I define Postmodernism as incredulity towards meta-narratives
–Jean Francois Lyotard
Every young generation inhales the fog of Indignation—it is a necessity in defining one’s own identity and a rite of passage in becoming a “mature” person. In my Dad’s generation, that fog extended away from the USA toward Japan and Germany, and then towards the Soviet Union, and so I was raised in the mist of World War II and then the Cold War. In my generation (the end of the baby boomers), that fog settled around Vietnam, a sexual revolution, and the Civil Rights Movement—from the wing of Malcolm X to that of Dr. King. Most of the breathing of that fog occurred on college campuses, but our national media eventually also inhaled. Viva la revolution. Within that mist was meaning, purpose, and vision. This has been true since well before Robespierre and the Revolution of 1789. Revolutions emanate from the young, and will continue to do so. This is not because The Young are better or smarter than their forebears—though most temporarily believe they are—but rather because difference and newness are inevitable parts of the psychological differentiation of one generation from another. Without this, progress comes to a halt—not just in science or technology, but in culture as well. There must be Difference. And the status quo must always be tested and challenged.
When I was evaluating my own world and worldview way back in the 1970’s, I was nudged by a well-remembered (I think) slogan: Question Authority. Boy did we. Beginning with long hair, my brother and I questioned my Dad on everything that was “normal” in our family, including in the expression of our faith. But we were supposed to question all authority—school leaders, military leaders, national leaders (think Nixon), church leaders, etc. As a military kid, I was optimistic about Authority generally, but I believe that movement still moved me.
Today, I would suggest we need a new slogan: Question Conformity. This essay is an elaboration on this suggestion, and I hope it is genuinely life-changing for the reader. Yes, that’s an ambitious goal for a writer, but I think the current stakes are high: we seem to be living in an unprecedented age of Confusion, Division, Misinformation, Weak Reasoning, Indoctrination, and Religious Politics. It’s an age that would drive Mr. Spock to suicide. (Except that such would be illogical.)
What is it I think we conform to? In one big word: Worldview. We each live according to a worldview. Do we know what it is? And have we really chosen it, or has it chosen us? My hope here is to increase our awareness of these supreme meta-narratives whirring in the background—these worldviews, and in so doing increase our sense of freedom and choice about them. As a philosophy major in college (Boston University, 1984, BS in Philosophy/Religion), it’s likely that I’ve spent far more time thinking and writing about this than most people, and that’s what makes me focused today on Conformity. So I have some questions for personal inventory, and some observations. Questions:
- Do you know your worldview? Can you describe it? Defend it?
- Have you decided what you really want? Or has your worldview recruited and chosen you?
- Can you, and do you, live with the implications, the consequences, of your worldview? In other words, do you have basic integrity with your belief system? Can people see your worldview in how you live? Are you consistent? If you articulated your worldview, would those who know you well admire you or laugh at you with irony?
- Does your wordview really “work?” Is it “working for you?” Does it fit with the world as you truly experience it? Are you happy with it? I want to challenge us to believe what we believe with Eyes Wide Open.
There are three, and only three, Great Worldviews in our worldwide culture today. There may be others, but they are not Great within my lifetime and generation—this is not an exhaustive take, but a personal one. And you are likely swept up in one of the Great Three: the Judeo-Christian Worldview (JCW); the Muslim Worldview(MW); or the Atheistic, Marxist Worldview (AMW). As Christopher Hitchens once said to me on an airplane, these three are incompatible. To live in one is to deny the essential truth of the other two, even if one does so respectfully.
A couple of caveats before going further: first, I don’t presume to academically critique these in such a short article. I don’t know anyone who has the breadth and depth to do so. I am describing my own limited experience of these worldviews. Second, I was raised JCW—is my worldview already showing? Probably. But allow me to expand on that personally and in the culture of my era.
