Sunday, August 29, 2010

Dostoevsky, Prophecy and the 20th Century

In his masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov Fyodor Dostoevsky explores the consequences of the atheism of the modern scientific age. He famously deduced that "without immortality, all things are permissible." Around the same time as Nietszche, Dostoevsky concluded that, if this was to be the paradigm that shaped the modern world then, taken to its logical ends, the modern world was a rudderless ship headed inexorably into an absolute abyss of despair previously unknown to humankind. Any modern scientific-minded man reading Dostoevsky's work at the time -- or Nietszche's for that matter -- might have taken this to be absurd alarmism. Fantastical melodrama by a passionate artist. The product of the overly active imagination of a devout religious person. Surely humanity need not cling to ancient superstitions in order to maintain moral order and fashion a just, tolerant, free society. Right?

The Brothers Karamazov was written in 1880, just before the start of the 20th century which was the bloodiest century in the history of mankind. Death camps, gulags, communist killing fields, the unleashing of the atomic bomb. The 20th century saw modernity reaching its logical conclusions at an astonishing rate. The rise and reign of various brutal regimes fueled by various fundamentally anti-human ideologies was not an incidental occurrence (and neither was the fact that the opponents of such regimes were, primarily, Western Christian nations). It was not simply an unfortunate coincidence that a bunch of brutal dictators happened to rise to power as technological advances made mass killing more efficient--though that certainly played a significant role. The stunning thing about the 20th century is not the insanity of it, but that there was no insanity to it. It was the direct outworking of the cold scientific rationalism of modernity. It wasn't modernity run amok, but it was modernity taken to its proper logical ends. It's this fact that separates the horrors of the 20th century from those of the rest of human history. That and the sheer scale of those horrors. And it was precisely this inevitable conclusion that Dostoevsky foretold with such insight and precision.

Modern man -- perhaps subconsciously recognizing that the 20th century was not an accidental by-product of 'modernity', but in fact was a direct outworking of its fundamental premises -- was quick to search for a new paradigm. That new paradigm was to be 'postmodernity'. Epistemologically the postmodern paradigm says that traditional canons of truth and knowledge no longer hold sway, as those canons themselves are not subject to verification but rest upon various unfalsifiable presuppositions. It says that all metanarratives of 'truth' are suspect, including the scientific foundationalism of modernity. Postmodernity rejects traditional metaphysics.

As I have written elsewhere the postmodern critique of modernity isn't exactly something that modernity itself was not already aware of. Foundationalism always rested on various presuppositions, and was never assumed to be an avenue to absolute truth. However, the postmodern critique does serve to bring this fact to the surface and expose it, where many modernists would prefer that it remain hidden from view. As such the postmodern critique is not without value, but I'm hesitant to say that it really constitutes the large paradigm shift that many claim that it does. As David Hart says, "perhaps postmodernity is simply modernity made fully self-aware." Indeed.

All of which is to say that the postmodern man hasn't successfully evaded modernity. We are still very much a modern world, and especially a modern society. The only true way to avoid the undesirable consequences of modernity is to recognize what was wrong with modernity -- as practiced -- in the first place. And it wasn't its epistemology. It was its incidental -- not contingent -- rejection of the Christian God. Of course modernity would claim that such a rejection is merely an outworking of its scientific rationalism, but nothing could be further from the truth. Nothing about the modern epistemological paradigm was ever incompatible with the Christian claims of truth, once that paradigm is properly understood and its own inherent limits and boundaries are clearly delineated.

But that is not to say that a previous acceptance of the Christian God always resulted in a culture free of violence or iniquity. Certainly not. It is to say that the degree to which Christ is truly declared, proclaimed and followed has a direct correlation to the upward moral mobility of society. The 20th century, being the culmination of a widespread European rejection of the Christian narrative of truth, revealed the consequences of that rejection. And while much of Europe, probably recoiling from the horrors of the 20th century, has embraced a brand of 'moralism' or 'humanism' -- which is essentially a co-opting of Christianity, sans Christ -- and in so doing has tempered some of the more egregious manifestations of modernity, ultimately only a return to Christ himself, full and in total, is the only way to put to bed at last the ugly specter of modernity. So it is up to us to show that what they have decided to call 'humanism', is really a stripped down, neutered version of Christianity, and that it is actually this shadow of Christianity that is granting them some degree of respite from their otherwise doomed existence.

I have the dubious 'privilege' of viewing the events of the 20th century in hindsight, and making what I feel is a somewhat insightful analysis of their significance. The amazing thing about the work of Dostoevsky's, beyond the obvious force of the art itself, is that it was utterly prophetic in its moral vision. He was able to see what I see with even greater clarity and without the benefit of hindsight. Through a glass clearly.

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