Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content

David S. Dockery

Modern and Christian

How to think with the mind of Christ.

What is the place of Christian faith in the modern (and postmodern) world? Particularly what is the place of the Christian mind in the modern world? These questions are the centerpiece of the Marianist Award Lecture delivered by renowned philosopher Charles Taylor at the University of Dayton and published with a set of provocative responses and a final reply by Taylor.

Modernity, Taylor tells us, must be seen to include the espousal of universal and unconditional human rights and the affirmation of life, universal justice, benevolence, freedom, and the ethic of authenticity. Modernity certainly has its dark side as well, including the overweening claims of reason and the drive toward control of every facet of life. Taylor distinguishes between the fact of modernity and various theories of modernity. The fact of modernity is the cultural shift that has been taking place over the last 200 years; theories of modernity offer contending explanations of that shift.

Taylor considers four such rival explanations, as offered by (1) exclusive humanists, whose understanding of the good is strictly limited to our worldly life; (2) neo-Nietzschean antihumanists; (3) those who both acknowledge good beyond this life and oppose the primacy of life as defined by exclusive humanism—"knockers" of modernity, as Taylor calls them; and (4) those "boosters" who, while acknowledging good beyond this life, nevertheless regard modernity's emphasis on the practical primacy of life as a great gain and find legitimate values in modern culture more generally. Taylor contends for the fourth approach.

Modernity for Taylor cannot be limited to the ever-more restrictive pursuit of a set of value-neutral facts and the consequent replacement of traditional beliefs with "scientific" ones. Those are aspects of this great shift, yes, and yet he contends that modernity originated in a shift in our horizons of understanding—of humanity, the cosmos, society, and God—and constitutes an unarticulated background against which changes, as well as continuities, of practice and beliefs stand out and must be understood. It is in light of this concept of modernity that Taylor argues that Christians can participate constructively in it. At the very least, he maintains that modernity does not imply the end of Christianity, whether Catholic or Reformed.

The real obstacle to religious belief in the modern world, Taylor argues, is not the triumph of the scientific worldview. Instead, the obstacles are moral and spiritual, having to do with the historical failures of religious institutions. He is not necessarily calling for a Catholic modernism, but for serious reflection on how Catholics and other Christians can participate fully in this culture without drowning in it intellectually and spiritually. He wants to explore how we can be Christian in a culture that seems antireligious, whose life forms and practices undercut the forms and practices of the historical Church. Taylor is not naÏve about the dangers posed to religious insight and freedom by the multiple perversities of modern culture. Yet, since he does not think all aspects of modernity are against the Church, he proposes a model of "whoever is not against us is for us" (Mark 9:40).

Among the respondents to Taylor's lecture, William Shea carefully offers a case for modernity in "A Vote of Thanks to Voltaire," while Jean Bethke Elshtain makes a nuanced case against in "Augustine and Diversity." Mediating positions are suggested by Rosemary Luling Haughton's "Transcendence and the Bewilderment of Being Modern" (more "booster" than "knocker") and by George Marsden's discussion of "Prodigal Culture" (more "knocker" than "booster"). Important questions and multiple tension-filled issues are suggested by each of the participants, but Taylor, in his conclusion, maintains that the "big question" is the one raised by Marsden concerning "the place of Christians in contemporary academic and intellectual life."

Academic culture in the modern Western world notoriously breathes an atmosphere of unbelief. Taylor claims that we are not surprised enough by this phenomenon. Unbelief is an overriding feature of this important subculture in our civilization, more so than of society as a whole. There is in this subculture an element of "anti-Christian rebellion." This recognition is crucial for those who want to know how to live in and with modernity. Taylor observes that a hermeneutics of suspicion, which characterizes much of the academy, fuels an absolutist rejection of transcendence.

How then do Christians constructively engage the modern world? Taylor calls for believers to look for the good that the rights-culture of modernity has produced. Yet it is important to be clear that the goal of promoting good or "human flourishing" with the widest possible equity is going to look very different with God in the picture than if God is out of the picture.

Taylor is right to look for good and truth in modernity, but he may be in danger of letting modernity establish the agenda, seeking to set the standard that Christians must meet to gain credibility. But to be fair, he is well aware of this potential quagmire, for many Christians and Christian institutions have fallen into the modern trap of unbelief without intending to do so. Thus we need to be reminded that theistic and nontheistic humanism are not the same.

Overall, as Marsden summarizes, Taylor's essay is a model of what scholars who are Christians should be doing. They should be explicitly reflective on how their faith provides fresh perspectives for viewing contemporary issues. They should be fully engaged with modern scholarship yet be openly critiquing the premises of modernity (which includes postmodernity) in light of their Christian commitments.

The big question which Marsden raises points us to the significant place of the Christian mind in the world of scholarship. The Christian mind must be critical of the inadequacies of modernity without necessarily declaring war on it. The grand ideals of the Christian intellectual tradition will fail if they fully identify with a particular culture or if they seek to marry these traditions to political coercion. Christians seeking to engage the academy must avoid adopting the uncritical acceptance of Enlightenment dogma often associated with liberalism on the one hand as well as the snarling tone and outright denunciation of modernity often adopted by fundamentalists on the other.

Engaging the modern academy and its characteristic unbelief is complex because it calls for affirming what is good and true in modernity while recognizing that its most basic principles are deeply flawed. Thus a deep ambivalence is created for us and within us as we seek to engage a culture that is not just neutral, but is in part anti-Christian. How do Christian scholars handle these complex issues? The answer seems to me to come with an intentional commitment to integrate faith and scholarship.

Many scholars, even in church-related institutions, wrongheadedly view their scholarship as "public" and their faith as "private" and characteristically keep these domains separate. Though their Christian faith is genuine, these scholars seldom think about the implications of faith on their scholarship. Both explicitly and implicitly, the academy has taught us a form of self-censorship of our Christian faith, as if it were the professional duty of scholars to separate faith from learning.

Christian scholars, for whom Taylor and Marsden both serve as worthy models, must challenge these contemporary assumptions with tough-minded commitments, self-consciously shaped by faith. Christian scholars must, in the words of T. S. Eliot, be able "to think in Christian categories." This means being able to define and hold to a worldview grounded in the truth of God's revelation to us. It means thinking with the mind of Christ.

We certainly recognize that it is easier and more appropriate to articulate the implications of one's faith in some fields than others. But wherever any discipline touches on the broader question of meaning, faith can and should have an important bearing. This may indeed be more often the case for philosophers than computer scientists. Yet, it is vital that scholars in all fields recognize their Christian calling to think Christianly—which means more than mere piety, more than creating a context for learning in a caring Christian environment. Christian thinkers—like those participating in the intriguing conversation in A Catholic Modernity?— must actively challenge modern scholars to see that the goal of advancing what is good and true is ultimately unobtainable without God; we must not only engage the subject matter and issues of our day but also recognize that our great God is central in every discipline. The integration of faith and knowledge is the most distinctive task of the Christian scholar—always has been, is now, and always will be. As Taylor concludes, our thoughtful response to and reflections on these important matters can help to revivify our love, worship, and service of God.

David S. Dockery is president of Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. He is the editor of The Challenge of Postmodernism: An Evangelical Engagement (Baker).

Most ReadMost Shared