Postmodernity-Or Expanding Modernity?

By Swidler, Leonard | Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview
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Postmodernity-Or Expanding Modernity?


Swidler, Leonard, Journal of Ecumenical Studies


Anyone reading this editorial, I would argue, is living in the mental world of, not postmodernism, but modernity (which many date from the eighteenth-century Aufkarung onward). I understand modernity as a world that cherishes (1)

freedom at the core of being human; (2) critical-thinking reason (not limited to discursive thought) as the arbiter of what to affirm or not; (3) history-evolution, process, dynamism seen at the heart of human life and society, and, indeed, all reality; and (4) the conscious recognition of cultural/religious pluralism--and, hence, the consequent need to engage in dialogue. Said otherwise, I understand modernity to have four main characteristics: (1) a sense of radical freedom; (2) a sense of automatically asking whether something makes rational sense; (3) a sense of perceiving all human experience in its specific historical-evolutionary context; and, because of the relationality of all knowledge, (4) the need to engage persons with different views and experiences in deep-dialogue so as to learn more.

We cannot avoid modernity, even if we do not allude to it and are not consciously aware of it. Modernity is all around us. It is the very air that we breathe, even when we might be vigorously trying to reject some part of it. In our bones we feel free and feel outraged when we learn of others being robbed of their freedom. We cannot help but involuntarily ask of every new or old idea or bit of information that comes along whether it makes sense, whether we "buy" it. We are increasingly aware that reality around us is constantly changing, that old givens do not necessarily hold anymore, and that, consequently, we constantly ask whether old saws are still valid or are something from a past context. Also increasingly we do not automatically discount those who are different from us but are more and more inclined at first to tolerate them, then to open out to them, and then even to seek them out.

Modernity makes up our mental world just as water is where fish live, or the air is for us mammals. We do not even notice it, unless it is severely damaged and we start to choke and even die. We automatically resist when our freedom is threatened and protest when something unreasonable is being forced down our throats. We would do the same if our radios and TV's--or now increasingly our cell phones or computers--were taken from us and we were forced to go back to living in the older context or if we no longer could learn new things from those elsewhere in the world. This is all true even if we do not think about it--until part of it might be taken away.

Consequently, if a hoary tradition is to find a helpful, creative place in our life, we must undertake two important steps. First, we need to reflect more intensely and consciously on what our mental world of modernity is. We need to learn in greater depth what its elements are and how they intertwine to constitute the atmosphere in which we "live, move, and have our being," as St. Paul wrote in quoting an ancient Greek poet. Contemporary philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002) put it thus: "History does not belong to us; but we belong to it."

At the same time, as an intellectual/cultural historian I am constantly astonished that so many of my colleagues in academe are still describing their thinking as "postmodern," or "postmodernism." Any "movement" that cannot articulate what it is about, but can only say what it is not about, strikes me as intellectually suspect or, perhaps more kindly, "adolescent," immature, not very well thought through. More importantly, as it slowly began to become clear what most "postmodern" writers seemed to be talking about when they used the term "postmodernity," it appeared to refer to: (1) hermeneutics of suspicion and the resultant sense of pluralism and consequent need for dialogue, (2) a stress on particularity, and (3) an a priori rejection of any "over-all" understanding of anything.

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