Quotes & Sayings

We, and creation itself, actualize the possibilities of the God who sustains the world, towards becoming in the world in a fuller, more deeper way. - R.E. Slater

There is urgency in coming to see the world as a web of interrelated processes of which we are integral parts, so that all of our choices and actions have [consequential effects upon] the world around us. - Process Metaphysician Alfred North Whitehead

Kurt Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem says (i) all closed systems are unprovable within themselves and, that (ii) all open systems are rightly understood as incomplete. - R.E. Slater

The most true thing about you is what God has said to you in Christ, "You are My Beloved." - Tripp Fuller

The God among us is the God who refuses to be God without us, so great is God's Love. - Tripp Fuller

According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater

Our eschatological ethos is to love. To stand with those who are oppressed. To stand against those who are oppressing. It is that simple. Love is our only calling and Christian Hope. - R.E. Slater

Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger

Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton

I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. – Anon

Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII

Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut

Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest

We become who we are by what we believe and can justify. - R.E. Slater

People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. – Anon

Certainly, God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater

An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater

Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann

Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner

“Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh” means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14) or, conversely, “I AM who I AM Becoming.”

Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton

The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens, we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – Anon

The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul

The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah

If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer

God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – Anon

Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson

We can’t control God; God is uncontrollable. God can’t control us; God’s love is uncontrolling! - Thomas Jay Oord

Life in perspective but always in process... as we are relational beings in process to one another, so life events are in process in relation to each event... as God is to Self, is to world, is to us... like Father, like sons and daughters, like events... life in process yet always in perspective. - R.E. Slater

To promote societal transition to sustainable ways of living and a global society founded on a shared ethical framework which includes respect and care for the community of life, ecological integrity, universal human rights, respect for diversity, economic justice, democracy, and a culture of peace. - The Earth Charter Mission Statement

Christian humanism is the belief that human freedom, individual conscience, and unencumbered rational inquiry are compatible with the practice of Christianity or even intrinsic in its doctrine. It represents a philosophical union of Christian faith and classical humanist principles. - Scott Postma

It is never wise to have a self-appointed religious institution determine a nation's moral code. The opportunities for moral compromise and failure are high; the moral codes and creeds assuredly racist, discriminatory, or subjectively and religiously defined; and the pronouncement of inhumanitarian political objectives quite predictable. - R.E. Slater

God's love must both center and define the Christian faith and all religious or human faiths seeking human and ecological balance in worlds of subtraction, harm, tragedy, and evil. - R.E. Slater

In Whitehead’s process ontology, we can think of the experiential ground of reality as an eternal pulse whereby what is objectively public in one moment becomes subjectively prehended in the next, and whereby the subject that emerges from its feelings then perishes into public expression as an object (or “superject”) aiming for novelty. There is a rhythm of Being between object and subject, not an ontological division. This rhythm powers the creative growth of the universe from one occasion of experience to the next. This is the Whiteheadian mantra: “The many become one and are increased by one.” - Matthew Segall

Without Love there is no Truth. And True Truth is always Loving. There is no dichotomy between these terms but only seamless integration. This is the premier centering focus of a Processual Theology of Love. - R.E. Slater


Note: Generally I do not respond to commentary. I may read the comments but wish to reserve my time to write (or write from the comments I read). Instead, I'd like to see our community help one another and in the helping encourage and exhort each of us towards Christian love in Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior. - re slater

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Thomas Jay Oord: Postmodernism - What Is It?

An Introduction to Postmodernism
by R.E. Slater

I have submitted an older article on postmodernism by a contemporary theologian I have come to respect and appreciate in order to compare its updated self with which we have been working through within the body of this website since the commencement of Relevancy22. It will be curious to compare how a generation ago postmodernism was looked upon in "fear and wonder" as it was slowly becoming recognized by bible colleges across the nation. Especially in how it would affect Christianity's reading of itself, its traditions, dogmas, doctrines, God, church, bible, and beliefs. Most assuredly, postmodernism was believed to be negative in all its many forms to any-and-all of these undertakings.

So that today, in the summer of 2016, postmodernism has both matured and peaked, and is beginning to wane after a nearly 100 year run since the days of the Great Depression (1929 to the early 1940s) and World War 2 (1938-1945). In its place one might say has come the complete end of modernity in all its forms: from Early Modernity (1500-1600s), to the Age of Enlightenment (1700-1800s), and on into Late Modernity (1900s-mid/late 20th century). So that what is now arising continues to build on the movement of the succeeding (post)modern or (late)modern era towards both personal and social conventions of "participatory global communities seeking authenticity with one another." But rather than calling the beginning of this era a "post-postmodernism" we'll be content to recognize it under another moniker when it arises (examples: Age of Participation, or Age of Authenticity). And so, the hallmarks of late modernity's era (postmodernism) are many but have also been commented on many times throughout this website in correspondence to the church or social tradition being discussed.

Consulting Wikipedia comes the following observations:
Postmodernity is the state or condition of being postmodern – after or in reaction to that which is modern, as in postmodern art (see postmodernism). Modernity is defined as a period or condition loosely identified with the Progressive Era, the Industrial Revolution, or the Enlightenment. In philosophy and critical theory postmodernity refers to the state or condition of society which is said to exist after modernity, a historical condition that marks the reasons for the end of modernity. This usage is ascribed to the philosophers Jean-François Lyotard and Jean Baudrillard.
One "project" of modernity is said by Habermas to have been the fostering of progress by incorporating principles of rationality and hierarchy into public and artistic life. (See also postindustrial, Information Age.) Lyotard understood modernity as a cultural condition characterized by constant change in the pursuit of progress. Postmodernity then represents the culmination of this process where constant change has become the status quo and the notion of progress obsolete. Following Ludwig Wittgenstein's critique of the possibility of absolute and total knowledge Lyotard further argued that the various metanarratives of progress such as positivist science, Marxism, and structuralism were defunct as methods of achieving progress.
The literary critic Fredric Jameson and the geographer David Harvey have identified postmodernity with "late capitalism" or "flexible accumulation", a stage of capitalism following finance capitalism, characterised by highly mobile labor and capital and what Harvey called "time and space compression". They suggest that this coincides with the breakdown of the Bretton Woods system which, they believe, defined the economic order following the Second World War. (See also consumerism, critical theory.)
Those who generally view modernity as obsolete or an outright failure, a flaw in humanity's evolution leading to disasters like Auschwitz and Hiroshima, see postmodernity as a positive development. Many philosophers, particularly those seeing themselves as within the modern project, use postmodernity to imply the presumed results of holding postmodernist ideas. Most prominently Jürgen Habermas and others contend that postmodernity represents a resurgence of long running counter-enlightenment ideas, that the modern project is not finished and that universality cannot be so lightly dispensed with. Postmodernity, the consequence of holding postmodern ideas, is generally a negative term in this context.

