Modernity, by God’s grace, may be the site of a new synthesis, the transcending of stale 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…


The Immanent Frame and Great Separation

In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor tells us that:

We have undergone a change in our condition, involving both an alteration of the structures we live within, and our way of imaging these structures. This is something we all share, regardless of our differences in outlook. But this cannot be captured in terms of a decline and marginalization of religion. What we share is what I have been calling “the immanent frame”; the different structures we live in: scientific, social, technological, and so on, constitute such a frame in that they are part of a “natural,” or “this worldly” order which can be understood in its own terms, without reference to the “supernatural” or “transcendent.”[1]

Mark Lilla, in The Stillborn God, describes this change in our condition as “the liberation, isolation , and clarification of distinctively political questions, apart from speculations about the divine nexus…. Politics became, intellectually speaking, its own realm deserving independent investigation and serving the limited aim of providing the peace and plenty necessary for human dignity. That was the Great Separation.”[2]

What I would like to consider in this essay are the following questions prompted by these two quotes: Where did this “immanent frame” and “great separation” come from? When did our condition definitely and and irreversibly change? Is this change unprecedented, and if so, why? And most importantly, should we be celebrating or repudiating our situation, or should we be dispassionately neutral? It would be nice to find clear and simple answers to these questions, but even in the wake of Charles Taylor’s exhaustively detailed and truly magisterial book on these topics, A Secular Age, the questions remain. Indeed, if anything, Taylor has ultimately made them more pressing and complex.

In his excellent revisionist intellectual history, The Theological Origins of Modernity, Michael Gillespie has made a persuasive case that the origins of modernity are, primarily, theological—theologically Christian, to be precise, but not in any traditional or remotely Thomistic mode. Gillespie writes:

Modernity is better understood as an attempt to find a new metaphysical/theological answer to the question of the nature and relation of God, man, and the natural world that arose in the late medieval world as a result of a titanic struggle between contradictory elements within Christianity itself. Modernity, as we understand and experience it, came to be as a series of attempts to constitute a new and coherent metaphysics/theology.[3]

Erasmus, Petrach, Luther, on the one hand, Hobbes, Locke, and Descartes, on the other, were, according to Gillespie, working within a nominalist theology bequeathed to them from fourteenth century Franciscans, a theology not always explicit and consciously understood or referred to by these thinkers, of course, but working in and through their minds nevertheless. This theology cleaved nature from grace, God’s will from His nature, faith from reason, particulars from universals, history from rationality.

In short, these Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers inherited and radicalized an already latently desacralized notion of the world, man, and these in relation to God; they attempted to carve out an autonomous sphere for nature, man’s will, knowledge, morality and political life within a now, to use Max Weber’s term, disenchanted cosmological worldview, including the new conception of man as imago voluntatis in the image and likeness of the new voluntaristically-conceived God with and against which they were engaged. This God was becoming more and more inscrutable and, indeed, arbitrary to some extent—though, for Luther, still bound by his ordained will, discovered, now, only in Sacred Scripture, and that through the lens of idiosyncratic, personal interpretation. According to Gillespie, we moderns have never quite transcended our nominalist, voluntarist, and desacralized origins.

Is Modernity Inescapable?

The main point of Gillespie’s fascinating revisionist intellectual history, and in this it is akin to Taylor’s, is the ostensible inescapability of modernity, intellectually and culturally speaking. For Taylor, it is the inescapability of the immanent frame, the buffered self, and what he calls the “spins” that we, now capable as never before, quite consciously place on the world as we perceive it. For Gillespie, there is an intellectual impregnability to the inner structure of nominalist metaphysics, ethics, and theology, with even modernity’s most radical critics caught up in what they critique. One sees this especially in Nietzsche and Marx, both of whom rail against bourgeoisie moral consciousness and material worldliness, but end up promoting a more radical version of the evils they despise. Within the ambit of nominalist metaphysics, which nowadays all but a minute minority of radically orthodox and paleo-Thomists accept as normative and inevitable, or at least the price that must be paid for the benefits of modern science, there seems to be no resolution of the crisis of modernity, a crisis brought to a head in the thoroughly unexpected and apparently impossible contemporary resurgence of extreme atavism in the sacrificial destruction of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001.

To reiterate and simplify: voluntarism, nominalism, disenchantment, and desacralization—these were the background theological 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, noetic being, a voluntarist God beyond good and evil, and a non-participatory cosmos mechanically construed—all undergirded by the replacement of univocity for analogy—are the metaphysical, epistemological, and theological roots of modernity. 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, and there is no other domestic docile into which to move, it would seem.

