Things are in the saddle and ride mankind,” complained Ralph Waldo Emerson a century and a half ago. Like his disciple and Concord neighbor Henry David Thoreau, Emerson was vexed by the ironies of modern history. Technologies of the kind that had ushered in the industrial revolution were intended to free the men and women of the modern world—from poverty, from bondage to servile labor, and from subjection to the vagaries of nature. But instead, Emerson, Thoreau, and others feared, technology had brought bondage of a new kind.
To Emerson and Thoreau, technology mastered its users in several ways, not least significantly through its capacity to fascinate people with means rather than ends. Long before Albert Einstein made his pithy remark about the modern age being an era of perfected means and confused ends, Emerson and Thoreau had identified the problem. “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas,” Thoreau observed, “but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate . . . . We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic . . . ; but perchance the first news that will leak through the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.” If Thoreau had such misgivings about the telegraph, what would he have thought about trucking down the information superhighway or about channel- surfing his way through the five hundred stations beamed down from the heavens to his cabin on the banks of Walden Pond?
Thoreau’s fears received disturbing confirmation in a work written by one of his contemporaries, Frederick Douglass. In his autobiographical Narrative of the Life of an American Slave, Douglass wrote of the irony that even in the ultimate relationship of user and tool—that of master and slave—the master became mastered, the user used. Douglass was at one point transferred from a plantation to serve a family in Baltimore. His new mistress, Mrs. Auld, “had never had a slave under control previously” but “had been dependent upon her own industry for a living.” Douglass “scarcely knew how to behave towards her,” because her kindness and respectful attitude towards him made her “entirely unlike any other white woman” he had ever known.
But all that quickly changed, once what Douglass calls “the fatal poison of irresponsible power” came into Mrs. Auld’s hands. “Slavery proved as injurious to her as it did to me . . . . Under its influence, the tender heart became stone, and the lamblike disposition gave way to one of tigerlike fierceness.” Having made black men and women into things in order to master them, white slaveholders found themselves, according to Douglass, dominated and degraded by the very system they had set in place to serve as an instrument of their will.
Matters were not supposed to be like this, and Emerson, Thoreau, and others were determined to set them right. They argued against slavery in the concrete and sought more general remedies for the human spirit in the abstract. To reassert the superiority of spirit over matter, of the human will over the tools it uses—to put mankind back in the saddle, that is—the American romantics elaborated their doctrines of the innocent, infinite, and divine self. What makes the sadness of Emerson and Thoreau both ironic and especially pertinent to us is the clear line of descent running from these apostles of romanticism to the contemporary purveyors of postmodernism. Emerson, Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller paved the way for the likes of Richard Rorty and Stanley Fish. Like the nineteenth-century transcendentalists, the late-twentieth- century American postmodernists focus upon the self and the powers of language, and share with their romantic forebears an essentially optimistic understanding of human nature and a breezily upbeat view of the human condition.
The Concord romantics and postmodern pragmatists differ dramatically, however, in their estimation of the ultimate significance of that condition. To an Emerson or Thoreau, the innocent, infinite American self was still an actor in a great spiritual drama. When Emerson wrote that the “ancient precept ‘Know thyself’ and ‘Study nature’ become at last one maxim,” he was articulating a deeply felt conviction that the law of God permeates both the self and the natural world. The romantics believed that when language was employed intuitively and creatively, it could unlock the mysteries secreted away within nature and the self. “The world being thus put under the mind for verb and noun, the poet is he who can articulate it,” asserted Emerson in “The Poet.” “We are symbols and inhabit symbols,” he explained in that essay. But in Emerson’s words, because we are “infatuated with the economical use of things,” we cannot hear the symbols speak to us. Nevertheless, “the poet, by an ulterior intellectual perception, gives them a power which makes their old use forgotten, and puts eyes, and a tongue, into every dumb and inanimate object.”
In American postmodernism, the ethical and metaphysical foundations of romanticism simply drop away, leaving the self to be driven by the single engine of desire. Postmodernism in America is romanticism stripped of its pretensions. Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud materialized and demystified the transcendent self celebrated in the Enlightenment and romanticism. In light of what Paul Ricoeur calls the “hermeneutics of suspicion,” it is hard to claim for the unaided, unimpeded self direct access to God or the eternal truth of things. All that language can reveal, the postmodern argument concludes from its loss of romantic faith, are the self’s desires—for sexual gratification, economic gain, pleasure, and the will to power. “All preferences are principled,” writes Stanley Fish, a central figure in literary and legal postmodernism, and “all principles are preferences . . . . In short, one person’s principles are another person’s illegitimate (‘mere’) preferences.”
