The “Gift” of Modernity

It takes just a little education, perhaps an education that involves a nod to Plato and perhaps a wink in the direction of modern French philosophy, to realize there are at least two senses of “gift” currently in operation. There is the ordinary straightforward sense of gift being something good, so that when someone uses the phrase “the gift of modernity” we have good reason to believe that modernity is being construed positively as an unqualified good bringing benefits to us that are plausibly different in extent to what was provided in the pre-modern world and perhaps also different in kind. The referendum would then be on: you could either accept or reject the claim. Acceptance or rejection might simply be an index of personality: you are a sunny type and well-disposed to the commonplace diktats of how wonderful it is for us to enjoy such material comfort and to have such a fabulous menu of choice in and through which to construct a life. Or, you are more brooding and choleric (which may or may not change with time), not likely to take things at face value. You are far more inclined to denounce modernity as a sham, a lovely surface hiding the shame of its systemic ugliness and the huge price paid for the would-be crystal palace of reason, progress, and equality.  Hopefully, however, since so-called high civilizations, and certainly colleges, tend to require reason-giving, yea or nay should consist of more than an expression of instinct, even if it turns out that the best we are capable of doing is after F. H. Bradley—a minor figure in the history of philosophy, but one loved by T. S. Eliot and the ten people at the end of the 19th century in England who were moderately interested in metaphysics—providing bad reasons for things that we believe on instinct.

Shortly, we will get to a description of both positive and negative phenomena that might encourage voting yea or nay.  Before we get there I should put on the table another, less straightforward sense of gift, which has been brought forward in modern continental philosophy, and is especially prominent in the French “trickster” Jacques Derrida. This slippery fellow expostulates on the doubleness of “gift” by drawing attention to the doubleness of the German “Giften,” which means both “cure” and “poison” and which  translates the Greek “pharmekon,” which also has the same double meaning  And, of course, if we think of it, this is not as recondite as it might first appear: after all most pharmaceuticals are poisons, even if targeted poisons. Although it can and does function at the more reflective second-order level, this second sense is just as intuitive as the first. For instance, anyone of us could get upset that a particular person bought us a Christmas or birthday gift, for even if exchange is not intended, we feel the oppressiveness of its burden. The gift is structurally ambiguous. That a gift is at once a benefit and burden also bears upon the reception of modernity. Now besides straight-up affirmation and negation of modernity being proffered as a gift, there is this more ambiguous estimate in which there is the valorizations of goods which it would make no sense to return and at the same time fundamental worries about the cost of those goods on the level of the individual, relations between individuals, and on society.

While not doubting that all three of these positions function oftentimes at the level of immediate intuition and perception, I will shortly provide examples of philosophical theories in which these fundamental options are argued for and also isolate the fundamental postures of Christianity that break fundamentally along the same lines. But before we do that lets christen them: I propose we call the unreflective and in due course reflective yea-sayers “cheerers,” the unreflective and reflective nay-sayers “weepers,” and, with a nod to teenage pulp fantasy, unreflective and reflective ambiguators, “shadow-seers.”

Phenomenology: An Anatomy of Cheerers, Weepers, and Shadow-Seers

To give some experiential traction to these different points of view, let me draw attention to some positive and negative phenomena that thinkers of modernity are likely to avert to and either to so privilege one or other as to be champions or cheerleaders of modernity, or violently reject it and be weepers, or finally to see the evidence as ambiguous and cutting simultaneously in different directions and thus be shadow-seers. Now, if a person were inclined to be a cheerer, he/she might be inclined to avert to some or all of the following: the rise of science, the tremendous advantages conferred on people by technology both in reducing manual labor and opening up unheard prospects of communication through various media, internet above all, the instant communication with family, colleagues, friends (who might want to see that you are buying avocados in the store) and anyone who friends you, follows you on Twitter; relatedly, they might point to the advances in medicine, diagnosis, treatment, immunology, epidemiology, the concomitant reduction in infant mortality, massive increase in age span; perhaps also increased access to education, the benefit of freedom of expression and freedom of the press, but more importantly freedom from any tribal or political coercion and with freedom also for self-determination (freedom for rather than from); you might want to add as a cheerer a heightened sense of being a citizen of the world; certainly a deep sense of justice both for individuals, communities, and small nations. This is by no means an exhaustive list. I have left out much, but I think you still get the point. I think I have given enough for a cheerer to recognize himself or herself.

