So, I thought I should write what follows, on the positive aspects of postmodernism. What you will find here is a highly informal sketch of a few ideas, written primarily for devout Roman Catholics, who, for example, believe that the seven sacraments are real, and thus that the Lord Jesus Christ really changes the bread and wine offered by his one true Church into his real Body and Blood, and that the living magisterium (that is, the Pope and bishops who are in communion with him, and not academic theologians) acts in the person of Christ himself and truly reveals Christ to us in professions regarding faith and morals.
Last but not least, this page was written for Catholics who can easily pass Fr. Joseph Fessio SJ's "litmus test," which he proposes for all bishops and priests and for all who hold authority in the Church.
I think Fr. Fessio has done a good thing. In their titanic controversy with the Arians, orthodox bishops finally found one word which the Arians found themselves unable to accept. They could not profess it and remain Arians, by their own lights, in their own terms. Thus that word, "homoousios" ("consubstantial" with the Father), became the lynch pin of the orthodox defense of the faith in that controversy.
In a slightly similar vein, Fr. Fessio believes he has found, not a definitive doctrinal word, but a litmus test, three statements in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, that are a quick way to identify those who do not fully accept its teaching. "You can ask any priest or bishop about three items in the Catechism and if they wholeheartedly support and defend those paragraphs, it's very unlikely they dissent from Church teaching on anything else," he has said.
Here are excerpts from those three paragraphs, highlighted by Father Fessio: CCC 1577: "Only a baptized man (vir) validly receives sacred ordination . . . For this reason the ordination of women is not possible." CCC 2357: "Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that 'homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.' . . . Under no circumstances can they be approved." CCC 2366: "The Church . . . teaches that 'each and every marriage act be ordered per se to the procreation of human life.'"
"These are the controversial issues of our time," said Father Fessio, "the issues that arouse the opposition, but which the majority of theologians in this country do not accept to be true." [speech given to Catholic Citizens of Illinois on September 13, 2002 - look it up on their web site]
I am a Catholic who passes those litmus tests and yet can say something nice about postmodernism. That evidently puts me in a tiny minority. Most orthodox American Catholics who have weighed in on the subject seem to think that postmodernism is either flatly absurd or downright evil. It is also probably true that few postmodernists could (for example) pass any of Fr. Fessio's litmus tests.
Few truly orthodox Catholics find anything positive to say about postmodernism. Few who say anything positive about postmodernism are truly orthodox Catholics. These are the facts. It would be understandable if an orthodox Catholic who comes across a web page on the positive aspects of postmodernism would reflexively believe that the author could not possibly be a truly believing Catholic.
In reply, I might say something like the following. The currents of thought which claim to be postmodern merit appropriate attention. Even in the philosophical thinking of those who helped drive faith and reason further apart there are found at times precious and seminal insights which, if pursued and developed with mind and heart rightly tuned, can lead to the discovery of truth's way.
The astute will notice that I have just played a little trick. The preceding two sentences are not my own. They are direct quotes from the encyclical letter Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason) of John Paul II. (The first sentence can be found in #91, the second in #48 of the encyclical).
I have carefully buried this page within the "Easter Eggs" section of the catholiclearning.com web site, where only the fanatically curious will ever find it. However, if you happen to be here by accident, please read no further. This page is for believing Catholics who already have a broad and deep education. If you lack that kind of education, you might not be ready to absorb its contents in a way that refreshes and deepens your Catholic faith. A page like this might frighten or confuse you, or even threaten your faith. That is not my intention. I want anyone who reads this to continue to love God, love his neighbor, stay ever so close to the seven sacraments of the Most Holy Catholic Church, and obey the Ten Commandments in exactly the way that the Catholic Church professes. The remaining readers are welcome to continue.
