Santiago Zabala wrote the introduction to a book by Richard Rorty and Gianni Vattimo (Postmodern philosophers) called The Future of Religion. This Note is a critique of Zabala’s introduction.
Santiago Zabala’s introductory chapter titled, “A Religion Without Theists or Atheists” is telling. Zabala’s introduction sets the context for Richard Rorty’s and Gianni Vattimo’s discussion of the future of religion as conceptualized by proponents of postmodernism, weak-thought and neopragmatism. As reflected in the title, this chapter is plagued with contradiction. There is stream of contradiction running through the entirety of Zabala’s introduction. Namely, Zabala rejects the propositions that presuppose his own argument. Zabala destroys the very foundation on which is argument stands. The contradictions inherent to Zabala’s discourse are not simply problematic, they invalidate the entirety of his argument. Zabala might as well say, “I must use Ping-Pong balls in my demonstration proving that Ping-Pong balls do not exist.”
While the list of contradictions in Zabala’s argument is long, this critique will focus on three sweeping contradictions. All three contradictions stem from Zabala’s appeal to abandon absolute truth. Zabala’s rejection of an objective standard is the basis for all contradictions in his argument. The first contradiction that comes with the abandonment of absolute truth, is that Zabala refuses to forfeit his right to make propositions. This is the most paralyzing contradiction to Zabala’s argument. Zabala proposes a truth that makes an appeal to relativity. Zabala cuts his own legs out from under himself by proposing the truth of postmodernism while maintaining that there is no objective truth.
The second contradiction to be treated here is that while proposing that reality or truth is created by social constructs, he measures truths of other social constructs against the truths of postmodernism. By doing so, Zabala illegitimately applies the truths of postmodernism universally. With the rejection of absolute truth, Zabala must be willing to forfeit the right to negatively criticize the values and behaviors of other social constructs rather than measuring the goodness of weak-thought against the unacceptable acts of other social constructs.
The third contradiction this critique will treat is a natural outflow of the second and first contradictions. Zabala, on the one hand asserts that truth is created and validated upon agreement within a social construct. On the other hand, Zabala presents the weak-thought movement as distinct (in disagreement) from other social constructs. Weak-thought’s distinctness within the global community, then, invalidates it as true or real. Again, according to Zabala, in order to truth to be created within a social construct, there must be agreement. While there is a micro-agreement within the community of weak-thought proponents, there is not an agreement within the global community. This disagreement then, according to Zabala’s own terms, invalidates the truth of weak-thought.
Finally, there are two dynamics characterizing the conclusion of this critique. The conclusion will (1) summarize the major points of critique of Zabala’s chapter and (2) suggest a frame of reference for dialogue between the orthodox Christian and Zabala by approaching orthodox Christianity in postmodern terms; namely, understanding The Trinity as the social construction that creates and establishes truth and reality.
The basis for all contradictions represented in Zabala’s introduction begins with this statement, “Thought must abandon all objective, universal and apodictic foundational claims in order to prevent Christianity, allied with metaphysics in the search for first principles, from making room for violence” (Rorty, Vattimo & Zabala, 2005, p. 13). Here, Zabala rejects absolute truth. Zabala proposes that there is no objective reality that universally applies to all people. The most evident contradiction to underline in this statement is that with no absolute truth, Zabala’s very proposition is rendered invalid. If there is no absolute truth, how can Zabala pass off his own proposition as true? At this point, not only is Zabala’s statement here reject-able, but the entirety of his introduction is also rendered invalid. Zabala cannot make a truth claim that appeals to relativity then move on to make propositions. Steven Pinker makes the same observation here in response to the relativism inherent in George Lakoff’s understanding of the conceptual metaphor:
“The other rebuttal is that by their very effort to convince others of the truth of relativism, relativists are committed to the notion of objective truth. They attract supports by persuasion—the marshaling of facts and logic—not bribes or threats. They confront their critics using debate and reason, not by dueling with pistols or throwing chairs like the gusts on a daytime talk show. And if asked whether their brand of relativism is a pack of lies, they would deny that it is, not waffle and say that the question is meaningless…In the very act of advancing their thesis, they presuppose transcendent notions of truth, objectivity and logical necessity that they ostensibly seek to undermine” (Pinker, 2007, p. 247).
