Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Premodernism, Modernism, and Postmodernism

I am very thankful to Milton J. Erickson's, Christian Theology for it's clarity regarding concepts which are commonly bandied about and assumed to be understood.

Erickson delineates the periods of world view as premodern, modern and postmodern. Interestingly he shows that much of what has been called postmodern, the radical fringe that is, is indeed 'ultramodernism' or the natural culmination of modernism.

In the premodern period there was dualism with belief in supernatural and the natural. Plato's Ideas of Forms was an example of the unseen as more real. Later God had purposes he was working out and we were a means to his achieving that end. It was further believed that the natural world existed independent of anyone being there to perceive it. Language was referential in that it didn't just refer to other language but actually something extralinguistic.

Modernism continued to believe in the objective reality of the physical world, referential nature of language, the correspondence history of truth and that history had a sensible pattern once could discern with careful study. Modernism retained the conception of the world but remove it's supernatural basis. There was emphasis on rationality and certainty. Descartes resolved to doubt everything and found that he could not doubt the fact of his own doubting. Kant noted that we didn't know the objects of knowledge as they really are themselves (the noumena) but only as they appeared to us through senses (the phenomena). Because we had no sensory experience of God Kant considered it a matter of faith and necessary for morality but not like science, history where reason could be applied. Bacon felt that real knowledge came from the process of observation and testing giving rise to the scientific method.

Erickson quotes John Herman Randall's "Making of the Modern Mind" saying that Modernism was essentially humanistic. The human being was the centre of the universe whereas God had been that to the pre modern. Naturalism went along with humanism because the human lived in nature so the study of nature took over from the pre modern study of heaven. Nature was considered no longer passive but dynamic and sole and sufficient cause for all that occurred making humans not uniquely different as formerly thought. The scientific method used to study nature tended to reductionism with psychology reduced to biology, biology reduced to chemistry and chemistry reduced to physics. There was a strong tendency to foundationalism with knowledge based on indubitable first principles and felt superior to religion which had to be based on faith. Metaphysical realism prevailed with the objects of the inquiry in which science engaged external to the consciousness of the knower. There was a correspondence theory of truth , truth a measure of propositions which corresponded to what they claimed to present. In general modernism sought an explanation to cover all things with Darwin accounting for everything in biological evolution, Freud explaining all human behaviour by sexual energy and the unconscious while Marx explained all history with dialectical materialism.

Erickson quotes Diogenes Allen in discussing the Dissatisfaction with Modernism.
The idea of a self contained universe is dissolving. The Big Bang theory has raised questions of why just this universe has arisen. This renders pertinent the question of God. The second collapse is the failure of the modern world to find a basis for morality and society. This failure was not so evident as long as the members of society adhered to traditional values, based on Greek and Christian principles. Thirdly, optimism regarding inevitable progress has also been lost. There is grave doubt today that education and social reform will be able to solve the problems we now face. The fourth enlightenment principle was the inherent goodness of knowledge but today it's known that knowledge is neutral.

Erickson then quotes Thomas Oden who identified his own four interrelated motifs of late modernity that are collapsing: autonomous individualism, narcissistic hedonism, reductive naturalism, and absolute moral relativism. individualism has led to intergenerational conflict, family decompensation and 'gun battles between nine year old boys in ornate tennis shoes'. Narcissistic hedonism is epitomized by 300,000 babies born each year with their mother's drug addiction. Reductive naturalism has depersonalized humans and led to the loss of human freedom. absolutes moral relativism has led to absolute dogmatism which cannot be challenged.

Erickson states that the Post Modern Period is a reaction to the perceived failures of modernity. He sees these as negative and positive.

He first discusses what he calles "Radical Postmodernism" which he says Thomas C. Oden argues is really "Ultramodernism".

First in literary criticism , the most radical view is deconstructionism. Jacques Derrida is quoted here as is the Yale school which insists that the literary critic alone determines the meaning of the work, not the critic in conjunction with the work. Later in the criticism of postmodernism James Sire is quoted as saying "the 'deconstruction' touted by Derrida and DeMan is in the last analysis universal. Depending on how it is interpreted, nihilism is either the legitimate father or illegitimate child of 'deconstruction'....In any case, neither feminism nor Marxism can withstand it's acids. If no text is privileged, no story more 'true' than any other, then every ideology fails to be grounded.' What this means is that if deconstruction is correct then it must also be deconstructed.
In philosophy a corresponding or parallel development was neopragmatism. Truth becomes what is good or useful to believe in a particular context.
In history, the new historicism is contrasted with the older views. Meaning is not there to be discovered but rather to be created and interacted with. New historicists espouse radical pluralism. Imaginative interpretation is central. History is 'history making history'.

Erickson then quotes who sees a constructive postmodernism that agrees that the traditional worldview cannot be held but that a worldview can and must be constructed on different grounds and with revised concepts. Process theologians such as Griffin and narrative theologians such as James McClendon reflect this.
Liberation postmodern theology is concerned less with epistemological questions as with the transformation of the structures of society. He goes on to discuss conservative or restorative postmodern theology with rejects much of modernism such as its relativism, subjectivism and reductionism but seeks to retain realism, correspondence theory of truth and referential understanding of language. In many ways this hearkens back to the premodern.

Erickson states that The postmodern rejection of the rationalism of the modern period with its restriction of meaning and of the possible objects of inquiry is legitimate and desirable but that this doesn't mean all rationality must be necessarily rejected. He argues that truth may be absolute but that our knowledge of truth maybe be relative. He quotes the story of the blindfolded wiremen and the elephant and states that the elephant is true but the knowledge of the elephant is relative. He calls this perceptual objectionism and contrasts it with true relativism, pluralism and even subjectivism in which one would have to say, "That the elephant is like a tree is the truth for me but for me the truth is that the elephant is like a rope". He states that this is 'theory' but that the 'truth in fact' of this 'political correctness' is that it is the new 'absolutism'. He quotes the English major student of a state university who said all the department's faculty were 'deconstructionist' with the exception of one who was not granted tenure.
"Political correctness is a form of coercion." "One position is arbitrarily imposed."
Erickson states that the postmodern university should retain a 'free competition of ideas'.

Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd edition, Baker Academic,Grand Rapids , 1998

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