August 28, 2009
Scot McKnight: Self in a Castle
How modernity and postmodernity have conspired to warp the current generation.
Leszek Kolakowski, a Polish philosopher who weakened Marxism’s grip on Eastern Europe, recently died. Few, I suspect, knew who he was. I consider myself fortunate to have read some of Kolakowski, one book being his scintillating sketch of the history of ideas by probing the central idea of twenty-three thinkers. That book is called Why is there Something Rather than Nothing? My own reading of it impressed me again with the connection of philosophers with their world. From Socrates to Kierkegaard, philosophers are products of their day.
So are we. Which raises the profound problem of blinders when it comes to perceiving what is influencing us, and which raises the other profound problem of needing to understand our cultural blinders in order to break through them with the light of the gospel. Kolakowski’s chapters are short, and everything short when it comes to the history of ideas risks simplicities that mask nuance. I risk the same in what I am about to suggest: the current generation emerges out of a toxic combination of modernity and postmodernity.
In another context (the summer issue of Leadership Journal) I called the toxicity of the current generation a “self in a castle.” Modernity’s singular contribution to the history of ideas is individualism. David Bentley Hart gets this exactly right in his new rant against the flimsy ideas in new atheism when he writes:
“We live in an age whose chief value has been determined, by overwhelming consensus, to be the inviolable liberty of personal volition, the right to decide for ourselves what we shall believe, want, need, own, or serve” (Atheist Delusions, 21-22).
That is, “it is choice itself, and not what we choose, that is the first good.” Personal freedom, which both Kolakowski and Hart understand far more profoundly than most, has become getting to do whatever I want, when I want, and how I want – and government’s job is to make sure it happens now. That’s, of course, an exaggeration, but it’s the exaggeration that is causing our problem in gospel work today.
Perhaps the most important words in Hart’s lines above are “by overwhelming consensus.” The consensus is so overwhelming that the emerging generation – each of us – believes we can form our own religion. A religion of our own making, however, never leads to transcendence or worship of God or anything like the ancient Hebrews’ “fear of God.” Instead, we tinker on the edge of holiness with the notion of experiencing The Beyond.
How feeble of a god is that? When “The Beyond” evokes mystery or suggests to our minds that we are on the edge of something important, then we need to look into abyss of where we are headed.
If modernity gave our culture a sense of individualism that has been ratcheted up beyond what either Bible or philosophers would ever recognize, postmodernity tells us that individual choice itself is relative. I don’t believe we should dismiss postmodernity with the derisive, and far too often unthinking, label of “moral relativism,” but there is within postmodernity’s deepest impulses the belief that universal truth and all-encompassing metanarratives can’t be had. We are too finite and when folks believe they’ve found the magical metanarrative for all, they abuse power and turn violent.
Well, yes, there’s some truth to that, but that’s the whole problem with postmodernity. Genuine insights become, paradoxically enough, all-encompassing metanarratives against all metanarratives. This tendency is one of postmodernity’s addictions.
So, here we are. Staring at a unique cultural product: humans turned inward investing sanctity in the Self. We have constructed a postmodern castle wall around that Self believing it is so sacred that no one may violate your choice – you determine what to believe and what is right and wrong. The Self is protected by the Wall of Individual Relative Choice.
The tragedy of the “self in a castle” is that we are blind to it – blind to see it in ourselves every time we choose to think we are the most progressive and wisest of all generations, every time we fool ourselves into thinking we have achieved levels of love that we call tolerance, which is a vapid imitation of what genuine love is, and every time we think our moral struggles rival the profound struggles of an Athanasius or an Augustine, a Luther or a Calvin, a Bonhoeffer or a Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Self is so large because our walls are so high, blinding us from seeing the Morning Light. That Light is the Light of All Light.