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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

The Woke and the Red Pill, Pt III: Interpreting Late Modernity

Published Friday, November 20, 2020 By Joseph Minich

“I am I and my circumstance,” Ortega was fond of saying. And resisting the cultural forces that threaten to drag our civilization to the death of a fixed tribalism – I previously claimed – requires some reading of our circumstance. This is true for all Christians. Minimally, Christians can be confident that our ultimate enemies are not flesh and blood, that sin and death are at the back of most of our problems, and that man must repent and believe in all circumstances. That is to say, at least this “circumstance” always obtains, and so even those who are not readers of the times have some clear orientation sufficient for ordinary life and vocation. Nevertheless, people (precisely because rulers by nature and calling) often desire a wider vantage point and a more specific reading of their cultural and historical situation, so that they can calibrate their action toward the discerned good within it. And it is precisely that good must be “discerned” that renders such knowledge more specific. The author to the Hebrews can speak of a knowledge that is basic and obvious, and a knowledge that requires maturity. Crucially, however, such maturity does not belong to the smartest, but rather to those who “because of practice” have learned to discern good and evil. Similarly today, what is required is not just a reading of our cultural circumstance, but rather a reading from a believing and hopeful heart, lovingly open to the world, evaluating it and moving into it with God’s own heart.

By such criteria, of course, the present author cannot claim any great insight! Nevertheless, perhaps these fumblings about will aid the purer in heart. The question before us is what “our circumstance” really is. What is our story? And what part of the story are we in? Are we in late-stage capitalism just prior to an inevitable revolution? Are we witnessing the slow success of an inevitably murderous Marxism? Are the primary actors of our moment some group of elites (whether billionaires, technocrats, or the so-called “Deep State”) who instrumentalize the masses against their own interests? Perhaps the most alarming of the options, is our problem precisely that no-one is really in control of the trajectory, and that human culture has long out-paced any realistic collective human capacity to adjust to it? Of course, these readings may not be in tension. As I have claimed elsewhere, perhaps our inability to control our civilization mirrors our own inability to control ourselves.

A possibly illuminating way to interpret modernity is that, beginning in the “long 19th century,” a period that one historian has called “the transformation of the world,” we begin to see a fundamental renegotiation of every aspect of traditional societies – a long re-negotiation that all modern persons inherit at a rather late and complicated stage. We might point to the manner in which the move to cities redefined the relationship between a person and their labor, the manner in which money has taken on an increased role in mediating one’s life, the increased suspension of natural forces and the rendering of nature as an abstract “stuff” for the imposition of man’s will, the transformation of our relationship to food, etc. Added to this is the fact that we live in an era of massive mobility, and not only in the fact that we can move from our ancestral home. Even when we relocate, our communities are not defined by the limitations of space, but by the reach of the airplane, the automobile, and the telephone. Communities have progressively been excarnated, and increasingly consolidated around an ideology or an “identity.”

There are, of course, many benefits to this arrangement. The human imagination is now unavoidably cosmopolitan, and one could speak about many ways in which the modern world has been employed by God to extend the reach of His gospel. Nevertheless, the cultural challenges of living in our moment are manifold. It is no accident that existentialists pined about the burden of freedom in the 20th century. In an era of mobility, the fact of choice is the only non-option, and it fundamentally shifts one’s relationship to any traditional structure. The moment that marriage, and family, and church, and local community (all goods) must be chosen, we enter into a fundamentally individualistic world. This is a fact before it is a value. In fact, whatever sorts of values we think a human ought to have, contemporary life just is mediated through individual commitments in a way that has not traditionally been the case. Traditional social arrangements and values have been reflective of the concrete limitations of a highly local living situation, and the unsuspended forces of nature. Human habit and instinct, long formed in such a context, has now entered a circumstance in which many of the forces and limitations that reinforced these values have been drastically renegotiated. As Anthony Giddens has argued, the story of modernity is about the migration of human dependence from immediate, embodied, and overlapping networks of trust to spectral systems, institutions, and experts. The relationship between authority and subjects, between men and women, between local and global, between clergy and laity, between novice and expert, between nations, between religions, and between neighbors have entered a state of simultaneous, comprehensive, and (it would seem) constantly changing negotiation.

It is crucial to note, once again, that this negotiation is a concrete lived reality of modern life. One can praise or lament it, but it is whether we like it or not. The relativizing effect of modern life, pluralist and global as is our world, likewise produces the simple lived fact of religious doubt. There is much to dull this ache, but little to extract it altogether. As Charles Taylor argued over a decade ago, modern belief is modern precisely at the moment it is felt to be one option among many.

