With the rise of new technologies and AI, many are trying to make sense of this modern age—is modernity something we should optimistically embrace or cautiously avoid?

Our Contributors at Praxis Circle have touched on the subject in various ways, so we wanted to share their thoughts.


Modernity: What Is It?



Os Guinness:


Modernity is confusing. At the second Lausanne Congress in Manila, I was asked to speak on mission and modernity and given 17 minutes, not very long. And I went out into the foyer, an elderly missionary, a woman missionary came up to me. I was much younger then. And she said, “I have one question. I didn’t understand all you said, and I didn’t agree with all you said, but I have one question. Why did they ask a man to speak on maternity?” People don’t even understand modernity. It’s a very simple word. All that our modern world means, satellites and cars and television and computers, this is our world of modernity.


Now, I think the point though, for a follower of Jesus, we’re called to be in the world, but not of the world. So we got to know the world in which we’re in and our world is the world of modernity. Now, it has enormous benefits as well as costs. I’m not against it. It has benefit. You take healthcare or plumbing, which of us would go back to anything before the 18th century and so on. So I’m not against modernity, but we’ve got to recognize it to resist it where it’s dangerous.


So the problem with many Christians is they think all the dangers come from ideas. Communism, relativism, secularism. These are ism ideas, but modernity is far more than ideas. And we need to understand modernity, to understand some of the real challenges to our faith. And I use the simple illustration of time. We’re living in a world of fast life, where did it come from? Didn’t come from any philosopher. It came from watches and clocks. That’s part of modernity, our fast life. So, I’m not against modernity.


Now, I also quarrel with the word postmodern because if you understand modernity, institutionally, structurally, all the things I mentioned, we’re not going to be postmodern. In other words, postmodern is a word that follows thinking only. You can have postmodernism following modernism. Modernism stressing reason and postmodernism stressing irrationality and relativism. So you can be postmodern in ideas. You can’t be post modernity.


Short, say a nuclear disaster where the whole thing is blown up and where we’re used to being primitives in caves and so on. Then we might be post modernity. But short of that, we can’t be.


Modernity & Prosperity: The Industrial Revolution’s Hockey Stick


Anne Bradley:


I hear a lot of these comments about the Whig interpretation of history, or we shouldn’t be imposing Western values on everybody else. This is kind of a resurgent idea in the classroom, I would say. In fact in some ways, I think you have to be careful about how you present the ideas of Adam Smith, because is it just kind of some elite guy that lived in the enlightenment who maybe was wrong and maybe, we shouldn’t follow what he said. And it’s not all Adam Smith.


But certainly what happened during the time of Adam Smith was remarkable in human history, I mean, absolutely remarkable. One of my favorite … we’re in an interview so we’re not showing graphs here. But one of my favorite graphs to look at, that I try to talk about and show to people every time I have the chance is, if you look at world income over the last 2,000 years, we call it the hockey stick graph in economics. Because world income from AD1 until about 1800 is zero. Hovers at the zero line and then shoots up. And it shoots up around the time of what we call the Industrial Revolution.


I don’t think that was inevitable. It wasn’t inevitable that we were going to get profoundly rich, and it’s not just rich people getting richer, it’s the fact that we’re sitting in a heated air-conditioned room right now having a conversation, ordinary people. How do we get such luxuries as air conditioning and heating when George Washington, who was richer, more famous, more powerful, more politically connected than I will ever be, didn’t have a heater? He had a fire, right? He didn’t even … in fact when he was inaugurated, he only had one of his real teeth left in his mouth. I have all my teeth and I expect to have all my teeth for a long time.


So what is the difference? That’s not inevitable. For most of human history, most people lived at $100 or less. So it is actually shocking that changed. What is it? It’s about getting the ideas about who we are, about our position in society. What was profound about the industrial revolution is that, work was good and ordinary people had something to offer in their work. That was an idea. And it was an idea that the reformers had. It was an idea that Adam Smith and David Hume had.