Correlatively, if a person is a weeper, or inclined to be so, he/she might avert to the following:  the rise of science cannot be separated from the noxious claim that scientific knowing provides the model of all knowing, and specifically how we understand and judge ourselves, our relations, history, what is the good of society and the world; rather than being ahead, we are now behind our premodern ancestors who felt “knowing” was an analogical term and was human (human beings do not merely belong to the order of nature with which science deals) and domain specific (individual, interpersonal, etc.). The weeper might also point to the split engineered within society and ourselves because of the hypertrophy of reason at the expense of everything else and the hell that is paid by the overcompensation of the irrational. He or she might be heard to loudly lament the phenomenon of a head without a body, a body without a head, the irony of a problem-solving reason awash in the seas of pornography (violent and nothing velvet about it). Dare we say it (and it hardly needs to be said), the weeper is not fooled by the emergence of technology: it cannot be separated from the military-industrial complex that makes wars so devastating and so likely and the despoliation of the environment to fulfill energy needs and the relegation of nature to tourism. Of course, there is the scourge of capitalism and its man-made poverty, and the various forms of colonization of the Third World, political, economic, cultural in which justice is set aside and others’ freedom trampled on. I could say a lot more, but this will suffice as a preliminary orientation. Without mechanically going through the procedure of inverting everything affirmed by the cheerer, weepers should be able to recognize themselves.

The third view, which votes neither yea nor nay, senses a mixture of all of the above phenomena, feels the pluses and minuses and is pulled in contrary directions. This is the plight of the “shadow-seer” who if in one sense cannot make up her mind, in another sense experiences her mind flooded with contrary perceptions; science and technology as incredible and yet marked by ambiguity which elicits ambivalence; enhanced communication bedeviled by a problematic lack of substance; the paradoxical reduction and creation of poverty, an unparalleled ecological consciousness that goes hand in hand with unparalleled carelessness regarding the earth, advances in freedom matched by new forms of unfreedom (addiction), greater respect for women and the dignity of children and their rampant exploitation in sex trafficking and child pornography. I could add more ambiguous phenomena, but again I suspect I have said enough that a person can recognize himself or herself as the shadow-seer.

Now, I have good, maybe even wonderful, news for all cheerers, weepers, and shadow-seers. I can provide each a deep historical background, each with interesting and influential friends, in short give each view a very venerable pedigree. It is quite clear to anyone who has any knowledge of the intellectual horizon of modernity that significant thinkers have supplied arguments and justifications for cheerers, weepers, and shadow-seers, even if in the end I want to suggest that the arguments supplied to support shadow-seers is the most intrinsically interesting because this is the group that seems to be dealing with the widest group of phenomena and is also the most interesting when it comes to the state of religion in general and Christianity in particular in the complex and befuddling modern world.

The Genealogical Sophistications Justifying the Cheerer

The cheerer, who focuses mainly, if not exclusively, on the positive phenomena of modernity, is able to find both justification and solace in the very complex ideological apparatus of the Enlightenment. Contemporary apologists for modernity, even the half-educated ones, were made possible by finer minds. Their thoughts are the fumes and echoes of the original thoughts that have become disseminated over time and which they find ready at hand and are held captive. Of course, the Enlightenment allows a number of different emphases and tonalities. Simplifying matters greatly we might say that there are three emphases and tonalities woven into the complex fabric of modernity that we might want to identify as English, French, and German. The English Enlightenment cannot be solely identified with Locke: there is, after all, Bacon’s apocalyptic sense of the value of science and the abolition of all shibboleths; there is also Newton’s singular performance of the math-physics conjunction in the Principia to be taken into account. Still in his separation of Church and state, his articulation of tolerance, and his insistence that religions indulge in rational self-policing as well as the judgment that the only good religion is a religion that believes little and even that not fervently are structural features of the modern secular world. On the French side there is the education regime promoted by the philosophes that generate dictionaries and encyclopedias and the recommendation of the abolition of political, cultural, and religious realities that lacked rational justification. And from that quarter long before the 20th century we get naturalism and materialism (e.g. Helvetius, Diderot, D’Alembert, D’Holbach). And in 18th-century Germany we find the great Emmanuel Kant who decreed that to be free is to be responsible, to be a citizen is to be international, and that moral reason is the final arbiter not only with respect to philosophical discourse but with regard to religious discourse and even more specifically Christian discourse.

