Christians and Postmoderns

J. Bottum

Copyright (c) 1994 First Things 40 (February 1994): 28-32.


We are living at a time near the end of the world. Not that our age is apocalyptic: apocalypse means an uncovering, a revelation, and revelation is what we lack. And not that our age is eschatological: eschatology means the discourse, reason, science, the logos of last things, and all that kind of scientific discourse is coming to an end now. All we have left is the eschaton itself and the disquietude of decline.

The atom bomb, I think, hid this from us for a while, for the atom bomb was such a modern thing. I do not mean just that it was expensive, technologically elegant, and an overwhelming demonstration of mathematical physics; or just that it was bound up with "wargasms" and all the strange destructive sexuality of modern times; or even just that it was modernity's last sick attempt to master nature. I mean that the atom bomb hid from us the ending going on all around us, and that far from destroying modern times, the atom bomb kept modern times alive for nearly fifty years. The threat of global nuclear destruction made the eschaton intelligible. All those good-hearted people who demonstrated outside nuclear bases, who signed petitions and held parades-all of them knew why they felt so close to the edge, and all of them knew why their dreams were filled with visions of the world's end. They had someone to blame; they had an explanation-the sort of explanation modernity had always promised we would have: rational, true, and morally convincing.

But with the diminished threat of nuclear destruction, the eschaton has slipped its leash. The ending all around us has no logos and no science. There is no one to blame, no explanation, and no knowledge. Modern times is collapsing, and all we have left are ironic juxtapositions: looters with cellular telephones, Van Gogh paintings in insurance company boardrooms, crucifixes in vials of urine.

Or, rather, for the modern man and modern woman there is no explanation (though perhaps environmental pollution now replaces the atom bomb in the fully modern eschatology). But to be a Chris-tian is always to have known, in some way, that it would come to this: that there must be a retribution, that the modern atheistic project was corrupt from its beginning, that the godless present age embraces self-destruction and is doomed to be destroyed.

We were all of us raised as moderns, however, and even as I write these words, my own modernness rises up to make me blush. To speak about doom and retribution, about the godless present age, is to sound distinctly premodern, distinctly dated, distinctly benighted and reactionary. It is to sound like the anti-humanistic enemy against whom modernity has campaigned for three hundred years. And I ought to blush, for I profit fully from the modern. I drive my car, keep iced tea in my refrigerator, get my vaccinations, use my computer, turn on my air conditioner in the summer heat.

Suppose, however, that we were nonetheless to declare ourselves against modernity. Suppose we were with wild eyes to denounce the present age, and trumpet doom and retribution through the streets of our cities: brand-new Savonarolas burning brand-new vanities. The state would send armored tanks to take our children, and we would seem no more than madmen filmed by TV crews for the evening news. Or suppose we were to withdraw from the irony of being Christians in these late times and build our medieval communes in the woods. Still the state would come to vaccinate our children, and tourists would come for photographs. No, these are distasteful options, and ineffective anyway. Rebels are bound to that against which they rebel, and were we to rebel against the modern we would find in our anachronisms no positive past, but only a negated present. More, it is in rebellion against the modern that we would find ourselves most truly modern-extra-modern, hyper-modern. Modernity is shaped by its deliberate rejection of the past, and modernity itself is our past. We cannot revert to the premodern, we cannot return to the age of faith, for we were all of us raised as moderns.

And yet, though we cannot revert, we nonetheless have resources that may help us to advance beyond these late times. The modern project that attacked the Middle Ages has itself been under attack for some time. For some time, hyper-modern writers have brought to bear against their modern past the same sort of scarifying analysis that earlier modern writers brought against the premodern past. These later writers, supposing the modern destruction of God to be complete, have turned their postmodern attacks upon the modern project of Enlightenment rationality.

