JOURNAL OF INTERDISCIPLINARY STUDIES
Vol. XXVIII 2016: 1-18
THE POSTMODERN CHALLENGE:
IN SEARCH OF NORMATIVE STANDARDS
Institute for Interdisciplinary Research
The thesis of this essay is that the central postmodern challenge is to recover stable, objective normative standards that presuppose cultural renewal and liberal arts education building on the classical paideia of educating the whole person. Humans possess an innate moral sense that requires nurturing and developing to encompass both résumé and eulogy virtues as proposed by David Brooks’ The Road to Character. Wisdom-seeking traditions aim at self-mastery, but need tempering by neo-Kantian epistemological modesty to eschew utopias in their quest for transcendence, recalling the Augustinian conception of humanity’s fallen nature, the need for community, the aspiration for good works in the City of Man, and the soul’s yearning for redemption and salvation in the City of God. The essay concludes with the “Angel Initiative” as an example of practical wisdom that reflects Brooks’ humility code, the wisdom-seeking traditions’ emphasis on the Way, and Christianity’s promise as “a religion of second chances.”
FREEDOM, VIRTUE AND FIRST PRINCIPLES
A growing consensus holds that the major postmodern challenge endangers both freedom and virtue and, thus, the realization of full human potential in community. Postmodern subjectivity undermines all objective normative standards, thus offering no stable guides for distinguishing between right and wrong, good and evil. That freedom and virtue are intimately related, and that they depend on each other for their flourishing, is one of the great themes explored in this Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies. This great thematic circle also highlights the signal importance and relevance of the social sciences and humanities in exploring questions of value that Max Weber once called “the stepchild of our discipline” (1949: 14). The question of value involves the conundrum of understanding what it means to be fully human. This understanding, in turn, is the major focus of a liberal arts education, one that aspires to John Henry Newman’s ideal of a “true enlargement of the mind,” ennobling the heart, and fine-tuning the soul, recalling the classical paideia of educating the whole person, body, mind, and soul (Hittinger 1999). Paradoxically, understanding what it means to be fully human requires orienting inquiry beyond mere human subjectivity in search of stable, objective normative standards reflected by absolutes in nature and human nature. Alas, as William D. Gairdner points out, the postmodern temper trivializes all objective standards, reducing them to but human subjectivity, so that: “Ironically, relativism has become our only absolute” (2007: x).
In brief, the postmodern era brackets “the truth about these permanent things of the world and of human existence” (Gairdner 2007: x). The absence of first principles or “the permanent things” impairs our understanding of both the strengths and weaknesses of the human condition. The lack of knowledge of first principles also impedes human flourishing in society that requires vibrant communities–the bedrock of civil society. As Gairdner avers, po-mo’s avoidance of fundamentals, reflected in absolutes in nature and human nature, also frustrates the formation of community (2007: xii). In an age of unbridled individualism and subjectivity, people may be constrained to “bowl alone” (Putnam 2000).
What is needed, then, is the rediscovery of a transcendent order of universal truths and moral absolutes. The rediscovery of first principles is crucial for the full realization of human potential that requires both freedom (individual choice) and virtue (moral action). As M. Stanton Evans put it, “affirmation of a transcendent order is not only compatible with individual autonomy, but the condition of it; and that a skeptical view of man’s nature not only permits political liberty but demands it” (2015: 86).
The postmodern challenge is all the more daunting because it has inherited what Jacques Maritain calls “the peculiar vice of classical humanism,” namely, “an anthropocentric conception of man and of culture” (2011: 3). The crisis of modern times, according to Maritain, is an impoverished, secular view of human nature as “self-enclosed or self-sufficient,” which is akin to self-divinization (2011: 3). In brief, modernity and postmodernity have forsaken the quest for supra-rational truths and transcendence–the roadmap for human flourishing. The (post-)modern project of a secular anthropocentric humanism ultimately fails man. This is so because
Prayer, divine love, suprarational truths, the idea of sin and of grace, the evangelical beatitudes, the necessity of asceticism, of contemplation, of the way of the Cross,–all this is either put in parenthesis or is once for all denied. In the concrete government of human life, reason is isolated from the supra-rational (Maritain 2011: 3).
