Connecting with Postmodern Culture

One of the things that is most difficult to communicate to the atomized yet highly homogenous Cult of the Imperial Autonomous Self which is America in Third Millenium is the idea that the Catholic Faith is a seamless weave or tapestry which cannot have threads yanked from it without being destroyed. The Catholic who seeks to speak of this truth is confronted with the almost insuperable difficulty of trying to break the prisoners of such a culture out of the iron bondage of a “freedom” which insists that the world is no older, no larger and no bigger than Me; a culture whose monomaniacal view of religion is therefore “Just take the parts you like.” Orthodox Catholics, in sheer exasperation at failure to break through this mindset, often cry out “But the Holy Father says…” or “But the Church teaches…” At which point the postmodern mind (both inside and outside the Church) blinks placidly at what it perceives to be an authoritarian lunatic and replies, “I can see this need for a Church with all the answers is important to you at this stage of your life. But I’ve matured past that. I can cope with complexity and the many hues of color which make up adult existence in the modern world, etc.”

Something’s not working with this approach. Why?

“It is no good,” said G.K. Chesterton, “to … imagine that one can force an opponent to admit he is wrong, by proving that he is wrong on somebody else’s principles, but not on his own. After the great example of St. Thomas, the principle stands, or ought always to have stood established; that we must either not argue with a man at all, or we must argue on his grounds and not ours.”

Like it or not, postmodern culture stands on radically different ground than Catholic orthodoxy. Compared to the Faith, it has a very different notion of what is and is not authoritative. And postmodern culture pervades, not just the world, but the Church as well. So it behooves Catholics who hope to speak of the integrity of the Faith to find out what ground the postmodern mind regards as solid in order to begin a conversation there rather than demand the postmodern person begin with our assumptions. Like St. Paul, a Catholic apologist must be all things to all, in order to win some to Christ.

Postmodern culture does not recognize what it would think of as “the old paradigm”. This includes old authorities that are themselves sometimes arrayed against the Church. Postmodernism does not recognize, as our grandparents did, the unquestioned authority of Science and the March of Progress (which was often used as a battering ram against “Catholic superstition” by previous generations of Forward Thinking People). Postmodern culture is dubious about the infinite capacity of the State to make it all better. But in becoming dubious about all these things which the Church herself has always been cautious of, postmodern culture has not (yet) recognized in the Church a friend. Rather, postmodern culture has adopted the slogan of the disaffected dwarfs in C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle. When said dwarfs found out that Shift the Ape had lied to them and created a fake Aslan to enslave Narnia (as Science and the State and crackpot religion have promised the Millennium and given us the Bomb and Hitler and Jim Jones), the dwarfs did not return to the true Aslan. Instead, they settled on one simple creed: “We’ve been fooled once and we’re not going to be fooled again! The Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs!”

Thus, postmodernism does not acknowledge the authority of any Magisterium, whether scientific, political or religious. Just as it does not care one whit what the Old Guard says about Progress or History or the Good of America, so it does not care one whit what the Pope or the Magisterium says concerning the integral unity of the Catholic Faith. It does not see any faith–including the Catholic Faith–as a communion, but as a collection of subjective “spiritual perceptions”, all isolated from one another. Its reply to all claims of universally binding revelation is, “That’s true for you, but not necessarily for me”. Thus the Catholic communion is, like all ancient religious traditions, seen as a kind of supermarket or shopping mall. One goes there to pick up a prayer or a sacrament or an icon or a cherished “value” or insight. But of course, one does not bind oneself to the notion that one must buy everything in the store.

Over the course of several centuries, this mentality (of which postmodernism is the apotheosis, not the origin) has naturally resulted in allegiance to only the most tenuous rags of Christian belief in our post-Protestant culture. As the Reformers jettisoned those portions of Catholic dogma they found distasteful, so their increasingly secular heirs jettisoned those portions of Protestantism, then theism, then “western culture” they found distasteful. However, this has not meant a turn to mass atheism. As Chesterton also observed, when people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing; they believe in anything. Thus we find ABC (Anything But Christianity) “spirituality” everywhere. Goddesses and godlets, crystals and amulets, channeled spirits, past lives and inner beings abound. And a favorite theme of such neo-pagan apprehensions of the spiritual is the notion that the earth is sacred, that nature is a fragile balance and that human beings have utterly screwed up that balance with our grubby materialistic consumer culture that yanks whatever we feel like out of the ecosphere, consumes it like so many Big Macs and, by way of thanks, belches several thousand tons of non-biodegradable gunk into the air and water every minute. Indeed, the view of life on earth as a fragile balance is a veritable dogma of the postmodern worldview.

Which brings us back to the problem of communicating the integrity and connectedness of the Catholic faith in terms postmoderns can hear. For the idea of “nature in the balance” is a perfect image and corollary of what Catholics are attempting to express here, since Supernature hangs in the balance as well.

