The Holy Spirit Reduced to the Postmodern Spirit

November 1994By James C. Hanink

The Rev. David Hartman is the Minister of the Harrodsburg Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Harrodsburg, Kentucky.

Crossing the Postmodern Di­vide.  By Albert Borgmann. University of Chicago Press. 173 pages. $19.95.



The historian Paul Johnson says the modern world began on May 29, 1919, when photographs taken during a solar eclipse con­firmed Albert Einstein's General Theory of Relativity. Einstein had insisted that his theory be subjected to three rigorous tests -- a kind of empirical tribunal which, his colleague Karl Popper noted, was not applied to the theories of Marx or Freud. Johnson observed that, "At the beginning of the 1920s the be­lief began to circulate, for the first time at a popular level, that there were no longer any absolutes: of time and space, of good and evil, of knowledge, above all of value. Mis­takenly but perhaps inevitably, rela­tivity became confused with relativ­ism." Einstein was horrified. He be­lieved in absolute standards of right and wrong, and considered moral relativism a disease.

Because of the baleful conse­quences of the modernist ethos, with its unholy marriage of high technology and moral relativism, many prominent thinkers, such as Albert Borgmann, hope that we have entered a postmodern era di­rected toward a reclamation of de­cent and civil communities. If we have, then a principled restating of the pertinence of Christianity is needed. John Paul II has been try­ing to do this, and quite eloquently -- so, for that matter, have NOR contributors such as Avery Dulles, Robert Bellah, and Christopher Lasch. It would be nice to report that Borgmann has matched their attainments. But, alas....

Any serious consideration of postmodernism must begin by res­cuing those social and religious values besieged in the advent of modernism. This is not antiquari­anism, but a simple matter of keeping faith with the generations that have gone before. Tradition, as Chesterton said, is "the democ­racy of the dead." But Borgmann's answer to any kind of reclamation seems to be, "Don't bother."

Much of Borgmann's atten­tion seems riveted on economics. Fair enough. But if one is going to critique market capitalism -- and there is certainly much to critique -- one will not be taken seriously simply by saying its existence is de­structive of civil society. Borgmann says, "It seems that the pursuit of the ever-outstanding goal of global economic leadership dislodges so­cieties from tradition and civility, from their place and pleasure here and now." Oh? Is their hot-breathed pursuit of "global eco­nomic leadership" the reason So­malia, Afghanistan, and the former Yugoslavia have been so uncivil?

Borgmann cites some of the "kindred shifts of sympathy" that he regards as hallmarks of postmodernism: "from the belief in a manifest destiny to respect for Na­tive American wisdom, from white Anglo-Saxon protestant hege­mony to ethnic pluralism, from male chauvinism to many kinds of feminism, from liberal democratic theory to communitarian reflec­tions, from litigation to mediation, from heroic medical technology to the hospice movement, from in­dustrialism to environmentalism, from hard to soft solutions."

But the jury is still out on whether all these shifts would be good. In fact, several of them would not be. For example, the in­digenous peoples of the Americas were not exclusively caretakers of a pristine paradise: Cannibalism, torture, slavery, and human sacri­fice were extensively practiced by a number of native cultures, and dis­regard of that reality is as patroniz­ing as Rousseau's evocation of the "noble savage." The promulgation of the more militant varieties of feminism has contributed might­ily to the technological catastro­phe of abortion and to the dissolu­tion of nuclear families, with all its concomitant destructive effects on America's children.

Borgmann's critique of the Church is factually indefensible: "The Roman Catholic Church has suffered terribly under modernism. For the first time in her history she was unable to appropriate and sanctify the surrounding culture. At first she fell back on medieval styles of thinking and building, holding the secular at arm's length while surrendering her administra­tion to the aggressive and methodi­cal tendencies of modernism. In the second half of this century, she threw away what cultural substance she had left while proving herself unequal to the clear spiritual and political task of accepting and redeeming democracy within her own communal order." Nonsense. What institution has been the pre­eminent driving force behind the reinvigoration of freedom and de­mocracy in Poland, the Philippines, Latin America, and elsewhere? What institution provided the only consistent moral resistance to the soul-deadening totalitarianism of Communism? And what institu­tion, in its steadfast critique of the excesses of modernism, maybe said to have been the harbinger of post­modernism in the best sense of the term? In each case, it is the Roman Catholic Church, which -- how­ever imperfectly and incompletely -- has kept alive a transcendent light that this modern and unprecedentedly savage century never ceases trying to extinguish. Borgmann's view in a nutshell is: "The renewal of Roman Catholi­cism in this country...depends on whether it comes to terms with democratic equality and contem­porary culture. This is what the postmodern spirit, the holy spirit, calls us to do." Oh, puh-leeze, Albert. Postmodernism may be the latest manifestation of the Zeitgeist -- the Spirit of the Times -- and it may be more beneficent than its predecessor, but it is not the Holy Spirit, and one's credibility on other issues is hardly magnified by confusing the two. In point of fact, the Holy Spirit may be calling the Church not to "come to terms with...contemporary culture" but to use all her moral strength to withstand it.

Incidentally, and for what it's worth, I hereby borrow Paul Johnson's example and nominate the following date as the begin­ning of the postmodern era: July 25, 1968, the day Paul VI issued the encyclical Humanae Vitae. Why? First, because it was a prin­cipled and internationally conse­quential refutation of technology in thrall to relativism; secondly, because it sought to re-establish community between the generations. Attention was paid in no small part because the thrust of the encyclical was so unexpected. That attention may have been three-quarters fear and derision, and the Church's enemies may have taken the encyclical more se­riously than her friends; but it was, nonetheless, the first truly thun­derous and theologically profound "No" to the demeaning and dehu­manizing ethos of the modernist world.



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