Sunday, September 27, 2009

Postmodernism (on the way to Radical Orthodoxy)

“Postmodernism,” as I mean it here, is above all a construal of what can be known, or of what it means to know something.  In short, nothing is known except as framed by a perspective (frame of reference), in a historically evolved and culturally located conceptual idiom with its associated worldview (its ontology, its notion of what kinds of things there are in the world and of how things work).  

For instance, you might see a ghost or only be hallucinating, or you might respond to God’s claim on your life or simply be projecting your own longings and anxieties onto the heavens.  Which one you might experience depends on your mind-frame or worldview.  All experiencing and reasoning are concrete, located processes – situated historically and culturally.

In the contemporary “mainstream” academy (excluding Bible colleges and such like), but really in contemporary cosmopolitan culture more generally, no one now accepts (or can plausibly accept) the following three notions which were at home in the modernity with respect to which we are now “post.”  No one, that is, could maintain these three doctrines with a straight face:

  1. All partial perspectives are to be measured against total comprehension, a perspectiveless apprehension of the way things are (God’s eye view).
  2. We may now see through a glass darkly, but, one day, we will know the world as it is in itself (when scientific inquiry is completed, or when we no longer need human language, or when we know the world without sense perception, or when we are released from the body, or when we finally transcend particulars and grasp the forms).
  3. The knower is a metaphysically distinct thinking thing (Descartes’ res cogitans).
Instead, everyone who subscribes to the scientific, naturalist worldview of the contemporary academy and cosmopolitan culture now believes the following:

  1. There is no perspectiveless perspective.
  2. There is no unmediated access to reality.
  3. There is no metaphysically distinct subject (or mind, or soul, or self).
“Modernity” and early modern science (Enlightenment thru mid-19th Century in Europe and North America) assumed these (perspectiveless perspective, unmediated access, metaphysically distinct subject – though Hobbes, e.g., rejected the third).  Early modern science and philosophy (the Enlightenment) assumed these as part of the project of liberation from the stifling effects of late Medieval traditions that they thought they were shedding.  They were shedding layers of dogma to see things as they are, apprehended through science.  But, as Nietzsche observed in the second half of the 19th Century, having given up – operationally if not verbally – any belief in a divine Legislator, we no longer had any grounds for retaining those features of our worldview which only such a Legislator could warrant.  (See the “Madman” section [#125] of The Gay Science, source of the famous “God is dead” idea in theology, but also especially “How the ‘True World’ Finally Became a Fable,” in Twilight of the Idols.)

As one result of all this, “truth” can no longer be construed as the [unmediated] correspondence of “internal” mental propositions (beliefs) with states of affairs in the “external” physical world (facts).  Instead, “truth” is construed as adequacy for making one’s way around in, and realizing one’s projects within, the world.  Truth is then primarily a property of systems of thought (worldviews) rather than individual statements, and of the latter only in the context of the former.

Almost everyone (born of contemporary cosmopolitan culture) has therefore come to believe that there may be multiple relatively adequate worldviews, adequate perhaps in different ways for different purposes – and no meta-discourse for organizing, arranging, and evaluating all worldviews (except that of the secular, critical discourse of the enlightened). 

The idea is that not just any worldview will do, but several may, for different people in different places and cultures.  And this has tended to foster the idea that any particular religion and religious worldview is fundamentally a private affair, a feature of voluntary association with a particular subculture, and not part of the reality of the common, secular world.

And that is where Radical Orthodoxy comes in.  (to be continued)