Christianity and Postmodernism I
An Engagement I. Postmodernity as Collapse of Utopian Hopes
This essay begins what I hope will be a series of explorations into Christianity’s engagement with Postmodernist culture. “Engagement” has at two meanings in this context. One is historical or descriptive. Under this rubric I want to explore how the Christian Church has already responded to aspects of postmodern culture. A second meaning of “engagement” is not descriptive but critical and normative. In these essays I will be describing aspects of postmodern culture and proposing, normatively, ways Christian churches should respond to this epochal cultural change. Ideally, I will engage Postmodernism both ways in each essay. However, that goal may remain an ideal.
I write as a believing Christian, as a teacher trained in Christian teaching, as a member of the Christian community, as one who wishes to provide food for thought to others and also to continue letting myself be formed in my Christian understanding. I follow theologian Karl Barth’s conviction that theology should be written and read primarily in the church, by the church and for the church.2 Further, I think of these essays as part of the great western theological tradition guided by St. Augustine’s and St. Anselm’s motto of fides quaerens intellectum-faith seeking understanding. This paragraph should help the reader to an initial clue as to the author.
I wish to write for laypersons, including those seeking to become priests and pastors in the Christian community, and for pastors, priests and lay leaders in the Church who want to explore the relation between the Christian Church and developments in contemporary culture.3 This is not the place to launch a defense of Christian engagement with changing cultural conditions. Let it suffice for me to lay down the principle that the deepest theological reason for Christians to engage their cultures is the missionary imperative of the Christian faith. Jesus’ Great Commission, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel,” (Matthew 28:19, Luke 24:47; Acts of the Apostles 1:8), an imperative inscribed over the altar of the Virginia Theological Seminary, where I taught for thirty years, requires Christian communities to engage, intellectually and practically, the cultures of which they are a part. The Christian community lives in a polar tension. On the one hand, God calls the church to stand apart from the world, directing and drawing Christian attention and focus on God beyond the world. “My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus said to Pilate. On the other hand, God’s incarnated love in Jesus Christ impels Christians into the larger culture for witness and service. This polarity of inward and outward looking is constitutive of the life of the Church. These essays are meant as an intellectual engagement with an emerging sense of cultural reality, Postmodernity. 4
My intended method in each essay is to identify, with the help of cultural commentators, one salient feature of Modernism and its Postmodern rejection, revision or adoption. I will draw on recognized writers who have grappled with Modernity and Postmodernity. In one section of each essay I expect to reflect descriptively, critically and normatively from the standpoint of Christian faith and life on this aspect of Modernity/Postmodernity. 5
II. Restoring Authentic Human Life: A Central Commitment of Modernity6
A central feature of Modernity was the conviction that humans could act in history to restore themselves to authentic humanity. Modern revolutionaries and reformers had legitimated social protest, liberation movement, and revolutions by an appeal to some authentic aspect of human nature or human relationships that has been lost and could be recovered by human effort in human history. The utopian ideal of recovering and restoring human authenticity in history is by no means the only feature of modernity. But, it was a central feature of Modernity and was a driving force behind what all commentators agree was a Modernist trademark: belief in human progress. 7
At least two ideas or models of progress mark the age of Modernity. One idea is cumulative advance of scientific knowledge and technological mastery of nature. We hope to address this model of progress in another essay in this series. But a second idea of progress looks ahead by looking back. Progress is achieved, according to this idea, by recovering a lost aspect of true humanity that has been lost assuming its restoration as a human project in history.
Classic Examples of Human Progress by Recovering True Humanity
In this section, I briefly describe three utopian hopes of the Modern era. They are the restoration of human rationality in political life, the return to Nature in education and politics, and the achievement of authentic labor in society. Obviously my intention is limited to presenting these three Modernist utopian visions as the background for understanding their rejection and/or revision in our Postmodern era.
