This post is a preview of a forthcoming online Davenant Hall class, “Philosophy and the Question of Modernity,” running in the Spring 2021 Term (April – June), and convened by Dr. Joseph Minich.
If you wish to register for the module, you can do so here.
What is Modernity?
Modernity is more often invoked than understood. What is this phenomena which apparently threads together movements in the arts, culture, politics, technology, economics, philosophy, and religion?
There are, not surprisingly, almost as many answers to this question as there are askers. In “liquid modernity,” where “all that is solid melts into air,” it is not surprising that self-understanding is elusive.
One interpretation is that self-understanding is always elusive, and so modernity is a “myth” we have conjured about ourselves and our historical moment. We must take this interpretation seriously. Crucial historical investigation is ongoing here – not only about modernity, but also about how humans came to think of themselves as modern, secular, disenchanted, etc. Is “modernity” simply a way of talking about ourselves, rather than anything in the real world?
How Will This Course Cover Modernity?
In this year’s Spring 2021 Davenant Hall course, “Philosophy and the Question of Modernity,” we will take up these questions and more. We will begin from the premise that, whilst we must be cautious in defining our differences from previous generations, we are still absorbing radical global shifts since the nineteenth century, in both civilization and the church.
It is precisely here that Christians need to grow in wisdom. What in modernity is to be affirmed? What are our opportunities? What are our unique temptations? What virtues are necessary to navigate our time well?
The answers to such questions, for human beings, will inevitably take a narrative shape. We cannot address them rightly unless we grasp which story we are in.
Our course will survey important interpreters (or narrators) of modernity, as well as its stand-out features. In conversation with Anthony Giddens, Carl Trueman, and Charles Taylor (among others), our goal will be to bring the question of modernity into contact with a Reformed catholic intellectual heritage. We will draw upon the intellectual wealth received from our forebears, applying it to new circumstances and changing customs.
Why Study Modernity?
It is for this reason that this is a worthy subject to study. We are not the first to engage the question. Herman Bavinck, C.S. Lewis, and many others have thought very deeply about Christian faithfulness in the modern world. For our part, we will seek to read our situation and historical moment in a larger narrative, to ask what it means to have “hope” for the future, and to distinguish what to affirm and what to resist.
Modernity will finally be read as a context within which the church has a task. We seek to understand our context not for speculation, but to become wise in exercising our vocation within it.
One might suspect that this is a hubristic inquiry. Do ordinary people need to understand modernity in some general way in order to be faithful? The answer is obviously “no” in most relevant senses. But it is quite rare to find a person who is not “reading the times” in some sense, or who is not attempting to fit their life into a perceived sense of the larger pattern in their civilization. In this sense, our inquiry can help calibrate us. A lack of knowledge about modernity doesn’t necessarily hinder virtue, but rather possession of it aids and directs virtue.
This aid and direction are not algorithmic, however. To have direction is to make judgments, to interpret. This especially underscores the benefit of our inquiry. It isn’t the case that an understanding of modernity has been grasped and can now simply be downloaded to the masses. Rather, we all need to be making judgments in Christian wisdom, and sharing the fruits of this with one another.
The chief goal of our class, then, will be to introduce the student to a conversation to which they are expected to bring their own gifts. In precisely this way do we both draw from old cultural wealth and create the new.
Dr. Joseph Minich (Ph.D. The University of Texas at Dallas) is a Teaching Fellow with The Davenant Institute, and a co-host of the Pilgrim Faith podcast along with Davenant Teaching Fellow, Dale Sternberg. He is the author of Enduring Divine Absence and a frequent contributor to Modern Reformation. He lives in Garland, TX, with his wife and four children.