Culture

A culture of “yes.” That is what we seem to live in. Almost any sort of personal morality is possible, almost all forms of sexual expression are heartily endorsed. With very few exceptions, what seems right to a person is ok to do. The culture heartily approves, celebrates and rejoices in granting freedom of self-expression, the casting off of restraint.

Yet, in spite of the culture’s enthusiastic “yes,” we actually live in a culture of “no.” Collectively, our culture holds that there is no meaning, no knowledge, no truth, no morality, and more recently, no forgiveness.

In the next several posts, we will explore our culture of “no,” how we arrived at those points, and some of the resulting implications. Much of what follows will be some of my preliminary thoughts about topics I intend to cover in a forthcoming book, Hope in the Midst of Judgment, a book I am in the process of researching, yet I’ve studied many of the topics for over 15 years.

Philosophy. If there is one word that strikes terror in many of our hearts, it is the word “philosophy.” Our eyes glaze over and our minds quickly lock up. We think of professors so high up in lofty ivory towers that when they breathe ice forms on the tip of their noses. They use long lugubrious (dismal, gloomy, in an exaggerated manner) words that are nearly impossible for most of us to understand. Best to let them stay in their isolated towers and ignore them, or so we think.

But, it isn’t that simple. What they teach and write passes on to their college students, and over time through those students, on to the general culture. While those who spread the ideas generally know where they come from, many of us tend to be rather clueless. We react with, “How could they believe something so obviously wrong?” To them, even the fact that we say something is “wrong” shows that we don’t grasp the meaning of what they are saying.

Even if what they believe is directly self-contradictory, believe it they do. In the next few posts, we will examine some of the philosophical beliefs that have been embraced by our culture. Two that are at the core of our popular society are: (1) there is no meaning—specifically words have no precise meaning; and (2) there is no real knowledge.

Our culture insists that there is no real meaning. More specifically, that words possess no genuine meaning. That might seem odd to many of us. How could one even understand these first couple of sentences if words have no real meaning? Nevertheless, that is what many in our culture hold.

The belief that words have no specific meaning has been spreading now for over 50 years. While at one time the belief was confined to the “ivory towers,” that belief has long since entered our popular culture. Any word (a symbol) is just a sign of another symbol (word). Regardless of how far back one goes, a word remains just a sign of another symbol. Thus, meaning is not based on anything concrete, meaning has no foundation.

In terms of books, authorial intent does not exist. Whatever subjective meaning that might exist is determined strictly by the reader. In addition, whatever meaning might be found is generally not found in the words themselves, but rather in the “white spaces” between the words. Once what was written has been “deconstructed” (the technical term) it often turns out that the meaning of the text is the direct opposite of what the author likely intended. Thus, for the past several decades the historical Western literature has been under attack, and is now “known” to be anti-feminist, European colonialist, misogynist, and so forth (that these philosophical beliefs emerged primarily in France and the United States seems to be besides the point).

But does the view hold up? One philosopher at one point dared to contradict Derrida (the leading advocate of these views). Derrida responded to the roughly fifteen page article by writing an almost 100 page book, ridiculing his opponent. One must deconstruct Western literature, but one must NEVER deconstruct the writings of the deconstructionists. Contrary to all the others, their books must be read as though they mean exactly what they say. I do wonder what would have happened had I been able to take a class from Derrida (he taught at UC Irvine, among other places), and after a lecture on how meaning is found in the “white spaces” been able to ask a question along the lines of, “So you’re saying that you wish the sky was orange marmalade instead of green striped with essence of strawberry?” If meaning is found strictly by the reader and in the white spaces between the words, that interpretation is as valid as any other.

Life doesn’t work that way. For example, if you’re assembling a toy for your daughter’s birthday, the only way to succeed is by following the instructions, instructions that mean exactly what they say. However, we, in our sinful state, prefer the opinions of the deconstructionists. By using deconstruction, we can dismiss anything the Scriptures appear to say that we don’t like, and it also gives us an excuse for justifying our behavior and actions. Nevertheless, following that process will not end well.

No real knowledge. Let that sink in for a moment, there is no real knowledge. How can that be? That doesn’t appear to make any sense. How did out culture come to embrace such a view?