As an army brat of the 1960’s and 70’s, I felt completely supported, culturally, in the JCW. It was the culture of my parents and grandparents; it was the dominant story of America—a nation “founded” on Judeo-Christian values (not surprising since the early immigrant waves were Europeans, many searching for religious freedom); it was supported in the elementary schools, and I’m reasonably sure that nearly all of my teachers would have identified as “Christian” or “Jewish.” It was supported by the monolithic news media—with not only a pro-US bias, pro-military and a pro-JCW bias, but also a Hollywood bias for JCW values: the values one could laugh with while watching The Dick Van Dyke Show or The Carol Burnett Show. Great films preceding and extending into my childhood were often epic Bible films like Ben Hur, The Ten Commandments, Fiddler on the Roof, even up to Disney’s The Prince of Egypt, in the 90’s. Everyone, it seemed, went to church or synagogue, and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning of each school day seemed positively religious. The great structural challenges to the JCW in my youth were the ban on school prayer and the positive media coverage of an atheist like Madeline Murray O’Hair. Subversive literature (Elmer Gantry, The Catcher in the Rye) was titillating and fun, but not an assault on worldview I would take seriously. I was not ready to Question Authority so much, nor to Question Conformity.
All of this began to change in the late 1960’s, and the unraveling of the JCW knitting continues today apace. I would like to suggest that this challenge was far from a gradual, deliberative development in US culture, but rather swift and historically reactionary: to the horrors of the Vietnam War, the clarity of racism’s reality in the US and the attending need for the Civil Rights Movement—punctuated by the murders of two Kennedys and Dr. King—and the earned skepticism about government power in the Nixon era.
The Nixon chapter alone is especially interesting for its impact on our monolithic media—tilting it left politically (moving away from Eisenhower/Nixon), and encouraging it to assume its own place of real power in our society—a power that is often invisible to media consumers I know today—a counterweight to JCW culture and a power competitor with government institutions. Universities—centers and breeding grounds in the 60’s for political revolution—also became power centers and continued to be worldview propagators, just not JCW this time. Today, it may be impossible to find a university that openly subscribes to and promulgates the JCW, particularly since it has been tainted, wrongfully in my experience, in these reactionary decades, with sweeping overtones of racism, sexism, and other interpretations of bigotry. These are, of course, very personal interpretations of “my times,” but I trust the reader’s ability to discern and work on their own interpretations of their own “times.”
I have spent a few minutes on the power structures (government—overtly, media and education—covertly) that support a dominant culture because they make the worldview more difficult to see, question and transcend. As someone who believes in and advocates for the JCW, I must admit I benefited as a child, in ways I couldn’t see at the time, from that support in the 60’s and 70’s. I tacitly agreed with Bacon that “Knowledge is Power,” not having yet encountered the Foucauldian insight, “Power is Knowledge” (in which Power Centers—whether Church, Government, or Schools—tell us what knowledge is, what they think we should believe.) Those power centers now strongly affirm “multiculturalism” as the larger social truth, having been won over by the AMW, which sees all social life as a dialectical struggle. They simultaneously embrace Critical Race Theory (CRT), which makes visible the often covert intersection of race, power, and law. CRT is controversial; for some it is just Truth. For me, it has too many pros and cons for race relations to debate in this article—but the relevance here is to understand it as an extension of Marxism, making our new dominant culture one particularly friendly with the Marxist Worldview (AMW). We can argue about what’s good or bad, right or wrong with this, but the development itself should be obvious to university graduates, and especially to former journalism school students (like me).
What difference does it make? What are the chief effects of these Great Worldviews when they become the dominant culture? In this article, I want to highlight a very few, but a defining few for me. Again, I am hardly an expert in this analysis; it is based on my personal experiences. I am no theologian, though I am an experienced Pastor and Missionary. I am not an Islamic scholar, but am trying to learn more month by month. I am certainly not a Marxist scholar either, but have spent a lifetime trying to understand its great dialectical struggle with Christian faith. I also know that most Americans know almost nothing about Marx and Marxism, or its expressions in the academic community. Once more, I am not trying to stand in judgement of these worldviews, just trying to make them more visible.
When JCW is dominant
The Good/The Desired
- Morals and Values are real, and usually clear.
- Morals are discovered and explored, not invented by individuals or groups, as expressions of God’s character and will for our psycho-spiritual health. JCW claims that morals are Objective.
