August 21, 2020
Author: Chilton Williamson

There are very few American magazines today that seem to me indispensable to an understanding of contemporary events and the human situation in America and the world today. The first and most important of them is First Things, a monthly publication that considers religious issues in the context of political and social questions to which they are applicable. The magazine has for some years now been edited by R.R. Reno, formerly a professor of theology and ethics at Creighton University. First Things commonly publishes three or four essays per issue, always thoughtful and usually engaging. Among other features is a department, “The Public Square,” written by Professor Reno himself and not infrequently the best thing in any given number. In the August/September 2020, for instance, I found his essay of 1700 or so words, “Theodicy and Modernity,” of particular interest.

The piece is substantially a review essay of A Profound Ignorance: Modern Pneumatology and its Anti-Modern Redemption by Ephraim Radner, published last November. Reno describes the book as “a theology of our condition, one that places modernity within the believer’s story of sin and redemption.”  Radnor’s thesis holds that the great discoveries and advances made in all fields in the modern era raised great hopes around the world. It also created huge disappointments, that in turn generated what Radner describes as “theodical pressure.” The word “theodical’ comes from the term “theodicy,” introduced by Gottfried Leibniz, the mathematician and philosopher, who justified the existence of evil in a world subject to the infinite power and goodness of God by arguing that we live in the best of all possible worlds; a notion debunked by Voltaire in his famous but dull and artistically insufficient novel, Candide. “But in Radner’s account,” Professor Reno writes,  “theodicy in the modern era is not just an intellectual puzzle. It has become our singular civilizational project. Modernity is modern because it struggles to justify, in word and deed, our hope that somehow things will end well. These efforts can be practical, as were many utopian sentiments in the New World, and they can be theoretical after the fashion of Marx’s dialectical materialism.”

Radnor observes that in Jewish and Christian theology the traditional response to evil is the promise of consolation, God’s drawing near to us, not resolution. Modern people, and so modern pneumatology, will only be satisfied by transformation through new beginnings.  This “theodical thrust,” as Radnor calls it, envisions a spirit that drives toward a final worldly resolution. To embrace this spirit and cooperate with it is  the moral imperative of modernity.

As Reno notes, standard accounts of the modern era describe the evolution of Christian utopianism into a range of secularized ideologies.  Radnor accepts these, but he believes that secularization is itself a “spirit.” “The secular age, too, yearns for fulfillment [Reno again].  Liberty and equality; the dictatorship of the proletariat; free and open inquiry; the Invisible Hand; diversity and inclusion—these are not particular platforms or policies. They are concepts and evocations of a purified, distilled ‘spirit’ that, if we but abide in it, will lead us to the uplands of ‘progress.’”

Though he has taken his title from David Hume’s essay “The Spirit of the Age” (1742), Radnor rejects the Enlightenment’s account whereby the “spirit” conquers at last the rule of “profound ignorance,” meaning superstition and obscurantism. In his view, the constraints upon humanity are not imposed upon it by religion but rather are an integral part of human nature.  Thus, by denying that limits to human thought and action exist, the spirit of modernity opposes our humanity, instead of teaching us (as it ought) to live well inside of it. That, of course, is what Christianity does, teaching us to recognize that the gifts of the Holy Ghost conform us to Christ and His teaching, and bringing us closer to the Lord Our God. “This,” Reno emphasizes, ‘is a theodicy of ‘being with,’ not one of ‘doing for.’ It follows the pattern of ‘accompaniment’ that Pope Francis has emphasized. God wipes away our tears; he does not put an end to them, at least not as long as we live with this mortal frame.”

Recently Attorney General Bill Barr warned in a public address that progressives will never compromise with their opponents, let alone surrender to them.  Instead they will continue to fight until they have achieved complete political victory. The lesson Mr. Barr draws from this analysis is that, for the Left, their type of ideological politics has become their religion as well. To describe liberalism (or progressivism, or progressivism-liberalism) as another religious confession is the exact political  and journalistic equivalent of identifying it in terms of theological scholarship as a theodicy. However one chooses to call it,  fanaticism, whether of the political, religious, or religio-political sort,  under any other name is still fanaticism. Examples of it in action are the Terror in France during the Revolution and the infantile  intifada that has held America in its grip these past three months.