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Saving Modernity.

John Thornhill, Modernity: Christianity's Estranged Child Reconstructed. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2000. 240pp. $24.00 (paper).

While many are ready to abandon modernity as an exhausted project, John Thornhill believes the movement which has shaped western culture for the past five hundred years may be just about to come of age. If he is right, future historians will assess our current travails as only a painful transition between early modernity and its mature phase.

Recently retired as head of the Department of Systematic Theology at the Catholic Theological Union, Sydney, Australia, Thornhill makes a careful argument drawing on many sources, none more than Richard Tarnas, whose The Passion of the Western Mind (1993) elegantly traced modernity's spiritual crisis to its roots in western culture's angry break with medieval scholasticism, and Robert N. Bellah, who summoned us in Habits of the Heart (1986) and The Good Society (1992) beyond individualism to a renewed sense of community.

Thornhill acknowledges that western civilization had to get out from under the heavy hand of medieval Christendom to assert the legitimate autonomy of the secular order; the old authorities could no longer command unquestioning submission; any authority would now have to give an account of itself before the bar of a shared understanding. But if every point of view is revealed as just that -- a point of view -- how can any claim be validated? If every coherent system of meaning must be exposed as a shaky fiction designed to keep chaos at bay or as an oppressive construct masking relationships of domination, small wonder that we now feel fragmented and adrift. We can find a way out of our dilemma, Thornhill says, if we take another look at the assumptions on which the intellectual project of modernity was founded, especially at its indiscriminate rejection of the Greek and Judeo-Christian traditions that had shaped the medieval world. Those traditions presume to offer transcendent standards against which any hu man project must be measured.

The Enlightenment insistence that all truth claims be evaluated by rationalist science was a reductionist overreaction to medieval authoritarianism and obscurantism and had the result, Thornhill argues, of eliminating any tension between the new ideology and the truth it sought to represent and cutting western culture off from important sources of truth. If modernity opted for an autonomy that was incompatible with any transcendent measure, it is time to redress the balance by reaching back into our own neglected traditions. If we have long grown suspicious of any but mechanistic explanations of the cosmos, it is time to raise anew questions that the Enlightenment rejected -- about the ground of our norms and values, about intrinsic meaning in nature, about spiritual qualities in the cosmos -- if the project of modernity is to be advanced. By recovering the tradition of Aristotle and Aquinas, with its conviction that the human mind can know reality and not merely its interpretation of reality, modernity can g row beyond the blinkered vision of post-Cartesian rationality. For those tutored by Nietzsche to bear it with a certain stolidity, the notion of metaphysical homelessness, Thornhill suggests, is sentimental and philosophically naive.

We are invited in a post-scientific era to recover in the Judeo-Christian tradition the myths, symbols, and stories once debunked for their failure to provide scientifically adequate explanations of the world but now recognized as vehicles for exploring a different kind of truth. Where they have been devalued in modernity's pursuit of excellence and standardized by mass culture, our neglected tradition can reaffirm the value of ordinary lives and provide a needed cultural context for the discussion of such vexed issues as abortion, euthanasia, and the function of the family, now too often reduced to sloganeering. Where modernity has exalted individual autonomy, our collective memory can lead us to a more complex understanding of the link between individual happiness and the good of the group. Thornhill draws on the insights of Bellah and his associates and beyond them those of Aquinas and Aristotle for an extended reflection on the notion of the common good that is especially timely in view of the conspicuous if uneven prosperity of recent years and the election of George W Bush to the U.S. presidency. The freedom that permits some to accumulate impressive wealth and draw increasingly away from their fellows is both a strength and a weakness of the liberal democracies that modernity has produced. The notion of an inherent purposefulness in human existence is identified by Thornhill as a bedrock of the Aristotelian understanding of human society and a key to reconciling individual freedom with social solidarity.

Having laid out his philosophical argument, Thornhill turns in the last quarter of Modernity to the potential contribution of religion, and of Christian faith in particular, to modernity's essential project. After noting the distinction between existential and propositional truth, Thornhill describes the role of the religious traditions--though not exclusively, for literature and the arts may fulfill a similar function--as bearing witness in their scriptures and communal life to existential truth, the life-giving mystery that transcends mundane experience and exceeds the grasp of created concepts. Uniquely--but again, not exclusively, for members of the other great religious traditions may also encounter the divine mystery--the biblical story of God's intervention in human history in Jesus Christ reveals the ways of God and discloses a universal truth about human existence. Yet again uniquely but not exclusively, the Roman Catholic Church provides a home for that faithful tradition.