- The Chief Social Unit is The “traditional” Nuclear Family
- The Church as a Fellowship supports the individual socially, as an adjunct to family.
- Freedom of Choice emerges as a large meta-narrative—that God has given Man free will. This illuminates economics in “free-market” driven capitalism and foreign policy orientations dominated by the opposition of dictatorship. Writers like Rodney Stark would argue that JCW made early capitalistic developments in Italy, Holland, and then in the UK possible, ultimately lifting millions out of middle-ages subsistence poverty. Most political historical writers today would at least acknowledge the role of Christian (especially Catholic) Faith in subverting the iron grip and “historical inevitability” of the Soviet Union in the late 1980’s.
- Freedom is more important than Equality—and this could be seen as part of The Good or The Bad. (see MW). Getting to better Equality is restrained by a stronger emphasis on Freedom, slowing or precluding forms of social or economic “Justice.” In this emphasis, the Means (Freedom) is more important than the Ends (Equality)
- Rationality—that we live in the Age of Reason since the Enlightenment—makes atavistic sense because God is rational, and this makes research, science, and modern knowledge possible and desirable.
- Law and Grace work together to build personal and social Hope. Law from God is clear, teaches Accountability and Responsibility, and gives a society a general sense of “you reap what you sow.” Grace emerges in this context, teaching Forgiveness, “Second Chances,” Redemption (think of addiction counseling), and Gratitude. Without JCW, movies like It’s a Wonderful Life and Saving Private Ryan would not have been made.
- Faith and politics get mixed and Christians sometimes look like they are interested in their own caliphate, rather than pluralistic democracy. The mixing of Church and State was stultifying to Europeans for many centuries and seen as an instrument of control rather than liberation. That link was a direct motivation for many groups emigrating to America in the 18th and 19th
- Tasteless mixing of Faith and Money undermine the seriousness of the faith, and have also caused the “fall” of many religious leaders in the late 20th
- Support of a culture of social “intolerance” (at least to those outside the JCW) because of Sin Definitions
- Resistance— “the earth is flat”—to Copernican, reasoned progress. This is because of a misplaced certainty that within the faith, we already Know it All. The Faith will Save us. Even though the Age of Faith (including superstition, belief in fairies and goblins, etc.) has been replaced by the Age of Reason, emotional commitment to The Faith still dominates.
- What Bonhoeffer called “Cheap Grace” undermines gratitude, respect, and the motivation to strive for Virtue. Believers take God, the church, and their salvation for granted.
- Conducting Jihad “Holy Wars” during the Crusades of 1100-1400, chiefly with Muslims in the Middle East and Spain
- A sense of missionary entitlement that informed not just merely arrogance, but a Triumphalism (God and History are on our side) that helped make colonization and slavery possible, both from European empires and in the USA.
- Cultic expressions at the extreme edges such as:
- The KKK and other fundamentally racist or bigoted groups
- Jim Jones, Guyana, and “The People’s Temple” atrocities
- Cruel “purification” movements like Puritanism in New England (think Salem Witch Trials) and the Spanish Inquisition (which no one expected.)
- Competing with “Science” for “Truth”, sometimes over-stepping (think Scopes Trial) in ways that hurt its own credibility and set up an unnecessary and distracting competition.
When the Atheist Marxist Worldview (AMW) is dominant
The Good/The Desired
- Marx’s eye was firmly on Inequality and resolving that above all else. By making it more important than Freedom, he flipped the JCW about means and ends as Machiavelli recommended. In AMW, the Ends (Equality) always justifies the Means (Freedom, or its curtailment). This is what makes “the dictatorship of the proletariat” justified in Marxist thinking. To me of course it is a serious and central debate as to whether this really works well or brings a society together.
- Social harmony is no longer led by the Family, but Society itself. The State increasingly assumes The Lead in forging the central goal of economic Equality, and in our era, the bigger the better. Bigger and bigger government is needed to manage more and more social needs and inequalities.
- “Science” is supported as the new doorway to Truth, and there are many economic and social revolutions emanating from scientific progress. This uptick shows the preeminence of post-Enlightenment, Age-of-Reason thinking.