POSTMODERNISMMain article: Postmodernism
Postmodernity is a condition or a state of being associated with changes to institutions and creations (Giddens, 1990) and with social and political results and innovations, globally but especially in the West since the 1950s, whereas postmodernism is an aesthetic, literary, political or social philosophy, the "cultural and intellectual phenomenon", especially since the 1920s' new movements in the arts. Both of these terms are used by philosophers, social scientists and social critics to refer to aspects of contemporary culture, economics and society that are the result of features of late 20th century and early 21st century life, including the fragmentation of authority and thecommoditization of knowledge (see "Modernity").
The relationship between postmodernity and critical theory, sociology and philosophy is fiercely contested. The terms "postmodernity" and "postmodernism" are often hard to distinguish, the former being often the result of the latter. The period has had diverse political ramifications: its "anti-ideological ideas" appear to have been associated with the feminist movement, racial equality movements, gay rights movements, most forms of late 20th centuryanarchism and even the peace movement as well as various hybrids of these in the current anti-globalization movement. Though none of these institutions entirely embraces all aspects of the postmodern movement in its most concentrated definition they all reflect, or borrow from, some of its core ideas.
I would like now to transition to Thomas Jay Oord's article immediately below to complete our review of postmodernism. Thank you for your interest.

R.E. Slater
April 14, 2021

* * * * * * * * *


By Thomas Jay Oord, Ph.D.
Eastern Nazarene College

January 2002

“The times they are a-changin’,” Bob Dylan sang in 1964. This message is still appropriate today -- at least Dylan apparently thinks so. He included the song on at least three different albums released in the past decade. The deep-seated intuition that change is in the air -- felt by peoples of diverse visions and convictions -- lies at the heart of the contemporary interest in postmodernism.

One might think that the question in this essay’s title, “Postmodernism – What Is It?” would be easy to answer. After all, an excess of materials has been offered -- both to academics and the general public -- under the label “postmodern.” Actually, however, answering the question, “What is postmodernism?” proves to be difficult. The main reason for this difficulty is that some notions flying under the postmodern flag oppose or contradict other notions under the same banner. When opposite or contradictory ideas get proposed as postmodern, how does one decide which is authentic? What is postmodernism?

Exposing what is not meant by postmodernism may be helpful when trying to define this word. Those who speak of “the postmodern era” do not usually mean a future time beyond what is contemporary or immediate. In other words, “modern” and “now” are not synonymous. Postmodernists are not concerned with transcending the temporal present. Rather, “modernity” refers to various ways of existing, assorted ideas and beliefs, or particular paradigms of thought. And “postmodernity” has something to do with getting beyond these modern ways, ideas, and paradigms.[2]

I define postmodernism, then, as the sentiment that the modern paradigm must be transcended. The times they are a-changin’, and, according to postmodernists, a change from modernity is here. Exactly how one should go beyond the modern and what distinguishes modernity from postmodernity, however, is widely disputed.

Some are surprised to find that a variety of postmodernisms currently vie for ascendancy in contemporary culture and scholarship. Unfortunately, individuals often speak of “the” postmodern way of looking at some issue, when, in fact, an assortment of postmodern agendas exists.

Because of this diversity, I will attempt to outline briefly, in the remainder of this essay, what I consider the dominant postmodern ideologies arising from and influencing philosophy and theology. My methodology for differentiating between dominant postmodernisms is rather simple. I will attempt to answer two questions of each postmodern perspective:

(1) “What ideas or practices does this postmodern tradition believe are modern?” and,

(2) “What ideas or practices does this tradition contend are postmodern and should be embraced when overcoming the perceived shortcomings of modernity?”

The listener should beware that, when tackling such a monstrous project in such a brief essay, I will be forced to make generalizations. I believe that my generalizations are essentially accurate, however, and I hope that specialists will momentarily set aside technical quibbling and acknowledge the general validity of my broad-brush strokes.

I should also note that I will not be addressing one particular strand of postmodernism that might be called “popular culture postmodernism.” This form draws from a variety of experiences, social structures, disciplines, and theories, which results in a kaleidoscope of giberishness and incoherence. Popular culture postmodernism’s one distinguishing characteristic, however, is its underlying attraction to novelty. This postmodernism is fascinated with the current, the latest, and the recent. This tradition is actually not postmodern as I have defined postmodernism above, because it equates postmodernity with mere contemporary innovation or with whatever happens to be in vogue. While this preoccupation with novelty affects philosophy and theology to a degree, its affect is minimal.

Deconstructive Postmodernism

Perhaps the most well-known postmodern tradition is the deconstructionist one. Although a variety of ideas and persons get placed under this umbrella, Jacques Derrida’s ideas provide the pulse for deconstructive postmodernism. In fact, no other philosopher’s ideas are as readily recognized as “postmodern.” Many of Derrida’s notions, however, can be correlated with notions proposed more than a century ago by Friedrich Nietzsche.

Among the ideas that Derrida rejects as modern are what he calls “the metaphysics of presence” and “logocentrism.” By these terms, he refers to the modern project of basing knowledge and language upon a certain center or sure epistemological foundation. Modernists are incorrect in supposing the existence of a transcendent center, argues Derrida, there is no certain foundation of Truth.

A central postmodern category for Derrida, which he uses when talking about the lack of transcendent center, is “differànce.” This word combines two infinitives “to differ” and “to defer.” Derrida contends that words inevitably defer to subversive meanings, because all words possess meanings different from the meanings the author intends. Differànce, which is “the disappearance of any ordinary presence, is at once the condition of possibility and the condition of the impossibility of truth.”[3] Differànce allows one “to think a writing without presence, without absence, without history, without cause, without archia, without telos, a writing that absolutely upsets all dialectics, all theology, all teleology, all ontology.”[4]

Derrida calls the actual practice of deconstructive philosophy “grammatology.” Grammatology is the “vigilant practice of . . . textual division.”[5] In a nutshell, the practice of literary deconstruction involves noting words and phrases in a text that undermine the original author’s intended meaning. As interpretation and reinterpretation occurs, the reader comes to realize that no foundational, final, or fixed interpretation is available. Words refer to other words, those refer to other words, and those refer to still others; the process has no end. Meaning is found in matrices, but these matrices are finally groundless. The practice of grammatology reveals the emptiness of logocentrism by deconstructing all concepts or norms tied to a center.

Deconstructive postmodernism is not interested in replacing an old system with a better one. It is interested in undermining the metaphysical, epistemological, and linguistic centers presupposed by most philosophies. “Deconstruction does not consist in passing from one concept to another,” Derrida says, “but in overturning and displacing a conceptual order, as well as the nonconceptual order with which the conceptual order is articulated.”[6] There is no center for meaning, says Derrida, all is discourse. There is no Truth; instead, a multiplicity of voices ring out.

Proponents of deconstructive postmodernism argue that this contemporary option provides many advantages over modern philosophies. Deconstruction provides the means for affirming radical heterogeneity, as opposed to modernism’s presupposed homogeneity. Deconstructive postmodernism emphasizes plurality; it rejects hierarchical categories. In doing so, this postmodern tradition calls attention to the other; it calls attention to what was previously disregarded because marginal. Deferring to the incomprehensible other provides a methodology that is no methodology.