A. Recovering the True Form of Human Reason
At the very beginning of modernity, during the seventeenth century and especially in the eighteenth century, a concentrated effort began to recover the true application of human reason in religion, politics and philosophy. The utopian vision was living life according to Reason. One common label for the eighteenth century, “The Age of Enlightenment” reflects this utopian vision. Human reason, i.e., the force of human knowing and discovery undistorted by religious dogma or traditional philosophical assumptions were to flood the world of human affairs with light. Other typical labels for this era of western culture were “The Age of Rationalism”, or “The Age of Reason.”
Of course, the ideal of exercising human reason as the deepest root of true humanity was a Renaissance ideal, the ideal of recovering classical Greek and Latin cultural attainments. In the Renaissance, the Greek and Latin classical ideal of Paideia , upbringing, formation, training, in the classical Artes Liberales, a Paideia which had formed the greatest minds of the past, were recovered and envisioned as the norm ideal to recover after the ignorance and barbarity of “The Middle/Dark Ages.” Highly educated elites in England and France championed the vision of restoring autonomous reason to its proper place as norm for human knowledge, politics, philosophy and religion. Reason here meant at least two things. One was the human mind’s innate ability to discern certain universal truths.8 The second was the human mind’s ability to use one’s own mind, to think for oneself. 9
A sterling example of the first meaning of living rationally, an example typical of religious Deism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, holds a central place in the Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. There we read, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, ….”
Reading these words carefully, we note that Jefferson does not appeal to divine revelation as the warrant for the validity of these ideas of representative government, of human equality, of unalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Nor does Jefferson appeal to the wisdom of seers or prophets from the past. No, Jefferson thought these ideas were “self-evident.” Any rational person would discern they are true.10
When one reads the context of Thomas Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence, one sees the revolutionary drive of establishing or reestablishing these universal truths of reason in political life. Why does authentic human liberty; unalienable rights, etc. need to be affirmed? Because they have been lost or denied by kings and emperors by lords and aristocracies who want to keep political and economic power in their own hands. Rulers, people and classes of privilege, people blinded by tradition or by ignorance, people seeking their selfish gain, their monopoly of power — these are the culprits blocking the establishment of these true features of authentic humanity in history. Therefore, their recovery requires and justifies a revolution, a struggle against the social forces of darkness, even a war of the colonies against Britain. In this sense exactly, progress as the recovery of lost authenticity always involved liberation and a quest for restoration of an authenticity denied to people in history.
Tom Paine and Thomas Jefferson, and the other enlightened thinkers of the American Revolution were primarily oriented to the political realm. They drew strongly from English rational thinkers like John Locke. Their concrete goal was political change.
In France, another group of rationalists shared Jefferson’s commitments. But they tended to be less concerned with political change and more concerned with abstract truths about life discerned by reason The French Philosophes — Diderot, Lamettrie, Holbach, Helvetius, Condillac, and Cabanis saw themselves as teachers of humanity, calling all people to a life lived according to rational truth. Typical was Voltaire (1694-1778) who championed such abstract ideas as reason, tolerance, human rights, freedom, and equality. The French Philosophes conceived their sworn enemies as privileged classes and religious official, the promulgators of church dogmas. Voltaire looked forward to the day when he would witness the last aristocrat strangled with the entrails of the last priest. This champion of reason held convictions passionately
B. Romanticism: Back to Nature, The Authentic Self is the Natural Self
The paradigmatic figure of the Romantic Movement was Jean Jacques Rousseau. (1712-1778). Rousseau lived during the 18th century, the Age of the Enlightenment. But he was a critique of Enlightenment Rationalism and a forerunner of Romanticism. Key features of Romanticism, recovering nature as an ideal, inwardness, recovery of feeling, of the heart, of instinct and spontaneity, are imaged by Rousseau’s key writings. Rousseau’s Confessions symbolize the human ego taking the floor and speaking.
