Moderne, Postmoderne und wir

It has been wonderful to page through First Things 20th Anniversary Issue—and not only because of its priceless, circa-early-90s pictures of the neocon clan.  The issue also features some excellent First Things essays which I have never read, like Joseph Bottom’s “Christians and Postmoderns” from February 1994.  Alas, I wasn’t a ROFTER at age ten.

Reading the essay caused some latent neurons in my head to refire as I began again to consider a question I have often mulled over: Which poses a greater threat to Christianity, modernity or postmodernity?

Were I submitting this essay to a professor for a grade, I would need, at this point, to stop and define what I mean by modernity and postmodernity.  But since I am not handing the essay in for a grade and want to avoid writing a many-thousand word blog post, let me omit positing a definition of modernity—and trust that the term is more or less clear—and proceed straightaway to the difficult task of grabbing the slippery fish of postmodernity and holding it still long enough to slap a definition on it.

J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig offer a helpful discussion of postmodernity in the book Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview.  While recognizing the difficulty in defining postmodernity due to its diversity and its tendency toward a rejection of things rather than a positive affirmation of them, Moreland and Craig nevertheless name seven characteristics of postmodernity which may serve as our general definition.  First, postmodernity offers an antirealist rejection of a traditional metaphysical realism that would affirm such things as a theory-independent or language-independent reality, that there is one way that the world really is, and that the basic laws of logic apply to reality.  Instead, “reality” is a social construction for postmoderns.  Second, postmodernity eschews a correspondence theory of truth.  Third, postmoderns disavow the existence of a predefined rationality or any universal, transcultural standards for determining whether a belief is true or false, rational or irrational, good or bad.  Fourth, on the epistemological front, postmoderns reject foundationalism.  Fifth, postmoderns reject the existence of universals and essentialism, instead positing some type of nominalism.  Sixth, concerning language and thought, postmodernity claims, among other things, that items of language, such as literary texts, do not have an authorial meaning and that there is no such thing as thinking without language.  Finally, postmodernity claims that there are no metanarratives, meaning that there is no way to decide which among competing worldviews is true and, moreover, that there is no single worldview which is true for everyone.  (N.B.: I will use postmodernity to refer to philosophy embodying these characteristics, and not in the broader sense simply of philosophy that comes after modernity or rejects modernity.  Thus, certain theologies or philosophies that claim to be postmodern—Radical Orthodoxy, for example—I do not consider postmodern in the sense that I am using the term here.)

As I have noted before, Charles Taylor has described our society as a three-cornered battle.  In one corner are those of religious faith who posit that there is an ultimate good beyond the limits of human life.  Another corner features secular humanists who contend that there is no good beyond human flourishing.  Finally, the last corner belongs to a variety of neo-Nietzscheans who reject the idea of a human good, whether in this life or beyond.  Others have named the same phenomenon with different labels.  Tracey Rowland, relying heavily on the work of Alasdair MacIntyre, has explored the competing visions of the theistic tradition, liberal tradition, and genealogical tradition.  The descriptions of Taylor and Rowland generally align with the dominant currents of theism (in the West, especially Christianity), modernity, and postmodernity, respectively.

With the ground thus surveyed, let me suggest three reasons why I believe, at the present moment, modernity poses a greater threat to Christianity than postmodernity.

First, whereas modernity at its core was the attempt to destroy the medieval Christian worldview, postmodernity is an attempt to destroy modernity.  This means that to a limited extent, Christians can find a surprising ally in postmoderns because of their respective positions toward modernity.  Bottum notes the “curious parallel of thought between premodern thinkers and postmodern prophets of modernity’s destruction:”

[A]ll medievals, even such “rational” philosophers as Averroes, Moses Maimonides, and St. Thomas Aquinas, share certain philosophical ideas that are closer to the postmodern than the modern.  The premoderns said that without God there would be no knowledge, and the postmoderns say we have no God and have no knowledge.  The premoderns said that without the purposefulness of final causation, all things would be equally valueless, and the postmoderns say there is no purpose and no value.  The premoderns said that without an identity of reality and the Good, there would be no right and wrong, and the postmoderns say there is neither Good nor right and wrong.

