Wednesday, February 20, 2008

the implosion of humanism

It is perhaps too much to credit postmodernism with leading me to Orthodoxy, but it has certainly played a key role. There's a lot that goes by the name of "postmodern," so let me clarify a bit. I came at most current (and not-so-current) thinking by way of literary criticism (also music, but that's a story for another post). The journey went something like this:
  • desire to know God led me to theology
  • desire to know theology led me to the Bible
  • desire to know the Bible led me to hermeneutics
  • desire to know hermeneutics led me to literary theory
  • desire to know literary theory led me to philosophy and politics
And it was once I realized that the end of this progression was meaningless that I knew something had to give. Where I ended up was pure relativism and subjectivism. Nothing can stand on its own--not truth, not the meaning of a text, and certainly not the conclusions we think we draw from such things. What we see as truth, what we find in a text--these things grow out of our subjective experience. The best we can hope for is to be honest with ourselves, which could still mean we're delusional; but admitting that is half the battle, right?

In the midst of all this depressing nihilism (I suppose I was never quite optimistic enough to be truly postmodern), I learned something important from Stanley Fish (and others, I'm sure--but he seems to have been the key voice here)--that texts and meaning happen in community. This notion shed a great deal of light on where I'd been so far--as my "community" changed, so did my thinking--and pointed the way to where I might go. I had started within a community that still held with conviction the humanistic notion from which it had been born--that an earnest student with a Bible can trump all else and arrive at the truth. I could not regenerate such a rosy perspective, but I could look for a community that recognized its own role in the process, while still retaining a deep respect for Scripture. This is what I ultimately found in Orthodoxy, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Since then, I've kept myself for the most part out of the mess of postmodern literary criticism, which has wrapped itself up nicely by declaring its own death. (Or I should say, by declaring its own meaninglessness. It can still proceed without meaning, so I suppose it's not exactly dead.) But I happened to come across a blog entry by Stanley Fish, referenced in a newsletter by a gentleman who still believes in good, old-fashioned humanism. Needless to say, he was rather upset by it, but once again I find a great deal of wisdom here. Fish concludes:
And that, I believe, is how it should be. Teachers of literature and philosophy are competent in a subject, not in a ministry. It is not the business of the humanities to save us, no more than it is their business to bring revenue to a state or a university. What then do they do? They don’t do anything, if by “do” is meant bring about effects in the world. And if they don’t bring about effects in the world they cannot be justified except in relation to the pleasure they give to those who enjoy them.

To the question “of what use are the humanities?”, the only honest answer is none whatsoever. And it is an answer that brings honor to its subject. Justification, after all, confers value on an activity from a perspective outside its performance. An activity that cannot be justified is an activity that refuses to regard itself as instrumental to some larger good. The humanities are their own good. There is nothing more to say, and anything that is said – even when it takes the form of Kronman’s inspiring cadences – diminishes the object of its supposed praise.

Hear, then, the words of this postmodern prophet. There remains no value to the humanities except the joy it brings its practitioners. Anything else would only degrade the discipline. Where humanism set out to ennoble mankind through learning, it has succeeded only in producing a discipline that wants nothing to do with humanity. It will keep to itself, thank you very much, like so many self-absorbed and ungrateful children (to strains of "Cat's in the Cradle"). Our thinking and our society have run their course together, and now neither is any more concerned about raising up future generations than it is about honoring those that came before. Intellectual hedonism meets its social counterpart in a perfect, childless marriage.

Of course, in Fish's world, this is the end of the story. And the same goes for those reactionary humanists who take offense at his betrayal. That's why they take offense--because if he's right, there is nothing left to save mankind. But Fish is simply calling a spade a spade. Learning on its own has never been anything more than learning on its own. Removed from the context of faith, it has no power to save. I suspect this is part of the reason that I lost interest in my academic program. When I started out, I still believed it was the way to my destination. Once I realized that was an illusion, I discovered that I was much more interested in my original goal of knowing God than in humanities or any intellectual discipline for its own sake.

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