Sitting here this morning, just now, what’s the truest thing you know? Maybe it’s something basic, like “Life is good.” Or perhaps it’s something that helps you keep a hopeful view, like, “There’s always something to be grateful for.” Or maybe you fall back on one of our foundational Quaker ideas: “There is that of God in everyone” or “Christ is come to teach his people himself.”
We are living in a time when each and every person—and each and every news channel—seems to have their own version of what’s true. Ask 40 people the same question about life, truth, or the state of the world and you’ll probably come up with close to 40 wildly different answers. And even though the volume and sheer number of views feels like it’s increasing exponentially every day, in reality, differences of opinion—different ways of seeing and navigating in the world, different truth claims—have been existing side by side for a long, long time. But we are currently living through a time that encourages and even celebrates that like never before.
In my last year of seminary, I took a class called Constructive Theology, which led us through a semester-long process of investigating and teasing apart the different ideas that went into, literally, how we constructed our theological ideas. What foundational beliefs did we have that had led us to seminary in the first place? And where did we get those? And how were they a part of the ocean of thought sweeping through our current era? It was a fascinating and enlightening class. It taught me a lot about my faith.
During that semester I learned about modernism and post-modernism, which refer to the two most recent periods that have shaped the way we live and think about life and truth. You probably learned in school about the Renaissance period, a time of high art and humanity, which occurred in the 1400-1600s, or the period of Enlightenment, which prized reason and human achievement and innovation and started about 1650, continuing into the 1800s. Modernism and post-modernism are both part of what social scientists have called the Information Age, a time of sweeping change as ideas and media change the way we see ourselves, the way we see each other, the values we’re striving for, and the way our society works—or some might say, doesn’t work.
Stepping back and considering the ocean of thought we’re swimming in can be helpful because it shows us that what’s happening in our world today isn’t simply the result of a collection of actors around the world but rather part of the evolution of human thought that—like it or not—is always on the way to the next era. Things will change and in fact are changing. And how we live in the meantime—how we cope, how we treat one another, how we envision a better future—becomes a living matter, a vital expression of our daily faith.
So many of our differences and misunderstandings can be traced to the different ways we see the world. It can feel hopeful to know that these waves of understanding grow and change and eventually transform into something else. It’s part of the way we evolve from age to age, thinking differently, understanding things differently, valuing different things, one idea building on, rejecting, or answering to another. Remember the scandal that was Elvis just a couple of decades ago? Or the outrage over the Beatles’ long hair? Just one generation shifting to the next, with considerable growing pains, forever and ever, amen. Such is the nature of human life on earth.
Most social scientists say the modernist era began in the early 1900s, right after the close of World War I. People were shaken by the savagery and horror of the first World War and at the same time they were experiencing the urbanization of culture—cities were mushrooming in size—as well as an industrial boon, as factories automated work processes and efficiency and productivity moved into the spotlight. Modernism brought with it a sense that something new was on the horizon, a kind of optimism as scientific research lead us into new frontiers in knowledge. There was a strong “can do!” mentality, a sense of hierarchy and respect for authority, and the individual’s ability to create, reform, improve, and recast his or her environment was at the center of it all. People felt empowered, less vulnerable to things that were previously chalked up to mystery.
Even though our Old Testament reading today was written back in ancient times well before the start of the Common Era, it sounds as though it could have been written from a modernist point of view: “O send out your light and your truth; let them lead me;” the psalmist writes, “let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling. Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy; and I will praise you with the harp, O God, my God. Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.”
Here God is reachable, God is knowable, there is a truth beyond us that hears and responds and cares. There’s a respect and gratitude for the divine hierarchy that extends the help we seek. You can also hear that the action of the individual is important–the psalmist speaks to his own soul, encouraging it toward hope. He wasn’t just waiting on God to do something. David felt it was important to be creating, improving, and recasting his inward experience, doing what he needed to do as he reoriented himself once again toward God.
Post-modernism arrived around the time of World War II, pushing back on many of ideas that were so important to modernism. British historian Robert Hewison says, “Post-modernism is modernism with the optimism taken out.” Where modernism prized purpose, post-modernism valued play. Where modernism says, “This is how the world should be,” post-modernism asks, “Says who?” Where modernism claimed there was an objective reality “out there” that could be known—an absolute truth that existed independent of us—post-modernism questioned that, saying that truth was relative, subjective to the individual and the circumstance. Think about that for a minute. That means that instead of one big truth that embraces and connects us all—the truth of Love or Light or Peace or Equality—there are thousands, millions of tiny truths, each truth a separate view of the world. No one “grand narrative” pulling it all together. Social media, cable news, and the virtually unlimited number of ways in which we get information today all contribute to this growing multiplicity. With that many truths operating in the world today, it’s easy to see why we have such a hard time moving forward together.
