Manifestations of Modernism
by Peter Mirus, March 1, 2005

With the recent scandals in the Church, groups have arisen to try to address the need for Church reform. However, some proponents of “reform” are using the sex scandals to champion Modernist causes, demanding that the Church change both its divinely-instituted structure and its morality to adapt to the demands of the present generation.

What Is Modernism?

Many of the proponents of “reform” in the Church are following the Modernist blueprint. Essentially, a Modernist is one who believes that the Church should adapt itself to the changing mindset of each generation; that the evolution of society requires an equally evolving system of faith and morality. But to argue that truth must remodel itself according to the demands of society is a fallacy.

To the Modernist, revealed truth is at best a distant reality which cannot be fully grasped by the human consciousness. As such, Modernism is the complete antithesis of Catholicism’s primary doctrines. If, as Modernist “wisdom” suggests, truth takes its form only as the collective consciousness of the current era, then truth is relative. Moreover, since truth can be grasped only in this community form, the papacy is irrelevant. If there can be no such thing as a known absolute truth by a single individual, and a collection of individuals can only approximate it by common consensus, then the concept of Magisterium, including papal infallibility, is not even a matter of discussion.

To the modern world, and to the Christian / Catholic Modernist, a relationship with God is something vague at best and something completely unattainable at worst. And since moral truth is represented best by a sort of cultural consensus, the personal pursuit of a relationship with God is sheer hubris, and nothing more.

Modernists and Social Activism

The defining note of Modernist morality is generally social activism in accordance with the prevalent fashionable opinions of the current culture. This is because it is only by participation in the community zeitgeist that the Modernist can reach a higher level of moral awareness.

Unfortunately, and contradictorily, in many groups committed to social activism the participation quickly changes to dictation. By virtue of his alliance with the prevailing cultural opinions, the Modernist becomes convinced of certain moral certainties. Those who don’t accept the prevailing views need to be informed of these quasi truths for their own benefit. Moral certitude becomes moral superiority, and Modernists -- who demand relative moral standards from the Vatican – do not hesitate to impose definite moral (or amoral, or immoral) standards on others.

Many mainstream Christian social activist organizations espouse a vague worldwide common system of human values. I say “vague” because there is little legitimate empirical evidence to support many of their social agendas, and even less that makes philosophical sense. The means are often specific (but misguided); the goals sound glowing but are generally utopian and unrealizable in actual practice. Given the roots of Modernism in the larger culture, it is no surprise that such organizations mirror the agendas of their larger secular counterparts.

The Example of Suffering

Perhaps the mainspring of the Modernist error is a fundamental misunderstanding of human suffering. Whether or not suffering has any transcendent value is of paramount importance to many aspects of our Faith.

The ultimate goal of all Modernist social agendas is to eliminate suffering. After all, it is something that we all have (and some more than others) that we all don’t want. Therefore, any moral stricture that stands in the way of this goal must be changed. If a couple is suffering from not being able to have unrestricted sex, the moral law regarding the purposes of the sexual act must be changed. If a man is physically attracted to another man, the law prohibiting sodomy must be changed. Again, it is not surprising that Modernists so often focus on socio-sexual issues, given the surrounding culture’s obsession with sex. In any case, to one of the Modernist persuasion, the sufferings caused by the clergy sex scandals provide opportunities neither for holiness via suffering nor for a return to Truth (Traditional faith and morals). Instead, we hear promotion of doctrinal changes that have their own selfish motivations. For example, we should eliminate clerical celibacy and the restriction of priesthood to males, accept and encourage homosexuality, and so on.

Essentially, the proposed way to end sex abuse by the clergy is to provide the clergy with sexual freedom – the same kind of complete sexual freedom that the Modernist laity demands for itself. The formally unrecognized implication is that the Church is turning its clergy into pederasts; the fact that pederasty reflects a lack of adherence to Church teachings in not considered.

Suffering “My Way”

It is not true that Modernists want to eliminate all suffering. Most Modernists will agree with the axiom “anything worth having is worth suffering for.” They will suffer, and suffer gladly, and praise suffering for the sake of any number of things: wealth, power, sex, “freedom / empowerment”, career, sport, etc.

Hence, the theology of suffering with Christ for the transformation of self is replaced by a willingness to suffer only to more effectively indulge one’s passions in the long run. The Modernist ultimate goal for self is to reach a point where one can maintain one’s own selfishness without having to suffer for it. Hence the modern obsession with frantic wealth acquisition (during which you suffer) so you can build a high state of earthly existence, retire early and maintain that elevated state until your euthanasia.

The ultimate social goal is to teach others how to attain freedom, wealth, power, and sex in roughly equal measure to your own – and hence end suffering in the world. In the process of doing this, all people will be welcomed into the world social community and adopt a common cultural morality that will lead to world prosperity and peace.

The point is that to the Modernist there is no suffering that is worth undergoing without getting some physical reward in the present. In the realm of Modernist goods, that which is physical is most easily believed, that which is moral is what makes everybody “feel good”, and that which is not physical has no moral value and therefore no relevancy.

Irrelevant Faith, Irrelevant Church

It is fairly apparent that to call oneself “Catholic” but to adhere to Modernist principles is an untenable position. The Modernist rejects several essential principles of the Catholic Faith – most importantly the dogmatic principle, that God’s revelation is both exceedingly specific and safeguarded by earthly successors to Christ who, by virtue of the Holy Spirit, are able to “bind” and “loose” with admirable precision. Thus, whenever popes teach something contrary to the Modernist creed, they are dismissed as outdated and, therefore, irrelevant.

As with the relevance of the Church, so too with the relevance of God Himself. God can hardly be relevant without a clearly recognizable plan for humanity. Unless enduring, consistent truths are derived from Revelation, there is no relevance. Yet the Modernist believes in a God so contrary to the attribute of immutability that the Modernist faith borders on atheism.

In fact, perhaps this best sums up the case: Whether they realize it or not, Modernist Catholics are atheists hedging their bets.


Under the Ban: Modernism, Then and Now
by Russell Shaw

On July 3, 1907, in a decree bearing the lachrymose Latin title Lamentabili, the Vatican's Holy Office, predecessor of today's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, condemned 65 propositions that it had found contrary to Catholic orthodoxy. Pope Pius X followed up two months later, on September 8, with an encyclical named Pascendi Dominici Gregis (Feeding the Lord's Flock), in which he linked the condemned propositions to a heresy called Modernism and went on to identify its philosophical and theological roots. In conclusion, the encyclical specified stern disciplinary measures for stamping out the heresy.

Considering these events from the pope's point of view, he could hardly have done less. For according to St. Pius X, who was to be canonized in 1954, Modernism was the very "synthesis of all heresies." Its condemnation and eradication were essential to protecting the Faith.

Still, a century later three questions about Modernism do need answering: Did it actually exist? What was it all about? What difference does it make?

Whether there really was something corresponding to what Pius X called Modernism isn't so easy to say. After all, it was the pope himself who gave Modernism its name and provided theoretical coherence to what up till then had been a gaggle of ideas identified with a loosely linked group of Catholic intellectuals in France, Italy, and England. Modernism's leading figure, the Scripture scholar Alfred Loisy, was not entirely wide of the mark when he complained that Pius X not only had condemned Modernism but "invent[ed] the system" he condemned.

Even so, it would be foolish to dismiss Modernism as a figment of the papal imagination. Pius X's account, as Loisy conceded, was drawn from actual sources. These he identified as "[Maurice] Blondel and [Lucien] Laberthonniere's philosophy of immanence . . . intimate religious experience and moral dogmatism, into which had penetrated a certain Kantian element . . . [George] Tyrrell's mystical theology, which exhibited a certain Protestant individualism and illuminism," and especially evolutionism, as it was reflected in Loisy's own "evolutionary history of the Hebrew religion and Christianity, of Catholic dogma, cult and constitution."

Regarding the threat that all this posed, it is necessary to begin with some historical background.

Descartes, Kant, and Darwin

Modernism's remote origins are usually traced to Descartes and Kant and their theories of knowledge, especially knowledge of a religious sort. In holding that we cannot know things directly but only as they are presented to us by our minds, Descartes and Kant inserted radical subjectivism into the heart of the epistemological question, including the question of what can be known about God and spiritual realities. Shortly after Modernism's condemnation, Rev. Arthur Vermeersch, S.J., an important Roman theologian of the day, remarked that while in Kant "dogmas and the whole positive framework of religion are necessary only for the childhood of humanity," Modernists went further still and took faith to be "a matter of sentiment, a flinging of oneself towards the Unknowable."

Beginning in the late 18th century and continuing through the century that followed, the epistemological revolution launched by Descartes and Kant merged with developments in archaeology, history, and biblical study to produce a radical shift in the thinking of some theologians. Among other things, the historical value of the Gospels and the first five books of the Old Testament (the Pentateuch) came under attack while in his influential book The Christian Faith, Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) sought a foothold for belief in the notion that the essence of religion is piety, and piety is feeling. This is to say that to be genuinely religious it is sufficient to feel dependent on God.

In 1859, Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species erupted on an already shaky religious scene, spewing the ideological equivalent of lava and ashes far and wide. T. H. Huxley, an aggressive publicist for Darwinism, was soon exulting that one of the best things about it was its "complete and irreconcilable antagonism to that vigorous and consistent enemy of the highest intellectual, moral, and social life of mankind — the Catholic Church." But strange to say, it was Protestantism, not Catholicism, that suffered first and worst.

Attempts to salvage something from the collapse of faith reflected in literary works like Tennyson's In Memoriam and Arnold's Dover Beach ranged from biblical fundamentalism to liberal Protestantism. "The Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith" became a favorite slogan of the liberal Protestants. The catchy expression is shorthand for a supposedly unbridgeable split between the human Jesus — a historical figure said to have been concealed from sight by the early Christian community's practice of shrouding Him in pious fictions — and a divine being upon whom believers project their subjective religious impulses. (In his new book, Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI calls this history-faith dichotomy "tragic" for Christian belief. The Gospels present "the real, 'historical' Jesus in the strict sense of the word," he writes.)

Although comparatively slow to infiltrate Catholic circles, the new thinking began to appear there in the latter years of the 19th century. Men like the historian Louis Duchesne, the novelist Antonio Fogazzaro, the philosopher Blondel, and the pietistic German-British intellectual gadfly Baron Friedrich von Hugel led the way. Not all of them were full-fledged Modernists, and some, like Blondel, later were genuinely horrified at being thought at odds with the Church. Nevertheless, they exchanged ideas, encouraged one another in their work, and formed a network that over time came to have an influence beyond its numbers in seminary and clerical circles. Several Italian pastoral letters warning against Modernism by name appeared in 1905 and 1906.

Loisy, Tyrrell, and Friends

The two most visible members of the group were the Frenchman Loisy and the Irish Jesuit Tyrrell.

Alfred Loisy was born in Ambrieres, France, in 1857; studied at the diocesan seminary of Châlons-sur-Marne; and was ordained in 1879. A gifted linguist, he taught at the Institut Catholique in Paris until his criticism of traditional views led to his removal as professor of Sacred Scripture; thereafter he taught at the École Pratiques des Hautes Études. His best-known work, L'Évangile et l'Église (The Gospel and the Church), published in 1902, was a response to the historian Adolf von Harnack, whose liberal Protestant understanding of Scripture reduced Christianity to a handful of basic principles. But although he wrote to refute von Harnack, Loisy simultaneously denied that Christ meant to establish a Church or teach a body of lasting religious truth, and argued instead for "the incessant evolution of doctrine." L'Évangile and his other works were placed on the Index of Forbidden Books. Loisy refused to submit to Pascendi and was excommunicated in 1908. He taught at the College de France from 1909 to 1930, and continued writing in defense of Modernism until his death in 1940.

Born in Dublin in 1861, George Tyrrell grew up an Evangelical Christian, studied at Trinity College, and entered the Catholic Church in 1879. He was accepted into the Jesuits the following year, ordained in 1891, and in 1896 transferred to the Jesuits' Farm Street church in London. There he launched his career as a writer and was introduced by his great friend von Hugel to the work of men like Loisy and Blondel. Tyrrell's increasingly radical critique of orthodox theology led to his expulsion from the Jesuits in 1906. His rejection of Pascendi was public and violently worded. Excommunicated in 1907, he received absolution before his death in 1909, but was refused Catholic burial on the grounds of not having retracted his heretical views. In the posthumously published Christianity at the Cross-Roads, Tyrrell expressed his hope that Christianity would not be the last stage of humanity's religious quest but an intermediate stage on the way to a new universal religion.

In fairness to Loisy, Tyrrell, and the rest, it is important to bear in mind that they had an unobjectionable, even commendable, aim in mind at first. In a 1908 book, Simple Reflections (i.e., on the Holy Office decree and the papal encyclical), Loisy described himself and the rest of "the avowed modernists" as "a fairly definite group of thinking men united in the common desire to adapt Catholicism to the intellectual, moral and social needs of today." Had there been no more to it than that, Modernism might have been more deserving of praise than condemnation. Unfortunately, there was quite a bit more.

In his carefully documented and nuanced study of Modernism, Critics on Trial (Catholic University of America Press, 1994), Msgr. Marvin R. O'Connell calls an anonymous document titled Il Programma di Modernisti "perhaps the most succinct and coherent statement of the Modernist position ever attempted." Published "virtually before the ink on Pascendi was dry" in a forceful translation by Tyrrell, it almost certainly was written by an Italian philosopher and editor named Ernesto Buonaiuti. Boldly flaunting its immanentism, it contains such declarations as: "Religious knowledge . . . is our actual experience of the divine which works in ourselves and in the whole world," and, "Religion is . . . the spontaneous result of irrepressible needs of man's spirit, which find satisfaction in the inward and emotional experience of the presence of God within us."

Of Pascendi and Lamentabili, this manifesto says: "The Church and Society can never meet on the basis of those ideas which prevailed at the Council of Trent . . . The Church cannot, and ought not to, pretend that the Summa of Aquinas answers to the exigencies of religious thought in the twentieth century." Only evolution provides a basis for believing in "the permanence of something divine in the life of the Church."

The Condemnations of 1907

Drawing on the works of Modernists, the 65 condemned propositions in Lamentabili include: The Church's Magisterium "cannot determine the genuine sense" of Scripture even by dogmatic definitions (no. 4); the Gospels contain "only a slight and uncertain trace" of Christ's teaching (no. 15); divine revelation is only "the consciousness acquired by man of his relation to God" (no. 20); Christ's resurrection is "not properly a fact of the historical order, but a fact of the purely supernatural order, neither demonstrated nor demonstrable" (no. 36); the sacraments originate not in Christ but in "the apostles and their successors" engaged in interpreting "some idea and intention of Christ" (no. 40); the only purpose of the sacraments is to be reminders of "the ever beneficent presence of the Creator" (no. 41); "it was foreign to the mind of Christ to establish a Church" (no. 52); "truth is no more immutable than man himself" (no. 58); Catholicism "cannot be reconciled with true science, unless it be transformed into a kind of non-dogmatic Christianity, that is, into a broad and liberal Protestantism" (no. 65).

Then Lamentabili states the pope's judgment: "condemned and proscribed."

Then-Rev. Joseph Ratzinger, in an essay published in 1966, criticized some of the formulations used by the Holy Office — for example, that found in proposition 22, which states that so-called revealed dogmas aren't "truths fallen from heaven" but interpretations of religious facts worked out by human effort. "It is certainly very difficult to determine the meaning and binding force of such a condemnation," the youngish German theologian, today known to the world as Benedict XVI, remarked. Indeed, he went on, some of these individual propositions, "in themselves, can have an altogether acceptable meaning." The real significance of Lamentabili, he then declared, can be found in "its meaning as a whole, insofar as it condemns a radically evolutionistic and historicist tendency." This remains a useful interpretive principle for reading the decree today.