Here, Rousseau though he was recovering something authentic about the self, namely the inward self of the individual, his or her own experience and thought about oneself and the act of confessing these experiences and thoughts publicly. Rousseau wanted to get to the truth of the natural person, the truth found in feelings, in the movements of the heart, in to get behind or beneath the superficial falsehoods imposed on the self by church, state, education, by culture as such. Beneath the self-presentation imposed by the institutions that form us, i.e., by culture, there exists a natural self, a truly real self, an authentic self. This natural self exists not at the level of abstract ideas but in the depths of the heart, in the realm of feelings, in the hidden places from which the spontaneous and the instinctual lie. One only needed the courage to enter one’s depths and discover that self and bravely announce that self to the world.
The famous opening paragraph of Rousseau’s Confessions signals a new cultural impulse, the impulse of intimate, individual confession. Rousseau promises to “tell it like it is” with his life, total honesty. Like Bill Clinton’s autobiography, Rousseau prides himself in giving an unvarnished description of who he is. No hiding behind social conventions of polite and public expression: tell the world what you are like and what you think about yourself. 11 Rousseau wanted in his Confessions to provide an example of human authenticity, a human life honestly told. His ideal was a recovery of honesty about a human life, a kind of return to human nature as it really is embodied in his life story. In our contemporary “reality” TV or “tell all” TV we have one of the rankest fruits of Rousseau’s impulse to bare his soul.
Rousseau’s novel Emile is about education, about the raising of children. Here, the idea of authentic humanity is the “true nature” of the child, the original child nature before corrupted and deformed by the demands of society. The child, in the Romantic worldview, is a very prized being; not yet fully falsified by the institutions of culture. Education should let the natural self flourish; should not thwart the natural self’s expression. Wordsworth great ode, “Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” embodies the Romantic privileging of the child.
A third influential book was Rousseau’s Social Contract( Le Contrat Social). In this volume, Rousseau develops the idea that most directly presents the ideal of an original human authenticity or integrity. This is the idea of a “state of nature.” In explaining the origin of political organization, Rousseau imagined a paradisal condition of human kind, a condition of general good health, simple virtues, uncomplicated, basic sexual relationships. Persons in this “state of nature” are isolated from one another, independent, subservient to no one, not deformed by industrial life, enjoying a direct relation to nature unreformed by the grid of language, not unburdened by introspection and guilty conscience. This individual in the state of nature is the starting point of social contract. The social contract comes about by a kind of “fall” from this state of nature. The social contract originates in the attempt to overcome the results of a fall from the state of nature. For human beings fell from the natural right of the state of nature. This fall came in three steps: the first step is when someone claims some piece of land his private property; the second step into the falls state of political society is the creation of political authority, and the third step into social injustice is the exploitation and oppression of the poor and weak by the rich and powerful.
To redress these evils, Rousseau imagined that civil and political is the result of a social contract among people. The social contract is the attempt to find some kind of compromise between the natural right and justice people enjoyed in the state of nature and the inevitable role that political authority and coercion must play when humans fall away from the paradise and virtue of this state of nature. The compromise is a freely reached agreement (the social contract). In this mutual agreement or social contract, each individual transfers his or her goods and him or her to a “common will” This act of social contracting produces a people, a nation, which is the bearer of political sovereignty. Each person voting for what he or she wants is the right way for social decisions. The product of the social contract is a “common will, ” in which, Rousseau thought, each citizen acknowledges works for the best of the nation or people as a whole. Respect for this “common will” explains why an individual will follow democratically elected laws even when they don’t express his or her own personal wishes or advantage. The basis of a social contact was the individual, natural self. The individual natural self is basically good willed, is free, is ready and willing to enter into relations of “liberte, egalite , fraternite.”
Rousseau exemplifies the Romantic version of the idea of authentic humanity in his notion of the natural human nature of the child and of the state of nature, which is the starting point, and in some way the norm, for the social contract. Karl Marx re appropriated Rousseau’s belief that private property was the first step falling away from the paradise of the state of nature in the nineteenth century. Marx’s greatness was in discerning (probably inspired by German philosopher Hegel’s concept of ‘alienation’) the concept of human labor as embodying the humanity of the worker and how in the framework of market capitalism, workers are alienated from their human nature.
