Postmodern Perspective

Against Excessive Reason

I have a problem with "reason" as such, from the postmodern perspective. Reason suggests, as with Jurgen Habermas, that if people discuss together (thrash things out) in a disinterested manner (that is, beyond economic and social interests that distort) they will eventually come to the Truth. Communicative reason, it is called - the way to rational truth. My view is that we never come to one view, and that there is no way of establishing one basis of truth.

This plurality can lead to two possibilities.

One is the Isaiah Berlin view, that there is a clash of never ending objectively grounded values. There is never the final reason. My difficulty here is why is there never the final reason? If viewpoints are grounded and objective, then are they not of one? It is possible that reality is ultimately plural. This is a secular matter, but the same argument about an ultimate unity is made if there is one God, which is the holder and guarantor of ultimate reason. In 2002 Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi wrote a controversial book called The Dignity of Difference in which he proposed that plurality was God-intended. Many rabbis did not like it, so much that he had to reissue the book in 2003 with changes after a meeting in Manchester. Bishop John Riobinson once wrote Truth is Two Eyed.
The other possibility is the postmodern one. This states that you cannot arrive at a single truth because truths are not objectively grounded. I'm not a full card carrying member, throughout all the disciplines, as postmodernism works in different ways in different places, but it goes this way, and I am most fully postmodern with the arts and religion. In my view there are no grounds for objective truth in religion. Religion varies because it is cultural, and rolls along changing as it goes, different in different regions, adapting and moving within the same region and within any tradition.

So reason must be limited by the art of religion, and therefore by the symbol of religion. The symbols of Christianity are very elastic. One freedom that comes from the Christian Book is that it is not reportage, and that it was made in story-biography and reflective forms for communities after the servant and sufferer lived (drawing on several sources). The institutional and belief plurality that broke out after the Jesus event is another indicator of this. We have the transience of all in Buddhism and the different schools that resulted with no doctrinal core, and the sheer plurality and levels of Hinduism from the rationalistic and modernist to the riches of every village. And Judaism has so many developments - Hasidic, Conservative, Orthodox, Reform, Liberal, and even someone Orthodox says that God intended plurality. I do not think that these religions point to the same ultimate, and do not conclude that there are clashing objective truths because they are so grounded in what people have longed for in their languages and symbolic understandings.

This all makes me wary about reason as an absolute - reasoning is very important, but religion is a form of reflective art, and a means to search, and to think and act again. Religion can be like a Rembrandt or ever a white room, with the participant observer holding a paintbrush.


Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful


Drawing from my contribution to discussion boards on 30 December 2004