All posts tagged: modernity

Frankenstein’s Scientific Chaoskampf

Jason Josephson-Storm convincingly argues in his recent book The Myth of Disenchantment, that contrary to the popular narrative of us living in secular age in which the common imagination has no room for anything spiritual, magical, or mythological we still very much live in an enchanted age.[1] We never became disenchanted because the so-called disenchanters, the founders of the modern sciences, were themselves caught up in the esotericism and occultism common in Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In short, magicians never went away they just put on lab coats. Of course the forgoing summary is crude and there is much more nuance to Josephson-Storm’s argument. However, the aim of the following is not to provide an analysis of his thesis. Instead, I would like to take this idea of Josephson-Storm’s that modernity, specifically modern science, is still rooted in myth and get at the founding myth of modern science’s progeny and master: modern technology. In so doing, I hope to call into question for both the lay person and the pastor the technophilia—the …

The Postmodern Search for a Noble Simplicity in Church Architecture

Last summer I went on a trip to Central Europe with some students and young adults from Salt Lake City and Seattle. We visited Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Croatia. We saw and prayed in churches of various styles: Romanesque, Gothic, Baroque, Neo-Gothic, and modern. During the whole trip I kept asking the students which church was their favorite. To my surprise, it was not the very well preserved Romanesque church in Ják in Hungary—which was both my favorite and the favorite of my fellow Dominican, Father Łukasz—nor any of the grandiose Gothic or Baroque churches. Instead, it was the Matthias Church. Even though this church’s origins go back to XIII century, its present form is late XIX century Neo-Gothic. It is a very beautiful church to be sure, but nothing breathtaking, or so I thought. Another interesting observation was that our young Americans did not much value the Baroque churches, or even disliked them. A similar sentiment was expressed by the young prior of the Dominican community in Vienna, Father Martin. He …

Modernity’s Marginalization of Philosophy Makes the Practice of Everyday Life Unintelligible

We are sitting with friends at a diner or standing in line to buy tickets for a movie, chatting idly, when suddenly one of us, unable to contain himself in the face of our trivialities, bursts out with some existential question which we might later on paraphrase in polite terms as “What is it to live a human life well or badly?” or one which we might paraphrase as “What law, if any, has authority over us?” . . . And the response by those who hear both the questions and the emotions expressed through them is likely to be deep embarrassment, a strong wish to change the subject, a will to behave as if the questions had not been asked. We think: what can have got into him to talk like that? Is he perhaps having a break-down?[1] Commentators have often failed to realize the extent to which University of Notre Dame philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre breaks with Aristotle concerning the superiority of the vita contemplative vis-à-vis the vita activa. In his Politics (8.3), Aristotle famously said that “the first principle of …

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 …