It is evident that Zabala has not only abandoned absolute truth, he has also abandoned all rights for making propositions. However, the problems in Zabala’s statement above extend even further. Without absolute truth, Zabala can make no appeal to a universal good. Zabala appeals to a dismissal of objective, universal truth while assuming its validity by suggesting a universal idealism marked by the absence of violence. Not only can Zabala make no valid propositions at all, he is unable to make an appeal to anything good. These two propositions cannot be simultaneously upheld. One must be forfeited in order to maintain the validity of the other.
Another problem with this statement is that with the dismissal of universal claims, Zabala is in no position to make a “must” statement. According to Zabala’s claim, there should be nothing right or wrong about violence in the absence of objective truth. On what grounds is Zabala permitted to make a truth claim about violence without sacrificing the core of his contention? If there is nothing absolute, how does Zabala place violence in an unacceptable category? What if a social construct agrees that violence is completely acceptable? Yet a third inherent problem in this statement is that Zabala is in no position to criticize any other truth claim whatsoever. This is an example of the contradiction flowing not only through this introduction, but also through the entirety of postmodernism.
Again, Zabala’s appeal to abandon all objective truth lays the foundation on which the contradiction inherent to his argument rests. To claim relativism is to automatically forfeit the right to make any propositions or arguments of critiques; however, throughout the entirety of the introduction, Zabala does both. Zabala illegitimately assumes a standard against which to measure and weigh his own propositions and critiques.
To extend the case proving inherent contradictions in Zabala’s argument, consider this statement, “Thanks to these three events [The French Revolution, Christianity, and Romanticism], the spiritual progress of man has consisted principally in the creation of an ‘I’ that is larger, greater, freer, and above all not fearful of losing the identity out of which it grew” (Rorty, Vattimo & Zabala, 2005, p. 6). Without absolute truth, against what standard is Zabala measuring progression? Without an objective truth, there is no objective good. With no objective good, Zabala forfeits his right to use the comparative “-er” when treating values and truths of other social constructs. By implying that there is such a thing as “progression”, Zabala must assume some standard against which good and bad can be measured. Progression towards what if there is no such thing as “better”? What’s wrong with fear? Exemplifying this same contradiction, Zabala also states, “The problem of sin also ceases to be something public, something so oppressive as to drive certain individuals to suicide.” (Rorty, Vattimo & Zabala, 2005, p. 14) With no truth, what’s wrong with suicide? For that matter, how can Zabala even propose that there is such a thing as a “problem”?
This same problem continues when Santiago articulates the following, “Finally Gadamer delineates a contemporary culture of dialogue and fusion, in which ‘knowledge’ is replaced by Bildung (formation of the self or ‘edification’), in other words, by a renewed awareness that not everything demands to be explained scientifically” (Rorty, Vattimo & Zabala, 2005, p. 6-7). The postmodern ideal of “edification” demands absolute truth. By tossing out the possibility for absolute truth, Zabala has no ground on which to stand to make a case for edification. Something cannot “improve” or be “edified” without the existence of a standard against which to measure. Rejecting absolute truth demands rejecting any sort of ability to measure anything at all, for that matter.
It is possible, however, for a specific social construction that has agreed upon truth to make measurements against those truths agreed upon. However, any entity that disagrees with the truths of that social construct has no obligation or responsibility to recognize or accept those truths. From this position, it is impossible for anyone of the postmodern position to apply truth to entities at odds with those truths. According to postmodernism then, that which can be considered edification is restricted within given social constructs. The appeal for anything universal, at that point, is contradictory. Postmodernism can make no appeal for other social constructs to adapt postmodern “truths” without contradicting itself.
In light of this, running through Santiago’s introduction is an atmosphere of universal application. Zabala’s position implies a desired universal adaptation of postmodernism. Proof of this is in Zabala’s very own holding of non-postmodern social constructs to a postmodern standard. Zabala suggests postmodernism as an improvement of other worldviews. On what grounds does Santiago stand to criticize, or even analyze the truths of social constructs outside of his own?
