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.