Vol 40 No 2
THE CHALLENGE OF POSTMODERNISM
CATHOLICISM IN THE POSTMODERN WORLD
HEALTH AND ILLNESS IN MARK’S GOSPEL: Physical or Spiritual?
J O’Neill MSC
THE MINISTRY OF THE SKILLED STRANGER: Religion and Spirituality in Public
FROM FEAR TO LOVE: Building an Australian Culture of Hospitality
NEW RELIGIOUS BOOKS BY AUSTRALASIAN AUTHORS
challenge of postmodernism
JOHN RATE MSC
AT THE RISK OF being a little simplistic, I want to suggest that the
baby boomer generation, the 1960s generationmy generationis
the last generation to have grown up in what is called the Modern World,
and that the world since the 1960s in which the generations after us have
been growing up is what is called the Postmodern World.
We say that the Modern World began with the rise of modern science in
the late sixteenth century and with the work of people like Galileo, Descartes
and Newton in the seventeenth century. At that time there was a growing
belief that science and human reason would bring enlightenment and progress
to a world which many believed was still somewhat lost in medieval superstition
and religious dogmatism. This ideological belief in the supreme value
of science lasted right up until the great cultural revolution of the
1960s and 1970s, even though cracks appeared in the system with the work
of philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche (who valued power and emotion
over thought), physicists like Einstein (whose relativity theory revised
Newtons theories about how the universe worked), and events such
as the First World War and the Great Depression (which chillingly reminded
the world that Utopia was further away than ever).
The Modern World was a very ordered world. It had a strong belief in the
universal laws of physics and mathematics and it was believed that these
disciplines would eventually unlock the universal laws which governed
everything, from the economy to the human psyche, to the course of history,
to the genesis of the cosmos itself. The moderns also believed that, thanks
to science, the world was getting to be a better place; certainly by the
nineteenth century people were speaking more and more about progress in
every sphere of life. We also believed that the human mind could discover
absolute truth, truths which were valid concerning human nature irrespective
of cultural differences. And different belief systems, different interpretations
of life developed, from Materialism and Marxism through to Capitalism
These magnificent and all-encompassing systems of thought are often called
ideologies these days, partly because we can now see their
basic flaws. For much of the modern period there were impassioned conflicts
between competing ideologies. Further, the modern world was generally
quite stable, both socially and economically, and patterns of family life
and work life didnt change that much. Finally, we can say that our
sense of identity, our sense of self, was easier to define in the old
world. Life was simpler, and everyone accepted societys norms, while
our sense of purpose was strong, bolstered by religious faith, family
I want to look briefly at these five different areas of life and compare
what it was like way back before the 1960s and 1970s with how it is today.
The Belief in Science and the Primacy of Scientific Knowledge.
When I was growing up everyone respected scientists. They were the brains
in society, and we knew that their achievements had brought so many benefits
to the human race. They had helped rid the world of so many diseases (they
had just developed an inoculation against polio in the 1950s); they had
revolutionized the methods of transport (I took my very first plane trip
in 1963 when I joined the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart). Science was
filling our homes and lives with so many mod cons (I remember
we got a washing machine and a TV in the 1950s); it had sent a sputnik
into space in 1957. Scientists had been expanding human knowledge and
improving the quality of human life for nearly three hundred years. My
Dad often used to say things like: When I was fifty I could buy
a washing-machine for about a weeks wages, but when I was in my
twenties it took several months of my pay packet to buy our first washing-machine.
However, todayin our post-modern worldwe dont have a
blind belief that science is the greatest boon to humankind. We have become
suspicious of many scientific experimentsdrug companies sometimes
bias their results, for example, to sell their products, and some discoveries,
in the wrong hands, could destroy the human race (think of biological
or nuclear warfare).
More deeply, weve come to appreciate, these days, that scientific
knowledge is only one form of knowledge. More information does not necessarily
bring more wisdom. So, its not surprising that many people have
begun to dip more into the wisdom of other cultures and religions (Buddhism,
Zen, Aboriginal spirituality, the whole New Age phenomenon), and that
they are searching for experiential knowledge and wisdom.