We find ourselves, then, at a major juncture of postmodernity, bereft of transcendental truths and objective moral criteria for gauging human action, while science and technology, embedded in a commercial culture, vie for human allegiance. In Maritain’s apt summary of the human predicament in (post-)modernity, “Having given up God so as to be self-sufficient, man has lost track of his soul. He looks in vain for himself; he turns the universe upside down trying to find himself; he finds masks and, behind the masks, death” (2011: 4). To mend man’s brokenness, Maritain proposes an integral or Christian humanism: “Such a humanism, which considers man in the wholeness of his natural and supernatural being, and which sets no a priori limit to the descent of the divine into man, we may call the humanism of the Incarnation” (2011: 9).
THE ROAD TO CHARACTER
One of the most compelling narratives concerning the central challenge of postmodernity is undoubtedly David Brooks’ finely-crafted The Road to Character (2015). Cast in the form of a series of biographies, the Brooks study is a morality tale told with exceptional powers of observation and an almost brutal honesty regarding the polyvalence of human nature as a canopy stretched between earth and heaven. That Brooks’ endeavor is a morality tale is evident already by glancing at its table of contents that, instead of listing the subjects of biographies, indicates desired attributes on the road to character: the summoned self, self-conquest, struggle, self-mastery, dignity, love, ordered love, self-examination.
Reading Brooks’ magnum opus–a New York Times bestseller–is like re-reading the classics in the form of engaging biographical sketches. The major purpose, and a rare achievement, is that Brooks is able to retrieve a lost moral vocabulary in holding up a mirror to human strengths and weaknesses. In brief, the Brooks study revives and confirms the aspirations of this journal in championing a classical paideia of educating the whole person. Brooks’ narrative is at heart a morality tale because it instructs how to grow not only intellectually and socially, but morally and spiritually. Brooks does this marvelously by drawing on an older Biblical tradition of moral realism–what he calls “the crooked timber” tradition. This essentially Christian metaphysic of moral realism views human nature as a bundle of possibilities for both good and evil, and emphasizes human brokenness, weaknesses, and sins.
Via biographies, Brooks explores the long road to character that requires humility, the Augustinian ordering of loves, confronting one’s weaknesses, struggling with sin, and aspiring to the transcendental virtues in the City of God, while serving and working for the common good in the City of Man. The great moral tale told by Brooks focuses on the tension inherent in the human condition between striving for worldly success–or résumé virtues–and aspiring to become a better human being–or acquiring eulogy virtues. Brooks gives credit to Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, who notes two accounts of creation in Genesis that brought forth a human nature divided between the external, career-oriented, Adam I, and the internal Adam II, who “wants to have a serene inner character, a quiet but solid sense of right and wrong–not only to do good, but to be good” (2015: xii).
Brooks insists that we can “build virtue in ourselves and be of service to the world” (2015: xv). This reflects the Augustinian notion that religious believers possess a dual citizenship, that they are citizens in both cities–the earthly City of Man and the eschatological City of God that is both immanent and transcendent (Speck 1996). However, as Brooks points out, we lack a “strategy to build character,” and without that, not only our “inner life but also your external life will eventually fall to pieces” (2015: xiii). The remedy is a strategy to retrieve an older moral ecology, along with a pre-modern vocabulary:
It was a cultural and intellectual tradition, the “crooked timber” tradition, that emphasized our own brokenness. It was a tradition that demanded humility in the face of our own limitations. But it was also a tradition that held that each of us has the power to confront our own weaknesses, tackle our own sins, and that in the course of this confrontation with ourselves we build character (Brooks 2015: xiv).
Brooks’ handbook on building virtue and character is capped by a Humility Code that emphasizes self-discipline, self-mastery, and habits of self-effacement, summed up in 15 postulates:
(1) We don’t live for happiness, we live for holiness.
(2) The long road to character begins with an accurate understanding of our nature–that we are flawed, yet
(3) We are also splendidly endowed.
(4) In the struggle against your own weaknesses, humility is the greatest virtue.
