(Religious Life Review, Dublin, vol. 39 Mar/Apr 2000)

I could finish this article here on the first line, because my purpose in writing it was to put those two words together in a title: formation and postmodernism.  For a long time I've wanted to do that, and now I've done it!  But the editor expects some explanation….

I will do my best to be brief though the subject is large and diffuse; I only want to raise the matter.  At least I will spare you footnotes!  Postmodernism, in the words of Richard Kearney of UCD, is "the growing conviction that human culture as we have known now reaching its end."  And indeed postmodernist writers use a kind of apocalyptic language: deconstruction, decentring, undecidability, rupture…. Meanwhile the words that others use to describe the movement (or the climate, or whatever it is) are only a little less turgid: derealised, dehistoricised, parodic, eclectic, or quite often more bluntly, kitsch.  The prototypical English-teacher, Miss Fidditch, would deplore almost every one of those words, as well as the word postmodernism itself.  Yet they are words that some of the brightest and the best have used to describe our age  -  and to the extent that we live in it, us  - so it is worth taking a look to see if we recognise anything of ourselves in them, or anything of the young people who are now entering religious life. 


The word postmodernism arose in the 1970s as a description of an architectural style: a reaction to modernism's dream of pure form (boxes) in favour of variety and playfulness. Robert Venturi, in Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966), said that Modern buildings were mostly repulsive because they were designed “in a simplistic and puritan way that lacked the irony and complexity which enrich historical architecture.” This dissatisfaction was translated into action in St Louis in 1972 with the demolition of several 14-storey slab blocks that had won awards when they were built 20 years earlier.  Similar apartment blocks in Europe and North America were demolished in the following decades.  The new style, in contrast, played with the forms of the past, mixing styles and introducing elements of wit and whimsy, of humanity, intimacy and historical reference.  It spread to the other arts (or was it already everywhere, like the air?)  -  to literature, painting, music… and even philosophy.  None of us  -  young people least of all  -  can have avoided breathing this universal air. 

The word ‘postmodernism’ makes you ask, What was modernism? (or rather ‘modernity’, because ‘modernism’ came to mean something else).  Descartes, the 17th-century ‘father of modern thought’, was French, and it is a whimsical fact that the leading postmodern philosophers are also French.  It could be seen as France’s revenge on its own rationalism.  There is a passage near the beginning of Descartes’ Discourse on Method that expresses the modern spirit very graphically.  I often think back to it, especially when I see skyscrapers and certain apartment blocks.

Those ancient cities which, from being at first only villages, have become in the course of time large towns, are usually badly laid out compared with the regularly constructed towns which a professional architect has freely planned on an open plain….When one observes such indiscriminate juxtaposition  -  there a large building and here a small, and the consequent crookedness and irregularity of the streets  -  one is disposed to think that chance rather than any human will guided by reason must have led to such an arrangement…. In the same way, I reflected, the sciences…composed as they are of the opinions of many different individuals massed together, are farther removed from truth than the simple inferences which one person of good sense, using natural and unprejudiced judgment, draws regarding the matters of his experience.

That was the essence of the modern spirit: the controlling rationalism, the ego at the centre and raised to infinity, the world reduced to mathematically-expressed laws.  The world’s cities abound in monuments to the Cartesian spirit: glass and steel structures embodying his twin principles of clarity and proof

Postmodernism would demolish both kinds of structure: the intellectual as well as the architectural boxes  -  not to mention all the other cultural boxes that hold the human spirit, in the arts and literature and religion.

Demolition makes a mess.  Until the end of modernity, ‘high culture’ was seen as a repository of moral and spiritual wisdom.  That belief is crumbling.  The postmodernist mind moves toward bricolage, the use of bits and pieces of older artefacts to produce a new (but not ‘original’) work of art, a work that blurs the distinctions between old and new, and high and low art.  There is no ‘original’, but only “ungrounded variety.”  In other words, the image no longer refers to some ‘original', situated elsewhere in the ‘real' world; it increasingly refers only to other images.  This sits very comfortably with the world of advertising, mass media, mass production - the consumer culture's commercial vernacular.  The result is a landscape of incoherence and fragmentation  -  up to and including the dismantling of the very notion of meaning. 