Nonetheless, all these conceptions and relationships and genealogies are being negotiated and renegotiated, challenged and reconfigured, in our post-secular, post-disenchanted, intellectual, spiritual, and cultural climate. Jurgen Habermas talking to Benedict XVI, and not at him, a conversation published as Dialectics of Secularization, is a good example of a non-polemical and fruitful negotiation. The question is where this unstable and pregnant ethos is going: Will it be transcended, replaced, or further developed, and in which direction? Will we see a return to traditional ideas and practices, but now more highly developed and nuanced, in a new synthesis incomparably richer than the old Medieval exemplified by St. Thomas in theory and Christendom in practice? Or, will we see only an exacerbation of the fissiparous and centrifugal tendencies of nominalist modernity, a further rejection of Tradition and the philosophia perennis, ensuing in a truly apocalyptic, nightmarish, post-human world? Or will it be both of these scenarios at the same time? As I see it, the question comes down to this: Can men live together in peace and flourishing under a purely human canopy in which the eschaton has been thoroughly immanetized? Thomas Molnar puts the question this way:

Must the political order be derived from a cosmic model (or, at any rate, from an external, transcendent reference point), or are there valid and effective substitutes? Can unaided humanity, through the mobilization of its faculties, create a sacred, or at least a myth, powerful enough to convey a model? If the answer to these questions is no, we must ask then: Can a community exist without the sacred component, by the mere power of rational decisions and intellectual discourse?[4] 

The Dialectic of Modernity

So, how to respond to our peculiar situation, as theists? One cannot just discount the social, cultural, political, and religious fruits that have come via the heroic, if misguided, attempts of our Enlightened, humanist forebears. One can and must regret the evil of the breakup of Christendom and the greater evils the ensued in its wake, but one must accept the good that broke free, as it were, as well. The immense progress of the sciences and medicine, the aspiration to universal human rights, the concern for and vindication of victims, the historical consciousness of the evil of ritual scapegoating, the affirmation of the great good of ordinary, non-clerical life, the emergence of a large, politically and economically active middle-class, the heightened consciousness of the dignity of the human person (though, of course, not necessarily rightly understood and applied), and, as Jose Casanova has presented it,[5] the structural differentiation of spheres of human activity rightly given relative autonomy from the ecclesial and religious and sacred, such as politics, science, and economics—it is plausible to maintain that these aspirations and values and institutions did develop, and relatively quickly, from the modern period to today. Yet, was the price of twentieth-century, genocidal atheistic totalitarianism and fascism, the godless, scientistic dictatorship and psychopathic new world order of the twenty-first, worth these developments? I do think Taylor radically undervalues the blessings and merits of the Christendom model, both historically and ideally, and underestimates the evil that partial goods and half-values, however universally and sincerely pursued and held, can wreak, and have wreaked, on a society when it is not unified, grounded, and integrated in and through the moral and spiritual authority of the Catholic Church. And Taylor is wrong, along with Jacques Maritain and John Courtney Murray, simply to renounce the project of creating a new Christendom.

Nevertheless, one point here is well taken. In the words of Maritain, there has been a certain maturation of the political order, and it does look like the Gospel seed has come to a greater fruition in certain temporal areas—though there is room for much more growth, and there have been many misshapen and misbegotten stalks, as well as abortive fruits. One simply cannot discount or reject the modernity-friendly Gaudium et Spes in this regard. This maturation, and the real responsibility that it demands, which is the aspect of modernity gravely lacking today, is the true message of Gaudium et spes when interpreted correctly according to the hermeneutic of continuity, that is, not as a replacement of the Syllabus of Errors of Pius IX, but as its complement. After Vatican II, no Catholic can interpret the prior Leonine social teaching and theology as simply a rejection of modernity, but neither can he reject or dismiss the prior teaching as outdated or simply mistaken.

Yet, and it goes without saying, we cannot celebrate modernity unequivocally. Exclusive humanism, that is, the faith of atheism plus good works, certainly gets things right in terms of demanding the dignity of human freedom and personhood, and in being on the side of victims, things that paganism got really wrong, but these good affirmations of humanism have come at too steep a price, it must be admitted: we celebrate freedom and the dignity of persons perhaps as never before, but we as a society do not really know what these things are, witness abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage, legally enforced political correctness and hate crimes, the normalization of torture, eroticized/violence-laden, mass consumer culture, unmanned drone attacks on civilian “enemies,” and the seeming inability of Western nations to cease scapegoating, genocide, and war. That is why Taylor, as well as Habermas, insists that for the genuine goods of modernity to endure—healthy secularity, non-exclusive humanism, just democracy, authentically human, human rights, non-Jacobin equality—modernity simply has to recognize its theological roots, or at least not be ungrateful or in denial of them, as were the leaders of the European Union in their refusal explicitly and officially to recognize Europe’s Christian genealogy and historical character. Thomas Molnar has written:

We are thus approaching societies without the sacred and without power. To use the words of Gauchet again, the political enterprise is no longer justified in calling itself the concretization of the heavenly law. Political power is subverted in its symbolic foundation and sacred identity. Its roots, hence its mediating legitimacy, have been removed by a quiet revolution. Liberal democracy has proved to be a passage from society founded on the sacred to society founded on nothing but itself.[6]

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.”[7] 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.

The question remains, however, as to the limits the retention of an integrally Christian worldview places on full reconciliation with secular modernity and liberal democracy. According to St. Thomas, men cannot adequately understand in theory, let alone fulfill in practice, the detailed precepts of the natural law without the help of its author, God, and its divinely appointed interpreter, the Roman Catholic Church. With regard to a non-sacral foundation for political order, the Thomist Joseph May in the 1950s stated: “The only true doctrine is that civil society cannot prescind from the ultimate end [emphasis mine] both because the temporal welfare implies an ordering to the spiritual and supernatural, and because the individual citizens are directly and positively bound to tend to it.”[8] And even Dignitatis Humanae insists that it “leaves untouched the traditional Catholic doctrine about the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and the one Church of Christ” (Sec. 1). As Pope John Paul II often reiterated, the face of Jesus Christ is the only true mirror in which man can fully and accurately contemplate and comprehend his own nature and destiny; thus, only therein can he discern the moral values and goods most perfective of himself and the political order.

The two extremes to avoid, then, are a complete rejection of “the secular,” on the one hand, and a belief in its complete self-sufficiency, on the other. Where to find the balance? Reading Catholic Social Teaching, from Leo XIII to Benedict XVI, with the lens of the hermeneutic of continuity, can provide much light. There, one will see how unchanging Christian principles, such as the social reign of Christ the King, the rights of God in both the religious and temporal order, the error of the divorce—though not distinction and separation—of Church and state, the inadequacy of the anti-Aristotelian, social contractarian, Lockean/Rousseauian foundation of political authority, and the moral obligation, objectively speaking, of every political community to recognize in some capacity the True Religion are not at all rejected by later teachings. The right of the human person to religious freedom and the necessity of a healthy political secularity do not contradict the right of the Church to certain social privileges and the cooperation of Church and state for the good of both the political and ecclesial communities. Those who aver that the more recent teachings are obvious repudiations of a theocratic, paternalist, antimodern, and fanatical past are blinded by a spun-modernity, enslaved to the spirit of the age from which, as Chesterton insisted, the Church alone can save us. All the Church’s teachings, which do evince prima facie tension, are coordinated and resolved in a delicate synthesis by the Church to preclude both the imbalanced, tout court rejection of modernity, and the blind adulation of it.

But how to effectively apply these teaching to our pluralistic, liberal democratic political order? Can we aspire to something more than just private, sub-political application? Should we not be engaging in Christian action directed toward the long-term goal of, not just a justly managed pluralism wherein Christians can carve out a space for their own exercise of religious freedom, but a truly new Christendom? Can we have a genuinely Christian, confessional political order that respects religious freedom and freedom of conscience within the centrally administered, non-subsidiaritist, liberal democratic nation-state, without recourse to some level of cultural and even political secession of like-minded believers? Can we transform our ever-expanding Leviathanian state into a truly federated and decentralized polity, or is it simply, as the Pledge insists, indivisible? Are we caught in an inescapable tyranny of pluralism? Can such tyranny be peacefully subverted?

From Dialectic to Aporia

It would seem that the dialogic, argumentative, political path to obtain autonomy for tradition-constituted communities is being programmatically sabotaged from the top down by ideology and the ruling class’s jealousy to preserve its hegemony. As Alasdair MacIntyre puts it: “Liberalism is often successful in preempting the debate… so that [objections to it] appear to have become debates within liberalism… There is little place in such political systems for the criticism of the system itself, that is, for putting liberalism in question.”[9] Thus, we would first need a nation-wide ideological repudiation of centrally managed and controlled, pluralistic liberalism as the only political ideal. But the way political “conversation” is set up nowadays, culturally, legally, and juridically, that is, staged, controlled, policed, constrained, and shut down when necessary, any discourse whose outcome poses a threat to the status quo is doomed to failure—or made to fail: witness Occupy Wall Street.

