The Believing Modern
Given the day, and the surprising amount of interest displayed, ’round here, in conversation of religion’s clash with modernity and postmodernity, current editor Joseph Bottum’s first publication in First Things, back in 1994, merits some consideration:
We were all of us raised as moderns, however, and even as I write these words, my own modernness rises up to make me blush. To speak about doom and retribution, about the godless present age, is to sound distinctly premodern, distinctly dated, distinctly benighted and reactionary. It is to sound like the anti-humanistic enemy against whom modernity has campaigned for three hundred years. And I ought to blush, for I profit fully from the modern. I drive my car, keep iced tea in my refrigerator, get my vaccinations, use my computer, turn on my air conditioner in the summer heat. …
I choose the phrase “to hold knowledge” deliberately, for the massive scientific advance of modernity reveals how easy it is to discover facts, and modernity’s collapse reveals how hard it is to hold knowledge. We have an apparatus for discovery unrivaled by the ages, yet every new fact means less than the previously discovered one, for we lack what turns facts to knowledge: the information of what the facts are for. …
Three hundred years of this attack [on ancient faith] have created in believers an attitude both deeply defensive and deeply conservative. But the defensiveness springs from the attempt by believers to defend their belief against a “progressive” philosophy that is already rejected intellectually by nearly all cultural commentators, and, I suspect, despised intuitively by nearly all young people in America. Believers should not become entangled in the defense of modern times. This is the key—the postmodern attack on modernity is right: without God, essences are the will to power. Without God, every attempt to call something true or beautiful or good is actually an attempt to compel other people to agree.
It’s an interesting point. The modern person of traditionalist faith agrees with the Enlightenment modernist that reality has a coherence, a narrative, but also agrees with the post-modernist that the removal of God from the plot leaves only the arbitrary intentions of power-hungry animals.
Given some of the topical matters that we’ve been discussing, such as drugs and sex, I’d been thinking how clear it is that secular leftists support freedoms that make the individual vulnerable, but revile freedoms that allow the individual to shore up his influence or to develop firm self-contained communities. The druggie must be free, for example, to numb his sense of reality with drugs, but the businessman must not be free to determine that druggies impede the efficiency of his company. Conveniently, we can observe, those who express their freedom in self-destructive ways require a third-party guarantor — the state — to whom they must allocate power.
I’d also been thinking that those who decry inequity of class as a call to arms invariably disclaim the existence of a God and a larger purpose — a larger personal existence — such that the have nots can only be bitter that they’ve drawn short straws for their measly few decades of life, while others live as kings and queens. There are essentially two ways to battle those circumstances: Again, allocate power to some champion (the state) that will take from the rich and give to the poor, or redefine meaning and the successful life in a way that the bullies and leeches cannot touch. Indeed, the stronger their assault, the greater the reward.
The sorts of people who seek power for themselves by stoking grievance in others cannot stick their strings into such a worldview, which makes it dangerous. And so it is. Those vested in the power of earthly days can only be threatened by the promise of resurrection and the strong confidence of immortal souls.