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Why Modernity is Not the Problem

I’m completely and utterly tired of massive Christian critiques of “modernity.” Its not that I don’t think there something useful to learn from many of these, its just that they tend to go way off the rails. We often hear statements like “modernity is a dead end and the only way forward is the recovery of classical, Christian orthodoxy.”

I don’t really think I even understand what this is really supposed to mean. What on earth do we mean by “way forward”? What does it mean to say that “orthodoxy” is going to move us beyond modernity to wherever we’re supposed to be? I assume that “we” are the world system as it once was at some point and we really, really want it to be that way again. This seems to me to be a boiled-down statement of John Milbank’s nostalgia for a sort of neo-fascist premodernity.

Now, I’m all for decrying “individualism” and all the other woes that stem from the Enlightenment. But come on. First of all, the idea that Christianity and modernity are two arch-rivals locked in a titanic battle for the future of the world is just nonsense. Modernity is completely unintelligible apart from its rootage in Christianity and Christendom. This isn’t to say that there shouldn’t or can’t be theological critiques of the modern world, only that attempting to get critical leverage on modernity by positing Christianity—as this “other” force that used to order the world for wonderfullness and could again if we just got rid of modernity—is just historically naive.

And secondly, modernity is just not all that bad. This is, in some ways a personal point for me. I was born with a congenital heart problem that was corrected by surgery, and a very new form of surgery at the time. It’s healthy as a horse now and I’ll probably live as long as anyone with a normal heart. If I were born in the premodern paradise of blessed Christendom I’d already be dead, if I even survived childbirth. So would my best friend Steve, the diabetic.

Of course, most of the yearners for the glorious premodern will insist that it was actually Christianity, not modernity that invented everything good and helpful in the world. This however just proves the point I made above. Christianity and modernity cannot be disentangled as though one could be used to give critical leverage against the other.

Sure, there are a hell of a lot of things wrong with modernity and the world we live in—and, umm with Christianity. No one denies that. But the way to address this theologically is not to start freaking out and trying to figure out how to recreate some sort of pan-Christian social fascism. What we need is to not look back to premodern Christendom or the social Constantinianism of nineteenth and twentieth century America. This is precisely the wrong approach. What we need to do is return again to the very particular history of Jesus of Nazareth who alone frees us from the rule of powers and ideologies. This, of course is a far more risky endevor as we don’t have the sort of security provided by the mere reassertion of a given social order from the past. Rather we are thrown back upon the interruptive and destabilizing reality of Jesus and his call to discipleship.


  1. robert wrote:

    “Modernity is NOT the problem” is as reductionistically useful as “Modernity IS the problem.” How about we settle on “Modernity is problematic”?

    Friday, June 26, 2009 at 10:07 am | Permalink
  2. ken oakes wrote:

    I think that Barth got it right in his *Protestant Theology in the 19th Century* by avoiding a complete scapegoating of modernity for everything that’s wrong now (or one can substitute everything that occurred post 1300). Granted that he labeled this period the “age of absolutism” and complained about the enbourgeoisment and moralization of Christianity, but overall his attitude to the 18th and 19th centuries is more akin to an amused “What the hell? There’s some crazy stuff happening here.” I guess it is his highlighting of all of the different bewildering streams of “modernity” that makes his such an interesting account.

    Friday, June 26, 2009 at 10:14 am | Permalink
  3. Colin wrote:

    At least the critique wasn’t more like “modernity is a dead end and the only way forward is Derrida and washed up feelings about postmodern thought” à la Emergent Village…

    Friday, June 26, 2009 at 10:19 am | Permalink
  4. Evan wrote:

    Great post, Halden… I think you’re right, and it’s something that nags even when I find myself nodding in agreement with any particular point coming out of these critiques of modernity.

    I imagine a great paper could be written comparing what’s going on now with the earlier Modernist crisis in both Protestant and Catholic thought.