As Fides et Ratio knows explicitly, the word postmodernism can mean a lot of different things. I know about some of them. As an aesthetic movement, for instance, I can tell you with some certainty that postmodernism is totally over. It no longer wows much of the literary world (though the literary world always seems the most tired, and simultaneously the most easily amused, of any of the art scenes, so you can never really tell). The visual art world has moved on. There never was that much experimental concert music, but I do know that when I was a graduate music student in the 1970s, we all believed that the "avant-garde" had already died about fifteen years before that. At the time, we thought we were doing "post-avant-garde" concert music, which probably qualifies as postmodern concert music. What we did then arose, flowered, mostly stunk, was mostly boring, and gradually became the past. Admittedly, at the time the art and music scene on that campus was one of the most conceptually advanced on the planet, but everybody eventually caught up, and also subsequently moved on.
Postmodernism is also a philosophical mode. Philosophy is more categorizable and carries an academic cachet much greater than anything crazy artists might do. Even here, postmodernism is greying, becoming just one more thing a philosopher can get into. Eventually there may be the same number of postmodernists as Aristotelians in the average university philosophy department (to suggest its eventual near-total marginalization).
This is not in any way to suggest that either the art world or philosophy departments have discovered the error of their ways, or come back to the true path, to pick two of the innumerable fatuous and romantic metaphors indulged in even by some fairly sophisticated orthodox Catholics of the present era. All of these inanities boil down to the metaphor of "true progress," which we could have yet again if we but repudiated Voltaire, or the Enlightenment, or perhaps the abstract expressionist painters -- I forget which.
So, one thing that I am trying to convey to the innocent Catholic by this whirlwind tour of the recent, oh-so-hip past, is that by the time you, or your bishop, finds out about the social location of knowledge, or the discovery of the subject, or what-not, that whole intellectual scene may already be on its way out, or may even be over, according to the people who start and promulgate such things in the first place.
The thing may still be percolating down the intellectual food chain, which is probably how you've gotten wind of it. It may have made "practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences... the slaves of some defunct economist..." as the economist John Maynard Keynes once remarked. [in the final words of his The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money] But it may not still be considered the bee's knees in the best circles. It may even be, as Keynes says, defunct. Then again, it may be the most important thing in the universe. The worst part is that what it all really means is going to be extraordinarily hard for you to figure out on your own. We are all a great deal more limited in our ability to grasp things than we commonly presume.
The second thing I am trying to convey is, beware of those who "defend" you from such things. Typically, the very most that such "defenders" discover is a) people who hate Catholicism are involved in it, and b) whatever the thing is, it contradicts what the "defenders" are doing and thinking. That is sometimes enough to learn, but not always.
The third thing I am trying to convey is the most important. The world is just too big now. Nobody can "defend" you from it. That makes your personal Catholic faith, in just the situation you are right now, vital for the salvation of the whole world. The world is too big to be subsumed into some all-purpose mantra that you can learn and apply generically to your life. You have to be where you are, living your life, for the sake of the whole world. You are the person who is going to have to find a way to be true to his faith, and live it, in and out of season, just exactly where you are. We all are depending on you to do that.
Over the last forty years, quite a few American Catholic clerics, religious, and academics discovered that it is not always easy to remain close to the sacraments and to the Ten Commandments, and a lot of other people have suffered because of that. We were depending on them, and many of them have failed us. Now it's your turn. Be brave! Be faithful!
Which is to say, it's not about "postmodernism" vs. "decent art," or vs. the standards and claims of scholastic theology, or whatever. It's about whether you personally can stay close to the sacraments (including the sacrament of Holy Orders and thus to the living magisterium) and to the Ten Commandments, where you are. You have to find a way to do that exactly where you are, and we are all quite literally depending on you.
Nobody is telling you that all you have to do is become an innocent sheep, think about nothing (especially not about postmodernism), and all will be well. So, to say that "it" is not about postmodernism is not to say that ideas are unimportant -- far from it. To the contrary, it is to say that ideas do not exist to quiet your mind. For God does not quiet your mind.