(5) Pride is the central vice.
(6) Once the necessities for survival are satisfied, the struggle against sin and for virtue is the central drama of life.
(7) Character is built in the course of your inner confrontation that requires self-discipline.
(8) Lust, fear, vanity, gluttony–things that are short term–lead us astray, while courage, honesty, humility–that we call character–endure over the long term.
(9) No person can achieve self-mastery on their own. We all need redemptive assistance from outside–God, family, friends, ancestors, rules, traditions, institutions, and exemplars.
(10) We are all ultimately saved by grace.
(11) Defeating weakness often means quieting the self, and requires habits of self-effacement–reticence, modesty, restraint, temperance, respect.
(12) Wisdom starts with epistemological modesty. The world is im-measurably complex and the private stock of reason is small.
(13) No good life is possible unless it is organized around a vocation.
(14) The best leader tries to lead along the grain of human nature rather than go against it.
(15) The person who successfully struggles against weakness and sin may or may not become rich and famous, but that person will become mature (2015: 262-67).
It is encouraging that the truths concerning human nature espoused by Brooks are set in a framework endeavoring to re-connect the horizontal and vertical dimensions of human existence symbolized by Augustine’s two cities–the City of Man and the City of God. While Brooks’ narrative is rooted in a Christian metaphysic, its moral-ethical truths predate Christianity, as C. S. Lewis acknowledged (1996: 46-47). Curiously, Brooks’ morality tale is in the great epic tradition of the Quest for the Holy Grail (Gruenwald 1997). Brooks’ characters ultimately struggle not only to conquer human weaknesses and sins, but aspire to perfect their souls via redemption and salvation that requires forgiveness, love, and accepting God’s salvific gift in Jesus Christ (Gruenwald 2007).
A CULTURE OF DISTRACTION
Brooks’ “Pilgrim’s Progress” account of the road to character is anchored in three basic propositions: (1) that each individual is splendidly endowed, but the inherent polyvalence of human nature confronts everyone with a moral drama of struggling against one’s weaknesses and sins; (2) it is a universal moral drama in that all humans share a common brokenness, so that we are all sinners together; and (3) while confronting one’s weaknesses is the central drama of each individual’s life, no one may achieve self-mastery on one’s own, but everyone needs “redemptive assistance from outside–from God, family, friends, ancestors, rules, traditions, institutions, and exemplars” (2015: 265).
The invocation of “redemptive assistance from outside” implicates culture. Culture is a peculiar distinction of the human species created in the imago dei (Gen 2:7). No other animal is known for a “culture.” But, what is culture? In its broadest conceptualization, “culture might include a society’s institutional structures–political, economic, and legal–as well as its values and beliefs as reflected in art, poetry, music, literature, painting, sculpture, architecture, design, drama, speech, comedy, criticism, news, and even the more mundane production and consumption of goods and services insofar as they reflect a total way of life, knowledge, and feeling” (Gruenwald 1978: 77-78). Famously, Alfred L. Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn distilled some common themes among 164 diverse definitions of culture: “Culture is a product; is historical; includes ideas, patterns, and values; is selective; is learned; is based upon symbols; and is an abstraction from behavior and the products of behavior” (Tucker 1973: 174).
In brief, culture envelops all individuals and societies. Culture is all-pervasive, like the air we breathe. Yet, different societies reflect different articulations of culture across time and space. In this sense, all cultures are relative (Buswell 1989). Nonetheless, some cultural expressions are more conducive to human flourishing than others if they contain supra-cultural absolutes. Thus, Brooks is quite perceptive and persuasive in arguing that an older tradition of moral realism that acknowledged human weaknesses and sins, and proposed self-combat, provided a much-needed incentive for acquiring eulogy virtues.
What about postmodern culture? Brooks admits readily that there has been a sea-change when it comes to American culture over the last half-century. While Brooks praises the more modest self-image of the post-World War II “greatest generation,” he does not wallow in nostalgia for the 1950s that had their own shortcomings. Brooks notes, however, that an older tradition of moral realism has yielded to an age of Self-Esteem and a preoccupation with “self-liberation and self-expression.” He aptly points out the Achilles’ heel of the postmodern ethos, where “Moral authority is no longer found in some external objective good; it is found in each person’s unique original self” (Brooks 2015: 249). The shift from the “crooked timber” school of humanity to the “Big Me” now defines a culture of “narcissism and self-aggrandizement” (Brooks 2015: 261).
