The Oral, the Local and the Timely

by Richard Luecke

Richard Luecke is director of studies at the Community Renewal Society in Chicago.

This article appeared in the Christian Century October 3, 1990 pp. 875-878, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


What modernism sought to escape can help us find direction for social and congregational life.

Book review: Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity. by Stephen Toulmin, Macmillan/Free Press.


"Modern" and "postmodern" are terms that both fascinate and puzzle us. Here is a book that undertakes to say what "modern" has meant and why, and that gives us a chance to think about what it will mean to leave that modern agenda behind..

As students we began "modern" philosophy with Descartes, but we did so without benefit of history. We even thought of Descartes as somehow above the vicissitudes of history in his pursuit of "clear and distinct ideas" that would prove unmistakable to anybody who achieved that kind of thinking. In describing thought and matter as separate substances, he came as close as any philosopher could come to seeming a disembodied intellect himself. We were not inclined to ask why this new beginning took place at just that time, why it spread all over Europe the way it did, why it lasted almost all the way down to our own day -- or why it should be over now.

This is exactly the kind of question a late-modern philosopher would ask. Stephen Toulmin is a physicist and a humanities teacher from England who has worked at the University of Chicago and is now at Northwestern University. As a historian of science he has commented at length on the current understanding of science as proceeding not simply by stepwise "advances" but also by "revolutions" or shifts of perspective, problems and procedures that gain acceptance within scientific communities. (There must have been a time, for example, when there were no more than 20 Newtonians, another time when there were only a dozen Einsteinians.) Toulmin looks at the historical context of those philosophies, theologies and physical and moral theories that, beginning with the 17th century, tried to become independent of any special context. He seeks circumstantial evidence for the modern attempt to rise above circumstances.

We all know how to raise questions about identifying "ages": Does the period in question stand at the end of one age or at the beginning of another? (Every time surely does both.) We are glad, nonetheless, when Toulmin puts a date on the beginning of modernity as he understands it. I won’t give away the special secret of this book except to say that Toulmin’s stylish sleuthing involves an assassination in the street, a heart in a chalice, a prep school sonnet in a miscataloged book, and the moons of Jupiter.

We are reminded, in any case, that the working life of Descartes almost exactly spanned the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) -- which found its warrants in the Peace of Augsburg (1555)and its sanctions in the Counter-Reformation of the Council of Trent and in Protestant dogmatism. The Peace of Westphalia in 1648 instituted a system of modern nation states with their various authoritative and often short ways with the problem of dissenters. Once he is on the scent Toulmin finds much more to set the stage, including changes of climate, famine, plague and end-of-the-world predictions.

These events impelled a modern "quest for certainly" -- for some rational method of demonstrating the essential correctness of philosophic, scientific, religious, moral and political doctrines. When found, this demonstration separated mind from matter, subjected material nature to the human mind, elevated rational rulers over passion-led populaces and raised Western civilization over tradition-bound peoples. It is fascinating to consider that modern science found its impulse not simply in demonstrations or technical knowledge but in social-hierarchical and political goals. Some familiar ground shifts beneath our feet as this modern attempt to transcend traditions (often called "superstitions") is itself described as a tradition -- our tradition.

"Cosmopolis" is an assumed order of "cosmos" and "polis." The rationalist, individualist and anthropocentrc view of things that characterized modernity was part of a search for the "right" ordering of human affairs -- a civilization "in accordance with nature." This helps explain why the universal natural descriptions of Isaac Newton came to be received not only as probable (his term) but as quasi-official. Also why religious dissenters like Joseph Priestly and John Toland who questioned the mind-matter dualism were treated not simply as bad thinkers but as bad men -- certainly not gentlemen.

We are now able to say why this general obeisance to a presumed univocal scientific method should have dominated thought all the way down to modern logical positivism -- which is here viewed not as a new philosophic venture but as a last ditch stand that dug in, significantly, between the wars. Toulmin likes to make the point that Thomas Kuhn, a primary demolisher of uniform scientific rationality, published his first blast as a codicil of The Encyclopedia of Unified Science. So did John Dewey.

Concentrating as this book does on differences from age to age, Toulmin tends to downplay certain controversies that were raised within the early modern period -- and not only by dissidents. Some of these are accounted for on circumstantial grounds: the scientific differences between Descartes and Leibniz can be ascribed to their 50-year separation in time, the new political experiment in America (including nonestablishment and free exercise of religion) to America’s physical separation from Europe. Toulmin makes a point that people on both sides of the English Channel paid deference to the presumed universal tenets of natural religion.

