Leszek Kolakowski on modernity and the loss of meaning
“We experience an overwhelming and at the same time humiliating feeling of déjà vu in following and participating in contemporary discussions about the destructive effects of the so-called secularization of Western civilization, the apparently progressive evaporation of our religious legacy, and the sad spectacle of a godless world. It appears as if we suddenly woke up to perceive things which the humble, and not necessarily highly educated, priests have been seeing — and warning us about — for three centuries and which they have repeatedly denounced in their Sunday sermons. They kept telling their flocks that a world that has forgotten God has forgotten the very distinction between good and evil and has made human life meaningless, sunk into nihilism. Now, proudly stuffed with our sociological, historical, anthropological and philosophical knowledge, we discover the same simple wisdom, which we try to express in a slightly more sophisticated idiom.
“I admit that by being old and simple, this wisdom does not necessarily cease to be true, and indeed I do believe it to be true (with some qualifications). Was Descartes the first and the main culprit? Probably so, even on the assumption that he codified philosophically a cultural trend that had already paved its way before him. By equating matter with extension and therefore abolishing the real variety in the physical universe, by letting this universe infallibly obey a few simply and all-explanatory laws of mechanics, and by reducing God to its logically necessary creator and support — a support, however, that was constant and thus robbed of its significance in explaining any particular event — he definitively, or so it seemed, did away with the concept of Cosmos, of a purposeful order of nature. The world became soulless, and only on this presupposition could modern science evolve. No miracles and no mysteries, no divine or diabolical interventions in the course of events, were conceivable any longer; all the later and still-continuing efforts to patch up the clash between the Christian wisdom of old and the so-called scientific worldview were bound to be unconvincing for this simple reason.
“To be sure, it took time for the consequences of this new universe to unfold. Massive, self-aware secularity is a relatively recent phenomenon. It seems, however, from our current perspective, that the erosion of faith, inexorably advancing in educated classes, was unavoidable. The faith could have survived, ambiguously sheltered from the invasion of rationalism by a number of logical devices and relegated to a corner where it seemed both harmless and insignificant. For generations, many people could live without realizing that they were denizens of two incompatible worlds and, by a thin shell, protect the comfort of faith while trusting progress, scientific truth and modern technology.
“The shell was eventually to be broken, and this was ultimately done by Nietzsche’s noisy philosophical hammer. His destructive passion brought havoc into the seeming spiritual safety of the middle classes and demolished what he believed was the bad faith of those who refused to be witnesses to the death of God. He was successful in passionately attacking the spurious mental security of people who failed to realize what really had happened, because it was he who said everything to the end: the world generates no meaning and no distinction between good and evil; reality is pointless, and there is no other hidden reality behind it; the world as we see it is the Ultimum; it does not try to convey a message to us; it does not refer to anything else; it is self-exhausting and deaf-mute. All this had to be said, and Nietzsche found a solution or medicine for this despair: this solution was madness. Not much could have been said after him on the lines he had laid out.
“It might have appeared that it was his destiny to become the prophet of modernity. In fact, he was too ambiguous to assume this task. On one hand he affirmed, under duress, the irreversible intellectual and moral consequences of modernity and poured scorn on those who timidly hoped to save something from the old tradition; on the other hand he denounced the horror of modernity, the bitter harvest of progress; he accepted what he knew — and said — was terrifying. He praised the spirit of science against the Christian ‘lies,’ but at the same time, he wanted to escape from the misery of democratic leveling and sought refuge in the ideal of a barbarous genius. Yet modernity wants to be satisfied in its superiority and not torn asunder by doubt and despair.
“Therefore Nietzsche did not become the explicit orthodoxy of our age. The explicit orthodoxy still consists of patching up. We try to assert our modernity but escape from its effects by various intellectual devices, in order to convince ourselves that meaning can be restored or recovered apart from the traditional religious legacy of mankind and in spite of the destruction brought about by modernity.”
—from Leszek Kolakowski, “Modernity on Endless Trial,” in Modernity on Endless Trial (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990)
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David Bentley Hart on the ignorant myth that banishes the transcendent from modern public spaces
“[T]he history of modernity is the history of secularization, of the retreat of Christian belief to the private sphere; and this, for many of us, is nothing less than the history of human freedom itself, the grand adventure of the adulthood of the race (so long delayed by priestcraft and superstition and intolerance), the great revolution that liberated society and the individual alike from the crushing weight of tradition and doctrine.
