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The Last Transition: From Pre-Modernity

When speaking about paradigms, we refer to the pattern, model, or overall perspective from which the vast majority of persons in a culture gather, interpret, and make use of information to survive and thrive in society.  When we speak of a paradigm shift, we refer to a change taking place in culture that dramatically alters the world view held by the mass of people in society.  The argument of postmodern theorists is that human culture is currently experiencing such a paradigm shift.  Our world view is in a state of transition, moving out of modernity toward postmodernity.  To understand this shift, and the world views it involves, I suggest that we first examine the last major paradigmatic shift—the one that occurred as the cultural world view moved from pre-modern to modernity.

The Pre-modern Period

Roughly speaking, the pre-modern period refers to that epoch of human history preceding the philosophical revolution that took place during the Enlightenment—that philosophical movement of the 18th century that emphasized the use of reason to scrutinize the commonly accepted dogmas, doctrines, and assumptions of mass society.  In essence, then, pre-modern is pre-Enlightenment. 

The paradigm of pre-modernity was most clearly enunciated by Plato, arguably the most important philosopher of the pre-Enlightenment era.   In his writings,[i] Plato (427–347 BCE) described his philosophy.  First, Plato regarded the rational soul as immortal.  Second, Plato also believed in a world soul or a universal consciousness.  Third, Plato argued for the existence of a cosmic force who created the material world out of chaos. Fourth, Plato argued for the existence of an independent reality of Ideas that were the archetype upon which the material world was made and which bore a direct relationship to counterparts in the material world.  In other words, there was a direct relationship between the soul and cosmos.  For Plato, the foundation for order, knowledge, and virtue was a harmonious rational relationship between the human soul with the universe of Ideas.

Plato’s philosophical model—with modifications—became the dominant epistemological paradigm of pre-modernity. The major development of Platonism is associated with Plotinus(205–270 ACE)—perhaps the last of the great non-Christian philosophers of antiquity.[ii]  Instead of Plato’s dualistic world of matter and idea, Plotinus saw reality as one vast hierarchical order containing many levels of reality.  At the center is the One—a reality which brings all subordinate reality into existence in a process called emanation. Emanation leads to the Logos that contained all rational forms. The Logos, in turn, generated the World Soul that linked the intellectual and material worlds.

Eventually, due to the influence of St. Augustine (354-430 ACE), a neoplatonist at the time of his conversion, the basic precepts of neoplatonism were wed to the pre-modern Christian Church.  In this cosmological or realistic epistemology, the basic assumption was that the rational mind was capable of grasping objective truth that was out there.  According to David S. Dockery, pre-modernity states “that knowledge is certain, objective, and obtainable.”[iii]  This included religious knowledge—knowledge about the deity (Plato’s Demiurge, Plontinus’ Unity, or Augustine’s God).  There was a great deal of confidence in the rational mind’s ability to grasp hold of religious matters—especially among non-Christian Greeks.  Along with the rational mind, the church also held to the necessity of revelation and faith in obtaining information about God.

Referring to the pre-modern era, Carl F.H. Henry wrote:

Its worldview elaborated a distinct understanding of the nature and destiny of the human self in a meaningful and purposive universe created and ruled by God.  It embraced a special view of truth and the good and of history and its finalities.  The transcendent, omnipotent, and omniscient Creator has entrusted to humanity the revelatory good news of redemption proffered to sinful humankind in a universe of moral answerability and judgment.[iv]

 Where has God entrusted “the revelatory good news of redemption”?  Where was the information about religious matters to be found in the pre-modern world?  In the church!  The church was the reservoir of objective religious truth. In the pre-modern period, the authority of the church was not in crisis.  On the contrary, as the repository of divine (absolute) truth, the church stood at the pinnacle of public life.  The church was the institution that gave order, direction, and unity to the rest of society. 

In the next post, we will examine the shift that led into the paradign of modernity – the paradign that has dominated the better part of the last five centuries.


[i] Plato’s more significant writings include the Republic, Phaedo, Symposium, and Timaeus.

[ii] Plotinus modification of Platonic philosophy is referred to as neoplatonism.

[iii] David S. Dockery, “The Challenge of Postmodernism,” in The Challenge of Postmodernism, 15.

[iv] Carl F.H. Henry, “Postmodernism:  The New Spectre?” in The Challenge of Postmodernism, 36.

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