Misc notes from Peter Leithart’s Solomon Among the Postmoderns

I saved Leithart’s book Solomon Among the Postmoderns to read while I was on the 19 hours of flight between here and Ethiopia. I figured it was fitting since Ethiopia was ruled by the Solomonic dynasty for centuries, at least in legend. Here a few passages of interest I copied down in my notes.

As usual, there is something about Leithart’s work that is a breath of fresh air. His explanation of how his book lacks an “agenda” (some urgent thing it’s supposed to accomplish or stir up the crowd about) is a great place to start.

I don’t propose an “agenda” for the church in postmodern times, partly because “agendas” have a tendency to perpetuate the worst features of modern Christianity. Of course Christians must act, and act in ways that thoughtfully take account of the world in which we are acting. If “agenda” means no more than that, then I am all in favor of agendas. In that sense, St. Benedict had an “agenda” for Europe. Agendas, however, have a tendency to shortcut a thoughtful taking-account of the world and a tendency to treat Christianity as a spiritual machine. That is what I want to avoid. At times the Christian agenda may be to wait and do nothing, which, come to think of it, was a large part of Benedict’s “agenda.” Instead of an agenda, I propose a STANCE, a stance of faith, joy, and celebration in the midst of postmodern mist.

The theory of progress rests on the notion that there is a cut in time between all that went before and what comes after the beginning of modernity. Modernity establishes itself by digging a monumental ditch, a “great divide,” between the past and the present, between those still living in the past and those who are fully in touch with the possibilities of the present. The modern distinction of us and them and the boundaries that accompany it map out the world as modernity sees it. Modernity is an act of cartography, a zoning operation, an exercise in “chrono-politics.”

Moderns believe that the ancients are infants, not giants, and believe themselves, coming at the climax of ages of human discovery and experience, to be the true ancients, the wisest of history’s sages. Modernity is the messianism of the contemporary.

“Our grandparents were infants. WE are the giants. WE are quite different than the crap that came before it and THIS time, we can prove it.” The tech startup culture is rife with this attitude, as are the pop scientists on TV. The virtue of humility (or even self-skepticism) need not be cultivated by those with the knowledge of the whole world supposedly at their literal fingertips. Much of postmodernism’s value lies in it’s power to undermine the ridiculous overconfidence of modernist thought.

“The clock, not the steam-engine, is the key-machine of the modern industrial age.” – Lewis Mumford

Who was Lewis Mumford? I had never heard of him, but his work in sociology and history in the early 19th century is pretty interesting. Wikipedia is a good place to start.

Postmodern notions of knowledge arise partly from loss of confidence in this modern us-them distinction, a loss of confidence that occurred within specific social and cultural conditions. Moderns encountered the cultural Other, but not nearly so pervasively or constantly or intimately as we do in contemporary, postmodern times. The more WE encounter THEM in life or virtual life, the more WE and THEY are mixed together in the same neighborhoods, the less different toe two seem. It becomes more and more plausible that WE might learn a thing or two from THEM.

This has been my main takeaway from studying theology and ecclesiology. I have something to learn from Calvinists, Anabaptists, Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Pentecostals, Africans, Chinese, people who write really big books, and people who can’t read. I want to open up this gate wider rather than constrict the circle, even if that would be safer or more predictable.

Communications media encourage a skeptical cynicism toward knowledge in general. Especially in urban settings, many of us are “supersaturated” with media and advertisements, bombarded by messages from anonymous sellers and senders whose only interest in us is our credit card limit. The proliferation of anonymous messages temps the thought that messages exist independently of persons, that the messages are not communications but mere “texts.” The “dead of the author” proclaimed by postmodern theory is partly a recognition that the author vanishes to nothing in contemporary media. Try this test: Can you list three advertising taglines? Then, can you name a single advertising copywriter?

I blogged about this separately here.

Hobbes discerned a threat in the rising professionalization of science, which he saw as the establishment of another priesthood. So long as there was a realm of knowledge outside the state’s control – in scientific societies, for instance – there was a remaining threat to public peace. Knowledge could be “pacified” only if the state managed its production and dissemination. For Hobbes, new scientist was but old priest writ large; it was no accident that scientists also wore white robes and claimed to perform esoteric magic behind closed doors. Even Hobbes’s philosophical monism was politically charged: once it is admitted that there are two sorts of substance, matter and spirit, then there is an opening for “seeing double,” for double loyalty.

Think about the current arguments in the public square about causes of climate change (or whatever it’s called now) and then reread that paragraph.

Increasingly, even policy decisions respond to and are shaped by nongovernmental agencies (NGOs). Instead of merely seeking national self-interest, the desideratum of the realpolitik of the modern nation-state, governments are pressured into cooperation by NGOs, many of which have an international reach. From her Vermont farmhouse, Jody Williams launched a movement to rid the world of landmines. She sent e-mails by the hundreds to government officials and activists, eventually won the support of super-celebrity Princess Diana, pushed for an international treaty banning the manufacture and use of mines, and won the Nobel Peace Prize in the process. This is classic postmodern politics: a nonelected nonofficial employs communications technologies, nongovernmental agencies, and celebrity to shame nation-states into signing a treaty.

Do you find this encouraging? I do. See, postmodernism isn’t all despair. Sometimes it’s the antidote to modern despair.

All is shepherding the wind. Wind is spirit. Humans are animated by spirit and beyond human shepherding.
(paraphrased from p.162)

There was a small city with few men in it and a great king came to it, surrounded it and constructed large siegeworks against it. But there was found in it a poor wise man and he delivered the city by his wisdom. Yet no one remembered that poor man. So I said, “Wisdom is better than strength.” But the wisdom of the poor man is despised and his words are not heeded.
(Ecc. 9:14-16)

This is a classic case of “subjugated knowledge,” knowledge ignored because it came from the margins, because it came from THEM and not from US.

We think we are smart, but do we completely discount and ignore knowledge from the margins? In doing so, we miss really important secrets that are lying right under out noses.