Monday, June 22, 2009

Three Views of Modernity

In his highly suggestive and groundbreaking work, The Theological Origins of Modernity (U. of Chicago Press, 2008), Michael Allen Gillespie suggests that there are three ways of understanding the way forward for Western culture. The crisis of the Twentieth century - from the Great War to the Holocaust - has demonstrated the failure of modernity to deliver on its promises of peace, rationality, justice and progress. The fall of the Berlin wall is counter-balanced by the events of 9/11, which demonstrate that war, conflict and opposing religions are as much a part of the twenty-first century world as they were of 17th century Europe. The Enlightenment Project has failed.

Gillespie outlines a three-fold typology of responses.

1. The Premoderns: First, there are those who call us to return to something pre-modern. Edmund Husserl's The Crisis of the European Sciences is a key work here. Leo Strauss argued that the overwhelming of natural law and ancient rationalism by a "technology of power and a doctrine of natural rights" is the problem. (8) Hannah Arendt puts her hope for renewal in "the aesthetic politics and public life of Athenian democracy." (8) Eric Voegelin saw "a revival of Platonic Christianity as the best hope for renewal." (9)

We could add to the list here. Pope John Paul II was a scholar of Husserl and Phenomenology and wrote his second doctoral thesis on Max Scheler. He developed a personalist anthropology by combining phenomenology and Thomism. Benedict XVI calls for a revival of Platonic Christianity in his Regensberg Lecture. John Milbank and Radical Orthodoxy also look to ancient and medieval philosophy for the basis for building an alternative to modern and postmodern philosophy.

2. The Postmoderns: Second, there are those who see the crisis of modernity as a crisis of the entire tradition of Western thought beginning with Plato and culminating with Hegel. Martin Heidegger's Being and Time is the key work here. Here, the critique is directed not against a peculiarly modern form of rationality, but against "logocentrism" itself. the solution for thinkers like Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard and company is a post-structuralist philosphy of difference, which is seen as being capable of delivering us from modernity.

3. The Moderns: Third, there are those who believe that the only problem with modernity is that it has not yet been modern enough; that Western culture has not yet been able to rid itself of the irrational hang-overs of past superstitions and atavistic beliefs. So National Socialism is seen not as modern, but as a remnant of a Teutonic past or as a romantic reaction against modernity. The totalitarian character of socialism in Russia is explained, not as a logical result of the implementation of a Marxist philosophy but as a carry-over of the long spiritual authoritarianism of Russian Orthodoxy. The collapse of the Soviet Union is viewed as a vindication of modernity and as a sign of the progress of the modern project. The motto here is that you can't make an omlette without cracking a few eggs.

For all the talk of postmodernism, this third option is still in many ways the most powerful in Western cuture today. And it is possible (my view, not Gillespie's) to see modernism and postmodernism blending together, as for example, when thinkers supposedly as radical as Foucault and Derrida turn out in the end to have no alternative to liberalism and to, in fact, be liberals. (See Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? by J. K. Smith.)

Gillespie's contribution is to try to clarify the real origins of modernity, which is a real service to those who are attracted to the first option above. He does not locate the origin of modernity in the Enlightenment or in modern science or in a new concept of reason. Instead, he sees modernity as arising out of the crumbling of medieval culture in the 14th century and as employing an element of medieval thought, namely nominalism. For Gillespie, the growth of nominalism between the 14th and 16th centuries and its new concept of God as sheer will, as omnipotence, and the destruction of the scholastic theology in which God could be known by reason from His works, is the origin of modernity. By the age of Luther, only one university in Germany was not dominated by nominalism.

The self-assertion, which Hans Blumenberg sees as the essence of modernity in his The Legitimacy of the Modern Age (MIT Press, 1989), is understood by Gillespie to be rooted in the need of man to assert himself over against the threat of an arbitrary God whose unpredictableness makes life frightening and whose will must be resisted by man asserting his own will over against the will of God. The project of attaining power over nature has it roots in this new understanding of God and the new understanding of man that flows from it.

George Grant understood modernity about as well as anyone and his analysis of technology and power uncovers the essence of modernity. It is interesting to note that his name can be added to the list of those who view the recovery of the Platonic Christian tradition as essential to the reinvigoration of Western culture.


Andrew said...

You could also fit a couple more groups in (1):

conservative anabaptists who consider the historical Jesus (coupled with the spirit-inspired deliberation, or perhaps "God-encounters" ala Barth, etc.) to be the source to which we need to return

conservative evangelicals who would say the same, except about the biblical texts

It should not be overlooked that, after all, Christianity itself is a premodern phenomenon!

Anonymous said...


Please qualify what you mean by 'conservative anabaptists'?

Also, Christianity may have begun in the premodern period, but it is a movement that is infinitely translatable and capable of reformation no matter the historical epoch.

Andrew said...


I'm thinking of people like Yoder.

Anonymous said...


I'm confused, you think Yoder fits in with the Premodern category? And, secondly, if Yoder is a "conservative Anabaptist" (and he isn't - also a term I've never heard used before) then what is a liberal anabaptist?

Andrew said...

Yes, I think he fits in the premodern category. The source he wants to go back to is Jesus. Jesus is premodern, ergo...

Andrew said...

I equate conservative with evangelical when we`re talking theologically about Protestants... I think Yoder is at least vaguely evangelical (he claimed to be on some level, anyway)

Anonymous said...


I think your reading of Yoder is too simple. Yoder is not nostalgic such as RO for a premodern Christendom. On the contrary, Yoder sees the Christian tradition as infinitely open to translation and reformation - Yoder never advocates for a 'return'. Yoder calls for an embodiment of the politics of Jesus but these politics do not require a premodern world.

Yoder was Anabaptist, through and through. He was also an ecumenically minded theologian who spoke with evangelicals, but one cannot consider Yoder to be a conservative or evangelical (unless that term denotes what it really means as "proclaiming good news").

Besides, the nostalgia for a premodern world that keeps coming from these sort-of Catholics and RO types is one of the most bizarre phenomenons in theology.

Craig Carter said...

I think what is bizarre is when people equate being Anabaptist with being liberal like you seem to do with your talk of being "infinitely open to translation and reformation." That appears to be a vision of Christianity that I critiqued a while back on this blog with a review of Peter Hodgson's book "Liberal Theology: A Radical Vision."

Whenever I hear this type of thing I picture some smart aleck young "educated" Mennonite from the city earnestly explaining to an Amish farmer the liberal doctrine of progress! Yoder thought it has all been downhill since the third century (actually since the first), so to drag him into court as a witness for modernism seems somewhat absurd, to put it mildly.

Anonymous said...


So being infinitely translatable and open to hearing news words of liberal?

Or, it it being open to transformation via the Holy Spirit? Is it liberal if those "news words of reformation" can be tested by scripture and open meeting?

There are several memorable passages im Yoder that say exactly what I am suggesting here. Often, those "new words of reformation" come from outside the church - read Romand Coles essay "The Wild Patience of John Howard Yoder".

I don't think this entails that Yoder is a witness to modernism. Quite the contrary, but Yoder, following Barth is sure that 'parables of the kingdom' and truthful words still exist beyond the 3rd century.

Anonymous said...

You might be interested in this piece by two young educated Mennonites.;col1