Monday, September 14, 2009

A Haunted Age

I am often asked about the age we live in. What is it that defines our age? The modern age is fading into the distance, and postmodernity seems incomplete as a description. The modern human spirit yearns for a distinct linearity to its history. One age to another. Progression. Or Regression. In the end, they serve the same purpose.

Much is written about the modern age. Whether it began with the rise of Renaissance individualism, Enlightenment rationalism, or Industrial capitalism seems inconsequential. Ultimately, the modern age was a merging of multiple threads. I have written before about some of the characteristics of the modern age. Perhaps what interests me most about the modern age is the emergent need for rational justification. There were no longer any givens. Every claim, every value, every story needed a justification. (Un)fortunately, the appetite of of justification is insatiable. The Enlightenment hunger for knowledge created its worst nightmare - skepticism.

Even God was devoured. As such, God did not just die on the cross. As every proof regressed into infinity, God died on the as well. All rational justification could place after the therefore sign was empty space. Where God once was, only the space of loss was left.

However, we should resist the urge to claim that the modern age was simply defined by epistemological trends. The blending threads of nationalism, individualism, capitalism and rationalism led to a singularity - triumphalism. Progress was inevitable. The juggernaut of progress would crush any dissent. Progress is only possible with one goal in mind. Every other potential is left a corpse on the ascent. Triumphalism tells us that we can climb only upon the dead. Unfortunately, upon our ascent, with millions of skeletons beneath us, we found nothing in the clouds. The heavens were empty, God was not there. God was among the corpses beneath us. For in the end, the only goal progress has in mind is nihilism.

As such, the modern age was not simply structured around justification. To some extent, philosophers and theologians have been aware of the problem of evil for a long time. However, never before had the problem of evil been so present. Suffering, loss and tragedy, like a flood, threatened to overflow and overwhelm the modern myth of progress. We could no longer be so callous to so much loss. As our understanding of progress crumbled, as we looked down at the corpses beneath us, we became overwhelmed by nausea and vertigo. Meaning itself was threatened.

Depending on who you talk to, postmodernity began at various points in the 20th century. The term itself began in architecture. Postmodernity as a term has been incredibly amorphous. To some it means reaching into the past to find solutions to present dilemmas. To others it means the death of the metanarrative and the loss of illusionary unity. It can also indicate the strange mix-match of contradictory stories, fashions, and tastes (pluralism) even within individuals. Most postmodern theorists agree that the thread that holds the views together is the claim that modernism is inadequate and/or harmful to our current lives.

Many critics of postmodernism claim that its greatest weakness is betrayed in its very name. The term post-modernism seems to indicate an incomplete dependency on modernism, that postmodernism is anemic and cannot stand on its own. In other words, the critics say, postmodernism is not an independent age.

Nor should it be. We should immediately be skeptical of such criticism. After all, it utilizes (problematic) modern categories to judge postmodernism. To modernism, dependence and relationality are faults. To modernism, history travels by singular, linear ages. To modernism, complexity indicates deception.

We should (rightly) discard such criticism as ethically damaging. We are relational, complex creatures that live in a relational, complex world. History is not a singular thread, but rather a complex, patchwork quilt. However, perhaps what is of most interest here is not the criticism itself, per se, but rather the weight such criticism holds with (post)modern audiences. Modern appeals still function in our age. Modern appeals function in a complex relationship with postmodern appeals. The two are mutually dependent on each other. Modernism is not dead. Instead, we live in a multinarrative tapestry. A tapestry still in the process of being woven.

We have not escaped modernism. As we stood in the clouds, rotting corpses beneath us, we still had the urge to climb further. Perhaps we would find salvation one cloud higher. After all, the myth of a linear progression of ages is a modern concept. We cannot state that we have progressed from the modern age to the postmodern age without remaining in the modern age. The ghosts of modernism still haunt us.

(As an aside to my Christian friends, before we are tempted to decry the rise of secularism, religious pluralism and the demise of Christian prominence, we would do well to remember that Christianity still is the dominant thread in the Western (even the world) tapestry. Like modernism, we may pretend that Christianity has faded into the past, but ultimately, Christianity is still dominant. For example, in order to be a successful politician in the United States today, one, effectively, must be a Christian. Or, consider all the (ridiculous) fear that Obama is a Muslim. So what if he was? Political/Cultural/Religious power are all intertwined. As Christians, we are still privileged. The ghosts of Christianity, too, still haunt us).

Perhaps this is the limit of the term 'postmodern.' The term is useful, and while I happily describe myself as a postmodern, the term summons little but the pragmatic. If we are to properly listen to the ghosts of our age, we need new eikons, new images to conjure up our ghosts, to give voices to our (silent) haunting. Modern triumphalism might have the power to kill, but it does not have the power to exorcise the ghosts behind and beneath us. We can take hope in that. We have much to listen to.

Our hauntings are always modal - our ghosts always speak of what could be and what could have been. While modern notions of progress desire to separate possibility from loss, our ghosts speak to their connection. There is always a fine line between what could be and what wasn't. Possibility and loss are intimately connected; both push us further onward, not in the name of progress, but rather in the name of justice. Justice for our ghosts.

It has been pointed out to me that my written work has taken on a distinct hauntotheological tone in recent posts. I have to admit that I am intrigued by the image and gesture of the eikon "ghost." However, we should resist a notion of progress even here. I imagine if we looked back through my earlier work, ghosts would be present (in haunting absence) even there. I would also imagine that ghosts are not unique to our age; tragedy is basically human. All we can do is find the voice of our ghosts.

A haunted age is a potential age. We live within both. The ghosts of God(s) and tragedy are beneath us, before us, behind us, above us, within us. Never purely present, our ghosts haunt us by what we have lost, and push us forward. We cannot simply remain within our haunting, and yet we will always be haunted. Our (silent) ghosts speak, and we not only hear loss but a need for justice. The form of justice depends on the particular ghost. The justice of God's ghost will always be just beyond our grasps, and yet we will (we must) continue to grasp anyway. For our haunted age is both what we have lost and what might be. The promise of justice is potential. And in a world immersed within the pure presence of (post)modernism, within what is, within pure being, we feel incomplete. Our ghosts continue to speak. We continue to hear what wasn't and what could be. And ultimately, that is the age we live in. A haunted age. An age that wasn't and simply could be.

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