Leithart’s Ugly Ditch

Here’s the problem. Merold Westphal wants to stand outside modernity, critiquing it. But he most certainly does not want to replace it. He talks wistfully about how nice it would be if it were to be magically replaced — in a Lennon-like Imagine sort of way, where the schools have all the money they need and the Air Force has to have bake sales to buy bombers — but he has clearly no sense of what could possibly replace modernity.

In his essay “Postive Postmodernism As Radical Hermeneutics” he rightly defines modernity as the Enlightenment project, as something which completely encompasses and contains our entire society.

“For the postmodern is not only the rejection of the Enlightenment project and its foundationalism, but of the entire framework in which it debates and, for the most part, defeats, its loyal opposition” (p. 133).He identifies Romanticism as an example of modernity’s loyal opposition — an opponent that was co-opted by modernity and included within the pale entirely in spite of itself. The phrase loyal opposition is a great phrase to describe this very common occurrence, and I think he is exactly right about the Romantics. In their rebellion against modernity, they were far more modern than they knew. Just like the postmodernists.

Westphal sees the whole of society as the possession of modernity. “Although I have pointed to military-industrial instrumentalism as the most concrete expression of modernity, implying that a truly radical postmodernity would have a morality capable of challenging the will to power of the nation state, I have kept the discussion focused on more abstract, epistemological issues” (p. 146). He wants a “moral critique of modernity” (p. 146). But we don’t need a critique of modernity. We could get that from the Romantics, or any other faction making up the loyal opposition in the Parliament of Secularism. We need a replacement for modernity. We don’t have postmodernism when we have a fad in some philosophy departments. We have postmodernism when we have a postmodern Navy, and Pentagon, and Halliburton, and Supreme Court, and Congress, and a constitutional amendment that acknowledges that Jesus is Lord.

A replacement of modernity (at the society-wide level) will either be a specific faith or it will not be. If it is not, then it is just a continuation of the generic secularism that is so characteristic of modernity. We have moved from Chapter Sixteen in the Modernity Chronicles to Chapter Seventeen. But if it is a specific faith like Islam, or that of the invading Martians, then it is postmodern all right, but we have simply replaced one idolatry with another. Why should that cause Christians to throw their hats in the air? If it is the true faith, the Christian faith, then we have a healthy postmodernism, and the Lordship of Jesus is acknowledged over all. But Westphal emphatically rejects this idea of Christendom. Forget Lessing — Westphal has fallen into Leithart’s ugly ditch.

Modernity is a cultural, society-wide phenomenon, and it does not need to hear from lonely critics. Criticism is nothing more than grumbling, but a grumbling which always acquiesces. A welfare recipient on the dole can grumble about the amount he receives, but at the end of the day, he still cashes the check. Modernity needs to hear from apparently lonely prophets, who are nevertheless mysteriously backed up by the Lord of hosts. They need to hear that they have been weighed in the balances, and have been found wanting. And when the Lord raises up such robust prophets, unembarassed Christians who want to see all the nations stream to Christ and lay their constitutions at His feet, the most virulent attacks on such men will come from the postmodernists. I have often written about how the leftist intoleristas have as their motto, “Diversity Until We Get Some!” Same kind of thing here. Postmodernists want an idea of postmodernism that they can bandy about in the halls of Modernity U. But if a genuine postmodernism showed up, they would all wet their pants.

One last comment, an incidental one that reveals how much Westphal is influenced by all the current PC-hooey. He worries about whether the image of pentrating beneath the surface of the inner core of being is “hopelessly andro-phallo-centric.” For those new to this stuff, that would have to be considered a bad thing. But Westphal wants to make room for a “receptive radicality that can include the feminist critique of modernity.” That’s philosophy for you — always looking for the philosophical G-spot and never finding it.

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