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.