by Fr. Stephen Freeman
I consider this a must-read post by Fr. Stephen. Please, let us attend!
“Welcome to the 21st Century!”
Pick your issue, and if its outcome conforms to a popular, desired norm you are likely to hear such a greeting. The greeting also implies that a less than desirable outcome is wrong because it doesn’t belong to our time. It might be characterized as “medieval,” “outmoded,” “out-of-date,” “primitive,” “Neanderthal,” “reactionary,” etc. None of which actually describe anything. Such labels are value judgments and rhetorical devices that dismiss undesirable actions as beneath consideration. We are “modern” people.
The notion of “modern” is also deeply linked with the myth of progress. The story thus runs that modernity is the natural, even inevitable outcome of history. That which does not fit within the desired modern model is simply outmoded, not yet developed. It is something that will change, inevitably.
A recent article by Giles Fraser in The Guardian looks at this rhetorical device. Its title says a lot: “Our Secular Salvation Myth Distances Us from Reality.” Indeed. The “Secular Salvation Myth” of Modernity is not just about our time of the world, a time when technology exists at a certain level. The myth says that we live at a point in history that was always the point – everything has always been tending towards this very present time and arrangement.
Fraser’s article draws attention to a clever trick. Anything in the present time that does not fit the desired model is treated as though it were not actually in the present time.
Rather than … questioning the arrogance that has led us to believe that we are the inheritors of a historical tradition of success and process, society has developed a neat trick: it simply denies that shocking events are part of our time.
A massacre in some corner of the world shocks our sensibility. But it is described as “Medieval,” as if the modern world were somehow immune from atrocities. It is worth noting, that the labels attached to various periods of history, “Classical, Dark Ages, Medieval, Modern, etc.,” were all invented in the so-called Modern period. They were invented to support the notion of an evolutionary progress and inevitability in history.
I have written previously about this myth of progress. Things are not progressing. They change, but they do not progress. History is not going anywhere. Some changes bring benefits, many changes bring misery. The myth of progress is a narrative that justifies the destruction of traditional ways of life (or anything else that is seen as standing in its way). It frequently takes no account of the collateral damage left behind in its march. Progressive-driven accounts of history carefully ignore the carnage and dislocations brought about by change. Progress is the narrative told by those who receive the profits.
Modernity is a rhetorical device. The modern world does not produce wonders or even Apple Phones. Those are the work of technology, something with roots in the ancient world (cf. the Antikythera Mechanism). Modernity is simply the place where the myth was invented – not technology.
Believers will occasionally be told that their traditional beliefs do not belong in the modern world. Church practices or moral teachings that do not conform to the current ruling ideology are cataloged as belonging to some deluded, patriarchal past (or some other pejorative era). Progress demands that the Church get with the times.
A very common canard that is trotted forth in these rhetorical assaults is the myth of progressive liberation. It tells us that the Church and society approved slavery and were wrong. The Church and society oppressed women and were wrong. The Church and society oppressed sexual choice and were wrong (etc.). Of course the strongest case in this tale of progress is that of racial slavery. But slavery based on racial inferiority is itself a modern invention. The practice of slavery referenced in the New Testament had nothing to do with racism. It had everything to do with war and the spoils of war. Prisoners of war became slaves in ancient Rome. They could and did find their freedom. It was not a caste system, nor was it ever endorsed by the Church. It was part of the economic system in which the Church was born. A large portion of the early Church were, in fact, slaves.
But it was in the modern world (in the West) that racist slavery had its birth. Slavery had existed in Africa and was quite common there. Its adoption by Western European (and American) powers was tolerated and later endorsed by false Protestant theologies and progressive ideologies. It was never a part of the ancient order.
Racist theories were grounded in notions of “modern superiority,” and of the “white man’s burden of civilization,” or worse still, notions that would later provide a haven to evolutionary racism and modern eugenics. The true problems of modern slavery were barely addressed by the Emancipation Proclamation and subsequent legislation. Its racist basis is not only thoroughly modern, but still alive in the modern breast. All of which is falsely dismissed as something that modernity has swept into the dustbin of history. Modernity is not our savior.
