, I’m a Developmental Structuralist – I understand the different aspects of creation to evolve over time. I know that in this day and age I’m not supposed to think like that, but I do. I usually disappoint my liberal and progressive friends when they find this out, because we usually hold the same convictions and there is an assumption that we’ve come by them in the same way. I’m supposed to say that all things are equal. But I don’t believe that. I believe that some things are better than others.
Before you start throwing stones, let me explain what prompted me to say something so outrageous. I call it “The Postmodern Problem of the Fundamentalist.”
Embarrassingly, it was not so many years ago that I was deep in the throes of postmodern theories of relativity, claiming that everything is equal and that there is no good or evil because those are the value judgements of the “unenlightened” (I was dabbling in Eastern philosophy at the time). I had seen the tyranny of worldviews that suggested that one way of thinking was right and all others were wrong. I had struggled mightily to leave the highly conformist religious traditions of my youth and had found solace that I could engage in a relationship with God free from coercion and with a measure of autonomy and intellectual honesty.
But I live in Kansas City. Not too far away is Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church. You know the “Let’s picket funerals and tell the world that God hates ‘fags'” church?
So, as I tried to live into my new found conviction that “All things are equal” I was troubled to find a way to include Westboro Baptist into that equation. I tried and tried and tried. It wasn’t working. I acknowledge that God loves the members of Westboro Baptist Church just as much as God loves me. God chose them, just like God chose me. That said, those people are some of the most unChristlike people I’ve ever seen. How can I live in a world where the vile they spew is on equal footing with the love I and my colleagues strive to preach? The question I began to ask myself was “If I believe that all things are equal, does that mean I believe that a Fundamentalist’s understanding of creation is equal to mine?” For me, the answer was and is a resounding “No,” and so the problem comes into stark focus with the next logical question: “Why?”
I’ll give my answer in a subsequent post, but, first, I’m interested to know what you might say.
I think I understand much of the journey you’ve been on. I remember a time in my youth when I said with great confidence, “If you keep an open mind, everything will fall out.” That was before I decided to leave the very conservative denomination in which I grew up. But of course, once we walk away from such certainty, we need to figure out how to be in the world.
I’d like to hear more about what you mean by this: ” I’m a Developmental Structuralist – I understand the different aspects of creation to evolve over time.”
An explanation of developmental structuralism (as I inhabit it) is basically my answer to the quest of “why.”
The moment we think we are dead right is the moment we are most vulnerable to being dead wrong.
For me it is the acknowledgement that the Spirit of God speaks deeply to us and confirms for us what is true; for each individual or community. It seems to me that’s the paradigm of “Faith Seeking Understanding.”
May I press you and ask how one addresses the Westboro’s of the world when they say that the Spirit is confirming what they believe to be true?
“One, while I do believe there is a truth, I don’t believe that I know what it is and I don’t believe you do either. Two, while I do believe that all things are relative, I also believe that some things are relatively better than others.”
You had me at “One.”
I don’t know if this fits within any philosophical framework but what I’m thinking right now is this: Ideas have a relatively equal right to be voiced, and perhaps to be explored, but that doesn’t mean they all have equal value.
But I think that notion is already contained in what you wrote in the post, and so mostly all I find myself wanting to say is “yeah, I’m totally with you.”
The only thing that made me pause is that if it’s true that most postmodern progressive-liberal folks actually believe you’re not supposed to think what you’ve expressed here, that surprises me. But I should go read up on developmental structuralism and then maybe I’ll see what it is that you think they’d push back against. But nothing you wrote in your post feels off to me.
While the words change, the push back often has to do with assuming some sort of meta-narrative.
Ah, okay. I can see where there’d be some postmodern push back against ‘nested hierarchies’ and ‘higher-stage moralities’.
It’s funny, my impulse when encountering those terms was to think “ew, icky” but really, I think I believe that way too, functionally, even though I might claim i don’t want to.
This is nifty. I hope more people engage.
The idea that postmodernism holds all things to be equally true has always been the straw-man caricature of postmodernism that others project, and never a genuine representation of postmodern thought. Postmodernism teaches that there are different kinds of truth and truth is relative to context, but never that all truths are equal, which actually violates the most important insight of postmodernism which is that truth is contextual. Context wouldn’t matter if all truths were equal.
What I hear you describing Landon is a process of maturation that many postmodernists could identify with, and which is in no way in conflict with postmodernism.
I do believe there are multiple viewpoints, and that the church should be safe space for those to be shared and discussed. Most of my work in the church has been trying to create and facilitate that space, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. If “truth” means those things we are sure of, I find as I more into elderhood that there is less that can confess with assurance, more that I hold onto tentatively and with hope. I see maturing spiritually as a continue journey of trying to sort out that which moves us to wholeness or to being fully human in the sense that Jesus seemed to model. I don’t know whether my reflections really connect with your thoughts or not, but my response is what they stimulated. (We have a mutual friend in Will Mullins.)
Oops. I apologize for the bad job of proof-reading! I think you can sort it out.
Good theology, Bad theology | landon whitsitt (dot) com
A Priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan walk into a bar… | landon whitsitt (dot) com
Thank you for admitting to this! I have been asking a similar question myself, but I have typically framed it in my own mind as a legal/ethical question. The USA strives to create a country in which we all can practice our faith/lack of faith in our own ways, unencumbered by governmental mandates of proper affiliations. But our laws have historically claimed to stem from ideas about what is just (right or moral) and what is unjust (wrong or evil). And many of us are still striving to urge our government to make the laws more just and right. However, since we know we aren’t all to assenting to the same framework of morality, how then do we decide what kind of laws to make for our society? Majority rules has clearly led us astray in the past. It’s the same question you ask about Westboro, I’m just launching it into it’s implications in the public sphere.
Mick, I like the way you put it here:
Ideas have a relatively equal right to be voiced, and perhaps to be explored, but that doesn’t mean they all have equal value.
The crucial question for me comes next: How do we decide which ones have greater value?
The only answer I have so far consists of my intuition, gut, conscience and reasoning mind. But that only speaks for me, the results those sources produce often contradict one another, and it’s not very persuasive in dialogue with those who disagree with me. It also doesn’t help Us, as a culture, to choose what principles govern us all.
Landon, this is for me the biggest ethics question there is, because it results in the framework within which all other decisions can be crafted.
I have been oscillating between needing to work it through and accepting not having an answer for years. Lately, I have been ignoring the question in favor of just doing what I think is right, but I will soon have to come up with something to say at the Forum, because I wish to move into a career with at least some element of policy advocacy involved.
Thank you for inviting us into this discussion, and I look forward to participating as it unfolds.