Deconstructive postmodernism is also radically non- foundationalist, because it avers that knowledge amounts to interpretation and is, therefore, entirely subjective. We have no way of being confident that our language or thought corresponds truly with objects beyond ourselves. One result of this assumption, among others, is that history has no fixed meaning; the past is only what we interpret it to be. When humans realize that systems that subjugate and oppress have been grounded upon that which is itself groundless, they can become free to play in our multifarious world.

Much of what deconstructive postmodernism denies has, in the history of philosophy and theology, been the domain of divinity. While Derrida often implies that God does not exist, it should be noted that he does not finally wish to state this. His assertions are meant to denote the impossibility of speaking of any Absolute. One of Derrida’s foremost interpreters, John D. Caputo, identifies Derrida variously with the prophetic, the apophatic, the messianic, the apocalyptic, negative theology, and atheism.[7] To identify Derrida exclusively with any one of these traditions would miss the mark. But we come closer to grasping what deconstructive theology entails when we consider the traditions typically thought of as contrary to these that Caputo identifies with Derrida. For example, deconstructive theology opts for a negative theology over a positive one, apophatic theology over rational theology, and atheistic theology over traditional theism.

Despite deconstructive postmodernism’s broad appeal, it is not without its share of opponents. Critics contend that deconstruction is inherently negative, and philosophies cannot offer ways to attain well-being without some positive features. Derrida’s typical response to such critics is that their evaluations are based upon the very structures that need displacement (e.g., the valuations of “positive vs. negative”).

Critics also sometimes contend that differànce is the methodological center of Derrida’s own thought, so that not even Derrida can accomplish what he says must be done. Although Derrida and his interpreters argue otherwise, such counter arguments remain unconvincing to critics, because, in their arguments, deconstructionists utilize the very methods they contend are invalid. It should also be noted that relativism and nihilism haunt deconstructive postmodernism. In order for deconstructionists to evade the sting of these charges, they must suppose that which deconstructive postmodernism seeks to discard. The major line of defense deconstructionists take against their critics is the attempt to undermine the categories that lead to charges of relativism and nihilism.

While this deconstructive thought is the most well-known option available flying a postmodern flag, other options exist that attempt to overcome what antagonists argue are deconstructive postmodernism's glaring deficiencies. In many ways, however, those advancing other postmodern options must show how their own thought is preferable to notions made popular by the deconstuctive tradition before they will attract an audience.

Liberationist Postmodernism

The second postmodern tradition that I consider a dominant contemporary option is comprised of diverse groups and individuals, each with diverse agendas. What unites them -- despite this diversity -- is their shared desire for emancipation. I call this postmodern tradition “liberationist,” because each group placed under this umbrella seeks liberation from something they associate with modernity. The three major forms of liberationist postmodernism upon which I will focus are the feminist, ethnic, and ecological.

In general, postmodern feminism places the issue of gender – specifically, the aspects of femininity -- at the forefront of contemporary discourse. Although modern feminism also addressed gender issues, postmodern feminism typically critiques modern feminists for their acquiescence to modern epistemologies that consider detached and disembodied knowing to be superior. Some postmodern feminists believe that modern epistemologies are based upon the notion that abstract and universalistic thought provides the only or best way of knowing. By contrast, postmodern feminist epistemologies emphasize community, relatedness, and what Michael Polanyi calls “tacit knowledge.” In other words, the unique experiences derived from female bodies provide a basis for feminist epistemology.

Drawing upon Jacques Derrida’s discussion of logocentrism’s vacuity, feminists have also claimed that modern philosophies presuppose a hierarchical structure in which male is superior to female. Modern logocentrism is, as Luce Irigaray would say, a form of phallocentrism. Male is preferred over female, and those traits typically identified with masculinity are considered more valuable than those typically identified with femininity.[8]

One reason that males continue to be privileged, says many postmodern feminists, is that Western linguistic modes privilege masculinity. Many postmodern feminists have appropriated Michel Foucault’s work because it highlights this claim. Foucault argues that knowledge and power are linked in modern discourse, which implies that both our knowledge and language can be tyrannical toward women. Language can perpetuate ways of being that imply that women are inferior. Rather than continue the patriarchal ways of modernity, postmodern feminists call upon contemporary people to speak in ways that empower rather than oppress women.

Ethnic postmodernism places culture and race at the forefront of contemporary discourse. Those influenced by this postmodern tradition oppose what they consider modernism’s homogenous view of the human. The modernist position implied that biological similarities provide quality and a sense of value to minority groups. Ethnic postmodernists argue, however, that cultural uniqueness establishes one’s value and this uniqueness is the basis for one’s “voice.”

James H. Cone’s book, Martin and Malcolm and America: A Dream or a Nightmare, illustrates the difference between a modern and postmodern approach to issues of race, gender, and culture. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream of the unification of blacks and whites and the equality of all people illustrates the modernist accent upon that which all humans share in common. Malcolm X’s dream was, by contrast, “a nightmare.” His solution to the Black and White crisis involved an accent upon what was culturally unique to African-Americans, and Malcolm called upon Blacks to withdraw to cultivate African-American identity.[9] One could call Malcolm X’s approach “postmodern,” then, because it accented diversity and plurality rather than uniformity and sameness.

Ecological postmodernism places the issues of environmental well-being at the forefront of contemporary discourse. This postmodern liberationist tradition identifies modernity with philosophies that deemed the world in need of human domination or an object to be abused. Ecologists argue that a postmodern era must be one that moves beyond modernism's anthropocentrism to a postmodern cosmocentrism; it must move beyond modernism’s rampant consumerism to a postmodern era in which humans responsibly nurture the earth and its resources.

As I said in the opening segments of this essay, one of my central agendas is to inquire into theology’s impact upon or contribution to postmodernism. Some who adopt the moniker “postmodernist” have closely identified theology and the dogma of various religious communities with modernism and modernism’s oppressive activity. For example, female experiences have been depreciated in the name of modernity’s Father God; ethnic minorities have been conquered and slaughtered in the name of modernity’s White Man’s God; the earth has been raped and debilitated in the name of the God who placed nonhumans under the dominion of humans. Others, however, have argued that theology and religion provide unique resources by which to establish a postmodern response to modernity’s anti-liberationist tendencies. God is essentially neither male nor female, say these postmodernists; God opposes the oppressor and sides with the oppressed and marginalized; God regards all creatures as intrinsically valuable and expects humans to treat all creation accordingly. One question yet to be decided is this: How much can or should theology and religion be transformed to accommodate these postmodern concerns?