If reality is established by social construction characterized by agreement, what happens when the social construction of postmodernism is rejected by another social construct? What if there is disagreement between social constructs on a global scale? According to the postmodern worldview, disagreement and rejection results in rejection of truth. Zabala’s philosophy and the worldview of weak-thought lend itself to be nullified by world views that are in disagreement with it. It lends authority to other social constructions to deny its very truth by giving it permission to claim moral autonomy. At this point a fatal critique of postmodernism emerges. It is impossible for postmodernism to maintain validity on its own terms while making the claims that it makes. Postmodernism invalidates itself as long as it stands, as it is not universally agreed upon.
Zabala argues that truth is established on agreement. That is, truth is what a social construct decides it to be. The postmodern worldview assumes adisagreement with other social constructs. To invalidate truths of other social constructs via disagreement with those truths is to cause those truths to be untrue. If validity of truth is based on agreement, and there is not a universal agreement over the “truth” of postmodernism, then the truth of postmodernism is rendered untrue according to Zabala’s own position. If the only moment in which postmodernism can be rendered true is if universally agreed upon, then we have again arrived at universal truth, which postmodernism rejects. If postmodernism emerges as something different than what goes before it while maintaining that uniformity is required for validity, then validity is impossible for postmodernism as something that sets itself against the truths of other social constructs.
In the same vein, Zabala cannot legitimately hold other social constructs responsible to postmodern truths and values without compromising his own foundation for weak-thought. If other social constructs disagree with Zabala or Zabala with them, then Zabala, according to his own doctrine, must give liberty to disagree without condemnation. Regardless, there is a problematic string of dichotomous thinking throughout Zabala’s discourse. Zabala can by no means condemn the truths or values of other social constructs without compromising his own commitment to relativity. Zabala has the right to be descriptive in comparing and contrasting non-postmodern positions, however, he can by no means, while maintaining his own postmodern assertion, argue for his own position being an improvement to another. However, he continually maintains a posture of analysis and critique of the activities and truths of other social constructs. For example, Zabala’s introduction quotes Richard Rorty stating:
“Thanks to the secularizing influences of the recent West it has become increasingly difficulty to use religion to sanctify oppression. (This seems to me one almost entirely good thing which Westernization has done for the East, though I admit that Western colonialists tried to use Christianity to legitimize their own oppression when they first arrived.) It has become increasingly easier for weak and poor to see themselves as victims of the greed of their fellow-humans rather than of Destiny, or the gods, or of the sins of their ancestors” (Rorty, Vattimo & Zabala, 2008, p. 25).
While maintaining that all truth is relative, on what grounds can Rorty/Zabala measure the moral standard of another social construct against that of postmodernism? Rorty/Zabala, in abandoning absolute truth, forfeit the right to measure the moral value of the oppression of colonialism. For Rorty/Zabala to be faithful to their own beliefs, they should applaud the oppression of colonialism for their proponents’ commitment to truth as demonstrated in their behavior. Rorty has no grounds on which to condemn the activities or beliefs of any social construct while being a true neopragmatist. Zabala’s claim should be liberating for all other social constructs. If Zabala truly believes that which he proposes, then all other propositions have the freedom to stand with no condemnation. However, Zabala holds truths of other social constructs against the seemingly objective good of postmodernism. Mohler’s statement here underlines Zabala’s contradiction in holding other worldviews to a postmodern standard (or any standard at all for that matter):
“In Fyoder Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, the character Ivan famously observed that if God is dead, then everything is permissible. The god allowed by postmodernism is no the God of the Bible; it is merely a vague idea of some spiritual reality. There are no tablets of stone, no Ten Commandments, no rules. Morality, along with the other foundations of culture, is discarded as inherently oppressive and totalitarian. A pervasive more relativism marks postmodern culture. That is not to say that postmodernists are reluctant to employ moral language. On the contrary, they will often use the language of morality, but only in the hope of subverting a traditional moral code that they understand to be hegemonistic and oppressive” (emphasis added) (Mohler, 2005, p. 69).
Steve Tsoukalas has his finger on the pulse of the truth that drives Zabala into invalidating contradiction when he writes:
“Does truth exist? If so what is it? These are good questions. To answer the first, fortunately one cannot escape the fact that truth exists. The very question itself presupposes on the questioner’s part a “truthful” answer. Even if the questioner presupposes no truthful answer, that itself is the truth of the matter, is it not? One point made here is that without the concept and existence of truth, the world would be a chaotic place (ain’t it the truth!). So, truth should if not must exist” (Tsoukalas, 2011, p. 1).
