The chief challenge for the twenty-first century is to overcome the exhaustion of the Enlightenment project. Born of the once confident struggle to create a modern society that was rooted in reason and the embrace of secularism, that project has grown weary, confused, and unsatisfying. More comfortable in irony than conviction, trivialized by consumerism, orthodox rather than experimental in the testing of its own values, universalist in the defence of parochialism, torn between a worship of specialists and a ‘democratic’ acceptance of the unproven, and derailed by a vision of the good life reduced to endless entertainment, our age is threatened above all by pointlessness.
Some in the rising generation will find refuge in what certainties tradition provides them: fundamentalism, tribalism of nation or region or ethnicity, or even a corpse-cold rationalism. But the hope for the future will come from a reborn and refreshed Enlightenment, confident in the value of its search for a society that is reasonable rather than merely rationalist, that asks something of its citizens, rather than placates them, that is unembarrassed in its acceptance of the human need for higher purpose.