Although liberationist postmodern thought has drawn from a variety of philosophical movements, this tradition has often been attracted to the most well-known form of postmodernism: deconstructive postmodernism. As we noted previously, deconstructive postmodernism undermines those structures that support oppression while calling attention to those residing at societal boundaries. For those consistently marginalized -- which includes minorities of all stripes -- any postmodern philosophy accentuating the value and concerns of those at the margins is initially attractive.

Some liberation postmodernists are finding, however, that deconstructive postmodernism fails to provide any basis for their own liberationist agenda. Derrida’s deconstructive philosophy denies that any values are absolute. The value of liberation, including its theories or practices, cannot then be legitimately privileged when deconstructive postmodern thought is adopted as one’s orienting strategy. Relativism and nihilism subvert attempts to instigate deliverance from oppression. Because of this seemingly insurmountable obstacle, many liberationist postmodernists are looking for alternative postmodern philosophies to give a backbone to their essential concern for emancipation.

Narrative Postmodernism

Whether when sitting with natives around a jungle campfire or lounging comfortably with business executives atop a city skyscraper, we tell stories. The stories that we tell divulge who we are and our perspective on life. The stories we tell and the way in which we tell them arise from a particular point of view. A person’s point of view is fashioned by how that person has been raised, what that person has been taught, and whom that person knows. In fact, it is the particular community in which any person dwells that provides the meanings of life. Because of this, the particular stories people tell are but variations of their community’s overarching narrative. The foregoing provides a nutshell explanation of narrative postmodernism.

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein offers the fundamental notions of narrative postmodernism, and many believe that this postmodern tradition overcomes two forms of modernity. Ironically, Wittgenstein holds the distinction of having his early thought typify one of the modern forms that his later postmodern thought overcomes.

Wittgenstein’s earlier thought inspired a group of modern philosophers called the "logical positivists." These scholars attempted to take philosopher David Hume seriously by stating everything through logical propositions that “picture” the world. Because the positivists assumed that the world is made up of independent elementary facts capable of empirical investigation, they believed that everything meaningful should be expressible in factual language. To say it another way, meaningful language always possesses a logical form that it shares with the world it pictures. Language, sentences, propositions, etc., that do not correspond positively with the pictured world should be discredited as meaningless. Metaphysical, ethical, and theological statements are listed among those things discredited as nonsense; only logic, mathematics, and the natural sciences provide genuine knowledge. This means, among other things, that any talk about God is meaningless, because God cannot be empirically verified, and purely rational arguments for God’s existence (e.g., Anselm’s ontological argument) are nothing more than empty tautologies.

The early Wittgenstein and the logical positivists are considered “modern,” because a driving force of their work was the search for certainty. This quest for certainty is often identified today as “foundationalism.” It was Rene Descartes who sought to tear down everything that could be doubted in order to rebuild again upon indubitable premises. Logical positivists regarded logic, mathematics, and the natural sciences to be the only adequate bricks for a meaningful philosophical structure.

The other modern tradition that narrative postmodern philosophy is said to overcome is actually found both in philosophies labeled “modern” and some philosophies labeled “postmodern.” The way of thinking that needs to be transcended considers meaning and truth to be ultimately relative to the individual and, therefore, should be decided entirely by each person. The relativism that emerges from this form of isolated individualism stands, according to narrative postmodernists, as modernity’s foul invention.

At the heart of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy, which provides the basis for his narrative postmodernism alternative, are concepts he designates “language games” and “forms of life.”[10] Narrative postmodernism argues that many kinds of meaningful sentences exist, but the meaning of these sentences is found in, and arises out of, communal use. In the same way that children’s games have diverse sets of rules with no one rule applicable to every game, so languages have diverse sets of rules with no one rule applicable to all languages. While there is no objective all-encompassing standard by which to judge truth, one can make claims about what is true on the basis of a particular community’s language game. This language game emerges from the community’s form of life, which means that the meaning of a word is found in the way the community uses that word. There is no such thing as a private language, says Wittgenstein; language – including meaning and truth -- is sociologically constructed.

It may now be clearer why narrative postmodernism overcomes both logical positivism and the extreme relativism of philosophies that confine meaning and truth to individual capriciousness. In the first place, this postmodern tradition overcomes logical positivism by grounding epistemology in the community’s story rather than solely in empirical or logical verification. This means that, although metaphysical, ethical, and theological language may not be empirically supportable, this language can continue to have meaning when used in the context out of which it arose. In short, narrative philosophy is postmodern in that it overcomes a narrow modern assumption about what can be rendered meaningful.

Jean Francois Lyotard has been particularly instrumental in identifying how, in the second place, Wittgenstein’s narrative philosophy is postmodern. Lyotard argues that the myths (narrative discourse) we tell are not legitimated in something outside the myths themselves. Instead, authority is found in telling myths in the social setting (language game or form of life) in which they are meant to be told. There are no grand narratives or metaphysical schemes that account for all our stories; there are no certain foundations from which to build one’s outlook on life. Rather, the culture-specific myths themselves define what is right and true.[11] This postmodern notion, then, places authority in the community, not in the individual. Narrative postmodernism overcomes individualism’s epistemological and ethical relativism by placing truth in the traditions of various communities.

George Lindbeck, in The Nature of Doctrine, utilizes Wittgenstein’s narrative philosophy for a theological agenda. Lindbeck describes Christianity as a cultural-linguistic system that, at its core, is absolutely unchanging -- despite appearances to the contrary. To be a Christian, he argues, is to become a part of a community formed by the Christian socio-linguistic system.[12] This narrative understanding of the faith affords adherents the advantage of evading criticism by those outside the Christian community. Christians can evade this criticism because outsiders have not themselves been fashioned by the Christian cultural linguistic system and, therefore, cannot understand its distinctive truthfulness.

Although narrative postmodernism has found a prominent place in philosophical and theological circles, it is not without its critics. Opponents point out, first of all, that such an approach to language and custom allows no genuine space for criticism and reexamination of what has been “handed down by the saints.” For instance, if a philosophical or theological tradition has supported patriarchy, anti-Semitism, or ecological recklessness, there exists no transcendent standard by which to seek this tradition’s transformation. Because there can be no reference to an authority that transcends the community’s particular language game, say critics, it would illegitimate to appeal to universal truths or a Being who ubiquitously reveals (e.g., God). Interfaith dialogue also has no authentic basis if religious communities find meaning exclusively in their own linguistic tradition.

Secondly, critics of narrative postmodernism are often dissatisfied with the narrative model, or lack thereof, for how one should understand the person, human self, soul, or individual. While it may be true that modernism’s emphasis upon the unrelated and essentially autonomous individual undermines ethical norms, a model that allows no room for some measure of independence seems no better. Stifling communitarianism can be even more devastating than uninhibited individualism.

We began our discussion of narrative postmodernism by speaking about stories. Individual stories are fashioned from community stories, it was argued. Narrative postmodernists call attention to the communally derived status of the stories we tell. One way to transition into discussing the final form of postmodernism addressed in this essay is to ask this question: Is there a story big enough to be told by everybody?

