Tuesday, February 19, 2013

"In spite of ourselves, we'll end up a-sittin' on a rainbow": Catholics in Postmodern America

In spite of ourselves
We'll end up a'sittin' on a rainbow
Against all odds
Honey, we're the big door prize
                                John Prine (1999)

Americans live in a postmodern age. We have a postmodern president, we have postmodern judges and congresspeople, we have postmodern college presidents and professors, and our mass media personalities are almost all postmodernists. Harvard University even has an atheist chaplain! How much more postmodern can we get?

But what is postmodernism? J. Budziszewski, a natural law philosopher who teaches at the University of Texas, defined postmodernism as "the belief that nothing hangs together--that everything is in pieces" (2004, p. 54). According to Budziszewski: "[A] postmodernist thinks truth is fragmented. He doesn't believe in a truth that's the same for everyone; he believes in 'stories' or 'narratives' or 'discourses' that are different for every group." A postmodernist believes life has no meaning beyond what a individual chooses to give it and that there are no ultimate truths that apply to all human beings.

But this does not mean that postmodernism lacks core beliefs. Like every other belief system, postmodernism is an  ideology. Indeed, like a swirling tropical storm that gradually becomes more and more defined until it becomes a destructive hurricane, postmodernism is developing as a rigid creed or dogma; and it is becoming as hostile to opposing points of view as the most fundamentalist Islamic sect.

What are the core tenets of postmodernism? First, postmodernists are self-avowedly secular. They generally don't call themselves atheists, since allowing themselves to be labeled as nonbelievers would be an acknowledgement that the issue of God's existence is an important matter.

In fact, postmodernists will even pay casual homage to religion when it suits them.  For example, postmodernists will sometimes give the Episcopalians a kindly pat on the head. After all, in the postmodern world, the Episcopalians are harmless, since their fluid theology keeps pace with the New York Times editorial page.

But at heart postmodernists are indifferent to religion. Thus, President Obama tweeted during a church service on the day of his second inauguration. Apparently, the Christian ceremony he was attending wasn't important enough to require his full attention or even the mere appearance of respect.

Secondly, postmodernists are intolerant. There was a time when Americans prided themselves on their tolerance, particularly their tolerance toward people of  various religious faiths. Indeed, the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment expresses the very essence of American religious tolerance.

But in postmodern America, it has become fashionable to express genuine hatred for religion--which some postmodernists equate with bigotry. Recently, for example, students at the University of California-Berkeley tried to ban the Salvation Army from campus because the group upholds traditional Christian views on sexuality and marriage. 

Finally, postmodernists are selfish.  They think they are individualists. They believe they are seeking self-fulfillment and creative expression in their jobs.  But in reality, they're just selfish--focused solely on career advancement, their retirement portfolios, and public recognition.

In The Last Quartet, a thoroughly postmodern movie, four musicians struggle with ego, illness, and betrayal to keep their world-famous string quartet together.  Eventually, one of the musicians, played by Mark Ivanir, has an affair with the young daughter of a married couple who are members of the quartet. When the father of the girl, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, discovers that his artistic partner has been sleeping with his daughter, he balls up his fist and slugs him. 

But the quartet survives this outrageous betrayal, and the movie ends with the quartet members on stage, playing even more sensitively and beautifully than they had before their trials. In a pre-postmodern world (or at least in a pre-postmodern movie), Hoffman's character would have thoroughly thrashed the scoundrel who toyed with his daughter. But in this postmodern movie, nothing is more important than the characters' careers.

Given the fact that our national media, our colleges and universities, and our popular culture all espouse postmodernism, I am amazed that anyone rejects the mores of our day. Nevertheless, American Catholics have charted a different course for their lives.  

Unlike the postmodernists, Catholics believe in ultimate truths that are defined by the natural law and decreed by God, truths that apply to everyone. They believe in Christ's real presence in the Eucharist. They believe marriage between a man and a woman is the mystical representation of Christ's love for his Church.  They believe that Mary plays an essential role in the story of our salvation.  And they believe in the dignity of every human life.

I see these people at Mass every Sunday--these mystics, these people who refuse to subscribe to cynicism and selfishness.  And I believe it is these people, not our postmodern political leaders, media stars and self-satisfied business moguls, who have grasped the meaning of life and found its true joy. To paraphrase one of John Prine's songs, in spite of themselves, they've ended up a'sittin' on a rainbow. Against all odds,  they're the big door prize.

References

J. Budziszewski. How to stay Christian in Collge. Colorado Springs, CO: Nav Press, 2004.


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