Postmodernism and Catholic Education

Douglas McManaman
February 2023
Reproduced with Permission

I'd like to address postmodernism and Catholic education, because we are living in a postmodern world, and our students are living and breathing a postmodern ethos. The role of the Catholic educator is in many ways to counter this postmodern culture because postmodernism is simply incompatible with the fundamental principles of the gospel, the basic principles of the Catholic faith, not to mention Judaism and Islam, even Sikhism and all the major world religions.

Postmodernism does not mean "the modern world". There is so much about the modern world that is good, especially modern philosophy. But some of the best modern philosophers are very critical of postmodernism and deconstructionism (see Nicholas Rescher. Communicative Pragmatism, "Against Deconstructionism", New York: Rowan & Littlefield. p. 197-209). In fact, it is hard to find a good philosophy department anywhere that takes postmodernism seriously. Nevertheless, postmodernism is still rather popular in many non-philosophy departments of the humanities. Let's examine the roots of postmodernism and contrast this with the Catholic worldview and the purpose of Catholic education.

Catholic Education is fundamentally a matter of education, obviously, and education is primarily about knowledge. It is not about fundraising, even though it may include fundraising; a school is not a psychology clinic, nor a social service agency, even though many schools have a school psychologist. The role of the school is very limited, even though some would like to see that limited role expanded to include almost everything bearing upon a student's life. Education, however, is fundamentally about imparting knowledge, and knowledge bears upon what is, that is, what exists in reality. To know means to apprehend something about what is real, what really exists. And so, knowledge implies that reality is knowable, that is, it is intelligible and meaningful.

If we look at the pioneers of the scientific revolution in the 17th century, people like Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, Bacon, Maxwell, Faraday, Newton, etc., we notice that almost all of them were devout Christians-Newton wrote more about religion than he did about science. The scientific revolution came right out of Christian Europe, and the reason for this is that according to the scripture, the universe is fundamentally good, it is created by God, and so it is not an illusion (maya), but real and worthy of study. The universe glorifies God, manifests something about God, who is the unutterable mystery.

Classical Education is a Liberal Arts education, and the word "liberal" means free. The idea here is that knowledge gives rise to freedom. In other words, there is no genuine freedom without knowledge. Cats, dogs, and elephants etc., are not free, they are governed by their instincts; for we don't hold animals responsible for what they do. The human person, on the other hand, is not governed by instincts, but is a being of intellect and will. The human person can make free choices, and in doing so, determines himself or herself to be a certain kind of person (this is what we mean by moral identity, or character). But genuine freedom depends upon knowledge. The fundamental idea behind a liberal arts education is that education leads to liberation, freedom, that is, the ability to govern oneself.

So too, the great Medieval philosophers and theologians (from St. Augustine in the 4th century all throughout the high middle ages, which includes the great Muslim philosophers) saw that much of Greek thought is consistent with the fundamental Catholic understanding of the human person, not to mention the Islamic understanding. The purpose of Catholic education is liberation, and knowledge spawns freedom, and freedom begets responsibility. What this implies is that freedom is not simply doing what you want to do, but knowing what you ought to do and having the virtues required to actually do what you know to be truly and objectively good.

There are two goals of Catholic education: a proximate goal and an ultimate goal. The proximate goal of education is to cultivate responsible citizenship. The human person is called by God to live in this world; for each one of us has a purpose in this world, that is, each person has a vocation, a calling by God, a place in history that only that person and no other can occupy. The ultimate purpose of Catholic education, on the other hand, coincides with the ultimate purpose of our life, which is eternal union with God.

Catholic Education is fundamentally the pursuit of truth, and Christ claimed to be Truth Itself. It follows that Christ is the ultimate purpose of Catholic education. In other words, the purpose of the Catholic school is evangelization, that is, the proclamation of the good news of the gospel: that Christ is the way, the truth, and the life; that Christ is risen, and that we too will rise with him to everlasting life if we live our lives in him and die in him.

Now, a basic tenet of the biblical understanding of reality is that God reveals Himself through 1) creation, 2) history, and 3) the Incarnation.

Firstly, creation. One of the great lines in St. Paul's letter to the Romans is found in chapter 1, verse 20: "Ever since the creation of the world, God's invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made". Creation, in other words, is intelligible, it can be known, it has an order to it that the sciences seek to understand more fully, and creation is beautiful, for we contemplate its beauty, and artists and poets express the mystery and inexhaustible depth of that beauty. Creation is fundamentally good. Everything strives towards its own fullness of being, and creation has a certain unity or oneness to it. In other words, reality is systematic. It is a system composed of smaller systems, which in turn are composed of smaller complex systems. It is, in other words, coherent. What Paul is saying is that behind all this we perceive the invisible properties of God, who is One, Supremely Good, Pre-eminently Beautiful and Intelligible, the source of all that is intelligible and meaningful.