Brooks is aware that communications in an age dominated by information technology have become “faster and busier.” Social media, in particular, “allow a more self-referential information environment,” and encourage “a broadcasting personality” (Brooks 2015: 150-51). All this inflates the self, and buttresses the achievement-oriented Adam I side of human nature, which craves external praise, while neglecting the Adam II side, whose aspiration is for the self-effacing virtues that engender genuine self-respect. As Brooks laments, in an age of the Selfie, we are more materialistic, but less empathetic, living in a more individualistic society where even public language has become “demoralized” (2015: 257).
It is only unclear how, in an age of the “Big Me,” men and women may embark on the great quest for eulogy virtues and self-respect? The postmodern cultural Zeitgeist is daunting in that it impels one almost inexorably to “become a relativist” (Brooks 2015: 259). Still, Brooks underestimates the overwhelming influence of cultural presuppositions and values that help or hinder the Adam II project of the formation of souls. In an age when a person finds it à propos to “marry” his IPhone, one wonders whether a society’s technological creations may increasingly enslave their creators? Is man becoming in the postmodern Information Age but an appendage to the machine, to recall Karl Marx’s metaphor? The irony is that this state of affairs is now spreading globally, East and West, equally in socialism as in capitalism. It is axiomatic that technology is Janusz-faced. The same technology that empowers a quadriplegic to read and even write a book, and that connects people in a global village, may also invert the Hegelian master-slave dialectic.
Machines now seem to dictate via social media one’s interior psychological life by supervening one’s feelings and emotions dependent on external approval. Social media, the movie industry, news, and video games propagate a new cultural mythos that encourages subliminal instinctual drives overshadowed by raw sex and violence. Increasingly, postmodern culture not only foregrounds the external Adam I at the expense of Adam II, but further reduces Adam I to the animal level of instinctual drives. This new technology-saturated commercial culture promotes the genesis of a “parallel self” as the implied hero in social media and various online and video games that offer an “alternative reality.” In this make-believe world of an “alternative reality,” the individual is “free” to become any character whatsoever and engage in any action–moral or immoral–with emphasis on “winning points.”
While most people are able to recognize the distinction between everyday life and “alternative worlds,” reality and fiction, some, who are emotionally less stable, may be prone to act out sexual fantasies and aggressive urges. This, combined with mind-altering drugs, contributes to a new criminality, and a lack of accountability for a whole new range of sins. Social media are also prone to erase the boundary between the private and the public sphere. Much that is in the repertoire of one’s private life and conscience should remain private, and not be put on public display. Youth are especially vulnerable in this regard. Thus, a 15-year-old, whose naked picture (taken unknowingly by a “friend”) was posted on social media, thereupon committed suicide. Mental health and emotional stability are major issues, affecting especially youth, including the nation’s college campuses (Williams 2014: A56).
Every era, and every culture, may be said to be oriented via a dominant myth. Knowledge of the classics may be instructive in this regard in that already the classics had a robust understanding of human nature, the challenge of the right ordering of the human soul, emphasizing reason, self-control, and a vision of transcendence and immortality. While the classical era was preoccupied with questions of justice, the nature of community organized in a polis, and the human quest for eudaimonia or true happiness, the postmodern temper appears to focus on more mundane pleasures of a shrewd, status-seeking creature. The postmodern era appears dominated by the Myth of Id, a powerful new Weltanschauung and system of values anchored in desire (Gruenwald 1981-82). Its major characteristics are the worship of instinctual drives, the elevation of subconscious desires to the status of a new god, and the concomitant devaluation of reason, measure, and conscience.
Postmodernity may be regressing to a culture of totemism. In a curious twist, postmodern culture has turned Freudian, no longer repressing, but celebrating, the id (Freud 1962). The question arises: Is the liberation from reason, superego, and conscience–promised by the Myth of Id–a genuine enlargement in the scope of individual freedom and social harmony, or is it a counterfeit “liberation” leading to total alienation in a subhuman universe?