    That said, I’m reminded of Hart’s intro to his book on the new atheism, where he says:

    “By modernity, I should explain, I certainly do not mean modern medicine or air travel or space exploration or any of the genuinely useful or estimable aspects of life today; I do not even mean modern philosophical method or social ideology or political thought. Rather, I mean the modern age’s grand narrative of itself: its story of the triumph of critical reason over ‘irrational’ faith, of the progress of social morality toward greater justice and freedom, of the ‘tolerance’ of the secular state, and of the unquestioned ethical primacy of either individualism or collectivism (as the case may be).” (p. xi)

    …this doesn’t mean, of course, that such a critique isn’t still a bit broad-brushed and overstated. But I think that even amongst the most robust polemicists against modernity, there is often at least an attempt of this sort of qualification. Certainly, though, it would be beneficial for it to feature a little bit more prominently.

    Friday, June 26, 2009 at 10:22 am | Permalink
  5. Halden wrote:

    The title was a wee bit rhetorical. Think of it as “Modernity is not THE problem.”

    Friday, June 26, 2009 at 10:28 am | Permalink
  6. Andy wrote:

    Totally agree. I had an instructive experience a few years back at a conference in Dublin. There were so many experts of various figures in modern Christian history (Locke, Berkeley, Hegel, Fichte, Kant, Descartes, etc.) that every time someone tried to lay the blame on one of them, “their” researcher stood up to defend them. I learned something important.

    Friday, June 26, 2009 at 11:37 am | Permalink
  7. erin wrote:

    -that every scholar thinks they’re right..

    Friday, June 26, 2009 at 12:00 pm | Permalink
  8. tim kumfer wrote:

    Word. I think it is important to note the social location of all the theologians who bitch about modernity, liberalism, and rights language…not too many of them would have been serfs, slaves, or confined to the household. Certainly liberationists, feminists, etc. note this tradition’s limits, but few of them dismiss it outright, as the enlightenment has often been more liberating in their experience than say, the institutional church or “orthodoxy”. Note Yoder’s discussion of shifting allies on this one.

    Friday, June 26, 2009 at 1:37 pm | Permalink
  9. Gordon Brown wrote:

    Hi Halden,

    I agree completely. The ever present difficulty is how do we live as people who are in some sense at conflict with the surrounding culture. Its us that Modernity is where we find ourselves. If we have to return to classical Christian orthodoxy, or move to pomo emergent church, we are just deciding that we prefer another cultural option, but it is still the culture defining the rules of our faith. Perhaps Jeremiah is a good example of what it means to be in a bad place but still be a prophet. He doesn’t leave, because he loves his people, but he is always unsettled in his environment.

    I have a friend who suggests that perhaps a good way to imagine ourselves is not always as people in exile, but in diaspora – not how we live as exiles, but how we live in diaspora – we have a connection with home, but we are still in a foreign land. Can we create a community that live in modernity (pomo is perhaps just a temporary bluff really), accept it, and still see that we are different?

    Friday, June 26, 2009 at 2:20 pm | Permalink
  10. mshedden wrote:

    For an interesting look at this in relation to solidarity you should check out a talk given at SPU by Ephraim Radner, Christian Solidarity: The Forging of a Modern Ecumenical Tradition.
    It is available on iTunesU for free.

    Friday, June 26, 2009 at 5:32 pm | Permalink
  11. david wrote:

    hi halen,

    i think that you are right with most of what you have said. o. o’donovan has said some of the same things in his book “the desire of nations”. i am a little disappointed that you think long life is one of the benefits of modernity or christianity. it seems to me that the prolongation of life and the despising of death is at least one area where the church has failed and also an area which the church should address to regain its rightful position over against the world, death is not our enemy. i enjoy your posts – most often.

    Saturday, June 27, 2009 at 9:20 am | Permalink
  12. Josh wrote:

    yeah, I was going to say that modern technology is not purely one with modern philosophy…

    Saturday, June 27, 2009 at 12:10 pm | Permalink
  13. d barber wrote:

    Even granting that we distinguish modern technology from modern philosophy (something that’s not easily done in my mind, but granting it anyway for argument’s sake) … this line:

    “Christianity and modernity cannot be disentangled as though one could be used to give critical leverage against the other”

    this line definitely holds wrt modernity-as-philosophy. I’m not sure exactly what one might have in mind when critiquing modern philosophy, but broadly speaking what one seems to find in such critiques is the idea that modernity has a number of binaries — faith and reason, metaphysics and science, self and other, abstract and concrete, order and chaos, transcendence and immanence.

