On the Outskirts of the Enlightenment: Prophets, Power, and Post-Modernism

Why is this issue of the end of modernism and the beginning of post-modernism of interest to Christians?  I’m working my way through an academic paper by Jesuit priest Hugues Deletraz on Post-Modernism Opens New Perspectives for Evangelization (see earlier post ‘Modernism has reached its limits‘) to understand what are the marks of this shift and how it helps us understand changes in institutional Christianity today.

While reading Deletraz’ paper, I also picked up Hopeful Imagination by Walter Brueggemann. I love Walter’s deep Bible study and contemporary wisdom drawn from the ancient sources. (I have the honor and pleasure of working right now as his editor at Sojourners while he’s writing Living the Word, our monthly lectionary reflections, for us.)

by Banksy

In Hopeful Imagination, Walter compares and contrasts the eras of the biblical prophets around the time of the destruction of the Temple in 587 BCE with our current shift from  modernism to post-modernism. His premise is that the loss of the authority of the priestly dynasty and the temple in Jerusalem is analogous to the loss of certainty, centralized authority, legitimacy, and dominance in our own times. Here’s what he says:

“A variety of scholars are calling attention to the prospect that Enlightenment modes of power and Enlightenment modes of knowledge are at the end of their effective rule among us.  All of us are children of the Enlightenment. That cultural reality of the last 250 years has brought us enormous gifts of human reason, human freedom, and human possibility. None of us would want to undo those gifts, but they are gifts not without cost. The reality of the Enlightenment has also resulted in the concentration of power in monopolistic ways which have been uncriticized. Moreover, it has generated dominating models of knowledge which have been thought to be objective rather than dominating.

The evidence grows that the long-standing concentration of power and knowledge which constitutes our human world is under heavy assault and in great jeopardy. God’s work at transforming our world is apparent in the rise of Third World nations, the emergence of Islam as a vigorous political force, and the visibility of a variety of liberation movements. In the midst of such realities, we discover the ineffectiveness of old modes of power. American military and economic power is of course considerable, but it is not everywhere decisive. The limit of such power is matched by the limit of Enlightenment modes of knowledge, for we are coming to see that such “scientific” knowledge no longer carries authority everywhere. There is increasing suspicion of such knowledge because it has long been in the service of domination. Such knowledge arranges reality in ways that are not disinterested. Technique becomes a mode of control, and that mode is no longer easily or universally addressed.

Trust in these conventional modes of power and knowledge is matched by a growing uneasiness when those modes are critiqued or rejected.”–Walter Brueggemann (Hopeful Imagination, p. 5-6)

The question that runs through the communities addressed by the biblical prophets — particularly Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and second Isaiah — during the paradigm shift brought on by the destruction of the Temple and the forced emigration of the Hebrews is this: Are the promises of God strong enough to deal with the current collapse of our “known world”?

It’s a question we are still asking.

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