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Jules van Schaijik

Criticizing modernity

Dec. 3, 2009, at 11:41pm

A couple of days ago, I picked up Henri de Lubac’s Paradoxes—one of those books, like Pascal’s Pensees, perfect for lulls in the day that are too short to be useful but too long to be wasted—and came across these two passages:

If you do not live, think, and suffer with the men of your time, as one of them, in vain will you pretend, when the moment comes to speak to them, to adapt your language to their ear.

“Know the moderns in order to answer their difficulties and their expectations.” A touching intention. But this way of projecting the “moderns” into an objective concept, of separating oneself from them to consider them from the outside, makes this good will useless.

These “paradoxes” (if that is what they are) make an important point, one that has been growing on me in recent years: namely, that it is impossible to significantly influence a culture unless one is deeply rooted in and consciously indebted to it. One must not just know and understand the culture as an impartial observer, and so pass judgment on it from a distance. Rather, one must feel oneself implicated in it and experience a sort of solidarity with it. But this, as de Lubac implies, is just what is so often lacking in critics of modernity. They fail to realize (sufficiently) that, for all their regrets about modern life, they are nevertheless a part of it; they belong to it and have been formed by it, for better and for worse. Their criticism is not embedded in a deep appreciation of and gratitude to the culture in which they were raised. Nor, as a result, can they show a genuine concern for it—the way in which a true patriot shows concern for the country he wants to improve (think, for instance, of Socrates viz a viz Athens). Their criticism tends to be hostile rather than friendly; it lacks persuasive power.

This kind of critic behaves a lot like the language theorist described by C.S lewis in the Abolition of Man

A theorist about language may approach his native tongue, as it were from outside, regarding its genius as a thing that has no claim on him and advocating wholesale alterations of its idiom and spelling in the interests of commercial convenience or scientific accuracy. That is one thing. A great poet, who has ‘loved, and been well nurtured in, his mother tongue,’ may also make great alterations in it, but his changes of the language are made in the spirit of the language itself: he works from within. The language which suffers, has also inspired, the changes. That is a different thing—as different as the works of Shakespeare are from Basic English. It is the difference between alteration from within and alteration from without: between the organic and the surgical.


Steve B • Dec 8, 2009 - 1:08 pm

Hi Jules,

Looks like a very interesting book - one I will definitely add to my “books to read” list….

Question though - in his “Christianity” chapter, does de Lubac cover the apparent paradox between the dignity of the human person & our call as Christians to “die to self”? 

This, sometimes, is difficult for Christian believers to articulate to non-believers.

If de Lubac doesn’t address this particular “paradox” head-on in this particular book, do you know of where else he does, or anyone else who does?

Take care, and God bless,

Steve B
Plano, TX

Jules van Schaijik • Dec 8, 2009 - 2:40 pm

So far I have not come across a text that deals specifically with the paradox you mention, Steve.  But the following passage from the chapter on Christianity, might be of interest to you. It has to do with the paradoxical relation between freedom and obedience (which, I think, is somewhat parallel to that between dignity and self-denial).

Just as faith is a principle of understanding, so obedience must be a principle of freedom. You do not deliver yourself into the hands of authority like a man tired of using his initiative, abdicating; or like a sailor happy to find a quiet at last after a stormy passage. On the contrary, you receive from authority the Duc in altum. You entrust yourself to it as to a ship leaving port for a glorious voyage and high adventure.

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