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Forward from The End of the Modern World


This is not a book to read and then check off one's list of "must reading." It is an engagement with a great mind and great spirit who will settle for nothing less than a decision. Upon that decision many other decisions inexorably follow.

Romano Guardini

There are writers whom you read because you're told you must read them. Having done so, they then become part of your history, along with foreign countries you have visited or great music you have heard. It's all part of the never-ending process called learning, and a very good thing it is. But then there are writers who catch you up short.

They are personally disruptive; intellectually and spiritually disruptive. They cannot be fitted into anything so smoothly incremental as a "process." Their claims demand a decision, and contingent upon that decision is a change of disposition toward a host of questions. The thought cannot be resisted: "If he's right about this, then I have to rethink an awful lot that follows from this."

Romano Guardini is such a writer. As he writes toward the end of the present volume, his purpose is "to declare a truth when its 'hour' has come." Guardini is frequently depicted as a conservative opponent of modernity who invokes a curse on all its ways and all its pomps. That depiction is not devoid of truth, for certainly there is a fine polemical edge-and sometimes a bludgeon-in much that he would declare. Polemics are sometimes necessary to catch attention and clear the air of cant, but Guardini is up to much more than polemics. He is proposing a different way of discovering one's "location" in the world; a different way of standing before history and, finally, before God. He does not posit as some conservatives, especially Catholic conservatives, do a "premodern" alternative to modernity. His keen historical consciousness allows no alternative to both the benefits and ravages of the time of which we are inescapably part. The only alternative to past and present is a future that is ultimately open to a better way of being human, if we have the nerve and imagination for it.

At the beginning of the third millennium, the cultural air is filled with expectations both hopeful and catastrophic. With respect to the human prospect, Guardini may be viewed as a pessimist, but I think that is to miss the point. Optimism and pessimism are the wrong categories altogether. Optimism is finally just a matter of optics, of seeing what we want to see and not seeing what we don't want to see; and pessimism is its twin. Guardini's view of the future is admittedly bleak at times, and little that has happened in the years since he wrote these pages would likely change that. But his is a disposition toward a hope that is unblinking in the face of all the reasons for despair. His hero the kind of man he intended to be and invites his reader to be is not unlike Kierkegaard's "knight of faith." The question is not whether the glass is half full or half empty, but what do you do when you know it's empty.

Guardini is brutal in his demolition of sentimental faith in gods such as Man, Nature, and History. Such religions are consigned, as Marx might say, to the dustbin of history. In Guardini's view, there is a devastating discontinuity between how people once "located themselves in the world and our present circumstance. In the fine phrase of contemporary theologian Robert Jenson, "The world has lost its story."

Not only the Jewish-Christian story, but all the other stories that fed off that story, such as the story of progress. Guardini urges us not to be like Nietzsche's pitiful "last man" who never got the new that the jig is up. The old stories are exhausted, con tends Guardini, they cannot be rehabilitated. There is nothing left for us now but to act upon, at long last the invitation of Christ to rely on nothing but love Not a sentimental love, but the harsh and dreadful love of the way of the cross.

The End of the Modern World
by Romano Guardini

I don't know whether or not Guardini is right There is an alternative reading of our historical moment, in which the sentimental and bloody delusions of inevitable progress (e.g., Marxism) have been decisively discredited, opening the world-historical stage to a fresh restatement of the Great Story that "locates" man in the working out of God's purpose against an horizon of eschatological promise. That alternative is set forth in many ways by, for instance Pope John Paul II, and very notably in his encyclical on world evangelization, Redemptoris Missio (The Mission of the Redeemer). Only God knows what the future holds, which is just as it should be. Guardini's great work can be seen as positing an alternative, maybe the alternative, to the world's rediscovering it's story. And, of course, he may be right.

In any event, The End of the Modern World is bracing stuff. It offers welcome relief from fashionable post-modernisms that, in most instances, do no more than segue into the next phase of modernism. Romano Guardini insists that the music has stopped, even if some witless nostalgists keep humming the old tunes. What comes next, what has already arrived, is in radical discontinuity, something no earlier generation could have conceived, and something the wisest of us little understand. This is not a book to read and then check off one's list of "must reading." It is an engagement with a great mind and great spirit who will settle for nothing less than a decision. Upon that decision many other decisions inexorably follow.

Richard John Neuhaus
New York City
SS. Peter and Paul, 1998



Father Richard John Neuhaus. "Forward." from The End of the Modern World (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 1998) ix-xii.

This excerpt is reprinted with permission from ISI Books.

The Author

NeuhausNeuhaus4 Father Richard John Neuhaus (1936-2009) was a prominent Catholic priest, Editor-in-Chief of First Things and the author of many books, including As I Lay Dying: Meditations Upon Returning, The End of Democracy?: The Celebrated First Things Debate with Arguments Pro and Con and "The Anatomy of a Controversy", Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross, The Second One Thousand Years: Ten People Who Defined a Millennium, Evangelicals and Catholics Together: Toward a Common Mission, The Best of "The Public Square": Book One, The Best of "The Public Square": Book Two, The Chosen People in an Almost Chosen Nation: Jews and Judaism in America, and The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America.

Copyright © 2001 ISI Books
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