Revisionary Postmodernism

The final postmodernism explored in this essay is less well-known. The thought of philosophers Alfred North Whitehead, C. S. Pierce, Henri Bergson, Charles Hartshorne, and William James provide the fundamental notions of revisionary postmodernism. The postmodern status of this tradition has been raised to consciousness primarily through the work of David Ray Griffin. Whitehead’s thought overcomes what this postmodern tradition believes is modernity’s unnatural fragmentation and compartmentalization of knowledge. This fragmentation and compartmentalization has resulted in the loss of a holistic perspective on reality. Whitehead’s postmodernism returns to holism and interdisciplinarity by affirming a speculative metaphysics.

In everyday language, the task of metaphysics is about figuring out how things work. The metaphysician attempts to construct an all-embracing hypothesis in order to explain the wide diversity of life’s experiences. Unfortunately, metaphysicians in the past have either failed to consider the experiences of those at the margins (e.g., women, minorities, nonhumans) or believed that, once a metaphysical scheme had been provided, reconsideration of that scheme was needless. By contrast, Whitehead argues that metaphysicians must always be prepared to “amplify, recast, generalize, and adapt, so as to absorb into one system all sources of experience.”[13] In light of this, Whitehead self-consciously attempted to construct a metaphysical hypothesis that was coherent, logical, applicable, and adequate. He hoped that this scheme would bear in itself “its own warrant of universality throughout all experience.”[14] This valuing of diverse experiences provides this postmodern tradition with a crucial link with liberationist postmodernism.

The task of constructing an adequate metaphysics is closely tied with what has come to be called “worldview construction.” Revisionary postmodernism overcomes the modern worldview by offering what it considers the most viable worldview for our time. This worldview accounts for a variety of sensibilities, including religious, scientific, ecological, liberationist, economic, and aesthetic. By contrast, deconstructive postmodernism overcomes the modern worldview through an antiworldview. Revisionary postmodernist David Griffin argues that deconstructive postmodernism “deconstructs or eliminates the ingredients necessary for a worldview, such as God, self, purpose, meaning, a real world, and truth as correspondence. . . .this type of postmodern thought [results] in relativism, even nihilism.”[15]

Another characteristic of modernity that this revisionary postmodernism overcomes is the modern claim that one’s knowledge about the external world can only be gained through sensory perception. Because many modernists discounted knowledge said to be gained any other way, fundamental notions like causation, love, value, and God were considered by these modernists as either unintelligible or unreal. Whitehead’s revisionary postmodernism speculates that perception is not limited to one’s five senses; nonsensory perception occurs all the time. Memory is a chief example of how knowledge can be gained through nonsensory perception, because the mind recalls events from the past without using one’s sensory organs. Dreaming is also an example of nonsensory perceiving. Revisionary postmodernists speculate that such nonsensory perception occurs even at less complex levels. Because of nonsensory perception, our awareness of value, love, causation, and deity, among other things, is possible.

The importance of nonsensory perception for theology is especially great. Although God, as spirit, is not perceptible to the senses, revisionary postmodernists can claim that creatures have direct experiences of God through nonsensory perception. Modern thought could only infer that God exists based upon indirect experience of what was considered the work of deity. Revisionary postmodernism also provides a means by which to account for our awareness of moral norms, standards of truth, and aesthetic intuitions, because this awareness is available to us through nonsensory perception. This revisionary postmodernism, then, provides an intellectually viable way to speak of the Spirit at work in all of creation.

Modernity, as revisionary postmodernists understand it, is also characterized by what might be called the mechanization of nature. Modernists considered living things to be nothing more than mindless machines; humans are only the most advanced of these purposeless mechanisms. By contrast, this revisionary postmodernism conceives of the structures of existence in organic categories. These categories provide a means to talk realistically about creaturely freedom and intentionality, two vital aspects of purposiveness. Furthermore, organismic philosophies emphasize the pervasiveness of experience. The revisionary postmodern doctrine of panexperientialism forwards the speculative hypothesis that, as Griffin puts it, “nature is actual and that the ultimate units of nature are not vacuous but are something for themselves in the sense of having experience, however slight.”[16] Although the hypothesis that things experience other things is speculative, the idea that they are devoid of experience is doubly speculative. After all, given our knowledge of ourselves, we know that it is possible for actual beings to have experience. However, we have no similar knowledge as to the possibility of actual beings that are without experience.

Finally, revisionary postmodernists agree with narrative postmodernists that creatures are not isolated individuals. Postmodernists of the revisionary stripe go further than narrative postmodernists, however, in affirming that all individuals, both human and nonhuman, are essentially interrelated. This interrelatedness provides a key insight and justification for the deep convictions of ecologists and environmentalists. The radical relationality of revisionary postmodernism provides a means for overcoming the dualisms of modernity originally established by Neo-platonic and Kantian philosophies.

The claim that creatures are interrelated should not, according to revisionary postmodernists, be equated with extreme relativism. Modern and deconstructive postmodern traditions do result in extreme relativism, because these traditions deny that there is any basis for holding that one system of beliefs corresponds to reality better than others. By contrast, revisionary postmodernism claims that those beliefs that we inevitably presuppose in practice, even if we deny them verbally, should be privileged. Whitehead formulated this principle as “the metaphysical rule of evidence: that we must bow to those presumptions, which, in despite of criticism, we still employ for the regulation of our lives.”[17] This points to a bottom layer of experience that is common to all humanity. “If we cannot help presupposing these notions in practice,” Griffin argues, “we are guilty of self-contradiction if our theory denies these notions. And the first rule of reason, including scientific reason, should be that two mutually contradictory propositions cannot both be true.”[18] This means that “any scientific, philosophical, or theological theory is irrational... to the extent that it contradicts whatever notions we inevitably presuppose in practice.”[19]

So what do the critics have to say about this revisionary postmodernism? Unfortunately, this postmodern tradition has not received widespread philosophical analysis. Theological critiques tend to offer two main objections, however. One objection is that this revisionary postmodernism conceives of God as essentially relational: God has always been related to a world. This form of relationality runs contrary to classical theologies, and it strikes some contemporary theologians as resulting in an overly dependent deity. Critics object to this revisionary postmodernism, secondly, because many revisionary postmodernists also conceive of divine power in relational categories. This conception imparts a doctrine of divine power involving the claim that God cannot entirely override or withdraw the freedom of creatures. The hypothesis that God cannot entirely override or withdraw creaturely freedom allows one to offer a solution to the problem of evil by affirming divine love unequivocally, and it also provides a basis for affirming theistic evolution. But some critics believe it also presents God as stunted or weak.


The times they are a-changin’. What the future course of life on this planet will entail is unclear. Which postmodern tradition will dominate and how its domination will affect life on planet earth is yet to be decided. Perhaps it would be good to close with a question, which postmodernism would you want to provide the vision for today and tomorrow?


[1]  This essay was originally written for my philosophy students at Eastern Nazarene College.

