So we’ve been talking of modernity and the problem it was invented to solve—namely how to deal with the question (and its implications) of which religion was true. Modernity was imagined and given metaphysical weight to create a “secular” space—a “public” space where someone’s religious beliefs all of a sudden, magically, through a new alchemy, became “private” personal, subjective preferences until they were once again in their church or home and they now, as elements changed by some new transubstantiation became “true” objective and universal again. Or we may simply say that modernity is/was the Great Condescension. And condescension breeds pride and contempt. It finally becomes a great emperor sashaying down the boulevard as naked as the day is long. As most gaze in wonder, respectful, clapping, pretending there is no nakedness (nothing’s wrong—I don’t see anything—do you see anything?), postmodernity is that lone but growing voice laughing on the outskirts of the crowd (where the outs gather to smoke and drink) as they point and ridicule the obvious nakedness of the pompous ass parading down the street. Such is where we now find ourselves.
Now that is just me. Caputo, again, is not out to vilify the Enlightenment or modernity per-se. He goes on to note that the Church reacted too often out of fear and in the wrong way to the new scientific discoveries. He writes:
“…religion now had to face the altered conditions of modern life even as modernity had to decide what to do with religion. Religion and scientific reason squared off. Again, I am not saying this is all bad, because it means a literate laity started reading and writing and talking back to a previously iron-fisted Church and asserting its rights. All power to the Enlightenment (almost)…”
So we need to be clear here. No one is saying the Enlightenment didn’t arise for necessary and very good reasons. No one is saying the Enlightenment is all bad. This is not all black and white, all good versus evil. Notice however that such is a postmodern assessment and one modernity is barely capable of because it traffics in dichotomies and strict boundaries like black “or” white, true “or” false, faith “or” reason. The postmodernist lives in the grey areas—in the shadows—on the bridges. For the postmodern all these strict boundaries become porous and all the dichotomies break down under the “both-and” rather than the “either-or” of modernity. Caputo continues from the above quote:
“…but what I am saying is that the solution hit upon in modernity was, well, unwise. It separated religion not only from political power, which made room for modern civil liberties, but also from truth. It solved the problem of deciding which religion was true by saying that religion does not have to do with truth at all. Joining the word ‘true’ to ‘religion’, the moderns decided, is like lighting a match in a gas-filled room: it leads to trouble.”
And, as I’ve already pointed out, Christians can thank themselves for that assessment by the “moderns” the “enlightened” ones at that time. It was true. The people in the west were tired of the killing and the destruction. Those holding the supposed keys of “Truth” were too busy killing each other. The Church had behaved like drunken school boys riding around in the car of “truth”. The world watched as they flew through stop signs, took out street vendors, and sent mothers pushing their babies in strollers scrambling before crashing into the city refinery and managing to burn down the entire town. Time to take the keys now and we will hold them, thank you very much, said the moderns. So we all get that or should. But that is not the entire story. And it doesn’t justify or make the solution any less wise. Caputo continues as he talks more about that “solution”:
“One way to put this is to say that the moderns invented the very category of religion in order to deal with the trouble, and set these distinctions in stone. Notice how we are suddenly speaking of ‘religion’ at least as much as God, which is from the medieval point of view a bit upside down. In premodernity the word ‘religion’ had a relatively restricted and minor sense. For example, in the thirteenth century it mostly meant members of ‘religious orders’ as opposed to the laity, who were ‘secular’…but in modernity these words took on their current meaning, where they separated the public, worldly order from someone’s private views about God.
Reason displaced truth, and truth ceased to be something to love and search for in all our comings and goings and became a property of an assertion [and explains JP’s constant wondering if what was being asserted was “true” as in “really” happened]. In modernity, the only place we would say ‘God is truth’ is in church; the rest of the time we would say: there are rational grounds for affirming that the proposition ‘God exists’ is true, which of course raises the fateful possibility that it is not true. Notice what just happened: for the first time, ‘God’ is on the table and up for discussion…God ceases to be the ocean in which we all float, and becomes a higher entity for whose existence there may or may not be good evidence or ‘sufficient reason’. You see the difference: the passion for God who is the truth versus dispassionate assertion that this proposition (‘God exists’) is true (or it is not). Like a traveler seeking entry to a foreign country, God suddenly was asked to present his papers to Reason.”
