For the past half dozen years, the Magnificat Foundation has sponsored the Cardinal Egan Lecture named for the late Archbishop of New York, who died in 2015. I have attended almost all of the annual addresses, and each has been enlightening and generally enjoyable as well. It is a good opportunity to let go of the daily hubbub and for an hour or so listen and learn from an eminent speaker.
Such was the case April 28, when 300 people heard Rémi Brague, a professor emeritus of Arabic and religious philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris and emeritus chair of philosophy at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, take on the topic “Moderating Modernity” at a Manhattan venue.
In the lecture, Brague moved rather fluidly through time, touching on the experiences of various periods in the march toward modernity. In the Middle Ages, for example, references to the biblical Apocalypse were common, he said. That was not the case by the end of the 17th century. Apocalyptic fears were “assuaged” as modernity began. A common refrain in early modern times was, “There’s plenty of time. We have time,” Brague said.
“Modernity is essentially immoderate because of its relationship to time, which is experienced as infinitely stretching in front of us,” Brague explained. Likewise, there was a presumption of posterity, because to suppose otherwise would have been too sad to conjure, Brague said.
Using the decision made by his native France to become a Republic in 1884 as a backdrop, Brague showed how such a decision taken at “a particular point in time could be binding for eternity, without any possible return.” When we ascribe irreversibility to human decisions, then “we are applying to human things what is a basic characteristic of nonhuman nature,” he explained.
The modern wheel, instead of a being like a medieval wheel of fortune, is more like a one-way ratchet that can’t be turned backward. “Rights once granted can’t be withdrawn,” he said.
“If someone has a right to get something, then somebody else has a duty to grant them what they have a right to.” What was conceived as a program of liberation can easily have the effect of “bringing us back to jail,” Brague said.
Brague said “low-brow people” continue to believe in progress for a long time, thinking that somehow things will continuously improve. And they are, in turn, shocked when conditions don’t get better.
With the atomic bombings of 1945, apocalyptic thinking made a comeback. The extinction of humankind was considered a real possibility for the first time in a long time, Brague said. The causes continue to exist, but they are not active. The end is at hand, and, at present, that means that it is in our hands.
We now live in a secular age, a fact that is certainly not lost on many. A secular attitude toward life, Brague said, means that we can’t set our sights longer than one century, or the high end of individual life expectancy.
The return to an “apocalyptic consciousness” gives humans an opportunity “to give a bit of thought to problems at stake and possibly to look for solutions.”
“Many people are aware of the need for the transcendent that we have,” Brague said.
Thanks to advances in science and technology, we may become able to determine the gender of our children, the color of their hair and skin, as well as their intellectual abilities. “The future depends on what we decide today,” he said.
And so the bigger question becomes, why should there be a future? Brague asked.
“We have no reason to want it unless we admit…that we are called by God to a blessed eternal communion with his own love life,” he said.
We can feel our own lives moving at a faster clip seemingly day by day. Sometimes, though, you have to slow down and listen to people smarter than yourself put important concepts and truths into context.
Judging by the reaction to Brague’s lecture, and the questions from audience members that followed it, I wasn’t the only person who thought that his Cardinal Egan Lecture accomplished just that.