Appearing two months later, Pius X's Pascendi Dominici Gregis is remarkable in several ways. An extremely long document — nearly twice the length of Pope Leo XIII's 1891 social encyclical Rerum Novarum — it is bluntly, even harshly worded, as if its author had taken personal offense at the ideas it condemns. But it is important to grasp that Pascendi really is about ideas, not personalities. The Modernists viewed Pius as an ignorant bumpkin who as pope found himself in over his head ("a peasant of simple seminary training," von Hugel remarked condescendingly), but his encyclical is a sophisticated analysis of Modernist views.

A few highlights: Saying he aims to give a systematic account of Modernism — something the Modernists themselves deliberately failed to do — the pope situates its philosophical basis in "agnosticism." By this, he makes it clear, he means the idea that the fundamental source of religion is "vital immanence." In other words: "It is . . . to be sought within man himself . . . in a need for the divine." Here, too, in "religious consciousness," is where Modernists locate revelation. It follows from such principles, Pius says, that dogma "not only can but ought to be evolved and changed," and that "all religions are true" to the extent they reflect the human psyche.

Moving to theology, Pius pinpoints key Modernist ideas. Christ did not establish the Church and institute sacraments directly, but only in the sense that His example inspired later Christians to do so. The Church is "the fruit of the collective conscience" of the Christian community. The idea that the Church's authority comes from God is "obsolete." In order to avoid "internecine war," the Church must adopt "democratic forms" of government. In sum: "In a religion which is living nothing is without change, and so there must be change."

    From here [the Modernists] make a step to what is essentially the chief point in their doctrines, namely, evolution. Dogma, then, Church, worship, the books that we revere as sacred, even faith itself . . . must be bound by the laws of evolution . . .

    The Modernists' reading of the gospels flows naturally from their agnosticism . . .

    Any divine intervention in human affairs must be relegated to faith, as belonging to it alone. Thus, if anything occurs consisting of a double element, divine and human, such as are Christ, the Church, the sacraments . . . there will have to be a division and separation, so that what was human may be assigned to history, and what divine to faith. Thus, the distinction common among the Modernists between the Christ of history and the Christ of faith; the Church of history and the Church of faith; the sacraments of history and the sacraments of faith.

Pascendi Dominici Gregis concludes by spelling out practical steps to take: removing Modernists from seminary faculties, new censorship norms, and the creation in every diocese of a clergy council responsible for ferreting out nascent signs of Modernism. Three years later the pope published the text of an oath against Modernism that priests were required to take; it remained on the books until Pope Paul VI did away with it in 1967.

Reaction to Pascendi and Lamentabili was mixed. Bishops generally accepted Pius X's judgment and prepared to carry it out. Publicly at least, the strongest words of defiance were probably those of Tyrrell in the Times of London: "Neither the engineered enthusiasm of la bonne presse, nor the extorted acquiescence and unanimity of a helplessly subjugated episcopate, nor the passive submission of uncomprehending sheeplike lay multitudes will deceive [the Modernists] into thinking that this Encyclical comes from, or speaks to, the living heart of the Church — the intelligent, religious-minded, truth-loving minority." The writer André Bremond, an ex-Jesuit like Tyrrell, called this outburst an example of his friend's "Irish frenzy."

Then something shameful happened — something that even conservatives today regard with abhorrence. Instigated by a Vatican official, Msgr. Umberto Benigni, a campaign began to neutralize anyone suspected of Modernist tendencies. It was carried out by a secretive group created by Monsignor Benigni called the Sodality of St. Pius V. A network of spies and informers went into action in dioceses searching out supposed Modernists and Modernist sympathizers — bishops, pastors, professors, editors — and reporting them to the authorities. Reputations were blackened, careers damaged, innocent people hurt. The intellectual pogrom continued until Pope Benedict XV finally put an end to it. But the bitter taste lingered in many mouths.

So much for Modernism and its condemnation. The question remains: A century later, what difference does it all make?

The Modernist Legacy

In attempting to answer that, we need to begin by recognizing that some ideas associated with Modernism are part of today's orthodox Catholic consensus. Certainly this is true in the area of Scripture study, where much that looked like avant-garde thinking around the turn of the last century has come to be taken for granted. Today, for instance, hardly any knowledgeable person would argue that Moses was the immediate human author of the Pentateuch. Nor do Catholics have any difficulty accepting the idea that the Bible embraces a variety of literary forms and that the four Gospels reflect the early Christian community's theological understanding of Christ as well as the events of His life. In Jesus of Nazareth, Benedict XVI calls the critical-historical method an "indispensable" tool for understanding Scripture, though certainly not the only one.

Today, too, it is clear that although the condemnations of 1907 and the events that followed drove Modernism out of sight, Modernism and its offshoots survived. For one thing, the Modernists and their sympathizers kept on writing. Moreover, as Rev. — now Cardinal — Avery Dulles, S.J., pointed out in 1971 in The Survival of Dogma: "Driven underground but not solved by the condemnation of Modernism, the problem of dogmatic change surfaced again in the nouvelle theologie of the 1940s." (As the Second Vatican Council demonstrated, Newman's principle of doctrinal "development" offers an approach to this question whose usefulness has not been exhausted even now.)

Eventually, too, changing times and circumstances allowed Modernism and its cousins to emerge from hiding. Modernism persisted, says historian Philip Trower, "because the causes which had originally brought it into existence persisted: the increasingly secularized culture in which the bulk of Western Catholics now lived, and the complexity of many of the questions raised by 'modern thought.'"

The case of Rev. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., is instructive. Forbidden to publish by his superiors, under pressure from the Holy See, the Jesuit paleontologist continued writing, with his works circulating in mimeographed form for years. When it was finally published after his death, The Phenomenon of Man (French edition 1955, English edition 1959) and other books enjoyed cult success among readers who relished their quasi-poetic, quasi-mystical, quasi-scientific synthesis of evolutionism and Christianity. In the 1960s and 1970s, Teilhardian evolutionism occupied an important place in the stew of ideas and sentiments that shaped the troubled reception of Vatican Council II.

And now? Major elements of today's progressive Catholicism bear more than a small family resemblance to things condemned by Pius X in 1907. Consider Pascendi on the Modernists' program of Church reform:

    They . . . demand that history be written and taught according to their method and modern prescriptions. Dogmas and the evolution of the same . . . must be brought into harmony with science and history. As regards catechesis, they demand that only those dogmas be noted . . . which have been reformed . . . As for worship, they say that external devotions must be reduced in number and that steps must be taken to prevent their increase . . . They cry out that the government of the Church must be reformed in every respect . . . Both within and without it is to be brought in harmony with the modern conscience . . . which tends entirely towards democracy . . . The Roman congregations they likewise wish to be modified in the performance of their holy duties, but especially . . . the Holy Office . . . Finally, there are some who . . . desire the removal of holy celibacy itself from the priesthood.

Leaving aside the pros and cons of such proposals, it's a fact that they have been items on the progressive Catholic agenda for years.

But the Modernists of a century ago aren't the only ones with counterparts now. The integralists who launched a witch hunt after the publication of Pascendi and Lamentabili have successors, too. These include people who believe — or at least strongly suspect — that the Church hasn't had a real pope since 1958, when Pius XII died (sedevacantists, they're called), who hold that Vatican II wasn't a valid council of the Church, and who at this very moment are very likely somewhere on the Internet trying to make the case that Benedict XVI is a Modernist. Just like Loisy and Tyrrell, Benigni also has spiritual heirs.

In summing up Modernism and its legacy, however, it's only fair to give the last word to Loisy: "The Catholicism of the pope being neither reformable nor acceptable," the excommunicated ex-priest and Modernist luminary wrote in 1931, "another Catholicism will have to come into being, a humane Catholicism, in no way conditioned by the pontifical institution or the traditional forms of Roman Catholicism." A century after Modernism was condemned, Loisy's successors are still working hard to bring that about.

Russell Shaw, a Crisis contributing editor, is a writer and journalist based in Washington, D.C. His most recent book, written with Rev. C. John McCloskey III, is Good News, Bad News: Evangelization, Conversion, and the Crisis of Faith (Ignatius Press).


Harry Potter: Death stalks the halls of Hogwarts 
Written by Joe Woodard  
Friday, 13 April 2007

The tragedy to be unveiled in the last Harry Potter is a mirror for our age.

ImageHarry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is scheduled for release July 21. And barring possible plot surprises, heroic Harry is doomed to die in this seventh and last book of J.K. Rowling’s hugely popular teen sorcerer series. He will follow wise and self-sacrificing Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry headmaster Albus Dumbledore and a half-dozen fellow students into some vague though presumably comfortable afterlife, apparently as a disembodied spirit.

Given that the Potter books now rank second only to the Bible in their popularity, what are we to make of Harry’s pending death?

Boasting solid five-star Amazon ratings and over 300 million sales, Potter is a clear symptom of Western civilisation's slow slide back into naturalistic mythic paganism. Despite our electronic heart monitors and computerised intravenous drips, modern technological optimism is finally colliding with the unavoidable reality of death. In a banal mockery of Nietzsche’s "Eternal Recurrence," Western civilisation is reverting to an epoch of tragedy, a worldview that virtually defined the Ancient Greeks and Romans -- and which they then rejected some 1,500 years ago, voting with their feet in favour of the Christian comedy.

The Potter books encapsulate three cultural temptations that have undercut the once Christian West ever since the philosophers of the 17th century Enlightenment launched their insurgency against Christendom. In historical order, those trends are: first, the reduction of human reason to mere practical technique or "problem-solving"; second, the rejection of rational metaphysics or theology in favour of self-conscious myth-making (now glorified as post-modernism); and now, last and most clearly with Harry’s death, the slowly-dawning realisation that human mortality still punctures all of our idiosyncratic "realities" and renders human technology (even genetic engineering and sorcery) mere distraction and vanity.

Banal pragmatism

Harry’s education at Hogwarts rivals modern medical schools in its philistine pragmatism. Whether studying spells and potions, dark arts or magical beasts, the sorcery students learn only how to "do" things, like flying on brooms, de-gnoming gardens or creating gluttonous feasts. Magic is just another craft. What they should "be", what sort of character they should cultivate, never becomes a topic of instruction or conversation. Harry is encouraged only to be true to himself. And one of the four school "houses," Slytherin, is explicitly dedicated to the nasty kids, presumably because that’s just the way they are, and they have a right to an education sharpening their nasty skills.

It’s unclear whether Rowling is deliberately parodying modern "self-affirming" schooling here. But the pedigree of her stunted understanding of education and human reason includes the likes of Enlightenment philosophers Spinoza, Descartes, Bacon and Locke. In their quarrel with Ancient metaphysics and Christian theology, early modern philosophers sought to harness reason to the "relief of the estate of man" and the creation of a "heaven on earth" through technology. So they rejected any sort of metaphysical speculation and therein the contemplative intellect as essentially useless, asserting (in Thomas Hobbes’s words) , "We know only what we make."

Whatever the differences among the Enlightenment savants, they agreed that reason is not a mirror of an independent reality, mundane and divine, to which human beings must conform themselves. Rather, they redefined reason as a human construct, obedient to human purposes. Yet any definition of those purposes, beyond the endless increase in human powers, has remained up for grabs.

The result of this philosophic lobotomy we see today in a medical profession fully committed to expanding its techniques, but oblivious to any distinction between its legitimate and illegitimate purposes. We see it in accountants and engineers who work themselves to death, because doing is all they know, because no one has taught them that happiness is found in contemplation and worship. And we see it in the Hogwarts (and Springfield Elementary) school faculties, dedicated to empowering students, but deliberately recusing themselves from training characters in righteousness and nobility.

The modern technological ambition to reconstruct both material and human nature has naturally culminated in the post-modern presumption that we can all construct our own personal, virtual realities. In contrast, the claims of Christendom stood or fell on issues of historical fact, like whether that tomb was really empty. But these days, we’ll deliberately commit to any likely story that will temporarily make us feel good.

In this context, author Rowling is symptomatically post-modern, not in the obvious fact that she is creating a new myth (as did Tolkien), but in her blithe assumption that whatever reality lurks behind the mythic is basically benign. For all the murder and soul-sucking in the Potter books, Rowling pokes hardly at all into questions of what lies beyond the veil. Spirits haunting Hogwarts, like Nearly Headless Nick and the Fat Friar, provide reassurance of some sort of commodious afterlife, despite the cutthroat will to power in this life, so it really doesn’t matter who’s won when the whistle blows.

Modernity’s Achilles’ heel

And yet… and yet, death remains a problem -- a serpent Rowling has not avoided but rather tried to domesticate. And the viper cannot long imitate the garter snake. The culture of ancient Greece and Rome, the world of Homer, Sophocles and Virgil (and most of the world besides), was virtually defined by their awareness that human beings would always strive for a nobility rendered ephemeral and pointless by their mortality, and the more noble the human, the more tragic the death. Life itself is the undeserved misfortune suffered by noble characters -- the classic definition of tragedy.

For this tragic epoch, the Good News of the Christian Gospel (as pundit Chesterton said) was original sin, the revelation that life wasn’t pointless cruelty, that the universe wasn’t stacked against man, but rather that man was simply his own worst enemy. Conjoined with the promise of the "resurrection of the flesh" and eternal life, this meant that life was basically the undeserved good fortune enjoyed by ignoble characters -- the very definition of comedy. So Christendom was expressed in the farces of Dante, Chaucer and Cervantes. And the joys of contemplation were opened to the meanest intellects in the church’s endless parade of feastdays.

After a thousand years of Christendom, however, the insurgents of the Enlightenment found the idleness of worship and the reign of clerics an affront to human pride. They believed that unleashing all the potential of human technology alone would render mankind healthy, wealthy and wise. Some thought, with Hobbes, that life made commodious and safe would become reconciled to quiet death in old age. Others, with Descartes, believed that the development of medical technology would bring practical physical immortality. Either way, man the worker would emerge as the happy master of his own house.

It hasn’t turned out that way, of course. First, the modern obsession with conquering human suffering has made Western man pathologically soft and sensitive, discombobulated by daily irritants our grandfathers would have simply ignored. Second -- confirming the Christian hypothesis of original sin -- the expansion of man’s power over nature has meant (as others observed) the expansion of some men’s power over other men. Given today’s malignant public administration, economic interdependency and mass media, almost no one now pretends to be the master of his own house.

And third, technology itself has developed a credibility bubble; its promises of happiness have outstripped its delivery, and with every further development of medicine, death looms larger as the final frontier -- unknowable, implacable and unavoidable. So the last man’s ideal life has become perfect fitness until 75 or 85, then a little poison for a comfortable death. And to this he dedicates life-coaching, organic cooking and treadmilling.

Colliding with the inevitable

This is where Harry’s death comes in, as yet another symptom (like Columbine High) of where we’re heading. It took 400 years for the Enlightenment buzzards to roost. For four centuries, Western pragmatism has coasted on its reserves of Christian optimism. But the tipping point was reached when the sexual revolution threw off the last of Christian "oppression", and then raised a next generation of deracinated barbarians.

Kids today have far fewer self-serving illusions than their baby boomer parents. Death has always been the staple of adolescent literature; but today the hero dies. So they can again understand Achilles’s complaint, "Do you not see what a man I am? How huge? How splendid?… Yet even I also have my death and strong destiny; there shall be a dawn or afternoon or noontime when some man in the fight will take the life from me also."