This scarcely explains, however, the literal, chapter-by-chapter criticisms of John Locke’s Essay on Human Understanding in G. W. Leibniz’s New Essays Concerning Human Understanding (their deaths were only three years apart) , or ongoing controversies like those between Samuel Clarke and Leibniz. These writers were, to be sure, formally courteous, but seldom in history have philosophers taken more direct issue with one another -- they were not, as in some philosophic disputes, simply choosing to talk about different problems.

It is illuminating to observe how these "modern" philosophers all set out in similar ways. All of them offered to clear the brush in the way of human understanding, to put previous controversies to rest and to set knowledge on a proper footing. All of them proposed to do this by means of a foolproof method that they described in similar terms: they would begin with simple ideas and advance by means of simple steps to conclusions that would hold indisputably for everyone. Having said this, they proceeded to disagree at every point. They disagreed on what was to be taken as simple, they disagreed on what constituted simple steps and they disagreed in their results. In the end they came to unresolvable differences over the idea of God and God’s relation to contingency and freedom; they gave irreconcilable accounts of the relation between reason and revelation, nature and grace; and they maintained literal differences over the most basic physical notions of elements, matter, space, motion, causality and action. Such differences within the same historical and social context serve to complicate our story. (They lend ambiguity to the popular term "paradigm.") They might also help us set out the problem when it comes to thinking about communication amid the pluralities and ambiguities of our own age.

The way ahead for Toulmin lies in returning to 16th-century sources and adding them to our postmodern heritage. He cites English and French essayists and dramatists -- Erasmus and Shakespeare, Rabelais and Montaigne -- who "essayed" themes and allowed a variety of voices to be heard. For these writers, tolerance and, a perspicacious skepticism were virtues; they were not merely rational but also reasonable people. The loss that took place from the 16th to the 17th century is summarized by Toulmin (and by others) as an attempt to give up all rhetoric for logic.

Much depends, however, on what sort of rhetoric we mean to recover. Renaissance preaching is remembered for its verbal virtuosity and flourish, but that by itself might not help us. In The Advancement of Learning (1605) Francis Bacon saw this aspect of Renaissance rhetoric as a properly passing phenomenon. Speakers and writers had begun "to hunt more after words than matter, more after. . . the varying and illustration of their works with tropes and figures, than after the weight of the matter, worth of the subject, soundness of argument, life of invention or depth of judgment." That sort of thing gave preaching a bad name. It helped produce resolutions by members of the Royal Society "to bring all things as near to mathematical plainness as they can."

A more productive rhetoric makes use not simply of "tropes" but also of "topes" (Greek topoi) , "topics" or "places" in which to discriminate the various meanings that proceed from different speakers and from different points of view, in which to reconstitute objects and problems for consideration and in which to invent actions and forms of organization. In brief, to hunt as much after matter as words. Such a practice could help preachers avoid errors on both sides -- of being overly deductive or overly cute.

Toulmin finds us now actually turning to what modernism, as he has described it, sought to escape. He sets forth our newer practice by means of three terms: "the oral, the local, and the timely." Can these words help us find directions for social and congregational life as we leave major themes of modernity behind?

The oral. So long as the approach to knowledge and meaning was conceived in terms of the mind’s eye (and "I") , God could be conceived as a great mind’s eye, or a great geometer whose thoughts were to be thought after him (him!) , or as an ultimate supervisor, on the side of all supervisors -- rather than as a hearer of the groans of the oppressed. Preachers who go back to a 16th-century source in Martin Luther sometimes take sharp exception to what Richard R. Caemmerer called "the Melanchthonian blight," a pursuit of deductive certitude by later Lutherans that tended to supplant the surprise and passionate trust of Luther’s Faith -- a faith that came by hearing. Similar criticisms are made today of a religious positivism that will not allow its terms to be historicized or let itself be criticized for reinforcing patterns of social domination. A point to remember is that 17th-century scientists by no means excluded God. On the contrary, God was explicitly included in those rational systems, beginning with Descartes and Newton. This helps explain why, when "that hypothesis" seemed no longer intellectually needed (LaPlace) , there followed a modern loss of God.

