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By John M.

     Now, I’m no philosopher, but I do engage with postmodern questions about the nature of truth; I feel like anyone looking for the truth nowadays has to. Postmodernism has this tendency to pop up everywhere. Some people seem to have very strong opinions on it, though I tend to wonder how many of those people actually understand the logic of the philosophy.

     To my mind, postmodernism exposes the foundationless and deluded nature of the modernist project. We can see this in how the rational project of the enlightenment is coming apart all around us (just think about politics). In this postmodern age, truth is a bad joke. There is no center, moral, philosophical, scientific; there are no points of reference. There is only language, an endless media-mind-maze that relies on your confusion to create the illusory narrative of truth from which we draw some meaning (just think about politics). Human beings are not rational creatures, they are narrative-seekers. This is an almost inevitable conclusion from an interrogation of reason and language. When you really question ideas like truth or right and wrong, you will eventually discover a missing piece: “the real.” How can you rationally argue for the existence of a common ‘real’ world if your whole existence is a construct of your senses, which may or may not be interpreting external stimuli ‘correctly,’ if there even is a ‘correct’ way to interpret reality. 

     Setting aside the concept of God (we’ll address that later), you’ll struggle to prove much of anything. Every scientific experiment is constructed through your senses, or even worse, a machine or another person who has communicated their sensory information to you. There are many “men of science” who will walk around proclaiming that your mind is just a chemical reaction, that your free will, a fundamental element of your experience of reality, is an illusion created by some advanced physics. In a modernist reality, the scientist’s experience of observing data from their machine can prove that all human experience, yours included, is invalid. Postmodernists criticize this mindset. Most of the public doesn’t.

     Things will only get murkier when you push into the realm of logic and reason that underlies science. What does it mean for something to be “proven” or “exist?” How can we even communicate these ideas with words? I think that the most accessible piece of media where this topic is explored is George Orwell’s 1984, specifically with Ingsoc’s manipulation of language. After being captured and tortured by the party, Winston is given the opportunity to ask party member O’Brien any question he wants. This is the ensuing dialogue: 

“Does Big Brother exist?”

“Of course he exists. The Party exists. Big Brother is the embodiment of the Party.”

“Does he exist in the same way as I exist?”

“You do not exist”

For all the horrors in that book, this is the interaction that lives rent free in my head.

     Do you know if you exist, reader? You might think and feel like you exist, perhaps you could physically prove it, logically prove it, prove it to yourself by an act of the mind or will, but all those ‘proofs’ can be muddled by language and other labyrinthine philosophical queries which point out the obvious unreasonableness of reason. Why does science work? It just does. Why does math work? It just does. Why does logic work? We just use it because it helps us make sense of reality. Why does reality have to make sense? Do you see what I am getting at?

     These problems go even further than rational thinking. The very connection between words and ideas, the sign and signified, can be blurred. There are some who believe that there is no difference at all: that there is no concrete world behind everything, only what French philosopher Jean Baudrillard would call “the Simulacrum.” Only the Simulacrum exists, that web of constructs and signs we create within our minds. 

Yet, this all feels so wrong, so laughably out there, seemingly unconscionable to actually believe, so contrary to all human experience. So what gives?

     Ironically enough, it is the heart and experience, which the modernist tells us to deny, that provides the most compelling (not necessarily the best, but most compelling) defense of the idea of objectivity of reality. The postmodernist can explain away the figures and signs of trees and rocks and rivers, but when you run into one, you can’t seem to explain it away. It just exists, and the postmodern mind-games seem comedically irrelevant to the actual life of a human being. We now find ourselves in a bit of a bind. To justify the rational systems that we use to navigate and understand our world, we have to borrow from our intuition and subjective experience, but science tells us that our experience is nothing more than an illusory construct of a chemical reaction. 

     Now, are there any political or philosophical schools of thought which seek to reconcile the rational and subjective elements of human experience? Well, there are actually quite a few, but in this article I would like to talk about religion, and more specifically, Roman Catholicism. Why Catholicism you may ask? To be honest, it’s simply the religion I know the most about because I am a practicing Catholic (though this was not always so). Catholicism is also a helpful example for the subject of this article because of how literally Catholic philosophy embodies the idea of a center of existence. It is very much possible to disagree with Catholic theology and the church, while still understanding the project they are desperately building towards. Allow me to explain. 

