Michael Gillespie has recently made a persuasive historical case for the theological origins of modernity. Erasmus, Luther, Hobbes, Locke, Descartes, et al were, according to Gillespie, working within a nominalist theology, bequeathed to them from the fourteenth century Franciscans, which cleaved nature from grace, God's will from His nature, faith from reason, and particulars from universals. These Enlightenment thinkers inherited and helped to radicalize a desacralized notion of the world and attempted to carve out an autonomous sphere for human morality and political life founded on a new conception of man as imago voluntatis.
Voluntarism, an indifferent will as primary moral agent; nominalism, the rejection of any real reference for universal concepts; disenchantment, the default existential mode of a buffered, self-sufficient “individual”; and desacralization, the “immanent frame” surrounding and conditioning modern social and intellectual life—these were the background assumptions of the Enlightenment, but they seem now foregrounded social, cultural, and political dogmas. The “Regensburg Address” of the Pope, with his account of the three waves of dehellenization, is, I think, a key text for grasping this development. Dehellenized reason closed to intelligible being, a voluntarist God beyond good and evil, a non-participatory cosmos mechanically construed, and a univocal, flattened concept of being supplanting Aquinas’ precarious but precious metaphysics of analogy—these are the metaphysical, epistemological, and theological roots of modernity, and they are deeply planted. As the Pope suggests, these roots have nourished a misshapen cultural tree, nay, a forest; and it cannot be simply cut down and replanted—for it is our home, whether we like our home or not, for, at least for the time being, there is no other domestic domicile into which to move, it would seem.
Now, great fruits came via their heroic attempts: the progress of medicine and human rights; what Taylor calls the “affirmation of ordinary life”; the dignity of persons seen as ends and never means (Casanova); the autonomy of politics, science, and economics from ecclesial control. This represents, as in the words of Maritain, a maturation of the political order and the Gospel seed coming to fruition. This is the true message of Gaudium et spes, when interpreted correctly–that is, not as a replacement of the Syllabus of Errors, but its complement. After Vatican II, no Catholic can interpret the prior social teaching and theology as simply a rejection of modernity, but neither can they reject or dismiss the prior teaching as outdated or simply mistaken.
Simply put, the relationship between modernity and tradition is being renegotiated in our new post-modern, post-secular, intellectual and cultural climate. The question is whether they are going to be transcended, replaced, or further developed; what's going to be next? A return to traditional conceptions and practices? Or, will we see only an exacerbation of those fissiparous and centrifugal tendencies of modernity, a further rejection of Tradition and the philosophia perennis, and a truly nightmarish post-human, not just post-God, world? Or both at the same time?
Exclusive humanism, as Taylor calls it, certainly gets right the dignity of human freedom and personhood, but these good affirmations of humanism come at too steep a price—abortion, hate crimes, political correctness, spiritual anarchy, incessant Western scapegoating, genocide, and war. That is why Taylor, as well as Habermas, insists that modernity—secularity, humanism, democracy, human rights, equality—must recognize its roots.
Where to find the balance between a complete rejection of the secular, on the one hand, and a belief in its complete self-sufficiency, on the other? Reading Catholic Social Teaching, from Leo XIII to Benedict XVI, with a hermeneutic of continuity, can provide much light. Unchanging Christian principles–the social reign of Christ the King; the rights of God; the error of the divorce of Church and state; the inadequacy of an anti-Aristotelian, social contractarian notion of the foundation of political authority; and the moral obligation, objectively speaking, of every political community to recognize the True Religion–are not rejected by later teachings declaring the need for religious freedom and a healthy political secularity.
To see these more recent teachings as blatant contradictions of the paternalist, antimodern, and fanatical teachings of the past, is to see with the eyes of modernity alone and thus to be a slave to the spirit of the age. These teachings are all kept in a delicate synthesis by the Church to prevent both the imbalanced, tout court rejection of modernity, and the blind adulation of it.
However effective the Church’s balancing act, however, the jury is still out on whether, both theoretically and practically, political power can be authorized and exercised in a purely immanent and secular mode, and whether the foundation for political authority has actually been transferred from the traditional sacred to the modern profane. As Remi Brague warns, “Such a contract, precisely because it has no external point of reference, cannot possibly decide whether the very existence on this earth of the species homo sapiens is a good thing or not.” Such ambivalence about human existence itself is intolerable, of course, but is it the price we must pay for desacralization? The vast majority of political theorists and actors for over four hundred years have been telling us that the Great Separation has occurred and is irreversible, with even many Christian thinkers in agreement. Yet, it is not clear that Christians can make complete peace with a thoroughly desacralized political order, though the Catholic Church has come a long way toward rapprochement from the time of Gregory XVI’s Mirari vos and Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors.
What is—and what will be—the end of modernity? Is modernity the progressive divinization of man and marginalization of God leading, in post-modernity and beyond, to the final rejection of His public reign on earth? Will humanism be succeeded by trans-humanism, as warned about by C.S. Lewis in his, hopefully non-prophetic, That Hideous Strength, where an elite of the powerful few control and enslave the world’s population via genetic engineering, mind control, and technological wizardry? Or is modernity the site of a potential new synthesis, the transcending of stale and dichotomous categories of thought and practice, in which a new Christendom can emerge, one in which the reign of God in His glory and love emerges side-by-side with the full dignity and flourishing of man? It does seem that man has been given the freedom and power to determine the answer to these questions as he has never had before. Perhaps that freedom is the essence of our present age.
Thaddeus J. Kozinski is Assistant Professor of Humanities and Philosophy at Wyoming Catholic College.
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