Once again, one must look to ivory academic towers, and yet another case where philosophy has had a significant long-term impact. The French post-modern philosopher Michel Foucault had much to say about what is, or is not, considered knowledge.

It used to be that an expert in any given field, by definition, had knowledge of that field. The knowledge one had, gave one power and authority in that area. For example even today, if one needs heart surgery, one seeks a reputable heart surgeon to perform it, not an auto mechanic. In the same way, if your car needs fixing, you take it to an auto mechanic, not a heart surgeon, to get it repaired. The heart surgeon has authority and power when it comes to heart surgery, the auto mechanic has authority and power when it comes to fixing cars.

Foucault argued that instead of knowledge creating power and authority, it was power that created knowledge. He insisted that those in power were the ones who determined what was considered knowledge. Since those in power determined what was important, if one disagreed with those in power, they, and their so-called “knowledge,” could be ignored. Thus, there is no real knowledge as “knowledge” is just a construct made by those in power.

Yet, as in the above examples of the heart surgeon and auto mechanic, one still doesn’t go to an auto mechanic for heart surgery. Their respective knowledge remains real. As with Derrida, Foucault insists that what he has to say and write is true, and in Foucault’s case, genuine knowledge. But as with Derrida, why?

Foucault has power and authority regarding what he says. But since he is in power over his own writings, and his power creates the “knowledge” he claims that he has and has writen about, one can dismiss his “knowledge,” just as he insists we need to dismiss other’s so-called knowledge. Following his own theory, he is no different from anyone else in power who puts forth a construct of knowledge. Thus, his writings become self-refuting. Of course, to state things that bluntly is not tolerated in that philosophical world.

As with Derrida, our culture (one wonders where the new protest iteration of “no culture” will go) embraces what Foucault said. It provides yet another rationalization to dismiss the Truth of the Scriptures, and even law in general. After all, those in authority created laws, so those too, as we are currently seeing, can be dismissed as well. Nevertheless, those beliefs remain a biblical lie. We truly are witnessing a culture that is at the end of Romans 1. As we see in Psalm 2, that has absolutely no impact on God’s sovereignty, and for that we can rejoice, but it does not bode well for us as a nation.

Morpheus: “If real is what you can feel, smell, taste and see, then ‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.” (The Matrix, 1999)
Pontius Pilate: “What is truth?” (John 18:38)

“The Matrix.” If there is one film that gets to the heart of postmodern though about knowledge, it is the 1999 film, “The Matrix.” Those beliefs and thoughts have now, 20 years later, permeated popular culture. In that film, the main protagonist, Neo, discovers that the “knowledge” he had about his life, and life in general, was nothing more than artificial constructs put together by those in power—in this case, machines possessing AI. As the film goes on, the rules Neo thought governed his known universe proved to be false. They often could be and needed to be broken in order to survive, or at the very least bent significantly. Worse, since Neo, and by extension all of us, rely on subjective sensory perception, there is no way to be sure what is truly real. We can’t really know anything. Our perceptions and our view of reality, are quite different from what reality may very well prove to be. One could almost say that we live in perpetual uncertainty (more on that subject in the next post).

When I was researching postmodern beliefs, “The Matrix” was referenced over and over. It was so important that Brian McLaren, in a fictional trilogy about why the church must change and embrace postmodern thoughts, named the hero of his trilogy Neo, after the character in the film.

So, again, we can’t really know anything. But as is so often the case, the Scriptures reveal that there is nothing new under the sun. Jesus had just told Pilate, “For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice” (Jn. 18:37 NAU). Pilate then responds with his question (I wish the Scriptures recorded what sort of tone he used). Rather than wait for an answer, he immediately leaves. For him, in any absolute sense, truth does not exist.

As we’ve seen, it is convenient to believe that we can’t know anything. That way, we aren’t ultimately responsible for our actions, and even better, we have no way to know if our actions are right or wrong, since laws are themselves artificial constructs created by those in power. But, as the last half of Romans 1 delineates so well, we willfully choose to forget what is true and real, prefer to substitute lies and our own sinful desires for what we know to be absolutely and certainly true. Even in our denials, deep down, we still know what is true. It would be far better for us to repent, and live according to what we know God has declared to be true.


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