Fr. John Joe Lakers, my close friend who died in 2011, got his philosophical education at Oxford in England. That education was sometimes called “analytic” philosophy, and focused on language. As “JJ’ went though the last decades of the 1900s, he began to relate this approach to what was coming to be called “postmodernism.”
I come at postmodernism through sociology, and specifically, sociological theory. I taught a course with that title for several years. The readings that were appearing in the theory textbooks were by strange new authors: Michel Foucault, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Richard Rorty. When JJ talked about postmodernism, he related it also to Rene Descartes, Emmanuel Kant, and Friedrich Nietzsche.
Nietzsche especially was toxic for believers. He was famous for his statement that “God is dead.”
But our Franciscan approach to philosophy was grounded in the principle that no one is so toxic that we cannot dialogue with that person, and that sometimes ideas that appear toxic at first have some merit to them. The education that we received in Our Lady of Angels Seminary in Cleveland in the 1950s was heavily influenced by two Franciscan friars, Philotheus Boehner and Allan Wolter. Boehner, a German emigre who was widely known in European Catholic philosophical circles, had become a specialist in William of Ockham, another toxic author. Ockham got into trouble with Pope John XXII, and Thomistic authors accused him of being a precursor to the Reformation. Wolter was a specialist in the writings of John Duns Scotus, but was sufficiently competent in scientific cosmology that he was able to teach alternate semesters at Princeton.
The Franciscan philosophical tradition, therefore, never accepted Pope Leo XIII’s 1897 decree that all Catholic philosophy and theology should be based on the writings of Thomas Aquinas. In JJ’s view, that position froze Catholic thinking into the thirteenth century and made it impossible for Catholic scholars to deal honestly with anything more recent.
Back to postmodernism. JJ was determined to mine the thinking of Nietzsche and the postmodernists for nuggets of insight that might contribute to a life of faith in our world.
My reading in the aforementioned postmodernist authors convinced me that their position could be boiled down to one statement. (I have always held that anything can be boiled down to one statement.) That statement is: “Any time someone claims to be speaking the truth, that person is hiding an agenda of getting power over someone else.”
Postmodernists are rejected by many Catholic authors because their position can be rephrased as “There is no such thing as the truth.” That formulation is completely nihilistic, and can easily be rejected, even on philosophical grounds. It reminds me of the riddle that we discussed in philosophy: “All statements are false, including this one.” To claim that there is no such thing as the truth is to imply that the statement itself is true.
Back to Sociology
In the 1960s, a sociologist, Peter Berger, and a Lutheran theologian, Thomas Luckmann, wrote a small book with the title The Social Construction of Reality. The title says it all. What we call “reality” is a socially constructed thing, and as such is subject to the vagaries of the social groups that are constructing it.
Behind that definition of reality is an idea as old as sociology—W.I. Thomas’s 1917 principle of what we called “the definition of the situation”: “If a situation is defined as real, it is real in its consequences.”
Sociologists have accepted that principle over most of the last century and society has continued to exist. What we have is a tension between the fact that we humans tell stories about things that happen to us, and the fact that sometimes the stories we tell are not verified by others.
The best example of this is a court of law. Every trial is a competition between competing definitions of the situation—competing stories. The defendant claims that something happened, and tells the story in support of that claim. The prosecutor challenges the story with an alternate story about what happened. The jury’s role is to determine which the of the two stories is more likely to describe what actually happened.
Sometimes no one can determine what actually happened. The position of the postmodernists is that such a situation is in effect in most of the important issues in life. I think they argue that position because they see people using truth claims to support political domination. But they don’t, JJ claims, get past that. All they offer is what JJ calls “a hollow voice of protest.”
Thomas Aquinas and his more modern followers, including popes, talk about “natural law.” The term really means that there are some stories about reality that everyone accepts, and that if you don’t accept the story, you are mentally or morally deficient. That is a shaky basis for making decisions about life. For centuries people accepted the story that the sun goes around the earth. The Church has clung to stories about human sexuality that most of the rest of society has rejected--for example, that artificial means of contraception are bad. The only sense I can make out of that statement is that it means that bad things happen when you use artificial means of contraception. But whether bad things happen or not is a matter for observation. The last fifty years of observation give evidence that, while there are some bad outcomes of such use, as is true of almost anything in life, overall such use does not cause enough harm to forbid the practice.
What does all this mean?
The endpoint of this line of reasoning is that the Catholic intellectual community, especially those who claim to speak authoritatively in the name of the Church, is out of touch with the major philosophical currents of the day. That is one of the roots of the widespread abandonment of religious affiliation. There are other sources of such abandonment, most notably the huge tendency toward individualistic isolation in our societies, but when we have no credible answer to the questions that people put to us, we lose them.
This gap between official Church teaching and the wider philosophical environment is one of the sources of lack of applicants for leadership in the Church—i.e. priesthood. Who wants to be locked into presenting things as true when the individual is not convinced they are true. Even worse, who wants to be locked into a situation where you cannot even discuss the issues?
The clergy problem is not limited to the Catholic community. Protestant groups also face a slowdown in clergy recruitment. I suggest that those groups face a similar problem. Their spiritualities—the practices and stories that they use to structure the lives of believers—are too often out of touch with the realities that most people have constructed for themselves. Protestant congregations have their own versions of orthodoxy, and their own punishments for people who say things outside the orthodoxy.
In short, part of our problem is intellectual, and its solution has to be to grapple on a wider level with the intellectual issues. That was JJ’s position, and it is mine.