Chastened modernism or principled postmodernism–comments inspired by C S Lewis on medieval morality


It occurred to me that this comment and my response, spurred by the post “C S Lewis and ‘medieval morality’” may be worth its own post, as an invitation to others to join the conversation:

  1. Curious. I would say that his emphasis on objective value makes Lewis precisely the patron saint Post-Moderns need; but that emphasis is the one thing the people I know who are comfortable with the PoMo label would never accept. Indeed, this pre-modern (!) medieval notion would get Lewis branded as a Modernist Satan even by the “Evangelical” PoMo’s I know pretty quickly. At least this situation should satisfy their need for constant irony!

    • Well, I suppose my sympathy for Lewis on this matter “outs” me as something of a modern. So be it. As long as we can agree at the same time on a kind of critical realism that admits we all grope toward that objective value through what Dorothy Sayers once called “a poetry of search”–and admit that when we write a “poetry of statement” instead, we are still aware of the hermeneutical nature of what we are doing.

      In other words, I think it is possible to occupy some middle ground – a “chastened modernism” or a “principled postmodernism” – in which objective value is acknowledged, as the medievals acknowledged it, and yet we keep to that apophatic dimension that the medievals also acknowledged: God is never fully knowable. Scripture admits to multiple (allegorical, spiritual) meanings. God is a living being who simply will not be put in our boxes. Images help us worship, but they do not capture God at his essence, in the mystery of those precious truths most tenaciously protected by the tradition: Trinity, Incarnation.

      The Christian tradition is living, supple, flexible, while at the same time strong and true. The Christian community, the church, has been the (ONLY) channel for that truth. Yet that tradition is always open to translation, correction, as we enter new human situations. We live not in certainty but in personal trust, rational reliance, as the tail of the ice-skaters’ whip–the tradition–that thrusts us out into OUR particular world in mission.

      Well, that’s the best I can do for now in response to your rather pugilistic comment. Perhaps I am showing my Canadian stripes. Perhaps I am wussing out. But I think I do know some “Evangelical PoMo’s” who would never dream of branding Lewis a Modernist Satan, because, first, they recognize some of this same chastened modernism in him, and second, they sympathize with his affirmation of objective value.

      But perhaps you would see these people as Postmodernist Satans. I am just having a hard time acknowledging the same polemical polarization that you seem to want to insist upon. I happen to think that, for example, D.A. Carson’s portrayal of “Emergent” Christians as thoroughgoing relativists is a serious misunderstanding of the concerns of that group identified by the late Bob Webber as the “younger evangelicals.” I sense something of Carson’s mistake in your note. But then, it’s just a brief note. And maybe I’m missing your meaning entirely.

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2 responses to “Chastened modernism or principled postmodernism–comments inspired by C S Lewis on medieval morality

  1. Since I re-posted the comments here from the original post, I’ll also re-post Don’s response to my response to him. Boy, this could get complicated in a hurry. :)

    Don Williams | August 17, 2010 at 2:08 pm | Reply | Edit

    “Pugilistic”? Was that a pugilistic adjective? I’ll not assume so.

    If I’m making the same mistake as Carson–and if it is a mistake–maybe there is a reason for it. Maybe I’m tired of being dismissed as a “Modernist” just because I believe that truth is objective and that it is theoretically possible to overcome my subjectivity to the point where I can responsibly make truth claims that actually are truth claims, not just claims about my own subjective perspectives. Maybe I’m tired of being dismissed as a Modernist when I was critiquing Modernism while the “Young Evangelicals” were still in diapers. Maybe I’m tired of Modernism–for all its faults–being used as a whipping boy for all the evils in the world. If the “Young Evangelicals” don’t want people to have Carson’s reaction to them, maybe they should stop talking like they do and acting like nobody was aware of the subjective factor in our knowing before they came along.

    Let me hasten to add that you were guilty of none of these things in either your post or your response. I am sympathetic to the idea of a “chastened” support for objective value. The problem is that the PoMo Youg Evangelicals I know (and some of the ones I have read) are so chastened that they really do make one suspect that they have a problem with objective truth in any form. Even when they deny this, they will take their denial back in their next breath. Am I misreading them? Maybe. But if I am, and if they are concerned about this, they ought to stop begging me to do it!

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