So there is a silver lining to the pagan cloud, descending over the land. Modernism was a kind of naïve vanity, predicated on an immature bracketing of the big questions of life -- like the businessman who resolves to spend time with his family once his bundle is made. But kids now are realising that, even if you’re a technological wizard, you still die in the end. Culturally they feel the heart flutter, the shooting pain down the left arm, the memento mori. The now-manifest spiritual vacuity of the pragmatic epoch means they’re now open to something, almost anything.

Joe Woodard is former editor of the Canadian conservative magazine Western Standard, now teaching in Calgary.


Unprotected: students exposed to disease and heartache       By Jennifer Roback Morse  
Wednesday, 10 January 2007

A campus psychiatrist is driven to write about the way students' bodies and souls are sacrificed to the sexual ideology reigning in colleges.
ImageIt is a continuing mystery how advanced Western societies can, with a straight face, declare that trans fats should be banned (as in New York City) but at the same time, ignore the health risks associated with non-monogamous sexual activity. Finally, someone with authority dares to speak out. Her name is Dr Miriam Grossman but she called herself Dr Anonymous when she wrote Unprotected: A Campus Psychiatrist Reveals How Political Correctness in her Profession Endangers Every Student. As a psychiatrist at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), she has treated thousands of college students over the past ten years. If you have a loved one in college, you owe it to them to read Unprotected to find out what is really going on.
Adults think they are teaching the young to be non-judgmental, but this translates into the young having no basis for making judgements about what is good for them. Although there is plenty of evidence that sex without commitment is emotionally and physically harmful, this evidence is carefully concealed from the young. So even while they are told to make their own decisions, the adults around them systematically understate the harms of non-marital sex. The author is especially effective because she dramatizes general points with the stories of particular individual students who typify a problem.

She tells of Brian, a gay student who came to her because he wanted medication to help him stop smoking. During the course of the session it transpired that he and his boyfriend often pick up other men. “It’s hard to be monogamous,” he explained. Neither Brian nor his boyfriend use condoms for protection. Neither has ever been tested for HIV.

The author reviews her responsibilities toward patients suspected of having tuberculosis. The law expects the doctor to test students at-risk of TB. If the skin test is positive, she is required to give him a chest X-ray. If the combination of skin test and chest X-ray point to TB, the doctor is required to report him to the Department of Health within a day. Yet for students at-risk for HIV, she can only recommend testing and discourage unsafe activities. A man from Mars would conclude that we are more concerned about the health of TB patients than of HIV patients.

A student named Heather is referred for unexplained depression. After discarding numerous possible explanations, including academic pressure, poor health, death of a pet, the doctor asks Heather whether she has had any changes in her relationships. Heather thinks it over, “Well, I can think of one thing: since Thanksgiving, I’ve had a ‘friend with benefits.’ And actually I’m kind of confused about that... I want to spend more time with him, and do stuff like go shopping or see a movie. That would make it a friendship for me. But he says no, because if we do those things, then in his opinion we’d have a relationship– and that’s more than he wants. And I’m confused because it seems like I don’t get the ‘friend’ part, but he still gets the ‘benefits'.”
The author recounts the evidence that sexually active teenage girls are about three times more likely to be depressed and to have attempted suicide than girls who were not sexually active. She also recounts the evidence that women’s physiology creates this vulnerability. Women secrete a hormone called oxytocin during sexual activity, and while nursing a baby. Oxytocin promotes bonding, trust and relaxation. Mother Nature evidently is trying to get us to connect with our babies, and with our sex partners, who after all, might become the father to our children.
Oxytocin recently made an appearance in American politics. George Bush’s appointment to the Office of Population Affairs actually believes in abstinence. The Life-Style Left discovered that Dr Eric Keroack had once given a lecture in which he informed people about the bonding power of oxytocin. They went apoplectic, rather than confront the evidence on its own terms.
This refusal to face inconvenient facts cries out for explanation. One of the author's patients asked her, “Why, Doctor, do they tell you how to protect your body from herpes and pregnancy, but they don’t tell you what it does to your heart?”

I have my own theory about this, which is completely complementary with the author's experience. Far from being sexually neutral, tolerant and non-judgmental, the Life-Style Left subscribes to a covert ideology. I call it Condomism. Its chief tenets are that sex is a private recreational activity with no moral or social significance. Unlimited sexual activity is an entitlement. There are no harms associated with sex that cannot be controlled by condoms or other forms of contraception.
And if anyone complains about anything that can’t be controlled by condoms, well, those complaints are not worth taking seriously. Getting attached to inappropriate sex partners? Never happens. Women’s depression associated with uncommitted sex? Must be bad data. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder associated with abortion? A mere blip in the data, even though the author's back-of-the-envelope calculations show that if a mere 1 per cent of post-abortive women develop PTSD symptoms, that amounts to 420,000 traumatized women. That’s a lot of women to dismiss.
Unprotected is a bold and important book. Buy it. Read it. Pass it around. You may just save someone you love a lot of heartache.

Jennifer Roback Morse, PhD, is a Senior Research Fellow in Economics at the Acton Institute, and the author of Smart Sex: Finding Life-long Love in a Hook-up World.

Anthropologist René Girard Foresees a Christian Renaissance

"Ideologies Are Virtually Deceased," Says René Girard

ROME, DEC. 17, 2006 ( French anthropologist René Girard, one of the most influential intellectuals of contemporary culture, thinks that a Christian Renaissance lies ahead.

In a book published recently in Italian, "Verità o fede debole. Dialogo su cristianesimo e relativismo" (Truth or Weak Faith: Dialogue on Christianity and Relativism), the anthropologist states that "we will live in a world that will seem and be as Christian as today it seems scientific."

Girard, recently elected to be one of the 40 "immortals" of the French Academy, said: "I believe we are on the eve of a revolution in our culture that will go beyond any expectation, and that the world is heading toward a change in respect of which the Renaissance will seem like nothing."

The text published by Transeuropa, is the result of 10 years of meetings between the French thinker and Italian professor Gianni Vattimo, theorist of so-called weak thought, on topics such as faith, secularism, Christian roots, the role of the Gospel message in the history of humanity, relativism, the problem of violence, and the challenge of reason.

The book presents specifically to the general public the transcription of three unpublished conferences in which the two authors challenge each other on the most radical points of their thought.

New need

In the book, the French professor states that "religion conquers philosophy and surpasses it. Philosophies in fact are almost dead. Ideologies are virtually deceased; political theories are almost altogether spent. Confidence in the fact that science can replace religion has already been surmounted. There is in the world a new need for religion."

In regard to moral relativism, defended by Vattimo, René Girard writes: "I cannot be a relativist" because "I think the relativism of our time is the product of the failure of modern anthropology, of the attempt to resolve problems linked to the diversity of human cultures.

"Anthropology has failed because it has not succeeded in explaining the different human cultures as a unitary phenomenon, and that is why we are bogged down in relativism.

"In my opinion, Christianity proposes a solution to these problems precisely because it demonstrates that the obstacles, the limits that individuals put on one another serve to avoid a certain type of conflicts."

The French academic continues: "If it was really understood that Jesus is the universal victim who came precisely to surmount these conflicts, the problem would be solved."

According to the anthropologist, "Christianity is a revelation of love" but also "a revelation of truth" because "in Christianity, truth and love coincide and are one and the same."

Christian truth

The "concept of love," which in Christianity is "the rehabilitation of the unjustly accused victim, is truth itself; it is the anthropological truth and the Christian truth," explains Girard.

In the face of Vattimo's appeals to justify abortion and euthanasia as well as homosexual relations, the French professor stresses that "there is a realm of human conduct that Vattimo has not mentioned: morality." Girard goes on to explain that "understood in the Ten Commandments is a notion of morality," in which the notion of charity is implicit.

Girard then answers Vattimo, who suggests a "hedonist Christianity."

"If we let ourselves go, abandoning all scruples, the possibility exists that each one will end up doing what he wants," writes Girard.

The French anthropologist criticizes the "politically correct world" which considers "the Judeo-Christian tradition as the only impure tradition, whereas all the others are exempt from any possible criticism."

Girard reminds the defenders of the politically correct that "the Christian religion cannot even be mentioned in certain environments, or one can speak of it only to keep it under control, to confine it, making one believe that it is the first and only factor responsible for the horror the present world is going through."

As regards moral nihilism, which seem to permeate modern society, Girard concludes that "instead of approaching any form of nihilism, stating that no truth exists as certain philosophers do," we must "return to anthropology, to psychology and study human relations better than we have done up to now."


Tolerance in the Rainbow Nation       By Martyn Drakard  
Thursday, 07 December 2006

South Africa has become the fifth country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage.

ImageOn the last day of November, South Africa, the economic powerhouse of Africa, became the fifth country in the world to legalise gay marriage. It was a strange move for a country which, in many ways, is intensely conservative socially.

The path to same-sex marriage began in 1994 with the raising of the rainbow flag. The collapse of apartheid was the climax that millions of South Africans had hardly dared dream of. But it brought about not just a political revolution, but a social and moral one as well. The new South Africa needed a new identity and a new style. The teaching of the Dutch Reformed Church, with its strict insistence on predestination and its equally strict moral code, had been discredited. Anything "conservative" meant returning to the years of nightmare.

The 1994 constitution represented therefore an extreme reaction against years of oppression. It banned discrimination not only on grounds of race, but also religion, sex, ethnicity, and sexual orientation -- the first in the world to do so. It did not take long for the issue of gay marriage to emerge.

In July 2002, the High Court ruled that denying same sex couples the right to marry was unconstitutional. In November 2004, the Supreme Court of Appeal declared that marriage laws must include partners of the same gender. Finally, the Constitutional Court ruled in December 2005 that the exclusion of same-sex marriage "represents a harsh if oblique statement by the law that same-sex couples are outsiders and that their need for affirmation and protection of their intimate relations as human beings is somehow less than that of heterosexual couples." It set down that the law had to be changed within a year.

A first draft of the new law proposed a civil union, just short of marriage. This satisfied no one. Supporters of traditional marriage values held massive demonstrations, while gay rights groups criticised it for creating a kind of sexual apartheid. A second draft followed the Constitutional Court's instructions more closely. This was passed in the National Assembly on November 14, with 230 voting for and 41 against. Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka signed it into law on November 30. South Africa has joined the exclusive club of nations where same-sex marriage is legal, along with the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, and Canada.

The rest of Africa was full of horror, not admiration, at the Rainbow Nation's progressive stance. In Nigeria, Africa's most populous country, the parliament is even considering measures to send anyone connected with a same-sex marriage to jail for five years, in addition to banning gay clubs, publicity, shows, organisation and so on. But South Africa is quite different from the rest of Black Africa. Its culture and ethos are oriented towards the Western and Europe. Although the blacks form the majority of the population, because of the years of apartheid they have been sidelined economically, politically and culturally. As a result, many Africans have interpreted the new law as an extension of Western influence. A leading Zimbabwean historian, Phathisa Nyathi, questioned whether it represented progress for Africa.

    "The mere fact that South Africa is more gay than other African countries, shows just how much white influence is in that country. South Africa is certainly leading the way in Africa. But leading where to? It is clear whose values are being promoted here. In the First World, there is nothing wrong with being gay. It is just part of what they call freedoms."

Other African countries are not likely to follow South Africa's lead. African Anglicans, for instance, are so opposed to the ordination of an American homosexual as a bishop that they may secede from the Anglican communion. Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's president, caused a furore in the West when he described gays as "worse than pigs". In most of Africa he was applauded. Didymus Mutasa, Zimbabwe's Minister of State Security, took time out of a meeting of defence ministers to lecture his South African counterpart on the issue

    "Recently you passed legislation to allow men to marry other men and women other women... I find that very difficult... because, how can I be attracted to another man sexually? How will women view me afterwards? Our president does not like it and when he spoke against it, he was not speaking for himself alone but for all of us."

Amongst Muslims, attitudes are not much different. An Islamist leader in Mogadishu, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed described the new law as "a foreign action imposed on Africa". A Tanzanian taxi-driver in Dar es Salaam, said it was so immoral that it meant the world was coming to an end, because man was going against God’s teaching.

The Bantu and Nilotic languages of East Africa do not have a word for "homosexual". In Kiswahili (which is Bantu and Arabic) the word "shoga" is the closest. But this means a catamite, and is used as a serious insult and not in its strict sense. Until recently most Africans had not heard or seen the word "homosexual". Although homosexuality is being described as a taboo, taboos have a purpose, many Africans feel. They were introduced to preserve the cohesion of a community and prevent its moral and social disintegration; they were not meant to prevent people from using their freedom responsibly, but rather to help them do so.

Nonetheless, the ripples of South Africa's decision will be felt throughout the continent. Many Christians argue that homosexuality is un-African, not unchristian – and herein lies a danger. As African traditional values disappear with urbanisation, leaving many culturally adrift, moral criteria and perceptions may change.

Recently urbanised Africans, especially the younger generation, out of touch with their roots, cultural and religious, have begun to adopt Western ways, sometimes unconsciously. As more and more migrate to the cities and eventually join the middle class, they become cut off from their ancestral traditions. This could mean in future a two-tiered society: a majority who are poor, traditional and still fighting the elements; and a small but growing minority which comes face to face with individualism, family break-ups and the many social challenges associated with wealth and the erosion of the "old ways". In this South Africa is blazing a trail, for better or for worse. The question remains: will the rest of Africa follow, or will the African practical and religious sense help to turn the tide?

Martyn Drakard is MercatorNet's African Contributing Editor. He writes from Nairobi.


Don't apologise for reading great books      By Ross Farrelly  September 2006
Children find the classics relevant and interesting if they are taught properly.

Parents who wish their children to learn something of the classics of English literature at high school must be tearing their hair out in the state of Western Australia. It would be a travesty if school students were directed to study the reality television show Big Brother during the precious few hours they have in the English classroom. However the state's curriculum council has gone one better, suggesting that students study the ads screened during this program.

This tragic situation is a result of the post-modern view that any text is as good as any other, that there is no absolute truth and that no books have anything meaningful to say about the human condition. Homer Simpson is thought to be as good as Homer’s Odyssey and students end up wasting precious time watching the ads screened during Big Brother when they could be studying George Orwell’s 1984, thereby discovering the origin of the term.

In "Australia’s wackiest postmodernists" James Franklin says that is difficult to formulate a workable alternative to post-modernism in academia. This may well be the case but in K-12 education it is not so difficult.

One example of an alternative to studying television ads is the Junior Great Books program. Earlier this year I visited Chicago, the home of the Great Books Foundation to attend a training course in this excellent program. Since then I have been running the program at my school and helping other teachers to trial the course in their classrooms.

The Junior Great Books program comprises a series of high quality texts from a variety of cultures. Each story address a fundamental problem of human existence in a manner which is age-appropriate and attractive to the young reader. The students study these stories in great depth. They listen to the teacher read the story aloud, make directed notes on the story and write compositions based on the linguistic features employed by the author.

The culmination of the study is a shared inquiry discussion, a disciplined group discussion which examines a single question raised by the text. Students are free to formulate responses but are encouraged to cite evidence from the text to back up their arguments. This approach assumes that the author has written something meaningful and worthy of sustained study and that the text under discussion holds some authority -- a view what is the anthesis of the post-modern celebration of the death of the author.