THE TELEOLOGICAL IMPERATIVE
Paradoxically, given postmodernity’s Myth of Id, celebrating the “Big Me,” human sins and weaknesses become externalized. The erstwhile sins which once were part of the inner furnishings of one’s soul are transferred to a phantasmagorical “alternative reality” populated by zombies, cylons, antiheroes, aliens, and sundry lesser creatures of an overheated human imagination. Apocalypse, now (Joustra & Wilkinson 2016)? The self-combat required by a more traditional ethos of moral realism now appears via transference in comic strips, videos, movies, and online games where this quest is waged by proxy. It is a make-believe world of the human imagination–a great original gift–but now employed nefariously as an escape mechanism from personal responsibility and accountability.
The refrain heard often from those who find themselves on the wrong side of the law is the by now familiar, “society made me do it.” Most judges consider this plea as part of a last-ditch defense strategy, which is credible because it contains a grain of truth. If it is true that “it takes a village” to raise a child, then a Godless “in-your-face” culture may indeed impair or undo the family heirloom of received wisdom and tradition that emphasizes personal responsibility, honesty, diligence, love, discipline, self-respect, and respect for others. In contrast, a nihilistic “me-first” culture has no sense of duties or responsibilities, only self-referential “rights.” Denizens in a postmodern culture may not subscribe to the Sartrean existentialist notion that hell is “other people,” but they cannot tell right from wrong in the absence of objective normative standards that provide a firm Archimedes point (Kilpatrick 1993).
Brooks dismisses the convenient fiction that locates sin “in the external structures of society–in racism, inequality, and oppression” (2015: 250). Instead, he cites Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn’s insight that we have met our enemy, and it is–us. While admitting that his countrymen had lost the measure of freedom, Solzhenitsyn urged them to stop blaming everyone else, “our neighbors and more distant peoples, our geographical, economic or ideological rivals, always claiming that we alone are in the right.” Solzhenitsyn concludes that “the universal dividing line between good and evil runs not between peoples, nations, classes, parties, or even between good and bad men. It runs through the heart of each human being and fluctuates over time in accordance with the individual’s behavior” (1975: 108).
One can only agree with Brooks that to re-establish a balance between Adam I and Adam II–on the road to virtue and character–requires joining a counter-culture (2015: 260). However, even an astute observer like Russell Moore, who recommends engaging the culture without losing the gospel, points out that Christianity is perceived as strange, even freakish, in American culture that once assumed its truths as self-evident. Nonetheless, Moore commends “convictional kindness,” while championing a gospel “counter-revolution.” Moore cautions that, “Many who are now standing will fall away, unable to bear the scandal that comes with following Christ in a culture that sees such as superstition or hatred” (2015: 218).
And yet, as Brooks and this journal maintain consistently, the road to character, self-knowledge, virtue, and service to the world is open to both religious believers and non-believers. This is so since even Christians do not preach simply a “Christian” morality, which some perceive as harsh and authoritarian. Happily, all humans possess a natural predisposition to live life fully, to love passionately, to be worthy of self-respect and acceptance by others, which is only possible when acting and living in accord with ideals that radically transcend the limited horizon of human subjectivity. As C. S. Lewis recalls, human beings know the universal moral law, yet they break it, that is, they know in the innermost reaches of their heart and soul that they have sinned. Furthermore, Lewis points out that the traditional morality is “neither Christian nor Pagan, neither Eastern nor Western, neither ancient nor modern, but general” (1996: 52). In fact, Lewis chides those who think that “the morality of your fathers was based on Christianity. On the contrary, Christianity presupposed it” (1996: 55). Lewis concludes that, “The ultimate ethical injunctions have always been premises, never conclusions. Kant was perfectly right on that point at least: the imperative is categorical. Unless the ethics is assumed from the outset, no argument will bring you to it” (1996: 55-56).
