A First Step Beyond Postmodernism and Tribalism: A Soft Answer Turns Away Wrath


Postmodernism is a complex movement that defies an easy description. But one discernible aspect of the movement is to call into question the “universality of Truth.” As the argument goes, we all have our socially constructed views about the “Truth” relative to the matter at hand; but there is no “Truth” (with a capital “T”) that transcends our individual or group “truths” (with a lower-case “t”). This leads to an easy relativism; you have “your truth,” I have “my truth”; there is no point in talking about our “differing truths.”

I spent 40 years serving in the academy, where the merits and demerits of Postmodernism are hotly debated. But since my “retirement” (of sorts), in my attempts to orchestrate respectful conversations regarding contentious hot-button issues, especially political issues, with men and women on main street and the men and women sitting in church pews, my primary challenge has not been postmodernism; it has been quite the opposite.

In brief, most persons outside the halls of institutions of higher education are not conversant with the academic debates regarding postmodernism. And in my many conversations with them, not once have I heard anyone call into question the “universality of truth” that is called into question in Postmodernism.

Quite to the contrary, most of the people I have engaged with in  northwest Iowa hold to the “universality of truth” with a vengeance, by which I mean that whatever hot button issue is being discussed, they believe, with great emotion and passion that there is “Truth”  relative to that issue, and, furthermore, if you want to know what that Truth is, just ask them.

In brief, the challenge I have experienced again and again in engaging such persons is their belief that relative to the hot button issue they and those who agree with them have the Truth, the whole Truth and nothing but the Truth and “those other folks” who disagree with them do not possess one iota of that Truth, and in its most pernicious form they believe that because those “other folks” are completely wrong, they are evil and need to be demonized. Those “other folks” can be those who attend another church, or those who worship in another religious tradition. those who claim no religious commitment, or, in the political realm, those who belong to that other political party.

Therefore, my experience in the trenches of political conversations in northwest Iowa, especially in numerous conversations I have had about the need for comprehensive immigration  reform, the main challenge has been “tribalism,” an emotionally based “us-versus-them” mentality that believes that me and my group (our tribe) has the complete Truth about the issue at hand, and, therefore, there is nothing to be gained from engaging  “those other folks” in respectful conversations about our disagreements. (the same conclusion reached in Postmodernism, but for a different reason).

The lesson to be learned from this first segment (of three) of my Musing is the need to know your audience. The challenges you may face when attempting to orchestrate respectful conversations about strong disagreements in the academy will differ from those you face on main street or in your church (although, as I will only hint at in my third segment, the “place to start” in addressing these differing challenges may be similar).


I would like to “put in a good word” for a “soft version” of postmodernism (a friend of mine once called me a “soft postmodernist”). That begs for some explanation.

Whereas I reject a “strong postmodernism” that says that “Truth is a myth,” I believe there is truth in the postmodern assertion that our claims to knowing that Truth are socially conditioned., what has been called “perspectivalism.” Let me briefly elaborate.

As a finite, fallible human being, I do not have the mind of God that gives me access to “Truth” (with a capital “T”) about the issue at hand that may only be known to God  All of us human beings have only partial, fallible glimpses to that Truth, for as is taught in 1 Corinthians 13:12, we all “see through a glass darkly.” So, my partial glimpse of the Truth may differ from yours, reflecting my particular social location. Because of my personal pilgrimage, including my upbringing in a particular religious tradition, my socio-economic class, my gender, my unique experiences in life, I may see things that you miss. And, likewise, because of the unique elements of your personal pilgrimage you may see things that I miss.

Therefore, as we collectively seek to gain a better approximation to the Truth (as only God fully understands it) we need to listen to and talk respectfully to each other, so that we can learn from the particular insights into that Truth that emerge from our respective pilgrimages.

If I am right about that, this has potential implications for one element of how Christian scholars in the academy can engage non-Christin scholars regarding postmodernism (what I called the “Postmodern Opportunity” for “Christians in the Academy” in an article I published in the Winter 1996 issue of the Christian Scholar’s Review)

Briefly put, no one comes from nowhere. Every scholar, whatever his/her religious or secular worldview, has a set of beliefs about the nature of reality and his/her place in that reality, including a set of value commitments. The idea that Christian scholars and other religious scholars bring their value commitments to the academy while secular scholars are “neutral” is nonsense.

If I am right about that, then simple logic demands that all perspectives, religious or secular, should be “out on the table” for discussion on an “even playing field” in the academy.  In their conversations about postmodernism in the academy, Christian scholars should hold their colleagues to that logic.


I believe that the logic behind my call (immediately above) for an “even playing field” in the academy, where all perspectives regarding postmodernism and its implication for having respectful conversations about strong disagreements can gain a “fair hearing,” is impeccable. But the reality in many institutions of higher education is that this logic is generally ignored; perspectives informed by explicitly religious convictions are generally not welcome. I will leave it to those serving at such institutions of higher education to struggle with how best to address that obstacle. But in the remainder of this Musing, I will outline a “starting point” that I have found, without exception, to be effective in my attempts to orchestrate respectful conversations about strong disagreements among persons on main street and sitting in church pews, just hinting at the possibility that this strategy could also be effective as a “starting point” amongst academics who disagree about whether perspectives informed by explicitly religious convictions should be given a hearing in the academy.

My proposed “starting point” for embarking on respectful conversations about any controversial issue is the first of 12 steps that I propose as a “Way Forward” in my recent book Reforming American Politics: develop personal relationships of mutual understanding with those with whom you disagree.

The priority of this proposal flows from something that Richard Mouw, President Emeritus of Fuller Theological Seminary, once said about a radical change that he made in approaching someone who disagrees with him. He used to jump right into the fray, telling that person why he/she was wrong, which only led to defensiveness. Now he starts by saying to the other person “help me to understand what it is you believe about this issue and your reasons for believing that.”