Post-modernism would say “there’s no such thing as moving forward anyway,” rejecting the idea of linear progress and putting emphasis on the creative power of the individual to construct meaning and assign value to the world. There isn’t any big schema of right and wrong out there somewhere. It is what we make it, the story we tell, the goal we want. And it’s not all decentering, disorienting, anxiety-provoking: Post-modernism does bring a certain freedom from what may bind us to the past or artificial structures for no good reason—there is a freedom from old norms, and a focus on the importance of the choice of the individual in shaping outcomes for our world. Our New Testament story today sounds a little post-modern in that way, as Jesus points out that the reality Pilate is asking about may not be the true reality at all.
Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?” and Jesus says, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” In other words, whose story are you believing? Is it your own, based on your own experience of me, or did you get it from someone else? You can hear Jesus acknowledging there is more than one belief in play. He wants to know how Pilate’s idea had been constructed.
Pilate replies that he’s not a Jew and he asks what Jesus has done. Jesus replies, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” What a confusing answer that must have seemed to Pilate. Jesus seems to be implying that if he had been the kingly Messiah the people had hoped for—the one who would free them from Roman rule–they would be fighting for him. But instead of a Messiah that changed the outer world, Jesus came to change the inner one, heart by heart by heart, stirring and challenging and transforming souls and opening the way for restored relationship with God. If he were a kingly Messiah, he would do all the work for them. As the prince of peace, he inspired them to change—but they had to do the inner work, find the inner willingness, themselves.
Pilate asks him again if he is a king, and Jesus says, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?” After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again and told them, “I find no case against him.”
In the midst of what was probably the toughest—and maybe most regretted—decision of Pilate’s life, true to form, Jesus refused to make Pilate’s decision for him. Pilate had to do his own inner work by listening to his own soul, and we can hear that he knows what was true. But his ultimate decision shows that the pressure of the people had more sway in his choice than his true sense of this good man, one he found to be innocent and a the possible spiritual “king,” standing right in front of him. Pilate blamed his decision on the people, but we can see what was really going on.
And that—Jesus says, so clearly that it echoes across time—is why he came into this realm: To testify to the truth, the real truth, the whole truth, a greater and more solid truth than any found or constructed—or deconstructed and divided–in this topsy-turvy, post-modern world. It’s as though Jesus fully understands how caught we were—and how caught we would still be two thousand years later—in the drama and feelings, conflicts and confusions of everyday life. But he also knew we had to do our own work, from the inside-out, and that God’s all-pervasive peace, the truth of love that cannot be tarnished anywhere, anytime, regardless of era or belief or opinion—would be with us.
We Quakers have a unique approach for hearing truth as we try to do our own inner work. We think of it as a three-legged stool of discernment. The three legs are (1) the truth of our personal spiritual experience; (2) the truth we find—with spirit’s help—in scripture; and (3) the truth that arises in the sense of the community of faith. You can try using this approach with any question or dilemma you may have, anything you need help with. Begin by asking your question in the quiet of your heart, and let God know you’re listening.
- Then the first step is to listen to any leadings you receive in connection with your question. Your own experience in your daily life—which might include things like the perfect song played on the radio at the perfect time, an off-hand comment made by a spouse, or the timing of outward events—will begin to show you how way opens in the direction you should go. When you get a leading that seems right—go here, do that, call her—do it. As you take a step, even the tiniest step, the next step will appear.
- Next ask yourself whether there’s any story in the Bible that reminds you of what you’re experiencing now. If something comes to mind, look it up and read it. The Bible is full of stories of relationships, journeys, and both great and terrible choices. Let spirit lead you to the story that best fits your question and spend time reflecting on what you find.
- Finally, consider how the larger Quaker community would respond. You might seek out a trusted spiritual friend or two and discuss your question or concern with them. You can talk it over with me as well. Or read back through the writings of early Friends, perhaps going through queries to find ones that speak to your condition. You could also request a clearness committee here at our meeting to invite Friends to help you find spiritual clarity about the leading or question you have.
If your experience is like mine, you will find that as you look for and listen to God along all three of these avenues, the true answer to your question gets closer and clearer. Jesus said, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice,” and I think the more intentional we are about listening, the better we get at recognizing the truth when we find it.
And here’s a hopeful thought. Even though this fractured, decentralized, divisive post-modern time can be hard to live through, things are beginning to look up. Some theorists say that there are signs we’re beginning to move into what they are post-postmodernism. How that will truly take shape is still anyone’s guess, but at least one source I found suggests that this new wave will offer faith, dialogue, trust, performance, and sincerity as the antidote to the cynicism and irony so prevalent in our world today.
So let’s pray it in, Friends. Hold on to the hopeful vision George Fox wrote in his Journal in 1647: “I saw also that there was an ocean of darkness and death, but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness. And in that also I saw the infinite love of God.”
And so it is.
- OT Psalm 43: 3-5
- NT John 18: 33-38
- Postmodernism: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postmodernism
- Philosophy Now: The Death of Postmodernism and Beyond: https://philosophynow.org/issues/58/The_Death_of_Postmodernism_And_Beyond