Beyond the Postmodern Search for Meaning

In the search for meaning throwing off the chains of oppression, relieving suffering, exposing indecency, or what might be summed up as naming the idolatrous powers (political, social, cultural, religious), is the singular goal in postmodern cultural theory. People are oppressed by racism, sexism, ageism, class, or simply life’s circumstance. Failed families, mental and physical disabilities, or ill health, plague us all. Life is filled with suffering, some suffer more, and this inequity and injustice is itself a source of suffering. Naming the power structures, throwing off the chains of oppression, relieving suffering – isn’t this what makes for a meaningful life or at least a meaningful enough life?

The last film we saw at the True/False film festival last week, The Commons, and events following the film, illustrate the problem.  The film (by Suki Hawley and Michael Galinsky) documents student protests over a two-year period against the “Silent Sam” Confederate monument at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The protests occasionally consisted of reasoned argument and well thought out speeches but there were also a lot of scenes of people shouting at each other. The students had prepared for the occasion by showing up with bull horns which enabled them to outshout their opponents. At one-point students attached ropes and pulled the statue down, with the eventual outcome that the Chancellor of the University was fired and the monument consigned to oblivion.  Usually at True/False at the end of a film the director or main characters hold a Q & A with the audience. This time the sort of protest we had just been watching spilled over into the auditorium.

The festival organizers had accommodated NCU student wishes and one of their own, Courtney Staton, appeared on stage to read a statement and to have a dialogue with the film makers. At the same time, a group of students went to the front of the auditorium with two of them holding up a banner reading, “Decolonize Documentary.”  Throughout the ensuing dialogue student demonstrators, in a coordinated effort, would begin chanting or shouting. Stanton presented a reasoned and sympathetic objection to the film – that seemed to unravel the more she engaged the filmmakers. They explained they had sought permission from student leaders, sought to include their individual perspective, and turned over all their film for the students to review. They had even shifted the perspective of the film to accommodate the fact that the students were preparing their own documentary with personal interviews. What Stanton and the students seemed to be saying, as Hawley brought out in a question, was that there was only one possible politically correct film and it would not be a film by white people. As I have heard it phrased more crudely and in a different context, white people need to shut-up.

The protestors “succeeded” in the film and in person after the film. The cry against white privilege and black marginalization was heard and contains a truth that needs to be heard but clearly the students wanted to shout down and cancel out other viewpoints – even those, as with the film itself, which was sympathetic to their cause. There may be a time and place when white people, men, the wealthy, the young, racists, need to be made to listen and their power and privilege exposed as an injustice. Protest, revolution, exposing injustice, bringing down the idols, or toppling monuments celebrating oppression, may be necessary. Just as yelling F.U. in someone’s ear with a megaphone (a scene in the film) can be very effective, so too protest, deconstruction, revolution, tearing down idols, may be called for – but as with the commons at NCU – the space is now empty, the protest silent, the message received. The object of wrath, at least this monument in this place is gone, and so either the protest latches onto a new object (the documentary) or the momentum and meaning will dissipate.

The Corinthian elite have made a similar discovery: the idol is nothing and they have been freed from their own version of Silent Sam. The way in which this half-truth is summed up by Paul (who seems to be quoting the Corinthians) is that the idol amounts to nothing and thus, all things are lawful (I Co 10:23 – potentially even eating meat sacrificed to idols). Especially if you were an idolater, this is indeed quite significant. If your life has been filled with fear, which in my experience in Japan characterizes idolatrous religion, to say the idol is nothing is to suspend this fear and oppression. Uchimura Kanzo (perhaps the most renowned Japanese Christian) describes how just walking to school as a child, having to walk past all the idols, filled him with fear. Each god, each idol, each shrine required something. One has to pray just right, show respect in the right way, pay homage correctly or the gods will get you. They will cause your house to burn down, they will bring sickness and disease and the gods always get you – all we can do is momentarily assuage their anger. You can never serve them enough, do enough, so that life under the gods is a form of slavery.

It is not simply the idolatrous circumstance but life under the law (which Paul seems to be equating with idolatry) that is oppressive. This is the law of sin and death, the law of suffering, the law of oppression, the law from which springs every sort of injustice and evil. Law, as Paul is using the term here, is not simply Jewish law as these people are Gentiles. They are under the weight of the universal law that constrains and oppresses all of us.

Step one in Paul’s gospel is the realization that we are free and what we are free from, whether Jew or Gentile, is the constraint and oppression that this world puts upon us (which may involve a different sort of suffering). All things are lawful – nothing constrains us – the idol is nothing. We need to recognize the law, or our orientation to the law, in all of its various modes (the principalities and powers) will cause suffering and then we need to expose the fact that the idol can be undone. Silent Sam can be made to topple, the Emperor can be exposed as naked, and power can be deconstructed.

Many things need deconstructing as we need to relieve the idolatrous oppression by which we may be surrounded. Black people oppressed by whites, women oppressed by men, those with special needs oppressed by the general population, the poor oppressed by the rich. We can enter into many of these battles and declare – the idol is nothing, the law does not define us, race and gender and class are not definitive of humanity. As the Elephant Man, Joseph Merrick, cries out as the crowd presses around ready to do him harm – “I am a man.” Finding meaning in relieving suffering, in helping others, in finding dignity ourselves, in throwing off the law and idolatrous oppression, offers a vortex of meaning – but is it enough?

Certainly, meaning in life begins in not letting the law, the oppression, the suffering, define oneself and others. This is the discovery or rediscovery of the psychologist Jordan Peterson: we are all oppressed and the only meaningful thing is to pull yourself together.  Do not let your circumstance define you. Reach out and make your life meaningful and relieve suffering, is Peterson’s message.

