[T]hough we cannot revert, we nonetheless have resources that may help us to advance beyond these late times. The modern project that attacked the Middle Ages has itself been under attack for some time. For some time, hyper-modern writers have brought to bear against their modern past the same sort of scarifying analysis that earlier modern writers brought against the premodern past. These later writers, supposing the modern destruction of God to be complete, have turned their postmodern attacks upon the modern project of Enlightenment rationality.
Perhaps, though definitions based on intent are always weak, the best definition nonetheless involves intent:it is premodern to seek beyond rational knowledge for God; it is modern to desire to hold knowledge in the structures of human rationality (with or without God); it is postmodern to see the impossibility of such knowledge.
There is thus a curious parallel of thought between premodern thinkers and postmodern prophets of modernity’s destruction. This parallel could be drawn precisely, I think, between the medieval Christian neoplatonists (Dionysius, Eriugena, St. Bonaventure, Eckhart, Cusa) and certain contemporary critics of systematic rationality (Derrida, Foucault, Jameson). But all medievals, even such “rational” philosophers as Averroes, Moses Maimonides, and St. Thomas Aquinas, share certain philosophical ideas that are closer to the postmodern than the modern. The premoderns said that without God, there would be no knowledge, and the postmoderns say we have no God and have no knowledge. The premoderns said that without the purposefulness of final causation, all things would be equally valueless, and the postmoderns say there is no purpose and no value. The premoderns said that without an identity of reality and the Good, there would be no right and wrong, and the postmoderns say there is neither Good nor right and wrong. Though they disagree on whether God exists, premoderns and postmoderns share the major premise that knowing requires His existence. Only for a brief period in the history of the West—the period of modern times—did anyone seriously suppose that human beings could hold knowledge without God.
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.
As Etienne Gilson once observed, history is the only laboratory we have in which to see the consequences of thought. The empty pit into which the modern project has fallen may well reveal Bacon’s failure far more convincingly than any purely epistemological argument ever could. This is the reason, as I understand it, that Michel Foucault pressed his postmodern attack on modernity by writing histories. The Foucault by whom we are first moved to question modernity, the Foucault by whom we are first shown the absurdity of the modern project from its beginning, is not the Foucault of the epistemological Order of Things and Archaeology of Knowledge, but the Foucault of the historical Discipline and Punish, Madness and Civilization , and Birth of the Clinic. To read these histories is to see the evil of the systematic, the cruelty of impersonal human ingenuity, and the prison of the Enlightenment’s constraining rationality.
What 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.
Three hundred years of this attack have created in believers an attitude both deeply defensive and deeply conservative. But the defensiveness springs from the attempt by believers to defend their belief against a “progressive” philosophy that is already rejected intellectually by nearly all cultural commentators, and, I suspect, despised intuitively by nearly all young people in America. Believers should not become entangled in the defense of modern times. This is the key—the postmodern attack on modernity is right: without God, essences are the will to power. Without God, every attempt to call something true or beautiful or good is actually an attempt to compel other people to agree.
The most foolish thing believers could do is to make concessions now to a modernity that is already bankrupt (and that despises them anyway) and thus to make themselves subject to a second attack”the attack of the postmodern on the modern. Faithful believers are not responsible for the emptiness of modernity. They struggled against it for as long as they could, and they must not give in now. They must not, at this late date, become scientific, bureaucratic, and technological; skeptical, self-conscious, and self-mocking.
Modernity was the effort to destroy the claims of the medieval church to authority in order to put its own conceptions of human rationality at the center of human thought. And it is the mocking deconstructive critique of the postmoderns that shows the bankruptcy and the will to power of modern times. Freed from modernity, we can resume faith’s interrupted search for understanding.