There are chiefly three regimes of thought that have developed throughout human history. These are, in historical order: the Premodern, the Modern, and the Postmodern. All three of them have different ways of determining what is True, what is Good, and what is Beautiful.
In general, the regime of thought known as “Modernism” is the dominant regime of the Modern world, although that is quickly changing. It is associated with rationalism and materialism, the latter being the assumption that the only things that truly exist are material, and the former being the belief that what can be known is only that which can be deduced via human reason. Unsurprisingly, the rise of Modernism coincided with the rise of natural science. Although the two things are not synonymous, they share many of the same assumptions about the world and have a common view of how to attain new knowledge. Modernism’s defining characteristic is that it restricts Truth only to what can be observed and reasoned about. Because Modernists are materialists, this restricts their field of study to the interplay of universal laws, matter, time, and space. All that ever was and ever is and ever will be can be explained in terms of these things, and anything which cannot be reached by reason or observation is simply a non-entity. In other words, there is no room for spiritual or metaphysical explanations that cannot be observed, and any Truths that cannot be arrived at by a deductive argument are simply unknowable. Famous science educator Carl Sagan, an atheist, summarizes this view of the Universe by saying, “The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be. Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us – there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.” Sagan’s viewpoint is that the physical Universe is the same thing as the Cosmos; it is all that there is, and there is nothing else outside of it to govern it or intervene in its inner workings. The ideas of “meaning” and “significance” have no place in this, as they are not things which can be directly measured or reasoned to.
What comes along with Modernism are Nihilism and various forms of Existentialism which deny the existence of any objective meaning or significance in the world. This is because, rationally and materialistically, everything can be reduced to basal physical interactions between basal physical objects in the final analysis. There is no meaning or significance that can be read into someone making a cup of tea; the person making it is nothing more than a congealment of self-replicating carbonaceous material at the long end of a blind, pitiless, and indifferent slog of natural selection. Their desire for a hot cup of tea is nothing more than the fluctuations in the concentrations of certain chemicals in the bloodstream, which cause another carbonaceous mass in their cranium to resolve electrical potentials across a specific topological configuration of neural axons in their connectome, which trigger chemical synapses between each other with minute osmotic pressure differentials. The hot cup of tea they are making is just more carbonaceous matter immersed in a bath of H2O molecules that possess an above-average amount of kinetic energy relative to other objects in the environment. Et cetera. Rationally and materialistically, this is all the Truth we can arrive at; reductionism, ad infinitum, ad absurdum, until there is no meaning or significance left in what we wish to understand. Rationalistic materialism can tell you nothing of the essence of desire, personhood, preference, or experience. It may give you facts, but facts are only a glimmer of the Truth, just as the light which glints off the face of a diamond is not itself diamond. Facts may grant you a minute portion of the Truth, but from facts alone you will never arrive at what is Good, and certainly never what is Beautiful. Speaking as an educated scientist, I can tell you that men who are true Modernists through and through are the kind of nihilistic and existentialist atheists whose scholarship is truly astounding and Beautiful, and sometimes very Good as well, yet the lives of these men are almost invariably so devoid of any meaning at all. They are drunk on knowledge, and famished for narrative.