Hence the vital need to secure political autonomy for those communities that already repudiate the status quo, but how does one obtain that peacefully? The real problem is psychological and spiritual. Too many Christians have been mentally colonized by the Lockean political paradigm, where “every Church is orthodox to itself,” where religion is rightly divorced from politics and privatized. If MacIntyre is right, the precondition for getting out of the liberal cave, as it were, is robust and prolonged participation in tradition-constituted communities that are already out of the cave, so to be inculcated in the habits of thought and practice of aspirant practitioners of a supra-liberal politics. For MacIntyre, we can achieve such communities right now, and some have already done so, but somehow this is to be enacted in and through small-scale communities without any legal and political teeth, or any hope of obtaining them. This seems impossible, for these are not genuine political communities, that is, not perfect societies in the Aristotelian sense, and hence too weak to do the job.

I have not yet encountered convincing and satisfying answers to the questions posed at the outset, as well as all the derivative questions posed throughout this essay. MacIntyre, perhaps, comes the closest, but his project is not powerful enough, as I have suggested, and I think the reason it ultimately fails is its neglect to incorporate the power and authority of political theology and the Catholic Church. One needs more than philosophy to defeat the theological heresy and heretical church of secularist liberalism. William Cavanaugh recognizes this need, but his problem is a notion of political authority and state that borders on the anarchist.[10] Cavanaugh seems to repudiate the normative Leonine/Thomistic understanding of the state as possessing intrinsic moral authority and obligated to offer God worship, and the political ideal of the Catholic confessional state. For Cavanaugh, the state appears to be at best, a necessary evil, and at worst an intrinsic one, and it is not clear that he means only the post-Westphalian, nation-state. All states, even the best of them, for him, seem to be evil to some extent. His is a model that conceives of the state as inexorably beholden to the city of man.   

In any event, perhaps after this brief dialectical journey we have a clearer sense of, if not modernity’s precise origin and essence, at least what modernity is not, and which of its genealogies are spurious. Modernity is not the progressive divinization of man and marginalization of God, socially, economically, politically, culturally, anthropologically, leading, in post-modernity and beyond, to the final rejection of His public reign on earth. But it may very well be that Enlightened humanism is succeeded by trans-humanism, warned about by C.S. Lewis in his, hopefully non-prophetic, That Hideous Strength, in which an elite of the powerful few control and enslave the world’s population via genetic engineering, mind control, and technological wizardry, and, we can add based upon our experience since Lewis, a culture of super-eroticism and suicide, sex and death. Modernity, on the other hand, by God’s grace, may be the site of a 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.

Back in 1969 theologian Joseph Ratzinger made some comments about our Catholic future. His sobering remarks leave room for hope, but only of the supernatural kind, and I’ll close with Ratzinger’s prophetic words:

The church will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes . . . she will lose many of her social privileges. . . As a small society, [the Church] will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members…. It will be hard-going for the Church, for the process of crystallization and clarification will cost her much valuable energy. It will make her poor and cause her to become the Church of the meek . . . The process will be long and wearisome as was the road from the false progressivism on the eve of the French Revolution — when a bishop might be thought smart if he made fun of dogmas and even insinuated that the existence of God was by no means certain . . . But when the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church. Men in a totally planned world will find themselves unspeakably lonely. If they have completely lost sight of God, they will feel the whole horror of their poverty. Then they will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new. They will discover it as a hope that is meant for them, an answer for which they have always been searching in secret…. And so it seems certain to me that the Church is facing very hard times. The real crisis has scarcely begun. We will have to count on terrific upheavals. But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the Church of the political cult, which is dead already, but the Church of faith. She may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently; but she will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.[11]

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[1] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2007), p. 594.

[2] From Mark Lilla, The Stillborn God, quoted in Charles Taylor, “Why We Need a Radical Redefinition of Secularism” in The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere, By Judith Butler, Jurgen Habermas, Charles Taylor, and Cornel West (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), p. 51.

[3] Michael Gillespie, The Theological Origins of Modernity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), p. xii.

[4] Thomas Molnar, Twin Powers: Politics and the Sacred (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1988), p. 137.

[5] See his Public Religions in the Modern World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.).

[6] Molnar, 116.

[7] Remi Brague, “Are Non-Theocratic Regimes Possible” The Intercollegiate Review (Spring, 2006), 11.

[8] Joseph R. May, The State and the Law of Christ (Ponta Grossa, 1958), 51.

[9] Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), 392.

[10] See especially his Migrations Of The Holy: God, State, And The Political Meaning Of The Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company), 2011.

[11] Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, Faith and the Future (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009), p. 116-117.

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