The current culture of abortion enjoys modern popularity and is treated as though it were a product of progressive medicine. Like many other modern schemes, a false myth of progress is employed to justify the unthinkable. Women are encouraged to destroy their children with no compunction and are told that they are in the vanguard of their liberation. Those who oppose them are seen as resisting the inevitable. The abortion culture is considered part of the progressive march of women’s rights.
This pattern is repeated for every practice deemed desirable in the modern setting. Of course, the question must be asked: Who gets to declare which practice is now the march of progress?
Another recent article raised a serious question about modernity: Can a person in the modern world believe in an ancient religion? Are there things about Christianity that are simply impossible for modern people to believe?
Charles Taylor, the Canadian Catholic philosopher, has spent a career mapping the rise of modernity and secularism. He has traced the changes in human consciousness that have accompanied its ascendancy. But a recent article takes him to task for granting modernity more power than it is due – for he suggests that modernity is here to stay and has forever changed the nature of how we think. He does not despair of Christian believing, but suggests that it must change itself and adapt to a new way of seeing the world – to incorporate the inherent doubt of modernity into its faith. Matthew Rose, writing in First Things, suggests this is nothing less than a betrayal of the faith. I would agree.
Modernity presents perhaps the greatest challenge the Church has ever faced. As mythologies go, it has a narrative that enjoys an almost unquestioned position. Its magic is invoked commonly by people everywhere. Political and social elites use it to tailor the world to their own ideologies. But a modern Christianity makes no more sense than a Buddhist Christianity, or an Atheist Christianity – for modernity is itself a religious point of view, with itself as the central point of worship.
But how do Christians live an authentic existence within the modern world? Is such a thing possible?
It is a testament to the power of modernity that such questions even seem plausible. There is nothing about our lives (technology included) that require a “modern” point of view. It is only a cultural habit and an “unexamined” life that give modernity its power.
There are several key strategies that are important for a contemporary Christian:
- Pay attention to the present. “Modernity” is a theory of history and the future. We do not live theoretical lives – we live in the present. The present constantly offers itself to us. It is our inattention that removes us from this reality. The Fathers speak of “watchfulness.” In our present struggle against a false myth, our watchfulness to what is truly around us is an indispensable way of life.
- Take your place. The myth of progress constantly diverts our attention away from the task at hand. We are always looking for the next job, the next opportunity, the next bargain, the next fashion. Following the strategy of watchfulness, we commit ourselves to the life that is given to us. The Fathers say to the monk, “Stay in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.” Modernity constantly seeks to disrupt the stability of our lives and cultures. Staying put is a Christian life-strategy. Take your place in the world.
- Make real choices. Although the modern myth tells us that choice is an essential part of our modern lives, we rarely make real choices. Instead, we live by our desires (which are passions and not products of the will). We spend our days living “unintentionally.” We get up, go to work, come home, etc., never actually exercising our will. We live passively and are carried along by circumstance and desire. You can only live in the present by wanting to be there. Choose to do what you do – and do it repeatedly throughout the day.
- Become a modern agnostic. What I mean by this is to refuse to agree to the modern myth. Are things progressing? We don’t know. Do not agree that you know what you don’t. Ignorance is just honesty most of the time.
- Refuse the lie. Either deeply increase your awareness of modern propaganda, or diminish your exposure (and your family’s). Become deeply aware of the constant barrage of propaganda that assaults us, selling the modern myth. Advertising, news stories, false documentaries, etc. Ignore them. Do not make them part of your mental diet or feed them to your children.
- Give thanks for all things. Nothing grounds us in the present as firmly and securely as giving thanks to God for all things at all times.
These, of course, are simple strategies for daily living (among many). We do well to remember that modernity is mostly powerful and important in its own mind. We are not attempting to reject some piece of hard-bitten reality – it is a myth – a false set of beliefs. We do not live in a period of time. We do not live at a climax of history. Our world is not the result of progress. Rejecting the myth of the modern world is, to a large extent, simply coming to our senses.