In the end, while Zabala is commendable for his desire for universal “love” that can only be made possible through the abandon of all things objective and metaphysics, true love, as defined by scripture, demands absolute truth. There is something yet even better to be achieved than Zabala’s love. Zabala’s love is attainable only with the abandonment of and objective reality. Anything outside of metaphysics and logocentrism is chaos.
Christians in Dialogue with Postmoderns
The Christian doctrine of the Trinity provides a frame of references for a postmodern and Orthodox Christian dialogue. Postmodernism asserts that there is no reality outside of social construction. Christianity as well claims that the Trinity is both a social construction (three Persons, one God) and the basis for reality (Exodus 3:14). Orthodox Christianity, then, can affirm with postmodernism that reality does not exist outside of social construction. For both postmodernists and Christians, reality does not exist outside of Persons in community. Additionally, truth emerges from those persons in community. According to both Christians and postmodernists there is no such thing as “non-personal” reality.
If the postmodern understands “objective” or “absolute” truth asimpersonal truth or truth that exists outside of persons or a social construction, then the Christian can respond with a resounding “Amen”. Christianity can refuse the existence of, non-biased, impersonal objective truth, while remaining within the parameters of orthodoxy. All persons are biased, agreed. The objective truth that Christianity claims is a personal truth. However, there is one social construction that is the basis for allothers.
Christianity’s claim that the Trinity is the foundational social construction for all others can be maintained without dismissing the recognition of differences in other social constructions. However, the critical point of contrast between Christian and postmodern thought is that Christians see the differences in social construction as being superficial, rather than foundational. If this were not the case, translation from one language to another would be impossible. However, the social construction determining reality for a language group is the Three Persons of the Trinity. The only true “language game” that occurs and that determines a frame of reference for all others is the Trinity of Christianity. These assertions can be valid if we consider the Trinity as The Social Construction that determines reality and that the linguistic group establishing reality is the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Life is not impersonal, it is established by the moral character of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
In this light, postmodernism takes a downward turn is in equating human social constructions to the Trinity. From this perspective, postmodern communities consider themselves to be mico-Trinities, establishing their own foundations through their own autonomous moral character. This is affirmed in Zabala’s statement, “This new weak way of thought not only opens up alternative directions, it also recovers tradition: the relationship between the believer and God is not conceived as power-laden but as a gentler relationship, in which God hands over all his power to man” (Rorty, Vattimo & Zabala, 2005, p. 3). According to the postmodernist, any social construction is able to make the “I am Who I am” claim that Yahweh makes in Exodus 3:14, and thus establish themselves as the basis for all reality against which all things and people are to be weighed.
As noted above, there is an inherent contradiction here. This inherent contradiction is the greatest critique of postmodernism. It is impossible to make the claim that a social construction is the basis for reality while recognizing the existence of other social constructions. Postmodernism cannot contend for such a position without compromising its own claim to moral autonomy. Compromising the ability to create reality via a social construction means compromising the entirety of postmodernism.
Even the ancient Greco-Roman pantheon recognized the chaos that emerges from the problem of multiple morally autonomous units in co-existence. The concept of the gods being susceptible to fate was the solution to the problem in such logic. There cannot be multiple entities, whether and individuals or communities, that make a claim to autonomous ontology while maintaining that others also have the same right. The recognition of the existence of “another” morally autonomous entity demands a forfeiture of one’s status as autonomous.
In the end, three sweeping contradictions in Zabala’s introduction are apparent. All three of these contradictions find their basis in Zabala’s rejection of absolute truth. The first contradiction is that without absolute truth comes the inability to make any truth claims or propositions. While Zabala rejects objective reality, he all the while makes universal propositions. Secondly, Zabala, while proposing that reality or truth is created by social constructs, at the same time measures truths of other social constructs against the truths of postmodernism. If truth is truly established by social constructs and not objective, then Zabala is unable to measure the truths of other social constructs against those of his own. In that sense, Zabala approaches the world as if propositions of weak-thought are universally true. Third, Zabala maintains that truth is established by agreement. However, he recognizes postmodernism as being distinct and at odds with truths of other social constructs. In that sense, because there is not a global agreement about the truth of postmodernism, than postmodernism, on Zabala’s own terms, is not true unless universally accepted and universal truth, is unacceptable.
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