Beyond the Modern Age: An Archaeology of Contemporary Culture

Written by Craig G. Bartholomew and Bob Goudzwaard Reviewed By Robert Covolo

How should we think about modernity? What are its defining features and assumptions? Is there a relationship between the considerable problems that have come with modernization (e.g., poverty, global consumerism, crushing labor conditions, environmental issues, etc.) and the mental and spiritual forces driving modernity? Furthermore, how can Christians lead the way in light of the challenges (post)modernity brings? In this insightful, critical, and constructive volume, theologian Craig Bartholomew and economist Bob Goudzwaard draw on a bounty of resources to offer an invaluable assessment and compelling vision for navigating beyond the problems and pitfalls of modernity.

To achieve this, the volume unfolds in three sections. The initial section, “The Archaeology of Modernity,” is composed of four chapters that identify and evaluate modernity’s four dominant worldviews. The first chapter contrasts the medieval period with the factors and thinkers that gave rise to “the classical modern worldview”—a perspective that privatized religion while asserting great faith in progress and rationality.

This is followed by chapter two, which sketches two alternative formulations to the classical modern worldview. The first of these, “the structural-critical modern worldview,” includes thinkers (Hegel, Marx) and schools of thought (especially the Frankfurt school) that credit modernity’s social and economic problems to the structures and systems of society. The second, “the cultural-critical modern worldview,” includes those (Buber, Arendt, Benjamin, Levinas, etc.) who credit these modern problems to culturally embedded “beliefs, attitudes, morality, political will, lifestyles, and sense of human responsibility” (p. 48).

In turn, chapter three contrasts the rise of ideologies in classical modernity with the postmodern worldview—a worldview that replaced certitude with malaise, truth with display, meta-narratives with “wild pluralism,” and commitment with deferral. The section concludes with a chapter (ch. 4) displaying the inadequacy of modernity’s four worldviews when it comes to pressing “paradoxes of modernity” (p. 91).

The second section of the volume, “Transcendence and Modernity: Resources for Moving Beyond Modernity” is composed of five chapters. The initial chapter in this section (ch. 5) raises the following question: given modernity’s besetting problems and the failure of secularism in light of the resurgence of religion, how might (a healthy, Christian) religion move us beyond the challenges dogging modernity? This question is answered in four probes: the import of the sociological work of Philip Rieff for illuminating the role of (Christian) religion in healthy cultures (ch. 6); the import of the anthropological work of Renee Girard for illuminating the role of (Christian) religion in human flourishing (ch. 7); the import of the philosophical work of Lenn Goodman for illuminating the role of (Christian) religion in spawning a thick, principled pluralism (ch. 8); and the import of Abraham Kuyper’s theological work for illuminating the role of (Christian) religion in addressing poverty (ch. 9).

The final section, “Finding Ways Beyond Modernity,” is composed of two chapters that redress the paradoxes plaguing the modern age by drawing on the resources of the Christian faith. The first of these (ch. 10) reassess the four modern worldviews in light of the “call from outside” (p. 217) heard in the (Christian) religion. Given that modern worldviews are found wanting and the (Christian) religion offers a way beyond modernity’s impasses and paradoxes, the remainder of the chapter turns squarely to setting up the interconnected, seemingly insoluble economic and environmental issues the modern age faces.

The next chapter (ch. 11) picks up these economic and environmental issues. Using examples of refreshingly different approaches to economics and in light of an unfolding global environmental crisis, this final chapter details how the re-entry of faith offers a critical resource to counter these forces. The volume concludes with an epilogue that situates the discussion in light of Bob Goudzwaard’s larger scholarly and political life.

This volume is an outstanding primer for Christians seeking an intelligent, nuanced, and informed assessment of and engagement with (Western) modernity. Not only does it provide accessible inroads to a host of important thinkers (e.g., Arendt, Baudrillard, Benjamin, Casanova, Foucault, Girard, Habermas, Hegel, Kant, Kuyper, Levinas, Lyotard, Marx, Nietzsche, Rief, Sloterdijk, C. Taylor, etc.), it recognizes the relationship of these thinkers to the concrete problems of the modern age. What’s more, it brings the Christian tradition front and center into the conversation. Rather than being a mere “dialogue partner,” it is a critical source, even the key for addressing the paradoxes that haunt modernity.

Such strengths noted, this reviewer is left with a number of unanswered questions. Is not the concept of “worldview” itself somewhat complicit with the modern project? Does modernism reject the sacred or merely displace it into secular versions of cherished rituals and beliefs? If addressing modern problems entails a plurality of voices meeting around a shared moral vision of civility, how can a robust pluralism claim such a moral consensus? Such questions are not meant to be defeaters. This reviewer has no doubt that Bartholomew and Goudzwaard have thought about such questions. Rather, they serve to illustrate the volume has limits (as the authors acknowledge in the introduction).

Nonetheless, for those looking for a thoughtful and compelling primer on a Christian engagement with (Western) modernity, Beyond the Modern Age serves as an outstanding resource.

Robert Covolo

Robert Covolo
Fuller Theological Seminary and Vrije Universiteit
Pasadena, California, USA and Amsterdam, the Netherlands

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While encrusted generational layers of pious reverence for Abraham have made him out to be a hero of faith, he was not yet one when called at seventy-five...

The acts of white supremacy that took place in Charlottesville, VA should encourage the church to act aggressively to deter racist ideals within her ranks...

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