This leads to the second of my reasons.  Again, please permit me to make a long unargued-for jump, and state the premise that postmodernity, if faithful to its own logic, necessarily arrives at nihilism.  If that is so, modernity poses a greater threat to Christianity than postmodernity because the worldview which modernity espouses, namely a secular humanism, is a more appealing option to the Christian faith than is nihilism.  I can imagine—in fact, I need not imagine, I can simply observe—widespread abandonment of the Christian faith in favor of secular humanism, but I have more difficult time imagining a widespread embracement of nihilism.  (I admit that I may be wrong here.  When sharing this thesis with a Jesuit confrère, he disagreed with me, saying, “Vince, you underestimate the depravity of man.”  Perhaps he is right.)

On to my third and final thesis: modernity presents a greater threat to Christianity than postmodernity precisely because the threat that modernity presents is more subtle.  As such, it threatens to rewrite the essence of Christianity itself.  The seven characteristics of postmodernity outlined above all seem to conflict with key tenets of a Christian worldview.  The obviousness of this lack of congruence of postmodernity and Christianity mitigates its danger to the faith.  While there are many “Christian” theologians who try to articulate a “Christian” theological vision based on the antimetaphysical, relativist foundations of postmodernity, their attempts have so quickly departed from orthodox Christianity so as to seem absurd.  (N.B.: See the N.B. above.  I am not saying that certain elements of postmodern thought cannot be used for a Christian theology, but simply that postmodernity in a more robust sense cannot provide a basis for Christianity because of its antirealism and subsequent relativism.)

The threat of modernity to the faith, however, is more dangerous precisely because it is more subtle.  As Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger has written, “No error could persist unless it contained a grain of truth.  Indeed an error is all the more dangerous, the greater that grain of truth is, for the then the temptation it exerts is all the greater.”  The secular humanism modernity proposes is a dangerous threat to Christianity because it proposes a good that the Christian seemingly can embrace: human flourishing.  The problem is that the great modern projects conceived of this flourishing within an immanentist framework.  They argue that the summum bonum is to be achieved in the here-and-now.  Thus an emphasis is placed on progress and material prosperity.  Moreover, many modern secular philosophies and theologies speak of these concepts in religious terms, thereby using the same vocabulary of orthodoxy Christianity but giving it an entirely different meaning.  This can lead Christians to adopt the secular humanist project of modernity while still believing that they are practicing orthodox Christianity.  In short, modernity has threatened to rewrite the essence of Christianity itself.  Ratzinger puts it well:

The Christian empire or the secular power of the papacy is no longer a temptation today, but the interpretation of Christianity as a recipe for progress and the proclamation of universal prosperity as the real goal of all religions including Christianity—this is the modern form of the same temptation.  It appears in the guise of a question: “What did Jesus bring, then, if he didn’t usher in a better world?  How can that not be the content of messianic hope?” . . . What did Jesus actually bring if not world peace, universal prosperity, and a better world?  What has he brought?  The answer is very simple: God.  He has brought God.

Ratzinger’s words link my third reason to my second: Most Christians are not acutely tempted by a postmodern nihilism that claims that there is no good at all.  They are seduced by the modern temptation to seek earthly things and to call it Christianity.

I have chosen as a title for this post a spin-off of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s programmatic 1939 essay Patristik, Scholastik und wir because the vision which Balthasar presents in that essay might serve as an important antidote to the way I have casted Christianity against modernity and postmodernity.  I have followed such a model because I view each of these projects—Christianity, modernity, and postmodernity—as worldviews which each posses their own positive content.  Thus I reject a position that would view them as empty philosophical forms or neutral conceptual apparatus without a positive content of their own.  Moreover, I conceive of both modernity and postmodernity to possess an explicitly anti-Christian content.

This way of seeing things, however, can be misleading, since Christianity cannot simply be understood as one worldview alongside others.  Rather, for believers, Christianity transcends all worldviews and philosophical systems, even if it requires some minimal philosophical principles for it to be coherent.  Christianity is about proposing a Person and not a philosophy.  Thus, the transcendent nature of the faith means that Christians can and must dwell in every age—specifically the age into which they have been placed.  Christians can be premodern, modern, or postmodern—and even all and none of these things at the same time.  The key thing for Christians is “to read the signs of the times” and recognize which elements of their age and its dominant philosophy can be put in service of the Gospel and which are antithetical to it.  Doing that, Christians will be a leaven able to transform society in every age, imbuing a tired and cold world with the warmth of faith, hope, and love.


