By Jeff Mallinson –
By most accounts, we live at the end of an era. Some call it the postmodern context. Whatever our philosophical leanings, and whether or not we even follow the philosophical and artistic conversations, I think that remains an apt description of things. The Enlightenment (especially the Anglo-American form) produced wondrous benefits for society. Vaccines, human rights, and technological advances are all examples of what the Enlightenment thinkers ever did for us.
Nevertheless, in the hands of fallen people, knowledge and science also led to destruction, hubris, and new ethical conundrums. We might want to blame one generation or another, but the cultural illnesses with which we suffer today has been a long time coming. Consider this unsettling passage:
The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation. (Exodus 34:6-7)
You may be thinking: “What’s this guy worried about? What’s he even talking about? What is the illness?” There isn’t time or space here to catch you up in detail, but the illness has to do with a threefold crisis. First, we (as Alasdair MacIntyre argues) have an ethical crisis. We use words like “good” and “virtuous” but we don’t know what these terms mean, nor how we might rediscover or establish the good. Second, we have an aesthetic crisis. Granted, there are folks who are creating beautiful works of art, and this crisis seems to be the least troubling of the three, but as a culture we tend not to know where the beauty of art is directing us, or whether beauty is anything more than a physiological response to sensory stimuli, affected by our particular evolution. Third, we have an epistemological crisis: we don’t know how to figure out what is true.
Sure, some of us think we know what’s up. The problem is that, in our bustling, pluralistic culture, we no longer have a universal referee who can help us determine what is in fact good, true and beautiful. On this week’s Virtue in the Wasteland podcast, Dan and I provide context for the intellectual movement called postmodernism. We don’t provide critique, defense, or detailed account of the movement, we just explain why it emerged on the scene.
While many conservative Christians consider postmodern thought diabolical, there are several insights we can gain from both the history of the phenomenon and the ideas generated by Continental philosophers. As for history, it’s worth noting that the postmodern distaste for talk about absolute truth is not primarily anti-religious; rather, it is anti-reductionistic and anti-authoritarian. To the extent that we have treated humanity as nothing but biochemical parts, and to the extent that we’ve allowed a secular Western myth (one that assumed that the more advanced and intellectually sophisticated a society became, the less religious it would be) to dominate our intellectual institutions, postmodern observers provide a sort of anti-wisdom, like we find in the book of Ecclesiastes. It doesn’t make for a complete diet, but it does help challenge some of our arrogance. We’ve allowed intellectual power brokers to tell the world “what all smart people know.” This hasn’t served faithful Christian theology well in the last hundred years. Maybe, therefore, there are some ways in which we can find value in even the contemporary French philosophers!
A good many of these folks, it turns out, were not primarily interested in dismantling ethics as such. On the contrary, they found themselves in a fragmented condition that had no meaningful way to speak about ethics. In response, thinkers like Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) attempted to make ethics the first philosophy, hoping that the Good might come to the rescue of lost Truth.
Whether Levinas’ project was philosophically viable or not, the history of his situation illustrates the context for much of the postmodern conversation. Levinas was a Lithuanian Jew. In 1940, he was captured by the Nazis and imprisoned in a concentration camp. Though his wife and daughter were, fortunately, hidden by Catholic Christians, other members of his family were killed. Many other postmodern thinkers faced the evils of the Nazi ideology, and the monsters who were absolutely certain of their racist beliefs. They developed pseudo-scientific paradigms for their ideas, and invented efficient methods of mass murder.
A couple decades after the war, many of these French intellectuals became interested in a Marxist solution. If the right was a disaster, many thought, better get as far to the left as possible. But as they watched the way Stalin and Mao applied Marxist ideas to real life, they found that this absolutist ideology was also disastrous. I doubt that many of us, were we to face the cruelty of the absolute tyranny of the fanatical left, then the fanatical right, would be comfortable speaking about absolute truth, that which all rational people know. We too might equate dogmatic claims to absolute truth with absolutism.
You might be thinking that we, in the affluent West, no longer need to fear modern madness. That’s part of the problem, though. The banality of our particular cultural illness is what makes it particularly dangerous. If we set aside the French intellectuals who worried about the aftermath of arrogant modernism for the moment, we can turn to English-speaking thinkers to realize that the fragmentation of life under modernism was a concern for Christian authors as well. In particular, G. K. Chesterton and T. S. Eliot represent voices crying out in the cultural wasteland.
I’ll let you track down Chesterton’s Orthodoxy on your own (check out the chapter on “The Maniac” in particular, if you like). For our purposes, I’ll share selections from Eliot’s choruses from “The Rock:”
Remember the faith that took men from home
At the call of a wandering preacher.
Our age is an age of moderate virtue
And of moderate vice
When men will not lay down the Cross
Because they will never assume it.
Yet nothing is impossible, nothing,
To men of faith and conviction.
Let us therefore make perfect our will.
O God, help us.
Eliot reflects a kind of postmodernity that might best be described as hyper-modernity. It would be easier if our current monsters dressed the part. They might be easier to slay that way. But they look tame, and so we are too often underprepared for what is to come.
In any case, our task now is neither to try and make Christianity fit with new philosophical trends, nor to spend most of our time taking shots at whatever we think postmodern philosophy represents. Rather, ours is a time, like that of Nehemiah, when we must rebuild. And make the structure even more sound. Permit me to return once more to “The Rock” wherein Eliot urges us to press on in this way:
And all that is ill you may repair if you walk together in humble
repentance, expiating the sins of your fathers;
And all that was good you must fight to keep with hearts as
devoted as those of your fathers who fought to gain it.
The Church must be forever building, for it is forever decaying
within and attacked from without;
For this is the law of life; and you must remember that while
there is time of prosperity
The people will neglect the Temple, and in time of adversity
they will decry it.
It seems that our more recent ancestors, living in a time of prosperity, neglected the Temple. Sure, church attendance was up, but what went on gradually became little more than a therapeutic social club, at least in many cases. Now that we are arguably in a time of cultural adversity, folks are indeed decrying the church. If so, we are living with the effects of the sins of our ecclesial fathers. We can whine about it, or take on the responsibility of expiating those sins, and rebuilding. All of us within the 1517 Legacy Project network have chosen the route of rebuilding. We’re on team Nehemiah. Please join us in the task of rebuilding the best Christianity has to offer.
—The Wayfaring Stranger
(Composed while sipping Kah Blanco tequila, between chapters of Slavoj Žižek, Living in the End Times.)