LH-VII. Modernity as Apostasy from God

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by Msgr. Eugene Kevane
©2003 The Miriam Press. All Rights Reserved

VII. Modernity as Apostasy from God

It is this philosophy of history, then, with ears to hear rather than eyes to see, which the renewal of Christian Philosophy carries with it into the post-modern situation of reality and of thought. Can it possibly still be valid? Can it have survived its centuries-long intellectual denigration at the hands of proud Modernity? Or is it not itself simply another construct like that which prevailed from Petrarch to Voltaire, which came into bloom in those grandiose nineteenth century philosophies of history of Comte, Hegel and Karl Marx?

In answer, the Christian thinker has something new he can do which was impossible for Augustine. He can continue to point with Augustine to the Hebrew Fact and the Catholic Fact as an empirical base in history itself for his philosophizing and theologizing about meaning and direction and goal.

But now he can also observe a new fact, likewise a given in history. It is the qualitative character of Modern Philosophy as such and as a whole, studied as the fountainhead of the secularization of Western education and culture.

That Modern Philosophy is a philosophical essence, a particular kind of philosophizing located in space and time, has been noted above. Modern Philosophy has a preparation in Petrarch and the Renaissance, a birth in Descartes and Spinoza, a ripened fulfillment in Kant, Comte, Hegel and Marx, and an ending in the carnage of World War I and the consequent disillusionment, when philosophy becomes self-aware as post-modern.

The Historicity of Modern Philosophy

Now is the time, post-modern time, to inquire into the existential dynamism of Modern Philosophy. Does this philosophical essence fit in any meaningful way into the panorama of historical succession? Does Modern Philosophy itself, as such, have meaning precisely in this dimension? This is to ask the question which constitutes the philosophy of history as a branch of philosophy: and it is Christian Philosophy alone which stands erect in the rubble of the Twentieth Century, able to ask the question and to indicate the place where the answer may be heard.

Can this philosophical essence of Modern Philosophy be isolated by analysis and identified by research? It can indeed, and the scholars exist who have pioneered the way.1 This essence is constituted by two fundamental notes. The first is a falling away from the transcendant personal God of creation and revelation. Lip service to “God” as a pantheistic deception or as a mere abstraction of the human mind frequently remains. But the living God is no longer present. Mathematics replaces metaphysics and the first six arts plunge into an unbridled type of dedication to this cosmos and turn in upon man in a new way. The second note results immediately. It is the production of men of sin who refuse the very idea of abiding and objective moral principles coming from the divine Being and His Eternal Law.

Seen thus from the post-modern position and evaluated by the principles of the post-modern metaphysics, open once again to the personal God of creation, Modern Philosophy stands qualitatively quite finished in the mind’s eye and becomes intelligible as itself a fulfillment of the Scriptures, as a given in history comparable to the Hebrew Fact and the Catholic Fact.2

This distinctive quality, unheard-of in all the earlier history of human thought and culture, is the atheistic character of Modern Philosophy as such, and the consequent aversion of the Voltairean philosophy of history from the Hebrew and Catholic Facts. These characteristics give Modernity its peculiar color and tone which the Christian philosopher can only evaluate as a great apostasy from God, a great revolt against God the Creator, God the Redeemer and God the Sanctifier of mankind.3

Friedrich Nietzsche

There are two central figures in the philosophical research which brings Modernity into view as a great revolt against God, and very possibly as the Great Apostasy, genius-types who experienced this fact to the full and analyzed it with profound insight. One is Friedrich Nietzsche, who is helpful from a negative point of view: for his Entwertung aller Werte, his emptying of content from all human values, which was the meaning of his proclamation of the Death of God, refers precisely to Modernity as a loss of the intelligibilia, the intellectual principles for thought and for life that follow from philosophical recognition of the Supreme Being. Nothing remains but the reduction of the human mode of existing to what Heidegger will term Dasein, the organismic and animal experience of existence confined to, imprisoned within, this world. This can be cast into various temporary Superman roles, but the reality always surfaces: Nothing remains. Nietzsche himself knew it in the Nineteenth Century and saw Nihilism coming as a widespread social condition in the century to follow his own.4

