The following is the fifth of a series of articles under a general symposium title of “Being Church in the Age of Trump,” which will appear in hard copy in January as part of the fall/winter edition of the journal @ this point: theological investigations in church and culture. The journal, published by Columbia Theological Seminary and oriented toward laity, offers CTS faculty and others a chance to engage our wider constituencies around a particular issue/idea. The title for this edition of @ this point will be “Reflections After the Election.”
The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr taught us to expect ironic reversals of history, wherein even the best intended developments in human society would give rise to forces that contradicted the progress of justice.
We are humans and not God, Niebuhr reminded us. Our efforts are finite and laced with the traces of our own sinful pretension. We always imagine ourselves to be building the solution to all of humanity’s problems. But the solution to humanity’s problems is always found beyond anything that we can build. We are reminded of this when our expected order collapses around us.
It is a supreme irony in this political season that the upshot of postmodernity is the election of a man with a tyrannical personality favored primarily by the undereducated, white, male population in the United States. Postmodernity, which arose in many ways as a rejection of imperialism, colonialism, and racism, ends up being entirely compatible with new modes of imperialism, colonialism, and racism. We have just lived through the first truly postmodern election in American history, and it did not produce what most postmodern thinkers might have expected.
To understand this, it is helpful to step back and look at the history that has led us to this point. Modernity, according to its own narrative, was a solution to the sectarian strife that laid waste to Europe in the “wars of religion.” With the collapse of Christendom, appeals to divine guidance in morality and politics grounded irreconcilable visions of the good.
Here the irony was that appeals to the transcendent God came to justify particular and divisive denominational standards for life and politics. The Reformation ultimately ended not in the rejuvenation of Christianity, but with conflict that set Christian against Christian.
The modernist solution was to strip religion of its public power, to privatize appeals to religious authority and practice. Appeals to authority in public were now to be directed toward “reason” or “common sense,” however we wished to name that human faculty that transcended the parochialism of tribe and religion.
Of course, the moderns never actually agreed on exactly what reason or common sense required. Modernity left a promissory note to fill in the details of its key doctrine later. In the meantime, Europeans decided to spread the universal gospel of rational life across the globe. The spread of “universal culture” followed the concept of universal human reason. One Reason. One Truth. One form of Human Life. From the English Empire to the spread of the secular state to the globalization of capitalist free trade, modernity assured us that we were always one step away from realizing the end of history in the establishment of our final rational form of life for everyone.
Thus did appeals to universal reason come to justify distinctly European cultures lording over the rest of the globe and destroying competing cultures in the process. No human scheme escapes the taint of sin, and none proceeds without irony. Modernity was not so much an alternative to the cultural hegemony of Christendom as its replacement under a different name.
The church had been replaced by the state, revelation had been replaced by reason. The centers of power had moved from the ecclesial to the secular, but they had become no more universal, no more impartial, no less sectarian. Universal reason was not a solution to the problem of religious diversity, it was a bludgeon used to vanquish those who challenged the imperial colonizing power of the modern state.
Postmodernity not only offered a critique of modernity, but sought to solve the problems constituted by modernity. What was needed was a new relativism, a new humility, a new attention to local languages and reasons in which we could embody and respect difference. The vision and the reality, again, inevitably clashed.
Unveiling the bias in all claims to universal truth, postmodernity endorsed a fundamental skepticism toward “hegemonic” modern sources of information. Especially untrustworthy were those which could be considered the mouthpieces of power brokers of society. Knowledge started at home, and whatever system of justification one accepted should be one that justified the claims that locals knew to be true.
American politics in 2016 offers the latest ironic turn, where, hoisted upon its own petard, postmodernity becomes the structure that justifies exactly the kind of evil that it was set up to oppose. President-elect Trump capitalized on appeals to the particularity of race, religion, class, etc. His was a white, rural identity politics. He also rode the wave of popular rejection of universal society in the form of globalization and free trade. The followers of Donald Trump embraced localized epistemology to oppose the “hegemony” of fact-checkers. They embraced supreme skepticism toward the “mainstream media,” which they saw as pushing the narrative of the political and economic elite. Trump’s campaign was thoroughly postmodern.
It will do no good to note that this was not what the postmodern elite wanted; that they intended to construct a bulwark against exactly the kind of racism, xenophobia, and religious prejudice that Donald Trump represents. That is the way irony works.
This is a dark time in American politics. And we should not understate the depth of the darkness. In voting for Donald Trump, the American people have voted against the deepest values embodied in a democracy. And there is no guarantee that things get better from here. There are certainly historical precedents for a deeper slide, and we cannot turn our faces away from this possibility. For the immediate future, we must (ironically) trust in the restraining power of bureaucracy and dysfunctional government.
But it is also true that history provides no final ground for cynicism either. God is never inactive, even in the ironic reversals of history. For every Christendom there is a Franciscan revolution. For every rise in denominationalism there is a new reformation. For every modern state there are new statements of ideals of freedom and equality. And postmodern humility will not be ultimately defeated by pride.
In the light of sin we must expect ironic reversals of history. But in the light of grace this is no reason to abandon the struggle for the good. We do not provide our own salvation, but we testify that God takes up our imperfect efforts and perfects them in the fullness of time, so that even the deepest of darknesses in history does not eliminate the light.
Kevin Carnahan is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Central Methodist University. A former president of the Niebuhr Society, he is the author of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Ramsey (Lexington Books, 2010).