One way of reading our moment, then, is that tribes tend to form precisely along the lines of atavist conservatives versus radical reformers (in more extreme cases, revolutionaries) in each of these spheres. The vice of the former is typically that they cannot see just how modern their very traditionalism is, a chosen option among many options, with all the tendencies to fracture and idiosyncrasy that attend any other self-guided project. The vice of the latter is that the old paths are reduced to a peculiar historical inflection and therefore dismissed (i.e. anyone who is concerned about masculinity must want all men to be John Wayne, etc.). Each path promises religious integrity and security from doubt. Neither is, by itself, truly honest. Neither directly names, but only avoids, what is right in front of one’s face.

And yet, inasmuch as this just is our circumstance – for all its challenge and psychological overwhelm – it is also our calling from God to discover faithfulness in our historical moment. As pointed out above, some aspects of “faithfulness” are quite clear. We are in general called to trust God and love our neighbor, for example. Such a general calling orients us, but we also want to know what priorities this might suggest we ought to have in the face of contemporary challenges.

And perhaps the first thing to say in this area is that prudential calculus in the modern world is quite complicated and difficult. This is no more obvious than in the weighty responsibility of choosing the US President. A crucial player in our modern global era, the prudential calculus of choosing such a player to enter into the negotiation of modernity is astoundingly complicated. And it is not surprising that persons of good-will end up on different sides of this calculus. Many who disagree about who ought to be president might agree on a massive amount of different moral calculations (which are often much simpler). 

This is not satisfying, of course. Even if some things will remain obscure (this is human life, after all), presumably we can have guidance – we can gesture – in some true and good direction. Aristotle would say that if one wants to know what wisdom looks like, one must ask what a wise man would do. In my judgment, the orthodox sages of the renegotiation of modernity are Herman Bavinck and C.S. Lewis.

James Eglinton’s recent biography portrays Bavinck as a man standing with one foot in classical orthodoxy and traditional culture, and another foot in the modern global era. Between the first and second editions of his Dogmatics, Bavinck marshaled the whole of the Christian faith not simply to judge intra-ecclesial disputes, but also to address Western secular man, as well as his global counterparts. Bavinck was driven to persuade the world that the Christian faith spoke to all, not just generally, but specifically. Bavinck came to internalize the profound universality of the Christian faith, and its resonance with the whole divine image in each person, tribe, nation, and civilization. His nimble mind also grasped that tradition (established habit of mind or practice) could mediate both wisdom and folly, and that the “new” did as well. As such, while having a deep deference to the wisdom of his ancestors, Bavinck was also open to the new, and especially to new acts of prudence. He, for instance, was both a strong advocate of traditional family structures, but also recognized that some practices in the modern world (universal suffrage) were a possibly fitting adjustment to a concrete historical moment. The Christian heart must seek the truth in the past and the present, and it must seek to discern sin and error in the past and the present.

Like Bavinck, Lewis interpreted the modern world as a peculiar providence. Absent the “status quo” of orthodoxy, Lewis writes,

“Plain men are being forced to bear burdens which plain men were never expected to bear before. We must get the truth for ourselves or go without it. There may be two explanations for this. It might be that humanity, in rebelling against tradition and authority, has made a ghastly mistake… On the other hand, it may be that the Power which rules our species is at this moment carrying out a daring experiment. Could it be intended that the whole mass of the people should now move forward and occupy for themselves those heights which were once reserved only for the sages?… If so, our present blunderings would be but growing pains. But let us make no mistake about our necessities. If we are content to go back and become humble plain men obeying a tradition, well. If we are ready to climb and struggle on till we become sages, better still. But the man who will neither obey wisdom in others nor adventure for her/himself is fatal. A society where the simple many obey the few seers can live: a society where all were seers could live even more fully. But a society where the mass is still simple and the seers are no longer attended to can achieve only superficiality, baseness, ugliness, and in the end extinction. On or back we must go: to stay here is death.”

Miracles, 66-7.

Possibly these voices give us some orientation. In one sense, human civilization has always been on a trajectory of a constantly shifting equilibrium. And it would be a shame if Christians did not suspect that its recent acceleration was God’s own intent. He is, after all, Lord of history. What might He intend to teach us? On the one hand, it may be precisely to our good that we must will our faith in a deeper way in our culture – uniting our intellectual and affective capacities in order to possess a whole-personed faith. Perhaps immaturity is an increasing non-option. And moreover, while the reflexive dismissal of our fathers is clearly pathological, the Christian project of reform can enable us to move beyond our fathers not in the name of rebellion, but in the name of love – honoring them precisely by building upon them. Perhaps, then, God is still crafting the embodied act of persuasion that is His church in order to heal the world. In the final installment of this series, I will consider precisely this possibility.

Read part I.

Read part II.

Read part IV.

Joseph Minich (Ph.D, The University of Texas at Dallas), is a Teaching Fellow at The Davenant Institute. He is the author of Enduring Divine Absence.

  • Joseph Minich

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