I don't care what you've learned; God does not quiet your mind. Far rather, God's presence is "fascinating and mysterious." [CCC 208] He draws you out of yourself, like he did Moses as he was taking an innocent stroll in the desert and came upon a burning bush that was not consumed by the flames, or Abram, who He made leave his kith, kin, and country -- the list of people whose minds God fascinated, rather than quieted, if you think about it even for a minute, is essentially endless. Ideas exist not to quiet your mind, but rather to draw you -- whatever the cost -- toward God, "fascinating and mysterious," whose one Word, Jesus the Christ, expresses himself completely, by the power of the Holy Spirit, in and through the New Covenant, his forever union with his one and only Bride and Body, the Catholic Church.
It is good to be wary, constantly wary. We are, all of us, fallen men. The devil is everywhere. So, be very wary of postmodernism, since it has mostly been developed by those who hate Catholicism. Among Catholics, its approaches are nowadays used almost exclusively by Catholics who dissent. It is often now employed to try to destroy Catholicism and the personal faith of Catholics. But also be wary of "defenders" of Catholicism who try to quiet your mind.
Admittedly, all we can tolerate on an average day is peace and quiet. We do not do well with constant uproar and turmoil. Generally speaking, our minds long for quiet, because we seem to have so little. And yet, even in the midst of this ceaseless tumult, does God offer us quiet? The Hound of Heaven continues his pursuit, "our hearts are restless," God is "fascinating and mysterious." For all we know, both Moses and Abram were just looking for a little peace and quiet. Did they get it? Not hardly.
Indeed, one can re-evaluate the testimony of many saints not in the light of the neo-Platonism within which they had learned to talk about their spirituality, but within the light of the Word of God, who reveals within the biblical and liturgical tradition that His Father does not come to give a quiescent "vision" but rather is "fascinating and mysterious." In the light of the burning bush, shall we say, we may re-examine the holy testimony of many saints, burnishing off a neo-Platonic vocabulary, and propose that the worst suffering many saints ever endured was when they felt that God was no longer disturbing their quiet.
The loss of a mystical vision for months or years on end was a regret, not a torture, to them. Clearly that loss was not the dark night of the soul. But God no longer seeming to disturb their quiet -- that was sheer agony. To not feel him still hammering away at you -- that was almost unendurable. Pray then, not for a vision, but that God disturbs your quiet, every instant of your life. The kind of rest we truly crave is the Sabbath rest, in which we can be quiet, not to be quiet, but in order to be alert: "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening."
The moral is: if you are living in the world in such wise that postmodernism means nothing to you, if you do not have to confront it, learn about it, or learn from it, then go on with life as you have it, and no harm done. But if you are a member of the knowledge-producing and knowledge-using class of some advanced technological economy; which is to say, if you are a member of the "New Class" first named by the Marxist sociologist Alvin Gouldner in the 1960s, then perhaps you must do a little more than simply quiet your mind about postmodernism.
Or perhaps not. A lot depends on whether you can entertain the possibility that traditional Catholic theology has some extremely serious problems, without having that thought threaten your devotion to the sacraments and thus to the magisterium, and to your adherence to the Ten Commandments. If you can't do that, then you shouldn't be here.
He then, joins us more completely in the one true Faith, no matter what our learning. He incorporates us, in other words, and there is no separation, in our way toward God, of the learned from the unlearned, the cultured from the peasant, or the preacher from the congregation. [Ronald P. McArthur, founding President of Thomas Aquinas College, "Thomism in a Catholic College." In: The Mind and Heart of the Church. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992. p. 75.]
With the preceding quotation, I could entirely agree -- if the "he" under discussion were Christ Jesus the Lord. But in fact, the "he" referred to in the quotation just above is Thomas Aquinas. As the humor columnist Dave Barry might say, I am not making this up.
This quotation is, of course, an extreme example, merely an incautious two sentences, a rhetorical excess. However, it is the kind of thing that can apparently still be said by a devout and learned American Catholic of such exemplary service to Catholic higher education and to the Church that he received the 1991 Wethersfield Award for Excellence at the very conference at which he made the above remark.