15 Responses to Moderne, Postmoderne und wir

  1. JF says:

    Since when has radical orthodoxy called itself postmodern? I think that would be the question I pose. It is true that Christianity is by its nature transcendent, and perhaps we can ape St. Paul’s idea of being all things to all people but the central question remains: Is there enough positive content within postmodernity for a Christian to use to make a successful adoption of the philosophy? I would say given the elusive nature of postmodern philosophy this is a daunting task to say the least. Postmodernism as you rightly said is more readily defined by what it is not rather than what it is. The things for which it is are the positing of questions which have relativistic answers. What we share in common as you have noted is the questions. These questions though pre-date modernity and postmodernity . In other words postmodernity is what happened when modernity tried to selectively take from Christianity and graft itself onto a new idea and when that Idea was withered all that were left were the fragments of what was left of the Christian ideas now scattered and without context. Is it at that point a salvageable philosophy? Are all philosophies by definition salvageable? The ancient philosophies such as Platonism and Aristotelianism could be salvaged because they spring from a solid logical framework but even that through Christian though eventually worked its way into things such as Augustinianism and Thomism. What is to say then of more recent philosophies? They start as departures from modernity which rejects its past, and what still to be said of pseudo philosophies such as objectivism (can a postmodern mind even utter the phase pseudo-philosophy?). Would it not be like trying to build a house upon sand? I believe rather than trying to incorporate ourselves into postmodernity we should follow St. Paul’s example of the altar to an unknown god, rejecting the scattering of truth and espousing the fullness of truth of which Catholicism is. In other words, we build upon and adorn from a firm foundation as opposed to giving the impression that we are building Christianity from postmodernism.

    • Vincent L. Strand, SJ says:

      Dear JF,

      Thanks for your comment. Re: your question: Since its inception, the movement of Radical Orthodoxy represented by thinkers like John Milbank has been labeled as postmodern. Certainly some of its adherents identify themselves as postmodern. I refer to Tracey Rowland in my post so perhaps she offers a good example: Rowland considers herself a “postmodern Augustinian Thomist.”

      • JF says:

        thank you for the response. I realized shortly after posting this that my mind had slipped and was thinking of radical orthodoxy in the small R sense as opposed to the actual movement itself. on that point I wish to be humbly corrected. I think the rest of the note itself though can stand indepandant of the first statement. Apologies if there was any confusion. I am no professional, just merely an out of work kid with too much time on his hands.

  2. I think the key thing that separates Christianity (and Catholicism especially) from Modernity and Postmodernity is our reliance on Authority. From the Authority of Scripture and Tradition we know that we have -weakened, but nonetheless functioning- reason that corresponds to God. The Modernist agrees with the reason part (which is based on the doctrine of creation) but the Postmodern agrees with nothing.

    It seems like all Postmodernity offers is nothingness/nihilism, and that type of worldview seems impossible to live with. Though Buddhism is the big option for the postmoderns on my campus.

    • JF says:

      that’s because on the outside Buddhism allows an appealing proposition, one can have a religious system that can exist with or without a god. the ultimate state of being through nirvana is individual and can be approached without the appearance of doctrine or dogma. what many do not do is go beyond the surface to understand the rules which govern karma. there is an entertaining (though a little less than work safe) video floating around on the internet written by an Australian television host named John Safran. In this video those of a seemingly liberal bent are presented a quote and are asked “Who said this, the Pope or the Dalai Lama? when questions were raised regarding homosexuality, chastity, the sanctity of human life, invariably the leftists in question would accuse the Pope. Eventually it is revealed to them that these quotes came from the Dalai Lama and that both the Pope and the Dalai Lama tend to be in general agreement on these subjects. The video demonstrates that at best those who come to Buddhism by way of this postmodern mindset are very likely to find things that are incompatible with their current worldview. how much more so for Christianity unless one attempts to water it down as “theologians” such as Rob Bell have done. strip apart postmodernism and you will find the bare skeleton of all the universal questions, but any sensible philosophy would have that anyway, why bother with postmodernism?

  3. Henry says:

    Great post Vincent!

    Actually, I think the greatest threat to our Faith is the belief that our humanity is a complication, something that shouldn’t be there precisely because we would better off if it wasn’t there. And it’s this lack of tenderness – of love – for our humanity, with all it’s vast limits, that prevents us from recognizing who Christ is and His value! After all, it’s my wounded humanity – your wounded humanity – that activates Christ’s heart!!

    So we should not look at the unease we feel as something negative because the unease that we feel is our humanity and that is the “thing” that is most precious because that unease is “you”, that unease is “me.” And that’s the “me”, that’s the “you” Christ comes to save today!