“Hence modernity’s first great attempt to define itself: an ‘age of reason’ emerging from and overthrowing an ‘age of faith.’ Behind this definition lay a simple but thoroughly enchanting tale. Once upon a time, it went, Western humanity was the cosseted and incurious ward of Mother Church; during this, the age of faith, culture stagnated, science languished, wars of religion were routinely waged, witches were burned by inquisitors, and Western humanity labored in brutish subjection to dogma, superstition, and the unholy alliance of church and state. Withering blasts of fanaticism and fideism had long since scorched away the last remnants of classical learning; inquiry was stifled; the literary remains of classical antiquity had long ago been consigned to the fires of faith, and even the great achievements of ‘Greek science’ were forgotten till Islamic civilization restored them to the West. All was darkness. Then, in the wake of the ‘wars of religion’ that had torn Christendom apart, came the full flowering of the Enlightenment and with it the reign of reason and progress, the riches of scientific achievement and political liberty, and a new and revolutionary sense of human dignity. The secular nation-state arose, reduced religion to an establishment of the state or, in the course of time, to something altogether separate from the state, and thereby rescued Western humanity from the blood-steeped intolerance of religion. Now, at last, Western humanity has left its nonage and attained to its majority, in science, politics, and ethics. The story of the travails of Galileo almost invariably occupies an honored place in this narrative, as exemplary of the natural relation between ‘faith’ and ‘reason’ and as an exquisite epitome of scientific reason’s mighty struggle during the early modern period to free itself from the tyranny of religion. This is, as I say, a simple and enchanting tale, easily followed and utterly captivating in its explanatory tidiness; its sole defect is that it happens to be false in every identifiable detail.
“To be fair, serious historians do not for the most part speak in such terms. This tale of the birth of the modern world has largely disappeared from respectable academic literature and survives now principally at the level of folklore, ‘intellectual journalism,’ and vulgar legend. . . .
“Sadly, however, it is not serious historians who, for the most part, form the historical consciousness of their times; it is bad popular historians, generally speaking, and the historical hearsay they repeat or invent, and the myths they perpetuate and simplifications they promote, that tend to determine how most of us view the past. . . . And so, naturally, among the broadly educated and the broadly uneducated alike, it is the simple picture that tends to prevail, though in varying shades and intensities of color, as with any image often and cheaply reproduced; and the simple picture, in this case, is the story that Western society has been telling us about itself for centuries now.”
—from David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009)
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David L. Schindler on Adam Smith’s big mistake
“Adam Smith’s classical statement focuses the issue [of self interest and profit] sharply: ‘It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of their own necessities but of their advantages.’ Thus the baker bakes a good loaf of bread because that is the way to ensure profit, and thereby to do good business. The baker intends his own good and in the process creates a good also for the other: namely, a good loaf of bread. The good both of the product and of the other (the potential consumer) is thus instrumentalized to the baker’s own self-interest; but Smith’s point is that both the baker and his customer are better off for that self-interest. In short, it is to the baker’s self-love and not to his humanity that we should address ourselves, if we wish the good that the baker has to offer us.”
“A baker trying to live out his Christianity in his life as a business person, to imbue the reality of his economic life with the Gospel . . . [would] attempt to order profit differently from the way suggested by Smith. He would seek first to make a loaf of bread that was intrinsically good — in terms of its taste and health-producing qualities and the like — and he would seek to do this from the beginning for the sake of being of service to others in society, of enhancing their health and well-being. To be sure, he would recognize profit as a necessary condition of his continuing ability to provide this service to others. He would recognize that he was realizing his own good in the service to others. But that is just the point: his legitimate concern for profit, and his own self-interest, would be integrated from the beginning and all along the way into the intention of service.
“In contrast, say, to a Buddhist understanding, an authentic Gospel spirituality does not entail an elimination of the self and its interests, in the self’s mutual relation with others. The intention of the Gospel finally is that there be mutual enhancement in each such relation. But the Gospel requires nonetheless that a normative distinction be made with respect to primacy within that relation: a self that first (ontologically, not temporally) serves the other, and thereby finds itself, is not identical with the self that first seeks itself, and thereby serves the other. A selfishness become mutual is not yet mutual generosity.”
—from David L. Schindler, Heart of the World, Center of the Church: Communio Ecclesiology, Liberalism, and Liberation (Eerdmans, 1996)
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Henri de Lubac on the Incarnational principle of history
“God acts in history and reveals himself through history. Or rather, God inserts himself in history and so bestows on it a ‘religious consecration’ which compels us to treat it with due respect. As a consequence historical realities possess a profound sense and are to be understood in a spiritual manner. . . . The Bible, which contains the revelation of salvation, contains too, in its own way, the history of the world. In order to understand it, it is not enough to take note of the factual details it recounts, but there must also be an awareness of its concern for universality, in spite of its partial, schematic and sometimes paradoxical mode of expression. It was in this way that the Bible was read by the Fathers of the Church. From Irenaeus to Augustine, by the way of Clement of Alexandria and Eusebius, they all found in it a treatise on the history of the world. Had they known all the facts now in our possession doubtless the treatise would have been of far greater complexity, but the essential form would have been the same. For they would have been faithful, as we ought to be, to that fundamental principle they learned from Scripture: that if salvation is social in its essence it follows that history is the necessary interpreter between God and man.