What the quotation does reveal is germane to the question of whether you should cease to read this page, and come back never, or at least wait to read further until that would not jeopardize your faith. For the least that can be inferred charitably from the quotation above is that among some devout, holy, good, practical, and very learned American Catholics, there is an unaskable question, one simply beyond the pale. It is this: whether "Thomism" or "Aquinas" (however those words are defined) can be questioned in any serious or fundamental way, such that in principle its structure, method, and elements can be found to be, not only inconsistent with its own tenets, but actively incompatible with the worship and profession of the Catholic Church.
For devout and holy Catholics such as Professor McArthur, this question is formally (methodologically, systematically) unaskable. "Thomism" or "Aquinas" forms the framework, the language, within which questions are asked and answered. For these adherents, any who lack that language quite literally have no sure ability even to frame questions, let alone answer them. In the end, those lacking the language of "Thomism" or "Aquinas" will be seen to lack language itself, and thus will be seen to be babbling merely, talking about nothing. To doubt Thomas, then, is not merely to deny the Faith. It is to assert the nihil.
Now, if you did not understand the preceding two paragraphs (leaving aside whether you agree with them), then that is a very good sign that you don't belong here. I can't make you leave, but I advise it. There is not much chance that this page will strengthen your bond to Holy Mother Church. Read and learn a great deal more, then come back.
Also, obviously, if nothing fundamental to "Thomism" or "Aquinas" could, even in principle, ever be shown to be actively incompatible with the worship and profession of the Catholic Church, if it does constitute the very language within which devout Catholics of all ages to come may most surely frame questions and get answers, then reading further will also be a waste of time for you. For by your own principles, by doubting Thomas, I make myself beyond the pale, literally barbarous, one who flaps his mouth and yet nothing comes out but "ba-ba," nonsense sounds.
Having effectively eliminated any audience, I proceed. What is "postmodernism," anyway? Here's my answer. Postmodernism is the act of asking this particular question: "So, where are you standing when you say that?".
In other words, what is the basis or foundation for what you just said? OK, let's presume that you play along, and give an answer. Here's all that the postmodernist does. He just asks his question again: "So, where are you standing when you say that?".
You see where this is going. Remember Zeno's Paradox? Zeno's Paradox asks people to cut the distance between Point A and Point B into half the distance, then half of that, then half of that, etc., until distance is infinitely discontinuous. Postmodernism is like that, not for distances, but for foundations, for the basis of things.
Like Zeno's Paradox, it is completely logical. Postmodernism per se, whatever Nietzsche's rants, Derrida's hypocrisies, or Marcuse's Marxism, is not selling anything. It doesn't try to trick anybody. It doesn't try to be "irrational." It just asks a question. Like Zeno's Paradox, postmodernism functions to cut something infinitely (in this case, the foundations for everything) and thereby make it infinitely discontinuous. And like Zeno's Paradox, postmodernism can operate with just one simple question or procedure, which obviously can be repeated ad infinitum: "So, where are you standing when you say that?". Both Zeno's Paradox and postmodernism then, flow from and take logical advantage of the central dilemma of the pagan world, the problem of the One and the Many.
One thing more. People in Zeno's time saw him, obviously moving about from here to there, yet asking them if they could find something wrong with his question, which, by making distance discontinuous, seemed to make even the idea of movement logically impossible. Solvitur ambulando, said some of the medieval philosophers, it is solved by walking, but of course this is no real answer to Zeno, who, it can be assumed, did perceive that he seemed to be walking around. There is an irritating, even an enraging, character to his paradox. Its seemingly inevitable conclusion seems absurd, but people still find it maddeningly hard to answer on its own terms. This again is pertinent to postmodernism. Saying the equivalent of solvitur ambulando to a postmodernist may quiet your mind very nicely. It is possible to treat a postmodernist like some may have been tempted to treat Zeno. You can look at the postmodernist, and maybe find something just in the fact that he is standing there, asking his question, that seems to contradict his question. This may be a splendid way to quiet your mind, but it is not really responsive to his question, which remains, and is relentless.