The shared inquiry discussion is conducted according to four basic guidelines set down by the Great Books Foundation:

      Only those who have read the selection may take part in discussions.
      Discussions are restricted to the selection that everyone has read.
      Support for opinions should be found within the selection.
      Teachers may only ask questions -- they may not answer them.

The advantage of this method of collaborative learning, especially when the teacher rigorously follows the fourth rule of shared inquiry, is that the students get to see a living example of sustained intellectual curiosity. The importance of this cannot be overemphasised. Children learn much by example. Teachers can tell their students that books are interesting and important but nothing is more powerful than seeing them actively engaged in careful examination of a piece of literature, striving to find meaning in it and actively pursuing an aspect of the story which they find personally meaningful.

This type of teaching, a form of Socratic dialogue suitably modified to meet the needs of primary students, has the added benefit of connecting students with this aspect of their heritage, the rational, open minded pursuit of truth which was introduced to the West in Classical Athens and which endures to this day.

The Junior Great Books Program comprises literature of the highest quality. The stories are selected with several criteria in mind. Obviously the stories must be well written. If a traditional story such as a Grimm’s fairytale or one of Aesop’s Fables is selected, the retelling is very carefully chosen. The story must be profound enough to sustain at least four readings; it must be age-appropriate; and it must deal with an issue which is relevant, interesting and meaningful. Furthermore, the stores chosen must be somewhat ambiguous. Morality tales do not lend themselves to lively debate while stories which can be interpreted in a number of ways encourage students to draw divergent conclusions and to justify their conclusions with reasoned arguments.

For example, at the beginning of a series aimed at eight and nine-year-old children, students study The Happy Lion, by Louise Fatio, which deals with the question of what makes a true friend, The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, by Beatrix Potter, which deals with one’s approach to authority figures, How the Camel Got His Hump, by Rudyard Kipling, which deals with one’s duty towards society and Kanga and Baby Roo Come to the Forest and Piglet Has a Bath, by A. A. Milne, which raises the issue of dealing with strangers. Each of these is accessible to primary students and opens up discussions on important and profound issues which children meet as they grow up. Studying such texts prepares them for more difficult questions and helps make them more thoughtful, more considerate, more humane people.

Some critics assert that literature of the type found in the Junior Great Books program is irrelevant and boring. My experience is otherwise. Because the texts embody fundamental questions which lie at the heart of the human condition, students find them incredibly relevant. It does take a certain amount of teaching skill and enthusiasm to involve all students in the discussion -- but it is well worth the effort.

Finally, the study of good literatures refines children’s tastes. They develop a taste for leisure reading which makes them think, consider, reflect and reason. Big Brother and the accomanying advertisements lose their appeal. And this is no bad thing.

Ross Farrelly is a Sydney based educator and writer.


Enter Modernism | Philip Trower |

From Truth and Turmoil: The Historical Roots of the Modern Crisis in the Catholic Church

The Bible, the Word of God in human speech, is not like a manual of instructions - though it has often been treated like that. While most of it is straightforward enough, there are also many passages whose meaning is far from immediately self-evident. This is why Bible study has a history going back to Old Testament times.

The obscurities are basically of three kinds.

The first are due to mistakes by copyists. In the transmission of the manuscripts down the ages, the attention of the copyists sometimes wandered, or they added comments in the margin which later became incorporated in the text. As a result, the surviving manuscripts contain numbers of variant readings. The kind of scholarship that tries to determine which of these different readings comes nearest to the original is called textual criticism. It is largely a matter of comparing manuscripts to determine which seems most reliable. [1]

It is not difficult, I think, to see why God, in his providence, allowed the texts to become corrupted in this way. Had he prevented it, had he ensured that the thousands of copyists working over two to three millennia had never made a mistake, the Bible would so obviously be a work of divine origin that faith would no longer be a free act. The variant readings are never sufficient to make the main substance of the biblical books uncertain. They only affect particular sentences or phrases.

Obscurities of the second kind flow from the human limitations and character traits of the inspired human authors. While ensuring that they wrote what he wanted, God did so through the medium of their particular personalities and styles of writing and the kinds of literary composition characteristic of their age. Since they were writing a long time ago, they, not surprisingly, used modes of expression or referred to events and things some-times beyond the comprehension of later readers.

Difficulties arising from this second class of causes are resolved, in so far as they can be, by the study of ancient languages, history, archaeology, and literary forms or genres (not to be confused with "form criticism"). Are some words to be taken literally or metaphorically? Is a certain book or passage intended to be history in the strict sense, or an allegory or parable, or is it some combination of the two? The search is for what the human author intended to say and how. This is called "the literal sense".
These first two forms of Bible study simply prepare the ground for what in the Church's eyes has always been the most important branch; the study of the religious significance or theological meaning of the texts.

Obscurities in this field are due to the mysterious nature of the subject matter, or, according to St. Augustine, are deliberately put there by the divine author himself. "The Sacred Books inspired by God were purposely interspersed by him with difficulties both to stimulate us to study and examine them with close attention, and also to give us a salutary experience of the limitations of our minds and thus exercise us in proper humility". [2] God does not disclose the full meaning of what he is saying to mere cleverness or sharp wits.

Most of the problems connected with these three branches of Bible study were familiar to the scholars of the ancient world, with the school of Antioch concentrating on the literal meaning and those of Alexandria on possible symbolic or "spiritual" meanings. The critical approach was not unknown either Origen and St. Jerome, for instance, on the basis of internal evidence, doubted whether the Epistle to the Hebrews was really by St. Paul. [3] But whatever the problems, down to 200 years ago the end in view was always the same: to strengthen belief, deepen understanding and increase love of God.

Since around 1800, on the other hand, "advanced" biblical scholarship has followed a markedly different course with the precisely opposite results. The critical method has been given pride of place over every other approach; attention has focused on technical rather than spiritual questions (when and in what circumstances were the books written), with a high percentage of those trying to answer the questions losing most of their beliefs in the process. This is a plain historical fact which receives surprisingly little attention. Does it mean that the Bible cannot stand up to close examination? No. We have to distinguish between the method and the spirit in which it is used, or between the critical method and the critical movement.

That the critical method, once formulated, would be applied to the Bible was more or less bound to happen, but it was clearly a much more sensitive business than applying it to other historical documents, seeing that implicit in its use was the assumption that the origin of at least some of the books would turn out not to be what had hitherto been thought.

The method also carries with it a number of temptations. Experts like to exercise their skills. But if a text is the work of a single author, without additions or interpolations and written when it was thought to have been, there is nothing for the critic to do. The method, of its nature, therefore carries within it a kind of bias against single authorship. There will be a tendency to see any ancient text as necessarily a patchwork of literary fragments put together by groups of editors at some considerable time after the events described which is different from recognizing, as has always been done, that the biblical authors, like other writers about past events, when not writing about events they had themselves taken part in, depended on external sources. We can see the tendency at work in 19th-century Homeric studies, where it came to be more or less taken for granted that any work before the fifth or sixth century A.D. must be of composite authorship. Homer's very existence was doubted, and the authorship of the Iliad and Odyssey assigned to a mob of Greek poets spanning several centuries. Since then Homeric studies have changed course. A real Homer is credited with the bulk of the epics. [4] But there has been no such change of course in advanced biblical scholarship.

Another temptation will be to try to ape the exact sciences by assigning a certainty to conclusions, which, because of the nature of the subject matter, can only be conjectural. [5] Nevertheless, as we have already said, there is nothing objectionable about the method itself. The Church has approved it, and its use by biblical scholars with faith and a sense of proportion has thrown light on numbers of incidental scriptural obscurities.

The critical movement is another matter. Although forerunners like the 17th-century French Oratorian priest Richard Simon and the 18th-century French physician Jean Astruc were Catholics, we can take as the movement's starting point the publication of The Wo!ffenbuttel Fragments (1774-1778) by the German Lutheran dramatist and writer Lessing. The "fragments" were actually extracts from an unpublished manuscript by the rationalist scholar Reimarus, which Lessing pretended he had found in the royal Hanoverian library at Wolffenbuttel. A few years later, Gottfried Eichorn, the Lutheran professor of oriental languages at Jena (and subsequently Gottingen) published his Introductions to the Old and New Testaments (1780-1783 and 1804-1812), and from then on the movement was dominated by scholars whose conclusions about the time and the way the biblical books were written were influenced as much by philosophical assumptions and cultural prejudices as by concrete evidence.

Their principal assumption was that supernatural phenomena like miracles and prophecy are impossible, and therefore a large part of the Bible must be folklore. They also tended to see people in the past as necessarily inferior, uninterested in objective truth and incapable of transmitting facts accurately, while regarding priests as by nature deceitful and only interested in the maintenance of their collective authority. Evidence that the art of writing was practised by the Hebrews at least by the time of the Exodus, and of the capacity of non-literate peoples to orally transmit religious traditions faithfully over long periods of time was either downplayed or ignored. [6] These assumptions had in most cases already been made before they set to work.

The Pentateuch and Gospels were the main objects of attention. The crucial question about the composition of the Pentateuch is not "When were the books written or put together in the form we now have them?" but "Was the information they contain, whether recorded by Moses or others, transmitted accurately down the centuries?"

The crucial question about the composition of the Gospels is "Were they, or were they not, written by eye-witnesses, or by men with more or less direct access to eye-witnesses?"

To both questions the critics' conclusions tended towards a negative answer.

If Moses existed, it was maintained, little could be known about him except that he was neither the Pentateuch's author nor Israel's lawgiver. The Pentateuch was put together after the Exile out of four collections of documents and oral traditions, the earliest written four or five hundred years after Moses' death, with the books of the Law coming last. Deuteronomy had been composed at the time of King Josiah's religious reform (640-609). The clergy responsible pretended they had found the book in a part of the temple undergoing reconstruction. Before that the Jews had no fixed laws. They lived by a shifting mass of customary rules and regulations. Most of Leviticus, also the work of priests, was written during and after the Exile. But in order to convince the Jewish people that these two codes of laws were not the innovations they must have appeared to be, the post-exilic clergy combined them with two sets of oral and written traditions ("Yahwistic" and "Elohistic") about the supposed early history of the world and the Jewish people, now found in Genesis, Exodus, Numbers and Joshua.

Most of these ideas are associated with Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918). But long before he was born, Eichorn had been suggesting that Leviticus, for which he invented the name "priestly code", had a different origin from the other four books of the Pentateuch, while between 1802 and 1805, J. S. Vater had introduced the "fragment theory" of the suspended Scottish Catholic priest, Alexander Geddes. According to Geddes, the Pentateuch had been put together at the time of the Exile from 39 separate sources. In 1833, E. Reuss was teaching that no traces of the law can be found in the early prophetical and historical writings, consequently the law could not have existed in the early period of Jewish history. In a book published at Gotha in 1850, Eduard Riehm attributed Deuteronomy to the reign of King Manasses.

It was less easy to dismiss the New Testament miracles as myths and the Gospels as patchworks of folklore. Between the death of Christ and the writing of the Gospels there were no long centuries during which myths could form and orally transmitted information become garbled. The best the critics could do was date the Gospels as long after the death of the last eye-witnesses as possible.[7] This in a sense is what a great part of New Testament scholarship outside the Catholic Church has ever since been about.

For Reimarus the New Testament miracles were due to conscious deception. In the case of the Resurrection, the apostles simply stole the body, then lied about it. (Reimarus also seems to have been the first modern scholar to present Christ as a political agitator.) Less crude were the theories of critics like Semler (d. 1791) and Paulus (d. 1803). They attributed the miracles to natural causes misunderstood by the witnesses. The apostles thought they saw Christ walking on the water when he was actually walking on the lake-shore. But if this was the way Christianity began (lies or poor eyesight), how do we explain its phenomenal expansion and later triumph? Efforts to answer this question took a more sophisticated philosophical form.

The leader of this new school of thought, Ferdinand Christian Baur, founder of the Tübingen school, side-stepped the question as to what prompted the apostles to invent the myths, or give them the form they did. He concentrated on the way the myths developed. The rise of Christianity was explained in terms of Hegel's theory that progress takes place through the clash of contradictory ideas.

According to Baur, a conservative Jewish party under St. Peter and St. James (thesis) came into conflict with the Gentile-oriented party under St. Paul (antithesis). The eventual result was a compromise (synthesis) from which sprang the Catholic Church. St. Matthew's and St. Mark's gospels represent the conservative view, St. Luke's gospel and St. Paul's epistles that of the innovators, and the "Johannine writings" (not from the pen of St. John) the standpoint of the party of compromise. Baur attributed the bulk of the New Testament to the late second century. He was also one of the first critics to regard the Gospels as primarily a record of the early Christians' collective thinking rather than a record of events and facts. However, he was at least honest enough to admit that if the Gospels were written by eye-witnesses or the friends of eye-witnesses, his theories fell to the ground.

But how, asked Bruno Bauer, another critic of the period, can a collective consciousness produce a connected narrative? A good question. However Bauer (with an "e") was even more radical than Baur (without an "e"). For Bruno Bauer, Christianity originated with the author of St. Mark's Gospel, an Italian living in the Emperor Hadrian's time, who never intended his book to be anything but a work of fiction. Nethertheless the idea got about that the hero was a real person, a sect of admirers formed, and the other New Testament books followed. Bauer eventually lost his teaching post.
Such, roughly, were the beginnings of the biblical critical movement. The Bible, it would seem, is like an atomic reactor. Anyone working on it without the protective coating of prayer and reverence rapidly has his faith burned to cinders.

This is not the place to consider to how many of the theories we have been describing contemporary scholarship still attaches weight. Here we are only concerned with the immediate results.

At first sight it may not seem to matter much when or by whom the biblical books were written, provided they are still believed to be inspired God, in the sense intended by him. It is true, however, that most men and women will, rightly or wrongly, assume that the greater the span of time between the occurrence of an event and its being recorded in writing, the less likely the record is to be true. [8] It was therefore not long before the readers of Reimarus, Eichorn and their successors were believing the Bible to be largely a work of fiction too, the critics' immense erudition being the principal factor enabling them to carry the day. Their readership included growing numbers of Lutheran pastors, who were simultaneously being exposed to Kant's idea that God's existence could no longer be proved from his works.

Seeing that, as Lutherans, they believed neither in an infallible Church nor a tradition complementary to Scripture, there seemed no longer to be any reliable basis for belief. Religion appeared to be at its last gasp, and for many it was in fact so. Most of the fathers of modern German atheism, like Feuerbach, the forerunner of Karl Marx, began life as Lutheran theological students.

However, men can rightly want to go on believing in God even when they are unable to answer the formal objections to belief, and so it often was in this case. The situation was saved for the poor victims of Reimarus' scepticism, Eichorn's doubts, and Kant's agnosticism - or they thought it had been - by the Lutheran theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher.

* * *

Schleiermacher (1768-1834), a leading figure in the German romantic movement, had likewise had his belief in the reliability of Scripture and the value of natural theology undermined by Eichorn and Kant, but he thought he had discovered a way out of his impasse.

His message was roughly this: "Take heart. All is not lost. Religion does not need outside evidence to justify its existence. Religion is not knowledge, whether in the form of creeds, doctrines or the content of sacred books. It does not need philosophical reflection either. The essence of religion is piety, and piety is feeling. If you have a feeling of dependence on God you have all that is necessary to make you a member of the worldwide 'communion of saints' or company of the truly religious. The separate beliefs and practices of the various religions scattered through time and space are simply different ways, all more or less valid, of cultivating and expressing this fundamental instinct or attitude, which by itself is sufficient". [9]

Such was the tenor of the book which first made Schleiermacher famous: On Religion - Addresses to its Cultured Despisers (1799).

Equating religion and feeling had of course long been a feature of certain kinds of Protestantism, not least with the Moravian brethren, one of whose schools Schleiermacher had attended as a boy. But no professor of theology had hitherto denied the Bible and creeds any objective value, or made feeling - even if it was a feeling of absolute dependence on God - the sole substance of Christianity.

In 1811, Schleiermacher, who had been teaching at Halle, was offered the chair of theology at the recently founded university of Berlin, a post he held until 1830, and in 1821 and 1822 he published in two parts the other book on which his fame chiefly rests, The Christian Faith.

In The Christian Faith, in spite of its title, Schleiermacher does not retreat from his previous position. Christianity remains only one of many expressions of the feeling of dependence or "God-consciousness". But he tries to show why it is the best expression so far: Christ was the man in whom God-consciousness reached the highest intensity. Christ was not God. He did not found a Church. But the followers who naturally gathered round so remarkable a man received the impress of his personality, his special way of feeling dependence on God, and later, by forming themselves into a permanent community were able to transmit his special way of feeling or personhood down the ages. We do not know how many, if any, of the words attributed to Christ by the Gospels actually come from him. But each Christian receives the impress of Christ's way of feeling, by living and experiencing the sense of absolute dependence within the Christian community.

What differentiates the Christian religious consciousness from other forms of religious consciousness, and makes it superior to them, is the sense of having been redeemed from sin by Christ. This does not mean that Christ paid the debt for mankind's sins by his death on Calvary. Such a notion borders on magic. Redemption means that by receiving the impress of Christ's personhood, the Christian is better able to overcome sin (or whatever is an obstacle to the feeling of absolute dependence) and reach the highest level of God-consciousness of which he is capable.

One is inclined to agree with Karl Barth a century later that a characteristic note of Schleiermacher is an astonishing self-assurance. Schleiermacher is the real founding father of modernism. With Schleiermacher, everything essential to modernism has arrived. Radical biblical scholarship destroys belief. There follows a desperate attempt to construct a gimcrack religious shelter out of the ruins with the help of some form of modern philosophical subjectivism. This in turn leads to the positing of the two fundamental modernist theses. First, since there is no reliable external source of religious knowledge, it can only be found in personal experience (early modernists inclined to stress individual experience, today's modernists communal experience). Secondly, doctrines - those at least which are found "difficult", or, as would be said today, "lacking in credibility" - should not be regarded as statements of fact, but symbolic expressions of personal experience. Supernatural happenings, like the parting of waters at the Red Sea or the Resurrection, take place in people's minds or imaginations, never in the real world.

Personal experience is therefore the judge before which every objective statement of belief, whether in the Bible, the creeds, or any other source, will have to justify itself. If a teaching finds an echo in personal experience it can be accepted, if not, it should be left on one side or rejected. That is why, in The Christian Faith, Schleiermacher relegates the Trinity to an appendix: "What is not directly given in Christian consciousness", as a contemporary admirer of Schleiermacher puts it, "is of no primary concern to faith". We can have a feeling of sinfulness (concupiscence), or of having had our sins forgiven (redemption). These ideas are therefore "meaningful", but we no more feel that there are three persons in the One God, than that there are four, five or six.

Schleiermacher stands at the turning point in the history of Protestantism where the fierce certainties of Luther, Calvin and the other reformation patriarchs start to crumble, and doctrine or any clear statement of belief comes to be seen as something repulsive, something that, instead of giving light to the mind, weighs on it like a sack of cement which the mind wants to throw off.

As the 19th century proceeds, this turning away from doctrine will become first a flight, then a stampede, and finally a Gadarene rush, until in the mid-20th century it hits the rocks at the bottom of the cliff in the patronising agnosticism of Bultmann and the barely disguised unbelief of Tillich. Catholics swept into the stampede usually express their dislike of religious certainty with the lament "Oh, no! Not another infallible doctrine".
The one interesting feature of Schleiermacher's theology, from the Catholic standpoint, is his shift of attention away from the Bible to the "Christian community". What Schleiermacher meant by that term is not what Catholics mean. Nevertheless he reintroduced into Protestantism as a whole an awareness of the Church as a factor in Christianity of at least equal importance with the Bible. The Bible might be untrustworthy. But the Christian community with its personal experiences was an indisputable past and present fact.


[1] The term "higher criticism" was reserved for analysing texts, whether biblical or profane, in order to elucidate their authorship, date and meaning. The higher critics regarded textual criticism as a lower branch of scholarship.

[2] Quoted by Pius XII, Divino Afante Spiritu, 47.

[3] For Origen's doubts, see Eusebius, Hist. Eccles., 6.25, 11-13. For St. Jerome's: Eph. 129. C.S.E.L. 55169.

[4] See Geschichte der Griechischen Literatur, Franke Verlag, Bern, 1963 (English translation 1966) by Albin Lesky, professor of Greek, University of Vienna.

[5] Some examples will help to illustrate the difficulty of assessing the significance of stylistic differences. (a) Dr Johnson's two accounts of his journey to the Western Isles - one in letters written on the spot, the other in book form published after his return - are so unalike in style that, in Macaulay's opinion, if we did not know otherwise, we should find it hard to credit that they were written by the same man. (b) The 17th- century mystic St. Margaret Mary Alacoque was ordered by her superiors to write her memoirs. The result was found too unpolished for the intended readership, so they were rewritten in a style suited to the Grand Siècle. Should we infer from this that St. Margaret Mary had nothing to do with them? (c) There are versions of Chaucer in contemporary English. If these alone were to survive, what conclusions would be drawn about their authorship? The style of a text can belong to a period later than that of the author, with the content remaining essentially his product.

[6] See Ricciotti, History of Israel, Vol. 1, Milwaukee 1955, who cites a succession of cases where texts of enormous length have been handed down orally, with apparently little if any alteration, for centuries. See also William Dalrymple, City of Djinns, HarperCollins, 1996. According to this author, in India today there are still "bards" who can recite from memory the whole of the Mahabharata, an epic longer than the Bible.

[7] In taking this line, the critics were making, even by their own standards, an illegitimate inference; namely that the books of the New Testament were necessarily formed in the same way as those of the Old Testament as though literary composition and culture had remained unchanged between the period of Sennacherib or Cyrus and the age of the early Caesars. In fact, after two centuries of debate, there seems to be no compelling reason not to accept the already ancient tradition enshrined in the History of Eusebius of Caesarea (264-340), that the Gospels were written by the four Evangelists at roughly the time and in the way always believed. Justin Martyr (100-165) calls them the "Memoirs of the Apostles". Vatican II affirms both their "apostolic origin" and "historicity". (Dei Verbum 18 & 19). How could St. John have recalled lengthy speeches like Our Lord's at the Last Supper? We have only to recall similar feats of memory on the part of Macaulay and Mozart to realise it is entirely possible even without special divine assistance.

[8] It is now common, in Catholic Bible study groups and popular commentaries, to hear the Exodus miracles described as merely literary devices used by the author to convey the idea of God's power. See, for example, A Catholic Guide to the Bible, Oscar Lukefahr C.M., Liguori Publications, Liguori, MO.

[9] Livingston, Modern Christian Thought, Macmillan, New York, 1971, pp. 96-113.

Philip Trower is a British writer and journalist who covered five episcopal synods in Rome from 1980 to 1990. Born in 1923, Trower was educated in English private schools and attended Eton from 1936-40. He earned a B.A. in modern history from Oxford University 1941-2. He worked in literary journalism for the Times Literary Supplement and Spectator; in 1951 he published the novel Tillotson. He is also the author of the novel, A Danger to the State (Ignatius Press), about the 19th century suppression of the Jesuits.


Burying multiculturalism       By Seamus Grimes     Thursday, 06 July 2006

Experience around the world shows that building societies upon post-modern tolerance instead of old-fashioned respect just doesn't work.

To be tolerant of others is admirable, but in our “post-virtue” era tolerance has become an end in itself. Ever since the ideals of our Judeao-Christian heritage were first enunciated we have repeatedly fallen short in how we have treated the “other”. We have compounded this failure more recently by re-interpreting those ideals in ways which make it difficult for many to fully appreciate our shared humanity.

Many are the deficiencies and inconsistencies of the West. By the 19th century, rationalisations of Western racial superiority were common. Peoples from radically different cultures like Australian aborigines were sometimes viewed as sub-human. In some instances, this even stemmed from a distorted interpretation of Christian teaching, resulting in institutionalised forms of racism such as the “White Australia” policy, South Africa’s apartheid regime and the horrors of Nazi Germany. In fact, most societies had their marginalised “other” communities which were treated as second-class citizens, despite high-minded constitutional aspirations “to cherish our children equally”. More recently the challenge of not diminishing our humanity by not diminishing the inalienable rights of others has arisen particularly in relation to immigration.

By 2006 much progress had been made on the basis of “multiculturalism”, an approach which aspires to allow for some flowering of cultural differences within countries with large immigrant populations. Multiculturalism took over from the “assimilationism” of an earlier period, which sought cultural uniformity between immigrants and their adopted countries.

In 2006, however, multiculturalism is in crisis. This is partly because it is a policy constructed on weak post-modern, relativistic pillars which emphasise tolerance as an end in itself. In practice this means standing for everyone’s right to be different in fairly petty ways, without specifying how they should be the same in very important ways. Girls’ right to wear head scarves is affirmed, and girls’ right to marry whom they choose is ignored.

In a recent speech to the Australian Parliament, Tony Blair spoke of humanity’s common ownership of universal values such as justice and fairness and noted the growing threat of Islamist extremism. But we also face the more insidious undermining of long-cherished values by intellectuals who have developed a strange loathing of their own heritage. Under the umbrella of “multiculturalism” also shelter supporters of formerly objectionable lifestyles, notably gays and lesbians. The dogma of multiculturalism has shown itself to be incapable of distinguishing between social norms and social customs to the exasperation of many voters. It seems absurd to equate the right to serve chicken tikka masala with the right to teach school children about contraceptives and gay lifestyles.

So, despite apparent progress, multiculturalism is unlikely to provide a solid basis for constructing a more just society in 2036. The strain is already showing in growing racial and cultural tensions in the larger European cities. My prediction is that government-endorsed multiculturalism will be extinct in 30 years’ time. What will replace it as the political cement for increasingly diverse Western societies is harder to pick. Growing hostility towards Muslims does not auger well. At the worst, it could be a resurgence of 19th century racial discrimination and disenfranchisement.

But we can hope for better than this, thanks to growing levels of interconnectivity through media like the internet, growing literacy and so on. The world in 2036 is likely to be more urbanised and more globally integrated, with significant clusters of highly skilled people from many different countries making significant contributions to the older and more established core regions of the world. This greater mixing of peoples will also foster a greater homogenisation of society.

While there are many reasons to encourage the preservation of humanity's varied cultures, it is vital also to create a society which emphasises our common humanity. The multicultural model, while being well-intentioned, has not been particularly successful in creating a coherent approach towards solidifying the common good. Much can be gained from building social policy on the foundations of the best of our Judaeo-Christian background which emphasises the fundamental values of fairness, justice and respect.

Seamus Grimes is a professor of geography at the National University of Ireland in Galway.


Putting God back in the church

By Peter Sellick - posted Tuesday, 13 June 2006    

It is a great pity that the move in philosophy called postmodernism has attracted negative sentiments in the general public.

There is a fear this movement removes all that we know is solid - morality, values, and the scientific world view - to replace it with a sea of relativities and uncertainties.

It is thought postmodernism is just more radical scepticism emptying all that we thought we knew. Certainly the more outrageous expressions - particularly those originating in France - give off this odor. conjuring up a vision of young philosophers eager to make their names rampaging through our universities and overturning all the old authorities and certitudes.

An example of how postmodernism has been misrepresented is the silly questions set in English literature exams asking students to criticise texts from a particular position such as Marxist, feminist, postcolonial, or queer.

The origin of these questions lies in the program of deconstruction with its critical examination of texts for their underlying and often unrecognised biases and agendas.

While this process can be recommended for identifying false consciousness, it is important to understand how our position in life - as man, woman, indigenous, privileged, and so on - informs the kind of world we construct. Its deconstruction lays bare our soul and allows other points of view room to breath.

However, when this technique becomes the be-all and end-all for studying literature, then students standing back from the text with judgment in their heads are likely to miss the text altogether. The result can be moral megalomania, with the student self-righteously assuming the position of moral arbiter over our great texts of literature.

When suspicion rules there is no way texts may engage us. The greatest advantage of studying the great literary texts is that they are “other”. Student-centred learning, which insists on texts from the students’ own world, will not be confronted by difference and will remain in its own comfort zone.

Surely the importance of the great texts is their accurate representation of the human - something Big Brother as an alternative text does not do.

It is increasingly being recognised there was never room for theology in the modern project of setting up clear and distinct ideas based on firm foundations. This philosophical absolutism found its ground primarily in the natural sciences where theory could be tested and affirmed, or found wanting.

The success of this method ensured that all other forms of knowledge were relegated to the margins as subjective, with little or no foundation in the world. Theology suffered most from this move because the God that it investigated could be imagined only in terms of being under the auspices of natural science.

As a being among other beings God was vulnerable to negative evidence. And by seeking to lay the foundations of proof for God’s existence, we also lay the foundations of proofs for his nonexistence.

The whole argument about God’s existence or nonexistence is easily exposed as a kind of idolatry for both atheist and theist. This kind of god is a simple projection of our hopes, needs, desires and fears. As such, it acts as a mirror reflecting these concerns to us but closing the path to an interaction with the divine as “other”.

So, far from being a revision of Pyrrhonian scepticism in proclaiming the emptying of all known things, postmodernism - as its name implies - seeks to correct the errors of modernism.

By insisting on firm foundations for knowledge, modernism artificially limited what we thought we could know. Time and again in On Line Opinion’s comments section I am confronted by those who tell me I can’t prove anything.

That was the whole point in modernism, but postmodernism - even though it denies absolute foundations of knowledge - allows us to know enough to get along together.

We are reminded how recent the modern project is when we read St Paul, who tells us;

For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. (1 Cor 13:12 NRSV)


But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. (2 Cor 4:7 NRSV)

Rather than being about absolute foundations, scripture is conditioned by the transient nature of being and the movement towards a new reality. It’s the mentality of the nomad rather than of the settled people - of a people straining to see an emerging future rather than settling down to old verities.

The demise of the modern project of certitude allows theology to move outside the categories of being and absolute certainty to reclaim biblical speech about God.

What does it mean that God, in the first creation narrative, brings the world into being by his Word? “And God said, “Let there be …”, and it was so. What does it mean when, at the end of a prophecy, the prophet says, “Thus says the Lord?”

Who is this God who is identified with the sound of pure silence? But most puzzling of all, what do we make of the creative Word of God, which spoke the universe into being, becoming flesh.

Our problem is our view of biblical texts through the eyes of modernity blinds us to the texts’ original meaning - to the extent that we miss the extremely puzzling and paradoxical nature of biblical speech about God. The many examples of this could be teased out only in a larger work.

When our speech about God begins in the Bible instead of philosophical presuppositions, the God we arrive at is quite different - so different that John can tell us:

So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. (1 John 4:16 NRSV)

This language about God has no counterpart in the modern project, and only when we escape from its limitations can such a text make any sense. Only when we escape from the God of the 17th century scientist-theologians - the God that Newton believed in - can we hear what the Bible is saying to us.

God is not a being among beings. By centering his theology on the Word of God rather than the being of God, Karl Barth moved from the modern paradigm to the postmodern - before it was a recognised movement.