In some sense, of course, these words premodern, modern, and postmodern are too slippery to mean much. Taken to refer to the history of ideas, they seem to name the periods before, during, and after the Enlightenment; but taken to refer to the history of events, they seem to name the period from creation to the rise of science, the period from the rise of science until World War II, and the period since the war. It is tempting to define the categories philosophically, rather than historically, around the recognition that knowledge depends upon the existence of God. But the better modern philosophers (e.g., Descartes and Kant, as opposed to, say, Voltaire) recognize that dependence in some way or another. Perhaps, though definitions based on intent are always weak, the best definition nonetheless involves intent: it is premodern to seek beyond rational knowledge for God; it is modern to desire to hold knowledge in the structures of human rationality (with or without God); it is postmodern to see the impossibility of such knowledge.

There is thus a curious parallel of thought between premodern thinkers and postmodern prophets of modernity's destruction. This parallel could be drawn precisely, I think, between the medieval Christian neoplatonists (Dionysius, Eriugena, St. Bonaventure, Eckhart, Cusa) and certain contemporary critics of systematic rationality (Derrida, Foucault, Jameson). But all medievals, even such "rational" philosophers as Averroes, Moses Maimonides, and St. Thomas Aquinas, share certain philosophical ideas that are closer to the postmodern than the modern. The premoderns said that without God, there would be no knowledge, and the postmoderns say we have no God and have no knowledge. The premoderns said that without the purposefulness of final causation, all things would be equally valueless, and the postmoderns say there is no purpose and no value. The premoderns said that without an identity of reality and the Good, there would be no right and wrong, and the postmoderns say there is neither Good nor right and wrong. Though they disagree on whether God exists, premoderns and postmoderns share the major premise that knowing requires His existence. Only for a brief period in the history of the West-the period of modern times-did anyone seriously suppose that human beings could hold knowledge without God.

By itself, this parallel between premodern and postmodern does us no good, for we cannot use it to return to the age of faith. Postmodernity is still in the line of modernity, as rebellion against rebellion is still rebellion, as an attack on the constraints of grammar must still be written in grammatical sentences, as a skeptical argument against the structures of rationality must still be put rationally. Our conceptions of the premodern and the postmodern turn equally on the modern project. Though the postmodern attack on modernity may move our historical imagination to a periphery from which to view the center, it does not remove us from the circle. The failure of the present age is not cured by recognizing it as failing. We need, rather, a different center in order to hold knowledge.


I choose the phrase "to hold knowledge" deliberately, for the massive scientific advance of modernity reveals how easy it is to discover facts, and modernity's collapse reveals how hard it is to hold knowledge. We have an apparatus for discovery unrivaled by the ages, yet every new fact means less than the previously discovered one, for we lack what turns facts to knowledge: the information of what the facts are for.

Epistemology, the branch of philosophy that studies how we know, gives us a technical vocabulary with which to describe this missing piece of information. Aristotle originally describes knowledge as a grasp of cause and essence: to know a thing, we must know the four causes of its existence and the essential genus and difference of its species. He discovers, however, that the fourth of the causes-the final cause, "that for the sake of which"-is already enfolded in the essence itself. The fullest knowledge of a being is thus, in Aristotle's description, a grasp of what that being is for. When Francis Bacon and all the other founders of modern science reject final causation, they reject the entire idea of essence: the "beingness" of knowable things.

Yet while epistemology may give us a name for the missing information, it fails to give us a way to demonstrate the necessity for this information. The technical reason for epistemology's failure is the impossibility of forming a strict genus-and-difference definition of knowledge. Certainly we can define the psychology of knowing, but a definition of the logical content of that knowing soon becomes circular: the act of knowing may belong to the genus of mental acts, but we have no genus for the knowledge thereby known.

It might seem, however, that we do not need to enter into the technicalities of epistemology in order to see the necessity of final causation for knowledge, but we could discover this necessity by examining history instead. As Etienne Gilson once observed, history is the only laboratory we have in which to see the consequences of thought. The empty pit into which the modern project has fallen may well reveal Bacon's failure far more convincingly than any purely epistemological argument ever could. This is the reason, as I understand it, that Michel Foucault pressed his postmodern attack on modernity by writing histories. The Foucault by whom we are first moved to question modernity, the Foucault by whom we are first shown the absurdity of the modern project from its beginning, is not the Foucault of the epistemological Order of Things and Archaeology of Knowledge, but the Foucault of the historical Discipline and Punish, Madness and Civilization, and Birth of the Clinic. To read these histories is to see the evil of the systematic, the cruelty of impersonal human ingenuity, and the prison of the Enlightenment's constraining rationality.

