Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses it will save it. (Lk. 17: 33)
Pope Francis’s long-awaited encyclical, Laudato Si, stands as a postmodern call to action, a challenge to prevailing opinions. Binaries are broken and easy solutions tossed away, and while the document references political ideas, it is not a piece of legislation, rather a teaching on how to live in the modern world.
I call the encyclical “postmodern” in a very particular sense, one hinted at by R.R. Reno in a piece for First Things. Simply put, “postmodern” need only mean “after the modern period.” By extension, “postmodern” could also mean “presenting ideas contrary to and/or corrective of modern ones.” I have written about this issue of definition before, but to understand the importance of the pope’s encyclical, we must first understand this tricky word, “modern.”
The word is tricky because it has a variety of meanings, especially in the contemporary context. It can mean “of, relating to, or characteristic of the present or immediate past. Considering that the term finds its roots in a Latin word meaning “just now,” this definition should be of no surprise. It can, however, also mean “of or relating to modernism,” or even “modernity.”
The second definition, however, is related to the first. We call the period “modern” because those who came to define it saw themselves as entering a new period of human history, perhaps building upon that of the Ancients, but certainly breaking with the Medievals.
One of the fathers of modernity, Francis Bacon famously wrote: Victoria cursus artis super naturam,” meaning “the triumph of art over nature.” To put it succinctly, the moderns came to see nature as something that should be manipulated and changed for man’s comfort and convenience, not as the cosmos, an organic whole of which humans are merely a part.
While I risk the truncation of centuries of history, I feel safe saying that over the last 500 years we have witnessed the slow development of this mindset to the point of its near total dominance. We have a constant desire for new inventions so as to enhance our own comfort, even when it means exploiting others. We consume more food than we need because it is cheap and gratifying, even as such behavior degrades our bodies and leads to cramped living conditions for livestock. We have nearly unlimited access to information, producing a stifling dizziness, an endless series of Wikipedia pages. I know I am guilty.
And it is here that Pope Francis and his new encyclical enter the picture. They call for a non-modern response to the problems created by the modern era. Yes, the gadgets, gizmos, and global systems of finance offered by the last 500 years have brought us some happiness, some comfort, but at what cost? The pontiff writes:
The effects of imposing this model on reality as a whole, human and social, are seen in the deterioration of the environment, but this is just one sign of a reductionism which affects every aspect of human and social life. We have to accept that technological products are not neutral, for they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups.
Here, technology is not just an iPhone or a laptop, but a comprehensive system of ideas, something deeply related to the idea of modernity as a paradigm, that is a mode of thinking. Pope Francis is echoing (whether he knows it or not) the writings of philosophers like Martin Heidegger and Jacques Ellul, the former of whom declared:
Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology, whether we passionately affirm or deny it. But we are delivered over to it in the worst possible way when we regard it as something neutral; for this conception of it, to which today we particularly like to do homage, makes us utterly blind to the essence of technology.
And with which philosophical movement is Heidegger associated? Postmodernism. The idea that we must turn to the past, to our tradition as a means of critiquing the ills and extremes of modernity is not out of step with postmodernity. Both Heidegger and Ellul were in dialogue with tradition. In Laudato Si, Pope Francis quotes his predecessors St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI over 60 times. Ultimately the pontiff asks us to turn to traditional means of devotion: prayer, moderation, and emphasis on community. He writes:
The ecological crisis is also a summons to profound interior conversion. It must be said that some committed and prayerful Christians, with the excuse of realism and pragmatism, tend to ridicule expressions of concern for the environment. Others are passive; they choose not to change their habits and thus become inconsistent. So what they all need is an ‘ecological conversion’, whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them.
Succinctly put, he calls us to give up ourselves to gain eternal life, to consume less and respect God’s creation more. He calls us to renew our commitment to premodern ideas, to those presented by medieval and ancient thinkers who denied that nature existed to be exploited by man. The pope has challenged us, and thereby reminded me, as a medievalist, of something once written by the 14th-century mystic Julian of Norwich: “For God is all that is good, to my sight. And God made all that is made and God loves all that He made…for in man is God, and God is in all. And I hope by the grace of God that he who beholds it thus shall be taught truly and comforted mightily if he should need comfort.”
Let us not take this encyclical as a political document. It has a political dimension, surely, but it is more properly a teaching on conversion, on culture and the ideas which themselves give rise to our political and economic structures. In this sense, it is a postmodern challenge to prevailing feelings about consumption, about seeing ourselves at the forefront of history, as “modern.” We are asked to look back to how people used to live, to question not just unjust institutions, but the networks of ideas behind them. Only then may we return to the Gospel, for it is as the pope writes, “Each age tends to have only a meagre awareness of its own limitations. It is possible that we do not grasp the gravity of the challenges now before us.