Postmodern culture is, among other things, all about the subjectivization of everything. It is, like all heretical impulses, based on part of the truth, but (like heresies) it ignores other truths inconvenient to the heretic to focus on the things it likes.
In this case, the truth can be roughly stated this way: when you read a book, it is *you* reading the book. This means that while the book itself is unchanging data–the same text of Green Eggs and Ham meets your eyes as meets mine–you nonetheless bring something .different to that encounter with the text than I do: yourself. So there is always going to be a subjective component to any engagement with allegedly “hard data”. How that data germinates inside you will result in all kinds of different uses and interpretations. Even something as allegedly bulletproof as “2+2=4” will in different minds result in wildly different interpretations. Most people will read it as a simple mathematical equation. But some will read as the first line of poem, the punchline of a joke, or as the basis of an exercise in calligraphy.
The problem comes, not in noting that there is a subjective component in all encounters between the human mind and hard data, but in leaping to the heretical conclusion that there is therefore no such thing as hard data: that things are only as we think them and that, with sufficient applications of will power, we can always bend reality to our will. That we can make 2+2=5. This is a profoundly blasphemous idea (since God, not we and our capricious will, is the ultimate Author of reality).
This notion that we are the ultimate creators of reality is, of course, the basis of the great lie we call the fall of man. “You shall be like gods, knowing the difference between good and evil.” In our culture, it is the lie undergirding abortion culture: the redefinition of human beings into thinghood. We tell ourselves that we can simply will that a developing human person is whatever we say he is. If we choose to call the baby a baby, then that is what he is. If we will to call that person a piece of fetal material, then that is what he is and he may be disposed of forthwith. The technical name for this will to bend fundamental reality into whatever shape we choose is “pride”.
You can also see it expressed in the notion of some higher levels of academe and law that there is no such thing as a text, merely the ideas we project upon a text, or in the notion that sex and gender are nothing but constructs and things we project upon the human body. The latter is said on Tuesdays and Thursdays by transgender apologists. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, one’s gender and sexual identity is entirely inborn and so gay people are “born with way” in the immortal words of Lady Gaga. The point of both completely irreconcilable lines of argument is “Shut up and approve of whatever I will to do” because the real point is the exaltation of the imperial autonomous will as the highest good.
The triumph of the will over reality is increasingly a mark of postmodern culture. And that culture increasingly permeates everything, not just “liberalism”. Indeed, Movement Conservatism has done a bangup job of joining the rush to euphemize and redefine reality for years now. The most obvious example of this has been, of course, the attempt to redefine torture as “enhanced interrogation” (precisely the same term the Gestapo adopted, by the way). But it is seen in all sorts of reality-denying tactics. Kyle Cupp, for instance, takes apart the literally incredible attempt by Michael Novak to deny the obvious catastrophe of the Iraq War. “The concept of preventive war is not in the Catechism” was the more-than-adequate answer Cardinal Ratzinger, in union with the pope and all the bishops of the world, gave to the lie that this even remotely met just war criteria. When you have the whole magisterium against you, common sense says to consider the possibility you are wrong, not dig in. But postmodern conservatism, just like postmodern liberalism, believes in the triumph of the will over reality.
Sometimes the results are hilarious, as when postmodern fundamentalists (including, by the the way, some Catholic homeschoolers, I am surprised to learn) make war on reality by denying both that dinosaurs existed and that there are any such things as fossils. (It’s all a conspiracy by Big Science, doncha know.) Similarly, the silliness of the postmodern conservative Catholic mania for geocentrism is likewise a vigorous attempt to torture data until it bends to the will of cranks. More dangerously, the notion that science is for eggheads and poindexters and reg’lar folk can make reality bend to our will by slapping it around and telling it who is boss has given us postmodern conservatives, entrusted with the public good who go on repeating the utterly exploded fraud (disproven by over 150 studies) that vaccines cause autism, as well as fresh quackery from pols who believe the digestive tract leads to the uterus and who assure us that cancer is a fungus you can just rinse out.
Now the thing about all this sort of triumph of the will over reality thinking (aka “pride”) is that it makes you feel really good about yourself, much as a man having a nice dream feels really good. But it does not actually prepare you for that thing called “reality” just as the dreamer is not prepared for the thief in the night. And the more deeply we wrap ourselves in our comforting delusions and lies about the real nature of reality, the more rude the awakening is when reality finally becomes undeniable.
Here, for instance, is the flagship of postmodern conservative reality denial having to (briefly) confront its own lies, self-deception, and refusal to address the demand for the virtue of prudence (that is, the clear-eyed recognition of what is so):
Of course, this network, alas, remains on the air continuing to be the leading purveyor of postmodern conservatism, just as organizations like Planned Parenthood continue to trade in unreality about the human person. And, as is the custom with those who prefer to assert the triumph of the will over reality, each points to the other as the locus of evil in the universe. More than that, each accuses anybody calling for the virtue of prudence (I repeat, “the clear-eyed recognition of what is so”) that they are tools and stooges of the other.
So the response of the Left to criticism of abortion is not to look at the elementary facts of human fetal development (as Atheists for Life wittily put it “For the Embryology Textbook Tells Me So”) but to descend into mystical fog about “the moment of ensoulment” or worse, to declare the defender of the unborn part of a right wing conspiracy against women etc.
Meanwhile, on the right, the genetic fallacy, blameshifting, and guilt by association are some of the most beloved tools in maintaining the bubble of epistemic closure and stalwart defense against the blandishments of reality. The response to a video like the one above is not “How could we have blinded ourselves to reality so badly when hard math was pointing at our defeat?” but “I don’t listen to liberals!”. That’s a sure fire formula for eventual destruction and defeat, not only in politics, but much more, in life since truth is not determined by who is telling it to us, but by hard reality, whether we like the messenger or not.
That’s why there is Lent. Lent is the time for abandoning the program, as old as the Apple, of trying to be like gods and bend reality to our will. This is not, of course, to say that we are to adopt a passive quietism which does nothing, is too timid to actively love, and waits around for God to do everything instead of us taking up the active works of mercy in the world. Rather, it’s to say that Lent is the time for facing the fact that God is God and we are not. That we are not our own. That we were bought with a price. So we are to actively and vigorously cooperate with God in loving neighbor and tending the Garden, not actively and vigorously create fantasy worlds in the service of our appetites and will to power.
Those outside the household of faith will have no more success than we will at reality denial and should be pitied when, as inevitably happens, their exercises in denialism come crashing in. Paul speaks of this when he tells the Thessalonians:
When people say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a woman with child, and there will be no escape. But you are not in darkness, brethren, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all sons of light and sons of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. For those who sleep sleep at night, and those who get drunk are drunk at night. But, since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we wake or sleep we might live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing. (1 Th 5:3–11).
For this reason Jesus tells us: Those to whom much is given, much will be required. The thing to do is to disengage from being blown about the winds of this world and to set our sails to the wind of the Spirit by listening to the Church, not human ideologies that blind us to reality. A good passage to meditate on in this regard is from Ephesians 4:
I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, beg you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all. But grace was given to each of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it is said,
“When he ascended on high he led a host of captives,
and he gave gifts to men.”
(In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ; so that we may no longer be children, tossed back and forth and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love. (Eph 4:1–16).
The principalities and powers of this world will sometimes promise you their friendship in order to use you. But it is only Christ who is our friend who tell us the truth that builds us up and doesn’t flatter us with lies.