Secondly, history. Judaism begins with the revelation of God to Abraham. God takes the initiative and reveals Himself to Abraham and makes a covenant with him. And He attaches a promise to that covenant: I will be your God, you will be my people. Your descendants will be as numerous as the stars of the sky. Although your people will be enslaved by a foreign nation, I will remember my promise and deliver them from the grip of that nation. And the rest of the Old Testament is history, the history of God's relationship to his covenanted people, Israel. What do we learn about God through this relationship? That God is faithful to His promises, despite Israel's continued infidelity. The Hebrew word here is "hesed", or steadfast love.

And finally, the central doctrine in Christianity is that God became flesh in the Person of Christ; that God reveals Himself definitively in Jesus, who is the Logos of the Father, the Word. God the Son joins a human nature and dwells among us, ultimately offering his life on the cross for the forgiveness of sins, and rising on the third day, thereby destroying death and restoring life.

And so, it seems that God wants us to know Him. He reveals Himself in three stages. Catholic education must have as its ultimate end the knowledge of God, and so it must touch upon the content of these three stages throughout the curriculum. Why? Because the knowledge of God is the very purpose of this life. The first page of the old Baltimore Catechism said it well: The purpose of life is: to know God, to love God, and serve God. Catholic Education must serve this end.

And so Catholic teachers have a serious responsibility. It really is a counter-cultural responsibility. Pope Benedict XVI coined the expression "the dictatorship of relativism". In the last homily he gave before becoming Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger described modern life as ruled by a "dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely" of satisfying "the desires of one's own ego."

There's a lot of truth to that statement. Moral relativism is basically the teaching that there are no moral absolutes, no actions that are intrinsically wrong, that everything is relative to the culture, to social consensus, or to my own personal desires. This is especially the case with respect to issues of personal morality, such as sexual ethics. If it feels right for me, then it is right. If I feel something is wrong for me, then it is wrong, but I cannot tell you that such and such is morally wrong, for there is no universal moral law. This, of course, is utterly inconsistent with the fundamental teachings of the Catholic faith, not to mention Judaism.

We are living in a culture of moral relativism, which is an essential component of a postmodern culture, and there is a great deal that is problematic about postmodernism (which includes moral relativism). Postmodernism has its roots in the philosophy of Nietzsche (not to mention Hegel and Heidegger). The most important work that Nietzsche produced is The Will to Power, and in this book, Nietzsche points out that everything is in a pure state of becoming. All is changing. It is for this reason that Nietzsche had great respect for the ancient pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, who said that "No one steps into the same river twice". Absolutely nothing is permanent; all is in a pure state of becoming.

Now, we acknowledge that things change, for we live in a world of change. In fact, the first philosophical problem taken up by the first philosophers in the 6th century BC was precisely the problem of change, that is, how to explain change, or more specifically, what is the basic underlying "stuff" out of which everything is made. The implication is that there is an underlying substratum that endures throughout the changes we observe. This is not what Nietzsche is asserting. He contends that nothing is permanent. There is no such thing as stability; nothing in nature remains unchanged. There is no underlying and unchanging substratum to the changes in the universe. The only reality is pure becoming. Hence, there is no such thing as "being". You are not a stable being, neither are your pets. You and everything else are a bundle of pure flux or change. All we have in reality are centers of power that encroach upon other weaker centers of power. The fundamental law is the law of the jungle; only the fittest survive, and only the fittest should survive.

There are some very important implications that follow logically from this starting point. If everything is in a pure state of becoming, such that nothing is permanent, nothing stable, then we can deduce the following:

1. If there is nothing in all of reality that is permanent, then as Nietzsche said, there is no "being" per se, only becoming. And so there is no "thing in itself". You are not a being, you are just a center of change or becoming.

If that is true, it follows that:

2. Knowledge is impossible. To know something presupposes that there is something to know, something that my mind can apprehend. But there is nothing but pure change.

If this is true, then it follows that:

3. Reality is absurd. It is unknowable, unintelligible.

If that is true, then it follows that:

4. All science is a fiction: a construct, a product of our own will to power, of our desire for being and stability. So the science textbook really doesn't tell us about the objective meaning of things in the world; for the world itself is unintelligible in itself.

If that is true, then

5. There is no truth per se, because truth is, according to the basic meaning intended by persons who communicate, is the conformity between what is in the mind and what exists outside the mind. But, there is no "is", no being, only becoming. Therefore, there is no truth per se.

