Posted by: gcarkner | January 8, 2018

Late Modernity and its Prospects

Learning from an Analysis of Late Modernity

The irony of late modernity is that, just when we thought we were most  free, we discovered that we were actually in chains of a culture of nihilism and cynicism, anger and resentment. We dare to know the truth about our situation, and to think critically about it. We also long to experience life in its fullness and abundance, to live with passion towards the good. We want to discover our calling and make a meaningful contribution. We have discovered that nihilism is a seductive trap, with false promises that cannot deliver. Radical individualism is out of touch with reality, it does not sustain, and cynicism self-destructs. Nihilism leaves us homeless, fearful, deceptive, suspicious, isolated, and morally frozen.

Ultimately, it is a form of anti-humanism, working against our best interests, as well as the best interests of others. The great escape from nihilism, as we have articulated it, is a committed process. It moves us out of naïveté into maturity. We have been on a spiritual journey that requires both map (a new paradigm) and compass (wisdom, discernment, interpretive skill). We do have the choice of a robust alternative, an upward trek towards virtue, which is at the heart of human flourishing and meaning. With some help, we can recover a fresh consciousness, an effective individuality in relation to the good, to agape love, and to community. We can live from the depth of character, rather than stroll superficially as flâneurs, aristocrats of style, or reduce ourselves to technical performers, a mere cog in the big economic machinery.

We have committed ourselves to follow a promising hermeneutic of the good, to see where it takes us. We have chosen to pursue and promote the good, the true and the beautiful even amidst much evil, deception, and reality distortion. The good informs, roots and contextualizes the self, strengthens its agency, and transforms it through a transcendent turn towards agape love. The good gives content and direction to choice and freedom, in order to rescue it from some of its most negative, pathological, antisocial possibilities.

The good helps late modern cultural refugees make a new home, one where faith and reason work together in a mutually fruitful way. It helps us recover a healthy social horizon informed by creativity, compassion and collaboration. Autonomy is modified by mutuality and I-Thou relationship. We discover the social body, the communal dimension of individuality and subjectivity. We pursue dialogue for deeper truth and common ground amidst people of difference and plurality. We reject incommensurability of cultures and we open dialogue on matters of significance, things that concern us all. We look for the good in others, affirm it and seek to draw it out, build on it. We also seek to name, expose and restrain evil and corruption. The hermeneutic of the good, and its incarnational humanism, involves a recovery of the language and horizon of the moral good, the social horizon of the neighbor, and the theological horizon of transcendent trinitarian goodness. It is robust, creative and revelatory, breaking into new horizons. It produces a whole new narrative to address the current crisis of self, and the crises of ethics and identity in Western society.

A New Sense of Calling

This has been a charged and exciting journey: in search of freedom within a deeper calling that involves the creativity of interdependencies and complementarities. We have moved well beyond cynicism and disenchantment, the obsession with self-fulfillment and self-righteous self-justification. We have escaped the trap of extreme self-reflexivity. The future is open to involve integral thinking, problem solving, pursuit of unity amidst plurality, reconciliation and forgiveness, principled diplomacy, equity of opportunity and peacemaking. The posture has moved us from self-assertion to humble servant leadership and hospitality for the stranger, from pure self-interest to a welcomed responsibility for others, from aloofness and indifference to vulnerability and trust. The pursuit and practice of such virtues builds a solid ground for freedom with depth, freedom for the long run. This calling celebrates the anatomy of the virtuous community: including covenant and commitment, one-another attitude, mentorship and use of one’s gifts for the common good.

Religion can no longer be seen as either irrelevant, or a pure threat, in late modernity. Many will continue to exploit religion for their own power purposes, but this is not legitimate or helpful. With proper discernment (M. Volf, 2015; J. Sacks, 2002), religion  can add much to a vision for human flourishing in an age of globalization and late capitalism. Religion binds people together, and speaks to their dignity, the phenomenal power of the human spirit. It captures something of the essence of who we are and why we exist beyond food, clothing and recreation. California psychologist Justin Barrett claims that we are hard-wired for God. Homo sapiens, empirically and historically, is the meaning seeking animal. We sense instinctively that we are more than simply producers and consumers, more than survival commodities of a house, a career and a bank account. We want from life experiences that re-connect us with the transcendent, that give us hope of a better self and a better world.