The supernatural Catholic Faith, like the natural world, is a complex web of truth, love and power which is just as dependent on keeping a balance as any wetland on the shore of Puget Sound. Remove some “tired old doctrine” from the supernatural ecosystem that is the Catholic faith, and you will get results similar to removing some tired old rain forest from the tropical regions of the earth: a catastrophic upheaval and a whole series of unforeseen side effects.

This can easily be seen from similar attempts which have been made in the past by the now-discredited movements which sought to oppose the Catholic worldview in the name of Progress. Scientism (that is, the 19th and early 20th Century faith that Science Will Figure It All Out and Control It) took one thread out of the weave of revelation–the one called “natural law and the knowableness of Creation”–and deduced that, since the universe operated according to natural laws, there was no need of a supernatural Legislator. On the basis of this monochromatic assumption, it was noticed that supernatural “souls” were difficult to measure scientifically, but racial types, language grouping and ethnicities could be described from hard data. And from this, it was deduced, in the name of Science, that certain groups were subhuman and others were Ubermenschen. The “subhumans” were burned in the ovens of Auschwitz. Science, a good thing, was taken out of the weave of Catholic Truth, and became a bad thing.

Still others yanked from the eco-system of Catholic Faith the notion of justice for the poor and of the triumph of the little guy (“He has cast down the mighty in their arrogance and lifted up the meek and the lowly”). However, the call to forgive, to trust God to bring justice, and to forsake envy and violence were less scenic parts of the same theological eco-system and were paved over by those in the Vanguard of History. And so Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot (among others) took what was “true for them” and created living hells on earth that killed and destroyed the lives of hundreds of millions of people. The demand for economic justice, a good thing, was taken out of the weave and became a bad thing.

Still others have taken certain Catholic truths about the goodness of private property and the right of self-determination and have set these ideas up in opposition to everything else the Faith teaches concerning justice, generosity, and care for the poor. In so doing, they have created a recklessly hedonistic society whose goal is the accumulation of wealth and the pursuit of pleasure, no matter how many inconvenient old people and babies die, and no matter how many migrant workers or children in sweat shops toil for pennies a day. Material prosperity, a good thing, has been taken out of the weave of Catholic Faith and become a bad thing. And the violence that is done to the environment, to the integrity of Third World cultures and to the sanity of the First World is self-evident, particularly to the postmodern mind.

But what is not self-evident, until some Catholic points it out, is that the postmodernist who condemns this does the very same things. For who is behaving more like an archetype of the very consumer culture they condemn than the postmodernist who plucks bits and pieces out of the Catholic Faith and throws away the parts that seem useless or unintelligible.

Take the doctrine of the Trinity. Many postmodern people, even within the Church, burning with desire for “authentic encounter with the Sacred” speak of it as a kind of anal-retentive attempt to put God in a box of antique philosophical categories. “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Egads! How patriarchal! We must boldly break free of this tired old orthodoxy and create new and progressive paradigms of spirituality!” One group, called Call to Action, has drafted a new creed that is long on poetical generalities and short on phrases describing Jesus as “God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God, one in being with the Father”.

Result: Those seeking authentic encounter with the Sacred get a Jesus who fades into a Nice Ideal, rather than God Incarnate crucified and risen for us. A few years after that, they get a message in the monthly CTA newsletter that some nameless faceless People’s Committee for WisdomTalk has passed a resolution finding Jesus “dated” and and “a symbol poorly positioned to be of use to the People of God” as the committee seeks to “broaden” its platform to “affirm” those who are still, for some reason, “uncomfortable” with this Nazarene cipher’s survival even as a Jungian archetype. A few years after that, Jesus isn’t anything because nobody is going to Call to Action gatherings. After all, what were they getting there that they weren’t getting at the Wednesday night “Adult Children of Substance Abusers in Recovery for Jerry Brown” caucus meeting?

In short, the Niceness Creed (as distinct from the Nicene one) is….nice. But compared to the blazing love in the mystical poetry of John of the Cross or the passionate depths of adoration inspired by the Catholic portrait of the Mystical Rose in Dante or the ecstasies of St. Teresa of Avila, such niceness is like a kind of religious methadone treatment. The authentic encounter with the Sacred we set out to find by “boldly” getting rid of the old vital doctrine of the Trinity with all its irritating and difficult language has led to something as bland as tapioca. For the eco-system of Catholic faith, this attempt to tame the Trinity, to try to make the Love that made the worlds safe is like putting Disneyworld in the Grand Canyon or coating the Grand Tetons in cellophane. To embrace the Niceness Creed is not bold or adventurous. It is as timid as Dilbert in his cubicle. It robs us of the shocking and life-changing primal goodness at the heart of things: a goodness set forth in all its shocking vividness only by the Nicene Creed.