B. Work and Authentic Humanity: Karl Marx on Recovering True Humanity
Classical Marxist-Leninism held and holds that an authentic relation between a worker and his/her work can exist and should exist. For Marxist philosophy this authentic relation is vital, because Karl Marx believed that a person’s labor constituted a person’s deepest humanity. The ideal relationship between a worker and his/her labor exists, said Marx, when the means of production (e.g., raw materials, machines) correspond with the work relationships, i.e. the social organization of workers in society. 12 Orthodox Marxism held/holds that this authentic relationship must eventually come about; this reconciliation between the organization of labor and the system of production is an innate dynamic in history, an impulse, which will be achieved by class conflict and by stages of social development from slavery, through feudalism, through capitalism until the end stage is reached when the means of production and the organization of labor are fully coordinated. This chief feature of this final stage is when workers own the means of production, i.e., the Marxist-Leninist ideal of Socialism. In this end stage, when the workers themselves, and not the capitalist class, own the means of production, the state will disappear, because for Marx the State, at least in its form in the era of capitalism, is a means of exploitation and oppression of the working class.
Why did Marx think this reconciliation, correspondence or harmonization of the means of production and organization of labor, the social relations of workers was important? The answer is that this reconciliation brings human beings to their full, authentic humanity. 13 Karl Marx drew from the German philosopher Hegel the idea that a person’s deepest humanity is one with or expressed in and through his or her labor. The implication is that when a person is alienated from his or her labor, he or she is alienated from his or her true humanity. Precisely this alienation occurs in a capitalist system, the present stage of the development of the relation between the means of production and the organization of labor. In a capitalist economic order, a worker’s labor is reduced to an object, a ware, which the worker must sell on the labor market. When one’s labor is reduced to a ware, an object bought and sold, one’s work is alienated from one’s self-hood. And, if one’s identity is inseparable from one’s work, as Marx believed, reducing labor to a ware alienates all workers from their authentic humanity. Only when workers themselves own the means of production will they be “reunited” to their work and attain to a new, authentic humanity.
Moreover, and this Marx tried to explain in his main work, Das Kapital, the owner of the means of production, the capitalist, obtains more from a worker’s labor than the worker himself or herself. The capitalist earns a profit; the worker receives as low a salary as the capitalist can pay and still keep the worker. The capitalist’s profit is the difference between the worker’s salary and other costs of production, and the selling price of the product of the worker’s labor. Thus, work in a capitalist economic system, Marx believed, involves both the alienation of the worker from his labor (and thus his true humanity) and the exploitation of the worker (working class/proletariat) by the capitalist (capitalist class).
Marx’s vision of authentic humanity, then, focused on human labor. Authentic humanity could be recovered when a worker’s labor was, so to speak, returned to him or her. On the one hand, the drive toward this ideal was, Marx believed, built into history, the history of the relation between the means of production and the organization of labor. Nevertheless, workers themselves had to make this reconciliation their own project, their own revolution.
Summary of Part Two
One very fundamental structure and dynamic of Modernity, i.e., the historical epoch from the middle of the seventeenth to the middle of the twentieth century in the west, has been the deep conviction that there is a “human nature,” an authentic humanity and that human beings, by their own efforts, can recover this authentic humanity within this world’s history. This deep belief, this dogma of Modernity, was one of the ideas of progress that was an essential feature of Modernity’s worldview.
In this model, progress always involves three “moments.” The first is the alleged discovery of some version or aspect of authentic or true humanity that has been lost. Thus, the quest for the authentic has been a decisive element of modernity. The second “moment” is a struggle, a battle between the pioneers of the discovery of human authenticity against the identified enemy and opponents of this recover—a reform/revolutionary struggle against those (the aristocracy, the religious authorities, the capitalist class, those blinded by social convention, the industrial-military complex, those who hold the reins of institutional power in society) who for some reason have wanted, or still want to deny or hide this authenticity from people. The third is the living into this new aspect of authenticity once it is socially accepted and institutionalized. We have briefly described three such conceptions: the recovery of authentic human reason (Enlightenment/Rationalism) ; the recovery of the deeper reaches of the self (Romanticism); the recovery of authentic human work (Marxist theory).