Postmodernism then, is simply the pure form of modernism, its reductio ad absurdum. Thus, by infinitely slicing modernism's quest for foundations into ever more disconnected parts simply by asking modernism's own fundamental question relentlessly and singly, postmodernism is a defense of reason.
Postmodernism thus is the telos of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, it is what Kant wanted reason to be all along if he hadn't been a basically good nineteenth century German Protestant, it is what Hume wanted reason to be in A Treatise of Human Nature if he hadn't so desperately been a Presbyterian Scot wanting to be a Deist English gentleman. And so forth. Postmodernism is the brave modernism, the raw modernism, modernism on the hoof, modernism shining forth naked and alone, not only modernism's future but its telos, which is to ceaselessly slice the quest for foundations into an infinite discontinuity. And insofar as it can be the telos of modernism, postmodernism, to repeat, unmasks modernism's fundamental project and identity, and is thereby a defense of reason.
However, postmodernism's relentless exposure of the futility of the modern quest for foundations is scant comfort to traditional Catholic theology. For postmodernism is a pure cutting machine. It will slice anything it touches -- absolutely anything. Postmodernism will cheerfully use its infinitely sharp razors to slice the Deus Unus, the First Cause, the Prime Mover, divine reason, natura pura, into tinier and tinier disconnected bits, until all of it is quite dead.
But why should we panic at this? Jesus the Christ, Son of God and Son of Mary, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead. He has already been sliced into the tiniest bits of disconnected material into which anything can be sliced. Whatever its power over any particular Catholic theology, postmodernism has no power whatever over him, or over his Bride and Body, the Catholic Church.
Postmodernism, to repeat, is a defense of reason, but it is not a defense of Thomism in either its classical or its received form. Classical Catholic theology -- in utter distinction to the worship and profession of the Church -- accepts the pagan dilemma of the One and the Many, and thus is vulnerable to the postmodernist critique. Tertullian's words, spoken to the rational pagans of his day and perennially misquoted, are of the highest import here:
Crucified is the Son of God; not shameful, because it is shameful. And dead is the Son of God; it is trustworthy because it is absurd. And He is raised from the tomb; it is certain, because it is impossible. [de carne Christi 5, 25-29.]
For many of the early Fathers, and occasionally even for Augustine, and for many of the school theologians of later times, "reason" was in fact taken to be what the pagans of classical Greece and Rome took it to be, the quest for necessary reasons. But as such, as Tertullian insisted with rhetorical disgust, this sort of "reason" renders absurd everything that is most real. To put it simply, postmodernism shows, once and for all, that the quest for necessary reasons disintegrates even the idea of grace.
Thus, those who hear postmodernism's one question will certainly find that a particular idea will begin to disintegrate for them: the idea of "reason" as a search for necessary reasons. As many from Nietzsche on have demonstrated, this discovery can lead to the worst kinds of madness and evil. It can lead to the worship of power, since "truth" as "logical," as necessary, keeps being sliced thinner with every breath. It can lead to the displacement of "reason's" true foundation to the sweet by-and-by, to the eschaton, which typically calls for the surrender of one's identity to some "inevitable" or merely yearned for political project. It can even lead to the embrace of disintegration and nihilism as the true reality -- in practical terms, to the belief that Dante's first circle of hell, the realm of adulterers, the realm of souls swirling constantly, unable to make any fixed attachments, is normative, is all the reality there is, all we can ever hope for, all we will ever get
Also, of course, people remain people. Most of us, most of the time, are not that smart, we don't have pure motives, and we're prone to mistakes, and sins. When second-rate, third-rate, etc. thinkers -- right down to the level of the likes of you and me -- get hold of something like postmodernism, it's not necessarily a pretty sight. The postmodernist question can become just one more technology, just one more weapon, in the constant human quest to get our way. The most typical tack is to ask the postmodernist's question: "So, where are you standing when you say that?" of everyone but yourself. Sure, this is not playing fair. This is news?