What Fish and Rorty say in the works they have published over the last two decades should give pause to anyone who believes that Christians should employ the vocabulary of postmodern pragmatism to articulate their faith and to attract others to it. As Rorty, Fish, and others consistently make clear, the language of postmodernism is anything but a morally neutral tool that people of any persuasion might pick up and use to some anointed or appointed end. Instead, that vocabulary commits its user to a very specific vision of the self, truth, and the ethical life—a vision fundamentally at odds with the most basic affirmations of the Christian creeds.
As Fish puts it, the vocabulary of postmodernity is committed to promoting a vision of humans as the species homo rhetoricus rather then homo seriosus. To define homo rhetoricus, Fish quotes Richard Lanham, a theorist of rhetoric: “[Homo rhetoricus] assumes a natural agility in changing orientations . . . . From birth, almost, he has dwelt not in a single-value structure but in several. He is thus committed to no single construction of the world . . . . He accepts the present paradigm and explores its resources. Rhetorical man is trained not to discover reality but to manipulate it. Reality is what is accepted as reality, what is useful.’”
As Fish portrays him, “rhetorical man” would seem to have almost godlike powers as he stands back from reality surveying the scene and weighing his options. From the materials available to him in the history of culture, he selects those that will be useful. In Fish’s words, “he manipulates or fabricates himself, simultaneously conceiving of and occupying the roles that become first possible and then mandatory given the social structure his rhetoric has put in place.” Perhaps the most important thing to understand about homo rhetoricus is that “by exploring the available means of persuasion in a particular situation, he tries them on, and as they begin to suit him, he becomes them.”
“As they begin to suit him, he becomes them”—that is the key admission. For a Christian professing a gospel of truth beyond contingency or a divine imperative beyond the desires of the moment, the rhetoric of postmodern pragmatism creates a moral universe in which the self that would use language to “help get us what we want” (Rorty) discovers itself brought into bondage by the very tool it sought to master. And though this mastery extends even to those who employ such a vocabulary for unabashedly postmodern ends, my argument here has to do with the devastating irony that confronts any who would appropriate this vocabulary in order to further the cause of Christian scholarship and witness in the contemporary world.
Those who adopt the language of postmodern pragmatism as a useful technique for apologetics are likely to arrive at an updated version of Emerson’s conclusion: “Words are now in the saddle and ride mankind.” Christian apologists may dream of harnessing this vocabulary in aid of corralling the wandering herds of the MTV generation and leading them to the church, or they may embrace that vocabulary in hopes of coaxing postmodern intellectuals back to the faith; but if they dream of such possibilities, inevitably it will be only a matter a time before they awaken to discover that they themselves have become beasts of burden, consigned to carrying the postmodern cargo to market.
To be sure, melancholy of the kind I have just evoked does not issue from many contemporary American postmodernists. Rather than bewailing the tragic ironies of human efforts to master our destiny, they laud the newly discovered powers of the postmodern self and its linguistic tools. Rorty, for instance, depicts that self as a dynamic, creative agent wielding words to get what it wants, striving to “transform things until they mirror his power.” He argues that our present vantage point allows us to see how contemporary pragmatism originates in the battle between science and literature that began with the romantics. He acknowledges that the romantic movement was at first an effort to salvage the spiritual legacy of Christian faith by planting the source of that faith within the self. The romantics fully believed that the virtuous powers of the self corresponded to the virtue and power of God. William Butler Yeats, who spoke of himself as the “last romantic,” succinctly expressed this romantic faith:
All hatred driven hence, The soul recovers radical innocence And learns at last that it is self-delighting, self-appeasing, self-affrighting, And that its own sweet will is Heaven’s will.
