The Road to Hell is paved with good inventions

N.T. Wright comments, in this clip, on the Postmodern Movement.

He starts with analysis of the rise of the Enlightenment and its Grand Narrative, in opposition to the metanarrative of Christianity. Some may think that he’s being unduly confrontational here, endorsing the stereotype of “science versus religion” that historians have been trying so hard to demolish, against various vested interests wishing to maintain it.

But I think he is basically right. Some of the themes he describes I’ve covered before, such as the importance of the Lisbon Earthquake for leveraging Deism into overt skepticism. Incidentally, the discussion of the earthquake in my article relates closely to the subject of my last post on divine action. More generally, I explored the anthropocentrism of the Enlightenment, arising from roots in the European Renaissance, in my book God’s Good Earth (from all dealers…).

Around seven minutes in, Wright makes one of his typically pithy one-liners:

“Postmodernity is about announcing the doctrine of the Fall to arrogant modernity.”

Now in the context of the confident assertion of human reason that has been modernity’s watchword, that is absolutely true. Postmodernity revealed what, in fact, was always obvious: that human reason is as culturally conditioned as any despised authority or tradition ever was, and arguably more so. The illusion of rationalism as the cure for all evils was based on the fact that its particular manifestion of “reason” arose within a quite specific, and localised, social and intellectual climate.

A big part of that, as Os Guiness pointed out for Evangelicals in The Dust of Death back in 1973, was the Enlightenment’s unconscious (and vehemently denied) dependance on two millennia of Christianity. In retrospect, Sartre’s phrase “The Striptease of Humanism,” adopted as a chapter title by Guiness, was an early harbinger of Postmodernism, for the way that Christian ethics with the “mythology” removed degenerated so rapidly into the totalitarian movements of Fascism  and, more insidiously, Capitalism and Marxism was part of that story.

The disillusion of so many Western intellectuals once the bankruptcy of the Communist system was no longer deniable was just such a driving home of the message of the Fall to those whose vaunted rationalism had bought into the utopian vision. Unfortunately it is a story that will only fully be appreciated by future generations, because the shock of such an evil reality did not lead to repentance, as it seems to have in the case of Adam and Eve, but to adopting a replacement set of Utopian delusions, which is so evident within Academia now in the discussions about freedom of speech, diversity, and so on.

A good primer on this, which can largely be described as the Neomarxism arising in the later decades of State Communism, is to be found in Roger Scruton’s perceptive Fools, Frauds and Firebrands. A less demanding look at how the thinking of such new-left utopians as Adorno, Reich, Marcuse and Foucault has infiltrated the thinking even of the churches is the Anglican Melvin Tinker’s That Hideous Strength: How the West was Lost, which shows how prescient C. S. Lewis was in his 1945 novel with the same title.

Incidentally, I studied these guys in the Social Psychology course I did in my last year at Cambridge. From the viewpoint of a grounded biblical faith, I regraded many of their ideas as dross. That assessment was greatly helped by Os Guinness’s book and, I must add, by a supervisor who had been a ringleader in the famous Garden House Riots of 1970 (Cambridge’s answer to the Paris riots of ’68) before he was converted to Christ.

What I failed to appreciate sufficiently at the time was to what degree most of the other students, already fashionably left-leaning, would buy into the whole package, and how much they would come to be today’s leaders in the social sciences, and their professional outworkings in social work, politics, art and communication.

So I suggest that Wright’s analysis of Postmodernism as a timely corrective to Enlightenment rationalism’s hubris understates its evils. It seems to me the equivalent of calling the Holocaust a valuable reminder of the dangers of racism. Actually, postmodernism is more fundamentally about showing that the Enlightenment was always just one point on the trajectory of the Promethean thinking of the Renaissance, that starts by believing it has seized wisdom beyond that of God, and inevitably ends up in madness and despair.

For those of us in the “origins” loop, keeping at least reasonably close to the scientific outlook, postmodernism may often appear to one of those passing fads to be observed and maybe mocked. It does sometimes appear that Science is the last bastion of modernism, providing certainty in a world of poor observation and shallow logic. I’ve long believed that this tells us as much about the kind of motivations people have for going into science as about the nature of reality.

The downfall of science, seen as that kind of objective project, is the spirit of the age. The science of Francis Bacon’s time was inseparable from the Christian worldview, because that was the environment in which its proponents arose.

Later, it was no unfortunate aberration that so many leading scientists espoused racism, eugenics and atheism, because they too were, for the most part, products of their social setting.

There is therefore no reason to believe that science will be immune to the values and agendas of postmodernism for long. One can already easily find videos on YouTube of students in supposedly hard sciences devastated by the increasing subordination of the quest for knowledge to the quest for equality and diversity. But rebels are always a minority – for every such protester, there must be many students who swallow policies that make the number of females or blacks or transexuals in the filed more important than the quality of their research.

We may laugh when mathematics is described, by trendy academics, as intrinsically a product of the Patriarchy. But whilst truth always triumphs in the end, whole civilizations can fall because they believe a lie. If you run the academic institutions, your lies are likely to be believed.

Science claims truth on the basis of the revelation of nature, Christianity on that of God. Postmodernity simply subordinates truth to the supremacy of self. And that is a “revelation” that attracts us rather more than the hard truths taught us by God and the nature he created for us.

When I wrote the piece on the Lisbon earthquake cited above, as recently as July 2017, I observed that:

In 2017, in Britain, postmodern secular sexual mores appear so plausible that, even though nearly all the mainstream churches are still (barely) holding the line on what the Bible teaches, an important survey shows that self-identifying Christians are rapidly embracing the new progressive norms.

But I note with sadness that just 18 months on I can no longer say that most of the mainline churches are “holding the line” on postmodern/neomarxist sexual ethics. Increasingly their leadership is buying into them wholesale, apparently either being either ignorant of the specific programmes for remodelling society of Gramsci, Reich, Marcuse, Foucault and the rest, or actually preferring their “philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ” (Col 2:8).

Chris Rea seems to present an aspect of the problem very graphically:

I suggest the only effective antidote in sound in an old song of my own:

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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2 Responses to The Road to Hell is paved with good inventions

  1. Merv Bitikofer Merv Bitikofer says:

    Thanks for this piece, Jon – from the link to N.T. Wright, which was very enlightening (so to speak) for me; as well as the Chris Rea piece, and finally and most importantly – for making sure that the antidote was close and handy as well. This all warrants more reflection and discussion than I’m prepared to give at the moment. So I’ll just register my gratitude here for now.

  2. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Thanks Merv.

    I seem to remember, as a pretty young Christian, buying only three Christian books when I was at university. The first was Kidner’s Genesis commentary. The Second was The Dust of Death. The third was From Christ to Constantine, a history of the first centuries of the church. Funnily enough I still seem to be working out the agenda of those three books!

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