We all now understand that mysticism and poetry give us a unique form
of knowledge and insight unknown to science. We want our lives to be more
meaningful, and we trust our own personal experience of life more than
what any scientists might tell us life is all about. (Few people believe
these days that everything about us can be worked out by studying our
genes). People are looking for a personal wisdom that can guide them through
their ever-changing lives.
The Belief in Progress
Ive already said that my Dad strongly believed that the world was
getting better and better. We are certainly materially far better off
than we were a generation ago, and this material progress just continues.
Material prosperity has always been the main way we have measured progress,
and we have always taken great pride in our technological achievements
as we move from the Industrial Age into the Age of Technology and Communications.
We love our computers, our internet, our plasma screens, our mobile phones
However, our post-modern world has serious doubts about whether material
gain is the best way to measure whether the world is getting better and
better. In many ways life seems to be becoming more difficult for people,
and the future of our planet, from a significant number of viewpoints
(especially climate change), looks rather bleak. Here are just some examples
from several commentators:
Oliver Bennett in the UK has recently published a book called Cultural
Pessimism: Narratives of Decline in the Postmodern World. He says
that many in the West now believe our society is in irreversible decline.
While we are richer, materially speaking, than previous generations, we
arent nearly as happy or contented. Many postmoderns have lost their
sense of wonder, joy and respectlook at the rising rates of depression
and suicide, and the rather disturbing cultural fad of raunch culture.
Theres growing violence in our cities (for instance, Cronulla last
year, Redfern the year before, and Macquarie Fields before that). Our
health care systems are going backwards. Africa is worse off than it was
twenty years ago, and there is a frightening growth in fundamentalism
and political extremism. (We should not think only of Islamic countries;
we need to think also of the usually tolerant Netherlands, or the neo-cons
leading George W Bushs Government.)
John Ralston Saul, the great Canadian philosopher, calls the first talk
of his 1995 Massey Lectures (Canadas equivalent of the Boyle Lectures)
The Great Leap Backwards. Here are two quotations:
The official Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development
(OECD) figure for unemployment in the West is about 35 millionthat
is, about 10%. This has not moved down seriously for a decade. Over the
past two decades, the term unemployment has been redefined
constantlybetween 15 and 25 times in most Western countriesin
order to eliminate certain categories or to create new categories. The
purpose has been to keep the official statistics down. Rather than 35
million, the real unemployment figure is probably over 50 million.
The leader of the free world (the President of the USA) has 1.5 million
people in jail. More than double what it was fifteen years ago. A rate
second only to Russia. Put another way, 5.1 million Americans are in jail
or under judicial supervision. Triple the figures of 1980. [Isnt
that significant for the country seen as the leader of democracy?] (p.
In 1995 the Merck Family Fund in America, after a national survey and
focus groups of US citizens perspectives on consumption, published
their report, Yearning for Balance. Americans believe, firstly,
that the value system which dominates their society is wrong: materialism,
greed and selfishness are increasingly crowding out a more meaningful
set of values centred on family, responsibility, and community. Secondly,
Americans believe that materialism has overtaken society with dire consequences:
that lust for material things lies at the root of crime, family
breakdown and drug addiction. Thirdly, Americans are ambivalent about
the contradiction they facethey see that materialism is corroding
society and themselves, but they are too fearful to change their behaviour
in any significant way; they are wedded to financial security.
Finally, Americans understand that rampant consumerism is destroying the
natural environment. There is an overwhelming concern that the world left
for their children will be less safe and less secure and will have the
wrong value system. In stark contrast with the optimism of the post-war
boom, there is a pervasive sense that things can only get worse, that
the future is bleak.
Our post-modern world has lost the optimistic belief in progress and the
absolute confidence in science which was so marked in preceding generations.
The Modern World Valued Truth
I grew up in a world which still believed passionately in ideas and in
the search for absolute truth. The Catholic Church attracted many converts
by its claim to teach the absolute truth about God, and books such as
All roads lead to Rome were immensely popular. Many people around the
world believed that their belief system could explain everything, whether
they were Marxists or Materialists, Catholics or Calathumpians. There
were highly-charged debates between Catholics and Protestants and between
the ALP and the DLP. The world seemed more black and white, right and
wrong, us and them, in those days.
However, in our postmodern world, we are more concerned with love than
with truth. We have seen so many wars caused by different religions and
ideologies that we dont trust these over-arching explanations. The
Beatles heralded a new way of life: All you need is love; all you
need is love; all you need is love sweet love; all you need is love.