But the history of thought is finally about thought rather than history. The failure of the modern project is a failure of theory, not just practice, and so Foucault wrote epistemology, not just history. Historical studies may point us towards the source of modernity's collapse, but they do not prove it. We would need, of course, a large book to cover accurately and fairly the thousand shades of modern epistemology, and another large book to demonstrate their failure, and yet another to propose an alternative. Once historical studies have pointed us in the right direction, however, it is actually quite easy to sketch (in a very loose and general way) the epistemological absurdity of the attempt to found knowledge without the transcendental final cause that is God.

To the medieval eye, beings disclose their purposes precisely as they imitate God. God moves things as their final cause: the aim of their growth and motion, the object of their desire. Everything is thus an image of God, for the perfection of a thing would be to be God. "He is Himself the proper type of each," writes St. Thomas. "The divine essence contains in itself the excellences of all beings, not indeed by way of composition, but by way of perfection." Even in their imperfections things reveal the hidden Exemplar of their being. The consequence of this medieval view is that objects of knowledge seem simultaneously real and unreal. They have, enfolded in their presence, an absence that makes them knowable. When we see a face reflected in a mirror, we recognize not only that the reflection is a real reflection, but also that it is not a real face. Similarly, images are real as images, but not real as that of which they are the image. For medieval men and women, knowable things have the strange dual status of being really existing images. But this is what allows them to be known: insofar as they are images, there is something knowable there; insofar as they really exist, there is something knowable there.

Francis Bacon's rejection of purpose, however, is also a rejection of lack. The modern scientist sees the objects of investigation as complete, lacking nothing, wholly what they are. Things are real here before us, and have no absence that requires God. The imagination as an image-former (rather than an image-reader) is the proper faculty of human knowing. Facing fully real things, we render them knowable in the images of language, art, and mathematical science. As an attempt to found an epistemology, this is bizarre. The logic of knowing tells us that we must abandon any claim to have complete knowledge of whatever it is we have taken as fully real. Between us and whatever is real, a gap opens up. We may discern, perhaps, that the real is, but what it is (its essential "beingness") retreats behind the impossibility of knowing its purpose. The consequence of this modern view is that things are not what they are said to be. Any time a modern tells us what something is, we are told more about language and its speaker than about the thing of which that speaker speaks, and we ought to recognize the speaker's hunger for power and desire for domination. Any modern use of essences is philosophically unjustifiable: an attempt to force a unique unknowable individual into a controlled category of knowledge.

And so "we must learn to live after truth," as a group of European academics wrote in After Truth: A Postmodern Manifesto. "Nothing is certain, not even this. . . . The modern age opened with the destruction of God and religion. It is ending with the threatened destruction of all coherent thought." Nietzsche may have been the first to see this clearly, though the Marquis de Sade came close in Philosophy in the Bedroom. But, even in the fundamental thinkers of high modernity, hints can be found that knowledge requires God: Descartes uses God in the Meditations in order to escape from the interiority where the cogito has stranded him; Kant uses God as a postulate of pure practical reason in order to hold on to the possibility of morality.


And yet I am convinced that any attempt to "use" God is self-defeating, and that the very appearance of an epistemologically useful God in the writings of Descartes and Kant contributes to the Death of God described by Nietzsche, and thus to the collapse of knowledge. (This point is made brilliantly by Jean-Luc Marion in God Without Being.) Thanks to the postmodern critique, we can see this collapse with historical clarity; but the fact of our seeing it does not give us God. In the real psychology of conversion, no one comes to believe merely for the sake of guaranteeing knowledge. This has an analogue in the theological realization that God is not mastered by the thought of Him, but discovered by thought to be beyond thought: He is silent where thought most needs Him to speak. And it has an analogue in the epistemological realization that the Divine defeats knowledge for the sake of which we suppose the Divine: God (posited as a transcendental condition for the possibility of knowing) must Himself be unknowable-else we would need to posit some further God as the condition for the possibility of knowing Him. And it has its most accurate analogue in the historical realization that we are not premoderns: we cannot cease to be moderns by rebelling against modernity.