It follows that:

6. Truth is a construct, so truth is nothing other than conformity to a construct. And since there is no objective standard by which to measure a construct, one construct is as good as another. All science is nothing more than a way of making sense out of this world that is absurd and meaningless.

7. It is man who imposes meaning on this world. This of course is the complete opposite of the classical realist perspective that holds that reality is intrinsically meaningful, it is intelligible.

For the postmodernist, it follows that:

8. There is no moral truth, that is, truth about right and wrong. There are no universal moral norms. Hence, there is no natural moral law. And so there are no actions that are intrinsically and universally wrong. For example, murder is not absolutely wrong, nor is adultery or fraud.

And if this is the case, then

9. Man is the measure of what is true and good-as opposed to the classical view that reality is the measure of man. In other words, according to classical realism, something is true not because I think it is true, but rather because what I assert conforms to the real. Postmodernism reverses this. We give meaning to reality. Furthermore, the very idea "human" is a construct. It gives the impression that there is a stable entity called man, or a stable human nature that each human shares in. The name 'man' only points to a center of power, a becoming that encroaches upon weaker centers of power.

10. And finally, it is language that constructs being. Words determine reality. Truth is nothing more than a linguistic system. Language alone provides the illusion of permanency. The sciences are nothing more than linguistic constructs.

Hence, the moral relativism of the postmodern era. It should be obvious that the basic principles of postmodernism are incompatible with the fundamentals of biblical faith. The Catholic School is countercultural in this sense. At the heart of Catholic Education is Christ, who claims to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He is Truth Itself. (Jn 14, 6). Christians believe in the claims of Christ. And so for us, there is Truth.

Christians also reject the notion that everything is in a pure state of change. Change is real, but God created a world of "beings", entities, things. Human persons have an unchanging human nature. Moreover, a morally good action is going to be one that promotes the fullness of that nature. And so Christians hold that there are universal moral truths, and these truths have guided civilization since its dawn. For example, lying under oath is never justified; nor is bearing false witness; acts of envy are morally repugnant. Marital infidelity is always evil, and doing evil to achieve good is never justified. Humility, courage, perseverance, chastity, meekness, self-control are virtues that promote the fullness of one's nature.

Christianity is Judaic, that is, it has its roots in Judaism. At the heart of Judaism is Creation. Everything that God created is basically good, because God created it. And so creation is intrinsically meaningful, not absurd. Reality is intelligible, that is, it is knowable. Science is therefore not a fiction, and language does not create meaning in an otherwise meaningless world. Language is a means of communication, and so it is a means of communion with one another. Language is that through which one comes into the possession of truth. Language expresses what is true, what is good, and what is beautiful and inexhaustibly knowable, as we see in poetry.

Truth is the conformity between what is in the mind and what is. Although it is not always easy to determine what actually is the case, especially in the sciences, for a statement to be true means that it conforms to the real. But according to Judaism, reality is a reflection of its author, who is God. The inexhaustible nature of science is a reflection of the Mystery of God, the author of all that is. And so there is a fundamental incompatibility between Judaism and postmodernism.

How is Catholic Education different from a postmodern education? Catholic education is not secular education with added religion courses, with Masses and prayers over the PA system. Rather, it is the transmission of a fundamental worldview. And Christ is the center of that worldview. But every Catholic teacher who has the gift of faith sees the world through the lens of that faith, and that of course includes science teachers, history teachers, English teachers, French teachers, Art and drama teachers, math teachers, social science teachers, business teachers, etc. Each teacher has different gifts, that is, different special areas of expertise, but when we have a staff of teachers who share this faith in the Person of Christ, that makes for a rich and diversified education that has a fundamental unity to it, a harmony, a certain beauty, like the universe itself, which is made up of a rich diversity of entities. But this universe is a cosmos, not a chaos. Each teacher is a person whose life should be set on fire by the good news of the kingdom of God, by the new life that Christ imparts through baptism and the sacraments. Each has gifts that others do not possess, but what unites them is faith in the Person of Christ; what unites them is a common end: all believe in eternal life and that our task is the transmission of the faith, which is transmitted first and foremost by personal witness, by living that faith, looking at the world through the eyes of that faith.

Students now have the luxury of being taught by people who see the world through the eyes of faith, but within their specific disciplines. What do they get from their science teachers? They get the best of science, but they also get a scientific worldview that is shaped by the theological virtue of faith and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, wisdom, knowledge, understanding, etc. Here is how a Catholic science teacher sees his own discipline and the content of his own discipline in light of that faith. And it is the same with all the other departments.