REDISCOVERING WISDOM-SEEKING TRADITIONS
Thus far, this essay has sought to outline briefly our present predicament where we can choose to fashion a more virtuous, life-affirming culture, or continue along a downward spiral, “slouching towards Gomorrah” (Bork 2003). We have arrived at a critical juncture where past, present, and future intersect. The outstanding question remains: which guides, if any, should one follow? The quest for self-understanding, for guideposts for orienting human life, is at the center of all wisdom-seeking traditions that seek to connect the horizontal plane of man’s earthly existence with the vertical plane of transcendence.
Arthur Pontynen’s essay in this volume is a plea for reconsidering wisdom-seeking traditions as an antidote to the rampant secularism and a positivistic science and technology that are said to be colonizing the planet. The essay requires patient reading, as Daniel Hollis (2016) suggests. It is a curious mixture of neo-Platonic philosophy, theosophy, and aspects of a quasi-Christian ontology and axiology. Pontynen offers an insightful analysis of the central predicament of a postmodern culture that lacks knowledge of transcendental Ideals of Truth, Beauty, Goodness, Perfection or God. The resulting inability to acknowledge Being also reduces all human striving to meaninglessness. Thus, philosophy can no longer account for itself as a love of wisdom, but degenerates into the Sartrean existentialist stance according to which the only meaning left in a world without God is one attached to reality by an individual’s subjective self. In art, such a corrosive nihilism dismisses all objective standards of Beauty and abolishes the very concept of art as the expression of a divine attribute, leaving but a bastardized simulacrum in the subjective rendition of, for example, Marcel Duchamp’s “urinal.”
To become more credible, Pontynen’s approach would need to field an ethics, a theory of human action, and a theory of human nature, addressing such issues as sin and the Fall. Thomas Molnar (1992) and Eric Voegelin (1952), among others, caution against the ancient Gnostic error of immanentizing the eschaton that entails utopias (Gruenwald 2013). There is a dualism between knowledge and power. Thus, Plato’s Philosopher-King, who allegedly combines wisdom (understood as Absolute Knowledge) with noble intentions, is the paragon for all utopias, climaxing in the Marxist-Leninist conception of the Communist Party as the “vanguard of the proletariat” that possesses scientific knowledge of the “laws” of historical development and, as such, has the right to rule. This equating of Platonic “wisdom” (Absolute Knowledge) with absolute power, in the absence of Kant’s categorical imperative or the moral “ought,” is what leads straight to the Gulag (Popper 1966; Gruenwald 1983).
Critics of a worldwide quest for Wisdom might point to the need to distinguish between wisdom-seeking traditions, since some, especially in the East, end in idolatry, solipsism, or both–Nirvana (Guinness 1973). The temptation for wisdom-seekers is the assumption, prominent in Plato’s Republic and theosophy, that the philosopher (or guru) has perfect knowledge of transcendental Ideals of Truth, Beauty, Goodness, Perfection and, hence, of Reality and Being, and thus Divine Wisdom. This claim–the standard justification for tyranny–is belied by actual human history, a checkered record of trial and error, war and peace, triumph and tragedy, and a continuing quest for truth. In an engaging essay on “The Principle of Tolerance,” that eschews intellectual overreach, Jacob Bronowski confirms Brooks’ insight regarding the need for epistemological modesty:
There is no absolute knowledge. And those who claim it, whether they are scientists or dogmatists, open the door to tragedy. All information is imperfect. We have to treat it with humility. That is the human condition, and that is what quantum physics says (1973: 60).
Immanuel Kant is also relevant for a Christian metaphysic that incorporates epistemological modesty in the quest for wisdom and transcendence. Pontynen insists that knowledge is “found,” not “made.” In fact, there is no “God’s eye view” of knowledge, the universe, or wisdom available for man. Knowledge, wisdom, the transcendental Ideals of Truth, Beauty, Goodness, Perfection, Infinity, Eternity, need to be discovered and interpreted by fallible, imperfect human beings. The resulting human knowledge of transcendentals is ipso facto also partial, limited, and imperfect. Albert Einstein mused that the greatest miracle is that the universe is comprehensible at all. Scripture states clearly that God’s thoughts and ways are higher than man’s (Isaiah 55:9), and that, this side of Paradise, humans know only “in part,” for “now we see through a glass, darkly” (I Cor 13:12). Christians take refuge in the knowledge that Christ claimed to Be the Truth, the Life, and the Way (John 14:6). Yet, humans should not be puffed up claiming possession of Divine Wisdom, since we have “the knowledge of the glory of God” in “earthen vessels” (II Cor 4:6-7), which requires humility and giving thanks to God.
