Christian Humanism: The Crisis of Modernity

Our secular society.
(Boekhandel Selexyz Dominicanen, a 13th century Catholic Church in Maastricht, Netherlands, that is now a luxurious bookstore. Image by FaceMePLS / CC BY 2.0 / Desaturated from original)

Jacques Maritain begins his essay “Christian Humanism” telling us how the ideas in the mind of just a few men mold an epoch. That’s the power of philosophy which I have been learning that exists, and which I have ignored all my life.


“EVERY great period of civilization is dominated by a certain peculiar idea that man fashions of man. Our behavior depends on this image as much as on our very nature — an image which appears with striking brilliance in the minds of some particularly representative thinkers, and which, more or less unconscious in the human mass, is none the less strong enough to mold after its own pattern the social and political formations that are characteristic of a given cultural epoch.”

Maritain’s essay talks about the progressive secularization of society in modernity, when faith and reason separated, particularly since the Renaissance.

The image of man which reigned during the Middle Ages was created by St. Paul and St. Augustine; that of modernity, by Descartes, Locke, the Enlightenment thinkers, and Rousseau.

Man left the Kingdom of God and went back into the realm of man himself, but still keeping a Christian façade; human Reason replaced the Gospel and man’s nature replaced what should come from God’s virtue. Man was now all-powerful and his possibilities limitless. But Maritain sees that as a huge loss:

“…in modern ideology, of all the certitudes, coming either from metaphysical insight or from religious faith, which had given foundation and granted reality to the image of Man in the Christian system.

This “historical misfortune”, he continues, has been the “failure of philosophic Reason”, the loss of the “grasp of Being”.

Modern man knew truths without “the Truth”, claimed human rights and dignity without God, trusted in peace and fraternity without Christ, progressed toward good on Earth without belief in evil on Earth, worshipped human life without possessing a soul. Modern man wanted a political and social life in common without common good or common work, for all he wanted was wealth and pleasure. Modern man believed in liberty without moral responsibility and, somehow, with scientific determinism; in equality without justice, for justice lost meaning in the modern biological and sociological outlook; in machinism, in industrial civilization without wisdom to dominate them. Modern man looked for happiness without a final end to be aimed at. And, finally, modern man looked for democracy “without any heroic task of justice to be performed and without brotherly love from which to get inspiration.”

Maritain ends the first part of his analysis of the “crisis of our civilization” by talking about a growing breach between our behavior as secularized men and those morals and spiritual principles which used to give us meaning and internal coherence, and which we have learned to ignore. He talks about a new world “emptied of principles”, a “universe of words”, a “nominalistic universe”, a “dough without leaven”. A world which supreme rule came to be utility, but utility without a goal, and, therefore, useless.

For Maritain, we have lost our faith, but we still live in defense of the values and principles that came from it, values and principles that have ultimately founded our age. We must return to these original principles and abandon this “insubstantial ideology which has prayed upon them like a parasite.”

Maritain sounds a lot like Alasdair Macintyre in “After Virtue”, and I like it. I think I will learn a lot with these guys. What I must do, though, is substitute something for the value they place in God and faith. Ayn Rand would, of course, say “reason”, just not the way modernity used it. She would uphold “objectivity” in her sense, a way to adhere to reality as such, instead of counting on any consciousness as primary, be it society, God, or oneself. The aim? Personal happiness. How? Rational self-interest. And she would be content with that.

But, read her books — something is missing. I don’t know what it is, but while Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead are way up there in my list of best books (“Atlas” might even be the best), something is missing.

Whatever that is, is what I need to substitute for Maritain’s God.

(To be continued.)

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