[2]  Some are inclined to distinguish between early and late modernity. Although I believe this approach has some validity, I will not be exploring this distinction explicitly in this essay.

[3]  Jacques Derrida, Dissemination (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 168.

[4]  Jacques Derrida, Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 67.

[5]  Jacques Derrida, Positions, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 36.

[6]  Jacques Derrida, “Signature, Event, Context” From Plato to Derrida, ed. Forrest E. Baird and Walter Kaufmann, 3rd ed. (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2000), 1197.

[7]  John Caputo, The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion Without Religion (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1997).

[8]  Luce Irigaray, “The Sex Which is Not One,” trans. Claudia Reeder, in New French Feminisms, ed. Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron (New York: Schoken, 1981), 99-106.

[9]  James H. Cone, Martin and Malcolm and America: A Dream or a Nightmare (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1991).

[10]  Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 3rd ed. trans. G.E.M. Anscombe (New York: Macmillan, 1953).

[11]  Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984).

[12]  George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1984).

[13]  Alfred North Whitehead, Religion in the Making (New York: Macmillan, 1926; New York: Fordham University Press, 1996), 149.

[14]  Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology, corrected edition, ed. David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne (New York: Free Press, 1978; orig. ed., 1929), 3-4.

[15]  David Ray Griffin, Founders of Constructive Postmodern Philosophy: Pierce, James,
Bergson, Whitehead, and Hartshorne, with John B. Cobb, Jr., Marcus Ford, Pete A. Y. Gunter, and Peter Ochs (Albany, N.Y.: SUNY, 1993), viii.

[16]  Ibid., 3.

[17]  Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas (New York: Free Press, 1968; Macmillan, 1933), 223.

[18]  Griffin, Unsnarling the World-Knot: Freedom, Consciousness, and the Mind-Body Problem (Berkeley Calif.: University of California Press, 1998), 21.

[19]  Griffin, Reenchantment Without Supernaturalism: A Process Philosophy of Religion (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2001), 36.

Thomas Oord - Thank Goodness, God is NOT in Control

Thank Goodness, God is Not in Control

by Thomas Oord, March 18, 2021

It’s common for people who believe in God to respond to suffering, confusion, or evil by saying, “All I know is that God is in control!”

To the ears of survivors, victims, hurting people, this phrase is rarely reassuring. It leads many to wonder if God is punishing them, has abandoned them, or just doesn’t care about their pain.

In this essay, I explore what it means for God to act, to be powerful, and to love. I’ll introduce a new phrase “essential kenosis” as a way to point to how God always acts, is powerful, always loves, but is unable to prevent evil single-handedly.

Those Who Start with Power

To make sense of how God acts, the majority of people – both trained theologians and novices – begin with God’s power. This is understandable: action requires power of some kind.

The majority of believers have a particular view of divine power in mind, however. They use various words to describe it, including “sovereignty,” “omnipotence,” or “almightiness.” No matter the preferred word, most believe God can control others should God decide to do so. God can be controlling.
By “control,” most think God can single-handedly determine outcomes in the world. Divine control means that God’s actions in relation to someone or something allows no creaturely cooperation or resistance. God alone determines what happens in a situation.
A small group of believers in God think God always controls others all the time. This is what theologians calltheological determinism.” God is the omnicause. [1] Those who affirm this position typically appeal to mystery or the inscrutable divine will when questions about evil and creaturely freedom arise.

The majority of people I meet believe God gives creatures and creation some freedom, agency, and indeterminacy. Some think God controls everything except humans.[2]

Most who say God gives freedom, agency, or existence to creatures say doing so is a free choice on God’s part. They believe God voluntarily chooses not to control others. In their view, the God who could control usually gives freedom.

Beginning with Love

I think there’s a better way to think about how God acts. It begins with love. The alternative view of divine action I propose starts with God’s loving relations to creation rather than God’s power.

Most people believe God loves. Most wholeheartedly affirm the biblical phrase “God is love,” although theologians interpret that statement in various ways. Most say God’s love is steadfast, as biblical writers repeatedly say. I’ve never met a Christian who explicitly denies that God loves.

When I say that my view begins with God’s love, I mean, first, that God’s love is relational. God gives and receives from creatures. Rather than being unaffected by what creatures do, God suffers with and rejoices alongside creatures.

I also believe God’s love is inherently uncontrolling. “Love does not insist on its own way,” to quote the Apostle Paul (1 Cor. 13:5). To put it more clearly, love never single-handedly decides outcomes. God’s love does not control.

When I put this idea in a scholarly way, I say love is logically prior to power in God’s nature. Because God’s nature is first and foremost uncontrolling love, God never controls creatures, situations, or worlds. God can’t control.

Essential Kenosis

I call the view I’m proposing “essential kenosis.” I suspect this phrase is new to most, so let me explain it.

In a letter written to people in Philippi, the Apostle Paul uses the Greek word kenosis. He says, “each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” He then says Christ Jesus “emptied himself (kenosis), taking the form of a slave.” This included Jesus humbling himself and dying on a cross. We therefore ought to “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in [us], enabling [us] both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:3-13).

Scholars translate kenosis in various ways. But many believe this passage says Jesus reveals something important about God’s nature. Jesus’ kenosis tells us something crucial about who God is and how God acts.

The meaning of kenosis is partly given in phrases such as Jesus “taking the form of a slave,” “humbled himself,” and his “death on a cross.” Kenosis refers to action that looks “to the interest of others” and enables “us to will and to work.” Taken in light of Jesus, these phrases suggest that God’s power is essentially self-giving not overpowering. Instead of controlling us, God enables us to act.[3]

Essential Kenosis vs. Voluntary Self-Limitation

Is God’s uncontrolling love a choice? Could God sometimes decide to control?

Some who embrace kenosis theology say God voluntarily self-limits. God could control other creatures or creation but usually choose not to do so.

The voluntary self-limitation view has big problems, however. It says to survivors, victims, and those who have been harmed that God could have prevented their pain. God could momentarily un-self-limit to prevent evil. Notice that Polkinghorne says God “allows” the act of the murderer and the destructive force of an earthquake. The [controlling] God who freely allows evil, however, is not perfectly loving.

Love does not permit genuine evil that could be stopped.

Essential Kenosis

In opposition to the idea God voluntarily self-limits, essential kenosis says God cannot control anyone or anything. It says God is present throughout all creation, to every creature and entity, no matter how small or large. And God always acts to influence creation. From the big bang, in the emergence of life, through evolutionary history, and ongoing today, God acts with uncontrolling love.

Essential kenosis stands between two related views of God’s love and power. We’ve already looked at one: God voluntarily self-limits. The other view says external forces, factors, agents, or worlds essentially limit God. This view gives the impression that outside actors and powers not of God’s making hinder divine power. Or it says God is subject to laws of nature, imposed from without.

The “external forces limit God” view unfortunately portrays God as a helpless victim to external realities. God seems caught in the clutches of exterior principalities and powers.