Arguably, if not necessarily, the best-known cheerer of modernity, then the one with the most venerable pedigree is Jürgen Habermas, whose exceptionally long intellectual career has been devoted to the Enlightenment project. Habermas grounds his Enlightenment project mainly but not exclusively in Kant. However, he also takes on board other ideas generated in la longue durée of the Enlightenment, especially views regarding religion as dangerously recalcitrant and obscurantist and thus a net retarder of the Enlightenment that grounds democracy. There is no need to go into the details of this project or the shifts of perspective over the course of a distinguished career. Here I am, after all, in the dirty business of reducing him to a type. Habermas is not so insensible to reality that he believes that modernity has fully demonstrated its value. There are, in his view, both real-life and ideological challenges. The most obvious real-life challenges are the return of nationalisms and the emergence of Islam as an alternate polity. The most obvious philosophical challenges to be met are the philosophical refusals in modernity of the goods of reason and self-determination. Speaking to the latter, for Habermas, Nietzsche has classic status in this regard, and Heidegger is at best Nietzsche-lite. French post-structuralism, which features Derrida and Foucault, he believes to be largely parasitic on the German thought and also significantly inferior to it. Habermas feels constrained to answer both Nietzsche and Heidegger by recourse to the same accusation. Here Habermas’ manner of his approach is strikingly straightforward. While he does feel that reason is broader in scope than instrumental or problem-solving reason, and for the most part can be identified with Kant’s moral reason in refusing the instrumentalization of human beings, nonetheless, the conviction in reason is such that he feels called on to convict irrationalisms of their lack of moral seriousness and as being species of intellectual laziness.

A brief word with respect to how Habermas meets the two major social challenges. Nationalism, for the German political-social thinker, represents a refusal to accept the essential equality of human beings and contrariwise to affirm constitutive non-moral features of human beings (ethnicity, race) as essential. Largely, Habermas takes the tack that should nationalism break out what is being given reality is nothing less than an anachronism, that is, nationalism is a form of thought that fundamentally belongs to a premodern dispensation of thinking. Habermas does not think with other thinkers who have read Marx that nationalism is in significant part a post-Enlightenment construction and often dependent on concepts generated in and by the Enlightenment. The rise of Islam puts Habermas at a loss. For him the threat of Islam lies in nothing less than Islam being reason’s other. Whereas Habermas accepts the view that Enlightenment reason constitutes a break from authoritarian forms of Christianity, he obviously thinks that for Christianity to have in some measure taken Enlightenment reason on board and that the likely trajectory is that Christianity will admit of further secularization. He is a cheerer: this thinning of religion is a good thing. Islam is such a surd for Habermas that in his more recent works Habermas, who is usually more or less deaf to the merits of Christianity, attempts to enlist Christianity against Islam. He doesn’t fully own this lack of confidence or even explain clearly why Christianity can do something the Enlightenment cannot do. Presumably, it has to do with the fact that the formality of the Enlightenment as a procedural language does not provide a motivational structure adequate to the task of resistance. Perhaps, he thinks, Christianity does and, thus, Enlightenment reason can and should take it on board. As he is talking this way, Habermas still does not renege on the conviction that the Enlightenment, systemically as well as historically, represents a break with Christianity. In his dialogues/debates with Benedict XVI Habermas refuses Benedict’s claim that much of what is good about modernity, for example, human rights and the natural dignity of the person, is borrowed from Christianity. Pragmatics are to the fore: Christianity if not true might be useful: perhaps, as Kant suggested, Christianity is the exoteric form of reason which can be deputized to do work in the real world when reason doesn’t seem to generate sufficient energy to counter its virulently obscurantist and violent other. It is not clear whether Christianity should feel especially complimented to be treated in such an un-Kantian way as a mere means and not as an end in itself.

What about the theological embrace of modernity by Christianity? Now, if there are philosophical cheerers it is more than likely that some (perhaps many) Christians are cheerers of modernity. The question is whether someone is a cheerer because he or she is a Christian. Now, there have been plenty of yea-sayers in modern philosophy and modern religious thought to which an intuitive cheerer can turn and adopt the mantle. Newman pointed out that largely due to Locke there were far too many cheerers in the Anglican Church in the 18th and 19th century, which is one reason why he made his way to Rome, whom he was convinced would prevail against the lamentable cheerers. For Newman, these religious cheerers quite literally exemplified the “Anti-Christ.” Their basic decency and sincerity led one to believe that what they offered was real Christianity, whereas in fact it was counterfeit. Newman’s proximate target was Locke and the rationalist tradition that he spawned. Of course, Locke is also a major philosophical influence behind the drafting of the American Constitution and thus has had for over two centuries a foothold in America. Still, one doesn’t need to be Locke or an epigone of Locke to have carried forward the view of moral religion and responsible belief, that is, belief consistent with the best of modern science. An alternate path was opened up by Emmanuel Kant and Friedrich Schleiermacher, with Kant more interested in the match between Christianity and science and Christianity and ethics, and Schleiermacher interested more nearly in the match between Christianity and contemporary experience and Christianity and contemporary culture.  In any event, between the two they are responsible for much of the substance and energy of Liberal Protestant theology from the late 19th through the 20th century. In addition to many current Catholics thinking pretty much like their liberal Protestant confreres, we do have the example in the early 20th century of the movement of Catholic modernism. Thinkers such as Loisy and Tyrell argued for a Church more open to the modern world in general and to be more open to biblical interpretation as a kind of science in particular. Since, I intend to broach the subject of Modernism again, I will only say here that things did not go well. Perhaps a hundred years later Roman Catholicism has reversed the verdict on Modernism, but it might be reminded that neither Pope Francis, Pope Benedict XVI, nor Pope John Paul II are or were unequivocal lovers of modernity. While the focus of their dislike might be different, it is clear that they have sufficient disagreement with modern thought and behavior that none could be classed as an unequivocal cheerer.

