When the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to treat everything like a nail. The particular hammer I am wielding these days is that of postmodernism, while I prepare to write an article on rather surprising use of
The postmodernists critique modernism, and especially Liberal Capitalism, on the grounds of modernism’s radical individualism and naïve notions of “objective” and “scientific” truth. The postmodernists insist on regarding the individual in his social setting, and they make language and culture the primary means for understanding humans. In other words, they make relationships the key to humanity. However, postmodernism has a real problem, in that it secretly accepts back that which it purports to reject; having rejected Enlightenment notions of truth, received from Bacon and Descartes and Hume, it then regards these as the only possible notions of truth and so ends rejecting truth itself. Therefore, its critique has nowhere to go except to nihilism or relativism. The postmodernist critique of the Enlightenment is very good, but lacking a clear alternative, it is a dead end. Indeed, the postmodernists attempt a critique of capitalism on the grounds of justice, but having relativized truth, such a critique must fail. As a practical matter, post-modernism ends up as hyper-modernism (for a description of how this works in practice, see Battling the Swooshtika). However, Christian thinkers can, and have, appropriated elements of the postmodernism into their thought because they have a more secure and older notion of truth, one that is not vulnerable to either the modernist or postmodernist attack. The Radical Orthodoxy movement especially has appropriated postmodernism to the advantage of the Church.
But then, no one is more radically orthodox than this Pope, and in this encyclical he shows that his orthodoxy—and the Church’s—is more than a match for both modernism and postmodernism. He is able to turn the best within each to the advantage of the Church and the believer. However, his critique is not solely directed outward; he uses the postmodernist language to critique a Christianity based solely on an individualistic and purely private notion of salvation; in other words, his critique is also a self-critique.
While this community-oriented vision of the “blessed life” is certainly directed beyond the present world, as such it also has to do with the building up of this world—in very different ways, according to the historical context and the possibilities offered or excluded thereby.
The Pope begins this meditation by taking up one of the key postmodernist themes, that of language as primarily performative rather than merely informative, and this is especially true of the language of the gospels. What this means for
The Gospel is not merely a communication of things that can be known—it is one that makes things happen and is life-changing. The dark door of time, of the future, has been thrown open. The one who has hope lives differently; the one who hopes has been granted the gift of a new life.
What unites the informative and performative elements of the Gospels is the virtue of hope.
Faith is not merely a personal reaching out towards things to come that are still totally absent: it gives us something. It gives us even now something of the reality we are waiting for, and this present reality constitutes for us a “proof” of the things that are still unseen. Faith draws the future into the present, so that it is no longer simply a “not yet”. The fact that this future exists changes the present; the present is touched by the future reality, and thus the things of the future spill over into those of the present and those of the present into those of the future.
The Pope goes on to demonstrate the shortcomings of the Enlightenment notions of progress and rationalism. Without Christian hope—and the God who is the substance of that hope—progress and rationalism become barbarism and irrationality. The modern world has sought its freedom by cutting itself off from the very source of freedom.
What this means is that every generation has the task of engaging anew in the arduous search for the right way to order human affairs; this task is never simply completed. Yet every generation must also make its own contribution to establishing convincing structures of freedom and of good, which can help the following generation as a guideline for the proper use of human freedom; hence, always within human limits, they provide a certain guarantee also for the future. In other words: good structures help, but of themselves they are not enough. Man can never be redeemed simply from outside.
and those who followed in the intellectual current of modernity that he inspired were wrong to believe that man would be redeemed through science. Such an expectation asks too much of science; this kind of hope is deceptive. Science can contribute greatly to making the world and mankind more human. Yet it can also destroy mankind and the world unless it is steered by forces that lie outside it. On the other hand, we must also acknowledge that modern Christianity, faced with the successes of science in progressively structuring the world, has to a large extent restricted its attention to the individual and his salvation. In so doing it has limited the horizon of its hope and has failed to recognize sufficiently the greatness of its task—even if it has continued to achieve great things in the formation of man and in care for the weak and the suffering. Francis Bacon
The Pope also addresses, under the aspect of hope, the themes of the last judgment and the end of man, and he does so in a way that unites justice and grace with the judgment, which is shown to be the judgment of love—all consuming and purifying love:
The judgment of God is hope, both because it is justice and because it is grace. If it were merely grace, making all earthly things cease to matter, God would still owe us an answer to the question about justice—the crucial question that we ask of history and of God. If it were merely justice, in the end it could bring only fear to us all. The incarnation of God in Christ has so closely linked the two together—judgment and grace—that justice is firmly established: we all work out our salvation “with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). Nevertheless grace allows us all to hope, and to go trustfully to meet the Judge whom we know as our “advocate”, or parakletos (cf. 1 Jn 2:1).
There is much, much more here, and I can barely scratch the surface. This encyclical is but a day old. But I am convinced that it is an encyclical for the ages, one of those that will be read in generation after generation. It is an encyclical that not only addresses the Christian, but reaches out to those who, although they are concerned with justice, have held back from the faith, often because they found it too unfaithful to its own sources and too disdainful of the world. To these, the Pope says, “come home.”