G. K. Chesterton, Postmodernist

Postmodernism is not a movement that one would associate with G. K. Chesterton. But comes now the postmodernist critic Slavoj Žižek's Welcome to the Desert of the Real. The title comes from the movie, The Matrix. When the hero is released from artificial world of the Matrix, he awakens to a devastated Chicago and is told "Welcome to the desert of the Real." The remarkable thing about Žižek's book is that the single most-cited source is G. K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy.

Now, postmodernism is not usually associated with Chesterton. However, Žižek may be on to something. The essence of postmodernism is a rejection of modernistic notions of truth and "objectivity," and the bogus claims to be able to reduce everything to a rationalistic "science." For the postmodernist, the narrative is primary, the story of our relationship to the world and the truth. However, postmodernism tends to end up in nihilism. Why? Because they secretly accept back that which they reject; they critique the modernist notion of truth, but then they regard this as the only possible definition of truth, and hence have nowhere to go but to the void. Therefore, the real problem with postmodernism is that it is insufficiently postmodern; it grants too much--everything in fact--to modernism, and in rejecting it rejects everything.

The Christian can make better use of the postmodern critique because we have an older notion of truth to fall back on; we are not trapped by nihilism, but can rely on the narratives known as Scripture and Tradition.

So what has this to do with Chesterton? In Orthodoxy, he examines the faith not as a series of propositions to be proved or disproved, but to be examined through his personal experience, through his own history. It is a history that begins with a rejection of all that Christians hold to be true and an acceptance of all that the moderns want. But he discovers, on this journey, that the only way to get the liberty that the moderns want is to accept what the Christians hold as true. That is to say, in order to be fully modern he must be fully Christian. This is not the explication of a rationalistic proposition, but the discovery of a real and personal relationship with the truth. It is through his own narrative that G. K. discovers the narrative beyond his own. Therefore, he may be the first and truest of the postmoderns.

Or perhaps not the first. The first may be someone from a long time ago. We assume that God gives us the best gifts possible. And in Scripture, God gives us not a catechism to be memorized, but a narrative to be lived. He gives us first the story of Israel's relationship with God, and then the story of God's own Son on earth; in other words, He gives us history and biography; He gives us narratives. Where we might prefer a Summa, He gives us a sermon; where we might expect a syllogism, He gives us a psalm. Prayer, prophecy, poetry, and parable are the means of truth.

This is not to reject the tools of logic, proposition, syllogism, etc. These are indispensable tools in understanding the narratives we have been given. But it is to establish the proper order between the narratives and their explication. We need theology to properly understand God, but at the same time we understand that God cannot be "trapped" in some "Theo-logic." The Logos both founds and exceeds all logic. In the last analysis, we are not interested in analysis for its own sake, but only for the sake of following more closely in His footsteps. So the first postmodern may be the first pre-modern, that is, the Holy Spirit, who guides us to all truth.


Dan Thursday, July 12, 2007 at 10:31:00 AM CDT  

Well said, and interesting ideas. I think there's a lot in postmodernism which GKC would have approved of. But, like any "ism," it is incomplete, prone to over-correcting in it's attempt to counter something, etc, etc...

And I think that as ism's go, postmodernism is at least friendly to the possibility of distributism - and much more so than modernism ever was.

On a slightly unrelated topic, I wonder if anyone is making a point to connect distributism with the user-generated nature of the Web 2.0 movement... I'm exploring it on my blog, but haven't seen anyone else talking about web 2.0 as a catalyst for distributism.

Anonymous,  Thursday, September 20, 2007 at 9:53:00 AM CDT  

Question: was Chesterton post-modern or pre-modern?

John Médaille Thursday, September 20, 2007 at 1:59:00 PM CDT  

Question: was Chesterton post-modern or pre-modern?


To both.

It is the pre-moderns who have been best able to handle the challenges of post-modernism, and to fill in the gaps that post-modernism, my itself, cannot fill.

One excellent example of this is the Radical Orthodoxy movement. RO seeks to restore theology to the status it had in the 13th century; they believe that the voluntarism and nominalism of the 14th century led directly to the Reformation and the Enlightenment. Yet, despite this approach, that seems at first glance to be antique, they have proved adept at handling post-modernism. In fact, I am tempted to say that in order to be adequately post-modern, one must be sufficiently pre-modern.


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