Thus the various liberation movements we who live know from the second half of the twentieth century in the west exemplify these three moments in miniature, or are after-glows of these earlier movements. . Anticolonialism, (recovering political freedom) ; the civil rights movement (recovering equality of American Blacks) ; feminist liberation movement (recovering the equal humanity and dignity of women) ; sexual liberation (recovering a natural relation to human sexuality) ; gay/lesbian/transgender liberation (recovering the equal dignity and social acceptance of alternative sexual orientations and practice) are all relatively minor reflections of the major three revolutionary movements of Modernity we have briefly summarized.
Postmodernity as Collapse of Utopian Hopes for Restored “Authentic Humanity”
Truly postmodern, therefore, are those who question whether an “authentic human nature” exists or who doubt that it can be recovered, even if it does exist. Postmodern is also the challenge to the idea of history as a unified process moving toward a humanly positive future. In fact, thinkers today do questions these “dogmas” of modernity and this questioning, in part, legitimates the label “Postmodern thought.”
How can anyone today question the gains and beliefs of Modernity? If we have been brought up in the modern, western world, we know first hand the achievements of Modernity. Democratic forms of government; the end of colonialism, the equality and dignity of each person protected in states ruled by law, recognition of the full range of human nature, not just a narrow rationality; social justice and protection for workers; the increase of civil justice and protection of racial, ethnic and sexual minorities; the increase in recognition of the full dignity and humanity of women. These are undeniable human gains that no Christian should want to reject or dismiss as important.
Here a distinction is important, a distinction that helps us appreciate the radical nature of Postmodern thought. Postmodern thinkers affirm the advances in the era of Modernism. They are beginning to question, however, the theoretical foundations on which they were built and on which a continuation of Modernist projects could be built. Postmodernism, in a sense, affirms the good fruits of beliefs that Postmodernists think were either false or not longer tenable.
III. Postmodernism as Collapse of Utopian Hopes in the Restoration of True Humanity
One reason for the development of a new, Postmodern consciousness is the ambiguity of so-called progressive movements, especially in the twentieth century. A second reason is growing doubts about a major assumption of the modern project: that history is a unified movement developing positively into the future. A third reason is a new sense of the reality that determines our lives. The first reason focuses on the violence and destruction of social revolutions; the second raises doubts about the nature of human history and our knowledge of it; the third concerns the “system of technology” which establishes the framework for our contemporary sense of what is real. We will discuss each in turn
A. The ambiguity of social progress
When we call to mind the tragic failure of Modern movements that promised the restoration of true human existence in history, we recognize at once one basic reason for the postmodern doubt about recovering human authenticity. Not just that Rationalism, Romanticism and Communism have radically different visions of authentic humanity, but we see that each in its own way also has led to violence and violation of human beings. 14
Many of those who struggled and sacrificed to help liberate their peoples from colonial rule believed liberation would bring independence, freedom and well being to their people. But, sadly, the result has often been very different. Post-colonial Africa south of the Sahara is a showcase of failed societies. That anti-colonialism, a showcase of Modernist revolutionary ideals, has brought only progress and happiness no sane person can believe anymore.
A second example is the hoped for progress through science and technology. The ambiguity of this aspect of modern belief in progress is so familiar, I do not need to spell it out in great detail. Only the most naïve and reality-blind person can believe that technology and science will deliver us a utopian future on earth. Rather, people today are acutely conscious of the double-sided aspect of scientific progress. New scientific discoveries, given technical application have brought great benefits. Anyone who denies that is welcome to go to their local carpenter for their dental work. . But everyone today sees that science and technology bring dangers, social crises, and enormous moral perplexities. Atomic energy brought cheap power but also atomic weapons and the threat of mass destruction. Advanced medical care helps millions live fuller lives, but also fills our nursing homes with very aged people waiting to die, but who can’t because of the “wonders of modern medicine.” Industrialization has eased the body demeaning and body destroying labor of the past, and improved the everyday conditions of tens of millions. But industrialization also now threatens to poison our soil, our air, our rain, our forests, and our genetic inheritance. Modern science and technology are double-edged.
