All posts tagged: modernity

Desanitizing Christianity After St. Benedict and After Virtue

It has been a year or so since Rod Dreher published the much debated book The Benedict Option.[1] St. Benedict Reconsidered Since first hearing the term “Benedict Option” bandied about on social media, I had the impression it was based upon a reading of MacIntyre’s concluding salvo in After Virtue. Whether that reading is fruitful or pernicious I leave to the judgment of others and to that of history—though I suspect, as with most things, it is neither simply the one nor the other. It has been noted recently[2], that we can read MacIntyre’s concluding observation as either a prophecy destined to go unfulfilled or an exhortation to be heeded. In the first case, he is not unlike Cassandra of ancient Troy—given the gift of prophetic sight only to be condemned to a see and speak in a world incapable of hearing and believing.[3] If we read it in the second sense, it is closer to a call to arms, a call that has been met over the past year by proposals from figures like …

Reason’s Shadow: Romanticism’s Impact on Catholic Thought

Bl. John Henry Newman, one of the greatest modern intellectuals for both Anglican and Roman Catholic traditions alike, had little patience with Romanticism. Although a contemporary of the British Romantics—Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats—Newman was by and large dismissive of Romantic efforts to turn the world away from an overdependence on reason, which had seeped into modern minds with Kantian ideas and the emergence of German idealist philosophy. Instead, Newman offered a robust recalibration of reason in his Grammar of Assent, The Idea of a University, and various of his Oxford Sermons. Reframing the first question of Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, Newman enjoined, “Admit a God, and you introduce among the subjects of your knowledge, a fact encompassing, closing in upon, absorbing, every other fact conceivable. How can we investigate any part of any order of Knowledge, and stop short of that which enters into every order?”[1] Newman’s preoccupation with reason and knowing emerged in response to modern philosophy’s downgrade and dismissal of faith as a matter of personal and non-rational belief. What mattered in …

The Practice of Catholicism and Modern Identity

We are products of our zeitgeist more than we sometimes understand or admit. The Gospel of Jesus Christ transcends time and place, but Catholics themselves are not immune from the influences of the period in which they are born. Simply by virtue of living in the contemporary age, modern Catholics are presented with a set of peculiar difficulties that either explicitly or implicitly affect the practice of their faith. One of the greatest challenges pressing believers today is what Benedict XVI called the “dictatorship of relativism.”[1] A prevalent part of our worldview is certainly the idea that no objective moral truths exist or that all moral truths are historically conditioned. But relativism is not the only trial modernity presents and further difficulties arise in the response to the relativist mindset. This essay is an attempt to understand one such challenge: a type of intellectualism that I find common among Catholics who come or return to the faith after a period of searching. That is, for many persons who come to the Church to escape the modern …

The Eschatological Marian Image

In sharp contrast to the multiple-viewpoint technique and elongated figures dominating the old, Byzantine-influenced paintings, the new Western 15th century religious images are distinguished above all by an “increasing realism” embedding conspicuous moments in biblical narrative within landscapes or interiors of great spatial and symbolic complexity. Moreover, the increased availability of panel paintings and, by the mid-15th-century, woodcuts, naturally facilitates their acquisition as quasi-spiritual tokens for the purpose of private devotion. Hans Belting writes: “Individual citizens did not want an image different from the public one so much as they needed one that would belong to them personally. They expected the image to speak to them in person.” Jeffrey Hamburger notes that the transition from aniconic to an image-based vision is characterized by “the increasingly important role of corporeal imagery in spiritual life.” In this development, spanning from the late 13th through the 15th century, “the process of vision is detached from the process of reading [Scripture].” Less the focus of sustained exegesis or affective vision than a deposit of possible allusions and increasingly fungible …

Relegating the Faith to the Private Sphere Generates a Distortion

Culture in the broadest sense can be defined as a way of life. The great historian Christopher Dawson created an entire corpus focused on the intersection of religion and culture. He claimed that four central pillars form the foundation of culture: people, environment, work, and thought.[1]  He describes how “the formation of culture is due to the interaction of all these factors; it is a four-fold community—for it involves in varying degrees a community of work and a community of thought as well as a community of place and a community of blood.”[2] When Dawson refers to the importance of thought, he means especially religious thought, which provides the inner form for the material organization of society. He describes how “every social culture is at once a material way of life and a spiritual order,” because “it is the religious impulse which supplies the cohesive force which unifies a society and a culture.”[3] Although Dawson recognizes that we live in the first secular culture in human history, he also rightly claims that the modern world …