So it was about a lot of people agitating for these ideas but that wasn’t enough. Those ideas had to be adopted and believed by people. And then they get incorporated into law, they get incorporated into how we view ourselves with respect to the government. Now there’s no such thing as a divine right of kings, right? I mean in this idea space. It’s that, you are just like me and you need to submit yourself to the rule of law in the same way I do. So I think why is your question important? Because it’s not inevitable, and it can reverse. We are not destined to be free and rich forever, we got to fight for that.


Modernity & Freedom: Pros and Cons


Os Guinness:


Traditional Islam is deadly in its opposition to freedom of conscience. There’s no question of that, but you can see in our modern world this is changing. The modern situation, I’ll use the technical jargon. People talk about demonopolization, deterritorialization, deconfessionalization. In other words, used to say in the past, Ireland, Catholic, Iran, Muslim. Certain countries had certain beliefs and everyone in those country went along with it. That’s what’s breaking up with this explosion of diversity.


So what you see is more and more Muslims in the modern world, and now in Muslim minority situations. And the huge majority of them adapt well to notions like freedom of conscience. In other words, we see the violence and the terrorism. That’s the tiny minority, and they are people who think, “We’ve nothing left to lose.”


Take, say, the impact of the modern world on Aboriginal people, say the Eskimos, the Intuits, or the Amazon forest rain people, or the Australian Aborigines. Modernity is so shattering. They’ve lost everything. They commit suicide in unprecedented numbers. And that’s what you see in the suicide bombers. In other words, you have a desperado Islam, nothing left to lose. And so they want to take everyone with them, but that’s not the majority of Muslims. So I would say watch modernity.


In the social sciences, it was said that the day that Raisa Gorbachev, Gorbachev’s wife, was seen carrying an American Express card, the Soviet Union was finished. Modernity is like a solvent opening up closed societies. Now the same is true of closed religions. China, it’s only a matter of time before China opens up, whether it’s technology or capitalism opening up.


There was a while 10 years ago, when the most popular television program in Iran, the Iran of the ayatollahs, was Baywatch. In other words, Iran is kind of like a house eaten by white ants. It looks Islamic. Behind it, you can see modernity creating the bubbles of coming freedom. And it’s only a matter of time before Iran goes that way too. So I have no fear of Iran.


Plus you add one more factor. The decline in fertility and population growth in Muslim countries is the fastest in all world history. And when that happens, they don’t have the economy to go through it. Their GDP is something like 10% of Europeans. So Europeans are facing the same challenge, declining population, but they have a much greater economy to take it through without social unrest. That will not be true in the Middle East. So for various reasons, I am not an alarmist about Islam. We’ve got to be thoroughly realistic. The president’s speech in Cairo was utopian. We got to be realistic, but we needn’t be fearful.



Modernity: Should We Be Cautious?


Os Guinness:


Obviously, at the heart of modernity, you have the democratic state, the free market economy and science and technology. The danger is that in a secular civilization, you start to trust these things and in World War II, it’s very interesting. I love the Christian thinkers, C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, Simone Weil, T.S. Eliot, they began to talk about what Simone Weil called “the beast” or Tolkien called the “machine” or Lewis Mumford later called the “mega machine.”


You think of what, Mark Zuckerberg’s now referring to as the Metaverse. In other words, a totally all-wrapping where you have scientism, technicism, rationalism, progressivism, and that was all these things relying on these things together, creating our simulated artificial world. That becomes the mega machine, which could be incredibly dangerous. And we believe in human nature, we are ourselves face-to-face with each other and so on. So to create a Metaverse as Zuckerberg wants to do, will be disastrous for humanity. And then people want to move us into transhumanism. So say with transgenderism today, you have people talk about dysphoria. Someone says, “I’m feeling bad as a man in a woman’s body or a woman in a man’s body.” But when we get to transhumanism, they’re saying, “I’m feeling bad to have any sort of body.” And we want a technological replacement of the body. This is a world we’re going to, and we bring a great contribution. We believe in humanity, incarnate humanity. Jesus to reach us human beings, became a human being and there’s nothing higher than humanness face to face. So, we got to think carefully about all these things coming and resist them.