I once read about a nineteenth century serial killer, who said that the Eucharist had been the motive for his crimes. Every time he saw the separated Body and Blood, he got an urge to do some separating of his own. I use this exceedingly grizzly example to make the point that by their fruits alone, you do not know them.
Postmodernism, similar to Zeno's Paradox, calls into question fundamental assumptions, by logically extending them. In particular, postmodernism unmasks the futility of taking "reason" to be the search for necessary reasons, for what can't not be true. Wherever this sort of "reason" exists -- and there is more than enough of it within classical Catholic theology -- postmodernism will find it, and slice it to bits.
But since the worship of the Church is founded not on this sort of "reason" but on the grace given in the One Sacrifice of Christ, "through Him all things were made," Catholics qua Catholics have nothing at all to fear from postmodernism. Postmodernism is scary and dangerous, but it is not inherently evil. Powerful things, it will be noted, tend to have their scary and dangerous side.
In fact and to the contrary, insofar as postmodernism enables Catholics to abandon their own search for necessary reasons, and to found reason more firmly on its only sure foundation, where it belongs, as part of the One Sacrifice of Christ by which he institutes the New Covenant and makes the Catholic Church his Bride and Body, postmodernism can probably be a good thing for Catholics and for the world.
Postmodernism can help devout Catholics understand that a defense of reason requires the abandonment of the defense of "reason" -- the search for necessary reasons. It can help them abandon the inherently pagan notion of "reason," which was borrowed innocently enough long ago. But as long ago as Tertullian, we noticed that there had to be something utterly wrong with it.
Thus, by and large, devout and learned Catholics of the present age may be greatly mistaken about their times. The resolution of the current crisis in the West, which is at heart a crisis of evangelization, hinges on the ability of devout Catholics to abandon "reason," without abandoning reason. Thus, the current and deep crisis in the West, which seems to counsel despair, instead shows forth the greatest of hopes. For the West will never again return to Christ as a necessary reason. That possibility is probably gone for good.
The presentation of the God of the Christians as the One True Necessary Reason may yet quiet a few minds. It may even have a mild evangelical success. But if the West truly craves the God of the Necessary, it will find him -- in Islam. Or perhaps it will learn harmony rather than freedom, so as to flee the necessary in Buddhism. Or it will adopt a polymorphous paganism, vaguely pantheist, syncretist, perhaps not entirely satisfactory, but just "spiritual" enough. No, the West will probably not return to Christ as a necessary reason. But the West can return to him as He is, as grace incarnate, as the Son of God and the Son of Mary, the Son of the living God, not a necessary reason, but Truth Himself speaking truly.
The Enlightenment did not bring this down on us. The Enlightenment learned the idea of "reason" as the quest for necessary reasons from us, from within Catholic theology. Outside of our worship, outside of everything we believe -- merely outside of that -- the principal Catholic idea of reason has been that of "reason." Now, only we, who have Christ in his fullness, may have the means -- Christ himself, in his fullness -- to abandon "reason," so that we may have reason.
Surely the effects of the postmodernist critique so far show that without the Lord himself as our help, nothing can prevail against its coruscating question. It may be, for all except devout Catholics, who receive the Medicine of Immortality firmly within the strictest Catholic sacramental realism, that once "reason" disintegrates, then reason itself will seem to disappear.
We who believe may gaze at postmodernism, the telos of modernism, with the only clear eyes, the only eyes not panic-stricken, as it relentlessly slices all "reason" to tinier and tinier bits, and find that its action in the world may be trying to tell devout Catholics something extraordinary. What if reason itself must be Catholic to be itself? What if reason itself, as Tertullian suspected, is reasonable not autonomously and by necessary reasons, as the pagans grasp it, but only within the One Sacrifice? If it be so, then we are safe, but the world is in even graver peril than we had grasped previously. Then for all others, once the pagan "reason" is gone for them, it must seem to them that only human weakness, a human inability to be really, consistently "logical," will stand in the way of reason's utter disintegration.