The Genealogical Sophistications Justifying the Weepers

Now, as already intimated there are all kinds of critics of Enlightenment and secular modernity. Nietzsche, Derrida, and Foucault have all been mentioned as nay-sayers and thus weepers. Yet, none of these thinkers, who expressed major grievances, advocated for a kind of return to the premodern state of things, and most certainly not a premodern Christian ideational frame that married classical philosophy and Christian revelation. That still leaves us with a number of anti-moderns from which we can chose, although this is not to say that anyone of them would be in agreement with the other. We have Heidegger who carries forward Nietzsche’s agenda of getting behind Western civilization in general and both classical philosophy and Christian thought which are deemed to constitute it. Reversing the coin we have Eric Voegelin who thinks of modern thought and modern political thought in particular as a swerve from the Christian and Classical past which can demonstrate its superiority by maintaining wonder and transcendence, as well as a sense of the taut in-between character of the finite subject who cannot attain to perfect knowledge of herself, history, or social order, but who will not renounce the responsibilities of always being oriented towards an overdetermined reality, whether being, good, or God. And, of course, you have Alasdair MacIntyre, who judges a mutated modernity by the premodern standard of an Aristotelian-Thomist world of virtue.

Now it would be jejune to attempt to give a detailed account of all four of these. So with the choice being more or less arbitrary, I will say a few more words about two of the four. I begin with Heidegger. Certainly, Heidegger is one of the most interesting of weepers in that he decries a modernity constituted by “technicalization” and “machination” as the inevitable outgrowth of the turn to the subject: the modern subject gets caught in the trap of its own commitment to objectification when it becomes itself an object in a will to control the world that has gotten out of control. And with regard to the modern subject, the description is not flattering: conformist (a hostage to the anonymous they) incapable of true questioning and thus true courage. Despite the rhetoric of novelty and greatness, the modern subject is a small and trivial thing. Moreover, the social structures that such a modern subject brings into being, not excepting democracy (Carl Schmitt, another anti-modern), are monuments to such a subject’s smallness. The premodern as we know it, that is, the world of Christendom that is dislocated with the rise of modernity, is not the solution. Rather it is an essential part of the problem. So also is Classical Greek philosophy which, if it has anything to recommend it, it is because it continues to live off the fumes of Presocratic thought, both philosophical (Heraclitus and Parmenides) and literary (Sophocles and Homer). There is a premodern world that Heidegger praises and functions as a kind of norm, but it is better to call this the pre-pre-modern, since it is a beginning that could be classed as a pure beginning that died at inception, or something that was prior to Western civilization that is bankrupt. The modern secular world with its emphasis on instrumental and ultimately violent rationality is simply the logical outcome of a drawing from the poisoned sources of Classical philosophy, Christian revelation at least as wrung through the philosophical ringer, and modern thought that has its origin in Descartes and depending on text, its end in Hegel or Nietzsche.

My second and very different example is Alasdair MacIntyre. Since I do not have the luxury of bee-like behavior to move from text to text of MacIntyre and speak to changes in nuance and inflection, I will be selective. In presenting him I will stick to After Virtue. This is not the worst of strategies. After Virtue is MacIntyre’s most acclaimed text, and almost everyone would agree that it is a representative text. One surprising avenue into the text is the epigraph in Gaelic that stands at the beginning of the text. For the most part, epigraphs are like ornaments. In this case, however, it is not, although one can excuse most commentators for not noticing. In the epigraph MacIntyre speaks of “bris an lae.” Literally translated this means “day break.” Of course, this means dawn after night. Presumably the night in After Virtue is the fundamental theory and practice of modernity with its search for self-certain foundations that renders obsolete practical wisdom and the virtues that make for the good life of the individual and the community that depend on exemplars of wisdom and virtue. The dawn suggests that there is some capacity in modernity to transcend the deformation it introduces. I will come back to this capacity momentarily. But, of course, the night ensued on what was already light. “Bris an lae” might function also to cover the “breaking” of that day, that is medieval thought and especially the thought of Aquinas as representing a wisdom discourse which in turn got focused in the virtues and was exemplified in practices. Of course, Aquinas is not fully a stand-alone figure; he is paired with Aristotle. For MacIntyre whatever else, the medieval world view represents something like a consensus point of view in which thought and practice cohere. Modernity, which is characterized by fragmentation and lack of match between theory and practice, “breaks” this world and breaks with it. MacIntyre refuses to be nostalgic: this world cannot entirely be put together again. The best that can be done in the modern world is the construction of small intentional communities that model themselves on this premodern unity. These local and necessarily small units are the real symbols of resisting the ideological and practical hegemony of modernity.