In this analysis we have stepped back from the abyss of despair and disenchantment; we have discovered in the incarnation a new transcendent-immanent horizon of meaning, a powerful new plausibility structure. We have recovered an empirically honest human anthropology, which is also more hopeful in its potential for individual and social change. This empowers us to take care of self, the world, the other and God. Repressed goods re-appear, equipped to empower agency for healthy debate and social engagement. After atheism and hardcore secularism, we find a new ground for rights, respect, wellbeing and justice for all, not just for the few or the loud. We have discovered that Jesus’ life interprets freedom differently—it is thoroughly qualified by, and entwined with transcendent goodness. It is about relationship, not about absence but rather presence, attentiveness, vulnerability, wholeheartedness. It is a creative way of being present with others: in creative recognition of their autonomy within relationship. It creates space for more being. Individual identity is strengthened and thickened through generosity, gratitude and mutuality.

Christoph Schwöbel (1995) captures this concept. Freedom as he sees it is truly a gift from God, rooted in the character of God as trinity.

[It is in the] Image of Christ, where freedom is exercised as rooted in the will of the Father and mediated in the power of the Spirit that the true character of the image of God is disclosed to us, both as the divine freedom for grace and as the human freedom of obedience…. Christ is … both the revelation of the divine freedom of grace and the disclosure of the human freedom of obedience, where obedience to the will of God the father is not the abrogation of human freedom but the form of its exercise. (C. Schwöbel, 1995, 80)

In the incarnation, one sees God communicating and relating, not as a tyrannical, coercive sovereign. Rather God has acted vulnerably in and through the form of a human individual, by uniting the divine freedom of self-giving agape love with the agency of a human being, acting in a community, within a historical-cultural context. In the Christ event, one is confronted with the highly personal, which consequently has impact through forms of interpersonal communication and personal presence. This God posture makes creative appeal to human freedom. It is not a divine monologue of commands, but a dialogue in which humans are intended and respected as subjects with choice. Human freedom must be read against the backdrop, and within the horizon of, God’s freedom as revealed in the incarnation, the greatest work of art of all time. It is the foundation of a renewed humanism called shalom.

Freedom, its content and definition, has been an underlying theme in this analysis of late modernity. But we need both negative and positive freedom. When freedom embraces goodness, it transforms freedom from a shrill end in itself, to freedom as a rich benevolence. Within the plausibility structure of trinitarian transcendent goodness, agape love becomes the content of freedom as well as freedom’s trajectory. Such redeemed freedom takes seriously the human and divine other, especially the weaker, more vulnerable human other. This redirected, redeemed freedom is a consequence of the link between human and divine goodness. Schwöbel nails it.

The true measure of freedom is love as the relationship, which makes the flourishing of the other the condition of self-fulfilment. Human freedom becomes the icon of divine freedom where the freedom of divine grace constitutes the grace of human freedom … That most poignant image of hope, the Kingdom of God, expresses the relation of free divine love and loving human freedom together in depicting the ultimate purpose of God’s action as the perfected community of love with his creation. The fulfillment of God’s reign and the salvation of creation are actualized together in the community of the love of God. (C. Schwöbel, 1995, 80-81)

At the end of the day, we are not part of a secular age, closed off to the transcendent in a closed universe, but rather an age of openness, discovery and personal moral growth. We ascend this mountain to get perspective on life. We no longer ask Why am I here? Instead, we ask How can I help? How can I engage the world? The myth of nihilism is a self-con we late moderns have perpetrated upon ourselves, often to justify some very irresponsible behaviour. Honourable people do not actually want materialistic or deterministic restrictions, or implosion of the religious and ethical into the aesthetic. They desire a fullness of being, high virtues to shape them, and robust social networks to sustain them and promote just relations for a better world–a civil society. This promotes a less violent and more creative future for us all. This has been shown to be eminently possible in our time, as it has in ancient times. We must reject evil and malevolence, and embrace the good and the true. Our challenge, at the end of the day, is to choose freedom with substance, choose the good. It is to take responsibility, to choose to follow the transcendent turn towards agape love as a solid grounding of life, a deep empowerment to direct our energies and rediscover our passion and life at its depth in late modernity.

~Excerpt from The Great Escape from Nihilism by Dr. Gordon E. Carkner

See also A Critique of Radical Freedom by Gordon Carkner Radical Individualism Examined


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