On Being a Christian in Late Modernity (Part 1: Introduction)

1. “I am I and my circumstance,” Jose Ortega y Gasset was fond of saying. His formula is easy to misunderstand, conjuring a crass relativism in the imagination of some. But the Spanish philosopher meant something quite basic. Human beings never think or act outside of a situation. We cannot truly grasp the meaning of human discourse without asking what is concretely at stake within it. Fundamentally, this develops a classical insight. Neither humans nor all of the curious entities that populate our experience are ever outside a situation altogether. We are all, in the words of another philosopher, “substances-in-relation,” standing out in the common space of existence and bumping into one another. Even stars, shining unimaginably far away, are part of the situation of man – agents without whose precise act we would have a different story. Beyond this, the human creature is an explicitly discursive animal, the sort of conscious entity who finds his or her identity in the development of personhood alongside others. That is to say, humans are not merely acting and being acted upon, but are aware of their doing and being so. The human situation, therefore, is never simply an output of environment and instinct. Rather, as a new power emerges between two poles of a magnet, so does human self-consciousness – the reflexive glance back at our self, thoughts, and actions – generate a whole universe of interpretation and freedom. To fully understand humans, then, we need to understand the circumstances within which they think and act. 

2. There is both a public and a private dimension to this. Privately, we might speak of each person’s “deep reading of things,” an “interpretation” of how the world around them fits together. Crucially, this is not the same as one’s theories about the world. First, it is a universal trait of our race that inconsistent thoughts incubate in the same mind. Second, our “deep reading” is ultimately whatever we act upon, whatever interpretation trumps the rest and reveals what we actually trust. This, of course, is not the same in each moment. Humans are fickle. But at least sometimes, our actions reveal our deepest beliefs to be other than the ones we claim for ourselves consciously. The prayer of all Christians remains, “I believe. Help my unbelief.” Still, our interpretations are almost never merely individual. There might be a thousand interpretations of what is behind the contemporary crisis of mental health, for instance, but most would claim that there is a decided crisis nevertheless. The crisis itself is a similar feature in our “worlds.” Entire disciplines over the last century have unveiled how thick are these (and far more subtle) mutual understandings in any human culture. Most of us are totally unaware just how much we make sense of what we’re “privately” doing in historically peculiar ways, but in ways that we share with most of our fellows. A modern evangelical and a modern atheist are far more graspable to one another than a Medieval Christian would be to either. 

3. It is these shared dimensions of our circumstance that I take for my point of departure. Charles Taylor has famously detailed modern “conditions of belief,” a sort of horizon against which we map out our options and make religious decisions. One might extend such analysis by considering these very same conditions relative to our having any beliefs at all. Whether it be Christian doctrine, traditional sexual ethics, political loyalty, the choice of a spouse, or more parochial interests, there are dimensions of the situation within which all of this occurs that remain common for most of us. These commonalities are not merely external, but reflect a parity of cultural habit, including the mental habits and pre-interpretations of such a community. By “pre-interpretations,” I refer to those aspects of our life which “make sense” to us, but not because we think of them very theoretically. Occasionally we go into a store and behind a counter is some entity called a “clerk,” and we go through some ritualized exchange. Both of us “know what to do” not because we’ve thought a great deal about what is implied or at stake in this relationship (about its “nature”). Rather, we have been initiated into a world of social and mental habit through imitation, surrogates of tradition despite ourselves. What, then, constitutes that “shared common interpretation” within which we attempt to acquire a unified understanding of reality? What do we all take for granted without realizing it? Isolating this is an illuminating exercise in itself.

4. In this series, I will describe what I take to be key features of our common life, and then interpret the epistemic and religious crisis that, in my judgment, these conditions provoke. Finally, I will propose a starting point for the retrieval of wisdom, from which I hope to draw a map of classical Christian claims and argue for their remaining plausibility in several later series. Not, to be sure, a plausibility against the backdrop of our ignorant default settings. Rather, a plausibility that is rendered through the smashing of false idols and the conversion (really, awakening) of  human imagination. For ease of passage, it is worth highlighting the three basic points I hope to develop in subsequent posts. (1) Not only do most modern persons know what it means to feel religiously vulnerable – to subtly worry that alternatives are “living options” (i.e. I don’t feel certain that they are wrong) – but most modern people experience a crisis of meaning and belief in still more basic ways. Even if intellectual coherence is achieved, “lived coherence” remains largely elusive – even to those who claim it. (2) Central to this crisis is the problem of mediating trust in a civilization that is based upon adult mutuality, but wherein its traditional conditions are quickly evaporating. (3) Despite our existential confusion, there is light in our darkness. A “way” beckons to us. Christianity was born into such circumstances, and we would be wise to expect that man has yet to exhaust its genius.


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