But this leaves us in a perilous position. On the one hand, without an unthinkable God who illuminates thinking, we cannot maintain knowledge. On the other hand, the desire to maintain knowledge will not conjure the God who reveals Himself only to faith. The ceremonies of suspicion, in which we have all been trained since Descartes, make falling to a postmodern denial of knowledge easier than climbing to an un-modern belief.

What believers have in common with postmoderns is a distrust of modern claims to knowledge. To be a believer, however, is to be subject to an attack that postmoderns, holding truthlessness to themselves like a lover, never have to face. The history of modernity in the West is in many ways nothing more than the effort to destroy medieval faith. It is a three-hundred-year attempt to demolish medieval (especially Catholic) claims to authority, and to substitute a structure of science and ethics based solely on human rationality. But with the failure to discover any such rational structure-seen by the postmoderns-the only portion of the modern project still available to a modern is the destruction of faith. It should not surprise us that, in very recent times, attacks on what little is left of medieval belief have become more outrageous: resurgent anti-Semitism, anti-Islamic broadsides, vicious mockery of evangelical preaching, desecrations of the Host in Catholic masses. For modern men and women, nothing else remains of the high moral project of modernity: these attacks are the only good thing left to do. The attackers are convinced of the morality of their attack not by the certainty of their aims-who's to say what's right or wrong?-but by opposition from believers.

Three hundred years of this attack have created in believers an attitude both deeply defensive and deeply conservative. But the defensiveness springs from the attempt by believers to defend their belief against a "progressive" philosophy that is already rejected intellectually by nearly all cultural commentators, and, I suspect, despised intuitively by nearly all young people in America. Believers should not become entangled in the defense of modern times. This is the key-the postmodern attack on modernity is right: without God, essences are the will to power. Without God, every attempt to call something true or beautiful or good is actually an attempt to compel other people to agree.

Of course believers are tempted, when they hear postmodern deconstructions of modernity, to argue in support of modernity. After all, believers share with modern nonbelievers a trust in the reality of truth. They affirm the efficacy of human action, the movement of history towards a goal, the possibility of moral and aesthetic judgments. But believers share with postmoderns the recognition that truth rests on a faith that has itself been the sole subject of the long attack of modern times. The most foolish thing believers could do is to make concessions now to a modernity that is already bankrupt (and that despises them anyway) and thus to make themselves subject to a second attack-the attack of the postmodern on the modern. Faithful believers are not responsible for the emptiness of modernity. They struggled against it for as long as they could, and they must not give in now. They must not, at this late date, become scientific, bureaucratic, and technological; skeptical, self-conscious, and self-mocking.


At the same time we ought to be wary of the immediate practical effect of making common cause with the postmodern. For instance, an attempt to root out modern elements in the church ought to be viewed with the same suspicion we should have for any systematic program of destruction. Nothing in the rejection of modernity tells us how we ought to view the ecumenical movement or the ordination of women. A postmodern critique of the Catholic Church would find less grist in current controversies than in modern elements already present in the Church: the substituted vernacular mass, or the presence of national flags on church daises. The problem for the Catholic believer in particular is precisely the claim of the Catholic Church to be a catholic church-not a culture or a heritage, but the mystical bride of Christ-a universal and eternal possibility for conversion. It cannot relegate itself to a self- consciously historical role as some gracefully surviving anachronism, some museum of dead forms. The Church militant must somehow be simultaneously historical and ahistorical. However, the problem for every believer, Catholic or not, is the impossibility of choosing to cease being modern. We cannot decide to revert to a community of faith, because the decision requires a self-consciousness that contradicts the unself-consciousness of such community. Any rejection of modernity must step gingerly around this contradiction.