John Henry Newman

John Henry Newman is the other figure, positive where the unhappy Nietzsche is purely negative. For Newman’s thought provides a positive analysis of Modernity from the viewpoint of education which in turn gives the Christian philosophy of history its new empirical base. This is fundamentally important, for it saves this philosophy of history from lapsing into one more mere subjective construct. “It is this Christian philosophy of history,” writes Christopher Dawson, “that underlies the whole of Newman’s doctrine on education.”5 For Newman knew well that the edifice of Christian culture, and indeed, humanly speaking, the Church herself, cannot stand unless the Christianized paideia of Roma Christiana is maintained intact. This is doubly true when it is a question of educating young men for the priesthood and of training catechists for the Ministry of the Word. The corrosive action of Modern Philosophy, when it filters into the other six arts and governs the raising of children and the preparation of the personnel who lead and guide civic and social life, results in permissiveness and superficiality.

“They leave their place of education,” Newman writes with prophetic insight, “simply dissipated and relaxed by the multiplicity of subjects, which they have never really mastered, and so shallow as not even to know their own shallowness.”6 Such a person “can utter a number of truths or sophisms, as the case may be, and one is as good to him as another. He is up with a number of doctrines and a number of facts, but they are all loose and straggling, for he has no principles set up in his mind round which to aggregate and locate them… (but only) a barren mockery of knowledge…. He sees objections more clearly than truths, and can ask a thousand questions which the wisest of men cannot answer; and withal, he has a very good opinion of himself, and is well satisfied with his attainments….”7

Seen thus from the field of education and its gradual de-Christianization and subversion, Modernity looks quite different to the post-modern thinker than it did in the Modern Age. It is no longer a promise of all truth and social welfare; it appears rather as an apostasy which took on a social form, to dominate ever more completely over Christian education and culture. In the Twentieth Century, the experience of this falling away from God is manifold, an experience which, in their keen way of genius, thinkers like Donoso Cortes and John Henry Newman anticipated a hundred years ago.

“I believe that the Catholic civilization contains the good without admixture of evil,” Donoso Cortes cried out in the Parliament at Madrid at mid-nineteenth century, “and that the philosophical civilization contains the evil without admixture of good…. By representing the Empire of Faith as dead, and by proclaiming the independence of human reason and will, it has rendered absolute, universal and necessary the evil which before was relative, exceptional and contingent….”8

Newman likewise perceived and described Modernity as a process moving from a Christian condition of personal thought and social life toward an anti-Christian one.

“I grant,” he writes, “that as Rome, according to the prophet Daniel’s vision, succeeded Greece, so Antichrist succeeds Rome, and the Second Coming succeeds Antichrist. But it does not hence follow that Antichrist is come: for it is not clear that the Roman Empire is gone.”9

Newman was keenly conscious, however, of witnessing and experiencing some special kind of revolt against God. Over a half century before the post-modern breakthrough, he had his finger on the nature of Modernity:

“Surely, there is at this day a confederacy of evil, marshalling its hosts from all parts of the world, organizing itself, taking its measures, enclosing the Church of Christ as in a net, and preparing the way for a general Apostasy from it.”10

The Subversion of Education

Paradoxically, it is the very victory of Modernity over the Catholic Fact in society which has opened the way to the post-modern intellectual victory for the Christian philosophy of history, precisely because the Faith itself ever since the Apostles has expected an Apostasy from God and the advent of a new Empire following upon that of Christian Rome.

