On Being a Christian in Late Modernity (Part 2: Is Modernity a Myth?)

5. Before we seek to understand modernity, it is fitting to ask whether there is anything to be understood in the first place. Is “modernity” actually definable in any substantive way, or is it a phantom of the human imagination? As Bruno Latour argues in We Have Never Been Modern, when we describe the actions of our ancestors and then of ourselves, our actual behavior turns out to look far more like our supposedly “primitive” fathers than our supposed “modern” selves. The magic industry is as rampant as ever, Wiccans abound in hip urban spaces, and the alleged boundary between nature and culture, facts and values – the supposed litmus of “modern” life – is one that we regularly transgress. The argument could be made in the other direction as well. That is to say, if we do not behave very much like our supposed selves, neither do we have good reason to suspect that pre-modern people behaved in the manner of our historical projections. Removed as we are from their cognitive environment, it is a delicate process to reconstruct precisely how and why historical actors thought and behaved in the way that they did. And our tendency is to render our ancestors the negative photocopy of our supposed achievements (i.e. the superstitious to our scientific, the patriarchal to our egalitarian, the regress to our progress). Not only does this bespeak a deep incuriosity about the dead, it bespeaks a hubristic reading of one’s self (and our civilization). But a surprising thing begins to occur when we decide to interpret historical actors as humans very much like ourselves. They begin to make greater sense. If what they thought and did seems dumb to us, it is at least possible that we do not yet understand what they were doing. Similarly, we can begin to see that much of what we do, when we step away from ourselves for a very brief moment, is as mindless, peculiar, comprehensive, and “taken for granted” as we suspect we can identify in others. More accurately, the traffic between these two aspects of any human life is very much for ourselves what it has been for everyone else. The point, then, is not that our ancestors might not have been blindly superstitious in some instances, but rather that we must seek to understand this within the kind of holistic reading we’d better hope our descendents afford to us!

6. When this approach is taken, interpreting ancient and even medieval man becomes an interesting task. Accounting for how persons very much like ourselves thought and acted the way that they did, as it turns out, requires understanding how profoundly human nature is inflected through a cognitive and historical environment. This is confirmed in contemporary anthropological studies, though not with any relativist result. In fact, while intra-cultural communication is more difficult the more one’s cognitive environments are separated, it is nevertheless the case that any two humans can (in principle) achieve some meaningful human communication and some common frame of reference in a common world (The book to read is Retrieving Realism by Charles Taylor and Hubert Dreyfus). In any case, intellectuals have taken different approaches to explaining the difference between ancient and contemporary thought. Once they are men like unto ourselves, we must account for how they seem so foreign to us, especially in matters spiritual. Perhaps, as Julian Jaynes proposes, the human brain once did actually experience a sort of conversation with the cosmos in a literal way, or at least in a way that would be impossible to separate from the experience of the world. Owen Barfield has a more “mind” centered version of this narrative, where collective human consciousness has actually undergone certain constitutional shifts in the story of civilization. And if these don’t suit, there is always Terrance McKenna’s suggestion that our forefathers just did a lot of drugs. Whatever the case, there is demonstrably a reward to be had (see the corpus of Wolfgang Smith) in taking pre-modern interpretations of reality very seriously, and even putting them in conversation with contemporary insights. Is it the case, for instance, that ancient interpretation of the stars is arbitrary? E.C. Krupp has spent a career showing otherwise. Moreover, as Robert Bellah has recently argued in his Religion in Human Evolution, “nothing is ever lost.” For those who know how to look, we still behave very much like our ancestors in all their pagan eccentricity. We are just blind to how we do this, because what we do is normal. To imaginatively rediscover the interpretations of our ancestors is to see their reconfiguration (both their remaining purchase and their remaining liability) preserved in our own basic attunement to things.

