• Brendan Graham Dempsey

Integrating Modernity and Postmodernity



INSIGHTS OF MODERNITY

The realizations and insights of modernity are real and powerful. Reason and evidence are formidable tools for drawing closer to Ultimate Reality and avoiding a dysfunctional to the world.

The transcendent idealism of traditional religion, of “this world” and “the world beyond,” here falls apart. There is, science shows us, actually just one world—this one. The world of matter and energy.

A Heaven of angels may not lie above us, but the heavens revealed by science are certainly not without their sublimity, their wonder, their awe-inducing vastness and majesty. True, we looked, and saw no Heavenly Father in our telescope, but we did see light-years of space-time, exploding with diaphanous shades and colors in supernova splendor; we lost the geocentric Crystal Spheres with their governing Angels, but gained a sprawling supercluster within a filamental web of galaxies spanning out to the edge of space and back to the dawn of time.

We lost our clay Craftsman deity in the Garden, shaping a first man out of dirt, but gained a connection with all Life, a web of continual metamorphosis, from tree to tortoise to toenail, connected, tapestried together through eons of molecular gizmos weaving strands of helical code tying us back to the plucky bacterium in Pangaea.

We lost an anthropomorphic creator God making animals like a potter, but gained an all-pervasive, incomprehensibly-complex, co-creating force shaping matter through iteration and incident into higher complex forms through epochs of ages, weaving life out of matter, and sentience out of life, to the point that brains take stock of their own being and stand in awe of the billions of unfolding leading to this moment’s fathoming.

We lost miracles, yes—but gained all of existence as a miracle! There may be no walking on water or turning it to wine, but we can marvel at its chemical structure, how it sustains life, how its latent geometry produces crystalline stars of bewildering beauty, all different; how it falls from the sky to irrigate vegetation, and rises again through evaporation in a cyclical dance that ties the continents together. These things are not the fine-tuned plan of an Intelligent Designer, no, but the emergent patterns and evolved symbiotic puzzle of innumerable variables co-adapting through eons of interaction and interest. THIS is a miracle. Existence itself, boring old mundane reality, IS miraculous. It is so by the laws that govern it’s self-organizing, not in their breaking.

Through modernity, we lost a small story and gained a bigger one.

Through modernity, we lost certainty, but gained a deeper appreciation for the Mystery of the universe.

We lost the Other World, but gained a new appreciation for this one—the world that holds all our inner worlds, and always has. This planet isn’t something to escape from come some final trumpet, a thing we can trash until a New Earth descends out of heaven, returned to Edenic purity by divine magic. This, this Earth, this one, is our only Earth. And we are the only ones that can and must transform it into Eden if ever.

So long as we ignore what must be done here and now, by us, in favor of future salvation to some far-off shore, we will fail to meet the challenges that press upon the world today. Seeking salvation, we damn the Earth. We must grow up, and re-attune ourselves to where we live. We must regain a sense of Earth, this world, as precious. Science is not the enemy of religion, but the revealer of a greater reality which our religion had been too small and too limited to consider.


That doesn’t sound so bad, does it? Well, don’t get too comfortable just yet. There’s a bit more deconstructing we have to do first.


INSIGHTS OF POSTMODERNITY

Modernity has taught us much, but it, too, was only partial. It, too, had its blind spots and excesses. And so, in like manner, the realizations and insights of postmodernity have also been real and powerful. Learning to contextualize truth claims and become aware of your own blind spots is vital to wisdom. Not mistaking the partial for the Absolute is the necessary doorway to true worship. To worship what is contingent as the Absolute is idolatry; in seeking the Absolute, then, you must first relativize everything.

God is not a bearded white man. The very presumptions in such a representation are damaging to concept of God. I say it again: God is not a bearded white man. God it not bearded, nor white, nor a man. To think these ideas are significant somehow to the concept of God is to reveal the degree to which you are confusing the contingent with the Absolute.

And yet, the so-called “God of the philosophers,” the causa sui, Being itself—neither are these the Absolute. Nor should we so hubristically presume that the discoveries of science provide us with the absolute final word. Dogma comes in many shapes. But the zeal to defend it, either as inspired Word or consensus model, reveals a prideful disregard for what may lie outside our ken, and the possibility that we may indeed still have so many blind spots yet to discover.

The apophatic mystics were, you could say, the first true postmodernists. But they were even more radical. For them, everything was contingent, theologically speaking. Not even conceptions like Ultimate Being, Truth, Goodness, or Love could properly language the finally-mysterious Absolute. Thus, the only way to speak in anything close to accuracy about God is through negation. “God is not mortal.” “God is not limited.” And, yes, to say it once more, “God is not a bearded white man.” To speak negatively about God is thus more true than to speak positively about God. It is no accident then that apophatic mysticism has seen a resurgence of interest in postmodern theology.

Try this one on for size: “God is not existent.” “God does not exist.” Sound like atheism? Actually, that’s just theology speaking accurately for once. If God is above being, beyond being, of course God doesn’t exist.