For it is now a commonplace that the Christianized paideia which sustained Western civilization across its Christian centuries has become increasingly subverted since Rousseau’s Emile, the philosophy of education written at the time and in the context of the Voltairean philosophy of history.11 For not only has the Christian mode in education and culture been increasingly eliminated, but the very substance of the paideia in itself, as something natural to man is being lost. The millennial concept of a disciplined training and perfecting of the naturally given is disappearing. Without the adjective Christian, Modernity has made it clear that the paideia itself cannot survive. Wachsen-lassen, mere natural growth, mere nature as already perfect and having but to unfold: these are the concepts which have come to dominate childrearing and the education of youth.12

For those who philosophized in the older mode of Modern Philosophy, from a position separated from the Faith, this seemed to promise a new age of progress and liberation. But for those whose philosophy of history is linked with a metaphysics open to God and the Soul, and is built upon a theocentric paideia as St. Augustine grounds it in Book One of his De doctrina christiana, the dissolution of the historic Christian paideia will appear to be nothing else than a great social apostasy from God. For without the enculturation of youth into the Christian culture of Roma conversa, the Roman Empire in its Christianized form cannot stand: in the parlance of contemporary students of comparative culture, the foundations of Western Civilization will have been eroded away.

Thus, for those with eyes to see the empirically given, together with ears to hear the Prophetic Word, the Christian philosophy of history, born in Augustine’s De civitate Dei and De doctrina christiana, has a contemporary timeliness. It is quite at home, once again, in the post-modern situation. For it gives the Christian thinker an insight into the fact and the cause of an utterly new social situation of mankind, that of the ripening of the conditions for a new translatio imperii, a new “transfer of Empire,” to him perhaps whom Christian tradition knows as the Man of Sin, and expects in connection with a Great Apostasy from God.13


  1. 120. Cf. the works of Cornelio Fabro and Geog Siegmund in note 67, above, abiding post-modern foundations for further study of the matter; and the four-volume work of Giulio Girardi (ed.), L’ateismo contemporaneo (torino: Societa Editrice Internazionale, 1967- ), helpful for its accumulation of facts and references. For his brief statement of his conclusion, that the principle of immanence is virtual atheism, cf. Cornelio Fabro, “Filosofia moderna e ateismo,” Humanitas (1961), pp. 481-492. 

  2. 121. Cf. 2 Thess. 2, 1-12: “The Day of the Lord…cannot happen until the Great Revolt has taken place…” (vv. 3-4; version of the Jerusalem Bible). 

  3. 122. Cf. Arnold Toynbee, op. cit., Vol. VI, p. 535: “What is at stake in this debate is nothing else than the essence of the Christian Faith: the threefold belief in the love of God, in His Incarnation in Jesus Christ, and in His perpetual operation in this World through the Holy Spirit.” Toynbee points accurately here to the Profession of the Apostolic Faith, the Apostles’ Creed, which constitutes the baptismal apostolicity of the Church and which has built the Catholic Fact into what Augustine called the Sixth Age, and what we call the Christian Era. 

  4. 123. For Nietzsche’s “Death of God” theme, cf. Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, in Werke, (Munich: Karl Hanser Verlag, 1955), Vol. II, the episode of Der tolle Mench, p. 126ff. “Wir haben ihn getötet—ihr und ich! Wir alle sind seine Mörder. Aber wie haben wir dies gemacht?” (p. 127). This is indeed the ultimate question which Modernity must ask itself. Heidegger, Nietzsche’s foremost disciple, gives the answer in his Holzwege (Frankfrut: Klostermann, 1963), in “Nietzsche’s Wort, Gott ist tot,” pp. 193-247. It was done, Heidegger says accurately, by subverting the historic Christian paideia, the Christian education of youth which sustained the edifice of Christian culture. The subversion was a philosophical one, the introduction of Modern Philosophy with its characteristic inability to see the intelligibilia, the abiding truths of the intelligence, because it had eliminated metaphysics and substituted mathematical physics for it. Thus young people were denied a solid foundation for the values, whether natural or Christian. The “Death of God” is the eclipse of the intelligibilia in the education of youth. The answer to Nietzsche’s question, Aber wie haben wir dies gemacht? lies in the field of philosophy linked with education: in the philosophy of education. John Henry Newman agrees completely: this is the very idea of his Idea of a University. 