Similarly, we ought to be wary of the theological effect of the postmodern. Certainly no one actually believes for the sake of knowing, or holds irrational faith for the sake of holding rational thought. But the postmodern critique of modernity tempts us to reject rationality rather than surpass it. The relation of Christianity to rationality is, at one extreme, St. Justin Martyr's claim, "Whatever things are rightly said among all men are the property of us Christians," and, at the other extreme, Tertullian's question, "What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" If the tendency of contemporary theology is to give too much to Justin and the efficacy of rational thought, the tendency of postmodern theology is to give too much to Tertullian and the irrational.

But there is perhaps a use we might make of the postmodern in apologetics, for the collapse of modernity may allow believers to speak once again about God without defensiveness or self-consciousness, may allow believers both to escape political categorization as liberal or conservative and to escape the modern view that sees political categories as fundamental. And there is certainly a use for the postmodern in catechetics. The critique of modernity offers the possibility of reclaiming the long history of belief, the possibility of critically reading medieval authors without supposing them to be involved in the attempt to master God.

St. Anselm, for instance, puts in his Proslogion what a typically modern reading takes as the "ontological argument": an attempt to prove, by examining the meaning of the word "God," the existence of a useful transcendental guarantor of thought, whose existence is itself guaranteed by thought. And Anselm seems to invite this sort of separation of the logical argument from its place in his text. He had long sought, he writes, an argument that "would suffice to demonstrate that God truly exists" and grant understanding superior to faith: "I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand." Indeed, Anselm gave the title Faith Seeking Understanding to early drafts of the Proslogion. Many thinkers-Gaunilo, St. Thomas, Caterus, Kant, Russell-have pointed to certain logical difficulties with Anselm's demonstration. But we are not committed to resolving these logical difficulties merely by asserting that the modern reading is wrong. Rather, there is opened for us a different way of reading Anselm. The Proslogion has more the structure of prayer than the structure of proof: it begins in the blind depths of unilluminated incomprehension; it ends in worship of the blinding Light. Anselm does not seek as a modern to guarantee knowledge, he seeks as a premodern for the God beyond the guarantee.

Similarly, St. Thomas Aquinas puts in the Summa Theologica his famous Five Ways. A typically modern reading, whether by a believer or a nonbeliever, takes these Ways as five separable attempts to demonstrate the existence of God. St. Thomas sets out, according to this sort of reading, to prove the "God of the Philosophers": a transcendental guarantor of thought, onto Whose demonstrable features (Prime Mover, Most Necessary Being, Designer of the Universe, etc.) may be super-added the additional features held by faith (appearing in the Burning Bush, descending in the flesh, speaking to Muhammad, etc.). For the modern believer and nonbeliever alike, there is an unconvincingness about such demonstrations that has little to do with their logic. We know that the existence of God cannot be proven. We come prejudiced against the possibility of demonstration, and are suspicious even where we find no flaw. And we are right to be suspicious. Modern debates about the existence of God are primarily about whether or not a "useful" God is necessary to guarantee the possibility of ethical action. Both sides in the debate take as fundamental that the moral order stands outside of God, and that the God about Whom they argue would operate as a guarantor of that order if He existed. To such debates St. Thomas contributes nothing. A world of interpretation is opened to us when we consider instead that Thomas is not concerned with God's guarantee of knowledge (though he notices it in passing), but with moving through thought to the unthinkable. The purpose of the premodern Five Ways is not to settle us in modern knowledge, but to move us toward God.

This, of course, is the greatest use for the postmodern. Though we cannot revert to the premodern community of faith, we can reestablish our communion with that community. Modernity was the effort to destroy the claims of the medieval church to authority in order to put its own conceptions of human rationality at the center of human thought. And it is the mocking deconstructive critique of the postmoderns that shows the bankruptcy and the will to power of modern times. Freed from modernity, we can resume faith's interrupted search for understanding.

J. Bottum is a new contributor to First Things, recently received a Ph.D. in Medieval Philosophy from Boston College.