Thornhill's explanation of the relationship of the Christian faith to non-Christian traditions and of the Roman Catholic Church to other Christian churches invites comparison with the document Dominus Iesus issued last September by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to underscore the unique and universal salvific role of Jesus Christ and his church. While the CDF has drawn criticism for its grudging characterization of the status of non-Catholic "Ecclesial communities," and while Thornhill has himself played a distinguished role in Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue, the primary focus of both Dominus Iesus and of the concluding chapter of Modernity is the role of Christ and his church in the salvation of those who do not share Christian faith. Both acknowledge that the embrace of Christ's church is wider than the boundaries of the visible Roman Catholic communion and that God's grace is operative throughout the world; but both insist, too, that all are called to union with Christ and that his church is their true home, whether they know it or not. "All that is authentic to Christian faith, all that is authentic in humanity's relationship with the divine," Thornhill writes, "the tradition of Catholicism is prepared to hold in common with those who own these things, wherever they may be. As the bearer of all that constitutes communion in the mystery of Christ, the Catholic tradition is the true home of all that is life-giving in God."

We can thank the inquiring spirit of modernity for the fact that we are now increasingly aware of other cultures and religious traditions, Thornhill acknowledges. However, where this awareness has led others to postulate that the mystery of God might be as fully revealed in other historical figures besides Christ and God's saving action as fully felt beyond the mediation of Christ and his church, Thornhill insists that our growing awareness of the full range of human experience challenges and enables Christians to appreciate more fully the unique identity of their own tradition.

Of the challenges posed by modernity to Christian faith, however, the question of whether God's saving power is operative otherwise than through Jesus Christ is less fundamental than the question of whether it makes any sense to speak of God's saving power at all or whether this is simply to project wish and meaning into an empty universe. Thornhill quotes M.-D. Chenu's definition of faith as "the act of response to and of communion with a personal God, who on his own initiative enters into conversation with [us] and establishes a communion of love," adding Chenu's comment that "[a]ll this may seem to the unbeliever nothing but myth or illusion." And the author himself later confesses that, "[a]s I join in worship and prayer with fellow believers, a mood akin to astonishment sometimes overtakes me as I listen to what is being expressed and taken for granted: things which all human calculation, left to itself, would judge preposterous nonsense."

Whether we are adrift with "all human calculation, left to itself" or have been gifted with a revelation of the ways of God is of course the watershed issue here. Thornhill is struck by Hans Urs von Baithasar's summary of the gospel message as the revelation of "the dazzling darkness and divine beauty of a love which gives itself without remainder and which, in Jesus Christ, is poured out in the world in the form of human powerlessness." Because this is not a proposition that might command rational assent, it is not a truth to which we could be led by a modernity severed from its rootedness in our collective memory. The project of modernity, now fragmenting into postmodernist nihilism, can be saved, Thornhill argues impressively here, if it reclaims from medieval theology a metaphysical consensus about the nature of reality and, from the biblical tradition, a witness to the existential truth that lies beyond the purview of objective science.

To those who might argue that the patriarchy and exclusivism that permeates the biblical tradition have turned it too often into an instrument of oppression to let them feel comfortable about reclaiming it, Thornhill's response is that this unfortunate historical record should not obscure for us the essential witness of the scriptures, "which invites us to leave behind all human discrimination and domination." Closer attention to the voices of those historically put down by a culture informed by the Judeo-Christian narratives might have given the author pause; as it is, his argument in this regard appears to move ahead with unseemly ease.

Moreover, although the traditional Christian claim that Christ is "the light of all peoples" and all peoples are called to union with Christ is presented here in a spirit of "generous hospitality" -- as a royal road on which not only all Christians but all the world's peoples might travel together--we should perhaps not be surprised if non-Christians, non-theists, humanists and others respectfully decline the invitation--not because they are locked into a reductionist methodology but because they have encountered the encompassing mystery in their own foundational stories and revelatory experiences, which may have nothing to do with Jesus Christ.

In his desire to see the trend toward fragmentation reversed, Thornhill would likely resist the notion that, in their responses to transcendental reality, the world's peoples are ineluctably pluralistic, but Thomas Aquinas, whose "agnosticism" is underscored by John Courtney Murray in a passage with which Thornhill ends this important study, might be the first to point out that even the Christian tradition fails to exhaust the intelligibility of God and that God's spirit works in ways that even Christians have barely begun to fathom.

Ronald Marstin is a senior attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Louisville, Kentucky.
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Title Annotation:Review; John Thornhill, Modernity: Christianity's Estranged Child Reconstructed
Author:MARSTIN, RONALD
Publication:Cross Currents
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2001
Words:1860
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