Is There Hope for Modernity? A Review of ‘Beyond the Modern Age’ by Bob Goudzwaard and Craig G. Bartholomew

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Western society is shot-through with paradoxes, argue Dutch economist Bob Goudzwaard and South African theologian Craig Bartholomew in Beyond the Modern Age: An Archaeology of Contemporary Culture (IVP Academic, 2017). We were promised that with great technological sophistication and the banishment a dark-age religious thinking, modern man could alleviate society’s problems. Such dreams, however, have proved to be little more than utopian delusion as the West finds itself well into its self-proclaimed “Modern Age.” Poverty rates have only increased, and technological innovation has only produced an unending cycle of insatiable demand and ceaseless labor. Even the paragons of modern economies are in no way impervious to collapse, and likewise the environment groans under the gears of modern industrialization (6-7).

Thus modernity, Goudzwaard and Bartholomew argue, is inherently “paralogical”: it paradoxically produces problems that it cannot in itself transcend (6). The West does not need simply more development of what lies latent within itself. Rather, the West needs something that can only come from outside. It needs a way to transcend a modernity which has cut itself off from any spiritual truth outside the human psyche.

The West needs something that can only come from outside.

Summary of Beyond the Modern Age

To begin to move “beyond” modernity, one needs to understand how modern worldviews are so anemically anti-transcendence. Goudzwaard and Bartholomew offer up in Part One of their book an “archaeology of modernity,” surveying the four predominant worldviews they believe compose the modern landscape (11). They begin with the “classical modern” view, marked by humanistic optimism and the absolutizing of technological and economic progress. Figures such as René Descartes, Adam Smith, John Locke and Jeremy Bentham served to overturn pre-modern economic and spiritual certainties through new self-generated certainties of human autonomy. Faith in human progress, according to this worldview, is comprehensive and has infiltrated all areas of life, giving rise to the paradoxes mentioned above which it is powerless to transcend.

In many ways, the classical modern worldview still rules the day in contemporary society, yet three other views have emerged to critique it. The “structural-critical” worldview, characterized by the works of G. W. F. Hegel, Karl Marx, the Frankfurt School of thought and Jürgen Habermas, argues that problems of modernity are of a structural and institutional nature. Society requires radical organizational restructuring in order to overcome such weaknesses of modernity.

The “cultural-critical” worldview on the other hand argues that modernity’s root problems are at the level of beliefs and attitudes in society. Highlighted in the works of Martin Buber, Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin and Emmanuel Levinas, modernity desperately needs a shift in its understanding of morality, human nature and cosmology, which ultimately require a move beyond modernity itself. Goudzwaard and Bartholomew’s critique of these views, however, highlight that both thinkers remain so steeped within modernity’s faith in human progress that their visions for the healing of modernity ultimately fall flat. Later in their argument, they draw upon the resources of the cultural-critical worldview, but not without significant reconfiguration.

The final worldview is in fact an anti-modern ideology which itself arises paradoxically out of modernity. To frame this movement, Goudzwaard and Bartholomew introduce the notion of an ideology as a totalizing tendency to set a particular socio-economic goal as one’s starting point and measuring all else according to this goal. The “post-modern” worldview relativizes all other ideologies by rejecting of all totalizing claims, which it views as the source of modernity’s problems. Considering the work of Jean Baudrillard, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, Goudzwaard and Bartholomew likewise reject this view’s efforts to transcend modernity because of its inability to move beyond its modern starting point of a totalizing ideology of radical individual autonomy, albeit cloaked in an ominous fatalism that posits modernity’s downfalls cannot be overcome. Indeed, for this reason Goudzwaard and Bartholomew choose to label this worldview “late modernity” instead of the misnomer of its self-professed post-modernism (79).

In critique of these four views, Goudzwaard and Bartholomew hold out hope only for the cultural-critical worldview to provide resources for transcending modernity because it is open to the receiving ideas from outside modernity’s closed system. In this, they argue that the best way forward is through the reclamation of the notion of “givens,” truths “whose basic tenets have a higher origin than even our smartest thoughts or our most noble endeavors” (95). In ridding society of the public role of religious truth, modernity has undercut the very source of common good by which society can thrive.