God thus ceases to be the subject of philosophical or scientific speculation, but is experienced as a spoken word. This word has content, not in the words of scripture, but in the reality to which scripture points - the humanism that emerged from Israel’s struggle with truth and in the man, Jesus.

This is the central reality of Christian worship, where the Word is faithfully preached and the sacraments celebrated. God is with His people. When this is affirmed, all speculation about God’s existence as being evaporates, making the scientist-theologians with their cosmological proofs redundant.

The Church’s long decline during the past few hundred years began when God was taken out of the Church and became an object of scientific speculation. It was entirely predictable this would produce the dominant heresy of the modern age, Unitarianism, since the modern paradigm could not cope with God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

When Newton could not affirm the doctrine of the Trinity (ironically residing, himself, at Trinity College, Cambridge), the king gave him dispensation to retain his post. In retrospect, this was a major concession to theological error and, given Newton’s fame, helped fragment the faith of the Church.

Understanding God in terms other than being requires considerable education against our natural tendency to think in terms of person.

We must speak about God in terms of person because He cannot be reduced to knowledge or force or process. Rather, he is in relation with us. But we must also remember He is not a person among persons. He does not exist in matter - especially not in a contradictory supernatural matter - but in the spirit of freedom and truth.

Only when we escape from the false orientations and restrictions modernity has imposed on us, can God be given back to the Church.Stanley Hauerwas has entitled an essay “In a world without foundations: all we have is the church.”

In modernity speech about God was a poor amalgam of the secular and the biblical, with the secular eventually crowding out the biblical. In postmodernity talk about God will be impossible without talk about the people of God.

God will no longer be a foundation for morality or existence to shore up our shaky lives but will be experienced as in the days gone by - as his creative, judging, forgiving, loving Word in the midst of the congregation. To hear this Word is to be saved from the powers of death around us and set free from the idolatry so natural to our hearts.

A theology centered around the Word of God rather than the being of God requires subtle changes in our understanding of the key occupation of Christian prayer. Prayer is certainly a conversation of sorts.

Paul told us we should “pray without ceasing”. Surely he did not mean we constantly press our concerns upon God, but that we unceasingly listen for His Word.

A medieval painting of Mary shows her being impregnated by the Word through her ear. This is an image of prayer. Prayer consists in us listening to the Word. It is not something we do occasionally but is a medium in which “we live and move and have our being”.

The seed crystal around which all Christian prayer grows is to be found in the opening of the liturgy: “The Lord be with you.” This desire, particularly expressed in the Gospel of John as God dwelling with His people, is the primary desire of all Christians and the focus of all prayer.

This hope is fulfilled in our listening to the Word, and also in intercessory prayer as hope for the “other”. Thus prayer is a different kind of conversation with an “other”, and different from private thought, which is insulated within the self. It is the opening of the self to the depths of the Word.

The modern paradigm never had room for biblical theology, and the Church’s task now is to throw it off to reclaim faithful speech about God.

This will take great educative effort directed to both the churched and unchurched such is the tenacious hold of modernity on our minds.

Article edited by Allan Sharp.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

This article was helped considerably by several chapters of Overcoming Onto-theology by Merold Westphal.



Your pocket guide to Postmodernism's history
By Martin Fitzgerald  
Wednesday, 31 May 2006

Before all the hooha about postmodernism, there was something called modernism. What was all that about?

It all began with one simple idea which multiplied dangerouslyHow often have you been reading something quite pleasant and suddenly the author drops the fateful word – postmodernism? The argument begins to get fuzzy. You muddle through and hope that the rest of the article becomes clear. You also have a sneaking suspicion that a dictionary will be useless. And, anyhow, how are you supposed to know what postmodernism is if you’re not even sure what modernism is?

So let’s start with modernism. This is the philosophical term for philosophical offshoots of the Enlightenment, the complex of ideas that has shaped the modern world from the 18th century until the mid-20th century. Its characteristic features were -- and still are -- suspicion of authority and tradition as sources of knowledge and the conviction that human reason is the engine of progress. This implied that religious faith was a bad guide to understanding the world and that the unimpeded march of science and technology was a very good thing. The Enlightenment was optimistic: knowledge through reason alone would produce an ideal world which goes forever forward.

These key ideas sprang from a tectonic shift in philosophy begun by Rene Descartes (1596-1650). Instead of asking “How can I explain the world and understand it?”, he asked, “How can I be certain about things?”  This led him to the assertion that cogito ergo sum, "I think therefore I am", was the starting point of philosophy. This launched a long tradition of which postmodernism is the most recent flowering.

After Descartes, philosophy followed two strands. The first strand was rationalism, the notion that sense data is suspect and that the truth can only be reached through reason. Ultimately this led to idealism, an attempt to explain the universe in terms of an absolute principle. More about this later.

The second strand was empiricism, the view that only sense knowledge is worthy of being trusted. Ideas, that is, concepts or reasoning which are unverifiable by the senses, distort the truth. Empiricism fostered progress in science and technology. And in the human sciences of sociology, psychology and history it led to positivism, which demanded that the human sciences should be based on the same methods as experimental science. This required the exclusion of certain notions from what had commonly been regarded as true knowledge. David Hume, for example, denied causality. Just because a green billiard ball strikes a blue billiard ball does not mean that the green causes the blue to move. It might have been an accident. So, although the word empiricism has a “scientific” ring, it really leads to a radical scepticism about the common sense world.

In the 20th century, the methodology of positivism was applied to language, what words mean and how we structure them. This has a long history, but it characteristically resulted in an analysis of texts on their own, without reference to the author and without reference to any truth that the author might be aiming at. An important offshoot of this approach was structuralism. It regarded language as just the most sophisticated way of using signs and symbols. The Columbus of structuralism was Claude Levi Strauss, an old leftie from Paris and an anthropologist of primitive societies. He taught that all discourse was simply power plays. Those who wrote used writing to subject and oppress those who did not write, either because they were illiterate or because they had no access to the apparatus of publishing. Understanding discourse involves analysing its assumptions, its prejudices and its access to the public forum. Without any reference to the truth or to the author’s intention, all discourse had to be “deconstructed”.

The recently-deceased Jacques Derrida is the most famous practitioner of deconstruction. This analyses sign systems, from billboards for Coke to Hamlet and the Mona Lisa, not in terms of the truths conveyed, but in terms of what they reveal about the power structures generating them. The corollary is that if you want to change the power structures, you must change the discourse, particularly the public discourse. This has some plausibility in literature, but in anthropology, sociology or psychology its effects have been quite pernicious. Deconstruction transforms every form of intellectual endeavour into a kind of fiction; they all are ways of constructing reality with words. All discourses are equally valid because they are not about reality anyway. Everything fed into the deconstructive shredder emerges as power. There are no rights, no justice, no truth, no value, no worth. This is the postmodern endpoint of empiricism.

The 1998 film The Truman Show, directed by Peter Weir, captures the issues raised by the empirical strand of postmodernism. Jim Carrey plays Truman Burbank, insurance salesman living an idyllic life in a small American town who discovers his entire life is actually a reality TV show. Its message is that in a world in which all discourses are the same, the edges between entertainment fiction and reality are blurred. People live vicariously through their favourite TV characters but to some extent we are all TV characters because we too are manipulated by the media. 

Let’s return to the other strand of the Enlightenment, rationalism. It aspires to an understanding of the world which is free from the vagaries of sense perception. Thought leads to truth. In an odd sort of way, it recognises that that there is a spiritual reality, even if only in mathematical abstraction. The giant of rationalism is Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel (1770-1831). He believed that there is a world spirit which is the result of the accumulation of rational knowledge by humanity, especially by intellectuals. In the course of history this world spirit is refined through a dialectic, the clash of progressive and liberating ideas with the conservative ideas that have preceded them. It will culminate in an omega point in which everything is absorbed into the absolute. There will be no differences or distinctions; all will be part of the Absolute.

The State, he taught, embodied the Absolute because it somehow crystallised the best things of society in itself. While Hegel is far more sophisticated than I give him credit for here, the logical outcome of his philosophy was Communism and Fascism. In these regimes, the state was supreme and the individual counted for almost nothing. Rivers of blood ran from these “isms”, and after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Hegelian rationalism seemed to be bankrupt. The world had experimented with Absolute Ideas which explained all of history -- and they hadn’t worked. Postmodernism is often seen as a sceptical response to the eclipse of these grandiose schemes.

Despite the temporary success of idealism, it had formidable intellectual foes. The first was Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855). Reacting against the lack of attention paid to the individual by the idealist juggernaut, he focused on how the individual must assert his existence by constructing himself through his decisions. Freedom and choice become supreme in his philosophy. As a devout Danish Lutheran, his most important choices were those associated with religious faith and religious commitment.

An atheistic response to this all-consuming idealism came from the French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980). He borrowed Nietzsche’s analysis of the death of God and the loss of meaning in the world. Life was an absurdity, a tragi-comedy with no meaning other than the one they chose. The Czech writer Franz Kafka captured this existentialist dilemma in his bizarre tales, The Trial and Metamorphosis and Sartre in his novel La nausée (Nausea). On a more popular level Alan Alda portrayed it in the absurdities of M*A*S*H.

The German philosopher Nietzsche (1844-1900) actually took this view of the world, known as existentialism, a step further than Sartre. In a world without God, is there any meaning? No, he says. Nietzsche claims that all humans act only for power. Some humans are more gifted than others and are not bound by the ordinary rules which bind everyone else. He calls them supermen, in the Nazi sense, not in the comic book sense. He imposes meaning on his life and the life of others, thus proving his freedom and establishing his identity. This strand of postmodernism is captured in the nightmarish 1982 film Bladerunner, Harrison Ford’s first major film. It highlights the creation of identity in the “replicants”, the struggle for power and the pervasiveness and power of propaganda.

Postmodernism is a set of ideas to be studied at university. But it is also an attitude to life. People not only think postmodern thoughts, they also live postmodern lives. They live without ideals, or ideas; their morality is homemade relativism; their commitments are fleeting; they distrust authority and “canonical” texts; they are sceptical about assertions of truth and falsehood. Films are a useful way of capturing this. The Truman Show and Bladerunner are two thought-provoking examples, but there is one which sums them all up, The Matrix. See that and you’ll understand more or less what postmoderism is all about.

Martin Fitzgerald is Head of Philosophy at Redfield College in Sydney.


Postmodernism's unteachable suspicion    
By Philip Elias  
Thursday, 01 June 2006

A Sydney seminar on the impact of postmodernism upon education provides some thought-provoking reflections on a philosophy which pervades the teaching of liberal arts.
ImageAustralia is not a safe place for postmodernists at the present moment. Over the past months, academics, journalists, and even Prime Minister John Howard have publicly attacked their influence on school curricula around the country.

At a recent seminar at Warrane College, a residential college at the University of New South Wales, in Sydney, academics from three universities took the chance to lambaste the postmodern position. In this issue of MercatorNet, we are featuring some of the contributions that they made.

In "Your pocket guide to PoMo's history" Martin Fitzgerald provides some historical background. His paper traces two philosophical strands that have shaped postmodernism. One is the deconstructionism of thinkers like Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. This developed from the structuralist and logical positivist movements of the 20th century, which in turn sprang from the empiricist tradition. The other is the atheistic existentialism of Jean Paul Sartre and Friedrich Nietzsche. The convergence of these ideas has led to the “theory” -- or more correctly the attitude -- that characterises postmodernism.

In "What does this mean for education?" James Franklin argues that postmodern-inspired curricula foster “unteachable suspicion” in students. Great works of literature, historical documents, and even scientific research are “texts” to be analysed rather than appreciated. Power becomes the essence of human communication; truth, goodness and human nature are merely fronts for the giant power play that we call education.

Postmodernism manifests itself in specific ways in the various teaching disciplines. Barry Spurr’s paper, “What is the difference between King Lear and Ginger Meggs?” deals specifically with the disastrous effects of a postmodern approach to English. At its worst, Spurr argues, postmodernism in the study of literature is “a synonym for intellectual chaos and ignorance”.

Defenders of postmodernism will argue that any summary statements are misrepresentative and create a “straw man” of their ideas. But it is a bit rich for postmodernists, with their emphasis on the fluidity of meaning, to ask for a watertight definition of their philosophy. Another contributor, Alan Barcan*, pointed out that postmodernism is “sometimes used as an umbrella term for the vast range of ideological, curricular and pedagogical changes since the cultural revolution of 1967-74.” It encompasses the ideologies of feminism, environmentalism, neo-Marxism, and so on. Despite their differences, these outlooks share the philosophical approaches outlined above and unanimously encourage “unteachable suspicion” towards all knowledge (except, of course, the knowledge they provide).

So what is the big deal? After all, postmodern ideas are now passé at most tertiary institutions in Australia. But as James Franklin points out, there is a strong and more lasting trickle-down effect to schools. For most people, the years at primary and secondary are the most formative, if not the only, part of their education.

There are perhaps four areas of major concern for these students:

   1. Fundamental facts and concepts are being skipped over in a child's education. In the rush to initiate students in the cult of cultural theory, grammar, great works of literature, and the broad brushstrokes of history are neglected.

   2. The gaps in the wall left by a postmodern approach to education are often filled with substandard works and decontextualised fragments of the classical curriculum. Australian Idol is considered as worthwhile a “text” as Othello. Shakespeare’s works themselves are clapped in feminist or postcolonial shackles. National histories are first and foremost to be considered as shameful tales of oppression and violence. Science is to be considered primarily as social construction.

   3. The attitude of “unteachable suspicion” is presented to students dogmatically, as a moral imperative in learning. While paying lip service to an “anything goes” approach to knowledge and truth “the promoters of the brave new world of so-called postmodernism are authoritative and prescriptive to a fault,.” says Barry Spurr. In fact, the only thing students are not encouraged to be suspicious of is the analyses offered by their teachers. This often comes later, and naturally, when the student completes university. The by-product is usually a crudely pragmatic approach to education, or a sense of disillusion.

   4. A vicious cycle of artistic mediocrity is established. Victims of a postmodern education grow up and become teachers. They are unable to draw upon the essential texts and ideas in the liberal arts. They cannot provide students with the grounding from which true innovation can take place.

I suspect postmodernists want effortless wisdom. There is a sense in which it is thought to be clever to identify the ways in which the comic strip Ginger Meggs and King Lear are similar. But this is a no-brainer. They are similar because they are both expressions of human experience and imagination. The similarities are most properly examined at university, in cultural studies or anthropology, not in high school English.

The really clever thing is to be able to say why Ginger Meggs and King Lear are not similar. What makes one work great and another mediocre? To answer this adequately years of study and experience are required. Competent teachers are indispensable. Find them; poach them; train them -- and I’d wager that “unteachable suspicion” will melt into a sense of wonder. And this is the starting point for all knowledge.

Phillip Elias is studying medicine at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. He was the organiser of the seminar on postmodernism and Australian education at Warrane College, University of New South Wales, Sydney, in April 

* For reasons of space, the paper presented by Alan Barcan (Honorary Associate, School of Education, University of Newcastle), “Postmodernism and the Fractured Curriculum”, has not been published on MercatorNet. His analysis of the ideologies competing for control of education is presented in “Ideology and the Curriculum” in Naomi Smith (ed.) Education and the Ideal (New Frontier, 2004).