But we who are being saved [1 Cor 1:18-25] preach weakness Himself, Christ crucified. It may be that the whole world is counting on us. It may be that this return to the Lord, for the salvation of the whole world, must be led by those lucky enough to touch Him and take Him into ourselves in the Eucharist. As postmodernism, the avatar and the telos of the search for necessary reasons, slices that pagan quest into tinier and tinier bits, kills it more and more decisively, leaving nothing left but its own one dead question, a lethal flutter of verbiage in a merciless world, needing only the barest hint of fresh life to revive in full and to slice again, it may be that it falls to us alone to make a safe refuge for science, for free will, for moral agency, for rationality itself, and to make it as a completely free gift to anyone who wants it, no payment or gratitude or even acknowledgement asked or expected.
The intellectual project of the next thousand years of Catholic intellectual life, and concomitantly the evangelical project of the next thousand years, will be to begin to make reason itself Catholic, to begin the conversion of reason itself to its one Lord. I have argued elsewhere that this project is so radical, and so new, that even the place for this project requires a new name; which is to say, it requires a professed name, a Catholic name: no longer university, but triniversity.
For 'university' is the place where Catholics may go to develop a fundamentally pagan project. A uni-versus is a project "turned-toward" (versus) the One, and to enter it is already, if innocently, to accept the pagan dilemma of the One and the Many. This is no longer enough for Catholics, who must seek for reason within a triniversity, within the Catholic turn toward the Most Holy Trinity, one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
It is a new Catholic thought even to consider that the place where reason is sought needs a professed name. This is a bare indicator of the sheer immensity of the project, and of how far we have to go, even to begin it. One thousand years will not see its completion. We will stumble, we will fall. We will look ridiculous, and we will get up and try again. Yet there is hope, hope with real substance. You will find a reference to a beginning at the end of the final paragraph.
To summarize, postmodernism is not a system of thought. It is a question or procedure that destroys systems of thought which have any pagan foundation. Roughly speaking, postmodernism operates by asking this question infinitely: "So, where are you standing when you say that?". That is, it systematically exploits the dilemma of the One and the Many inherent in any pagan system. By doing so it makes the foundations of such systems infinitely discontinuous. Therefore, any "analysis" of postmodernism from within such systems will fail as a defense, since postmodernism merely asks relentlessly the question that all such systems ask themselves: What is true of necessity, such that it can not not be true?
To define "reason" as the search for necessary reasons is thus to expose "reason" to relentless, infinite attack from the postmodernist question. As Tertullian first noticed, however, to define "reason" in this way is also to deny the very possibility of grace: life and hope, reason and rationality, order and structure, that is a gift which arises from no necessary reason at all. The world "is not the product of any necessity whatever, nor of blind fate or chance." [CCC 295] For Catholic theology to accept the Creation, and even more centrally, to accept the Eucharistic One Sacrifice of Jesus the Christ which establishes the New Covenant from which the revelation of Creation is inseparable, [cf. CCC 288] but nevertheless to accept the pagan idea of "reason" as the search for necessary reasons, is not only contradictory on its face. It exposes Catholic theology to the relentless knives of the postmodernist question.
The postmodernist question is nowadays typically asked by people from within the search for necessary reasons. That is, the search for "reason" is taken to be the only conceivable definition of and path to reason. Thus, once the search for necessary reasons is rendered futile by the postmodernist critique, literally no-thing is left, and madness and despair are the consequences. This is nothing more than a re-finding of the underlying despair of paganism, well-known to classical Greece and Rome. The quest for "reason," being rendered futile, then becomes a quest for flight, for surcease. No vice then becomes strange -- hedonism, "spirituality," power, displacing "true meaning" to the eschation, etc. -- all may be invoked. Meanwhile, most of us, neither as brave nor as intellectually honest, just try to make it through the day.