In Part Two, Goudzwaard and Bartholomew propose four ways forward in the reception of “goods” which transcend human thoughts and desire. First, the work of sociologist Phillip Rieff provides a compelling argument for the necessity of a “vertical in authority,” that is the sense of public submission to authoritative truths which are immutable and therefore of divine origin. Second, philosopher René Girard’s exploration of the nature of desire as the locus of the human person orients to the need for religion to provide proper limits of desire which humanity cannot arrive at in themselves. Third, social philosopher Lenn Goodman and theologian Abraham Kuyper both provide a vision for the necessity of religious pluralism in the public square, which is necessary for the reintroduction of religious truth in public life in the effort to transcend modernity. Finally, as Goudzwaard and Bartholomew point out, modernity is not simply awash in religious problems, but also and most apparently economic ones too. Therefore, any effort to transcend modernity must offer a vision for spiritual and economic healing, which, they argue, can be modeled uniquely by Christians in the development of a “preferential option for the poor” (195). In intentionally positing solidarity with the poor over economic gain, Christians can serve as a public force to reshape desires away from the materialism inherent to modernity.

Goudzwaard and Bartholomew conclude their work in Part Three with a closer look at how these four pathways beyond modernity serve as the necessary outside view they are looking for. What is especially urgent is the development of a habitus of restraint, that is, societal tempering of desires which threaten society with its own self-destruction. Such discipline can only be motivated by a “vertical in authority,” the imposition from outside humanity of a reason for restraint which undercuts the goals of modern ideologies. Without this, the poor and the environment stand to bear the brunt of the effects of modernity’s intemperance. Therefore, fittingly Goudzwaard and Bartholomew close with examples of current efforts to prioritize the poor and the environment through economic life reimagined in light of Christian truth.

Reflection of Beyond the Modern Age

Goudzwaard and Bartholomew have delivered a compelling “archaeology” of the ways modernity’s suppositions are increasingly self-destructive. Further, their vision for the return of religious belief to the public square, in conjunction with a principled pluralism, fits well with a litany of thinkers from recent decades who offer similar arguments against modernity, such as Charles Taylor, Alistair MacIntyre and Phillip Rieff. Goudzwaard and Bartholomew’s unique contribution comes from their more holistic diagnosis and proposed treatment, looking to economics as not only the arena of society where modernity’s downfalls are brought most visibly to the surface, but also as the arena for the healing of modernity to be enacted in both spiritual-propositional and demonstrable ways. Human desire, they rightly argue, is interconnected with worldview, which has massive economic and social implications. What is needed is more than worldview reformation, but a retraining of desire. This drives their assertion for a “view from outside” into action, and it is through such active public witness that Christians can lead the way in shaping societal contours of desire.

Readers may not appreciate the complexity of the book’s organization and flow, owed no doubt in part to the book beginning as an assemblage of the authors’ prior works, which were then brought together and substantially built out. Additionally, readers may find provocative their proposals regarding the mechanics of a preferential treatment for the poor and the need for increased commitments to alleviate global climate change. Indeed, the authors do aim to provoke on these issues, though their forays into such should be taken as initial proposals to drive conversation for how such ideas are to correlate with public policy within their overarching framework of principled pluralism. This highlights what is sure to be the most important legacy of Goudzwaard and Bartholomew’s book, namely that they have begun a conversation which calls for a public relevance for Christian faith as the only hope for modernity, and which no doubt will bear important fruit in discussions that follow.

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  • philosophy
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Dennis Greeson

Dennis Greeson is a Ph.D. candidate in Systematic Theology at Southeastern Seminary. He is the associate director of the BibleMesh Institute and an acquisitions editor for B&H Academic. He lives with his wife and three children in Youngsville, NC. He is passionate about the intersection of faith and culture, especially in the thought of Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper.

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