- Private Property is undermined (“my tax dollars really belong to The Public, not to me”), as is private responsibility for one’s own future (“the government will take care of me/us”) in favor of Collectivism.
- Resistance—“the earth is flat”—to Copernican, reasoned progress. This is because of a misplaced certainty that within Modern Science, we already Know it All. Science will Save Us. But there are aspects of science that look more like religion at times, such as the overwhelming belief offered Al Gore for his particular take on climate danger.
- Morals are Invented, not Discovered. There is no ongoing Reformation around Moral Truth or Biblical Truth. There is only the Competition of Interests, the battling of Big versus Small, Management v Unions, Masters v Slaves, Race v Race, Class v Class, etc. It’s all and only dialectical struggle. This supports a divisive and divided culture. When does it end?
- Darwinism is integrated loosely into this—survival of the fittest. Resentment and Vengeance are, in this context, “natural” and may be easily conflated with, while thwarting, genuine “justice.”
- Political Power—of the Proletariat—consistently rationalizes colossal mistakes, forms of persecution, and atrocities. See below.
- Cultic Expressions engineered unprecedented levels of murder:
- Cambodia—nearly 2million killed during Pol Pot’s Maoist movement in the 1970’s. This was one of three Cambodians.
- The Cultural Revolution in China, 1966-1976—a nationwide, constant purge of weak believers in communism, resulted in 36 million displaced or persecuted Chinese, 1.5 million deaths, and another 1 million disabled.
- Jim Jones and the mass suicide in Guyana (noted above). Few know that Jones was an avowed socialist, and, of course, a paranoid authoritarian.
- Darwinian ideas like “survival of the fittest,” juxtaposed with contradictory socialist ideals of Equality create psychological tension. Which is it?
- Ineluctably divisive motivations: Envy and Resentment are the chief animating motivations, pitting societies members against one another.
- Circular reasoning and power preservation now—It is supported in our schools and universities—just as was the case previously with JCW. Contradicting or challenging “progressivism” now is like trashing the JCW in 1950—not received well by our social power centers. You can’t criticize the status quo.
- Politics of Division thwart unity; in socialism, there’s a philosophical vested interest in keeping conflict permanent. Is this ultimately a lonely way to live?
When the Muslim Worldview (MW) is dominant (it will be obvious how limited my experience and knowledge of Islam is here; I’m merely noting a few more obvious traits, at least my interpretations of these, in contradistinction to the JCW and AMW.)
The Good/The Desired
- Strength of “Law” with accountability & consequences that are strict, but reliable
- Respect for Structure and Family is almost Confucian = great social security
- High and visible degree of “Knowing God’s Will” and conforming to it. “The Truth” can be known objectively.
- Critics will offer that Sharia Islam lacks the concept of Grace—one of man’s basic needs. Obedience and Punishment are more important than Forgiveness and “2nd”
- Support of a culture of social “intolerance” (at least to those outside the MW) because of Sin Definitions in the Koran. Treatment of infidels, transgressors, and women remain in practice at the same standard as during the medieval times.
- Resistance—“the earth is flat”—to Copernican, reasoned progress. This is because of a misplaced certainty that within the faith, we already Know it All. The Faith in Allah and Mohammed will Save us.
- Sin and Crime seem to be treated harshly, sometimes cruelly.
- Cultic extremes like ISIS have terrorized millions, in the middle east, in Europe, and in the US, with no apparent end in sight. For many of these soldiers, the message to the unbeliever is, “Convert or die.”
A Review of Questions for further thinking as you and I Question Conformity:
- Each of us has a worldview. Do you know yours? If you have been unclear which yours is, then the tail has probably been wagging the dog. Awareness will set us more free.
- Can you, do you, truly live with your worldview? Does it make sense of your decisions and daily life priorities?
- Does your worldview well describe what theologian Francis Schaefer called, “the mannishness of man”? Those are the traits/experiences that make Man different from other animals (such as “moral sentiments”).
- Are you deciding? Don’t let the decision be made for you: The power structures in modern society—now unfriendly to the JCW—are inherently propagandistic and self-preserving, just as they were when I was a kid, when they relentlessly served the JCW.