Rorty argues that the logic of romanticism eventually drove its heirs to abandon their metaphysical pretensions. It is now understood that the true meaning of “romanticism” is “the thesis that the one thing needful [is] to discover not which propositions are true but rather what vocabulary we should use.” The romantics, of course, did not know that this was what they meant. “Reason cunningly employed Hegel, contrary to his own intentions,” writes Rorty, “to write the charter of our modern literary culture.” It turned Hegel’s “historical sense of the relativity of principles and vocabularies to a place and time” into a “romantic sense that everything can be changed by talking in new terms.” The literary culture to which Hegel gave birth is one “which claims to have taken over and reshaped whatever is worth keeping in science, philosophy, and religion—looking down on all three from a higher standpoint.” Needless to say, Rorty applauds this transformation of romanticism by pragmatism. In arguing, as Rorty does, that “anything can be made to look good or bad by being redescribed,” contemporary pragmatists assume that the creative, willing self has the power to acquire or accomplish what it wishes.
In a sense, this self can even cheat death of its power. Rorty lauds the Nietzschean self, which “would seek consolation, at the moment of death, . . . in being that peculiar sort of dying animal who, by describing himself in his own terms, had created himself.” Thus, the most deft pragmatists will be able, by using language as a kind of giant crowbar, to roll away the stone of our inherited contingencies—even the most weighty ones of sin and death.
When viewed in one way, the conclusions that Rorty and others draw seem like the latest development in a philosophical narrative stretching back for centuries. Looked at in another light, however, the postmodern pragmatists might seem to be little more than apologists for the “therapeutic” society. In speaking of the therapeutic here, I am referring to what Philip Rieff, author of The Therapeutic Society, has described as “the unreligion of the age, and its master science.” According to Rieff, in a therapeutic understanding of the world there is “nothing at stake beyond a manipulatable sense of well-being.” A therapeutic culture is one in which questions of ultimate concern—about the nature of the good, the meaning of truth, and the existence of God—are taken to be unanswerable and hence, in some fundamental sense, insignificant.
According to Rieff, few things suit the therapeutic ideal better than the “prevalent American piety toward the self. This self, improved, is the ultimate concern of modern culture.” In one of the central texts of the postmodern movement, Jean Francois Lyotard defines the movement as “simplifying to the extreme, . . . incredulity towards metanarratives.” The postmodern self, then, seeks to be liberated from the imprisoning confinement of the historical or communal narratives that make a claim upon it. In other words, the therapeutic self considers itself free of the obligations of truth and the claims of ethical ideals.
Therein lies the danger of appropriating the vocabulary of postmodernism for the articulation of Christian truth in the contemporary world. The language of postmodern pragmatics can imagine no goal for human striving beyond that of Rieff’s “manipulatable sense of well-being.” To appropriate its images is to accept its vision of life as a process with no goal beyond that of perpetuating the process itself and making it as pleasurable as possible. “There is no need to envision a point or a goal outside of practice because practice is at every moment organized in relation to goals already known,” says Stanley Fish. Thus does postmodern pragmatism make one merely a tool of its vision of the world. Or, to borrow Shakespeare’s image, the Christian who adopts postmodern language is likely to find himself “hoist with his own petard.”
It is Hamlet who uses that image, in alluding to the trick he has played upon Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. These two have been enlisted by Hamlet’s uncle, King Claudius, to escort the Prince to England, where he is to be killed according to instructions that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern carry with them. While they are at sea, Hamlet steals the instructions and replaces them with a directive that demands that the English immediately put to death the two bearers.
It is especially interesting that it should be Hamlet who speaks the words because earlier in the same play he says something to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that might easily lead one to assume him to be an originator of the postmodern pragmatic viewpoint. When the courtiers question Hamlet’s designation of Denmark as a prison—“We think not so, my lord”—he responds by saying, “Why, then ‘tis none to you, for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison.”
Yet there is a vast difference between Hamlet’s observation that “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” and Richard Rorty’s assertion that “anything can be made to look good or bad by being redescribed.” And in that distinction we can see the difference between a Christian apologetic that engages postmodernity seriously but critically and one that capitulates to it by appropriating its vocabulary and assumptions.
Hamlet’s claim about the power of thought acknowledges the constitutive role of the human mind without claiming that the mind creates the world about which it thinks. As he agonizes over the consequences of the vengeance he has been called upon to exact on behalf of his murdered father, he is paralyzed rather than liberated by his thoughts, which repeatedly direct him to the tragic ironies of the human condition.
