The Surfacing of Postmodernity

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The most important lesson from the West German Greens may be that we do not have to hide our deepest longings and highest ideals to be politically effective.

The values and ideology which suggest a “post modern” politics–decentralism, globalism, stewardship, participatory democracy, community and so forth–are surfacing in many arenas, including the peace movement, environmentalism, the women’s movement, consumer activism, and elsewhere. Several recent works indicate the depth of ferment and rethinking in the religious world and among networks of community organizations.

In 1965, the publication of Harvey Cox’s Secular City marked perhaps the highwater mark of modern theology. Such theology, as Cox himself has described, “emerged out of a cultural milieu in which religion was in retreat and skepticism seemed to be gaining on every hand.” Cox’s new work, Religion in the Secular City, addresses a radically changed environment. “Today it is the cultural milieu from which modern theology grew that is in retreat and disarray,” he writes. Cox points to the revival of religious sensibility all around the world, with its authoritarian and dangerous potentials as well as its liberatory, democratic dimensions and promise. And he calls for a “post-modern” theology drawing from “the margins and the periphery . . . from those places where Christians are poor,… from the churches that live under political despotism . . . from the American churches of blacks and poor whites; from those women who are agonizing together holistic, noncompetitive ideals into their everyday political life. Without developing supportive structures and new modes of behavior, even new-paradigm groups regress to competitive, distrustful, “power-over” patterns under the stress of political work. Since the new politics must be about the way people treat one another as well as the grand causes, frequent evaluations of political process are essential. What you get is how you do it. The most important lesson from the West German Greens may be that we do not have to hide our deepest longings and highest ideals to be politically effective. The need for such effectiveness is starkly apparent during an election year as we once again watch the over what it means to be Christian and female in a church that has perpetuated patriarchy for two millenia.” The democratic populist religious spirit Cox notes, moreover, begins to appear even within the institutional mainstream–such as the forthcoming statement of the Catholic Bishops on capitalism, which is expected to have a marked communitarian, decentralized cast.

Like the diverse populist impulses in the religious world, much of the rebirth of community organizing in recent years has had a purely local character and has remained disconnected, in particular, from any broader vision of social and political change. But there are many signs that this, too, is changing. For instance, the new book by Gar Alperowitz and Jeff Faux, Rebuilding America, challenges economic orthodoxy on both left and right and stresses, as an alternative, community-based, participatory approach to economic revival. Conventional policy, they observe, “places no value on community. It favors policy that assists ‘people’ rather than ‘places.’ “And a work forthcoming this August, Robert Fisher’s Let the People Decide: A History of Neighborhood Organizing in America, charts the historical background for the recent explosion of community organizing efforts, and suggests the implications of a “new populist politics.”

This article originally appeared in Utne Reader’s Summer 1984 issue as a sidebar to Greening the Whole Earth: Germany and the Greens. For more similar, see A Green America, Green Politics in the United States, andShifting Power from Federal Government to Bioregions.

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