In the last post we talked about the rise of modernity, it’s twin mothers (The Enlightenment and the Reformation), and how this changed how we understood something to be “true” and indeed what the very concept of “truth” meant. We should be clear that there was no scientific or evidential finding or discovery made that necessitated or demanded these changes. As John Milbank famously noted, these changes had to be imagined. These were metaphysical moves, not scientific ones. They had to be “believed.” The appeals may have been to science, or reason, but they were faith-based, metaphysical appeals spun from a new narrative, a new story, of how the world should now be understood. Caputo continues with this paragraph heading: “Truth Wars: Faith v. Reason” and he writes:
“The big loser in these transformative events would prove to be God, and with God the old constellation of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. I start with religion not because I want to defend religion against its critics—in general, I think, religion deserves a good deal of the grief it is given…”
Again, Caputo is no knee-jerk critic of the Enlightenment nor is he any friend to conservative/traditional fundamentalist religion. This is what makes his argument strong and believable. He is not taking sides here and conservatives on either side (whether secular or religious) will take no comfort in his writings. In my mind, that is a good thing. Show me someone who cannot address his arguments (and only beg-the-question) and can only dismiss or ridicule and I will show you either a religious or secular fundamentalist. We can mark it down every time. He continues from the previous quote:
“…but because I think we need a new idea of truth (and consequently of religion, to which a lot of my work is dedicated). That idea, I will argue, is found in what I am calling the postmodern sense of truth. The truth should make us free and that is what happens in postmodernity, which twists free from the overgrown and monolithic notion of Reason that grew up in modernity. Truth, I will argue, cannot be kept confined to quarters inside what the Enlightenment called Reason, not because it is identified with an infinite God, as it was before modernity, but because it bears within itself a different sort of infinity, that of endless difference and diversification…”
Caputo then moves into where I think the crux of the matter lies as far as the “why” of modernity. Why, from the 17th and 18th Centuries, up until around the fall of the Berlin Wall, has the west lived out this thing called modernity—the modern world? Why was it imagined? The “true believers” the secular fundamentalists, the new atheists, believe it arose because we learned or discovered something new—something that scientifically and empirically disproved the old “religious” understanding of the world. Of course, that is a myth. For them, to learn the real reason modernity had to be imagined may be like the moment a young child learns there is no Santa Clause. Yes dear secularist, that is correct, the narrative you inhabit (Enlightenment) is as faith-based as the Judeo-Christian narrative—neither a scientific or empirical discovery nor finding demanded its appearance (Or, there is no Santa Clause—sorry). I think Caputo has it exactly right (although he is not the first to point this out) when he addresses the “why” of modernity:
“So let’s start by asking a very volatile and provocative question: Which religion is the true one? Raising that question is the nightmare of modernity—and dinner-party hosts everywhere (it guarantees you will not be invited back). In fact, I am tempted to say that modernity was invented precisely to keep that question in the closet. In modernity, reason defined itself by the exclusion of faith. Once again, the distinction between faith and reason was already drawn in the Middle Ages, but in modernity it grew horns and teeth. It devolved into an opposition quite unlike anything previously known. In the high Middle Ages, religious people sought to understand their faith (‘fides quaerens intellectum’, ‘faith seeking understanding’). They wanted to give a reason for the faith that was in them, and so they sought to integrate faith and reason into the unity of wisdom…”
And this really goes to the heart of Bernard’s agnosticism. It is a sensibility; a matter of taste. It is posited as something that doesn’t (or shouldn’t?) “sit well” to presume one’s own subjective preferences (if that is, indeed, all they are) could be true while another’s false. This awkwardness, this new sensibility, was the very ethos created by modernity. It now became impolite in mixed company to assert that another person’s beliefs were false. But the ethos is manufactured by first creating a fact/value distinction and dichotomy between faith and reason and getting people to believe it. We all have cultural taboos. This one was created by modernity so that an educated person should feel embarrassed (And if they are not, we should all roll our eyes and shoot knowing glances at each other) to bring issues like this up in polite company.
Modernity was imagined or invented (a new narrative—a new story was told) so that the question of whose religion was true could be dealt with (compartmentalized, boxed, enclosed, fenced-in) in a way that would prevent further violence and (this by-product is often overlooked) would allow the secular royal families at the time to secure power over each other and the Church (this led to the modern western secular state). It was a social and political movement—it was not a necessity demanded by science or empiricism. And the underlying foundation to the political and social were the metaphysical moves made by both the Enlightenment and the Reformation. So, we might say that Christians have themselves to thank for modernity. After 30 years of killing each other in the name of religious “truth” (30-Years-War; 1618–1648)—who would not have wanted to find any way possible to stop the bloodshed and destruction of land and economy? And that is exactly what modernity was invented to do and did. Caputo continues from the above quote:
“…But modernists don’t like mixing things [faith and reason] together like that. So the distinction between faith and reason became a dichotomy, which presented modernity with a special problem. Religion constituted (this is also part of my line) the single greatest and most symptomatic problem modernity had to deal with, which is why, later on, Karl Marx said the critique of religion is the model of all critique and its first order of business.”
As an aside, many believe that the modern world (modernity—which does not mean modern things like airplanes, cars, computers, or technology) began its march to the grave on November 11, 1918. That was the date the First World War ended. The modern west was shocked and dumbfounded at the appalling carnage and death now made possible by the modern industrial state. Whereas crowds of civilians in the thousands had cheered their young sons going off to war in the beginning, at the end they were embarrassed, heart-broken, and ashamed. The modern spirit died that day. The Second World War, the Holocaust, and the other 20th Century genocides hammered the final nail and threw the last shovel of dirt on the coffin of modernity. These were not religious wars—these were wars fought by modern, sophisticated, liberal, educated, scientific, western states—with politicians/scientists/industrialists at the helm—not priests or kings. And the death and destruction wrought in the 20th Century made the 30-Years-War and previous religious wars look like children’s school-yard fights. We now have the reverse. The postmodern had to be imagined to tell a counter-narrative for the very same reasons modernity had to be imagined: Too many people killing each other. So the modern secular liberal can thank himself for the postmodern. There, we are even.
Perhaps the narratives we tell are in reaction to the cataclysmic loss of life and disruption of society. Ever since Cain killed Abel, we see the same act played out across time and our stories are our attempts, among other reasons, to deal with the act of killing. That we are “progressing” to a certain extent then-is a myth. History it would seem is a moment-by-moment recapitulation where we are constantly faced with the choice of power and violence or peace and forgiveness. It is much too clear which path Christians and secularists have too often chosen and continue to choose.