The key insight of tragedy—which it shares with a Christian conception of sin—is that we never span the chasm yawning between our intentions and our actions, between our actual behavior and the ideals we profess. Yet for Rorty “redescription” can do the job: “A human life [is] triumphant just insofar as it escapes from inherited descriptions of the contingencies of its existence and finds new descriptions. This is the difference between the will to truth and the will to self-overcoming. It is the difference between thinking of redemption as making contact with something larger and more enduring than oneself and redemption as Nietzsche describes it: ‘recreating all “it was” into a “thus I willed it.”’”
Unlike the postmodern pragmatists, Hamlet understands the tragic and ironic limitations of this newly discovered way of thinking about thinking. “To be or not to be—that is the question,” he asserts in the play’s most famous speech. Yet by the end of that speech, Hamlet is so stymied by his weighing of options and consequences that he laments:
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all; And thus the native hue of resolution Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, And enterprises of great pitch and moment With this regard their currents turn awry, And lose the name of action. (III, i, 83-88)
As Hamlet draws to its tragic conclusion, Hamlet confides to Horatio what he has learned about the limits of calculation and redescription:
let us know, Our indiscretion sometime serves us well When our deep plots do pall, and that should teach us There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, Rough-hew them how we will-(V, ii, 8-11)
What is ultimately at stake in the debate over the vocabulary of postmodernism is our vision of truth and moral order. The postmodern vocabulary, as we have seen, assumes a naturalistic view of the created order and a merely preferential basis for the ethical life. To appropriate its language is to trivialize Christian conceptions of sin and forgiveness, guilt and grace, death and resurrection. By holding out the promise of temporal renewal through the power of radical redescription, it denies the transforming power of the word and closes the door to the eternity to which the entire drama of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ points the way.
Two illustrations may clarify what is at stake here. The first has to do with an essay question on a test I gave about ten years ago. It asked students to describe the consequences of the fall as John Milton depicts them in Book IX of Paradise Lost. Most answers focused upon the discord that entered Adam and Eve’s relationship, their shame, and their drastically altered view of God. But several exams contained surprising responses. Each began with a thesis statement something like this: “The major effect of the fall was to make Adam and Eve change their lifestyle.”
What has concerned me over the years has been the inability of many students, when I have related this story to them, to understand the dangers inherent in reducing the expulsion from Eden to a change in lifestyle. A world in which every action manifests nothing more than an individual’s flair, his or her peculiar “style,” is a world in which there is no difference in choosing between gods to worship and ice-cream flavors to consume.
The second illustration concerns the New York Times, which in early 1994 reported that the New York chapter of NARAL was mounting a public service ad campaign to counter the highly publicized De Moss foundation ads that carry the theme, “Life. What a Beautiful Choice.” The NARAL ads turn matters around completely: “Choice. What a Beautiful Life.” The Times story reports: “The spot centers on personal preferences in areas like food, religion, and hair styles, then segues into the issue of ‘Whether you have a baby—or an abortion.’” Chinese food or French cuisine, Jesus or Nostradamus, permed or straight, life or death: they are all the same. Whatever tool you choose to use to enhance your own well-being does not matter; only your freedom in choosing does.
The ironic complexities of these issues were brought home to me again a few months later when I read a Newsweek account of plans for a film version of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Most people are familiar with the climactic scene in that novel, in which Hester Prynne urges Arthur Dimmesdale to flee with her and throw off the burdensome beliefs that afflict the two of them and weigh them down. When Arthur tells Hester of the agony of his sin—because of the tragic and ironic “contrast between what I seem and what I am!”—she replies, “Your sin is left behind you, in the days long past.” Hester urges the father of her child to “leave it all behind . . . . Meddle no more with it! Begin all anew!” She begs him to toss down this sin-stained and wearying identity of his and to “exchange this false life of thine for a true one . . . . Preach! Write! Act! Do anything, save to lie down and die!”
In this scene Hester is a forerunner of the postmodern Richard Rorty, for like him she believes that moral quandaries are not resolved by repentance, but by relocation or redescription. Not much distance separates the romantic who believes that “seven years’ weight of misery” can readily be exchanged for a future “full of trial and success” from the pragmatic postmodernist who writes that “all any ironist can measure success against is the past—not by living up to it, but by redescribing it in his terms, thereby becoming able to say, ‘Thus I willed it.’ “
Arthur Dimmesdale is beguiled by Hester’s pleas, yet he finds comfort and strength in the same theological system that Hester would have him abandon. Puritan covenantal theology crushes him with the guilt it induces, but it also supports him with the consolation and meaning it imparts to his life. Furthermore, Dimmesdale discovers that without the constricting framework of his beliefs, his moral life turns into a confusing array of destructive impulses.
