The Center Cannot Hold

Modernism has failed. This is the foundation upon which all postmodern thought, experience, art and action is based.

Modernism: the hope that humanity would be able to pull herself up by her own bootstraps, through the power of her natural dignity and by the fixed laws established by a distant, transcendent lawmaker. Faith in technology. Belief in progress. The shining road forward that leads inevitably to the rise of the superman and the perfection of the species.

Postmodernism: the aftermath of World War II. Looking at Hiroshima, mankind saw what its shining metal god of technology had wrought. We saw how our species was perfected at Dachau. We saw the supermen in their underground bunkers, shaking their fists toward the heavens. We saw the natural dignity of man splashed across the battlefields of Europe.

The modern dream has not died. There are many who still believe, clinging with a desperate and insular hope to the idea that a scientifically perfect society is just around the corner. If only we could impose peace on the human heart through hate-speech legislation. If only we could join this small world into one big, happy family. If only we could abort and sterilize those needless multitudes who are causing us to fight for resources and destroy the natural world.

Postmodernity is the realization, conscious or not, that this is not going to come to pass. That we are not all really the same kind of people in a variety of cool shades. That the reduction of world population will not end war, pestilence and famine because it can only be accomplished through war, pestilence and famine. That science will not save the world.

Postmodernism does not present an antidote to the problems of modernism, but it does recognize that the modern project has become grievously destructive to the human person, and that it must be dismantled — dare we say “deconstructed” — as quickly as possible before it can do any further damage.

Postmodernism is a response, or rather a series of responses, to the “systems of sin” that have conspired to bring about a “culture of death ... excessively concerned with efficiency.” (Evangelium Vitae, No. 1:12) Many of the elements of postmodernity that Christians find so perplexing and ugly come from the fact that secular people are confronted with a culture — their own — that is not conducive to their own good.

Although the various movements and subcultures that make up postmodernism are often vastly different, and even contradictory, there are a number of basic trends:

The authority of the ordinary person. Postmodernism reacts against the cult of the expert, the idea that certain qualified people have the authority to tell the individual what to think, what to believe, what to like, or how to act.

The valuation of human diversity. Postmodernism rejects the notion of an ideal humanity: the übermench, the Soviet people, the modern man. Instead it insists that human beings are created different, and that the variety of human experience and personality ought to be celebrated.

The ubiquity of mystery. Modernism thought that it would be possible, through rational and scientific exploration, to come to a complete understanding of everything. Postmodernism asserts that we are aswim in a sea of the unknown and the unknowable.

The fluidity of identity. Radical individualism has proved to be impossible: The human being cannot exist in a state of perfect rational autonomy, unaffected by the other. Postmodernism recognizes the profound impact of relationships, culture and context in defining the human identity.

Cultural iconoclasm. Postmodernism employs irony, satire, critique, rebellion, shock, extremism and other forms of resistance in order to unseat modernism from the throne of the popular heart.

Explicit postmodernists are few. Yet the trends outlined above can be found at every level of our society. They are particularly popular on the outskirts of the culture of death — especially among those who are most conscious of the problems that plague society and who wish to prevent the mainstream from happily traipsing along, in consumerist complacency, toward the slaughterhouse.

This is not to say that postmodernism is not problematic. The Church, always quick to correct the errors of the age, points out that postmodernism is almost invariably wed to relativism, and often to post-Christianism. Its antiauthoritarianism does not extend merely to the dubious authorities of the modern world, but also to legitimate authority of every kind. The exaltation of diversity leads to the acceptance of immoral lifestyles. From the recognition that science and rational investigation will never yield certain results about most things comes a despair of the existence of truth. From the realization that we cannot be perfectly autonomous individuals comes the belief that there is no fundamental personal identity. And, in the rush to destroy the idols of the modern, scientific world, much that is good, beautiful and true is also undermined.

Regardless of these problems, the essential questions and concerns of postmodernism remain. A cataclysm must certainly be coming in which the values of the modern world are finally, and in a sense, definitively, put to death. It is impossible that a cultural system in which the value of human life is consistently undermined and placed at the service of such abstract concepts as “progress” and “efficiency” should continue forever. The blood of the aborted, of those killed through eugenic projects, of those exterminated in the war to spread modern values throughout the world, of those put to death because they are old and useless, cries from the soil. The Lord God of Hosts will not endure this generation forever.

Postmodernism exists in a complicated relationship with this culture of death. On the one hand, postmodernists tend to have inherited many of the worst traits of modern culture. They are usually pro-choice and pro-gay, and they often buy the population-control rhetoric of those who believe that large swaths of the human population need to be eliminated in order to live “in harmony” with Mother Earth.

On the other hand, there is the recognition that we stand in desperate need of a new culture and of new foundations upon which to build that culture. For the moment, postmodernism lacks a clear, coherent vision of the future. There are, however, glimmers of proposed new worlds rising up from the ruins of modernism. Some of these worlds are uglier, more post-human, and more dystopic even than the culture of death. Others represent a genuinely new beginning for something that could become a culture of life.

Regardless of postmodernism’s failings, Catholics cannot afford to stand on the sidelines, tut-tutting like a disapproving mother-in-law. It is necessary that we engage directly with the process of the birth of this new society. There is no other way to weed out philosophies and movements that can only give rise to a monstrous culture — or to encourage philosophies and movements that are healthy and life-giving.

Melinda Selmys is the author of

Sexual Authenticity: An Intimate Reflection on Homosexuality and Catholicism (OSV, 2009).

Next in this series: What is good about postmodernism, and how do we encourage it?