Australia’s wackiest postmodernists    
By James Franklin  
Thursday, 01 June 2006

It's easy to laugh off the fashion for PoMo, but harder to find a constructive solution.
August Highland:Postmodernism is not so much a theory as an attitude. It is an attitude of suspicion – suspicion about claims of truth. So if postmodernists are asked “Aren’t the claims of science just true, and some things objectively right and wrong?” the reaction is not so much “No, because…” but “They’re always doubtful, or relative to our paradigms, or just true for dominant groups in our society; and anyway, in whose interest is it to think science is true?”

Postmodernism in not only an attitude of suspicion, but one of unteachable suspicion. If one tries to give good arguments for some truth claim, the postmodernist will be ready to “deconstruct” the concept of good argument, as itself a historically-conditioned paradigm of patriarchal Enlightenment rationality.

Finally, the postmodernist congratulates her/himself morally on having unteachable suspicion. Being “transgressive” of established standards is taken to be good in itself and to position the transgressor as a fighter against “oppression”, prior to giving any reasons why established standards are wrong. In asking how to respond to postmodernism, it is especially important to understand that its motivation does not lie in argument but in the more primitive moral responses, resentment and indignation.

PoMo at work 

Barbara Kruger: “Untitled (Your Body is a Battleground)”, 1989To illustrate, let us take a few examples from my webpage of Australia’s Wackiest Academic Websites. Worst results only are shown. We will need to consider later how widespread and dangerous such examples are and hence how seriously the problem should be taken and what should be done about it.

The University of Western Sydney used to be a leader in the field but a couple of years ago their central marketers cleaned up their website and it is now harder to find what is going on. Through the miracle of web archiving, however, one can browse such past gems as the project of Dr Arnd Hofmeister on “Queer embodiment”:

    Based on a project with/of the Japanese Artist Erika Matsunamie about masculinities and femininities with German male “Cross-Dressers” this research project seeks to investigate the phantasmatic dimension of embodiment. Embodiment is understood as a highly overdetermined and contradictive inscription of practices in the body with continuously shifting investments. Using in-depth interviews and free association over significant self-portrait photographs modes of articulations over embodied experiences are analyzed to get insights in the heterogeneous processes of gendering and sexing the body.

(Let me make it clear that I have nothing against German transvestites. It is just the way they are being used as an excuse for bullshit that is a problem.)

Still very much with us is the oeuvre of Dr Alison Moore, who joined the University of Queensland’s Centre for the History of European Discourses as a postdoctoral fellow in 2005.

    Her ongoing project is about the history of excretory taboos in Europe of the mid-to-late nineteenth-century and their relationship to visions of progress, bourgeois class conformity and colonial identification. In this vein she had published `Kakao and kaka: Chocolate and the Excretory Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe’, in Carden-Coyne and Forth (eds), Cultures of the Abdomen: Diet, Digestion and Fat in the Modern World, New York: Palgrave, 2004, 51-69. She is now working on a book manuscript entitled, The Anal Imagination: Psychoanalysis, Capitalism and Excretion.

The two “Body modifications” conferences that have been held at Macquarie University included some choice items. The first conference, in 2003, had a keynote paper `A spectacular specimen: hermaphroditic strategies for survival’:

    Del LaGrace Volcano (formerly known as Della Grace) is a gender variant visual artist and intersex activist who is the author/photographer of three books, Lovebites (Gay Men’s Press, 1991), The Drag King Book (Serpent’s Tail, 1999) and Sublime Mutations (Konkursbuchverlag, 2000). sHE has been documenting and creating heroic re/presentations from the queer communities sHE belongs to for over 25 years. Film credits include: Pansexual Public Porn (1997), A Prodigal Son? (1998), Journey Intersex (2000) and most recently The Passionate Spectator (2003).

Another paper in the same conference was `What an arse can do: affect, time and intercorporeal transfomation’: “Transformations in anal capacity, in what an arse can do, are sought-after … let’s stop there…

Good taxpayers’ money, it must be remembered, is going into this research. Last year’s ARC Discovery grants, the major large grants competed for across all areas, included one to the University of Technology, Sydney for a project on “Local noise: Indigenising hip-hop in Australasia”.

Although “the body” is a favourite topic, owing to its multiple transgressive possibilities, it must be said that most postmodernist writing is much less colourful than the examples just quoted. More typical is this paragraph, the first one on the website of the University of Wollongong’s Hegemony Research Group, which introduces to the interested public what the Group is doing:

    The originality of Gramsci’s conceptualisation of hegemony has long been recognized, and is evidenced by the extremely wide-ranging intellectual applications of, and the amazing corpus of published writings organised around, the Gramscian conceptualisation. In cultural writing, historical interpretation and studies of states, nations and global power it has proved remarkably versatile. Gramscian understandings of hegemony have shaped – overtly or implicity – such crucial but diverse studies as Edward Said’s analysis of Orientalism; Louis Althusser’s theory of ideology; Michel Foucault’s concept of the episteme; the writings of social historians such as … etc etc

The idea that a dense thicket of unexplained references to continental theorists is the way to introduce an idea is absolutely typical of the postmodernist mindset.

A 1998 press release from the University of Adelaide shows where this is heading as regards respect for scientific truth. It concerns a course on “Indigenous Australian Perspectives in Science and Technology”. There is nothing wrong with studying aboriginal perspectives on the natural world, but the claims made for it include these:

    At Wilto Yerlo we believe it’s important that indigenous students realise Western science is only one way of understanding the natural world. Of equal value is their own indigenous way of knowing the world.

That is not correct. Western science is a way of knowing the natural world, but it is the only way of knowing it that is likely to make an impact on the severe health problems of remote indigenous communities, because it has found the unique right way to study causes and effects.

Defining the problem

August Highland:How serious is the problem? Have humanities departments been taken over by this sort of rubbish?

Not exactly. The kind of people just quoted regard themselves as an embattled minority, and not without reason. There are plenty of humanities academics doing serious work, probably a majority in the older universities. Still, the trickle-down effects of the postmodernist industry are quite serious in a number of areas. Humanities academics of a more respectable persuasion have to spend time fighting for positions and grants against an enemy that never gives up; it is a tiring business. Equally exhausting is trying to persuade students to take serious subjects that will force them to think and to learn something instead of grabbing easy marks from trendy courses that give out high marks for the illiterate pooling of politically-correct prejudices. Since universities allocate teaching monies on the basis of enrolments, lecturers in logic or classics are always at a disadvantage in an Arts faculty that offers Critical Feminist Research Methodologies.

Other effects are felt in school syllabuses, as other contributors to this symposium have described. Schoolteachers themselves generally retain a fund of common sense, but curriculum designers and educationists are not kept down to earth by the discipline of dealing with school students and parents. I do have some positive news to report on this front: I recently marked Sydney Grammar School’s Headmaster’s Exhibition, an essay competition for the school’s top students. I am pleased to say that the standard of argument in the essays was uniformly excellent and there was not a trace of postmodernism in any of them. Undoubtedly, a student with the good fortune to have well-educated parents or to go to a top school will be able to avoid infection by the postmodernist virus. The youth more exposed to corruption is one who moves from a not-so-good school to a second-rate humanities faculty and takes his teachers’ attitudes seriously for want of access to anything better. An intelligent student in that position suffers a grave injustice. It is especially because of the trashing of the talent of such students that I maintain my anger about postmodernism.

The last serious consequence of postmodernism, one that extends well beyond the small clique of card-carrying jargon-laden theorists, is the moralising of public debate on questions that should be factual, such as the “History Wars” and debates on economic rationalism. The relentless assault of postmodernism on truth and its replacement of rational debate with resentful “deconstruction” has, so to speak, given permission for public intellectuals to lead with denunciations and rancour prior to getting their facts straight. The “History Wars” began when Keith Windschuttle wrote a book, The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, claiming on the basis of his archival research that the Tasmanian aboriginals were not massacred but mostly died of diseases. It is astounding how few of the replies to him bothered to examine his factual claims and the evidence he provided. Almost all of the ferocious attacks on him consisted of denunciations of his alleged racism, abuse about his supposed lack of imagination, comparisons with the Holocaust denier David Irving, and snide remarks about his not having a PhD. Though only one of his major opponents descended to any explicit postmodernist claims about the relativism of truth, the standard of the debate was extremely low, in a way that I believe would not have been tolerated forty years ago before the advent of postmodernism. Something of the same shallow moralism infects the debate on economic rationalism. According to its supporters, a free market is the best method of delivering prosperity to both rich and poor. That may or may not be so, but the way to debate it is to look at economic evidence. It is not to the point to try to short-circuit that difficult economic debate by abusing economic rationalists for “reducing humans to mere consumers” or for approving of “obscene” inequalities of income. Arguments on matters of fact need to be sorted out before moral judgments are made, not, as postmodernism would have it, the reverse.

Facing the problem

Barbara Kruger “Untitled (Your Manias Become Science)”, 1981If it is agreed that postmodernism is a problem, what should be done about it?

There are four possible plans:

    Plan A: Do nothing and hope it goes away

    Plan B: Take political action in an effort to have postmodernists sacked and deprived of grants

    Plan C: Refute postmodernism with arguments

    Plan D: Provide a more exciting, positive alternative

Defeatist though it sounds, there is something to be said for plan A: sit and wait for it to go away. We all have other things to do, and given that postmodernism is not exactly forging ahead, we might well decide to take a relaxed approach and not grant it the oxygen of publicity. And after all, flared jeans and big hair did not disappear because anyone refuted them – they just came to their use-by date and no one bothered with them any more. Still, to take the same approach with postmodernism would neglect the claims of the young whose minds will be corrupted by falling in with postmodernists. And since academia still in most cases provides jobs for life (especially for those unemployable elsewhere), timescales in academic fashions are very long – a present PhD student could still be teaching in forty years’ time.

There have been some interesting recent attempts along the line of Plan B: political action. Brendan Nelson, until recently the Australian minister in charge of higher education, refused to fund about half a dozen of the worst grants recommended by the Australian Research Council’s grant evaluation process, and appointed the conservative editor of Quadrant, Paddy McGuinness, to the panel that evaluated the grants. That is fiddling with the margins, and there seems no prospect of anything more forceful. Since academic freedom is a principle of some value, that may be reasonable. There is an inevitable and largely unresolvable conflict between the principles of academic freedom and quality control. I do not call for anyone to be sacked. (Though I do call for certain persons to resign in shame.)

Refutation, Plan C, would be a good plan in an ideal world where there was a level playing field in the conflict of ideas, where theories fought man to man on the basis of fair arguments. That is not our world. You might as well expect damsels in distress to be rescued by knights in armour. Because postmodernism is not accepted by its followers on the basis of argument, deploying arguments against it is like boxing with shadows. It is just met with a smokescreen of “deconstructions” of the appeal to argument as itself implicated in the modernist rationalist problematic, and so on.

Still, perhaps there is an uncommitted audience out there somewhere, so I have two excellent thinkers to recommend who identified and exposed what arguments there are at the bottom of postmodernism. The first is Raymond Tallis, whose brilliantly-titled book Not Saussure shows how the ideas of such later stars as Derrida repeat the fundamental mistake in the philosophy of language made by Saussure a hundred years ago. Saussure believed that the structured nature of language meant, for example, that the meanings of “black” and “white” were defined merely by their opposition to each other, rather than being tied to our perception of those colours; the disconnection of language from reality that his theory implies has been relied on my all postmodernists since to emphasise the “constructed” (hence political, hence probably wrong, hence open to remaking at our pleasure) nature of whatever we say.

The second thinker to expose the confusions at the heart of postmodernism was the Sydney philosopher David Stove, who in 1985 ran a “Competition to find the worst argument in the world”. The argument had to be both very bad and very widespread. He awarded the prize to himself with the following argument:

    We can know things only
    • as they are related to us
    • under our forms of perception and understanding
    • insofar as they fall under our conceptual schemes,
    we cannot know things as they are in themselves

Stated as baldly as that, the argument is probably not recognisable. Here is an example that most will recognise. Speaking of the typical products of a modern high school, he writes:

    Their intellectual temper is (as everyone remarks) the reverse of dogmatic, in fact pleasingly modest. They are quick to acknowledge that their own opinion, on any matter whatsoever, is only their opinion; and they will candidly tell you, too, the reason why it is only their opinion. This reason is, that it is their opinion.

That is a version of the “worst argument” because is says, in effect, “my opinion is just my opinion – created by my genes, education etc – so it cannot be an opinion that there is any reason to believe”. The version that lies at the heart of postmodernism is similar, but more culturally focused:

The cultural-relativist, for example, inveighs bitterly against our science-based, white-male cultural perspective. She says that it is not only injurious but cognitively limiting. Injurious it may be; or again it may not. But why does she believe that it is cognitively limiting? Why, for no other reason in the world, except this one: that it is ours. Everyone really understands, too, that this is the only reason. But since this reason is also generally accepted as a sufficient one, no other is felt to be needed.

I hope it is clear why the “worst argument” is so bad. As another Sydney philosopher, Alan Olding, pointed out, it is of the same form as “We have eyes, therefore we can’t see.”

It is hard to believe that a real live postmodernist will concentrate long enough to take on serious arguments like those of Tallis and Stove. The postmodernist mindset does not bother to reply to objections. So here is my recommendation on what to say if you find yourself arguing with one at a party. You will find that whatever you say is met with an attempted “deconstruction” as just another symptom of your indoctrination by the capitalist rationalist oppressors. So ask this: "What would count as evidence against your position?"

If something is suggested, you have something to work on. Most likely, it will become clear that nothing would count as evidence against that position. But a position that nothing would count as evidence against is vacuous. (If your position is “snow is white”, it is clear what counts against it, such as seeing black snow; if your position is “snow is white or snow is not white”, nothing counts against it because you haven’t said anything with content.)

I have a recommendation also on what to say to the friends of the postmodernist at the party who are shocked by your lack of tolerance and urge you to read all of Derrida and Foucault before you rudely dismiss their important contributions to thought. Ask them: “What is one good idea that postmodernists have come up with?” Ten to one they will be unable to state one idea postmodernists have come up with, good, bad or indifferent.

A better alternative

August HighlandIn the longer term, the answer to postmodernism, especially to its ethical appeal, must rely on Plan D: presenting a better alternative. If the youth are being corrupted by postmodernism through its appeal to their indignation and to their sense that there must be more to life than the pursuit of material gain, then they can only be rescued by presenting a more credible alternative moral vision.

So what vision? Unfortunately, there are a number of fundamentalisms available – Islamic, Sydney Anglican, Hillsong, Environmentalist and so on – which play well in the market. (I use “fundamentalism” here somewhat loosely, for any position that hands down a complete scripture and simply urges “have faith, take it or leave it”.) Fundamentalist leaders are always encouraged by the number of fourteen-year-olds joining up. What do you expect? It is fortunate that an Australian teenager who signs up is not as badly off as one in the Gaza strip who will soon find himself strapping on a bomb, but blind commitment is no way to find the meaning of life. The Catholic tradition does not lend itself so well to fundamentalism, since it has always approved of philosophy, but a kind of Catholic fundamentalism is certainly possible – for centuries, many Catholics said “If the Pope says Galileo is wrong, then Galileo is wrong as far as I’m concerned.” That kind of “loyalty” is not helpful.

Another alternative vision might be called “imitatory” – it is based on presenting models that will inspire the young in the right course: the life of Jesus in the religious realm, literary works with solid values such as Jane Austen’s novels and Harry Potter, stories of real heroes such as medical researchers and peace negotiators. That is a good plan as far as it goes. It is very appropriate for the earlier years at school. The fight against postmodernism, however, is really on the level of theory. There needs to be a positive theoretical vision that will support one’s initial positive reaction to heroes, instead of, like postmodernist suspicion, undermining it.