A final example of failed progress is the history of Marxist Communism. Millions dedicated their lives to the hope held out by this ideology. Now, having experienced over sixty years of “real existing socialism” in East Germany, in the Soviet Union, in North Korea, in Maoist China –with its Gulags, its torture chambers, its purging of whole classes of people, its allowing free reign to self-idolizing criminals like Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini, most people have lost their faith in Socialism. Marxist theory said the state should wither away; in practice the state assumed dictatorial, totalitarian power over individual lives. Marxist theory said humans would be restored to true work; in practice State run enterprise produced shoddy goods and undermined the moral of working people. Marxist theory described a future of equality, where all would be “comrades.” In practice, the Party functionaries enjoyed privileges, while they spied on, manipulated and lied to the rest of the society. Very few true believers in Communism exist today.
Why have most thinking people stopped believing the Modernist dogma that restoration of human authenticity is possible in history? One part of the answer is that Postmodern observers have seen the contradictory fruits of the tree of Modernity; some of these fruits are delicious and healthy; others are poisonous.
b. Questions About History
But the deepest thinkers of our modern situation have taken a further step. Critical of Modernism’s belief in a single, unified history, they discern a problem at the deepest level of the Modern belief in human progress in history. This problem is the nature of history itself and human knowledge of it that Modernism assumed.
As we have pointed out, the modern belief in restoring authentic, fulfilled human life implied some idea of progress and positive development in history. Thus, the Modern idea of progress presupposed a very specific view of history. The modern belief in progress assumed that nature, human development and human consciousness were part of a larger, unified –a universal –cosmic development, moving “forward,” toward human fulfillment in this world. 15 This larger whole was “history” , a development that in Hegel’s philosophy embraced not only nature, what we think of human history, human consciousness but what Hegel called, “The Absolute” itself. In the Modern era, visionaries, reformers and revolutionaries believed that history was unified, i.e., that history is like a river, a single mass of “water” moving together in a single direction. Further, they believed this direction was not aimless but positive, a development, i.e., a progress.
This idea of history was a metaphysical assumption, i.e., an assumption about the nature of the universe and human life. Characteristic of Modernity, in other words, was the belief that “history” exists; that human history is interconnected, so that one could speak of a single human history; that special training (historical scholarship) could conceive and grasp this history as a totality and learn from it. 16 We will mention later that this notion of history was a secular revision of a Biblical and Judeo-Christian notion of history as ruled by God’s providential power and care. 17 Our major point, now, however, is that a major feature of Postmodern consciousness is the dissolution of this conception of and confidence in “history.” 18
Postmodern is, first of all, the doubt that humans can know or write about a “universal” history. Postmodern thinkers are acutely aware that a person’s or group’s perception of their own history and the history of others are deeply colored by the glasses of their social placement or location.19 Indeed, as we will doubtless discuss in other essays, a deep sense that all human knowledge is conditioned by the time and place of the knower characterizes Postmodern thinking.20 Walter Benjamin, the German philosopher, put this point about knowing human history objectively most radically, when he said, “history is written by the winners.” That is, postmodern people are convinced that all perception and all knowledge is deeply affected by the observers own social placement, his/her own language and culture, his or her own personal experience. This means that no individual or group of scholars can so fully transcend their place in their own history that they can objectively grasp “universal human history.” Postmodern thinkers suspect, therefore, that Modern notions of “a universal history” are a mental construct serving the interests of those who use them21.