Essential kenosis rejects both voluntary divine self-limitation and the idea external powers limit God. It says limits to God’s power derive from within: God’s nature of love. God’s eternal nature is to love others in an uncontrolling way.


In this essay, I sketched out my view and why it matters to start with love when pondering divine action. As I see it, the essential kenosis view of divine action, with its emphasis up God’s self-giving, others-empowering, and therefore uncontrolling love of God offers the best overall model of divine action.


Thomas Jay Oord, Ph.D., is a theologian, philosopher, and scholar of multi-disciplinary studies. Oord directs the Center for Open and Relational Theology and doctoral students at Northwind Theological Seminary. He is an award-winning author and has written or edited more than twenty-five books. A gifted speaker, Oord lectures at universities, conferences, churches, and institutions. He is known for his contributions to research on love, science and religion, open and relational theology, the problem of suffering, and the implications of freedom for transformational relationships. Website: thomasjayoord.com


[1] Paul Kjoss Helseth advocates this view (“God Causes All Things,” in Four Views on Divine Providence, ed. Dennis W. Jowers [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2011], 52).

[2] Jack Cottrell advocates an interventionist God (“The nature of Divine Sovereignty,” in The Grace of God, The Will of Man, Clark H. Pinnock, ed. [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1989], 112).

[3] I note biblical scholarship supporting this position in my book, The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press Academic, 2015

Charles Taylor - How To Restore Your Faith in Democracy

Note: All photos placed in this post by myself in relation to the subject 
of Democracy. The New Yorker is not responsible for these photos.

How to Restore Your Faith in Democracy

By Joshua Rothman
November 11, 2016

In dark times, it’s tempting to give up on politics. The
philosopher Charles Taylor explains why we shouldn’t.

Two weeks ago—when the election of Donald Trump was still, to many people, an almost comedic idea—Charles Taylor, the Canadian philosopher, visited the Social Science Research Council, in Brooklyn, to talk about the fate of democracy with some graduate students. He had just won the Berggruen Prize, which is awarded, along with a million dollars, to a philosopher “whose ideas are intellectually profound but also able to inform practical and public life.” Taylor’s books tell the story of how some sources of value (love, art, individuality) have grown in relevance, while others (God, king, tradition) have declined. When we met, Taylor’s newest work was a lecture called “Some Crises of Democracy.” Citizens in Western democracies, he argued, used to find personal fulfillment in political participation; now, they were coming to feel that the democratic process was a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing, and that democratic politicians were con artists. Their desperation and cynicism seemed capable of turning these beliefs into self-fulfilling prophecies.

Taylor, who is eighty-five, is tall and handsome, with athletic shoulders and a thinker’s high, domed forehead. He radiates kindliness and thoughtful equanimity. Leaning back in his chair, he spoke softly, pausing frequently to cough—he had a cold—or to chuckle, in self-deprecation, at his own philosophical eloquence. (A typical laugh line: “How people understand democracy is different from epoch to epoch—that’s what the term ‘social imaginary’ is meant to capture!") Economists, psychologists, political theorists, and some philosophers share a view of personhood: they think of people as “rational actors” who make decisions by “maximizing utility”—in other words, by looking out for themselves. Taylor, by contrast, understands human behavior in terms of the search for meaning. His work has been to make a farcically vague concept—“the meaning of life”—historical and concrete. In more than a dozen books, including “Sources of the Self,” from 1989, and the monumental “A Secular Age,” from 2007, he has explored the secret histories of our individual, religious, and political ideals, and mapped the inner tensions that cause those ideals to blossom or to break apart.

Taylor speaks like he writes—patiently, at length—and, at the S.S.R.C., he explained, step by step, how we find democracy meaningful. “Democracy is teleological,” Taylor said. “It’s a collective effort with a noble goal: inclusion.” As democratic citizens, we enjoy taking pride in democracy’s achievements: suffrage, immigration, civil rights. But, just as often, we feel anger and shame about rising inequality, insufficient representation, corruption. Democracies, often ruled by a revolving cast of élites, rarely live up to their utopian promises of inclusivity. Shame prevents us from being complacent; it urges us toward self-critique. Pride provides us with a sense of direction. The balance makes democracy a struggle we can believe in. “In some ways, democracy is a fiction that we’re trying to realize,” Taylor said.

This October, in the Washington Post, a Stanford political scientist reported that forty per cent of Americans had “lost faith in democracy”; a few weeks later, eight in ten voters told the Times that they felt “disgusted” by politics. Around the seminar table in Brooklyn, the graduate students—a chic, polyglot group from the U.S., Russia, France, and elsewhere—name-checked, in the course of their discussion, the issues that had raised feelings of shame to toxic levels: the suspicion that elections are “rigged” by lobbyists, donors, or establishment politicians (Donna Brazile’s leaking of debate questions had not yet come to light); the conviction that policy decisions are shaped by financiers (some of Hillary Clinton’s paid speeches had recently been leaked); a widespread lack of accountability (for the bankers of 2008, the officials of Flint, Michigan, police officers, and others); the knowledge that Americans talk almost entirely to people who already share their political views. As each of these democratic failures was mentioned, Taylor, dressed in a down vest and hiking sneakers, nodded in recognition.

We’re used to thinking about political life as a series of battles in which different groups jockey for influence; we worry that these battles are too divisive. But in this election, divisiveness was rendered even more troubling by a creeping nihilism that made our collective behavior both more lackadaisical and more unhinged. Many people who voted for Clinton did so while “holding their noses”; others pitched in for Trump even though they didn’t really believe in him. (Sixty per cent of voters surveyed as they left the polls said that Trump was “not qualified” to be President.) As Taylor explained, during a crisis of democratic faith, we may still go to the polls. But we’ll participate in a spirit of anger, spite, irony, or despair. Some of us, Taylor concluded, will cast votes that are, essentially, “declarations of disbelief.” He laughed, softly, at this well-turned phrase, while the students took notes.

Taylor was born in 1931, near Montreal. He grew up in a household defined by religious and political commitments. His father was an Anglophone Anglican, his mother a Francophone Catholic. The household had a skeptical wing: his paternal grandfather attended Mass, but was a “Voltaireian anti-clerical” at home, he told me, in a conference room after the end of his seminar. The Second World War was the defining fact of Taylor’s childhood. “I remember every major event after the middle of the nineteen-thirties. The start of the war, the bombing of Madrid. The climax—a day I’ll never forget—was when France sued for the armistice,” he said, referring to the French surrender, on June 22, 1940. “In my family, that was the end of civilization.”

Taylor’s father was a veteran of the First World War, an avid reader of military history, and a Canadian senator. “He always had big projects going about strengthening the relationship between Canada and France,” Taylor recalled. In the sixties, Taylor helped found Canada’s New Democratic Party, serving as its vice-president and the president of its Quebec branch. He ran for Parliament four times, losing, in one instance, to Pierre Trudeau, Canada’s future Prime Minister. (Trudeau’s son, Justin, is the country’s current P.M.) Taylor is a devout Catholic—perhaps the only one to have written an eight-hundred-page history of secularism. He has raised five daughters. He loves nature and, whenever he can, works from a remote farmhouse about a hundred miles from Montreal, “in a wild area with wolves and bears.” He is the opposite of a nihilist—he believes in many things, very strongly.