I think it important to point out again, that these metaphysical moves were neither necessary nor predicated upon some empirical or scientific finding or discovery. These had to be imagined. The very idea that we all believe certain things that can be established empirically but then must take a “leap of faith” to believe things which cannot be established empirically is, in-and-of-itself, a metaphysical belief that cannot, itself, be established empirically or scientifically. It is a faith belief (and one not shared by everyone!). Modernity forgot this or tried its best to get around it. It failed. That is why there is a postmodern. Caputo continues:
“Modernity tends to divide things into two great columns: Reason and its other, the rational and the irrational. This is its fatal handicap, the result of which is that Reason ended up a bit mad itself, or a bit foolish, or a bit monstrous, overrunning life, displacing truth, undermining wisdom, making the idea of loving truth look empty and sentimental.”
And one needs look no further than the carnage of the twentieth century to see this played out. In the great world wars, the Holocaust, the genocides by the Soviets, the Culture Revolution in China, in the great death and damage dealt out by America over the years, in the catastrophic environmental disasters, we see Reason become a maniac—just a calm, enlightened, scientific, and almost banal maniac. We see the accountant, the bureaucrat, the clerk, the industrialist/scientist as axe murderer. We might say they were human drones really. Caputo then goes on to note the other peculiar aspects of modernity:
“What I am saying is that the invention of Religion as a category is one of the defining moments of modernity, and a fateful undermining of the truth. I will also go so far as to say that the most radical instrument of modernity, its most cunning innovation, was the invention of the category of the category itself: bucket thinking, dividing our beliefs and practices up and setting them apart from one another with analytic clarity. Instead of the unity of the true, the good and the beautiful we saw in antiquity, the categories run in separate orders without interfering one with the other. Neat, clear, tidy, well defined, orderly, methodical, certain, unambiguous—a place for everything and everything in its place, all the trains running on time; that’s modernity’s ideal, and that’s exactly what postmodern thinking tries to disabuse us of by raising our tolerance for a certain optimal ambiguity.”
I can hear any readers (if there are any) thinking, as the above aspects of modernity were discussed, “Hey, this all sounds good to me—I like neat and tidy.” But wait, when then coming to the part about optimal “ambiguity”, I can hear the gears shifting into, “What the…?!” It’s sort of like when your parents or grandparents first heard rock-and-roll or saw Elvis- or, currently, Lady Gaga. It just doesn’t compute. We might say that modernity is a slow waltz while postmodernity is a Jimi Hendrix solo. Or that postmodernity is the “answer” or the “event” we hear in the line from Dylan: “The answer my friend is blowing in the wind.” Moderns would never imagine or picture any answer, any truth, as ambiguous, uncontrollable, uncontainable, and unable to grasp as something like the wind (Spirit). Hearing moderns moan about postmodernity at this point is really like listening to your favorite old uncle talk about the “good ole days” and how it’s all gone to hell now (“So you mean ‘truth’ can be anything? And now gravity doesn’t apply?!”). No uncle, now go back to your cross-word puzzle and I’ll get your blanket. Caputo continues from above:
“On the back of modernity’s separation of truth and religion, another crucial set of categories was created to make it all work: ‘public’ and ‘private’ were rushed into service to deal with the crisis of religion. Religion, modernity said, is a private matter [See Bernard]. This was momentous, unprecedented, world-changing, the most radical breach in the history of truth the West has ever known (this may not be an exaggeration!)…religion became a matter of individual preferences, of what to do with our personal time, while its role in public life was to be carefully monitored. This had never been the case before.”
Caputo also lays a lot of modernity’s metaphysical framework/foundation (and subsequent problems) at the feet of Immanuel Kant.
“In Kant, philosophy—hitherto the passionate loving search for how to live wisely—now means the cool, critical, dispassionate discrimination of categories, of knowing how to draw borders (See Bernard’s 6 steps), the art of thinking in boxes or of filling buckets. Kant wants to see all the trains on the right track and on time…It did not take divine foreknowledge to see the writing on the wall for God and religion after Kant; sooner or later someone was going to come along and announce that ‘God is dead’…Kant represents the brilliance of bucket-thinking at its best (or worst). This overgrown faculty of categorization is pretty much what philosophers mean by modernity, and what modernity means by philosophy: the critical delineation of separate regions, with philosophy policing the borders.”