Douglas P. McManaman
I don’t watch a lot of television, but for the past few years, the shows that I do enjoy watching are investigative in nature, shows that follow the trajectory of a real-life investigation of a murder or robbery, etc. The most interesting investigations are those that show a gradual accumulation of data and the resulting shift in the plausibility index of potential suspects. For example, the initial set of data might reveal a number of possible suspects; more data then narrows the focus to a most plausible suspect, along with one or two less plausible suspects. However, further data, as a result of new leads, has at times eliminated that suspect who was previously the most plausible candidate only to raise another suspect, formerly less plausible, to the maximally plausible rung on the ladder. Sometimes the most recent piece of new data eliminates all previous suspects and points to an entirely new one.
These are important cases, because they reveal a critical lesson about knowledge that we as a culture have yet to fully appropriate–although those in the hard sciences seem to have a firm grasp of it, at least when they reason within the context of a scientific inquiry. I’m referring to the precarious nature of human knowledge. A large set of evidential data may point to a person who is entirely innocent. A simple example: a middle-aged man with long brown hair, wearing light-colored blue jeans and a green windbreaker was seen fleeing a horrific scene in which a woman was sexually assaulted and killed. There was no sign of forced entry, and no money or jewelry were missing. Hence, we formulate a highly plausible conditional statement: If x committed the assault and murder, then x will be a middle-aged man with long hair and who owns a light-colored pair of blue jeans and a green windbreaker. However, it does not follow that the long-haired man over yonder walking his dog and who is wearing a green windbreaker jacket and light-colored blue jeans is our killer. It is possible, but the conclusion that he is the killer must be tested–further evidence is needed. The reason for this is that the conclusion (“he is our man”) does not necessarily follow from the data. It is possible that he is the killer, but it is possible that he just happens to be wearing two pieces of clothing that are similar to what the killer was seen wearing. The hypothesis must be tested and tested again against an ever-expanding set of information. Hence, the experimental nature of the sciences, and the investigative nature of inductive reasoning.
But ideologies do not work that way. Ideological thinking begins in the realm of ideas and stays there. An ideology is a kind of grand hypothesis, a worldview, that is meant to explain a vast array of empirical data, for example, the world we live in with all its inequalities, crimes, injustices, poverty, oppressions, murder rates, suicide and divorce rates, drop-out rates, etc. It then proceeds to formulate a conditional statement, which is essentially a grand idea: “If x is an essentially oppressive, racist and discriminatory system (or nation), then x will give rise to oppression, inequality, racism–not to mention other evils”. And since it is not difficult to find instances of oppression, racism and inequality, the hypothesis is easily corroborated (x is an essentially–not incidentally–oppressive, racist and discriminatory system, or nation).
Corroboration, however, does not prove a hypothesis. The requirement to test a hypothesis remains, because the conclusion does not necessarily follow. The difficulty is that such a hypothesis cannot be tested in a laboratory. At this point we need to look for disconfirmatory evidence, that is, facts in evidence that falsify the conclusion, as an investigator ought to do with respect to the murder case above. For example, the long-haired man over yonder walking his dog, wearing blue jeans and a green windbreaker, has no criminal record, is not middle-aged, is blond, and his green windbreaker is a darker shade of green than the one reported to have been worn by the fleeing suspect, and most importantly, he has an alibi–he was 10 hours away when the murder and assault took place. The same kind of testing must take place with respect to “grand ideas” that seek to make sense out of this world. The problem with such grand hypotheses/ideas is that they are attractive, for they are emotionally satisfying insofar as they simplify a highly complex reality, and they are easy to corroborate (i.e., render us susceptible to confirmation bias). However, if such an idea is wrong, it can be falsified. But falsification requires some research, specifically data that is inconsistent with the grand hypothesis that essentially constitutes the ideology (i.e., America is an essentially racist country; all minorities are oppressed; Israel and everything Israel does is bad; corporations are essentially greedy and immoral, etc.). And so, there is tremendous incentive, especially when we are young, to hang on to such a grand idea and pay no attention to evidence that falsifies it–falsification only complicates matters.