Modernity & Freedom: The Need for a Theological Framework


George Weigel:


What The Irony of Modern Catholic History is, is really twofold. A lot of political modernity, beginning with the French Revolution and continuing through the German [inaudible], the Italian Risorgimento, all sorts of other secular, highly secular movements, saw the Catholic Church as the fundamental enemy, institutional enemy of human freedom and a democratic way of ordering life. And it tried to kill the church and killed a lot of people in the process. The second… But it turns out that unless you have a truly Catholic or Christian understanding of the nature of freedom, freedom is not mere willfulness, but freedom is doing the right thing for the right reason, freely choosing that as a matter of moral habit. Your free society is going to self-destruct, and if you don’t have any moral reference points to be agreed upon, then when your freedom as willfulness comes into conflict with my freedom as willfulness, what settles the argument? Do you impose your power on me or I impose my power on you? That’s a prescription for tyranny. So that’s the first irony. Modernity needed what we now call Catholic social doctrine in order to realize its aspirations to freedom and prosperity.


The second irony is that the Catholic Church, and particularly the papacy whose original reaction to modernity was analogous to Nancy Reagan’s anti-drug campaign, “Just say no.” No to modern political life, no to modern cultural and intellectual life, et cetera, et cetera, was compelled by this confrontation with modernity in all of its forms to re-examine its own self-understanding and to rediscover itself as fundamentally an evangelical movement in history for the conversion of the world, not as a previous ecclesiology or theology of the church had it. The church is the perfect society, over against all this worldly stuff.


Now the church is fundamentally the body of Christ in the world to convert the world through an encounter with the incarnate Son of God. And out of that will come a human future that is worth living and that satisfies those modern aspirations to freedom and prosperity. So, there’s irony in both directions, and I tried to explain that in the book, The Irony of Modern Catholic History.


Modernity: Raises Some Important Questions


George Weigel:


Well, the Second Vatican Council was important to John Paul II, because as he wrote, it was kind of his second graduate school in theology. I mean, he discovered a whole world of religious thought of which he simply wasn’t aware in any detail before. I think it was important to him for introducing him to the World Church. He was deeply impressed by the African bishops he met at the council, the vitality and freshness of the faith of these men who were living a kind of New Testament experience in the church. And over four years, introduced him to the way business gets done in Rome, which was very useful for him when he would come to Rome in 1978 as the city’s bishop, as the pope. In a broader sphere, against a broader horizon, I think John Paul II understood that the council was addressing the two key dilemmas of late modernity: What is the human person, and what is authentic human community? And it addressed those first by lifting up Jesus Christ as the image of a true and redeemed humanity. To meet Christ is to meet the father of mercies, but it’s also to meet the truth about us.


Jesus introduces us to both God and ourselves. And in the church, in the body of Christ, in which there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, all are one in Christ Jesus. We have a template for authentic human community that ought to be inspiring of other authentic forms of human communities. So, I think he understood that the council had gotten at the two key questions of the moment, which are still the two key questions of this moment and had offered an impressive answer to those two dilemmas.


Modernity: How Do We Respond?


Connecting these thoughts together, we can come up with some key takeaways:

  1. No one can escape “modernity” via isolation
  2. Historically, modernity has promoted prosperity, flourishing, happiness, and freedom
  3. Today’s modernity presents some unprecedented issues (such as, proliferation and conflict of religions and ideologies, decadence, laziness, carelessness, purposelessness, increasing immorality and anxiety, human identity issues: created machines vs. creator man, transhumanism, etc.)
  4. Christians and Jews need a theological framework to address the challenges and questions modernity raises

In sum, we must be prepared for the good and bad that comes with our modern age. Only when we get a better grasp of our own worldview will we be able to respond accordingly—and what we believe about humanity, our role in the world, and where we’re headed will greatly dictate this response.

We can do this and make America and the world better. But it takes right thought and right action. Our Contributors and our posts are constantly commenting on modernity. Our next two Contributors will be Abigail Shrier and Jonathan Haidt (interviewed yesterday).

Become a Praxis Circle member for free and start diving deeper into your worldview. To watch the full interviews of each Contributor featured above, click the links below:

Os Guinness #1

Os Guinness #2

Anne Bradley

George Weigel