MacIntyre’s story of premodern-modernity-and-limited-repair is hardly an unfamiliar story. Nonetheless, it has a number of interestingly distinctive features. First, while it gels with a lot of Neo-Thomist condemnations of modernity, it differs from Neo-Thomism in two interesting ways: (i) The Aquinas retrieved by MacIntyre looks pretty narrow. Yes, the virtues are retrieved, but they seem to be the same ones that one can find in Aristotle (Nichomichaean Ethics) (courage, justice, temperance, prudence). There is not much indication that the theological virtues are to be retrieved. It is not clear belief in God is to be part of the “dawn.” MacIntyre is not obviously convinced by traditional arguments for the existence of God. Nothing of Aquinas’ sacra doctrina is explicitly taken on board: thus nothing of Aquinas’ view of the Trinity, Christ, or sacraments is discussed, or considered as items set aside by modernity that can be recuperated in the fragments of the premodern episteme that survive and outbid modernity. (ii) There is no evidence that the Church as such survives. Yes, it is true that Stanley Hauerwas thinks of churches surviving in the modern age and functioning as a critical measure against surrounding and invasive modernity. Crucially, however, we are not talking about the behemoth that is the Catholic Church with its vast organization, its creeds, and its moral precepts. Alasdair MacIntyre then is a weeper without a sunny side of recovery: it is a deep wound that cannot be fully healed, and even such a partial healing involves jettisoning much of what a standard Neo-Thomist would want recovered. I am thinking here particularly of Cornelio Fabro.

Of course, this leads to the question of whether the Christian churches and Christian thinkers have ever taken such a jaundiced view of secular modernity as to provide decent analogues of what one finds in MacIntyre. Sticking to Catholicism, one can see Vatican I (1870) as in significant respects issuing an all-out condemnation of modernity as plagued by relativism, naturalism, positivism, and atheism. There are few qualifying clauses: the answer is the Church which represents safe-haven from the multiple viruses of modernity. This line was continued in the encyclical Aeterni Patris (1879) by Leo XIII in which Aquinas was erected as the thinker of the Catholic Church, and received an exclamation point in the Anti-Modernist Oath prescribed by Pius X in 1910 (done away with 1967 Paul VI). If one is a Catholic cheerer of modernity, your hope is that this dark episode in history is over. And in a real sense it probably is. This is not to say that there is not currently afoot a revival of Neo-Scholastic thought and a setting aside of a much of 20th-century Catholic philosophy and theology as cowardly compromise: included here would be not only the various socially active forms of Catholicism and liberation forms of theology, but also transcendental forms of theology (Rahner) and Ressourcement forms of theology (de Lubac, and von Balthasar).

The Genealogical Sophistications Justifying the Shadow-Seer

Let me turn to those theoreticians, mainly philosophers and theologians, who provide sophisticated theoretical supports for shadow-seers, that is, those people who think that in some way modernity is “gift” in the ambiguous sense that I drew attention to in the beginning of this essay. As is evident from my tone, these are my favorites. There are any number of theorizations of modernity being both something of a scourge and a gift (in the positive sense). Two of the most intelligent and engaging versions are provided by Charles Taylor and Jacques Derrida. I will spend almost all my time here with Taylor. He is by far the most accessible and works such as The Secular Age may have acquired coffee-table status in the way that none of Derrida’s books has. At first brush in his magnum opus Taylor seems to be a cheerer of modernity in general and the Enlightenment in particular. Keeping evaluative comments to a minimum, Taylor tells the story of the Enlightenment in a manner that does not altogether differ from that of Habermas as the emergence of freedom and reason, also the emergence of rights and correlative responsibilities. He is familiar with all the main figures in the emergence, certainly all the English, German, and French literature and in one way he is proposing multiple Enlightenments, and, in consequence, either a very complex modernity or multiple modernities. The philosophical grammar he exemplifies is broadly Hegelian. This means that modernity is dialectical, and, by implication, that there is loss as well as gain. However, it is noticeable that unlike other major 20th century thinkers who deploy a Hegelian grammar, for example, Adorno, Foucault, and even the later Derrida, it would be hard to find places where Taylor chimes in to say that modernity has demonstrated its bankruptcy: we don’t have the Enlightenment being condemned as being itself an agent in irrational savagery, implicated in the Holocaust (as we find in Adorno)—which we also incidentally find in Hegel’s analysis of the French Revolution. Nor do we find the complaint—once again anchored in Hegel’s reflection of the relation between faith and reason—of incoherence such that faith surreptitiously adopts reason (fundamentalism) and that the commitment to reason turns into blind faith with devastating consequences. In a famous essay, “Faith and Reason,” whose title recalls a book by Hegel as well as a famous Hegelian theme, Derrida points out on the one hand that fundamentalist forms of religion are infected by reason with respect to their own declarations, and demonstrate their dependence on modern technical reason in their very expression of outrage against it. Derrida seems to be denying what Taylor leaves open, namely, that irrationality continues to exist because reason simply has not mastered it. For Derrida, it is modern reason that has dialectically created fundamentalist forms of faith (Islamic and non-Islamic). They would not have come into existence without it.