Lest we think that this was just popular decadence, look back at what Heidegger wrote about the rational mind.  "Thinking begins,” he said, “only when we have come to know that reason, glorified for centuries, is the most stiff-necked adversary of thought."  Michel Foucault liked to refer to “bourgeois rationality,” and claimed that it always carried a hidden agenda.  Its most basic distinctions  -  subject/object, cause/effect, etc.  -  always served the self-interest of the individual ego, seen as source of all meaning.  There is always, he believed, some kind of hegemony  -  economic, political, gender, religious, etc.  -  inherent in "objectivity" and "universality."  So he claimed that the autonomous ego has largely been a myth, and that all our cherished ideals of mastery and will are similarly without a basis.

Thus even the notion of a thinking individual (that Cartesian bedrock) becomes shaky.  Saussure asserted that "language is not a function of the speaking subject.”  Roland Barthes put it better: "It is language that speaks, not the author."  And again: “The text is a tissue of innumerable quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture…. The writer’s only power is to mix writings, to counter the one with the others, in such a way as never to rest on any one of them.  Did he wish to express himself, he ought at least to know that the inner ‘thing’ he thinks to ‘translate’ is itself only a ready-formed dictionary, its words only explainable through other words, and so on indefinitely.” You can be new but not original.  Postmodernism views the self as no more than a linguistic convention; as William Burroughs put it, "Your ‘I’ is a completely illusory concept."  Or as Samuel Beckett said at the beginning of The Unnameable, “‘I’, say I.  Unbelieving.” 

In modernity, it seems to me, all the attributes of God collapsed into the human ego.  One of my favourite texts in this connection is Nietzsche’s description of the Übermensch, “free from the happiness of serfs, redeemed from gods, fearless and fearful, great and solitary.”  Another is Iris Murdoch’s description of the hero of so many modern novels and books of moral philosophy: "free, independent, lonely, powerful, rational, brave.”   What we see, I think, in postmodernism is the staggering and collapse of the individual ego under this impossible burden.  Foucault wrote: "Man is only a recent invention, a figure not yet two centuries old, a simple fold in our knowledge that will soon disappear."  As Nietzsche proclaimed the “death of God,” Foucauld proclaimed “the death of man.” 

There is no original ‘subject’, no originality; there is only language.  There follows what has been called “the descent into the labyrinth of textuality.”  And not only texts in the ordinary sense; anthropology, society, culture, everything is ‘read’ as a language. Barthes in particular produced collections of brilliant essays analysing the ‘language’ of mass culture.  This ‘deconstruction’ programme is carried forward by Derrida (much less readably), who noses out the ideological contents of all texts, and interprets all human activities as essentially texts. The basic contradiction and cover-up strategy in all philosophy (and, of course, religion) might be laid bare, he hoped, and a more intimate kind of knowing emerge.


Are those French philosophers and others talking only about people like themselves, or should we religious  -  burdened enough as we are already  -  try to catch some word of wisdom from them?   How postmodern are we?   What is our identity and what markers of that identity do we dare place now? 

A certain skyscraper image of the Church has lost credibility, for all that anyone can say or decree.  That pure form, that monotonous structure of glass and steel  -  clarity and certainty  -  is more a memory now than a reality.  That kind of clarity and certainty could be fed (or force-fed) to seminarians in the past: I remember a philosophy teacher whose Dalek-like delivery left no room for questions, and when anyone did ask a question it was automatically “shelved” (his word).  We accepted such things, externally at least, because we accepted the principle of obedience.  But I don’t know whether to laugh or cry when I hear younger religious romanticising that era and longing for its restoration.  Nobody living now would go back to that era as it was in reality (as distinct from the dream): not the young, because they have no idea what it was really like; nor the old, because they have.  Yet there are young and old who affect to go back.  This is not the simple thing it seems; it is a postmodern response. 