Hawthorne remained doubtful about the possibility of forgiveness and convinced of the destructive force of unfettered liberty. So, shortly after Arthur’s forest encounter with Hester, Hawthorne has Minister Dimmesdale offer an ambiguous public confession of his sin before dying in his lover’s arms. Tragic ironies and ambiguities abound at the novel’s end.
That is not to be the case with the upcoming movie. Newsweek reports that the director has said that “he wants the audience to understand [Dimmesdale’s confession and death] as just a metaphor for Dimmesdale’s liberation, an interpretation that allows the movie to end on the less depressing note of Dimmesdale and Hester riding off together to start a new life. ‘As they reach the edge of the forest,’ according to a version of the script obtained by Newsweek , ‘Hester . . . unfastens the scarlet letter, letting it fall by the wayside. The rear wheel of the wagon rolls over it, partly burying it in the mud.’”
Contemporary American pragmatism—whether it manifests itself in the highest elite reaches of postmodern theory, in the recent attempts of a Presbyterian task force to redescribe fornication and adultery as possible displays of “justice love,” or in the slick productions that cascade down upon us daily from Madison Avenue—is market driven. In a passage that all who believe that market research holds the key to the church’s future ought to cut out and plaster on their refrigerator doors, Jerry Adler writes in the Newsweek story, “A century and a half ago, in the years before audience research, Hawthorne had composed his somber psychological drama with no way to know if readers might prefer a French and Indian War bodice-ripper instead. With nothing at stake but his own immortality, he could make his book as downbeat as he liked, but director Roland Joffe isn’t about to take that chance with a $40 million movie.”
In the moral universe of this new film script, Hester and Arthur’s wagon wheel rolls over much more than a discarded letter. It also buries and leaves behind the two of them any possibility of their assuming a satisfying role in a vast cosmic drama in which their sins might be forgiven and their mortal bodies raised to eternal life. “The abdication of belief makes the behavior small,” wrote Emily Dickinson in a poem about the loss of faith in God’s sovereignty. Postmodern pragmatism holds out the promise of boundless liberty; it creates a world so profoundly trivial that it starves and stifles the spirit.
More than half a century ago, W. H. Auden imagined the contours of a postmodern moral universe, one that to him represented “the ultimately liberal condition.” It is a world filled “with promiscuous pastures where the minotaur of authority is just a roly-poly ruminant and nothing is at stake.” In this world, “liberty stands with her hands behind her back, not caring, not minding anything.” Finally, Auden writes, “your existence is indeed free at last to choose its own meaning, that is, to plunge headlong into despair and fall through silence fathomless and dry . . . .”
All this is not to be taken as a call for Christians to abandon engagement with the postmodern world or to shun the study of its thought. Before responding to the pragmatism of postmodernity, Christians must understand it as fully and fairly as possible. But such understanding involves more than the reading of essays and books by Rorty and Fish. It also involves situating American postmodernism within the history of American culture, its thought and social practices. Jonathan Edwards, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emily Dickinson, and William James are every bit as important for understanding postmodernity as are the latest theoretical treatises emanating from Berkeley, Durham, and all points in between.
In the matter of encountering the postmodern world, as in so many other ways, Dietrich Bonhoeffer provides provocative guidance. “During the last year or so,” he wrote to Eberhard Bethge in July of 1944, “I’ve come to know and understand more and more the profound this-worldliness of Christianity.” But, he says, “I don’t mean the shallow and banal this-worldliness of the enlightened, the busy, the comfortable, or the lascivious, but the profound this-worldliness characterized by discipline and the constant knowledge of death and resurrection.” This means, for us in a postmodern world, “living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities.” It means sharing the “sufferings of God in the world—watching with Christ in Gethsemane.”
This is the point at which Christian apologetic efforts might well begin. With cunning, passion, sincerity, and perseverance, Christians may bring to postmodern culture good news that completely inverts the categories of that culture. To an age that believes that freedom makes you true, Christians respond with a more ancient message, “You shall know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
Roger Lundin teaches in the Department of English at Wheaton College.
Photo by John Phelan via Creative Commons. Image cropped.