Recently I had a discussion with an atheist friend of mine who has tremendous respect for the scientific method, which of course is thoroughly empirical. What surprised me was my friend’s complete disregard for the importance of history. “No need to look back”, he insists. “The context, problems and solutions back then were completely different from today. The old masters knew nothing about modern times. They are irrelevant. I’m perfectly capable of understanding modern problems, ideas, and solutions without making reference to anyone in the past.” Astoundingly ahistorical for someone who stands by the logic of empiriometric science, which is thoroughly developmental and historical. But one need not be explicitly aware of history in order to be completely under the spell of a current mode of thinking that has its roots in history. It is impossible to escape the influence, positive or negative, of historical trends of thought; it is possible, however, to rise above them. Ignorance of history only condemns us to repeat it, but if we understand where certain ideas come from, it is possible not to get hoodwinked.
The ideological thinking that has gained significant ground today is of course applied postmodernism, or Critical Theory and all its ever-diversifying branches (postcolonial theory, queer theory, critical race theory, critical whiteness theory, critical disability theory, gender ideology, etc.). Postmodernism has its roots in the philosophy of G. W. F Hegel, Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger. A basic principle of postmodern thought is that knowledge in any objective sense is impossible, and so it is characterized by four basic themes: 1) the blurring of boundaries, 2) the power of language, 3) relativism (both cultural and moral), and 4) the loss of the individual and the universal.
For someone like Nietzsche, a father of postmodernism, objective knowledge is impossible. The reason is that the universe is unknowable and unintelligible. Why? Because there are no fixed natures. Both philosophy and science have traditionally been regarded as the study of the natures of things (i.e., human nature, the nature of organic or non-organic substances, the nature of time, space, etc.), but there are no “natures”; nothing is stable in the world outside the mind; there is only “becoming”, pure flux, and thus there is no “being” or “beings” to study or know. In order to know, there must be a stable intelligible structure (an essence) that the mind can wrap its head around and penetrate more and more deeply, but there isn’t, according to Nietzsche. Definitions, which have as their purpose the expression of what something is essentially, are just constructs that delimit what in reality has no boundaries (such as the male/female binary). It is language (the sound) which provides the illusion of stability or permanency, or the illusion of “being” and distinction. Language constitutes being, constructs it, thus giving the appearance that reality is made up of stable entities or things.
Science is thereby reduced to a fiction, nothing more than a highly complex linguistic construct. The mind is not measured by reality, rather, reality is measured by the mind. Moreover, science rests on first principles, such as the principle of identity, which is that “Each being is what it is”, as well as the principle of non-contradiction, which runs “Nothing can both be and not be at the same time and in the same respect” (or its logical formulation: “Nothing can be both true and not true at the same time and in the same respect”). But these principles are mere constructs, according to Nietzsche. Hence, nothing has any objective and intrinsic identity; rather, identities are imposed on reality through language. That is why contradictories can be “true” at one and the same time–for there is no “truth” in any objective sense of the word; the principle of non-contradiction is just another western construct. All we have in reality are various centers of power that are constantly in flux, encroaching upon other centers of power. Thus, language is about power, and if science is nothing more than a product of language, then science is fundamentally about power, not knowledge per se. Morality has no objective grounding, for it too is nothing more than a linguistic system that is fundamentally oppressive, a tool of the majority crafted to oppress the minority (one center of power encroaching upon a smaller center).
Within this postmodern framework, the logic of science with its basic requirement to test hypotheses is simply a part of this oppressive power system. Hence, to insist on evidence for one’s claims is to reveal a western oppressive colonial bias that assumes the objectivity and universal nature of the rules of logic. Hence, demanding evidence is a perpetuation of oppression. Reasoning cannot therefore be the way to overcome an impasse, because the rules of reasoning are again white European constructs; the only option that remains is power and struggle.
