Twice in my life, once just before I was ordained a priest and then again just before I was installed as provincial superior of the Oblates, I had to take an oath against Modernism. It was not a big thing really; essentially it meant publicly professing the creed of the church. But there was a time, not that long ago, when this was considered a big thing and Modernism was seen as the archenemy of the church.
Times have changed and today modernism is itself under fire, from the secular world. This is making for some curious happenings: More and more, today we are seeing the phenomenon wherein the children of people who once rejected religion in the name of Modernism are taking their own oath against Modernism. The jury is still out as to whether all of this is good or bad, but, undeniably, it is interesting.
So what is happening? What is this phenomenon that many are calling Post-Modernism?
Post-Modernism is a reaction against Modernism, that is, a reaction against the belief, the ideology, that reason, critical, informed reason is the ultimate and only arbiter of truth and that it, and not religious truth, is the ultimate authority. In essence, it is a distrust of all that is not explicable in purely rational terms. This faith, the belief that critical reason is the final authority, ushered in what we call Modern Western history.
And it was a mixed blessing, both religiously and secularly. On the one hand, Modernism is good. With its faith in the rational, it has helped allay countless superstitions and groundless fear and thus has helped free the Western mind. Moreover, it lies at the basis of the scientific method and the Western science and technology would not be understandable without it.
But there was another side to it that was less freeing and it is this side that the churches feared and against which they fought. Modernism’s faith in the rational was so powerful that, in the end, it did not allow for faith in anything else. Efficiency, pragmatism, and science became the ultimate authorities and they ruled as ruthlessly as any god ever has. The facts, as science established them, became God. With that, reality flattened out and lost much of its mystery. Contemplation, ritual, and mysticism, save for a few small pockets of resistance within the churches, essentially died. Further, any kind of faith in or contact with the invisible, the non-empirical, the world of spirit, was seen as suspect or as outright superstition. Christian faith came to be seen as a naiveté, like believing in Santa and the Easter Bunny. Most of us grew up in this climate and, for many of us, it is still the basic air we breathe. We are adult children of the enlightenment.
But a curious thing is happening today, not all over, but in significant parts of the culture. More and more, reason itself is under fire and is being questioned as to how much truth and meaning it can deliver. You see this skepticism of reason everywhere, but most notably in people who once rejected religion in the name of rationality. Hence, for example, among so many persons who once rejected religion because they somehow regarded it as superstition, we see an increasing fascination with horoscopes, astrology, neo-pagan rituals, and new age religion. We see the same kind of fascination with typology: Myers-Briggs, Enneagrams, archetypes and with books that promise deeper meaning through our getting in touch with the non-rational and the mystical. Just a perusal of the titles of recent bestsellers tells you that a lot of people are looking for meaning in creeds beyond the rational: Running with Wolves; Fire in the Belly; Iron John; Women are from Venus, Men Are From Mars; The Celestine Prophecies; Goddesses in Every Woman. An hour of MTV will tell you the same thing and leave you wondering why rock artists, and their fans, find chaos so bewitching.
Each of these things, in its own way, is an oath against Modernism. Perhaps they do not always sound like the Christian creed, but they share with it the faith that our lives are not fully explained, nor fully circumscribed, by the empirical and the rational. Each of these believes in its own angels, devils, spirits, and gods, and each of these is an expression of Post-Modernism.
What goes around comes around. Some of the children of the children who once rejected religion because they thought it was too un-freeing are now rejecting their parents’ rationality because they find it too un-freeing. Welcome to post-modernity!