Modernism has many implications for how people see the interaction between their lives and the world, from the realms of art and science to the realm of Biblical interpretation. What underpins all of these implications is the perspective that human beings are merely “observers” and “ponderers” of a flat, mostly empty reality. This necessarily places the source of truth with the observer-reasoner as it is gleaned from the surrounding Universe. It is fundamentally Humanistic, in this sense, confident that what can be known and achieved by the human mind is sufficient to comprehend all Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, given enough time. At the same time, the emphasis is placed on the word “observation”. The whole idea of scientific experimentation is to remove unnecessary external variables so that nature can be observed in its pure form. Even the social sciences, which observe and catalogue the behavior of human beings themselves, do this mathematically using statistical methods which automatically control for height, weight, IQ, and any other extraneous variables. Participation in the experiment is not allowed. We can only watch and reason about our grimly meaningless reality as it ticks away like a clock. The Universe is on the stage, we are watching from our seats, and there is no theatre. Startlingly, this restricted view through our dimly lit telescope of materialistic rationality has caused us to stumble across things that just can’t be explained materialistically or rationally. Consciousness, that pesky and inescapable reality that we “experience” the world as though we were looking out into it through our eyes cannot be explained in terms of the physical and chemical properties of synapses and neurons. Concepts like “energy” and “information” are powerful tools to explain and predict the behavior of the physical world, yet we have no idea what they really are. One option is that they don’t really “exist”, but if that’s the case, then what does really exist? If we conclude that they do exist, in some form, then they are immaterial and unable to be directly observed, possessing a type of existence that we would be tempted to call “spiritual”. If we are spiritual beings (and we are), then it would make sense then that we would explain the universe around us in this spiritual way. This is usually in the language of mathematics. The fact that there is such accord between these spiritual explanations and their corresponding physical phenomena means that perhaps physical things are spiritual too, but if I were to say that, I would be getting ahead of myself. The broader point is that Modernism, though it pretends to be blind to anything but pure rationality and materialism, is haunted by Truth that it cannot explain. Even a blind man can feel the heat of the sun on his face.
Postmodernism, the next regime, is often thought of as a rejection of Modernism, but in reality Postmodernism is more like a logical continuation of Modernist conclusions. Where Modernists began with the assumptions of materialism and rationalism, Postmodernists began by begging the question as to what justified those assumptions in the first place. Postmodernists took the position of small, petulant children, and kept asking the Modernists “why?” whenever they weren’t satisfied with an explanation, and the Modernists just didn’t have the answers. Thus, Postmodernism largely aims itself at deconstructing the “grand narratives” of Modernism. Skepticism, irony, and passing things off as the product of “social conditioning” are the usual weapons of Postmodern thought, aimed squarely at Modernist conceptions of science, reason, language, human nature, and truth itself. For instance, where Modernists claim that all we can be certain of is the conclusions that we can draw from the material world via rationality, Postmodernists claim that all we can really know is our own individual experiences. We cannot even be certain that we can trust that, since, for all we know, we could have been socially conditioned to think a certain way or accept certain arguments and not others. We may not even be able to trust our own language, since unbeknownst to us, it may have been developed with certain fundamental biases that favor one group of people over another, or one set of conclusions over another. For example, a Postmodernist might say that because, in English, we can always describe a certain thing as a binary taxonomy (something or something else, male or female, true or false, etc.) that this could create an “oppressive” bias against those who have a “non-binary sexual identification”, and that this construct of the English language should be “deconstructed”. This regime of thought has gained some traction among the political left in the United States, and has been most aggressively applied to sexuality and race relations. Postmodernists, unsurprisingly, reject the Modernist notion that there are two biological sexes (a claim based on observation of nature), and claim instead that the truth of sexuality is something that can only be understood on an individual level. This implies that a person may not have a sex that falls into male or female, and that their so-called “gender identity” may not correspond with their biological sex. This new concept has been facilitated by the invention of new language to counteract the supposedly “oppressive” category of male and female. Words like “cisgender” and “asexual” have been invented by Postmodernists for the very purpose of deconstructing the notion of binary gender. Where the Modernists root Truth in observation and reason, the Postmodernist roots it in personal experience. On the level of relations between people of different ethnicities, Postmodernists advocate for theories of things like “systemic racism”, which is a type of racism that cannot be measured or detected in individual people or societies, but is nonetheless there in very real and oppressive ways, known only to those who are oppressed. Someone who does not think that such a thing exists has the epistemic disadvantage of not being a part of the oppressed class, because their “privilege” is blinding them to a reality that is plainly evident to others. Truth is not Truth unilaterally; it is worth more when it comes from the mouth of an “oppressed minority”, and can be disregarded when it comes from the mouth of an “oppressing majority”. Thinking along this line means that beliefs and language are not about Truth, Goodness, or Beauty, but only about power. Ergo, under Postmodernism, some ideas, words, and thoughts are inherently oppressive. How oppressive? Well, oppressive enough to incite violent looting, burning, and riots in nearly every major city in the United States of America in the summer of 2020. Antifa and BLM are the poster children for this kind of thinking; they are a prime example of what happens when Postmodernism puts boots on the ground.