We also see more clearly that all the grand narratives, the grand explanations
of life, all the great isms (Materialism, Catholicism,
etc), are conditioned by the time and culture which gave them birth, and
are therefore limited, flawed, and incomplete. In fact, everything is
relative! One of the most influential moral philosophers of our day, Alasdair
MacIntyre, would say that most people have an emotive understanding of
moral truth; he defines emotivism as the doctrine that all moral
judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, attitude or feeling
(If you feel like it, do it sort of philosophyas
long as nobody gets hurt).
We are very suspicious of people who claim to know and speak the whole
truth, and we call them fundamentalists today, and we sense how close
to fanaticism they are.
We have become aware that so much of reality has been defined by white,
middle-class, males, who have dominated history-writing and Church life
and so many other areas of life for generations. The classic stories of
life have now been modified by the voices of women, the oppressed classes,
the indigenous peoples, and homosexual persons, to name but a few. We
are now conscious of living in a pluralistic society and world today,
and we can find snatches of truth everywhere. We just dont believe
that any one group has a monopoly of truth anymore. We can so easily believe
that everything is relative! So, its quite natural for a young person
to turn to anything which might help in the spiritual journeyfrom
Buddhist meditation through Hillsong and crystals to the Catholic rosary.
The Modern World was Stable
The world of the 1950s in Australia was a very stable world, and life
in Australia, despite the wars and depressions, had a certain stability
about it for quite some time. We knew who we were; we trusted our religious
and political leaders (having a deep respect for authority); and we knew
what it meant to be Australian. There was near full employment (except
in the depression times); the staid, changeless social framework meant
that our roles and expectations in life didnt change all that much.
Most people got married in their early twenties and then purchased their
home (paying for it over many years), and enjoyed the rising material
prosperity. We all had a strong sense of family life, and the roles of
men and women in both the family and social life was pretty-well defined.
However, the postmodern world is such a different place from the stable
world of the 1950s. Everything is in a state of change. We dont
know who to trust anymore; everything has a spin on it and the great moulders
of public opinion and ethical thought are now the newspapers and mass
media (and while we all admire the integrity of many investigative journalists
we also know the media thrives on sensationalism and half-truth). The
whole social framework and fabric has changed, as these few snippets show
When it comes to the institutions of society, which have traditionally
been the framework of our livesinstitutions such as the police,
the judiciary, the clergy, and the other professionswe have simply
lost a lot of faith in them. Weve come to see just how human and
fallible they are, and sometimes its been quite a shock to us all
(think of the sexual scandals in the church and corruption in certain
sections of the police force).
When it comes to the family we find many types of family todayintact
families, broken families, blended families, solo-parent families, single-sex
parents. People prefer the word partner to husband/wife as
we fast approach the time when the ratio of marrieds to never-marrieds
is fifty-fifty; partnerships are now moving out of the public domain where
they are formally recognized and registered, into the more private domain
where freedom and flexibility become new virtues, to be added to the list
that includes loyalty and commitment.
Then theres our business culture. Richard Sennett in The Culture
of the New Capitalism speaks of the growing difficulty people have in
todays business culture in finding meaning in life and a sense that
they are making a contribution to society. Companies have to re-engineer
themselves in the quest for a short-term profit to please a floating group
of shareholders. They are on the look-out for the kind of person who,
at the drop of a hat, will repudiate the past ways of doing things and
embrace the short-term opportunity. In a universe of permanent flux, we
are no longer valuable for what we have accomplished; were valuable
for what we might be able to do in the future. (Cf. Will Hutton, The Guardian
Weekly, vol. 174, 2006, no. 13, p. 14.)
In the field of employment we know that people no longer expect to stay
in the same job all through life. Loyalty to the company is no longer
a value, and job insecurity is a fact of life. Many in full-time employment
are over-stressed, while many can only find part-time employment.
One final comment. Hugh Mackay writes in his 1999 work Turning Point.
Australians choosing their future: Growing up in a period of accelerating
change, the main lesson learned by the rising generation of young Australians
has been to expect change. Because they expect tomorrow to be different
from today, they are inclined to postpone commitments, to wait and see,
and to hang loose. Whether its a set of religious beliefs,
a political party, a sexual partner, a commercial brand, a course of study
or a job, this is a generation that is saying, lets keep our
options open. (p. 117.)