Paul brings us up short here though, as the Corinthians are verging on the demonic. To say as they are, “we are free from the law,” needs to be qualified with the fact that the law of love now applies. “All things are lawful, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful, but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor” (I Co 10:23-24).

The demonic moment of the Corinthian church is one that faces us all. The Christian truth that Marxism, socialism, deconstruction, and postmodernism have discovered is that meaning is largely a social construct. Marx noted that it was the wealthy elites who controlled the levers of power and posited law and morals. His resolution was that the proletariat (the working class) arise and take control. The outcome in the 20th century was the slaughter of hundreds of millions of people (about one hundred and ten million people, foreign and domestic, were killed by Communist democide – inclusive of all forms of murder). The constraint of the law was lifted, the idolatry of culture was exposed, but this unleashed the demonic (a more oppressive form of law). I believe we are witnessing the continued realization of the power of suspension of the law. Race, gender, even humanness is a construct that is put upon us and one means of attempting to demonstrate the plasticity and constructed nature of identity is to reshape it. We can redefine ourselves endlessly but like LGBTQ . . .  which requires an ellipsis or question mark, this is an open ended and infinite striving.

Throwing off oppression (whether of race, gender, or class identity) may simply lead to endless revolution as it did with the unprecedented human sacrifice of the 20th century. Marxism, socialism, and deconstruction may all harbor a Christian capacity for naming the idols (for undoing the constraints of gender, ethnicity, and social class). Each, in its own way, recognizes we can throw off the law. We can behead the Emperor, annihilate the Czar, obliterate the opposition, or as in psychoanalysis (Žižek and Lacan), which is simply borrowing and following Paul, we can suspend the law. Certainly, there are any number of groups that are weak like the Corinthian weak. The lesson of the age and the lesson of Corinthians, however, is not to empower the weak (the proletariat or their representatives in Mao, Stalin, Lenin, or Pol Pot) to be the new authoritarians. Paul’s neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free, is not a call for endless social, sexual, and ethnic reordering but a suspension of this order with its oppressive law like structure. According to Paul, we do not throw off the law so as to engage the flesh but we suspend the mode of fleshly identity. This frees us up for love: “Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor” (I Co 10:24).

Paul warns the Corinthians that knowledge, in and of itself, is not meaningful (it simply “puffs up” with empty air, according to Paul). It is not enough to say that the idol is nothing and we are free from the law so we can now dine on the flesh of idols. We can make one of two mistakes: (1.) The fundamentalist or conservative error is to imagine that it is enough to prove that the world, due to the existence of God, through creation, through Christ, has the resources for an epistemological meaning and leave it at this. Apologetics as evangelism, Christianity as belief in doctrine, theology in which ethics is an addendum (or absent), verges on the same sort of demonic possibility in that gnosis or knowledge is made primary. (2.) On the other hand, meaning apart from this epistemological resource is negation, opposition, and protest – requiring continual revolution, continual social rearrangement, continual striving for a properly gendered identity. The first is a resource for a life of meaning without the reality and the second is an attempt at meaning without the resource.

The chief meaning or the chief end of man, according to the Westminster Confession with direct reference to I Co 10:31, is to glorify God: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (I Co 10:31). Glory is an ambiguous term (Humpty Dumpty says it means whatever he wants it to mean) but in Paul’s explanation glory fills out meaning. Giving glory to God is to be found in the loving servanthood of Christ (Paul says that, like Christ, he has become the servant of all) as here meaning is lived out such that every act (eating or not eating meat) can be meaningful. Actually loving, actually caring for the weak does not involve taking the position of the strong but means becoming weak (Paul impoverishes himself by refusing money, he works at a trade, he takes a low social status, he is willing to become a vegetarian). Paul explains, “I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved” (I Co 10:33). Salvation, in this context, is not referring to conversion but to departure from the crushing oppression of the culture to which the weak are susceptible and from which the Corinthian cultural elites are providing no relief. Paul does not presume to displace these elites by shouting them down but he sums up his argument with, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (I Co 11:1).

It is not enough to name the idols, expose the power structures, tear down the high places, or suspend the law. In place of the oppression of the law the freedom of the law of love is necessary for the full realization and in order to sustain a meaningful life. True, we must fully recognize our freedom from the law as this law is always one which would oppress, cast out, demonize, scapegoat, and choose death for some that others might live. To simply expose this law, realize its weakness, recognize that nothing is there, that it is a human construct, maybe this is what it takes to then exercise the love of the messiah. Christ exposes the principalities and powers but he does not, however, leave us in a vacuum. Paul and Jesus call us to follow them or to imitate their lives and this is where meaning kicks in.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

One thought on “Beyond the Postmodern Search for Meaning”

  1. I am, on the one hand, sympathetic to the “tearing down” of confederate monuments (especially as most of them were erected in protest of civil rights). That said I find myself unable to disagree with (I must be out of my mind to admit this) …ahem…Donald Trump…when he said that we have monuments to Thomas Jefferson who also owned slaves. I wrote a piece many years ago about the confederate flag and concluded that for the same reason I can’t respect the confederate flag, I can’t respect the American flag. I’d take it a step further and say–there should be none of these monuments.

    People have responded in horror to what Trump said. But on that point, I think his neurosis actually revealed a hypocrisy. The revolutionary, in tearing down one idol, will just replace it with another because he or she is buying into the same philosophy that erected the first idol to begin with. Revolution (though we may agree against what it revolts) is a violent act. And to do violence to the southern soldier is to participate in the same violence his statue commemorates.

    The trick, of course, is to die at the soldier’s hands with the person he would enslave. What I take to be Jesus’ solution. This, of course, isn’t great copy.