This is not to say, however, that Taylor does no weeping in The Secular Age. The weeping, however, is gentle, a violin rather than the percussion section in his vast orchestral presentation. Taylor is convinced that it is impossible for the Enlightenment not to do some psychological, physical, and social damage as it wrests people away from the comfort of their belief systems and established authorities, and that the emergence of individualism ends up ravaging community. In short, whatever its gifts, the Enlightenment is not so humanly nourishing that it does not have to be corrected. The question is from where? Since Taylor is committed to telling the story of what happened, rather than telling the story that individuals might like to have happened, the sources of correction are not to be found in any unambiguous way in Christianity. Christianity is wounded by modernity and has not recovered from its wounds. Instead, the sources of correction and healing of the Enlightenment—which does not involve its dismissal—is to be found in such movements as Romanticism and Idealism. This is not surprising: not only has Taylor spent a good part of his career speaking about these intellectual-cultural phenomena, but he has done so largely enjoining or recommending them. The reason is not hard to find: these are cures available within what Taylor calls the “immanent frame” and are consistent with it. As a philosophical genealogist, Taylor is descriptive rather than prescriptive. Romanticism and Idealism help by elaborating different forms of knowing, a sense of the aliveness of nature that resists reducing it to inert matter, and a sense of the importance of community to counter the anonymity of society. Still, neither of these discourses, which have various inflections, oblige one to believe in a transcendent God, adhere to the supernatural, subscribe to a definite creed, the articles of a particular confession, or encourage one to obey specifically Christian moral precepts. The Enlightenment requires correction, but the fundamental dismantling of the architecture of the premodern world has happened, and replaced by another, the “immanent frame.”  It is within this frame that we live, move, and have our being. Taylor speaks of this so casually and reasonably that we don’t feel the claustrophobia of it. His prognostications with respect to mainline forms of Christianity seem to suggest that he cannot imagine a return to premodern horizon. As a Catholic he does seem to experience the pathos of the emptying of the churches: this happened in his beloved Quebec in the 60’s and 70’s (there’s a parallel taking place currently in Ireland). He is not apocalyptic about the future of the Church. The churches will have to deal with modernity characterized by secular reason, but a reason which has now built-in corrections which ironically allow it to increase its power.  Traditional Christianity in its many forms can try to resist, but more than likely, in the interest of survival, Christianity will learn to adapt. Since Taylor does not evaluate, we don’t know how he judges the compromises. But let me underscore the following about what Taylor is saying, although not in his own words, but more nearly in the vocabulary of Marxism and the late Derrida: modernity is a closed system that permits and excludes various forms of thinking and practice while sustaining itself in a self-corrective process that resembles that of self-immunization or auto-immunization from alternatives.

