My third year in college, I remember sitting in an alcove in the hallway with some of my other friends, reading a chapter in our Introduction to Theories of Anthropology class. It was toward the end of the semester, and the theme for that week was “Postmodernity.” While I can’t even remember the authors' of that book I read more than a decade ago (I’d have to fish out my old college books buried somewhere in my parents’ basement) I will never forget the first paragraph of that introductory essay. It was the authors’ reflecting on their own reflection process by recounting their conversation. It went like this,
“‘I’m trying to figure out how to start this chapter on postmodernity.’”
“‘Well,’” was the co-author’s response, “‘Why don’t you begin by talking about how you’re thinking about writing the chapter?’”
Postmodernity as a study is just that - a self-reflective, process-oriented way of thinking that focuses on the subjectivity that is particular experience. That’s a fancy way of saying, it asks us to consider the ways we arrive at particular perspectives. So apart from just asking us to acknowledge others' experiences being different from our own, it also asks us to consider why we experience something in that particular way. The way we encounter the world, the way we understand ourselves, is an unfolding that happens over time, that we both have control over in some ways, and no control over in others. It asks us to think about how our environment shapes us, at the same time we shape our environment. It’s deconstructive thinking, because it asks us to pull apart the very foundations of our assumptions about ourselves and the world around us.
It’s a beautiful way of thinking. It’s important in our spiritual lives, because it helps us to pull apart our assumptions about ourselves and our forebears and open us up to new understandings, new ways forward. As with all beautiful, useful tools, there is also a danger - the danger of deconstructing, of gazing too long in the mirror, of getting lost in the reflection of the reflection of the reflection until we are paralyzed for the looking, of becoming dismissive of what we see currently, for what there is left to see. For example, comedian Louis C. K. has a routine wherein his daughter asks him a series of "Why?" questions. It devolves into him saying, "Because some things are, and some things are not!" "Why?" "Because things that are not can't be!" "Why?" "Because then, nothing wouldn't be!" "Why?" "You can't have nothing isn't, everything is." "Why?" "Because if nothing wasn't, then there would be all kinds of things like giant ants dancing around in top hats. There's not room for all of that." "Why?" "... Just eat your fries..."
You get the idea, paralyzation is the result in the face of everything coming down to "nothing isn't." If there is no ground to stand on, there is no moving.
What is difficult is, even objectivity is subjective. There are reasons we rest in the particular realities that we do. Subjectivity, post-modernity, gives us the ability to do some self-realization as to why we rest on the truth that we do. A committed objectivity allows us to move through those realizations and uncover new understandings, even as we stand firm in an ethical framework. Yes, there are multiple truths, but which one do we choose, and why?
Medium journalist Lewis Wallace recounted this as he tries to untangle his role as a reporter in the era of “alternate facts.” Wallace says, “Some argue that if we abandon our stance of journalistic neutrality, we let the ‘post-fact’ camp win. I argue that our minds — and our listeners’ and readers minds — are stronger than that, strong enough to hold that we can both come from a particular perspective, and still tell the truth. And I have the sense that this distinction is important in this moment…”
He goes on to lay out the boundaries of this distinction, continuing, “Neutrality isn’t real: Neutrality is impossible for me, and you should admit that it is for you, too. As a member of a marginalized community (I am transgender), I’ve never had the opportunity to pretend I can be “neutral.” After years of silence/denial about our existence, the media has finally picked up trans stories, but the nature of the debate is over whether or not we should be allowed to live and participate in society, use public facilities and expect not to be harassed, fired or even killed. Obviously, I can’t be neutral or centrist in a debate over my own humanity. The idea that I don’t have a right to exist is not an opinion, it is a falsehood. On that note, can people of color be expected to give credence to ‘both sides’ of a dispute with a white supremacist, a person who holds unscientific and morally reprehensible views on the very nature of being human? Should any of us do that? Final note here, the ‘center’ that is viewed as neutral can and does shift; studying the history of journalism is a great help in understanding how centrism is more a marketing tactic to reach broad audiences than actual neutrality. Many of the journalists who’ve told the truth in key historical moments have been outliers and members of an opposition, here and in other countries. And right now, as norms of government shift toward a ‘post-fact’ framework, I’d argue that any journalist invested in factual reporting can no longer remain neutral.”
“We can (and should) still tell the truth and check our facts: The job of storytelling, of truth-telling, is not going away. But it is getting harder and more complex, in the face of unknowable datasets, lying federal leaders, Facebook algorithm dominance and a changing but also opaque market for online news that tends to bring the foamiest of fluff to the top and confuses even the most savvy consumers....I think we are past the point where they expect us to speak to a fictitious and ever-shifting center in order to appear ‘neutral.’ In other words, we can check our facts, tell the truth, and hold the line without pretending that there is no ethical basis to the work that we do.”
So what is our ethical basis? As Christians, we are called to a particular ethical framework of love. We are called to ask ourselves, what is God’s object - what is Christ’s focus - for to us Christ is God? What does it mean to take one’s objective stance, the place from which all else is meted out for truth, from God? How do we present and stand by the facts of God? Is it for everyone to feel happy and comfortable? We have in these passages Christ saying some things that make us uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable. I don’t think of my peace-making savior as one who brings a sword. Being a pacifist I don’t like that. So what is Christ’s objective here? What is Christ asking the ethical basis to be of his disciples in Matthew? He says,
“Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it. Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” (Matt. 10:38-40)
This main point at the end of Chapter 10, of Christ’s instructions to his disciples speaks to what Dietricht Bonhoeffer called, “the cost of discipleship.” Bonhoeffer was a theologian in the 40’s who came here to the U.S., but then went back to Germany with Hitler’s rise to be a part of the underground movement against him. He was killed for his dissidence against the powerful Nazi regime on April 8, 1945 - just months before the war ended in early September later that year. Indeed he saw his discipleship through, he paid the cost. And hearing it is uncomfortable for me, because I really don’t want to go to my death as my savior did, naked, without a trial, and hung. I’d really rather avoid that. But it’s there, that’s it, dying for love of the disenfranchised, that’s our center. That’s the truth from which all others truths stem. And it is the very rare person who lives up to that.
More than this, Christ doesn’t leave room to argue with this particular center, right? Jesus goes on to say, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” (Matt 12:30) Well, I haven’t always been with Christ on every matter. I’ve stepped around it more times than I can count, because I’m human, and even the most saintly martyrs have not always had their hearts right en pointe. Even the disciples of Christ struggled.
But here’s the other, lovely end of the stick. God knows how hard this is. And for God, it is the struggle that matters and reconciles us. God gives us grace. We have this Christ-center of truth to emanate out from, it’s true. And we may not always be able to stand in this center. But as the angels proclaim at the end of Faust, opening the gates of heaven to him despite his dalliance with the devil, "He who strives on and lives to strive/ Can earn redemption still!" God’s grace through our faith in Christ - in striving for that beautiful, difficult cost of discipleship to the Son of Man - God’s grace through our faith in Christ insists on us being embraced and loved and saved from ourselves, that we may live out the love of God in gratitude for already being accepted. What does it mean to follow Jesus, to revel in God’s objectivity, to act based on the witness of Christ? It means opening to our courage to stand in the truth of God’s good news and love for the poor and the marginalized. It means breaking down our selves to be more like God’s great Self. It means giving ourselves and others the grace God gives each of us, as we learn to do this in togetherness.