In the end, all that exists are constructed narratives. There is no “truth” per se, only our narrative and their narrative, each one an expression of a will to power. In the postmodern world, there is always someone or something to demonize and a narrative to deconstruct, because there is always an oppressor and always an oppressed (a majority and minorities). There cannot be peace in such a cynical world, only dialectic and conflict.
When postmodernism is traced back to its roots, it is obvious how utterly and “radically” irrational it is. Unfortunately, to the postmodernist “irrational” is not a derogatory term, for reality is in itself absurd, and intelligibility is constructed, not discovered. To those who believe in reason, its tenets are unsupportable and entirely self-refuting. Most people, however, don’t take the time to examine ideological trends at that level–they don’t have the time, or the patience, or the interest. This is a problem, because on the surface, postmodernism in its applied form will often appear to dovetail with some very basic religious tenets. But they are not, for that reason, compatible with religion, especially the Judeo-Christian religion. Follow the trajectory of the two projections as they lead away from the joint in the dovetail and we see that the two modes of thinking are irreconcilable and diametrically opposed. Both speak of equity, liberation, justice, and inclusion, and thus condemn inequity, oppression, injustice and exclusion, but to conclude that the two are thereby consistent, much less essentially the same or interchangeable, could not be more mistaken. For Catholics, one must show evidence that a behavior, a system, culture or nation, etc., is unjust or oppressive using rational data and universal moral principles, something that postmodernism rejects outright.
Catholicism is not an ideology, but a religion, and religion is first and foremost a “relationship”. It is a revealed religion that has its roots in Judaism. Contrary to postmodernism, God, who is Being Itself (I Am Who Am), created all that is visible and invisible, and so the universe is a cosmos, not an unintelligible chaos; science is not a fiction. Material things are beings, and a being is a composite of essence and existence. Material things do change, but for every change, there is always something that remains unchanged, namely matter. The human person is created in the image and likeness of God, that is, in the image of mind and heart. To know is, among other things, to apprehend to some degree the natures of things, their intelligible structure. In this light, reality is intelligible and is the measure of the mind, not vice versa. A person is a per/sona, a “through sound”, that is, a communicator. To communicate is to enter into a kind of communion, a union of minds. Language does not distort the real, but unveils it, albeit limitedly. The only word that constructs being is the divine Word (Logos): “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him, nothing came to be” (Jn 1, 1-3). That Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. He came to liberate, to free us from a kind of oppression, namely the oppression and slavery of sin and death, but he did this through his sacrificial death on the cross and subsequent resurrection. Male and female are indeed binary, for as such they represent the fundamental binary into which reality is divided, namely “Creator and creation”, that is, God who is preeminently Father, and creation who is mother–as well as Yahweh, the Bridegroom of Israel, and Israel his bride, and finally Christ the Bridegroom and the Church who is his Bride. Marriage is a two in one flesh union in which a third, namely a child, is loved into existence as the fruit and living testimony of that one flesh union–a distant image of the Trinity. Not all power is unjust and oppressive; at its best, authority exists for the good of those subject to it, such as children to parents, or the law abiding to law grounded in reason; and so not all rejection of authority amounts to liberation from oppression–rejection of legitimate authority usually ends in oppression.
Catholic education must begin at the roots, not at the surface, that is, not with issues that are on trend, and which happen in some way to dovetail with certain elements of the Catholic faith. It must begin with the mystery of Christ as the permanent and inexhaustible reservoir out of which our understanding of the world, its history, and the nature of man arise. It must ever more deeply penetrate the mysteries of the Incarnation, the Trinity, the Paschal mystery and the supernatural life of divine grace, and from this foundation draw out the moral and spiritual implications of living one’s life as a new creation in the Person of Christ, for example, the requirements to a greater prudence, discernment, honesty, affability, purity, modesty, humility, courage, perseverance, magnanimity, natural piety, devotion to the common good and above all a single minded devotion to the kingdom of God.