If the key word to describe the relationship between human beings and truth under Modernism is “observer”, then under Postmodernism it is “deconstructor”, or perhaps “creator”, since anyone who deconstructs something must erect something in its place. The Modernist stumbles into the conclusion that everything is meaningless as an accidental consequence of rationalistic materialism, and this is a reality that Modernists find themselves having to deal with. By contrast, the Postmodernist embraces this conclusion and uses it as an opportunity to deconstruct the reality that was handed to them at birth, and create their own in its stead. One of the chief advantages of doing this is that the Postmodernist reserves the right as the creator of their own personal reality to place those who don’t conform to it under judgement. Where the Modernist was hopeful that humanity could collectively attain to the full knowledge of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, the postmodernist is assured that everyone will have their own Goodness, their own Truth, and their own Beauty, so long as the sovereignty of the individual is preserved. The most heinous crime, to the Postmodernist, is denial of self-expression. This is akin to the Existentialism of Nietzsche, a forerunner to Postmodernism. It is an encounter with the absurd that must be pushed through and broken from. “God is dead, and we have killed him”, he says, a statement which simultaneously denotes fear, haste, and thrill. With no guiding principles for how to live, how would humanity know what was right and what was wrong? For him, the only hope was to become the Ubermensch, the Superman, by pushing through the absurdity and meaninglessness of existence until you become a godlike figure, transcending all moral value structures, able to lead humanity into an objectively meaningful enterprise in an objectively meaningless universe. Nietzsche died in an insane asylum.
Those who are on the political Right in the United States are usually Modernists in their approach to politics. They take after the Founding Fathers in that respect. This means they almost invariably play into the hands of the Leftists, who are almost always Postmodernists. Leftism is silly, and it believes silly things and makes silly threats, the Right makes the mistake of not taking the silly threats seriously. Secular neoconservative Right-wingers like Charlie Kirk, Dennis Prager, Ben Shapiro, and all the other usual suspects repeat the same talking points they were airing in 2011, to the same people. They laugh at the silliness of a man calling himself a woman (and it is silly), and wonder how in the world anyone could take the idea of “gender fluidity” or “systemic racism” seriously. “It’s silly, and it just doesn’t make any sense,” says the Right-winger. “Correct.” says the Postmodernist, “It doesn’t have to, and it’s not about that anyway.” Bewildered, Right-wingers carried on tickling their own ears in derision about “those libtard snowflakes” while the Left actually did everything they said they would, orchestrating a complete takeover of government institutions, public schools, universities, seminaries, corporations, and families. We now have a trained Marxist as sitting Vice President of the United States of America. Postmodernism is the intellectual foundation of the future. Government and economics, from here on forward, will be grounded on the maxims of power and oppression, and not on the ideals that are in accordance with what is True, Good, and Beautiful.
If anything, Postmodernism is a sign that Modernism is an utter failure as a foundation for worldview. Many things may be gleaned from Modernism, but we must be sure to sort the straw from the sticks. The scientific method, for example, has shown tremendous success as a means of understanding the natural world and assisting with technological advancement. You could say that much of what makes the Modern world “Modern” was the philosophical unification of science and technology in the Western World. What Modernism lacks is any depth to it apart from what is plainly true on the surface. This includes things like information, consciousness, and supernatural realities. There is no room for a transcendent, imminent, holy, omniscient, lawgiving creator God in the Modernist framework, much less angels, powers and principalities, authorities, and other celestial forces and beings that are at play in the Cosmos. This is the downfall of Modernism. Postmodern skepticism punch holes clean through Modernist conceptions of morality, rationality, and other so-called “grand narratives”. A Modernist would not be able to give you a good reason why the Holocaust was truly, objectively, without-a-doubt, morally wrong, and some honest Modernist friends of mine have actually admitted that to me. Modernism posits a flat, dark, mostly empty world, with no up or down, no right or wrong, no forward or backward; just time and chance working on matter and energy. Pity us, if we are Modernists, because as Richard Dawkins puts it, “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”
By the same token, Postmodernism is more damning than Modernism is. Modernism at least gave us the scientific revolution and the Constitution of the United States. Postmodernism has given us nothing except the deconstruction of everything the West has ever stood upon. Postmodernists tear down castles to build huts, and tear down huts to build tents, because the sovereignty of the individual is the maxim by which everything stands or falls. All the lusts of the sinner are satisfied in the Postmodern framework, and this is its real sting. If the True, the Good, and the Beautiful are created by me, then they can be destroyed by me. If they were born when I was born, then they will die when I die, and they will cease to exist forevermore. If they are wholly attached to me and defined by me, then they can have no impression on me, or influence me, or bring me to tears, or crush me, or convict me, or inform me, or fill me with joy, or move in any way that I do not already move myself. It is meaningless, lonely, and dull to be the sole instrument of your own divine providence. Pity us, because if we are Postmodernists, there is really nothing to live for.
