I'd like to continue our look at the First Things essay (Christians and Postmoderns) by Joseph Bottum that I began on Saturday.
Bottum writes that:
[T]he massive scientific advance of modernity reveals how easy it is to discover facts, and modernity's collapse reveals how hard it is to hold knowledge. We have an apparatus for discovery unrivaled by the ages, yet every new fact means less than the previously discovered one, for we lack what turns facts to knowledge: the information of what the facts are for.
Precisely so. Modernity offers us no satisfying interpretive framework for assigning meaning to the facts discovered by science. It attempts to supply the need for such a framework by interpreting everything in terms of evolutionary development, but the view that each of us is just a meaningless cipher in the grand flow of time and evolution fails somehow to quench our deepest longings. According to the modern worldview there really is no purpose for the existence of anything. The facts discovered by science, as important as they may be for the furtherance of our technology, don't really have any metaphysical significance. Like everything else, they're just there.Bottum continues:
And so "we must learn to live after truth," as a group of European academics wrote in After Truth: A Postmodern Manifesto. "Nothing is certain, not even this . . . The modern age opened with the destruction of God and religion. It is ending with the threatened destruction of all coherent thought." Nietzsche may have been the first to see this clearly .... But, even in the fundamental thinkers of high modernity, hints can be found that knowledge requires God: Descartes uses God in the Meditations in order to escape from the interiority where the cogito has stranded him; Kant uses God as a postulate of pure practical reason in order to hold on to the possibility of morality.
What [theistic] believers have in common with postmoderns is a distrust of modern claims to knowledge. To be a believer, however, is to be subject to an attack that postmoderns, holding truthlessness to themselves like a lover, never have to face. The history of modernity in the West is in many ways nothing more than the effort to destroy medieval faith. It is a three-hundred-year attempt to demolish medieval (especially Catholic) claims to authority, and to substitute a structure of science and ethics based solely on human rationality.
But with the failure to discover any such rational structure - seen by the postmoderns - the only portion of the modern project still available to a modern is the destruction of faith. It should not surprise us that, in very recent times, attacks on what little is left of medieval belief have become more outrageous: resurgent anti-Semitism, anti-Islamic broadsides, vicious mockery of evangelical preaching, desecrations of the Host in Catholic masses. For modern men and women, nothing else remains of the high moral project of modernity: these attacks are the only good thing left to do. The attackers are convinced of the morality of their attack not by the certainty of their aims - who's to say what's right or wrong? - but by opposition from believers.
I take Bottum to be saying here that modernity, in its death throes, wishes only to finish the business of killing off God, or at least belief in God. Modernity has nothing else to offer. It cannot give answers to any of life's most gripping existential questions. Nowhere in the writings of the anti-theists at large today do we find an answer to any of the following: Why is the universe here? How did life come about? Why is the universe so magnificently fine-tuned for life? Where did human consciousness come from? Why do we feel joy when we encounter beauty? How can we prove that our reason is reliable without using reason to prove it? How can we account for our conviction that we have free will? What obligates us to care about others? Why do we feel guilt? Who do I refer to when I refer to myself? What gives human beings worth, dignity, and rights? If death is the end justice is unattainable, so why do we yearn for it? Why do we need meaning and purpose? What is our purpose?
Ask the Richard Dawkins' of the world those questions and all you'll get in reply is a shrug of the shoulders or a recitation of the alleged historical crimes of the Church. They dodge the question because they have no answer. This is a bit ironic: Neither modern nor postmodern atheism has an answer to the most profound questions we can ask. The only possible answer lies in the God of the "premodern," and this is the one solution to man's existential emptiness that the modern and postmodern atheist simply cannot abide.We'll conclude our look at Bottum's essay tomorrow.