The Anti-Integralist Alasdair MacIntyre

“St Paul and St Thomas Aquinas tell us how there is always more to be hoped for in any and every situation that the empirical facts seem to show.” –Alasdair MacIntyre, “How Aristotelianism Can Become Revolutionary,” 19 Along with Charles Taylor and Jean-Luc Marion, Alasdair MacIntyre is widely recognized one of the most important Catholic philosophers still working today. He recently published another book Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity that offers a restatement of his distinctive approach to neo-Aristotelian and Thomist practical philosophy. Interest has only intensified as a result of recent questions surrounding the viability and legitimacy of liberalism, questions raised by Rod Dreher, Patrick Deneen, and Adrian Vermeule, to name a few of the most prominent contributors to this debate. In this light, and not implausibly, Cyril O’Regan recently cast MacIntyre as a leading detractor of modernity, a weeper, in his programmatic essay “The ‘Gift’ of Modernity.” This characterization is not wrong but it is, in important ways, incomplete. It fails to appreciate MacIntyre’s hope, his reasoned commitment to the possibility of …

Can Catholicism’s Truth Be Known Beyond Its Walls?

Reflecting on the role of Christians in today’s American society, Bishop James Conley of Lincoln writes, “We know what it looks like when the Church forgets her holiness: Daily discipleship gives way to rote weekly churchgoing. Tough demands of the Gospel are ignored. Prayer, fasting, and penance are bypassed. Christ’s holy Church becomes indistinguishable from the world.”[1] In this brief statement, Conley summarizes what I take to be one of the central claims of Rod Dreher’s recent book, The Benedict Option. Pace those who associate him with a religious “self-separatism,”[2] the “option” proposes not a self-separatism, but a series of practices, habits, and distinctive cultural rituals that seek to provide a solution to the social fragmentation both within and outside of the boundaries of the Church, due to acedia and a rejection of the sacred.[3] Without wading into the merits of the specific arguments and narratives proposed in his important work, I will follow the lead of Nathaniel Peters, who argues that, if the Benedict Option is to succeed, it “needs to be guided by …

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 …

We Have Never Been Medieval

In the early 1990’s the French philosopher, anthropologist, and sociologist Bruno Latour published a remarkable, and scandalous, essay, in which he argued that society had never been modern.[1] According to Latour, modernity has never been able to fully achieve its desired goal of an objective understanding of Nature, epitomized in scientific studies, bracketed off from an understanding of society, especially in politics. Modern people always take recourse to hybrids or “quasi-objects” that bridge this desired divide in order to make the world intelligible and to make society possible. The findings of scientific inquiry are never as objective and certain as they claim or hope to be, nor are political and economic considerations ever divorced from our understanding of the natural world and the way the natural environment acts upon humanity. In the end René Descartes and his intellectual descendants were never able to truly have an objective mastery of Nature. One consequence of Latour’s argument is that if society has never truly achieved the idealized hope of being modern so too has humanity never truly …

97 Aphorisms and Apothegms Inspired by Reading John Henry Newman

Pascal is right in much of what says about grace, right in some of what he says about sin, and entirely wrong with regard to what he says about their relationship. The “average man” elevated by self-pronounced realists is a lemming, not only a symptom of the failure to thrive but even to begin. Whether we want it or not a human being is the tensile string between saint and sinner. The “average man” is a modern construct. He arises in an age of capital, when one man wishes to exploit another and feel good about it. The best way of complimenting Adam Smith is to ignore what he says about money, and listen to what he says about the affections. The “average man” is a fiction that institutes the power of number. The mediocre many can be adduced against the few who are excellent.  Lacking in the modern view of the “average man” is the sense of scale. Historical Christianity certainly recognized mediocrity and gave it cover. What distinguishes it from modern or liberal …