Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Taking modernism and postmodernism out to the toolshed

The name of this blog comes from an essay by C. S. Lewis, "Meditations in a Toolshed." In the essay, Lewis described a few minutes he spent in toolshed one afternoon. The shed's door was ever so slightly ajar. From one corner of the shed, Lewis could see a beam of light streaming through the crack, illuminating a few specks of dust and faintly illuminating a few odd objects in the shed. But when he moved to another corner of the shed, while he could no longer see the beam itself, he could look along the beam to the trees and sky outside, and all the way back to the beam's source, the sun. Standing outside the beam looking at it, and standing within the beam looking along it, were totally different experiences.

Lewis's essay was a polemic against the general mindset of his day, which insisted that a "true" account of any thing must come from those who look at it rather than along it. Thus, according to the then-dominant mindset, to get a "true" account of love you would go to psychologists and neurologists, not lovers. To get a "true" account of religion, you would go, not to its practitioners, but to anthropologists and sociologists, or perhaps again to psychologists and neurologists. Lewis thought that was nonsense. The view from within something provides a world of insights that the outside observer cannot imagine. Thus Lewis concluded: "One must look along and at everything."

Since Lewis penned his essay a great pendulum shift has occurred. Now conventional wisdom says that the true account of a thing comes from those within it, who look along it rather than at it. "Tell me your experience" is now the means for discovering truth. That is so even where one person's account conflicts with other "true" accounts from other vantage points. The conclusion "that's true for Smith, this is true for Jones, so-and-so is true for me" is the ultimate exaltation of looking along over looking at. And Lewis's conclusion that we must look along and at everything opposes that new mindset--sometimes called "postmodernism"--just as ruthlessly as it opposed the former one.