  4. crystal says:

    Weren’t non-post-modernist guys like William Occam and Abelard nominalists?

    • JF says:

      except it could be argued that William Occam and Abelard were closer to conceptualism rather than a nominalism, terms used in reference to signification were universal based on universal concepts, even if to a conceptualists these universals existed on a merely intellectual level. this is different than say the nominalist that entirely denies the existence of universals. incidentally both Occam and Abelard believed in God, thus it is reasonable to believe that they both believed at least in abstracts (things which exist outside of time and space, such as God) St. Augustine would also pose the argument that universals rather than existing in time and space exist outside of time or space and in the mind of God. This view is fundamentally different from the postmodern sense of nominalism in which the denial of universals is combined with the denial of abstracts leads one towards a radical denial of objective truth and arguing that reality is a social construct instead.

  5. crystal says:

    I was thinking more about this and wondering if maybe the way modernity and postmodernity are presented is only partial – I mean, along with them has come the championing of democracy, religious liberty, and human rights. There may have been beauty, harmony, and meaning in the middle ages with the emphasis on universals and realism, but that also brought along with it despotism, holy wars, institutionalized bigotry, and the auto de fe. Maybe there are good and bad things in both modernity and the medieval world view?

    • JF says:

      I understand your concerns Crystal but I think it rather unfair to lay the fault of this upon the feet of the pre-moderns, after all democracy predates modernism by several thousand years and within history has had times of peace in which those of differing religions could coexist harmoniously. Conversely, philosophies stemming from modernism have been responsible for their fair share of tyranny, take for example the soviet union’s gulags. The question should not be of which era caused the most damage because all things being equal, human nature is flawed and has time and again fallen into wrong judgment. The question is this though, by which system can one gauge what is right and wrong? The philosophers of the middle ages were concerned with this matter because of it’s eternal consequences. I mean that not exclusively in the theological sense but in the practical sense too. Right, wrong, beauty, truth, all of these matter. In postmodernism, if it is as they say all things are a social construct, right, wrong, beauty, truth, all of there become matters of relativism, and thus lacking in definition they no longer exist in any meaningful sense. What remains is empiricism, utilitarianism, materialism, and ultimately nihilism. these are the philosophical foundations upon which the worst atrocities are committed, often in the name of a cause, a criticism often laid at the auto de fe. the difference is that with the recognition of definitive good, evil, beauty and truth , mankind can (and has) risen up from the ashes of self destruction and shall continue to thrive. when these ideas merely become constructs, there will inevitably come a time when one will become as Nietzsche noted “beyond good and evil” and will assume power as his for the taking, democracy will shrink into despotism. Without the goodness of human dignity these horrors you have mentioned will be made manifest.

  6. crystal says:

    Good answer 🙂

    Democracy was pretty great in Athens and I really like Pericles’ funeral oration. It seems that the proof of the worth of beliefs in society would be how that society treats its people and other people. Given human nature, I guess there will always be failures but I cannot see more of a consisistent connection in real life between the belief in absolute values and fairness. Having said that, I do believe in universals. It’s just that while they have a certain beauty, the belief that there’s only one truth and only I know it, can make that beauty terrible.

    • JF says:

      you are correct, to know truth and be alone in it is a terrible waste. The fact that humanity is aware of a great truth should inspire therefore the propagation of said truth. and thus, the great commission to which we are sent to is to explain and love and live truth. As Benedict XVI rightly stated:

      “Dear friends, truth is not an imposition. Nor is it simply a set of rules. It is a discovery of the One who never fails us; the One whom we can always trust. In seeking truth we come to live by belief because ultimately truth is a person: Jesus Christ. That is why authentic freedom is not an opting out. It is an opting in; nothing less than letting go of self and allowing oneself to be drawn into Christ’s very being for others.”

      the essence of sharing truth is in fact not only charitable but it is necessary and just.

      you say that you are finding difficulty seeing more of a consistent connection in real life between the belief in absolute values and fairness. If I may I would make a recommendation to read Pope Benedict’s Caritas in veritate and see where this fits in with Catholic theology and philosophy. Hope that the information thus far has been helpful. Praying for God’s wisdom to bless you with all that you need.

      a link to the encyclical below:

      P.S. Pericles’ funeral oration is a great speech, and hands down one of the most awesome eulogies ever.

  7. crystal says:

    Thanks for the discussion and the link to Caritas in veritate.

  8. […] L. Stand argues that, at the present moment, modernity poses a greater threat to Christianity than postmodernity. I […]

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