Richard found that this way to start the conversation “softens the heart.” As the writer of Proverbs says (15:1), “A soft answer turns away wrath.” I have first-hand experience of the wisdom of this way to start a conversation in my many attempts to orchestrate respectful conversations about hot-button issues. It is wise because when the other person realizes that you are genuinely interested in understanding what he/she believes and why he/she holds to those beliefs, the other person will often reciprocate, leading to the quest for mutual understanding; which, hopefully, can lead to the trust needed to begin sorting through disagreements in the hope of finding some common ground, or, if that doesn’t happen, at least illuminating remaining disagreements sufficient to enable ongoing conversation.

To take this proposal beyond the level of abstraction, let me cite a concrete case where my educated guess is that this quest for mutual understanding once yielded common ground in the U. S. Senate relative to the hot-button issue of immigration. The year was 2013, and a “gang of eight” senators, four Republicans and four Democrats, crafted a bill for comprehensive immigration reform that included BOTH a pathway to citizenship (likely proposed primarily by the Democrats) AND appropriate fines along that pathway as punishment (hence this was not “amnesty”) for those who had entered the country illegally (likely proposed primarily by the Republicans).

The Senate passed this bill, but it died in the house. Is it possible that this bill died in the House primarily because the intransigence to the Tea Party members of the House precluded the strategy of gathering a similar “gang of eight” members of the House to reach bipartisan agreement based on first having achieved mutual understanding?

This failure is an example of what I believe is the primary dysfunction in current American politics: a severe hyper-partisanship that has succumbed to the “tribalism” of believing that my party has the Truth, the whole Truth and nothing but the Truth about the issue at hand and “those folks” in the “other party” are totally devoid of any aspect of the Truth about the matter.

This raises a critical question: What is the primary cause of such political tribalism that fuels hyper-partisanship? My response is that it reflects a lack of “humility.” Let me briefly explain.

When was the last time you heard a politician or political pundit say “I may be wrong?” That is almost unheard of because it is considered a sign of weakness (when it is actually a sign of immense strength). It reflects a failure to practice “humility.

It is important for me to note what I do NOT mean by “humility.” I do not mean that you should be wishy-washy about your beliefs. No! You should be willing to express your beliefs with clarity and deep conviction, even passion, True humility means that at the same time that you express your beliefs with deep conviction, you are open to the possibility that you could be wrong about some of your beliefs and, therefore, respectfully listening to and talking to someone who disagrees with you could help you to refine your beliefs; possibly even “correcting” some of them. That combination of commitment and openness is a rare commodity these days.

By now you may have detected what some would consider to be a fatal flaw in my proposal: You cannot legislate humility. Harold, you are living in la-la land, totally out of touch with political reality, if you think that all of a sudden a large number of politicians and their supporters are going to exemplify the humility that is needed to even begin the conversation that is necessary to first attain mutual understanding on  the path to seeking some common ground.

I cannot ignore the force of that objection. It is because of that objection that I decided about 7 or 8 years ago to initiate a Respectful Conversation project on my website, www.respectfulconversation.net, the main focus of which would NOT be to talk or write, in the abstract, about the need for respectful conversation (as I am doing at this very moment), but rather to “just do it” (to borrow a phrase from Nike).

But, how best to just do it? You will recall the old joke: What are the three most important things about selling real estate – location, location, location. I decided that the best way to promote a “better way” (a “Christian way”) for public discourse was to model, model, model.

So, to make a 7 or 8 year old story short, The electronic conversations (eCircles) that I have hosted on my website, which featured conversation partners (usually two in number) who I knew to have strong disagreements about the given hot button issue, talking respectfully to each other about their disagreements and the subsequent  books I have published that attempt to capture the highlights of these eCircles are intended to “model” the respectful conversations that I call for.

Now, readers of this Musing will have to read the many electronic postings on some hot-button issues that appear on my website, or less onerously, read the resulting books to judge whether they model respectful conversations about hot-button issues. My opinion, no doubt biased, is that they do model respectful conversation to an admirable degree, with an amazing by-product, the actual uncovering of some common ground, which in my latest book meant uncovering some common ground relative to such hot-button political issues as  the role of money in politics, immigration, the disparity between the rich and poor in America and healthcare.

You may ask whether my attempts at “modeling” respectful conversations about hot-button issues will be “successful” in inspiring others to do likewise. That is not my first question. My first question is whether I am being “faithful” to my understanding of my commitment to being a follower of Jesus. By God’s grace, I am at least aspiring to be “faithful” to my understanding that, given the call of Jesus for his followers to love others, to provide someone who disagrees with you a safe and welcoming space to express that disagreement and then to talk respectfully about your disagreement is a deep expression of love (which is the underlying premise behind my Respectful Conversation project).

As to the possibility of my Respectful Conversation project being “successful” in inspiring others to do likewise, I hope and pray that all who profess to be followers of Jesus will “do likewise” because to do so is a deep expression of the love for others, to which Jesus calls his followers. But there are many persons who hold to other religious or secular faiths who are also committed to loving others. I hope and pray that they will also “do likewise.”

Having said that, however, I leave the issue of “success” in God’s hands. Claiming the truth of the Parable of the Mustard Seed, as recorded in Matthew 13: 31-32, I believe I am called to “partner with God” as God works to foster the Kingdom of God, on earth as it is in heaven, by planting tiny seeds of redemption. I view my Respectful Conversation project as a tiny seed of redemption that God has gifted to me. I can only envision a fruitful harvest through the eyes of faith. I entrust that harvest to God.