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Modernity and Other Failed Gods : THE CRITIQUE OF MODERNITY Theological Reflections on Contemporary Culture By Julian N. Hartt, Ray L. Hart and Robert P. Scharlemann (University Press of Virginia: $16.95; 92 pp.) : THE OTHER GOD THAT FAILED Hans Freyer and the Deradicalization of German Conservatism by Jerry Z. Muller (Princeton University Press: $49.95 , cloth ; $14.95 , paper; 449 pp.)

December 18, 1988|Richard John Neuhaus | Neuhaus is director of the Center on Religion and Society, New York City, and author of "The Catholic Moment: The Paradox of the Church in the Postmodern World" (Harper & Row). and

The intellectual air is filled with talk about our having entered a period of history called "postmodern." "Modern" literally means "just now," and it is not clear how we can live in a time that is after just now. Just now is where, quite inescapably, we all live. Whether we are looking backward or forward, we are looking just now. Yet "modern" has taken on many other meanings in the last 200 years or so. It signifies a world that has been rationalized, specialized and secularized. The modern world view is premised upon the individual, the autonomous self, who is related by calculation and contract to other autonomous selves in a universe that is very much like a machine in which technique is king. God and the gods have fled, human community is the stuff of nostalgia and we are left all alone in what Max Weber called a "disenchanted garden."

The two books under review are further evidence that we are coming to like modernity less and less. While yielding undoubted benefits that we would not surrender, modernity has not delivered on its promise of progress toward a more humane and rational world. This presumably most enlightened of centuries has witnessed more terror and slaughter than any other five centuries combined. And even when we are not killing one another, genuine community eludes us. The world is in pieces. Knowing more and more about less and less, we have achieved control over means at the price of their meaning. As Yeats famously observed, "The center does not hold." So reads the indictment against modernity. And so do we arrive at what Julian Hartt describes as a "yearning for the wholeness of being."

"The Critique of Modernity" contains three lectures given at the University of Virginia. They will be of considerable interest to readers who have a fair grasp of contemporary philosophical and theological arguments. Julian Hartt distracts attention from his argument by repeatedly distancing himself from fundamentalists who want to go back to that old-time religion. His indulgence in fashionable "fundie-bashing" seems quite unnecessary since it is unlikely that anybody would expect to find a fundamentalist occupying a distinguished chair of religious studies at the University of Virginia.

More rewarding is his treatment of the difference between covenant and contract in the ordering of society. Modernity is composed of contracts designed according to the calculation and competition of individual interests. But contracts are the enemy of genuine community. Community requires a covenant that bespeaks common purpose, even a sense of destiny. Since no one covenant can carry the hopes of a large and pluralistic society, perhaps the best we can work for is a community of communities, each pursuing its distinctive covenant. The argument is not new, but Hartt propounds it persuasively and with frequent elegance.

Ray Hart of the University of Montana offers an argument based upon a "conjunction of ontology and semiotics." Anybody who needs to ask what that means should not be reading this lecture. There are instructively charming moments in which Hart explores the linguistic roots of terms such as religion, but his basic point seems to be that we should submerge ourselves in nature. With Henry David Thoreau, Hart asserts that "if you go far enough west it becomes east." We should, he suggests, be preparing ourselves for a future of "nature without humankind." Perhaps he is right, but the extinction of the species does seem a rather extreme solution to our problems with modernity. One is reminded of George Santayana's dictum that "modernism is suicide," a judgment invoked by Robert Scharlemann in what is by far the most rewarding of the three essays. Regrettably, it will also be the most intimidating for the philosophical novice. Drawing heavily from theoretical physics, the "dialectical" theology of Karl Barth and the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, Scharlemann contends that modernity is the product of a "triple oblivion." We have forgotten the idea of Being, the self as I (who am not God), and the divine as God (who is not I). The argument is a tour de force that generously repays the effort it demands.

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