A Cultural Force

Modernityby John ThornhillWilliam B. Eerdmans 240p $24 (paper)

Anyone who believes that modernity has quietly packed its bags and faded away under the weight of postmodernism needs to read John Thornhill’s Modernity: Christianity’s Estranged Child Reconstructed. Thornhill, who is recently retired, served as the head of the department of systematic theology at the Catholic Theological Union, Sydney, Australia. With his new book Thornhill challenges assumptions that modernity’s project has passed its time. He argues that modernity must be conceived as an ideological movement of reaction against medievalism. As an ideology it needs to be understood as a search for truth and to be appreciated as one of the essential characteristics of our Western cultural tradition. To prove his point the author calls upon the great ones, such as Descartes, Locke and Nietzsche. He also offers the reader an extremely useful broad sketch of the various inspirations behind modernity.

The first part of Thornhill’s book focuses on the nature of modernity and some of its present difficulties. This is followed by a section on the various issues raised by modernity, including modernity’s affirmation of the ordinary and the turn to the subject. I was especially impressed by the fifth chapter, which focuses on wisdom as the integrating force for modern culture. Thornhill makes a very convincing case that wisdom gives needed guidance to a society that may be overwhelmed by the cleverness of reason. The final and most creative part of the book offers the reader a Christian affirmation of modernity. Here Thornhill decides to take the point of view of a Christian theologian. I wonder why he waited until the final section to take such a step.

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One of the most intriguing aspects of this book is its title, which reflects the mind of the author, who believes that modernity must be reinstated into the family of great cultural developments. The title makes one ask why and how modernity became an estranged child in the first place. Thornhill offers convincing answers, which include the view that modernity perhaps demanded too much accountability from those used to the medieval synthesis and the possibility that modernity failed to understand the pervasive spiritual crises that overtook the West at the dawn of the 20th century. Nonetheless, Thornhill is convinced that modernity has much to offer civilization. It must not be abandoned, it must be rediscovered anew. At various times throughout the first two sections of the book, Thornhill invokes romanticism as if it is the useful sister of modernity. But it is frustrating that romanticism is never fully unpacked or explored by the author. Similarly, it would have been helpful to read Thornhill’s assessment of postmodernism. What aspects of modernity made the world ripe for its emergence? Modernity is the focus of this scholarly study, but modernity does not stand alone.

The author devotes an entire chapter to what he believes is the greatest achievement of modernity, the creation of a free society. The insights of the eminent scholar Robert Bellah and his The Good Society fill this chapter. In a clever move Thornhill connects J. B. Metz’s theme of collective memories to the task of modernity. While this chapter invokes every theme that would make a citizen of Western culture proud, it is awkwardly silent about those nations that have not reaped the so-called benefits of an enlightened modern society. This particular critique brings us to a distressing element of Thornhill’s book: the complete lack of reference to anything but the Western male (presumably white) understanding of modern civilization and culture. This text contains no references to the thoughts or writings of women or those who inhabit non-first world nations. Are there no women who have reflected upon and written on modernity? What of those third world peoples who have lived the aftereffects of colonialization? Do they not have something to contribute to the discussion of modernity? John Thornhill’s world view is severely limited.

The most important question posed by this book is whether Christianity can adequately affirm the ideology of modernity, and in doing so offer hope to the human community. Thornhill concludes that key components of modernity can be and already have been embraced by Christianity. He names the affirmation of authentic human existence, the desire for dialogue among the world religions and the interplay between the sacred and the secular. One of the most enlightening insights from Thornhill is that divinization comes by means of humanization. The more we become our truest human selves, the more we are the reflection of God. Thornhill takes his role of theologian very seriously in this final section. But it is rather interesting that the word modernity seems to disappear somewhat from the pages of the final chapters. The concluding chapter of the book, which should solidify the entire enterprise and draw all to a close, is a fine tribute to Thomas Aquinas, but seems to stand by itself as an appendix.

After reading this book one can conclude that modernity has not fallen by the wayside, trampled upon by the force of postmodernism. While it has its flaws, especially the lack of reference to women authors and the third world experience, the book is an important contribution to scholarship. It leaves the reader with a sense that perhaps the estranged child, modernity, has been judged too harshly by history. It is time to invite the wayward child back into the historical and theological family.

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