God does not exist. Ah, finally something pious theists and critical atheists can both agree on. Indeed, perhaps they always have, albeit by their own logics. Language was what confused them.

And look at that, the linguistic turn! Language. Forever incapable of truly expressing the signified. Correct, postmoderns. Take it to heart. God is ineffable. Words fail. And so, as Wittgenstein intuited, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” The Dao you can speak is not the eternal Dao. Postmodern insight returns us to ancient wisdom.

What, then, is “God”? This God we talk about? This God we hold in our heads as a term for an idea we can’t possibly wrap our heads around?

You guessed it: A social construct.

Say it with me: My conception of God is a social construct.

Now we’re getting somewhere.


FAILURES OF MODERNITY AND POSTMODERNITY

These are some of the insights of modernity and postmodernity, and they are crucial, important, and valid. Whatever metamodern spirituality is, then, it must embrace these insights, not run from them.

That being said, modernity and postmodernity are not without their failures—their wrong turns, excesses and cul-de-sacs. If they weren’t, there’d be no need to develop any further. The nature of growth, be it spiritual or cultural, is to take the good from what the world presents us and leave the bad. As the integralists say, “transcend and include.”

Modernity fails, just like traditionalism, in taking the limited and parochial for the absolute and universal. We needed the critique of the postmoderns to show that what moderns so often took to be objective and universal were actually prejudiced and privileged. Reason, it turned out, actually can’t explain everything. In fact, cold logic can just as equally be applied to liberal emancipation as to perfecting the gas chambers. Knowledge is not the same as wisdom. The How simply does not answer the Why—and the Why is the heart of spirituality. Good material conditions do not fulfilled and happy people make; man does not live on McDonalds and Netflix alone. And, it turns out, the very mechanisms devoted to maximizing material comforts can actually create a world very uncomfortable for the human soul, very inhospitable to human flourishing. Science and analysis are powerful, but the limits of their application have been revealed all too starkly. It gives us the wonder material called plastic, but clogs the ocean with it; gives us the miracle of the combustion engine, but disrupts the climate with it; provides us with steam engines and trains which roll their way Auschwitz, to an Iron Cage.

The postmoderns recognized all this. But they have proven blind and limited in their own way. In castigating science and rationalism for its failures, they made an absolute of relativity, contingency, context. Universals be damned! They were deemed too dangerous, too oppressive. As a result, any sense of the whole was exploded into fragments. There is no reality, only perspectives. There is no truth, only narratives of truth vying for power. There is no totality, only incommensurable language games. In short, there is only disillusionment. Endless critique, no constructive responses. Endless takedowns, over-analysis, problematizing, laying bare, canceling. Good luck living in that.

Man does not live on skepticism alone. Humans need things they can affirm, values they can live by, models they can live up to. They need myths, however false; narratives, however potentially limiting; Gods, however idolatrous. Even the silence of apophaticism can prove too little to worship or pray to. Our constraints are both our limits and the conditions by which we live. It is not enough to blindly accept them; nor is it enough to always be tearing them down. Indeed, what we seek is growth, development. Life is about illusions, disillusionment, and forging anew—perhaps, even, as Nietzsche appreciated, forging new and better illusions. Life is about construction, deconstruction, and then, as the metamodernists appreciate, reconstruction. Life is about the spiritual path, which is neither narrow certainty nor cynical nihilism, but evolution, adaptation, maturation, and a goal.


INTEGRATION AND DEVELOPMENT

So where does all this leave us?

The traditionalists say, Reality is spiritual. Life is meaningful. The world is enchanted and full of miracles.

The moderns say, The “spiritual” is material. Scriptures are not history. Trust experience, not authority. The universe is billions of years old, vast, and complex beyond our reckoning.

The postmoderns say, God is a social construct. Language is limited to express anything. Even experience has its blind spots. Everything you say is culturally-situated and fails to express absolute truth.

The metamoderns say, Amen! Amen! All, all of this is true!

Reality is spiritual. Life is meaningful. The world is enchanted and full of miracles.

The spiritual is material. Scriptures are not history. Trust experience, not authority. The universe is billions of years old, vast, and complex beyond our reckoning.

God is a social construct. Language is limited to express anything. Even experience has its blind spots. Everything you say is culturally-situated and fails to express absolute truth.

Amen.


These ideas are inclusively reinforcing, not exclusively negating. Yes, each new cultural code shifts our understanding of the previous one in ways that make it no longer tenable in certain respects. But, when properly integrated, it does not simply annul the previous code. Rather, it complexifies, nuances, and deepens its core insights, while challenging, refining, and filtering its weaknesses.

Modernity is not the end of spirituality, nor does postmodernity spell its radical undermining. Taking the best from both and eschewing the worst, human spirituality is changed, but strengthened. If we can embrace this idea, and throw ourselves into exploring its implications, we will be in a position to take the next step in spirituality’s development, fashioning a metamodern spirituality that can and must change the world for the better.


What does that look like?


Here’s where the rubber meets the road. Here’s where things get interesting.


NEXT: Reconstructing Religion

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