Big problems in society, in the Church, or in our selves, often feel intractable. The same problems recur again and again, followed by the same arguments, the same promises to do better, and on and on it goes. It’s easy to feel hopeless and despair of finding a way forward.
One truth that has never let me known in this, however, is that we are going to change, we have to start from where we are and from what we have. Wherever we are at, individually and collectively, we need to leverage our strengths and our existing values to help move us forward.
As a helpful (if grossly overgeneralized) shorthand, we can speak of the contemporary West as being divided amongst three major worldviews: traditional, modernist, and postmodern.
- The traditional worldview is all about community and continuity. Its strengths are in forging strong and lasting ties through relationships, values of duty and sacrifice, and through shared stories. Its scope is family, community, and the nation as an extension of that shared heritage.
- The modernist worldview is about science, progress, universal values, and building systems. Its scope is the nation as founded upon its principles and constitution, and the world inasmuch as it can be viewed as an extension of the nation and its values. (Hence the rise of both literal and economic empires as the hallmark modern political organizations.)
- The postmodern worldview values equity and the legitimacy of each person’s experience. It includes, at its best, everyone, but it approaches this not through universals but through specifics. Its scope is the world for its own sake, not for how much might own group might get from it. (We could say that while modernism is globalist, postmodernism is international. Modernism is the melting pot, postmodernism is the mosaic.)
I bring these up because the solutions to our problems, whether as individuals or as societies, are going to look very differently from each of these perspectives. And if we really want positive change — and if we really want to change in order to make that change happen — it’s important to use language and concepts that make sense to our audience (even if the ‘audience’ we are hoping to influence is ourselves!).
If we take something like racism, it cannot be denied that traditional cultures or subcultures are more prone to overt xenophobia and racism than the others. The focus on shared beliefs and heritage makes it hard for traditional groups to engage well with difference. But that doesn’t mean that the traditional worldview is inherently racist. There have in fact been people throughout the ages who fought against what we now call racism and xenophobia. Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan is a perfect example of a traditionalist attack on racist attitudes. And, one of the most ancient and traditional values in many parts of the world was what the Greeks called philoxenia, the hospitality shown to strangers. These values can be used to overcome the xenophobic tendencies in a traditional group.
Similarly, the structures of modernism codified racism, but they also contain within them powerful tools to help dismantle it. If we look South of the border, the bold pronouncement of that quintessentially modernist document known as the Declaration of Independence, that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” has been the most successful driver of political, social, and legislative change imaginable.
Postmodernism, for its part, is right to call out modernism for its homogenizing and assimilationist tendencies, but, in the process, can easily lose sight of modernism’s ‘universal’, ‘self-evident’ truths. But again, we can can use its strengths — the value it places of lived experience, holistic solutions, and giving everyone a voice — to grow it into a healthier place. Two great examples postmodern growth are trauma-informed counseling and the increased focus on intersectionality, which both use the specifics of individual experiences of marginalization and pain to address universal problems from a ground of empathy. This, in turn, is a great place from which we can begin to build coalitions to make lasting change.
The point of sharing these examples is that there aren’t one-size-fits-all solutions to big problems, especially in a society with as much diversity in worldview as our own. But no matter where we are at, we can grow. And no matter how we’re growing, we can only do this from starting where we are.
So, start here. And start here now.