Unlike the Modernists and the Postmodernists, the ancients believed that the world was steeped in spiritual authority and significance. This was the worldview of the Jews, the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Assyrians, the early Christians, and nearly every other ancient civilization. They believed that the world was a grand unfolding of divine providence, and that each event in the world was a meaningful expression of a providential epic narrative. Unlike the Modernists, who believed in a flat, mostly empty Universe of time and chance acting on matter and energy, Premodern man believed in a grand cosmos that was hierarchical, layered from the depths of Hades, to the realm of Earth, to the Rulers, Powers, and Principalities, to the heights of Heaven itself. Modernists believe that Truth can only be attained through observation and reason, but the world of the Premodernists was full of Truths that were not apparent to pure observation and reason. The world was full of great mysteries; not puzzles to be solved, but Truths that could only be understood fully on a higher plane of the Cosmos. Christianity is full of these kinds of mysteries. There is the mystery of the Trinity, that God is a Tri-Unity, three in one. There is the mystery of the hypostatic union, how Christ is truly God and truly man, with neither essence compromising the trueness of the other. There is the mystery of the Cross, how Christ died once to atone for all sin before Creation ever was, as the Lamb who was slain before the foundation of the world. There is mystery of the atonement, Christ’s righteousness imputed once for all time to us, and our sin imputed once for all time to Him. These things are True, and yet they are mysteries. They are not things which human intelligence could arrive at by simple observation and reason, nor are they Truths which begin and end with ourselves. They may be known to us, but we can only receive them when they are given from above.
For each of the frameworks we have examined thus far, we have assigned a key word that describes the relationship that human beings have to their world and to knowledge. For Modernism, it is the word “observer”, and for Postmodernism, it is the word “creator” or “deconstructor”. The Modernists ground truth in observation and reason, asserting that what is true can only be what is perceptible on the surface of existence. Postmodernists take this to its natural and logical end, concluding that truth can only be grounded in the individual themselves. Both approaches admit that the source of Truth fundamentally lies with human beings; with the former insofar as someone needs to be there to observe something, think about it, and write it down, and in the latter, as the arbiter of a kind of Truth that is different for every individual. By contrast, Premodern man conceived of Truth as a Divine order upon which the whole Cosmos was built, not subject to human judgement, and not entirely accessible to human observation and reason. Truth was a great canvas upon which the Cosmos was painted. It was woven throughout the entire order of the Creation, from top to bottom, through the imperceptible and mysterious all the way down to the concrete and mundane. All of existence, from agriculture, to physics, to angels, were aspects of this divine order that relied upon Truth. Furthermore, Premodern man did not see himself as merely a passive observer of the Cosmos as it ticked away around him like a clock, rather, he saw himself as a participant in the unfolding of a small portion of a much larger, grander narrative. “Participant” is a good word to describe it, but a better word, though less descriptive, is the word “creature”. The latter denotes that man is an aspect of creation, and an integral part of its development. This is the spiritual essence of the destructive power of Sin. Sin is that which is contrary to what is True, Good, and Beautiful, and where the curse of sin is present, the whole order of the Cosmos is disrupted. As a participant in providence, human life is inherently and inescapably meaningful; you cannot be human and simply sit on the sidelines and watch. Your very existence is woven into the fabric of Truth that holds the entire cosmos together. What you do matters because you are a creature yourself, and you occupy a Cosmos filled with other creatures: other men, other governments, angels, demons, powers, principalities, authorities, and a myriad of other unseen beings were created by God for His glory as the sole Creator of it all, and you must take this reality into account. Some of these beings are on your side, some of them are your enemies, and some of them you owe, bigtime.