Our Sense of Self
When I was growing up I had a reasonably strong sense of self. I was created
by God as a unique human being with an immortal soul that would last forever.
I was born into post-war Australia, and I could describe myself adequatelyI
belonged to a lower middle class family of English-Irish background; I
was Catholic, a Melbournian, a Collingwood supporter, a DLP follower,
and a lover of literature and philosophy. I wanted to become a priest
who was also a school teacher.
However, the post-modern person is less sure of him/her self. It was Sigmund
Freud who uncovered a whole level of self beneath the level of consciousness;
he saw consciousness as the tip of the iceberg, and a whole world of drives,
feelings and energy existed in our unconscious and influenced us in ways
we did not understand. He believed the self was a formless, silent, chaotic
sea of desires that needed to be tamed by the censorious ego. Freuds
pupil, Carl Jung, believed the unconscious was more purposeful and positive,
driving the individual towards integration and inner peace as life progressed.
Michel Foucault believed that the self was a fiction, a construct that
evolves and shifts, and which can be reinvented and rewritten (little
wonder we sometimes hear of people re-inventing themselves). As people
doubt more and more the religious dimension of life, they doubt more and
more who they are.
Further, as we lose our sense of belonging to a community, and within
a particular religious and civic tradition, and as we focus more and more
on our individual freedom and choices, we become rather anxious and lonely
individuals. We imagine we have to create our own meaning in a universe
which seems so unfriendly. Its almost everyone for him/her self.
So, we sometimes take our identity from what everyone else thinks is chic,
or if we become bored with what we are doing we might feel the urge to
re-invent ourselves as some new persona with a whole new identity (dont
we love make-overs?). Our contemporary world is fascinated by individual
human stories (look at the popularity of Australian Story), but we often
focus on the bizarre and petty (Oprah, Jerry Springer, Desperate Housewives).
If the only thing that really matters is my own private life than, as
Richard Rohr says,
those issues that make me special, inferior, superior, right, wrong, handicapped
are the reference point for everything.
Many people live their whole lives at this level of anecdote and nurtured
self-image, without ever connecting with the deeper/larger levels of meaning.
They are what they have done and what has been done to them. Nothing more.
You can see how fragile and unprotected, and therefore constantly striving
this self will be. It is very easily offended, fearful, and therefore
often posturing and pretentious. (Hope Against Darkness (2000) p.84.)
However, isnt it true that most people, especially the young, need
clear boundaries, crave for ideals to follow, and grow in maturity, humanity,
and generosity, through becoming part of a community which values time
for reflection and some action in the area of social justice?
To conclude Id like to refer to a recent survey of young Australians
conducted by the Christian Research Association; a report of this study
appeared in the April 3rd edition of the Sydney Morning Herald. Chief
researcher, Philip Hughes, said:
What surprised me was the high proportion of people who just dont
know what to believe. Well over a third say We are just unsure.
Most young people think theres something out there, some sort of
greater force. Accompanying that is the sense that it doesnt matter
much anyway, what I call whateverism. Whether you believe
or you dont believe is no big deal either way, and you can change
your mind from one minute to the next, whatever.
He also said:
Theres been a decline in clarity about belief in God, linked
to a postmodern loss of confidence in the idea of truth. These beliefs
do affect how people live, the way they deal with crises. To the extent
that theres a great deal of vagueness and uncertainty, it doesnt
give people much to stand on when life is difficult.
He also made a final point which I found a little worrying, namely that
Australians are more likely than Americans to accept other paranormal
beliefs such as reincarnation, astrology, psychics and communication with
It would seem that there are a lot of people who are a bit lost our there
in this postmodern world. We know that many are tempted to try the secure
haven of fundamentalism, but isnt the challenge for us who are steeped
in the wisdom of Catholic life to show how our faith and practice can
make an extraordinary difference to peopleif only we can make the
right connections with them?
Fr John Rate MSC has spent most of his active
life in parish work, with special interests in Marriage Encounter and
similar Chuck Gallagher-style renewal movements in the Church. He is currently
Parish Priest of Randwick, Sydney.