Not only the young, but all of us.  We have all been breathing this air, and all of us have changed radically, even when we talk just as before.  Nostalgia for the past is proof enough that we have moved away from it.  When our present life is too confusing we dream about restoring a past Golden Age.  But no Golden Age was ever yet restored  -  for the good reason that it never existed in the first place.  Golden Ages are only a golden dream, a self-indulgent fantasy.  The reality-version would be less convenient: something like life with some ‘total sect’, where your identity is given you by the total embrace and power of the group.  But better the insecurity of the present than a flight into false security.  Yes, freedom is a grave burden; it exposes us for what we really are.  We would like to be rid of it, but usually only as far as convenience dictates. 

Choice was not an option in those older times.  Decisions were made without consulting the individual concerned, and obedience was an inescapable fact of life.  Only when it is “dehistoricised” and “derealised” (that cumbersome postmodern jargon) could such a way of life appeal to young religious of today.  Some of these are unashamedly postmodern; they like to play with the forms of the past, but they are unwilling to be bound by them.  It is a rather sad sort of play; in fact the playfulness of postmodernism is not much in evidence anywhere: the “wit and whimsy” lack depth when nothing matters really.  The other word describes it better: what word but ‘kitsch’ could describe gold cuff-links and gold rings under a religious habit?  The best place in which to witness this comedy is Rome.  Comedy is probably the right word: many young men in religious habits give the impression of being on stage.  They play their roles and feel no need to reach out to others.  There is an unhealthy clannishness and a strange preoccupation with dress. 

What is missing is passion.  But why?  Why should not young men  -  and old men for that matter  -  be full of passion?  The postmodern answer is that the ‘meta-narratives’ are dead.  Jean-François Lyotard summed up postmodernism as "incredulity toward meta-narratives" (overall views: philosophical, religious, social, etc.)  Society cannot be understood as a whole, he says, still less ‘the truth’ or ‘the all’.  Habermas (a persistent critic of postmodernism) accuses Lyotard and others of being “neo-conservative” because they suggest no reason to move in one direction rather than another.  If there is no ‘meta-narrative’  -  no story behind the stories  -  all positions are equal.  There is no ‘original’ to be discovered.  So why should the young – or the old – be passionate? 

And why should anybody study?  A lecturer in the university of Boston, Peter Sacks, (in Generation X goes to College) illustrated what postmodernism does in education.  “No student can be here for more than a few weeks without encountering our ethos: that there are many intellectual approaches to any issue, and no possible resolution of this fact.”  He quotes a student who complained about the mark he gave her for an essay, "It's frustrating,” she said, “because it's just your opinion."  This, he claimed, was quite typical.  This is part of the consumer mentality: ‘I’m paying for my education so I shouldn't have to work for it.’  But another student said, "Our generation is very lazy.  Very, very lazy.  We don't work a tenth of what our parents did."  That student was an exception, he said.  We can hope that there are many such exceptions in the world.  But there is a wall of incredulity when you say that the background of the whole day, for a religious in formation, is study and prayer, and that recreation and other activities stand out against that background.  But back- and foreground now seem to be reversed.  It is harder to explain that there is anything to get excited about. 


I used Descartes’ skyscraper (let’s call it that) to illustrate the spirit of modernity.  Appropriately, postmodernism began as an architectural style, a reaction against modernity.  I want now to bring in another ‘house’ image, from an unexpected quarter.  Johann Tauler (1300 – 1361) was a disciple of Meister Eckhart.  In one of his sermons he said:

We must seek for the depths of our souls…. We must go into our house, our souls; and all our senses, everything to do with them, and everything which comes to us through them must all be left outside: all images, all forms, everything which our imagination has ever brought us, however rational it may be. Even our reason and its workings must he left outside. When we go into our house and look for God there, God in His turn looks for us and ransacks the house. He behaves just as we do when we are searching for something, throwing aside one thing after another until we find what we are looking for…. In this house, in the depths of our souls, we are utterly deprived of all the ideas and conceptions of God by which we have ever thought of Him before. Our house is ransacked; it is as if we had never known anything about God at all. As He seeks us, this happens again and again; every idea that we ever had of Him, every manifestation of Him that we have ever known, every conception and revelation of Him which we ever had will be taken away from us as He searches to find us.

