Dr. John Young 10/28/07
Unitarian Universalist Church of Jacksonville
Limits of Modernism
We, Unitarian Universalists, enjoy understanding ourselves as the truly modern form of spirituality or religion. In philosophical terms, this has its ironies since the modern era tended to only value facts, marginalized the whole realm of spirituality, and seemed to increasingly leave no place for faith. For those of us who intend to base their lives only on the facts of science and to savor pure secularity alone this is completely satisfying, but for many of us that is not adequate.
There are still significant groups of people who remain pre-modernists, wishing to reject large aspects of modernism and seeking to return to givens of the pre-modern era. For instance, some of these pre-moderns demand a literal interpretation of the Bible, reject evolution and other scientific discoveries, and/or demand a return to traditional family values, a fortress America, or a real Christian nation. Many modernists still seem to believe that America’s divisions can be summed up by pre-moderns and moderns.
Most of you have probably heard about post-modernism as a school of thought, but you may not know much more about it than the name. Modernism is perceived by post-modern philosophers and ethicists as a mindset of the past and as an inadequate ideological platform for the future. If postmodernism is correct, many Unitarian Universalists may have some serious catching up to do philosophically and ethically. Being the thoroughly modern religion will not be enough.
The modern era began with Renaissance humanism and philosophical Enlightenment. It overcame the Dark Ages by lifting up rationality, science, democracy, entrepreneurial opportunities, and growing secularity. Modernity increasingly polarized and took sides, choosing facts over values, is over ought, science over faith, politics over religion, private over public, ends over means, and independence over dependence. Beginning with Galileo and climaxing in the middle of the 20th century, modernism focused on sensual happiness, a mechanistic view of nature which believed in technological and scientific solutions to every human problem and tended to deny a divine presence in the world. Modernism also developed its own extremes of: individualism, anthropocentrism, patriarchy, consumerism, nationalism, and militarism.
Many of the early post-modernists were such effective critics of modernism: deconstructing its shibboleths and demonstrating the relativity of its certitudes that they fell into nihilism and anarchy by eliminating all truth claims. Post-moderns certainly do not want or intend to return to pre-modernism with its superstitions, dogmatism, tribalism, and lack of intellectual credibility. As we rushed into the 21st century, it seemed as though pre-modernism was clearly an outworn and passé philosophy; modernism was teetering under the weight of its own inadequacies and obsessions and post-modernism was spinning into a downward nihilistic spiral of its own relativisms and deconstructions.
Into this philosophical black hole rushed the constructive postmodernists. I want to suggest today that the philosophical future of our movement needs to embrace constructive postmodernist constructs and re-build upon the renewed school of value ethics.
Constructive postmodernism embraces science but rejects the scientism that supposes that only the data of the natural sciences can alone be allowed to contribute to the construction of our public worldview. It builds upon our technological advantages, but it refuses to worship our machines or to try to run human beings or the good Earth as mechanisms. It is intent on salvaging positive meaning for the self, history, reason, and truth from modernism, but also to salvage a sense of our sacred connections with rest of nature, our cosmic connections, and an experienced and relevant sense of divinity from pre-modernism.
Constructive postmodernism rejects the inadequacies of both the pre-modern and modern worldviews and argues that we can build upon the remaining healthy elements of both pre-modern and modern perspectives. The family should not be patriarchal, authoritarian, or violent, but we do need responsible and loving families. Truth is probabilistic and reality is evolving, but we can learn to effectively seek and practice truthfulness and reality does need to be lived empathetically as well as pragmatically and altruistically as well as democratically. Science needs to serve humanity instead of people worshipping science, and technologies need to become humane and sustainable instead of trivializing people or polluting the Earth.
As modernism replaced superstitions with rationality, dogmas with tested scientific theories, and tribalism with nationalism, so constructive postmodernism is complementing individualism with effective communities, anthropocentrism with ecological environmentalism, patriarchy with gender and generational power-sharing, consumerism with sustainable cooperative productivity, nationalism with internationalism and integrated localism, and militarism with nonviolent activism and assertive democracy.
The ethics of the pre-modern era was an ethics of rules, with a single dogmatic right set of answers, which were considered the preserve of only ‘the saved, the civilized or the truly human’ minority. The best ethics of the modern era were still an ethics of rules, but the rules were gradually extended toward a more universal humanity. In the later stages of the modern era, an ethics of rules was partially replaced by a utilitarian ethics whose standard was the greatest good for the greatest number. In practice, this was still applied by an invisible economic hand that favored the rich and powerful or a majority that was usually effectively dominated by those who were already the haves in their particular societies.
In the later half of the 20th century, America and some other nations were evolving toward an ethics of rights, in which an ever greater proportion of the population was at least minimally empowered, and there was a growing sense of entitlement. Ironically, in many cases, this actually increased the sense of dominators and victims as it simultaneously rewarded the tenacious and hard-working among the formerly oppressed.
Since the beginning of humanity, even before language or civilization, it is fair to assume there have been people of character, individuals who practiced lives of virtue. Constructive modern thinking argues for the needed return of value ethics, ethics based on personal character and founded upon experienced and lived value principles. Certainly, we should not return to a set of dogmatic rule ethics that leave out many or most people from its protections and advantages, nor can or should we try to unilaterally impose a single culture’s current standards upon our global village. In order for the Earth and humanity to be advanced and sustained, there will need to be shared rules and governing principles, and we have found no better basically political process than majority rule of utilitarian’s the greatest good of the greatest number. However, we need to preserve the rights of individual conscience to oppose unjust laws and to protect legitimate minority rights against tyrannical or violent majorities.
We need to enrich our present ethics of rights with an ethics of care, to empower the strengthening of individual virtue and character with more emphasis upon empathy, cooperation, collaboration, and altruism to complement our late 20th century obsessions with entitlement, individualism, competition, and the short-sighted focus on pleasure. Justice is accomplished by learning and practicing understanding and love. Fairness and fulfillment are accomplished by learning and practicing cooperation and compassion. Peace of mind is accomplished by learning and practicing humility and generosity.