A second Postmodern perception about history, and vantage point for a rejection of Modernist ideas of history, is the insight that history is not unified, an integrated, coherent flow. Postmodern is the idea that many histories exist, i.e., change occurring at many levels. Biological development is one level of change through time; it is enormously slow and its understanding in Darwinist terms is now being questioned.22 Human language operates at another level of change; also very slow and gradual, and immensely complicated as cultures interact. Human life changes at the level of institutions—forms of the family, of the state, of economic organization, of warfare, of medical care. Postmodernists think that speaking of different histories is more realistic than of one, unified, totalistic history of human existence.
Different from the level of actual human change is our human perception of it. That a single grasp of human history as a total, unified reality exists or is even theoretically possible is doubtful, think Postmodernists. History reported by the media, a history controlled by selection and methods of presentation tied to consumer interests, is one thing. Each individual’s perception of the change that goes on around him or her is another. The history written by scholars, constantly revised according to changing ideological convictions and by new discoveries, is yet another. Both the nature of history and our possible knowledge of it are vastly more complicated that Modern dogma assumed, Postmodernists think.
Given this new sensitivity to the complexity of human history, Posmodernists are letting go of any idea of “a universal human history” and of the idea that any human being or group of humans, no matter how “scientifically” trained, could mentally grasp that history, could describe it to others, could discern “laws” or patterns of history, which could help future generations learn from history. The Postmodern doubt about the Modern notion of a universal history developing toward a utopia of restored human authenticity strikes at the heart of Modernism.
C. The Technological System
Many contemporary people find it difficult to imagine their lives as part of a single, unified history moving forward toward a this-worldly utopia of restored human authenticity. Postmodern people are much more reserved in their hopes for history than many Modern people were. Replacing a sense of being swept forward in a total history toward a utopian future is a different sense of reality. What is this new, Postmodern, sense of reality.
German philosopher Martin Heidegger, whom Gianni Vattimi considers a forerunner of Postmodernism, replaces the Modern idea of human existence as history and with the notion of existence as “event.” The decisive event shaping a Postmodern consciousness is the consolidation of technology as a system. The framework of life, Heidegger taught, is not a unified, universal history, but, rather, the event of technology as a system (Gestell)23. An event is something that happens in the present, something in which we are part, something that shapes our lives. . The “event” of technology as a system has several characteristics.
One is the increasing interconnectedness of modern technology—an interconnectedness that constitutes a “system” of technology. Technology today does not consist of unconnected, isolated machines or techniques. Increasingly, technology as hardware, software and skills, is interconnected, increasingly integrated to produce a total system. The technology of transportation, of the military, of medical care, of economic production—these parts of our technological society are increasingly interconnected and interdependent. The trucks, trains and planes bringing farm products into city supermarkets and restaurants are constructed by robots that are steered by computers that are run by chips produced all over the world and transported by these same means of transportation. Information technology (IT)– the computer, the satellite, the Internet—are the key integrating technologies. Countries are measured in their development today primarily by the IT technology which integrates their political, cultural, economic, military, etc. life. IT makes the advent of modern technology into a system.
A second feature of the technological system is its inbuilt innovation. Research and development (R/D) is a stable, fixed part of the modern technological system. R and D generate innovation, new kinds of technology, new ways of interconnecting existing technology and generating changes within kinds of technology. This creates the paradox that technological innovation is the major constant in our lives. In one sense, the only unchanging facet of our postmodern lives is technological change, because this change is built into the system as planned innovation. However, we do not experience this innovation as forward movement toward a utopia of human authenticity. This brings us to the next feature of systematized technology as the new Postmodern sense of existence.
A third feature of the “event” of modern technology is that human beings are “caught up” in this system. Humans are controlled by the system of technology as much as they control technology. The inbuilt innovation in the modern technological system demands that humans must constantly adjust their lives to “keep up” with technological innovation. Of course, in one sense, the system of modern technology serves us. We can travel across continents faster. We can telephone to friends in all parts of the world. We can view news of what is happening on the other side of the globe. We are beneficiaries of IT in medical and dental technology. Technology serves us; and whether they want to admit it or not, technology serves those Romantic protestors who wanted and want to “drop out” of the system.