     The Catholic and the postmodernist are allies in their opposition to the modernist enlightenment project. Science and reason lack the ability to justify themselves and fail to complete language and the human narrative experience. You can see this in the almost comedic excesses of the French Revolution: the Cult of Reason, the reconstruction of the calendar, the constant spiraling into ideological violence. These are all symptoms of a hollow center. Reason is not a sufficient principle for human organization and prosperity. In the western world, which is dominated by a weary liberal modernist mindset, the Catholic and the postmodernist actually assist each other in shaking the public out of their rationalist complacency. Where the two differ is in how they address the hollowness of modernism. The postmodernist points out all the lies, the biases, the structural violence, maybe they use critical theory to deconstruct liberal narratives or empiricism, and they conclude with something akin to the simulacrum. Everyone’s narratives become equally valid because there is no truth, only language and interpretation. The hardcore postmodernist argues not that God isn’t real, but that there is no real. The Catholic, on the other hand, has a very different response. The Catholic goes to church, worships God, and maybe tries to share their ideas because they believe that there is such a thing as reality and that God is the center of it, acknowledged or not. God is truth. 

     The Catholic church claims to be the one, universal Christian church, with a lineage (apostolic succession) going all the way back to Jesus and his apostles roughly two thousand years ago. Every ceremony, every tradition, every symbol, has been built, council by council, on the foundational socio-cultural narrative recorded in the bible, which itself finds its foundation in the life of Jesus Christ and the existence of God, an infinite omnipotent being that exists outside of space and time, which itself, somehow, loves you. God is, according to Catholic theology, THE center, that fixed point which creates, orders, and loves existence. Everything, I mean EVERYTHING, is constructed around God. The ideas of free will, morality, nature, beauty, our narrative life experience, and truth itself, now rather intuitively fall into place (with a bit of philosophical legwork of course). This is the project of truth, using reason and experience to build towards that center point of reality. 

     I think that religions, Catholicism especially, are often stereotyped by the mainstream conscious as close-minded brute acceptances of  antiquated practices as truth. Though I often lament how people (even religious) fail to investigate the deeper meanings of the traditions we hold dear, tradition itself serves a crucial function of preserving and allowing participation in truth through the ages, without having to literally explain every philosophical point, some of which defy language to begin with. Religion is not an ideology (at least, it’s not supposed to be), it is a system of relating oneself to reality. To the Catholic, worshiping God is not so much an act of blind submission as it is of directing oneself, physically and spiritually, towards the truth: looking to the highest good at the center of existence made manifest in our world by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. With this proper orientation, one can understand right and wrong (moral concepts that only mean something concrete with belief in God) and find happiness by complying with his will, one of true love and moral perfection.

     Some of the strangest and most apparently superstitious rituals of the Catholic Church are the most necessary to holding this project of a universal truth together. Really I am now hinting at the Catholic sacraments, especially transubstantiation and the Eucharist. To simply explain, transubstantiation is the theological idea that in the Catholic mass the bread and wine are literally transformed into the substance of the body and blood of Christ, and that in receiving the eucharist you are not symbolically, but physically and spiritually in communion with God and his church on Earth. To any modernist, this all sounds positively bonkers, but remember what the Church is trying to do here. The project of reconciling human experience, the heart, the mind, and the center of existence, requires going down some pretty unique philosophical pathways. Also, having a bit of faith helps too. Even most atheists place their faith in something, they trust science, they trust reason, even if the foundation beneath those ideas is something rather nebulous. The Catholic Church holds to the idea of sacred mysteries as phenomena that are beyond human understanding in our mortal lives. In many ways acceptance of mystery (or a general limit to human understanding) allows for the study of the comprehensible elements of our reality to proceed without hidden doubt or postmodern malaise.

     While I disagree with the fundamental postmodern idea that there is no center to reality, I wish more people would ask the questions postmodernism asks, instead of blindly clinging to their beliefs. It was by encountering and being forced to ask myself postmodern questions that I shook off the deeply flawed and baseless modernist assumptions that I used to make about existence. After a lot of philosophical exploration, I have now found myself at home in a set of ideas and practices that better map on to the real world and my narrative experience of it. I wish more people would understand the “intellectual price tag” of atheism, and how much of your genuine intuitions about the nature of reality and your own existence are sacrificed when you assume that God does not exist. There is absolutely a new level of understanding, happiness, and peace with oneself and the world that occurs when you stop lying to yourself and endeavor to encounter the world as it truly exists. Accept the simulacra or direct yourself towards the project of truth. Do be aware, however, that this will pose many serious mental and emotional challenges, so it is best done with friends and a playful spirit on your heart. Life’s a comedy, don’t be afraid to laugh once in a while.

Image Credit: Catedrales e Iglesias/Cathedrals and Churches from Ciudad de México, Mexico, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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