Now, as we have allowed Taylor the floor as preeminent philosophical justifier of the shadow-seer, albeit a shadow-seer who is also something of a pragmatist, given both my own hybrid nature and my Christian elective affinities, I feel compelled to ask are there any equally distinguished theological shadow-seers. I think there are quite a few. Let me restrict myself for the moment to Popes Francis and Benedict XVI. Francis is hardly a net declaimer of modernity and shows no signs of being willing to roll back basic human rights or downplay in any way modern concerns for human dignity and justice. But as is well-known, he decries unrestricted capitalism, the catastrophic damage done to nature in and through modern economic machine and the destruction of society consequent on the acquisitive mentality spawned in and by modernity. Francis justifies weeping, but also wishes to limit it. Critique is accompanied by recommendation. What he recommends, however, is the basic kerygma of the Gospel rather than the Church or the developed theological edifices generated within the history of Christianity. While hardly despising theological construction, we find no nostalgia for premodern world of Thomistic synthesis. For Francis, the Gospel is both persuasive and light enough to carry Christians through and beyond a secular modernity. Now Benedict says many of the things that we identify Francis with, and said them before him. Yet, it is fair to say the following three things: (a) Benedict is more concerned with the identity of the Church, its authority, and its teaching; (b) While Benedict is willing to ascribe value to modernity, his critique is broader in that it includes a critique of secular culture as an ideological system that functions hegemonically and his critique cuts deeper in that he brings out the antipathy that secular modernity has for religion; its neutrality is armed; and (c) although Benedict does not think that premodern Christianity can be retrieved wholescale, he does think not only that significant elements can survive, but ought to survive under pain of nominalism. As a theologian and as a Pope, and most importantly as a genealogical justifier of shadow-seers, Benedict XVI weeps longer and deeper than Francis. He also weeps considerably louder than Taylor. Moreover, Benedict makes it plain from the beginning that Christianity cannot submit to the temptation of providing a Christian ersatz. Benedict understands well Solovyov’s tale of the Antichrist that finds a narration in the Grand Inquisitor scene of Dostoyevski’s The Brothers Karamazov, but which in turn is an interpretation of scenes in Matthew and Luke where the Devil tempts Jesus to turn stones into bread, to throw himself from the mountain, have the angels bare him up, and pledge allegiance to the anti-divine in order to rule the world. The compromise between Christianity and modernity recommended by Taylor is not going to get a “like” from Benedict. This begets a compromised Christianity which, in Benedict’s view, is no Christianity at all.

Equally here one could adduce a number of modes of Liberation theology, but also the first-world theologian Johann Baptist Metz. It would be good to fill out both here. For economy’s sake, however, I will stick to saying a few words about Johann Baptist Metz. Metz, who is influenced by Critical Theory as much as Karl Rahner, has, over a life-time of engaged theological production, critiqued secular modernity for the way in which it fosters amnesia of how history has turned out for considerable groups of people, moral apathy regarding the claims this suffering has on us, and the ideology of endless progress that sidelines critical scrutiny of the zero-sum game of the power dynamics of history with its winners and losers. Metz provides a reflective version and justification of the shadow-seer rather than the weeper. We can see this by attending to two absences in his thought: (a) He does not absolutely decry modern reason, but condemns what he regards as its shadow-side; (b) His works illustrate no penchant for returning to a premodern legislative and clerical Church, and a theology-heavy Christian conceptuality. Crucial for the opposing of amnesia, apathy, and dispelling the vacancy of modern ideal of progress is the recall of the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ. This is restorative of the devastated subject of history; such a restoration becomes the central task of the Church founded by the essential Christian message that is at a slant to modernity and apocalyptically interruptive with respect to it.

It is clear that I am far more attracted to genealogists of shadow-seer persuasion than others. They seem less hysterical; in addition, they display considerable variety, for while there is a mixture of affirmation and negation; there sometimes is more cheering than weeping and vice versa. This point is worth developing, and I will do so by adducing two more theological shadow-seers. These are Hans Urs von Balthasar and Henri de Lubac. The choice of these Catholic genealogists of modernity serves four interests in increasing order of importance: (a) I have devoted a lot of time recently to both, especially Balthasar; (b) discussing them adds to variety to my account of genealogies favoring shadow-seers; (c) discussing them increases the theological quotient, which, arguably, has favored the philosophical, (d) finally, such discussion allows us to bring out more clearly interesting reactions to the kind of view of healing internal to modernity to which Taylor brings attention.