In brief, humans perceive and interpret reality through different cultural glasses. That is the reason why there are different wisdom-seeking traditions, with different methodologies and end goals. Kant’s systematic thought, while open to multiple interpretations, purposefully limited his investigation to what reason alone could reveal concerning human capacities. What is amazing is that reason, without the aid of revelation or metaphysics, can already detect such transcendentals as free will, immortality, and God (Kant 1929). A pietist, Kant admitted that he had to limit reason in order to make room for faith. As to ethics, he confided that “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and more steadily one reflects on them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me” (Kant 1956: 161-62). This view dovetails with the Christian persuasion that God wrote the moral law not only on stone tablets but the very heart of man.
Kant’s famous Copernican Revolution in epistemology consisted in refuting the Humean empiricist notion that our knowledge rests on experience alone. Instead, Kant maintained that knowledge arises from the joint action of sensibility and the understanding where the former provides objects or intuitions and the latter supplies concepts or meaning. Kant posited a similar dualism in his concept of man as both phenomenon and noumenon based, in turn, on the dual causalities of nature and freedom (Gruenwald 1981: 810). Thus, knowledge is both the object and product of our minds. Anselm and Abelard’s approaches to faith and understanding are complementary, not antithetical. Kant’s conclusion stands that there are hence two sets of laws governing the universe: laws of nature and laws of freedom. Friedrich Nietzsche, not Kant, is the father of modern nihilism.
In the final analysis, the Pontynen dilemma concerning ontology (Being) requires an act of faith. However, an ethics and a theory of human action are needed concerning how should we, then, live (Schaeffer 2005)? Pontynen envisions the act of contemplation bringing about Wisdom and affirming Being as the fulfilment of the transcendental Ideals of Truth, Beauty, Goodness, Perfection. One wonders whether such a paradigm claims for the temporal City of Man the fulfilment of the salvific promise available only in the eschatological City of God? The traditional Christian understanding is that the human subject may be perfected only via repentance, forgiveness, redemption, and salvation in God’s love expressed in Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross that expiates all sins. As Scripture states unequivocally, “whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). In this quest, Christianity is the counter-culture par excellence in an era of the “Big Me.” This is so since Christianity is “addressed only to penitents, only to those who admit their disobedience to the known moral law” (Lewis 1996: 46-47). Christians are, thus, pilgrims (peregrini) in the quest for transcendence that begins here on earth but can be fulfilled only at the end of history. At last, the Cup of Life: the Holy Grail! As Molnar sums it up,
Christianity is both a transcendent and a human-historical religion. It places redemption outside history, after its end, and it rejects the notion that human beings are destined to, and capable of, going beyond their creational limitations. It also refuses the project of collective salvation, since salvation is an intimate matter between the soul and God (1992: 78).
THE ANGEL INITIATIVE
The classics, Plato and Aristotle, held already that wisdom is the proper end of man. Scripture also lauds wisdom, but enjoins that whatever else one might acquire, one should acquire understanding (Proverbs 4:7). It is understanding (Verstehen), beginning with self-knowledge, that is also the proper end of a true liberal arts education. Such understanding requires a new model of higher education for the twenty-first century: “The challenge and promise of interdisciplinary studies at the dawn of the Third Millennium is to coax the postmodern university to rededicate itself to free inquiry as the quest for truth, and recover what Newman considered its essential paideia–exploring the great circle of knowledge for a `wholeness of vision’ and a `true enlargement of the mind’ in educating the whole person (body, mind and soul)” (Gruenwald 2014: 22).
