Is there yet a way to seize its promise?
It was the 1980s, the age of Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America.” Like any self-respecting grad student, I was mourning for America. In the aftermath of the 1960s, radical visions had given way to American dreams. Reagan triumphed by affirming the old truths of rugged individualism and militant anti-communism. Disgruntled “tenured radicals,” increasingly alienated from mainstream politics, filled the university. In those sheltered groves a new “postmodern” radicalism began to eclipse the old modernist, Marxist ideal of political revolution: Language, not economics, shaped reality; the means of reproduction replaced the means of production as the privileged site of social struggle.
The battle lines drawn in Reagan’s America have only grown sharper. I never believed in trickle-down economics, but I have lived to see something like trickle-down culture. Esoteric debates once confined to the seminar room are now front-page news. Local school boards debate the merits of Critical Race Theory. Conservative priests thunder against postmodernism from the pulpit. The secular dimension of our public culture has become more aggressively secular, the religious dimension more unapologetically anti-intellectual. Secularists have their own anti-intellectualism, particularly in matters of sex, but tu quoque arguments do little to move us beyond this impasse.
In the academia of the late 1980s and 1990s, people of faith had reason to believe in a different trajectory. Postmodernism, in many ways just as secular as modernism itself, seemed to offer an opening for faith. If modern rationality no longer rested on objective foundations and all truth was simply a linguistic construct, Christianity—or any faith—would seem to have as much epistemological legitimacy as any of the modern philosophical systems that had vied with each other as successors to Christianity during the modern era. In my own field of history, this opening was most influentially explored by George Marsden, whose work shaped the debate on the nature of “Christian scholarship” throughout this period. Current has featured Marsden himself as well Jay Green on the legacy of this debate. Suffice it to say that school boards today are not debating the merits of George Marsden, and conservative priests are not inspired to celebrate a renaissance of Christian scholarship from the pulpit.
Could things have turned out differently? Can things be any different? If the scholarly trajectory of the last twenty years is as much a reflection of institutional inertia as intellectual failure, the intellectual failure is, nonetheless, still real. Christians have never really taken the postmodern bull by the horns, and the fact is that there is quite a lot of residual modernism in secular intellectual circles. What Pope Benedict XVI identified as the “tyranny of relativism” may be tyrannical but it is far from relativistic. Critical Race Theory may be “postmodern” in the sense of moving from the white male subject to more racially and ethnically diverse subjects. But the argument that racial inequality is structural is thoroughly modernist both in its assertion of the norm of equality and the assumption that we can clearly identify the structural mechanism of inequality.
In the end, postmodern “relativism” continually smuggles in absolute norms and values in a way that would never be allowed for Christians. Marsden once called upon Christian scholars to “play by the rules” of the academy in the name of responsible intellectual citizenship. These rules, however, are normative as well as procedural, with secular values of freedom and equality guiding the work most scholars do even in the field of “religious” history. Is it too much to ask that secular scholars acknowledge the double standard?
How might we make good in our public life on the promise of postmodernism? How might we imagine a move toward a more honest single standard? My proposal—a modest one, as it is rooted in existing academic categories—is this: Simply apply the “religious studies” model to all the humanities. The easiest transition would be in the discipline of philosophy. One could simply rename the field “philosophical studies” without requiring professors to change anything in how they teach the technicalities of their philosophical tradition, except that they would begin each course by making clear to their students that that they are not teaching truth so much as simply teaching what certain thinkers have thought to be the truth. They would then be in the same position as a responsible religious studies scholar explaining the different views on the nature of Christ in the early Church: intellectually rigorous yet agnostic on the substance of the issue. Kant, Hegel, existentialism, and analytic philosophy would be presented as distinct traditions—as philosophical denominations, if you will—that simply offer different narratives of truth that will appeal to different sensibilities.
Some might object that we have something like this already in the ever-expanding field of “cultural studies.” I will concede that objection once I hear cultural studies scholars debating racial equality with the same agnostic detachment expected of religious studies scholars discussing Jesus Christ. Perhaps it might be time to refashion the humanities in general under the discipline of “truth studies.” This would weed out the residual modernism that asserts empirically unverifiable “truths” such as racial equality and allow for a more detached study of all the topics currently covered in cultural studies and philosophy. A radically historicized understanding of “race” would then approach “equality” as one among many possible frameworks for understanding race relations.
This refashioning is highly unlikely, given academia’s attachment to the fundamental continuities between modernism and postmodernism. At the heart of that continuity lies an eighteenth-century narrative of universal, public reason vs. particular, private faith. What counts as “universal” has, to be sure, undergone historical development. White male public reason has expanded to include groups previously excluded on the basis of race, gender and sexuality; as I argued in A World Made Safe for Differences, this reflects less an openness to increasing diversity than an ability to assimilate these groups into the norms of modern white male subjectivity, with its premium on individual autonomy. Traditional Christianity has often proved the limit point of that assimilation. As a consequence, almost any kind of Christianity in the public sphere is enough to send a self-styled postmodern running for a powdered wig to exclaim: Écrasez l’infâme!
Christian intellectuals have largely accepted this separate-but-equal status as the price to pay for getting along in the modern/postmodern world. If so much of what passes for public Christianity is, dare I say, deplorable, it is in part due to the timidity of Christian intellectuals. A truly postmodern Christian provocation as modest as “philosophical studies” would require some suitable institutional space. Secular interlocutors would be as difficult to find as Christian hosts. Both would no doubt fear to lose the little they have.
Christopher Shannon is associate professor of history at Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia. He is the author of several works on U.S. cultural history and American Catholic history, including the forthcoming American Pilgrimage: A Historical Journey Through Catholic Life in a New World, due out in the spring of 2022 from Ignatius Press.