I have a plan. It is based on presenting the absolute basics of ethics in a way that shows their objectivity, but free from any religious commitment. I have come to that view from a perspective of Catholic natural law ethics, but there are other ways of seeing it – my closest collaborator in this area is Jean Curthoys, author of an excellent book attacking postmodernist feminist theory, Feminist Amnesia. She has a Marxist background and sees what we are doing as a continuation of the “liberation theory of the Sixties”.

The idea is that ethics is not fundamentally about what actions ought to be done, or about rights, or virtues, or divine commands. Ethics does indeed have something to say about those matters, but they are not basic. Where ethics should start is well explained in a page of Rai Gaita’s Good and Evil: An Absolute Conception. He asks us to consider a tutorial in which one of its members had suffered serious torture and that was known to all the others in the group. If the tutor then asked the group to consider whether our sense of good and evil might be an illusion, “everyone would be outraged if their tutor was not serious and struck by unbelieving horror if he was”. Scepticism about the objectivity of good and evil, Gaita says, is not only false but a moral offence against those who have suffered real evil.

Ethics should start, then, with a direct sense of what is good and what is evil. To what things can good and evil happen? The death of a human is a tragedy but the explosion of a lifeless galaxy is just a firework. Why the difference? There is something about humans, an irreducible worth or equal moral value, that means that what happens to them matters a great deal. That equal worth of persons, brought home directly to us when someone we care about suffers loss or when we ourselves suffer an injustice, is what ethics is fundamentally about. Other aspects of ethics follow from that. Why is murder wrong? Because it destroys a human life, something of immense intrinsic value. (And why is it arguable that capital punishment might nevertheless be possible in some extreme circumstances, although it takes a human life? – because there is a possibility that it might deter someone from taking many valuable lives.) Other rules of right and wrong should follow from the worth of persons similarly (together with necessary information about the psychological makeup of humans, which gives insight into what is really good for them). Rights? They follow in the same way as rules: the right to life is just the prohibition on murder, but seen from the point of view of the potential victim; it too follows directly from the intrinsic moral worth of the person under threat. Virtues? The virtue of restraint or temperance, for example, is a disposition to act so as not to harm oneself and others, so it too is directly explicable in terms of the harm done (by drugs, for example) to humans. Divine commands? They must be in accordance with what is inherently right. In the Christian vision, God does support the value of all humans. “Look at the birds of the air”, says Jesus. “They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” Any god or purported god who issues commands contrary to human worth, such as edicts to make war on unbelievers, must be resisted in the interests of humanity.

Much more is needed to explain how that moral vision works itself out in practice. It does not follow from the fact that the principles of ethics are simple that it is easy to decide on ethical questions. On the contrary, the fundamental equal worth of persons itself creates conflicts when there is tension between what different people need. Some of the issues are discussed further in my new book, Catholic Values and Australian Realities. But I hope enough has been said to indicate where to find an alternative, and more optimistic, vision of human life than the simplistic travesties foisted on the long-suffering youth of the world these past forty years by postmodernism.

James Franklin is an Associate Professor of mathematics at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.

What is the difference between King Lear and Ginger Meggs?    
By Barry Spurr  
Thursday, 01 June 2006

The real victims of Postmodernism are students who have never been introduced to the classics of English literature.

In the best postmodern way, I should let you know at the outset that I am not going to talk about either King Lear or Ginger Meggs. I have juxtaposed Shakespeare’s tragic monarch and the hero of the once-popular cartoon strip – as indeed I have juxtaposed Andrew Marvell, the late Metaphysical poet and Mickey Mouse – in various public ruminations about the problems associated with the reading, teaching and appreciation of literature in English in the contemporary classroom, specifically, in the current New South Wales Higher School Certificate English syllabus (but, of course, not only there).

Such juxtapositions are meant to highlight the jettisoning of value in education, in general, reflected earlier this week, for example, when the Australian Catholic University saw fit to confer honorary doctoral degrees on the Wiggles. The thinking (if it might be so called) behind such events as this reveals a degraded idea of the university – if I may use Cardinal’s Newman’s term of high conception in reference to such a debased context. It goes well beyond a modern re-consideration of (and, at times, a healthy re-valuation of received ideas about the university and educational ideals in general) to expose, in postmodernism, an utter disconnection from and ignorance of what those ideals might be. The Sydney Morning Herald, to its credit, derided the “doctoring” of the Wiggles for the stunt it was. But that it was possible at all is indeed stunting, diminishing, demoralising – and this, in a Catholic University during Holy Week. 

Yet “postmodernism” is a clumsy and unilluminating term, for various reasons. The first has to do with “modernism” itself. In art – literary, musical and visual – Modernism, with a capital “M”, was a movement, largely taking place between the two world wars and, in literature at least, having its annus mirabilis as early as 1922, with the publication of arguably the greatest poem and novel of the twentieth century, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and James Joyce’s Ulysses. The next generation of writers -- someone, for example, like W.H. Auden, whose artistry was maturing through the 1930s -- were, strictly-speaking, post-Modernist: drawing upon what Modernists like Eliot had achieved, but subverting aspects of that achievement, making their own distinctive contributions. A generation later, in the 1950s, Philip Larkin and other members of the so-called “Movement” school of poetry, were also (and more obviously) reacting against Modernism, so were post-post-Modernists, in the sense of their relationship with the original (and, by now, distant) Modernist movement. So, it is both hard to pin down the Modernism which postmodernism is related to, and also to date its inception, and, most challengingly, to find what common set of beliefs and attitudes it is supposed to embody and to which domains it can be restricted. I think we may have some idea about what postmodernism in architecture might entail. But is there a postmodernist approach to mathematics, for example? And what might that involve?

A scene from King LearWhat does seem to be agreed is that the essence of postmodernism, in relation to the reading, teaching and appreciation of written texts, is that, first, there is no limit to be set on what might qualify as a “text” (a bus ticket will do) and no absolute value to be placed on any particular quality of a text: with regard to its aesthetic value, or its significance with reference to its meaningfulness or meaninglessness – let alone any qualities of a moral or spiritual kind, its celebration of eternal verities (which are a chimera in any case). Therefore, there are no “canonical” texts, for example, in the study of literatures in English – no necessary, required reading for graduates with an English Literature degree: a qualification it is perfectly possible to obtain, today, without having read a word of Milton, Pope, Wordsworth, Yeats or T.S. Eliot – the greatest poets of the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Here, postmodernism is a synonym for intellectual chaos and ignorance.

What is needed is a term for this approach to art and literature that is not parasitical upon a previous classification like “Modernism”, but which simply presents itself as itself, as much as this elusive quantity can be identified. I would suggest “Anarchism” had it not been used before, in a variety of contexts. In Greek, of course, “anarchy” means “without authority”, the absence of an “archon”, a chief magistrate in ancient Athens. But this is inadequate, too, because the promoters of the brave new world of so-called postmodernism are authoritative and prescriptive to a fault. Their “Thou shalt nots” are at least as strident as those of the defenders of canonical texts. Having achieved their kudos from berating and destroying the Establishment, in the silly sixties, they are now the Establishment themselves and will brook no contradiction – are, in fact (and I have been around long enough to have experienced this) far less liberal than the hierarchies they demolished, while, of course, endlessly proclaiming their tolerance of diversity, “difference” (so much better if you can say it in French, giving it the patina of theoretical respectability) and all the other claptrap of a pseudo-intellectual system which has no centre other than the individual’s conviction about his or her ownership of The Truth. Yeats saw it clearly in “The Second Coming” in 1919: “the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned”.

The reasons for this sustained assault upon the study of English literature are many and varied and have some particular Australian components which makes the resistance to them even more difficult here than it might be in, for example, Britain or North America.

Essentially, postmodernism is a political phenomenon, deriving from the culture of resentment and victimhood which is one of the least edifying outcomes of the increasingly democratic and demotic twentieth century in Western societies. It is a peculiarly self-defeating, self-destructive and paradoxical phenomenon because, in its opposition to what – in a shorthand term – we might call “high art”, the very people who it is depriving of access to the classics (through demonising them, their creators and their purveyors, as a conspiracy of oppressive elitism or proposing the Marxist dismissal of them as conspicuous waste) are left with a mess of pottage of works which are condescendingly and patronisingly deemed to be the only suitable and “relevant” study for the demos.

That deprived constituency, recognising its deprivation, will, in time, turn upon its self-righteous persecutors and inhibitors. In a mild way, we are encountering this already, at the university, where students come to us after the miseries of the NSW HSC [New South Wales Higher School Certificate] English syllabus (not to mention what has gone before it, over those twelve years of school so-called education) and say that, now, they want “to read the classics”. Once, in the disreputable dead days beyond recall pupils were exposed to a good diet of this material even by the time of the Intermediate Certificate, let alone the Leaving Certificate (taken in the equivalent of today’s Year 11).

Nowadays, you have one of the febrile supporters of the New South Wales Board of Studies arguing that we could not possibly expect the senior school students of western Sydney to read Milton. That great mind has nothing to do with their lives; they could not relate to Paradise Lost; therefore, it must not be read. Large-scale works of English provenance are revolting expressions of the dated grandiose imperialist patriarchy of Britannia and old Christendom irrelevant to our enlightened and advanced age. And, at this point, insular Australianism usually kicks in, with the theme of repudiating anything and everything that might be Eurocentric to affirm our liberation from our disreputable European past. So, prescribe some contemporary Australian trash and then claim to be affirming the young and their class struggle against the oppressive and supposedly monolithic past, still defended in some reactionary quarters by dinosaurs, as I have been called (and revel in the description).

Andrew MarvellOne of the great defenders of the current syllabus goes about telling students that, instead of studying Wordsworth, they should be concentrating on his sister, Dorothy, who, oppressed by his phallocentric, patriarchal, masculinist presence was thwarted in her own poetic ambition which, had it been allowed to flourish, instead of being silenced by her brother and his work, would have written works of genius comparable to those Wordsworth himself composed. And then we wonder that students are skeptical about the whole process of reading and appreciation served up to them in this context of resentment and political correctness.

What are the qualities that distinguish a great work of literary art? All but one of these are offensive to what we might generally gather under the umbrella term of a postmodernist approach to the reading, teaching and appreciation of literary texts. The exception is the close attention to structures of language (or “discourse”, as they like to call it), animated by and expressive of that complexity and subtlety which we expect to find in great literary texts. This, in postmodernist textual study, at its best, is salutary. Unfortunately, it has two major drawbacks. First, the weaker brethren find it the least congenial process of reading, so are inclined to resort to other boiled-down aspects of postmodernist theorising, such as the non-idea of reading and evaluating a text purely in terms of what it says to you, the reader, and how it speaks to your life (and your “journey”, to use one of the terms beloved of syllabus composers), without regard to the contexts biographical, intellectual, historical and social which produced it and to which any intelligent reading of a text must submit in order for a cogent comprehension and assessment of it even to be initiated.

And secondly, it misses the essential point of literary study, by focusing attention on structure rather than meaning which, in combination with the reader-centred evaluation, counteracts the power of a great text to lift us out of our own inevitably limited selfhood and contemporary situation to focus on a larger interpretation of life and human existence which may utterly contradict everything that we, to date, have believed or accepted as valuable, but which encourages our attention because of the combination of intellectual substance and aesthetic accomplishment which are the hallmarks of great artistic expression in literature and which, in time, may come to sustain us in life itself. This, for the postmodernist, is a bourgeois fantasy. The self is the only self-sustaining entity, alone and palely loitering in the wasted land of postmodernist subjectivism, in the final death-throes of Romanticism which is contemporary culture.

Part of the problem with the present-day teaching of literature – apart from the initially disabling conviction that it would be better if “literature”, as a concept, didn’t exist -- is that we know too much. Burdened by the daunting mass of knowledge about the past, for example – now available at your fingertips on the Internet – readers and teachers and syllabus-composers are not unsurprisingly drawn to the watered-down versions of postmodernist theory (which, the philosophers tell me, are so watered down as to be a contradiction of its genuine theoretical bases in the thought of such as Derrida and Foucault). These can, by a theoretical sleight of hand, dispose of the requirements of layers of knowledge which were once required to be brought to the reading of any text worth reading. When this is linked to a politically-driven program to discredit the past in general – which was wrong about everything (only the present, and your present, precisely, having any value or validity) – and an aggressive rejection of any requirement to be humble (or humbled) before the works of genius (derided as a social construction imposed upon the powerless to ensure their submission to elites), that anything of value from the past survives is astonishing.

When I suggested, in a Herald article, that the idea that anybody could graduate in English Literature without having undertaken the serious study of Milton, a furious correspondent (an English teacher) decried my defence of Milton, asking why on earth would anybody require his presence, as a sine qua non, on an English syllabus. That Wordsworth himself wrote one of the most celebrated sonnets in the language about Milton would only have confirmed her view of the conspiracy of men of genius from which we are now being liberated by a congeries of feminist-Marxist-ersatz PoMo-theoretical enlightenment:

    Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour:
    England hath need of thee: she is a fen
    Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
    Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
    Have forfeited their ancient English dower
    Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
    Oh! raise us up, return to us again;
    And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.
    Thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart;
    Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea:
    Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free,
    So didst thou travel on life’s common way,
    In cheerful godliness; and yet thy heart
    The lowliest duties on herself did lay.

This irrelevant effusion, from the boys’ club of the dead poets’ society, in praise of a man of genius, by a man of genius, is in fact literature occupied about its proper and ancient business, of the immortal expression of profound truths, challenging the decay of present mores – Wordsworth has the Industrial Revolution and its aftermath in mind – but ranging over the centuries, recalling the challenges Milton himself faced to his evolving principles at the time of the English Civil War and celebrating the qualities of his poetic voice and the profundity of his life, not least in his courageous bearing of the tragic blight of blindness for a man of letters. Wordsworth’s specific references to such as the “altar”, symbolic of the Church, and “the heroic wealth of hall and bower”, to “manners” and “virtue”, not to mention “godliness” and the great poet’s humility, his “lowliest duties” construct a multi-layered poetic petition (within the tight constraint of the sonnet-form) of moral and spiritual dignity and urgent social concern which, certainly, has no immediate relevance to the superficial realities of 21st-century Australian life as experienced by an 18-year-old boy or girl. Instead, it presents a vision of and response to life that is perennial in its scope and expression. The challenge – and no-one is denying that the task is difficult (that is part of what makes it worthwhile) is to submit to what it has to say, connect with it through a considerable amount of research (into the circumstances of the poem’s composition and its various references), and then see how and why it has spoken to readers, strikingly and memorably, for 200 years. But that pedagogical and intellectual exercise, into which a gifted and dedicated teacher will draw his or her pupils, requires a profound belief in the worthwhile character of the exercise itself, founded, in turn, on a love of literature. And that’s where the problems lie. The poison of postmodernism – at least, in its boiled-down version, peddled by the politically-driven syllabus-composers from the School of Resentment – has effectively jettisoned such works and their appreciation (and, indeed, love) from the curriculum. It is a betrayal of the young which is nothing less than a disgraceful scandal.

The intelligent young have seen through it. Several have told me, in recent years, how they went through the motions of conforming to the syllabus formulae for the “correct” discussion of texts, using the jargon, saying the “right” things, knowing that, in the future, they could return to the study of literature and nurture their love for it untrammeled by this straitjacket of the mind. But this is no consolation for the less gifted students who should have as much right to be exposed to the best that has been known and thought in the world, to the great books, but who are being denied this access by soi-disant educators who preach social liberation through intellectual and cultural deprivation.

Dr Barry Spurr is Senior Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Sydney.