Or consider the doctrine of sin. Postmoderns seldom ring this up in the checkout line at the American Religious Shopping Mall. It’s “negative.” Talking about sin lowers self-esteem. Far better to talk of God “affirming us.” Indeed, better to deny the existence of sin altogether.

Nonetheless, cruddy stuff happens. Polly Klaas gets murdered and her killer viciously calls the victim’s grieving father a child molester. How to account for what looks a great deal like sin here?

Society. Or “bad communication”. Or even “shame” generated by a “puritanical” parent that believed in things like…sin. And what do we do about malevolent-evil-that-looks-just-like-sin-but-of-course-is-nothing-of-the-kind? Well, we become more affirming of our human potential by building bigger prisons, passing three-strikes-you’re-out laws, locking up unsocial elements, and throwing away the key. After all, if it’s not a person’s fault for doing evil, if they didn’t actively and sinfully choose it, then they can’t unchoose it either. And if they can’t choose differently then we might as well lock bad people away.

But it doesn’t stop there. Since we are part of society, then it is our fault, to some extent, that things are the way they are. Only, of course, it’s not our fault, since we don’t sin either. However, we do suffer from guilty feelings about it–feelings which emerge in headlines like “Did We Kill Kurt Cobain?” Net result: Taking sin off the shelves of the American Mall of Religion gives us all the guilt and none of the peace which the full Catholic worldview does. We go on feeling guilty; we even extend our guilty feeling to things over which we have no control, like Kurt Cobain’s suicide. But now have no one to confess sin to and nothing to confess if we did since, of course, we don’t sin.

Again, the toxins build up in the spiritual eco-system because we decided to be smarter than God and “improve” the design of supernature, just like the industry magnates around Lake Erie improved that little eco-system into virtual extinction.

“But,” says the postmodern mind, “Catholic belief is so complex! Religion ought to be simple. Jesus came into the world with a simple message of love and the Catholic Church has encrusted his message with creeds and sacraments and stuff that nobody needs.”

In reply, one must again build on one of the most deeply held assumptions of the postmodern mind, the all-important virtue of Health. The postmodern mind recognizes that eating red meat, consuming a bunch of chemicals and being a couch potato is bad. Postmodern culture spends an enormous amount of money on vitamins, cosmetics, “treatments,” aerobics programs and so forth, making sure that the Temple of the Imperial Autonomous Self is kept in peak condition. Postmoderns recognize that a little second-hand smoke can have serious effects even on non-smokers. And they know that what happens in one’s brain or pancreas can have a big impact on the whole of one’s being. Yet by repeating the “It should be simple” mantra concerning the weave of Catholic Faith, they do not realize that this is precisely like saying Health is simple. As G.K. Chesterton said:

“It is exactly as if somebody were to say about the science of medicine: ‘All I ask is Health; what could be simpler than the beautiful gift of Health? Why not be content to enjoy for ever the glow of youth and the fresh enjoyment of being fit? Why study dry and dismal sciences of anatomy and physiology; why inquire about the whereabouts of obscure organs of the human body? Why pedantically distinguish between what is labeled a poison and what is labeled an antidote, when it is so simple to enjoy Health? Why worry with a minute exactitude about the number of drops of laudanum or the strength of a dose of chloral, when it is so nice to be healthy?”

In short then, yanking threads out of the weave of Catholic Faith is not only just like obliterating whole species out of the ecological weave of a rainforest, it is like yanking a perfectly healthy pancreas out of a perfectly healthy body–the Body of Christ.

However, it need not always be this way. As we have seen, postmodernism has the capacity to grasp the idea of a “living system”. Hitherto, it has used that capacity in order to grasp the idea of the body as a complex interdependent system. Likewise, it has shown itself able to appreciate the idea of the Earth as a kind of vast organism. Indeed, it has even attempted to spiritualize the Earth into a kind of Gaia-goddess–a huge unknown deity that postmodernism seems tempted at times to worship.

The task of the Catholic is to say to postmodernism, “What you unknowingly worship, I proclaim to you.” The instincts of the neo-pagan, like those of the ancient pagan, are not utterly and completely wrong. There is something sacramental and something interconnected about creation (as the Church has always taught). We have been sold short by the “old authorities” (as the Church warned they would do). The consumer mentality is profoundly destructive and does devour the earth. But the solution is not to expand the consumer mentality to devour even the heavens. Rather, the answer is to embrace the whole of the heavens and the earth in the Body of him who is Firstborn over all Creation and to learn again the fullness of His revelation which makes whole the heavens and the earth. For in him the fullness was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile all things for him, making peace by the blood of his cross through him, whether those on earth or those in heaven (Colossians 1:19-20).


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