Social justice, oppression, and racism mean entirely different things for the postmodernist than for the Catholic. It is very important that Catholic educators get a firm grasp on this point: for the applied postmodernist, the very norms of Catholicism are oppressive at their roots and must be thoroughly deconstructed. We, on the contrary, would argue that any injustice, including racism, is impossible unless there is a stable and underlying human nature in light of which we apprehend that all men, despite accidental differences, are essentially the same and thus essentially equal. Postmodernism does not have what it takes to cry out in any definitive way against racism, colonial oppression, exploitation, etc., because postmodernism denies universals, such as “humanity”, human nature, universal rights and moral obligations, and it maintains that all knowledge, including moral knowledge, is nothing more than a construct. On what basis then are inequity or exclusion or discrimination to be condemned? For there are no universal moral norms in light of which the postmodernist can assert that any action is absolutely unjust and morally repugnant.
For postmodernism, reality is essentially conflict, which can never be resolved or come to an end; for in a postmodern mind-frame, change is not a movement from the imperfect to the perfection of full realization and completeness, for that implies existing natures, beings that are composites of essence and existence and which are open to the fulfillment of their own natures. Rather, change is pure and total, without an underlying substrate or stable essence, and so it is always a matter of power, dominance, and loss–at least for one party. Philosophy becomes a matter of deconstructing language and the power structures they conceal, and not a study of the ultimate nature of things. But to insist that power structures and hierarchies are unjust is inconsistent and arbitrary, at least for those who believe in reason; but to insist that postmodernist claims are inconsistent and arbitrary is, in their minds, the perpetuation of colonial oppression.
When Catholic education is reduced to postmodern activism under the appearance of being inclusive and equitable, students are in the end deprived of the wisdom to distinguish those elements that are ultimately destructive of Catholic education from its essential constituents. Inclusivity and equity are indeed good words; for the very word “Catholic” is from the Greek kataholos, which means “on the whole” or universal: Catholic is inclusive of all nations, which is why Christ sent his disciples out to all nations. Moreover, for centuries equity was understood to be a part of the virtue of justice, which involves the application of principles of justice to contingencies in which the letter of the law falls short. But for the postmodernist, whatever is outside the “norm” is non-inclusive, and so Catholic moral norms in particular must be deconstructed and liquidated. The Catholic understanding of marriage, for instance, as a two in one flesh union and the moral implication that sexual acts outside of marriage are morally deficient are seen as “heteronormative” and thus oppressive, giving rise to homophobia and “straight” privilege.
Catholic educators must be more shrewd and wary of ideological trends that eventually die out, only to be replaced by newer but nonetheless temporary fads. If we teach the mysteries of the faith in which our students have been baptized, with genuine evangelical zeal and understanding, relate to those students with a living faith, actually pray with them and expose them to the rich spiritual and theological heritage that is ours in the Church, it is not a stretch to suggest that social justice will take care of itself; a glance back at those saints who are the true face of the Church strongly suggests as much: i.e., St. John Bosco, Venerable Nelson Baker, Blessed Michael McGivney, St. Vincent de Paul, St. Jean Baptiste de LaSalle, St. Catherine Drexel, St. Mother Teresa, the monks of those monasteries that were the first hospitals, etc. If students are going to receive the specifically Catholic education to which their baptism gives them a right, then parents, teachers, administrators and trustees must be grounded in the mystery of Christ as revealed in Scripture and expounded ever more deeply throughout the history of the Church, the mystery from which springs the entire moral and spiritual heritage of the Church.
- F. F. Centore. Being and Becoming: A Critique of Post-Modernism. Greenwood Press: Westport, Connecticut, 1991, pp. 21-69.
- For an excellent treatment of postmodernism in its applied form, see Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity―and Why This Harms Everybody. Pitchstone Publishing: Durham, North Carolina, 2020.
- See F. W. Nietzsche. The Will to Power. Trans. W. Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale. New York: Vintage, 1968.