As to examples of practical wisdom, one need look no further than one’s fellow human beings who show up at work every day, earning a living, raising families, who love their children unconditionally, while teaching them to discern right from wrong, nurturing self-respect and respect for others, while themselves modeling self-discipline, contributing to the world, and aspiring to both résumé and eulogy virtues. Life teaches lessons that are not all contained in books or a formal education. Pontynen bemoans that we are all existentialists now. However, being an existentialist means simply “paying attention,” trying to live one’s life in the tumult of the world. While humans possess an innate moral sense, the world’s challenges and temptations, described so well in Brooks’ biographies, may tilt the moral compass that consequently can fail us in specific circumstances. Brooks’ conclusion is that we are all “stumblers,” that we “lean on each other as we struggle against sin,” and that we “depend on each other for the forgiveness of sin” (2015: 268-69). Even Lewis admits that, “Within the framework of general human ethics problems will, of course, arise and will sometimes be solved wrongly. This possibility of error is simply the symptom that we are awake, not asleep, that we are men, not beasts or gods” (1996: 56).
Unexpectedly, examples of practical wisdom may be found even where people try to deal with extraordinary circumstances. We encounter such people, even if vicariously, via mostly negative news releases. Only occasionally do the news media mention their acts of service well beyond the call of duty such as delivering babies or acts of heroism such as saving crash victims from burning cars. Such people are not super-heroes featured in comic strips or video games, and they do not hail from Star Wars. They are extraordinary in their dedication to public service, but share common human strengths and weaknesses. They are not sages or gurus. Like us, they see the world through cultural glasses, yet may become scapegoats for societal ills–prejudice, discrimination, racial profiling, insensitivity, lack of understanding of people’s motives and actions. We are talking about the thin blue line that separates civilization from chaos. Their badge says it all, “To Protect & Serve.”
In America, police officers are under increased public scrutiny, especially regarding the use of force. While we all depend on law enforcement to uphold the law, police appear at times as “trigger-happy.” Certainly, police in the U.S. need better training, especially in the non-lethal use of force, and building trust via community involvement and education. What U.S. police lack most is respect, which reflects a general cultural deficit in a postmodern era. Elsewhere, in Finland, police are held in high regard, with people helping apprehend suspects. In the U.K., British bobbies appear better trained in the use of non-lethal force (such as tasers). But, is it reasonable for a society to expect heroism from its police officers, whose job often calls for split-second decision regarding a specific situation, with the police officer’s life on the line, that leaves no time for ascertaining a suspect’s motives, intentions, mental state, possession of weapons (whether fake or lethal)?
It is, therefore, all the more remarkable that a group of police officers came up with the “Angel Initiative” that tackles one of the nation’s most intractable dilemmas–drug addiction. Profiled in the Boston Globe (3 June 2016), and briefly on NBC TV’s “On Assignment,” Gloucester (MA) Police Chief Leonard Campanello’s innovative program offers legal immunity and immediate help for drug addicts. The Police Assisted Addiction & Recovery Initiative (PAARI) website states that, “Any addict who walks into the police station with the remainder of their drug equipment (needles, etc.) or drugs and asks for help will NOT be charged. Instead we will walk them through the system toward detox and recovery. We will assign them an `angel’ who will be their guide through the process. Not in hours or days, but on the spot.”
In the meantime, the promising Gloucester initiative has been adopted by law enforcement in 20 states. Albeit, the program lacks adequate funding needed by 140 police and sheriffs departments and some 250 addiction recovery and treatment centers, pointed out in a 14 July 2016 Letter to the federal government appealing the lack of funding in the 2016 Recovery Act.
The outstanding question for a postmodern culture is whether, as a people, we can retrieve and live up to our own ideals as a nation conceived in liberty, aspiring to fulfil the promise of liberty and justice for all, fashioning a more perfect union, a decent society, if not a “shining citty on a hill?” Christianity, experienced universally as “a religion of second chances,” speaks of a Creator-God and Savior Who promises not only sustenance and reassurance along the Way (the Tao), but redemption and salvation–the ultimate fulfilment of a life well-lived in community.
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Oskar Gruenwald, Ph.D., IIR-ICSA Co-Founder/Editor-in-Chief, Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies.