I found this note in my editorial diary. It was an undated entry, but I suppose it was probably written several months ago.
Language is only a tool of communication, like a finger pointing to the moon or a boat crossing a river.
As long as it serves the purpose of communicating a message for the intended audience in a way that is (hopefully) clear, it doesn’t really matter whether the message is “perfect” in grammar.
As the saying goes, when the boat reaches the destination, we don’t need the boat anymore.
Likewise, I believe that there is something that transcends editing, or that transcends the limitations of the written word.
A poorly constructed or poorly edited sentence sometimes may be more impactful than an impeccably composed but dry, prosaic prose.
How impactful a piece of writing is depends on factors such as:
who the writer is
the context or circumstances in which it is written
who the audience is
For example, a heartfelt thank you note from a child that is clumsily written is worth more than a contrived speech that is pedantically delivered by a conservative politician who supports the oppressive empire.
I am inspired and encouraged upon reading and learning about post-modernism recently, as it gave me a better understanding of how this philosophical movement, so to speak, came about, which helps people to question established ideologies and practices, especially those that have inadvertently caused oppression and discrimination in the world today, and encourage people to find ways to liberate themselves and others from such oppression and discrimination.
“Certainty versus mystery” and “illusion versus reality”
I think I can probably summarise post-modernism (or post-structuralism) as I understand it as follows:
Modernism (or structuralism) = certainty (based on concrete structures)
Post-modernism (or post-structuralism) = mystery (based on abstract reality)
For example, organised religions such as institutitional churches tend to develop structuralism in their doctrines and practices, opting for certainty and using literal intepretation of the Bible as “absolute truths”. However, by doing so, they are missing the metaphors and symbolism in the scriptures. Hence, post-structuralism seeks to demolish the strongholds imposed by such doctrines, and restore mystery into the spiritual lives of people for them to appreciate and explore with awe and wonder. Another form of modernism in institutional churches is the establishment of power structures and hierarchy in their systems, so I would say post-modernist christianity would seek to question and critique such establishments so as to liberate people from actual and potential oppression and discrimination.
Materialism = illusion of reality (based on the five senses)
Mysticism = reality beyond illusion (based on the sixth sense – intuition)
Similarly, materialism that has developed through science and technology and promotes consumerist cultures tends to give people an illusion of reality. For example, the more people define “advancement of civilisation” by the physical evidence of highways, skyscrapers and material comfort, the deeper they enmesh themselves in their own illusion because materialism is not the ultimate reality. Hence, mysticism can be seen as a key to restore the sense of reality that goes beyond the illusion of the material world. Post-modernism, including the emergent movement, can also be a step towards this direction to help people realise we are all connected and there is no separation between us (humanity) and God (divinity) and one another.
The Zen of post-modernism?
On a similar note, here’s sharing this excerpt from a blog about post-modern spirituality that resonates with me.
“This article above all comes into conflict with duality, beginning with the post-modern theme of deconstruction, or what the ancients called asceticism or κένωσις, emptying out of self. The technique is used in monastic mysticism as much as Zen and Buddhist meditation. We suspend judgement and thought and renounce all earthly attachment. Theories are de-constructed and welet go of knowledge and even belief. We thus transcend the duality of all dialectical opposites and become open to a higher reality.”
Yes, I would also see Zen meditation as part of post-modernism to deconstruct any ideology or belief system that has taken root and impeded one’s understanding of a higher reality, so to speak. After all, post-modernism is about questioning power structures and social constructs, and meditation and “emptying the mind” can be a useful tool to let go of any doctrine or dogma that has been imposed by organised religions. It may be a means of living with non-attachment to ideologies and concepts, which enables one to simply be in the moment and go with the flow of one’s intuition.
A finger pointing to the moon?
I think post-modernism is also a response to “declutter” the information overload as a result of modernism. To put it in another way, post-modernism could be a reminder to people not to be caught up with ideas, concepts and words because these are merely tools or instruments to convey deeper truths about some entity or phenomenon. Whether it be art or science or religion or philosophy, many theories and theologies in these fields have become formalised and established and institutionalised to the point a number of people have become attached to them. As a result, the theories and theologies become dogma, which can create oppression and divisions among those who disagree with one another.
So, post-modernism could be a way to remind people that ultimately, all ideas, concepts and words may serve as a finger pointing to the moon at the most, metaphorically speaking, and they are not the absolute truths in and of themselves. The moment people use words to define and describe something, such as God, they are in a way putting God into their box. While there is a place to use words to describe God (in order to communicate ideas with one another to make a connection), perhaps people need to go beyond words to convey the essence of God. This is probably where silence and meditation comes into the picture. Like what Peter Rollins said in his interview regarding his new book “The idolatry of God” (if I remember correctly), God is not something we can objectify, but rather God is found in the very act of loving itself.
Navigating the matrix of the mind
Also, how we understand and experience life in all its fullness depends on our perception. So it’s all in the mind, so to speak. I am reminded of Max Planck’s quote as follows:
“All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind. This mind is the matrix of all matter.”
So, since the mind is the matrix of all matter, it is our individual minds that create the various theories and philosophies we have today, whether we call them existentialism or nihilism or structuralism, etc. Similarly, when it comes to the gospel in christianity, how the gospel story unfolds depends on how each person perceives the story in one’s mind. In reality, there is no sin, no salvation, no heaven, and no hell. These are only mental constructs or concepts that were created by ancient people to tell stories in order to make sense of their own lives and the world around them. These are only opinions and viewpoints that later became widely accepted in the Jewish and other ancient traditions, that are being passed on through generations even until today.
So, when people realise this, they will be liberated from any kind of religious dogma. They will learn to follow their own intuition and not accept any teaching from others that is fear-based or condemning. I would say post-modernism is simply about deconstructing a structural mind (that has developed as a result of modernism and institutionalisation of ideas) and experiencing a Zen (emptiness) mind that is free from dogma and is marked by bliss and love.
Why post-modernism may be demonised by some institutional churches
It is partly thanks to Peter Rollins that I got to explore and understand a bit more about post-modernism and post-structuralism. I learnt from Wikipedia that he is about same age as me, and he probably revels in being labelled as a “heretic” (as his Ikon is described as that) since he is passionately seeking to challenge the norms and traditions of the institutional church system.
“Peter Rollins (born Belfast, 31 March 1973) is an Irish writer, lecturer, theologian, and philosopher who is associated with the emerging church movement and postmodern Christianity. He is also the founder of the experimental collective Ikon. Ikon describes itself as iconic, apocalyptic, heretical, emerging and failing and engages in what it calls theodrama and ‘transformance art’.”
I guess Peter Rollins has seen enough of the dark side of the institutional church and its controlling system, hence he probably wanted to address this problem by exploring and sharing about post-modern theology. I like this approach too as it questions not only Christian fundamentalism but also atheist materialism. It is typical perhaps of some institutional churches to “demonise” post-modern Christianity because the authorities do not want their congregations to question or challenge their ideologies, theologies and practices, which is unfortunate. I can only hope that more people will somehow come out of institutional religions and question the status quo, and draw their own conclusions and trust their own intuition, as I am also learning to do so myself so far.
Keeping the mystery of God/Divine/Universe alive
Here’s sharing with you an excerpt of the chapter on postmodern theology from the book “The modern theologians”.
“The postmodern God is emphatically the God of love, and the economy of love is kenotic.
Postmodernism, read theologically, is not the erasure of the divine. Rather, it defines the space within which the divine demands to be taken into account. The divine arrives with endless institution of the question – Levina’s “enigma”, Cixous’s “mystery”. Helene Cixous, Jewish by origin, pupil of Derrida, co-founder of Ecriture feminine, confesses: “When I have finished writing, when I am a hundred and ten, all I have done will have been to attempt a portrait of God. Of the God. Of what escapes us and make us wonder. Of what we do not know but feel. Of what makes us live.”
(From “The modern theologians”)
Yes, post-modern theology would help keep the mystery of God/Divine/Universe alive in people’s evolution of consciousness, as they stay open and childlike to appreciate the mystery with wonder and awe.
Finally, here’s sharing this blog, in which I agree with the observation that mystics, artists, poets and children are all “progressives” because post-modernism, as I understand it, is very open and accepting to the panentheistic concept of God is in all.
“Mystics, too, see the world and God “as if for the first time” as they cast aside expectations and look beyond tradition to embrace imagination as spiritual artists and poets, and welcome fresh insight as spiritual children. Remember the famous story of Thomas Merton’s vision at a Louisville intersection, after a prolonged solitary retreat, that people were “walking around shining like the sun.”
Mystics, artists, poets, and children are all “progressives” in this sense.”
Maybe that is why Jesus (who is a progressive mystic himself) says that when we become like little children, we will see/receive/experience the kingdom of God (innocence/righteousness, peace and joy within us), and our intuition and imagination can help us see this truth in the symbolism of the world around us, especially in Nature (including flowers, sky, trees, clouds, ocean, and so on).
In view of the above interesting quote, I suppose swearing can be seen as a form of catharsis, which is perfectly normal. In some contexts, such as friends conversing with one another, using swear words to let off steam when relating about a frustrating event is okay as friends understand each other and do not take offense. In public, there is a chance of other people misunderstanding, so usually swear words are less often used. I read in this article that swear words have been used for centuries, and there is a place for such emotional release ,which is healthy actually.
“There may be another reason why we swear so much. Studies by psychologist Timothy Jay, of the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, have found that swearing can provide both emotional release and relief from pain.
“People have a sense of catharsis, they feel better after using this kind of language,” Jay told Discovery News. “Most people look at swearing as a bad thing that you shouldn’t do, without asking what the positive aspects of it are.”
To condemn politicians for swearing in private contexts, as Biden did, is nothing but hypocritical, Jay said. In many social settings, like among teenagers or rugby players, he added, it would be strange not to use foul language.”
The closest I came to using swear words in public is probably a blog I posted about a year ago, entitled “What the hell is the preacher talking about?” as I was angry about the fear tactics the preacher was using on the audience.
Yes, words have the power to create or destroy a moment. I think this is because words, like thoughts, are spirit and can convey a person’s intention and emotional energies. It takes constant awareness or mindfulness for each person to choose words carefully when communicating with others in order to minister life and peace, though everyone falls short from time to time for various reasons (which is part of being human). Meditation practitioners understand the importance of words to create moments of inner peace, such as “om” or some other mantra, to help them focus and reconnect themselves to their true self and their oneness with the universe.
Yes, it is part of the human psyche for us to be a little guarded in our conversations with others at times. We usually do not want to show our emotions too much (yet) as it can be hard to gauge how others would respond. So in such times, it is normal and understandable for us to downplay our feelings a little in conversations, with comments such as “I’m just kidding”, “I don’t know”, “I don’t care” or “It’s ok”.
As noted in the above quote, there is usually a deeper truth or feeling underneath these comments, and it takes an extra sensitivity on the part of the receiver to pick up the nuances behind the verbal cues to understand the feelings of the speaker. For example, in this video, I guess Chris Rock would probably grin and tell the reporters “I’m just kidding” about his message, but behind his apparent joke there is a little truth that he is actually seriously appalled by the racial stereotypes and discrimination, just that he chose to bring across his message in a light-hearted manner so that it is more well received by the audience; thus, delivering the lesson to them in a less painful but no less truthful way, since they can laugh at themselves and come to the realisation of the truth at the same time.
Similarly, many a times when people say “I don’t care” or “it’s ok”, they do care a little or they do hurt a little, but they chose not to bring it to others’ attention and prefer to keep their feelings to themselves, unless they feel comfortable to share about their feelings more openly when the timing feels right or when they are assured that the listeners will not judge them but accept them for who they are and how they are feeling.
I learnt from this website that the above quote was an adapted version of another quote by a certain James Nicoll who wanted to point out that English itself is not a pure language but rather is a syncretic language that borrows, adapts or infuses elements from other languages or dialects from other cultures.
I suppose James Nicoll could be attempting to paint an imagery of English colonialism with his quote, likening the general attitude of English colonialists who had in times past sought new lands and taken their resources, at the expense of the natives, though they also contributed to developing the lands, to some extent.
My understanding of the history of the English language is that it evolved from the Germanic language in medieval Europe – according to this article, “the obscure Germanic dialect which transcended its humble origins to become a global lingua franca used by more people in more parts of the world than any other language in history.”
The English spelling itself goes through a continual transformation, as it borrows extensively from French, Latin, Greek and other languages. People of various cultures continue to coin new spellings, depending on how they use the words and how popular these words are used over time. According to this article, English dictionaries tend to feature the more popular spellings to reflect their relevance.
So in retrospect, English is dynamic, not static, as it is a living expression of the ways people communicate with one another. It is a syncretic language, just as Christianity is a syncretic religion – both are not pure but rather a mishmash of ideas and traditions that have borrowed, adapted or infused from other cultures over time, and both are still evolving today. Different countries have also adopted their own versions of colloquial English in daily conversations – Japanese use Japlish, Singaporeans use Singlish and Canadians use Canadian English, and so on. Interesting, eh?