7. Is “modernity” a myth, then? Minimally, it would seem plausible to refer to epochal transitions in the history of the world. The invention of agriculture, of writing, of the printing press, of the automobile, of the internet, etc. For the Christian, and I will argue for all persons, the most important hingepoint is the life of Christ. But at which of these points (or at any) do we locate the seeds of the “modern?” One approach is to isolate a particular feature of modernity, and to go search for its historical “root.” This approach has produced a dizzying array of genealogies. Daniel Elazar traces modernity to Moses, Tom Holland to Christianity, Larry Siedentop to Paul, Remi Brague to Roman jurisprudence and the West’s relationship to texts, Charles Taylor to Medieval reform movements, John Milbank to high scholastic philosophical disputes, Jacques Barzun to the Renaissance, Brad Gregory to the Reformation, Peter Gay the Enlightenment, and one could go on to name the French Revolution, the American Revolution, Industrialism, Globalization, and The Kardashians. Some of these are better hypotheses than others. Fortunately, there is another way to locate the relevant distinction. What if – instead of trying to define modernity in the abstract – we simply identified when human beings in our civilization began to think and speak about themselves as modern? When did we begin to tell ourselves that we belong to one era, and our ancestors (after some cut-off point) do not? Typically identified as the first invocation of the term is Charles Baudelaire’s 1863 essay, “The Painter of Modern Life,” in which he defines “modernity” as “the ephemeral, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is eternal and immutable.” While the term would go on to take on many other connotations, it never does leave the realm of art – and already here we acquire some portent of emerging human self-description. Modernity is (at its inception) the world of instability and change. One author titles his monograph on the “long 19th century,” The Transformation of the World. While birth-pangs of this transformation can be identified and debated (the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment), it is roughly in the middle of the 19th century that we see the very basic mechanics of ordinary life change for a mass of human beings around the globe. Moreover, not only does the language of modernity develop in this period, but it is also toward the end of the 19th century that we begin (seminally in figures such as Max Weber) to self-describe our circumstance as secular and disenchanted. This was very much against the actual behavior of so-called “modern” populations (The book to read is Jacob Josephson-Storm’s The Myth of Disenchantment).  

8. We need an account, therefore, of why this became a plausible self-description (and still is). Why, to use Taylor’s phrase, do we reflexively imagine our own relation to the world as one which has “overcome a previous condition” (i.e. “People used to think all sorts of funny spiritual business was going on around them. I belong to those who have come to realize what is really happening, because the cosmos is mappable.”)? And why especially do we do this despite evidence to the contrary? We begin to get a hint when we grasp the difference between the ordinary experience of the sky for both ancient and contemporary men (whether such men were and are personally religious or not). By this measure, we are almost all thoroughly modern. When we look at the night sky, we see (in the words of one popular sage) “balls of gas burning billions of miles away.” Nature, the distribution of its parts, and the happenstance of its production, feel un-guided. To look up is to see an abyssal emptiness with occasional interruption. It is difficult for us to grasp what it might mean to instinctively feel the entire sky and space itself to be living, full, stuffed with being. Even if we can grasp the concepts, our instinct is still to code the whole universe like so many gears in a vast (and mostly empty) machine. Not surprisingly, given the above metaphor, the most obvious candidate for explaining the relevant shift is the impact of the Industrial Revolution on our practical and mental habits. Perhaps, but it is helpful to talk about precisely how the revolution translates into these habits, as mediated through free human craft.  If the collection of human intentions in a time, place, and era matters, then popular self-narration matters. Indeed, as Anthony Giddens argues in The Consequences of Modernity, the reflexive dimension of modern civilization is crucial for understanding it. And if it is in this period that we begin to see this precise shift in human self-narration (that we are now secular, disenchanted, and modern), it is crucial to see the lived world within which that self-description became a plausible one. I will now move on, therefore, to describe this world, and then interpret why a “story of being modern” becomes a fitting self-description within it. We will then be in a place to take more precise stock of our contemporary religious circumstance.


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