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A World of Truth and Doubt

January 23, 2011

For the past decade of my life ‘Modernism’ has meant a particularly heinous architectural theory (so-called universal space) and corresponding building style.  ‘Postmodernism’ was merely the profession’s mid-life crisis that came after, when everyone suddenly realized Modernism’s minimalist-picket fence wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.  I had the vague notion that these words also referred to some form of wider social phenomena, but let’s face it – if it doesn’t happen within the College of Architecture, it just doesn’t happen.  Then I switched to religious studies and my horizons split wide open.  About damn time, too.

For the vast majority of human history people enjoyed a kind of psychological stability even in the face of massive physical instability.  There were wars, famine, and disease that made life itself very precarious, but people generally knew ‘who’ they were.  They were born into their class, religion, and usually occupation, where the answers to existential questions were provided and rarely challenged.

Then about five-hundred years ago humanity entered the ‘Modern’ era with the rise of science and technology.  Many of the preexisting explanations to those pesky questions about life, the universe, and everything were challenged and thrown out the window, calling into question the whole body of traditional understanding, now safely separated and labeled ‘religion.’

However, one legacy of the ‘traditional’ period was a driving need for and belief in some form of universalizing theory.  We still wanted, perhaps needed, a coherent worldview or ideology.  In a way that ideology, collectively called ‘The Enlightenment’ (nothing Buddhist about it), simply supplanted older religious ideologies, but continued to perform the same function.

In time, that bubble burst as well.  The world globalized thanks to revolutions in transportation and communication.  Today’s level of cultural interaction is unprecedented.  Existential (the essential concern of religion in days gone by) questions are more conscious than ever before, allowing us to pick which worldview(s) we want to help us cope with our chaotic lives.  In the past it might not have occurred to us that the answers we were provided with at birth weren’t the only answers.  In fact, we might not even have been aware of the question.  It was simply how the world was.  Now, we are bombarded with knowledge of alternative viewpoints without even looking for them.

“When was the first time you learned about Hinduism?” Dr. Locke asked in class this week.  “Do you remember the day, place, time, or what it was you learned?  No!  You’ve just always know about it.  This alternative was always available should you decide to seek other answers.”

That multiplicity got us to thinking.  The Modern worldview cracked.  The so-called Enlightenment spilled wide open.   Things got dark and murky again. Now we live in this fractured time period we call, for lack of a better name, Postmodernism.


Postmodern Squirrel-Mind

“Woods (Being Postmodern, 1999), describes postmodernism as representing ‘a decline of faith in the keystones of the Enlightenment – belief in the infinite progress of knowledge, belief in infinite moral and social advancement, belief in teleology – and its rigorous definition of the standards of intelligibility, coherence and legitimacy.’ Postmodernism entails a critique, or in more virulent forms rejection, of modernism and its Enlightenment garb.

“…Postmodernism espouses views born out of a realization that knowledge can only ever be partial, fragmented and incomplete, and as such there is an anti-foundationalism that challenges and rejects the claims of universal organized bodies of knowledge that present themselves as mediating ‘neutral’, disinterested truth.” – Emmanual Lartey, In Living Color: an intercultural approach to pastoral care and counseling (2003)

So here we are, Buddhists living in a Postmodern age following a tradition whose very first teaching is The Four Noble Truths, not The Four Noble Relatively More Likelihoods.  What the hell?

In many ways, we were born skeptics.  That’s not a bad thing.  “Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith,” according to Paul Tillich.  Uncertainty and doubt make growth possible.  We have the ability to go deeper into religion than people every could before.  I’m thankful for that.

On the other hand, what precisely happens when a skeptical Postmodern person comes up against the universalizing tenants of a twenty-five-hundred year old religion?  The First Noble Truth of Suffering is as universal as truth can get.  Moreover, it’s recognizable.  When we hear that all living beings suffer, we respond “Well, duh!”  The other three Truths generally require a little more thought: suffering is caused by desire, we can be free from suffering, and there is a path that leads to freedom from suffering.  These are likewise presented as universals, applicable to all, but within them (including the first) there is room for doubt.  Yet we believe them anyway, and we believe in their universality.

Is this faith?  A Buddhist faith?

Lartey goes on to state that “Every human person is in certain respects: 1. LIKE ALL OTHERS 2. LIKE SOME OTHERS 3. LIKE NO OTHER.”  In other words, certain things are universal, some are contextual, and all are unique.  It sounds like a paradox, but when we consider our own situation, it makes sense.

All human beings share certain universals.  We are carbon-based life forms in need of water and oxygen for survival.  We are mammals who form (even today) tribal groups.  We suffer.

We also create cultures that distinguish our tribal group from others.  Even when living within a multicultural society, we prefer to hang out with our ‘tribe’ with who we share certain cultural traits with.  Those traits are used to distinguish our group from others.  We are mutually supportive.

Finally, we are individuals.  Our genetic code, finger prints, and voice patterns are unique.  No one will every share exactly the same experiences, thoughts, or emotions.  We are autonomous, though never independent.  To bring things full circle, individuality is universal.

Therefore, within this cracked Postmodern world there is room for simultaneous relativity and universality.  There is both doubt and truth. Call it a paradox, if you must.  I just call it delightful.


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