However, when the postmodernist question is asked by believing Catholics, the infinite discontinuity of "reason" which arises does, and should, prompt Catholics also to abandon "reason." But for Catholics, this does not lead to the abandonment of reason, or to madness, despair, or a need to flee time and the world. Rather, it leads to the strictest Catholic sacramental realism, to the Mystery of Faith: "When we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim your death, Lord Jesus, until you come in glory."
The new evangelization is, as ever, an evangelization of souls, of individual people. And it is true that pagan arguments can be, not precisely defeated, but blunted, ameliorated, by holy lives. For instance, the stubborn refusal of Catholic clergy, religious, single, and married to express their existence in this life apart from the sacrament of Matrimony (the very word "virgin" would be meaningless except by reference to that sacrament), will be one of the "weaknesses" that the postmodernist critique can not defeat, precisely because such an existence is not "logical" within "reason."
But for Catholics, and thence for the whole world, to see sacramental existence as a defense of reason, finally requires the decisive Catholic abandonment of "reason" within Catholic theology. It requires that the place within which reason is sought be given a professed name -- triniversity, rather than university. Thus the new evangelization must also be the evangelization of reason itself, a strange and difficult project, the project of the next thousand years of Catholic intellectual life at least.
Catholics should not expect postmodernism to serve as an effective tool for evangelization. For one thing, the postmodernist question can not be asked by Catholics as Catholics, for the same reason that the worship of the Catholic Church is invulnerable to the postmodernist critique. For that critique can only arise within the pagan quest to make reality a necessary reason, which denies the New Covenant, Creation -- the very possibility of grace -- from before the outset. Second, postmodernism is only a procedure. Its application leads wherever it leads. It should be obvious that the application of a procedure which by its nature shows the futility of the quest for the necessary would not necessarily lead a soul closer to Christ.
On the other hand, postmodernism does show that as a practical matter, the new evangelization, and the re-evangelization of secularized Catholics, can not proceed as the presentation of the living God as the One True Necessary Reason. It also shows this as a theological matter. Which is to say, it reveals that insofar as traditional Catholic theology accepted "reason" as the search for the Deus Unus, for the One True Necessary Reason, that theology is incompatible with the worship and profession of the Catholic Church. This fault is a mere mistake, the kind which all of theology is prone to in all ages, since to imagine reason as something other than "reason," apart from the fundamentally pagan search for necessary reasons, was virtually impossible within many historical contexts. The fact that this mistake is of long standing and has historically been little noticed, however, does not make the mistake any more compatible with the Church's profession and worship, or the reaffirmation of the mistake any more likely to be a successful mode of evangelization.
It could be argued, therefore, that only Catholics can apply the postmodernist question rightly, without descending into madness or despair. To repeat, Catholics can not ask the postmodernist question as Catholics, for this is to deny the faith from before the outset. Catholics know all about the world as the world of necessary reasons, but they know it as the fallen world, the world which groans for its Redeemer. However, the postmodernist procedure may be applied to Catholic theology, a mere human creation, as a way of burnishing it of any hidden traces of "reason." In this way the place for reason may abandon its pagan name, university, for a professed name, triniversity, reason is made secure where it can only be secure, in the Lord, and evangelization can proceed within intellectual frameworks more systematically congruent with the worship and profession of Holy Mother Church.
Most of the academic world, in all ages, is tedious, stupid, wrong, and boring. On this web page, I have tried to say a few true things on the subject, "Postmodernism + Catholic," without boring either myself or you. If you want more, then you will have to labor in an academic vineyard, and good luck to you. Finally, for specialists and scholars who wish to explore seriously a fully Catholic response to postmodernism, they must explore it in terms of a methodological, a fully systematic, turn away from "necessary reasons" and towards covenantal, Eucharistic, reality. What that methodological turn consists of, within both the Thomist and the Augustinian traditions, forms the structure and content of a monumental work of real Catholic genius, the masterwork of Fr. Donald J. Keefe SJ: Covenantal Theology: The Eucharistic Order of History, available in a (very) few Catholic libraries, and also directly from Fr. Keefe, who may be contacted via the Jesuit community at Fordham University.
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