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Friday, March 12, 2004

The New Pollution

Post-modernists like to assert the death of modernity, that is the like to think that there has been some radical shift that has successfully unseated the reign of so-called foundationalist views of epistemology and science. The failure of modernity now permits an almost "anything goes" approach to culture and science.

I have never been so convinced. It seems to me that it is really modernity rather than any alternative that has its grip on the some of the most significant culture forming institutions of society. I still sense a hankering after positivism and utiltitarianism even is spite of self-defeating and other objections to it. The case for modernism may not be as strong as first thought, but there seems to be a basic conviction in the project of making it work with enough creative energy. Modernity is anything but dead and I think people just need to stop pretending. In fact, most versions of so-called post-modernism strike me as being in no way alternatives to modernity but rather presuppose it.

It does however, seem that there is a shift going on, not from extreme modernism to extreme relativism but rather a realization that we cannot afford to accept modernity. Modernity has taught us about the failure of dogmatism whether that is dogmatism about science or about relativism. Modernity has weakened its own authority. At the same time it has created situations that have forced us to take a stand and accept commitment to certain principles in spite of our lack of explicit justification for them. This has occurred in the rise of new technologies in medicine and publicly involved engineering and communications projects, like the space shuttle. This new causistry has lead to a renewal of the publicness of the moral point of view and a new culture of public policy. We see this is the emerging groups within both American Parties of a new centrism and the emergence of a new electorate that has no stomach for hardliners on either side -- recently exhibited in the election of Gov. Ahnold in California and in the preferred front runners of both parties for president. It seems to take the form of an endorsement of not resisting globalization but assuming more and more responsibility for how it develops.

This also seems to finally be effecting religion in our country, at least evangelicalism. In the early part of the 20th century, conservative evangelical philosophy of religion was most powerfully effected in all its forms by the waning influence of the previous idealism. This can be seen in Stuart Hackett's dependence on Kant and Brand Blanshard, Jonathan Gerstner's dependence of Jonathan Edwards, E.J. Carnell's dependence on the Brightman and the Boston Personalists, Cornelius Van Til's interaction with the whole idealist tradition, C.S. Lewis' dependence on Berkeley and the British Platonists, and even J. Montegomery's reliance on legal hermeneutics. One could summarize that evangelicalism kept the idealist spirit alive long after it was dead everywhere else. But gradually the work of recent Christian philsosophers working more or less in the tradition that displaced idealism have begun to filter into evangelical culture (Plantinga, Alston, Stump, Kretzmann, Zimmerman, Hacker, Basinger, etc.) and with them a chastened sensibility of what can and cannot be done in philosophy. Interestingly, idealism helped evangelicalism transcend the dogmatism of fundamentalism, and now Christian analytic philosophy is helping evangelicalism overcome the dogmatism of its idealism. Currently, this seems to be felt in some quarters as a crisis just as evangelicalism was a crisis for fundamentalism. It seems to impact our long held understanding of things. But it does not necessarily mean that we have given up our idealism entirely, only that we hold on to it as a tentative possibility.

The evangelical "change of voice" (less absolutists, more pluralistic, less foundational, more pragmatic) was bound to happen.. Evangelicals are in an experimental phase, trying on different fashions to see how the fit, being very careful to size each one. Some err by being hardliners of modernity or post-modernity but most are looking for something in between. The rationality of religion turns out to be similar to the causistry of the new applied ethics. The model for religious rationality is based on the analogy of technology as a form of experimentation on humans. The issue is to determine when affirmation of the faith is an instance of informed rational consent.

This new strand of evangelicalism is potentially convergent with the new cultural strand of social centrism. Both evangelicalism and public culture are becoming more "Lutheran" in that both the new church and the new social sensibility are more content to be in tension with science and the progress of knowledge and technology but resisting a radical dissolution into radically incommensurable sub-cultures. In short, there is no reason why the current temper of the evangelicalism is incompatible with the current temper of the world.

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