A couple of years ago, David Tracy, a leading Catholic intellectual, wrote a particularly insightful essay which he entitled, On Naming the Present. In it, he tried to name the present moment by pointing out three major reactions.
The first of these, he calls modernity. This version of things sees what is happening today as simply more of the same, namely, more of what has been happening already for a long time. Rationality and technology are the ultimate values, Western life and culture are superior to the rest of the world, individual rights supersede all else, and evolution in some form continues to triumph in history despite problems. What is happening is inevitable and good, and the future will look much like the present, only better.
We recognize this view in many of the forces that are driving our economies, driving globalization, driving our governments and generally too driving our centres for higher learning. For modernity the present moment is good.
The second reaction is that of the anti-modern. This person sees the present moment as a time of trouble, a time within which many of the key traditions and values that have sustained us for thousands of years are being destroyed. Continuing in the direction we are going in will mean the death of all meaning and probably even of life itself.
For an anti-modernist, we need to retreat to the past and reclaim the values we once had but have since lost, including the value of sacrificing for community rather than inflating individual rights. The cry here is for old-time religion, old-time family values and old-time ways of organizing ourselves. For the anti-modern, the present is bad.
The third reaction, Tracy calls post-modern. The post-modern person is suspicious of both past and present. He or she does not share modernity’s enthralment with rationality, the West, technology, science, globalization, the Internet and everything else we identify with progress. Neither is he or she enthraled with tradition, as is the anti-modern.
For the post-modernist, there are many centres (not just the West), many meanings (not just rationality and what it produces), many avenues to the truth (and not just those espoused by liberals and conservatives), and indeed no clear way to know whether the present moment is good or bad. For a post-modernist, hope lies in otherness, in the marginalized, in the mystic, in the artist and in madness. The present moment is good and bad.
For Tracy, it is not a question of deciding among these as to right or wrong. Rather, for him, each of these perspectives is inadequate, even as it helps protect something valuable.
Modernity, for its part, has helped bring about and sustain individual rights, freedom of press, freedom of religion, freedom of association, freedom for multi-culturalism, freedom for scientific inquiry (including the area of theology), and it has been one of the driving forces behind democracy itself. Any anti-modernist, anti-liberal, view should take a hard look at the narrowness and brutality of fundamentalism before coming on too strong in its critique of modernity.
Conversely, though, despite all of its so-called enlightenment, modernity offers little community or salvation. In it, one sees a real poverty as regards memory, suffering and resistance.
The anti-modern, generally identified with the conservative, too brings much positive to the table. An emphasis on tradition, community and boundaries is something needed today. The popularity of fundamentalism indicates how deep is the fear in many people that we are headed for the survival of the fittest, nihilism, mindless power and catastrophe.
Conversely, however, anti-modernism has made a curious marriage with many of the forces (technology, capitalism and pragmatism) that are helping bring about the things that it most fears.
Post-modernity too brings both riches and poverty to the table: Its systematic deconstructions have helped to shatter the narrow complacencies of both liberals and conservatives. It has looked at idols on both sides and said: “The king has no clothes on!”
However, deconstruction is not exactly the same thing as construction. To say what is wrong within a community does not of itself tell us how to live together. Thus, post-modernism, in Tracy’s words, has deconstructed the status quo but left us with the fluxus quo. It is rich and poor, both at the same time.
Not everything can be fixed or cured, but it should be named properly. David Tracy’s naming of the present moment is, indeed, the work of a good doctor; helpful because before there can be any cure there must first be a good diagnosis.