Famous as nouvelle théologie theologians, in each case over the course of over fifty years of writing, de Lubac and Balthasar drew attention both to the modernity that had unwrung the integral world of the medieval period and the hapless nature of Christianity’s response and in particular that of the Catholic Church. Neither was a net weeper regarding modernity: both welcomed the greater dialogical spirit of modernity and both embraced large swathes of modern culture. But from their point of view there was much in modernity that was askew, and much that was implicitly and explicitly hostile to Christianity, and that nothing was to be gained by ignoring it. For both of them the world was both world and “world.” This meant in both cases a kind of Augustinian comportment towards the world: the world was good enough such that it should come as no surprise that one could learn and benefit from it; at the same time the world was sufficiently distorted, sufficiently “world” in the Johannine sense one should not entirely cast aside suspicion or be unaware of the prospects of being co-opted by the secular. Both de Lubac and Balthasar lent their voice to this necessary balance in the post-Conciliar age. In addition, both have a thicker view of the Church that is to be saved from modernity than that of Metz, and are far more prescriptive and normative regarding the identity of Church. This means that the survival of the Church is much more in doubt since purely accommodating forms of Church would not count. To speak to survival of the Church is to speak to the survival of a Church that has a hierarchical structure, possesses a Creed, is confident in its declaration of precept, and is concerned with justice but not afraid to speak of the afterlife. This Church is also ecumenical and multiply inflected in terms of spirituality, since tradition represents many, even if related, takes on the fundamental mystery of the incarnation. Nothing like a return of the Neo-Patristic synthesis is imagined in the future, since its value in the past, while considerable, is also relative.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about both of these theologians is the extent to which when they have been critical of modernity seem to concentrate their criticisms not at the Enlightenment or modernity, or what we might call its first phase (even if that phase continues), but on those systems of thought and practice that might conceivably be thought of as the cure. In the case of de Lubac this meant, on the one hand, the critique of Marxist dialectical materialism but also the entire gamut of nineteenth century (non-dialectical) forms of French Socialism and, on the other, Nietzsche and his vitalist associates. In the case of Balthasar, the attack against post-Enlightenment forms of modernity has at once significantly more range, while at the same time being more focused against German Idealism and Romanticism. I am speaking very generally here, and a more detailed analysis would allow me to show better, how Balthasar is concerned about vitalism and that de Lubac also is set against German Idealism. These are niceties, and they can wait. The point I want to make involves recurring to Taylor. Recall that for Taylor Idealism and Romanticism are best understood as providing cures for the overreach of reason and damage to self, nature, and society that instrumental reason causes. This means that modernity as a whole is self-adjusting and self-correcting.  For de Lubac and for Balthasar, this means that modernity is self-validating and represents an immunization against transcendence breaking in and heteronomy rather than autonomy ever coming to be valorized. The corrective discourses of modernity make the prison of immanence even more inescapable. To accept Romantic and Idealist corrections of reason is to accept that the prospects for Christianity, indeed, any religion which involves a transcendent God are essentially nil. Moreover, whereas the Enlightenment either represents a critique of Christianity or presents a hollowed out moral form, Romanticism and Idealism look sufficiently like Christianity to be at least compatible with it. There is the ever-present danger that they can be mistaken for it: they are seducing simulacra of the real thing. They are what is glimpsed in Solovyov’s Antichrist, which embeds itself not only in the book of Revelation but reads forward the temptation scenes in Matthew 4 and Luke 4. As is evident then, de Lubac and Balthasar provide an adequate genealogy for shadow-seers, while doing a significant amount of weeping. In the end though they are not weepers all the way through: they do not ululate.

Concluding Remarks

I have undertaken here a personal, historical, and contemporary tour of reactions to and justifications of yea-saying, nay-saying, and yea-and-nay-saying regarding modernity.  Specifically, I have attempted a crude excavation of our pre-reflective tendencies towards cheering, weeping, or alternative cheering and weeping regarding the modernity which is the air you breathe. In addition, I have run through modern ideological constructions that seem to justify one of these three reactions or dispositions. I tried to have a double register with regard to this. With regard to philosophers, Habermas vindicated cheering; Heidegger and especially MacIntyre vindicated weeping; and Taylor vindicated cheering and weeping or the halting between. With regard to theologians, we pointed to Liberal Protestant Theology and Catholic Modernism as vindicating cheering; to Vatican I, anti-Modernism, and forms of Neo-Scholasticism as vindicating weeping, and theologians as different as Metz, Benedict, de Lubac, and Balthasar as favoring a balance of cheering and weeping, with on balance a bit more weeping than cheering. As you have probably guessed I am giving a favorable nod to philosophers and theologians who justify the reactors of the third kind, that is, shadow-seers. I simply think that we are likely to get further with a genealogy that justifies a response respectful of ambiguity, and which, accordingly, will show some measure of ambivalence. Perhaps, it is, however, only when we get here that the real choosing begins. Taylor is a somewhat sanguine philosophical vindicator of shadow-seeing; he might be aided by listening more to weepers such as Heidegger and MacIntyre and being supplemented by Derrida. And though well-disposed towards Catholicism there is not a great deal of alarm or pathos in The Secular Age concerning its identity or the prospects for its demise. Taylor tends to fall back on a functional historicism. In contrast, the ambivalence of all of our theological supporters to modernity cuts more deeply. While they all support both cheering and weeping, proportionately there is more weeping than cheering. I tend to think that they got it right. But, this is just the beginning. Benedict XVI, J. B. Metz, Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar grasp the doubleness of the gift of modernity. But do they cheer for the same thing, weep for the same thing, and hope for the same thing? To have finally arrived at the right question may not be much, but I hope it is not nothing.

This piece was originally delivered as a lecture at the McFarland Center of Religion, Ethics, and Culture at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts on April 6, 2017.


The Practice of Catholicism and Modern Identity

Featured Image: Edward Hopper, Nighthawks, 1942; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD


Cyril O'Regan

Cyril O'Regan is the Catherine F. Huisking Chair in Theology at the University of Notre Dame. His latest book is The Anatomy of Misremembering: Von Balthasar's Response to Philosophical Modernity. Volume 1: Hegel.