Modern technology serves those who are part of its system. But in another sense humans must serve the system. We must serve the system, because if we do not sustain the system we can only imagine that human life would fall into an abyss of poverty and social chaos. We serve the system in many ways. Our education prepares people to sustain the system. Our work sustains the system. We serve the system by accepting and adjusting to the constantly changing pace of life and conditions that technology irresistibly creates. If we don’t keep up with the technology we simply can’t compete in the new technological world; we become marginalized. We become unemployed and unemployable. Our only alternative is to drop out of “the system” altogether and then hope to be supported by the system. There is no escaping the technological system.
Technology is becoming a system; technology rules human life. These are two features of the Postmodern sense of the defining framework for human existence. A third feature of our technologically driven lives is that within the technological system simultaneity is quickly replacing time as a unified process of before and after, past present and future. Indeed, the Postmodern experience of simultaneity generated by modern technology, especially by IT, may be a key factor in the erosion of experience of time as “human history.” Increasingly the only time that counts is the present instant; “real time” is simultaneous time. Instant- messaging, the latest news, the travel documentary, the teleconference, the live concert broadcast, the email that travels at the speed of light; the immediate access to boundless information in the Internet all is now. Information technology doesn’t calculate in terms of millennia, centuries, decades, or years. Its time framework is months, days, minutes, seconds and nanoseconds. Our time consciousness is reduced to the now.
Today, for the younger, Postmodern generation, utopias are dead. People whether in Asia or in the west, are not envisioning a future paradise of human authenticity on earth for which they are willing to struggle and die. People today are dying and killing others for their beliefs. But Postmoderns can only experience this as incomprehensible. Rather, the younger, Postmodern generation experience themselves part of a system, whose perimeters is information technology, a system a system in which people must find themselves, adjust to, go along with in order to get along.
IV. Conclusion: Some Starting Points for Christian Engagement
1. A Christian Theme
The most obvious point to make about the Modernist faith in restoring true humanity in history is that this hope is a secular form of a secularized form of Christian eschatology.24 Christians believe an authentic humanity exists and that God cares about its creation, restoration and fulfillment. Christianity classically believes that God providentially guides history toward the fulfillment that God intends for it.
Christians define true humanity from their faith in God the Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. True humanity is a creature of a loving, creative God; true humanity is a sinner, redeemed by Jesus Christ; true humanity; is a work in progress of the Holy Spirit preparing us for eternal life with God.
2. Christian Faith vs. Modern Utopianism
One major difference between modern secular belief in the restoration of authentic humanity and Christian teaching concerns the agent of the restoration of true humanity. For Christians God alone can save; according to the Modernist dogma, humans must make the restoration of true humanity in their own project and responsibility.
A second major difference is that Christian teaching holds that the full restoration of human authenticity can only occur beyond human history. This is the main theme of Christian eschatology, of judgment and the establishment of the Kingdom of God. Christians pray that God’s Kingdom may come on earth as it is in heaven. But the full reconciliation of humans to God, to one another and of each person to himself/herself is a gift beyond this world’s space and time.
3. Christian Confidence
Given these obvious differences between Christian belief and Modernist utopian hope, Christians should not feel threatened by the collapse of Modernist utopian faith. This collapse is a negative, indirect vindication of the truth of Christian teaching.25
4. Opening for Teaching and Evangelism
Further, Postmodern doubts and suspicions about the philosophies of history that underlay Rationalism, Romanticism and Marxism open the possibility for a Christian voice to be heard with less prejudiced ears. The less modern cultures are indoctrinated in the Modern totalistic ideologies of Rationalism, Romanticism or Marxism, the more Postmodern people may be open to hearing the Christian message.26 Thus, some Christian thinkers greet Postmodernity as a new opportunity for evangelism.27 Thus, the emerging Postmodern era can be seen as a new era also for the Christian churches, especially at the levels of education, mission and evangelism.
David Scott, Ph.D.
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