Postmodernity and Evangelical Thought (2): Modernism’s Contribution to Postmodernity

If we are to understand Western thought, it is vital to have a handle on modernity and postmodernity. Today and for the rest of the week, I will outline a basic trajectory of Western thought from modernity to postmodernity and how Christians should engage these historically-related schools of thought.

An Age of Reason: The Making of the Enlightenment

In the seventeenth century, there were a number of factors in Western society that set the table for the Enlightenment—the period of time usually associated with modern thought.  First, in the wake of the Protestant Reformation and the Thirty Years war, a general skepticism began to grow towards the church.  While the church was unified for centuries, now with the splintering of denominations and the infighting based upon different doctrinal interpretations, many began to lose confidence in the church.

Likewise, the Renaissance reawakened a period of learning that saw enormous gains in science.  The universe was no longer explained only by the Bible, or some other superstition, now men through the channels of scientific investigation were able to understand the world.

Philosophy also became a legitimate profession.  Whereas philosophers held various vocations in previous centuries, now with the growth of universities, education, and the literary production of the printing press—philosophers could be employed professionally.  All of these things factored into the “age of reason.”  Man’s mind became the single source of authority, learning came through rational means, and hermeneutics was assisted by Bacon’s inductive method.  All in all, modernism marked a turn in epistemology—how do we know what we know?

Continental Rationalists and British Empiricists

During this period, two schools of thought emerged—the Continental Rationalists (Leibnitz, Spinoza, Descartes) and the British Empiricists (Locke, Berkeley, Hume).  Named for the general location of their residence, these two schools took different approaches to acquiring knowledge.  First, the rationalists believed that anything and everything that we know comes through the means of our mind.  These rationalists were the first ‘foundationalists,’ seeking a certain basic beliefs on which they could construct knowledge.

For instance, Descartes employed a methodology of suspicion, so that he attempted to doubt the existence of anything but that which was absolutely provable with the rational mind.  This ultimately led him to his Cogito: I think, therefore I am.  From this basic belief—that he knew for certain that he was thinking—he constructed a whole framework of life and morality.  Still, the problem remained, how could anyone know anything for certain.  Since, the number of properly basic beliefs was so limited, it made pure rationalism unworkable.

Enter the British Empiricists.  Men like Locke argued that the human mind was absolutely passive, and entirely shaped by the world around.  Thus, he posited a view of the mind as a blank slate (tabula rasa).  Hume followed by questioning the appearance of anything.  He wrote a book on miracles, where he denied God’s involvement in miracles, because it was impossible for men to know if God was the one who did the work, just as it was impossible to prove that a billard ball contacting another billiard ball was the singular efficient cause of the other ball’s movement.  For the Empiricists, the question of verification was central.  Because sense perception is often flawed, how could you verify that your experience was true?

Immanuel Kant

For the entire seventeenth century these schools debated, as did their followers.  One of these was Immanuel Kant.  Kant said that Hume had awoken him from his dogmatic slumber, and it seems that Kant was determined to reconcile the rationalism of Europe with the empiricism of England.  Thus, he conjoined their theories, asserting that the mind was both passive and active.  It was passive in receiving sense information from the surrounding world; but it was active in that it had pre-arranged categories that were inherent to humanity.

In this way, as the world worked upon the mind, the mind arranged everything according to color, space, time, etc.  One other component of this view was the category concerning the noumenal realm, where spiritual things like God, metaphysics, and theology were categorized.  For Kant, such knowledge was inaccessible.  All man had was phenoma.  There were longings for those things in the noumenal realm, but man had no means of perceiving them. Thus, the legacy of Kant is to leave this problem of the phenomenal-noumenal divide.

Kant’s Stepchildren: Schleiermacher, NIetzsche, Rorty, and Derrida

Philosophers and theologians have wrestled with this problem for centuries, and thus in the era immediately following Kant there were numerous responses.  Romanticism turned away from the rational self with its reliance on the hard sciences and turned towards feelings expressed in things like art, music, and literature.  Friedrich Schleiermacher, a Romantic theologian and the father of liberalism, construed his whole theology in response to Kant’s phenomal-noumenal distinction, eventually concluding that since God was off limits and unknowable, the proper place to root theology was in Christian experience and subjective knowledge.  Kant’s impact was to make knowledge totally subjective, and in this he prepared the way for postmodernity.

In addition to Schleiermacher, there were other reactions to Kant, ones that were more closely in line with the onset of postmodernity.  First, skepticism was another result.  Because the noumenal realm was unavailable, why bother at all trying to understand God?  Epistemological skepticism, especially in the death of God, would in time lead Friedrich Nietzsche to come to nihilistic conclusions.  Second, pragmatism replaced metaphysics.  If metaphysics was impossible to know or do, we should simply do what works.  Richard Rorty developed this thought in great detail.  Last, the study of linguistics also employed a phenomenal-noumenal distinction, attributable to Kant.  Since language about God was only phenomenal and had no noumenal weight or verification, a whole new arena was given to the way humans speak, especially how they speak about God.  These are broad connections, but they are connections nonetheless; Kant’s subjectivity is one of the great conceptual markers that prepared the way for the likes of Nietzsche and Derrida to usher in the linguistic turn in philosophy and the rise of post modernism.

Altogether, we can see in the precursors to modernity and then in modernity itself, how various views of knowledge derive from reactions to insufficient epistemologies. Contrast this with the revelation of God, and we find not varying degrees of knowledge between modernity and biblical Christianity. Rather, we find two categorically opposed sources of knowledge. The one comes from man and his mind; the other comes from God to man through the created world—including the mind of man. Clearly, the difference of epistemology shapes worldview, and as it has been evidenced over the last few centuries, Christians need to have a biblical worldview that does not come from natural theology or general revelation. Biblical Christianity depends wholly on a God who is there and is not silent.

Tomorrow, we will continue this pathway of Western thought and consider postmodernity.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss