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.