The reality of the Cosmos has been lost to Christians in our day. Modern Christianity is, well, Modern. Some Modern Christianity is even going the Postmodern route by embracing ideas from subjects like Critical Race Theory. This is a sure pitfall into heresy and liberalism, but Modernism in Christianity has been damaging as well. Modern Christians accept that the cosmos is a spiritual place as a matter of creed, but not as a matter of day-to-day life. At best, we consider ourselves more akin to being “observers’’ of God’s providence rather than “creatures’’ who participate in it. We believe that God’s sovereignty is a spectator sport. At worst, we take after our first parents by being disobedient creatures seeking to become gods unto ourselves by usurping the plainly revealed Truth of God because it doesn’t fit our own agenda. What has been lost is Piety, a concept I have been thinking about a great deal over the past several months that I learned from C.R. Wiley. Piety. Piety, from the old Roman word pietas, does not necessarily imply excessive religious purity. I have written elsewhere that a better definition of it is something like, “duty to God, to family, and to country”. A Pious man lives his life with these three things in mind. He devotes himself to the scriptures and to prayer, goes to work, goes to church, splits wood, takes out the garbage, roughhouses with the kids, and makes love to his wife, all out of duty as a participant in the unfolding of the Cosmos. He has his mind set on the next 10 generations. He understands first and foremost that Christ is the head of all things, having purchased the title deed to the whole Universe with His blood, and having received it at His ascension. He has been given all authority in Heaven and on Earth, so that He may be seated at the right hand of the Ancient of Days to make all things new. Below Him are His angels, His authorities, and His church, which is a vast and bannered army stretching forth through time and space, marching forth on His behalf to wage war against the powers, principalities, and authorities of the Old Order of Sin and Death, to conquer what He has already declared to be His: a New Heavens and Earth. The warmaking of the Pious man is sometimes waged with instruments and engines of destruction, as it is sometimes necessary to keep the wolves away by drawing steel to shed the blood of sinners. More often Pious warfare is waged on account of the blood that was shed from the hands of the Sinless One, that Son of Man who died and rose so that He could be the Firstborn among many brethren: a New Humanity, for a New Heavens and Earth. Every member of this New Humanity is a new creature, in that they are a redeemed participant in God’s work of providence, unfolding righteousness into the world in the same way that yeast is folded into a measure of flour. God is pleased to work through quiet, holy lives. The farmer, the small-town pastor, the insurance agent, the car mechanic, the police officer, if they endeavor to live lives that are pleasing to the Lord, will have a greater impact on the next 100 generations than the rule of any tyrant or sun king. That is the kind of optimism that our Lord demands of us when he says, “take heart, for I have overcome the world”. It must be received by faith. You will not find it in the newspaper. You must search the promises of God for it, trusting Him with all your might when He says, “all authority in Heaven and on Earth has been given to me” and “behold, I am making all things new”. These are lines from the battle hymns of Pious men. They are words which stir weary and worrisome souls like mine to march onward into the darkness, to proclaim the Gospel, to mortify my sinful appetites, to lead those I love to follow me as I follow Christ, so that we may go and worship God. Christ is victorious, and that gives me the courage to be hopeful. Let us be Premodern men, creatures in a grand and mysterious Cosmos, and warriors in the war of the ages. Let us aspire to be meek and holy men, participants, by faith, in the mystery of providence.Share this post:
Chris Carter is the Editor in Chief of The New England Reformer. Chris earned a Bachelor's degree in Mathematics from Clarkson University, but his post-univserity studies have taken him through various topics in theology and church history. He currently lives in Rochester, New York, but he also occaisionally preaches at a small baptist church in his hometown in Vermont.