It is the mystics who know best how to demolish the mind’s furniture (and what is the mind without its furniture?).  I have often thought that many philosophies are a sort of denatured theology.  Sartre, for example, is like John of the Cross without God.  Postmodernism is like the demolition work that the mystics do: the “decentred” self is partly the Christian ideal of losing oneself to find oneself, and the “self-centred self” is the Christian description of the sinner.  If there is any truth in this partial equivalence, then there is also hope in it.  Perhaps the straits that we are in will bring us to the mystics.

But we will have to add passion.  It seems incredible now (and this is a good sign) that spirituality was a Cinderella subject in seminaries.  The real stuff was canon law and ‘practical moral’: you could build houses with that stuff – or sections of skyscraper.  When theology doesn’t grow directly out of spiritual experience it carries no credibility; it is only a building waiting for deconstruction.  But how do you generate passion?  I suspect that it cannot be generated at all; it is a by-product of insight. 

Any insight in particular?  The central one, no doubt.  We can have confidence that “the Way” we are on is a way that has led countless people to the depths of God.  “I am the way,” Jesus said.  He didn’t say, “I know the way,” but “I am the way.”  Nor did he say, “the way is me,” but “I am the way” – as if to say, I am so fully on it that there is nothing of me outside it; there is no distance between me and it; I am it.  “The mountains walk!” said Dogen Zenji in the 13th century.  Do I think the mountains I am walking on are less involved in my walking than I am?  Without them what would become of my walking?  Why would I want to say I am a ‘subject’ walking on an ‘object’?  No, there is just walking, and in that walking the mountains and I are one.  I am the way.  Until I know this in my bones (beyond ‘subject’/’object’) there is no real passion.   

The mystical stream in Christian spirituality is our rightful inheritance.  It is called by many names.  It is called ‘negative theology’.  It is a kind of knowing that is yet not-knowing: “This is the final human knowledge of God,” wrote St Thomas Aquinas, “to know that we do not know God” (quod sciat se Deum nescire).  Timothy Radcliffe wrote about the teaching of theology as “accompanying students as they face the loss of God, the disappearance of a well-known and loved person, so as to discover God as the source of all, who has given himself to us in his Son.”  There is the loss of God as ‘object’, and consequently of oneself as ‘subject’ (it was that distinction that created the alienated self, the ‘world-watcher’).  It makes way at last for that “intimate kind of knowing” (Derrida’s words!) that comes when words fall away.  We also call it ‘the apophatic way’ (why should the postmoderns have all the good words?). 

In the 1930s there was an acrimonious debate among Catholic theologians whether contemplation was for everyone or only for “chosen souls”.  The universalist outlook won that debate so decisively that it is now difficult to imagine the other position.  At the present time it seems not only possible but urgent to introduce young people to contemplation (or meditation, as the wide world calls it).  This is a door that is still open for young people, and it does not seem so strange to them as it did to us at their stage.  I asked a Benedictine monk, who is also a Zen Master, whether it made sense to introduce novices to ‘non-objective’ meditation, and he said, “Yes, yes, immediately!”  No doubt a person needs a variety of ways of praying  -  just as you expect some variety on your dinner-plate  -  but contemplation seems more urgent now than ever before. 

If there is anything in what I say about postmodernism it is the place from which we go forward.  And its tortuous language and self-defeating analyses are not foreign to us.  We too are in the business of demolition.  We too long for a religious style that has “wit and whimsy, humanity, intimacy and historical reference.” Our Church wears the grey face of depression these times, as the paralysis of despair creeps over it.  That cannot be the way.  We need a little joy in order to breathe: it is one of the signatures of the Holy Spirit.  But it will come from the heart of our defeat.  “Sweet are the uses of adversity.” 

Donagh O'Shea

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on a wide variety of topics concerning the living of the Christian life.