The "oral," says Toulmin, has become inescapable by virtue of the multiplicity of religions and cultures living side by side in our cities. (Though there is, understandably, a resurgence of majoritarianism.) Eyes come equipped to open or close, to look or look away or overlook. Ears are less controllable and controlling; they take things in sequence rather than all at once. Thus "the oral" implies attentiveness and responsiveness to people who are different, to "the other." It puts us on a level plane. Traditional (unmodern) communities do, of course, mark themselves off from enemies, but they do not put down those other groups as "underdeveloped." A primary, if unstated, effect of this book is to explain why the modern world carried racism to new heights in spite of Enlightenment theories about human rights.

We are enjoying today a revival of attention to stories that create and identify communities. While we customarily attach oral histories to ethnic communities, it seems worth remembering that these were all created from disparate groups. Congregations are explicitly united by received stories, books, saints, martyrs, days and gestures that serve simply by repetition to gain recognition and response. Clergy not only cherish and protect these but try to use them in ways that make for cooperation and peace rather than for separation and religious warfare. Thus they exercise a discipline of community creation and maintenance that is needed both in congregations and in broader communities.

The local. It was, perhaps, "modern" to imagine a uniform package of interpretations and judgments available from seminaries or denominational headquarters for delivery to every place (even though we might remember something different from the New Testament and the early church) Recently, however, anthropologists have been calling our attention to "local knowledge" -- what Clifford Geertz calls "the webs of meaning people themselves have spun." Those engaged in missionary formation speak of attentiveness, silence and "local theologies."

Events now require us to speak of medicine and morals, science and technology, technology and environment. Consider, for example, how the current ecological idea of "stability" requires self-referential communities -- despite modern megatools that appear to place the action elsewhere. Some ethicists are reminding us that we do not, in the ordinary course of things, make practical decisions by referring to experts or abstract principles but rather by referring to stories, precedents and maxims prized in our communities and by exercising virtues formed within them. Educators talk increasingly of "peer education."

Even when we study alone, they say, a conversation is going on. Jean Piaget describes "how judgment is made within an assenting community and how knowledge grows within an assenting community." Such activity sounds not merely academic but communal and pastoral.

Timely. Actions by definition do not wait upon natural events or full rational demonstrations. Environmental threats, for example, are not likely to be resolved in the natural course of things through fear or by rising prices in the market. (Catastrophes, Ralph Nader points out, cause the GNP to go up.) Nor can measures wait 40 years for all the evidence to be in. Nor are actions ever decided once and for all.

Shared stories and the history of their effects not only create communities and help them form judgments, they also afford analogies for deliberation on action. (Aristotle observed in the Rhetoric that all arguments for action are analogies.) This practice extends to finding common problems and common actions with other communities, even though they may form their justifications in somewhat different terms.

According to the classic "modern" understanding, there is comparatively little need for communities, congregations or ministry -- except as a kind of delivery system. Yet we can see now that congregations and communities are essential in the very course of finding meaning and action. Thus there is a fresh charter for ministry "in every place" and for ministry that uses a full deck of practical disciplines: a symbolics of community creation, a hermeneutics of forming community judgments, a homiletics (homologein) of "coming to say -- and do -- the same thing," and a systematics not only of ideas but of organizing and reorganizing institutions and roles. At work in all this is a now inescapable and biblical power of the word to form and reform communities.

For recovering modernists, a manifest and widespread fear is "relativism." During the modern period we knew at least that facts were certain, even if values came to be viewed as emotive or chosen. If today even "facts" are relative to communities that take up projects out of particular problems and perspectives, where does that leave us? This question is not easy, but we may begin by asking whether our fears grow partly from a previous assumption. While both facts and values are described today as chosen by communities (they are actually chosen together) , they need not -- for that very reason -- be taken as arbitrary. Both depend, to use a phrase of Richard Rorty’s, on "socially justifying belief." In Beyond Objectivism and Relativism Richard Bernstein finds within every act of human communication about things that matter (or things to be done) "a background of inter-subjective agreements and a tacit sense of relevance."

If, as congregations and ministers believe, God is in the conversation, this lends not only imperative but a certain facticity to all discussions of the future. The communications that take place, both, within local communities and in larger circles, about the future of cities and about vitally needed new relations between cosmos and polis thus become required, warranted and disciplined, even though no one can expect to have the only or the last word. It remains only to give -- rhetorically, to be sure -- a reason of the hope that is in us all when we converse about the city that is to come.