  5. 124. Christopher Dawson, in Studies (Autumn, 1953), p. 297, citing the whole of Newman’s Lecture, “Christianity and Letters,” in The Idea of a University. 

  6. 125. John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University (London: Longman’s, 1947), p. 132. 

  7. 126. Newman, ibid., p. 371. When vigilant care is not exercised in the education and training of priests and catechists, what Newman saw and foresaw can become visible inside the Church. From the viewpoint of its social and pedagogical background, Newman is indispensable for understanding the phenomenon of Religious Modernism. One might perhaps say that Newman projects accurately the “mind” of certain segments of the 20th century episcopate and priesthood. Cf. for example pp. 370-373; and p. 296: “It is a miserable time when a man’s Catholic profession is no voucher for his orthodoxy, and when a teacher of Religion may be within the Church’s pale, yet external to her Faith.” 

  8. 127. Donoso Cortes, quoted in Denis de Rougemont, The Idea of Europe (London: Collier-Macmillan, 1966), p. 267. 

  9. 128. John Henry Newman, Discussions and Arguments on Various Subjects, op. cit., p. 50. 

  10. 129. Ibid., p. 60. 

  11. 130. In 1762 Rousseau published his Emile, or, Concerning Education; approximately one eighth of the text, customarily omitted in English versions, is devoted to “The Confession of the Savoyard Vicar,” Rousseau’s explanation of his own naturalistic religiosity. He uses this clergyman whom he conjures up, often called the first Modernist priest, to do the explaining. 

  12. 131. Cf. Note 123, above, on Heidegger’s pedagogical interpretation of Nietzsche’s dictum, the Death of God. For further research on this matter, one must analyze Rousseau’s Emile as the background for John Dewey’s Impact of Darwin on Philosophy and Democracy and Education, works which fasten the Death of God, the revolt against God, upon America, and move it toward the whole world as “The American Way of Life.” 

  13. 132. For the seminal treatment of this mysterious matter in Christian thought, cf. Augustine’s De civitate Dei, Book XX, cc. 8-30. The delay in the parousia, that article in the Profession of the Apostolic Faith linked intrinsically with the redeeming death and the resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, has been a problem for members of the Church from the beginning, since 2 Thes. 2, 1-12. Perhaps the philosophy of history is now in a position to cooperate with theology in understanding the matter better. For it was an unhappy effect of Modern Philosophy as such, as Leo XIII stated in Aeterni Patris, to undermine the Liberal Disciplines in their Christianized form which functioned as the dynamic social foundation of Roma Christiana, the historic edifice of Christian culture. Newman’s greatness lies in his masterful analysis of this negative phenomenon from the viewpoint of the philosophy of education. For he saw that this phenomenon evokes permissivist “men of sin” who are not formed to know and to value the Way of Life, consisting of definite moral positions and principles. Thus Newman’s analysis aof the situation in modern Western education becomes the philosophical tool for recognizing the apostasy as someting empirically given and knowable by the light of sound natural reason. Newman grasps the philosophical and social principles which make intelligible that immensely grand succession in human history which he himself states in lapidary form, in the passage cited in the text above: “I grant, that as Rome, according to the prophet Daniel’s vision, succeeded Greece, so Antichrist succeeds Rome, and the Second Coming succeeds Antichrist.” The experience of Modernity and the perception of it as apostasy from God is clear in the documents of the Holy See since about 1740 when the encyclical letter was adopted by Rome as the ordinary vehicle of its apostolate to the modern world. This is especially true from Pope Pius IX to the present. This entire matter calls for a separate study; it might well bear significant fruit for both the philosophy and the theology of history. Furthermore, such a study could reveal in a new way the prophetic role of the Holy See standing among the increasingly apostate gentile nations of the Modern period of the Christian Era. 

  • You are my witnesses (Is. 43:10)  •  You shall be my witnesses (Acts 1:8)