“This principle governs the whole of their exegesis; it divides off their method of interpretation very sharply from that of the allegorical philosophers, whose works they may have known, or even from Philo. There are two features in the allegorism of the philosophers that appear constantly whatever the text on which their work is based or the system that they deduce from it; whatever purpose guides them or the precise nature of the method they use. For on the one hand they reject as myth what appears as a historical account, and deny to its literal sense what they claim to reveal in its meaning as a mystery. . . . ‘It does not mean that these things ever happened,’ they all exclaim with Sallust, Julian the Apostate’s friend. On the other hand, if they ‘spiritualize’ in this way whatever purports to be historical, it is not for the purpose of a deeper understanding of history. They do not see mythical events as symbols of spiritual happenings; but perceive beneath the historical veil scientific, moral or metaphysical ideas: ’It is not that these things ever happened — for they are thus from all eternity.’ The idea of a spiritual Reality becoming incarnate in the realm of sense, needing time for its accomplishment, that without prejudice to its spiritual significance should be prepared, come to pass, and mature socially in history — such a notion is entirely alien to these philosophers. Confronted with it, they find it a stumbling block and foolishness. . . .
“It is quite otherwise with the Fathers. Far from diminishing the historical and social character of Jewish religion, their mysticism strengthens it by discovering its depths. . . . They all mean [in the words of Gregory of Nyssa] ‘to understand the spirit of history without impairing historical reality.’ For ‘there is a spiritual force in history’ [Maximus the Confessor]; by reason of their finality the very facts have an inner significance; although in time, they are yet pregnant with an eternal value. The reality which is typified in the Old — and even in the New — Testament is not merely spiritual, it is incarnate; it is not merely spiritual but historical as well. For the Word was made flesh and set up his tabernacle among us. The spiritual meaning, then, is to be found on all sides, not only or more especially in a book but first and foremost in reality itself: In ipso facto, non solum in dicto, mysterium, requirere debemus [Augustine: ‘In the very fact itself and not only in what is said about the fact we ought to seek the mystery’]. Indeed what we call nowadays the Old and New Testaments is not primarily a book. It is a twofold event, a twofold ‘covenant,’ a twofold dispensation which unfolds its development through the ages, and which is fixed, one might suppose, by no written account. When the Fathers said that God was its author — the one and only author of the Old and New Testaments — they did not like aiming him merely, nor indeed primarily, to a writer, but saw in him the founder, the lawgiver, the institutor of these two instruments of salvation, these two economies, two dispensations which are described in the Scriptures and which divide between them the history of the world. . . . Convinced that all therein was full of deep and mysterious meaning, the Fathers bent over the inspired pages in which they could trace through its successive stages the covenant of God with the human race; they felt that, rather than giving a commentary on a text or solving a verbal puzzle, they were interpreting a history. History, just like nature, or to an even greater degree, was a language to them. It was the word of God. Now throughout this history they encountered a mystery which was to be fulfilled, to be accomplished historically and socially, though always in a spiritual manner: the mystery of Christ and his Church.”
— from Henri de Lubac, Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man (Ignatius Press, 1938, 1988)
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E. L. Mascall on the meaning of creation
“[F]or Christian thought, the idea of creation is not primarily concerned with the coming of the world into being at some moment in the past, but with a never-ceasing act by which God preserves the world in existence so long as he wills that it shall exist. It is true that the great majority of Christians have interpreted the opening chapters of the Bible as describing, either literally or in a pictorial and metaphorical way, the first beginning of the finite universe, whether or not they have adopted Archbishop Ussher’s dating of the event as 4004 B.C. It is also true that scholars commonly use the term ‘creation-narratives’ to denote the passages in question, and they go on to point out how in the Bible the world is represented as coming into existence through the almighty command of the one supreme and unique Lord, and not, as in most other religions, as a result of the loves and hates of a whole set of miscellaneous deities. Christian theology, however, was not slow to understand that, in whatever manner the stories in Genesis are to be interpreted, the relation between God and the world, to which the term ‘creation’ properly applies, is not to be thought of as an act in the past by which the universe originated, but as an incessant activity by which it is conserved in existence. . . .
“Even when we describe creation as a continuous act of God, this does not mean that God is himself in time exercising a continuous activity. Time, as we have seen, is the condition of existence of creatures, not of God. God himself is ‘above’ or ‘outside’ time. The act by which God creates the universe does not occur in time, for time itself is an attribute of that which is created. The difference between the creation of a world which had a beginning and the creation of a world which has always existed is not the difference between an act which began at a certain moment and an act which has always been going on. It is the difference between two acts both of which are timeless: the act of creating a world whose time-measure has a lower boundary and the act of creating a world whose time-measure has no lower boundary. Creation is not a ‘process’; it is the timeless act of God on which all processes depend.
“There are thus two fundamental notions in the Christian doctrine of creation. First, that creation is an act of God which operates upon a creature not only at the moment when it comes into being (if indeed there is such a moment) but at every moment of its existence. Secondly, that the act of creation does not itself take place in time, since time is an attribute of the creature and comes into existence with it.”
—from E. L. Mascall, What do we Mean by the Creation of the World? (The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1960)