Taylor often thinks that he is stating the obvious: “In moments of discouragement, I feel it’s all entirely self-evident, like two and two is four.” But some ideas, though true, are rarely stated, or need to be stated again and again. Real belief, Taylor reminded me—the kind of belief that offers some form of spiritual fulfillment—can be dangerous. Around the time of the Second World War, he said, many thinkers grew wary of such beliefs. “Joseph Schumpeter and others thought it would be better to care less,” Taylor told me. “The idea was to go to the polls every four years and elect an élite team. Don’t get excited and have mass movements of Communism and Fascism. It’s an idea that says, ‘Avoid the worst—avoid the terrible things that arise.’ ” He paused, then shrugged. “I have another ethic. I’m with Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hannah Arendt, Rousseau, Montesquieu. I believe it’s a higher mode of being to participate in your own self-government.” In Taylor's view, cool disengagement is a fiction; an ardent search for goodness is the human reality. “We all seek a sense of what it would be like to be fully connected to something. We all have a sense of what really living, and not just existing, would be. We know that there’s a level of life that’s rare to attain. And whether we attain that or not can be a source of deep satisfaction or shame to us.” It’s possible, Taylor said, to live as a “resident alien” in a democracy, going to work and raising your family without “getting a charge” out of the democratic story. But something might happen to change that. “The feeling that I’m really happy to be living in this society or that I’m really upset; that I’m either living fully or being deprived of that experience—those feelings are signs that the ethic of democracy has seized you.”

Taylor’s philosophy has been decisively shaped by his political work. “His view of social and political life,” Isaiah Berlin wrote, has “an authenticity, a concreteness, and a sense of reality” unusual in philosophy; it is “generously receptive, deeply humane and formed by the truth as he sees it, and not as it ought to be in accordance with dogmatically held premises or overmastering ideology.” During one particularly formative period, Taylor served on a government commission on the question of Québécois sovereignty. (He has argued that, while the cultural and linguistic heritage of Quebec ought to be recognized, the region should remain part of Canada.) At public forums, Taylor heard from Francophone Canadians who were torn between resentment of the Catholic Church on the one hand and regional Québécois pride on the other. One man, Taylor recalled, raged at a parish priest who had “forced my grandmother to have so many children,” while also defending his Québécois heritage, or patrimoine, which was bound up with Catholicism. “At those forums, I learned a lot about how people think and why they’re scared,” he said. “I heard the same feelings expressed over and over again, and the penny dropped. I learned the nature of the fear of being changed.”

Taylor believes that, as individuals, we derive our sense of selfhood from shared values that are, in turn, embodied in public institutions. When those institutions change, those changes reverberate within us: they can seem to endanger the very meanings of our lives. It’s partly for this reason that events in the political world can devastate us so intimately, striking us with the force of a breakup or a death. (Similarly, a charismatic candidate can, like a new object of infatuation, help us find new possibilities within ourselves.)

Taylor’s calm, scholarly empathy is reassuring; his three-point program for engaging with one’s political opponents—“Try to listen; find out what’s troubling them; stop condemning”—is deeply humane. At times, speaking about Trump’s racist, misogynistic, and xenophobic rhetoric, his voice would rise in anger. Then he would pause, take a breath, and remind me that enthusiasm for Trump could be seen as a genuine and ardent, if misguided, expression of the democratic ethos. “The belief that democracy is supposed to be a system in which non-élites have a say—that principle is built right into the nature of democracy,” he said. “But there are constructive ways of asserting it and destructive ways.” Where Bernie Sanders had proposed a program that might have actually given non-élites more power, Trump proposed to consolidate power among a subset of non-élites by, as Taylor put it, “excising some populations from his definition of ‘the people.’ ”

In answering the central question of “A Secular Age”—“Why was it virtually impossible to not believe in God in, say, 1500 . . . while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable?”—Taylor begins by quoting Honorius of Autun, one of the “scholar-monks of the high middle ages” who wrote during the eleventh century. At times, he seems to talk about present-day politics from this same distant and philosophical vantage. “As long as human beings aspire, they will be capable of corrupting the object of their aspiration,” he told me. “I’m a person of faith, and I would feel terribly deprived if I didn’t have that faith. But I also see how the corruption of faith is terrible. Think of the Inquisition. If I were Muslim, I would look at the present situation in Saudi Arabia and with the Islamic State and I would be appalled, as my Muslim friends are. There will always be modes of the supposed best that can be corrupted.” This principle, he suggested, is as true for democratic faith as for any other kind—a thought worth keeping in mind at moments like these, when the very meaning of the word “democracy” seems to be in dispute.

This week, I found myself thinking about Trump’s victory through the lens of my conversations with Taylor. Trump’s frank negativity—“We’re losing at everything”—spoke directly to Americans’ disillusionment; his emotional, unmediated spontaneity suggested, to some people, that a remote and overrehearsed political world might be made vibrant and fulfilling again. And yet it’s hard to see, in the long term, how a reality-TV host and élite megalomaniac will help citizens feel that their political engagement has meaning. Trump has created a pop-up movement—a media event built to last for the duration of a single campaign season. Similarly, many Americans felt empowered when they were actively involved in Obama’s candidacy—and then returned to being passive consumers of politics.

Plato proposed a republic run by enlightened philosophers, and Taylor has some ideas about what he might do if he were in charge. In big cities, he told me, it’s easy for people to feel engaged in the project of democracy; they’re surrounded by the drama of inclusion. But in the countryside, where jobs are disappearing, main streets are empty, and church attendance is down, democracy seems like a fantasy, and people end up “sitting at home, watching television. Their only contact with the country’s problems is a sense that everything’s going absolutely crazy. They have no sense of control.” He advocates raising taxes and giving the money to small towns, so that they can rebuild. He is in favor of localism and “subsidiarity”—the principle, cited by Alexis de Tocqueville and originating in Catholicism, that problems should be solved by people who are nearby. Perhaps, instead of questing for political meaning on Facebook and YouTube, we could begin finding it in projects located near to us. By that means, we could get a grip on our political selves, and be less inclined toward nihilism on the national scale. (It would help if there were less gerrymandering and money in politics, too.)

One imagines what this sort of rooted, meaningful democracy might look like. A political life centered on local schools, town governments, voluntary associations, and churches; a house in the woods with the television turned off. Inside, family members aren’t glued to their phones. They talk, over dinner, about politics, history, and faith, about national movements and local ones; they feel, all the time, that they’re doing something. It’s a pastoral vision, miles away from the media-driven election we’ve just concluded. But it’s not a fantasy.


Joshua Rothman, the ideas editor of newyorker.com, has been at The New Yorker since 2012.