    Importantly, all of these binaries are present in “Christianity.” Such that the most plausible narrative of Christianity and modernity would include two points: (1) Christianity is the progenitor of modernity, with all of its binaries, such that it shares in the fault, if there is fault; (2) Christianity failed to properly resolve (or mediate or whatever) these binaries, the “Christian” solution, if there is one, still needs to be invented.

    Saturday, June 27, 2009 at 2:36 pm | Permalink
  14. Bobby Grow wrote:

    I agree, d barber.

    Saturday, June 27, 2009 at 2:57 pm | Permalink
  15. Bobby Grow wrote:

    I think Gordon Brown’s point on diaspora is really good. But I just wonder why we feel the need to scholastically locate ourselves within the nearest expression of what it means “to do theology.” It almost seems as if we are following a History of Religions (read evolutionary) model of doing theology; that places, chronologically, modernity over against premodernity or vice-versa. What if premodernity got it “more” right, on a particular theological point, than has modernity?

    Saturday, June 27, 2009 at 3:05 pm | Permalink
  16. Brad A. wrote:

    I’m curious, Halden. What prompted this post?

    Saturday, June 27, 2009 at 4:32 pm | Permalink
  17. roger flyer wrote:

    Brad A-
    Schnitzelwiches and beer.

    Sunday, June 28, 2009 at 9:42 am | Permalink
  18. Brad A. wrote:

    Ah – that explains it.

    Sunday, June 28, 2009 at 12:19 pm | Permalink
  19. Halden wrote:

    Actually, Brad, besides overconsumption of of ale, and the many deep fried German sandwiches I eat, if you click on the hyperlink in the post above you’ll find my more immediate rationale for this post.

    Sunday, June 28, 2009 at 3:59 pm | Permalink
  20. Brad A. wrote:

    Apologies, Halden. Read the post and totally missed that link. Thanks.

    Sunday, June 28, 2009 at 5:02 pm | Permalink
  21. roger flyer wrote:

    I heard Carter saying primarily that ‘modernity is essentially a Christian heresy.’ That doesn’t seem so far off the mark.

    Sunday, June 28, 2009 at 6:28 pm | Permalink
  22. Dan wrote:

    Going back on modernity would be akin to trying to put toothpaste back into the tube – our basic assumptions have shifted far too much, and probably far more than most of us realize. The only thing about the post with which I’d quarrel would be the reference to pre-modern “fascism” – fascism is very much the sort of movement that could only be an outgrowth of modernity.

    Thursday, July 2, 2009 at 8:26 pm | Permalink
  23. James wrote:

    I think that Christianity, rightly understood–and that’s always the problem–is necessarily opposed root and branch to anything that can reasonably be called modernity. The person who embraces modernity, however casually, has taken a step, perhaps a small one, but real nonetheles, away from Christianity. Roman Catholics and the Orthodox should be able to see this fairly easily, although it may be harder for most sorts of Protestants, since the origins of Protestantism are so caught up in the emergence of moral, political, and cultural modernity.
    I do not say that living out a choice against modernity is especially easy or pleasant, and very, very few antimoderns actually do it or even try it. However, this issue is not about the ease with which Christians are supposed to be able to ignore the world around them. I think the requirement to break with the world, which the Christian is obligated to try to honor, encompasses the rejection of any determinate form of the world, such as modernity. Christianity opposes worldliness as such, and modernity is simply one form of worldliness.

    Wednesday, August 19, 2009 at 2:15 pm | Permalink
  24. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    I don’t know, James. That seems a little weird to me. “Christianity opposes worldliness as such?”

    Wednesday, August 19, 2009 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

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