In Praise of Folly

The fundamental disease of postmodernity is despair. Postmodernism is like a bereaved bride, weeping because her beloved is dead. There is nothing to console her — better if she were dead. Yet show her a reason to hope, and she will cling to it with all her strength.

Postmodernism has lost hope in truth, because the modern world was promised the wrong sort of truth: a truth that would save, not at the end of time, when the heavens open and the symphony of history is played before the throne of its author, but here and now. A truth that would end suffering, hunger, poverty.

Western man craved that truth, fixed his eyes on this world, and forgot about the next.

The frustration of postmodernism is therefore the frustration of a world that was not saved. Far from redeeming the world, modernism left it scarred by the machinery of human pride and greed. It turned man against man in the race to become more developed, more knowledgeable, superior.

In the modern age, reason reigned supreme, and it was necessary to emphasize the rationality of Christianity. Yet reason alone is a cold and unforgiving mistress. She is not the savior of mankind. Unless she is wed to faith, compassion, wonder and wisdom, she is a proud and overbearing tyrant.

“It has happened ... that reason, rather than voicing the human orientation towards truth, has wilted under the weight of so much knowledge and little by little has lost the capacity to lift its gaze to the heights, not daring to rise to the truth of being” (John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, 1998).

Despairing of reason, postmodern humanity chases after novelty. Postmodern art is notoriously disorienting and incomprehensible, because the artists are trying to outdo each other in the quest for new forms and styles. They want to break through the shell of ironic despair that cloaks the postmodern adult, to re-engage the human person in his or her humanity. As though the human race was in a coma, they stand at the sidelines and try to get a reaction. Any reaction at all.

The novelties of the postmodern world are often disturbing in their content, but they reveal a fundamental desire to reclaim the original wonder that man feels about his world.

“[The] fundamental elements of knowledge spring from the wonder awakened in [men] by the contemplation of creation: Human beings are astonished to discover themselves as part of the world, in a relationship with others like them, all sharing a common destiny. ... Without wonder, men and women would lapse into deadening routine and little by little would become incapable of a life which is genuinely personal” (Fides et Ratio).

It is this deadening, impersonal routine which modernism, in the name of efficiency, seeks to impose upon the world. It is this same deadening routine that postmodernism is seeking, often with violent and disturbing images, to annihilate.

Few people are explicit postmodernists, but almost everyone is familiar with the stifling boredom and superficiality of the modern world. The ubiquity of consumer culture creates a climate of demand in which covetousness is constantly excited, and where the repetitive satisfaction of empty desires leads to profound frustration. Advertising presents a constant stream of false promises and dubious claims that leave the postmodern person in a state of constant ironic suspicion. It becomes impossible to give voice to our deepest sentiments or appreciate the most sublime realities, because we have seen them used too many times to sell us bubble gum and hamburgers.

The ennui and frustration of the postmodern world cannot be argued away. Christian apologists who try repeatedly run up against Pontius Pilate’s age-old question: “What is truth?” The bored, the cowardly and the despairing cannot be moved by reason. What is needed is a reawakening of wonder, a rediscovery of mystery.

For a long time now, our faith has felt the need to turn aside when asked about the contradictory, the paradoxical, the mysterious, the unseen. Modernism mocked our miracles and angels, our Trinity and our transubstantiation.

Now is the time to proclaim these doctrines with a new and decisive force, to put them forward in all the shocking splendor of their implications. To show them not as antiquated, sentimental notions, nor as philosophic propositions cushioned by layers of sound reasoning, but as raw, terrible, awe-inspiring realities.

The postmodern world will not engage with us on the level of reason. It is too saturated with slogans, too numbed by empty rhetoric, too exhausted by duplicity and disingenuousness. Postmodern man must be convinced through images. He must be shown the truth in all of its paradoxical glory.

Melinda Selmys is a staff writer