On Being a Christian in Late Modernity (Part 5: A Crisis of Trust)

17. To claim that modernity entails the simultaneous global re-negotiation of all human custom does not, crucially, imply that modernity is the death of tradition. We can no more exit tradition than we can exit language. But as the parallel itself suggests, this does not mean that tradition cannot become unsolid. As Lewis points out in The Abolition of Man, to step outside the self-conscious attempt of humans to attune themselves to The Tao is not really to escape The Tao, but rather to inflate one of its elements over all the others (say, the good of freedom over the good of deference to authority). Moreover, we typically exchange our radical notions in a community and are dependent upon the guidance of others. “Some men / other men” strike again. We exchange an old tradition for a new one. Lewis argues that such changes can be licit, in fact. Human inflection of The Tao can change in changing circumstances, and The Tao itself demands such, albeit in accordance with the primary axioms of The Tao itself (i.e. the very basic realities/postulates of formal and practical reason). However, the crisis of modernity is that some men (in this case, recent ancestors) have cultivated a world in which other men (we their descendants) are in a self-conscious and reflexive relationship to all of our traditions. This deserves unpacking. 

18. I suggested in the previous post that Taylor’s analysis of secularism could be extended to all of life. We commit no deed that isn’t immediately conceivable otherwise. I am here commenting that this does not eradicate tradition, but puts us in an irreducibly reflexive relationship to it. This might seem a small claim, but it really does provide a point of contrast with the lives of most of our ancestors. Most of our ancestors did not merely take whatever we’d call their religion for granted, but their whole way of being in the world. Indeed, the very separation of religion as a category in itself is a measure of just how difficult it is for us to enter the more typical human frame. Taylor appeals to the concept of a “social imaginary” to help us grasp this. Beginning in early modernity and more or less dominating the Western social order since then, humans begin to conceive of the social body as an organism of mutual benefit and exchange. This is at first a theory of society, but it increasingly becomes written into conscious habit and reflexive self-understanding. That is to say, this is not just a theory about modern society, but precisely because human society just is the collective intentional state of its constituents, so modern societies have progressively become an organism of mutual benefit and exchange. This is how we conceive of the social body, and it is written into our pre-understanding and social habits.

19. We are helped to understand this if we add Anthony Giddens’ analysis of “reflexivity” in The Consequences of Modernity. Part of Giddens’ contention is that modern life is characterized by a great “disembedding” (another phrase Taylor uses). The idea is that modern life has long had a trajectory away from the local not just at a personal level, but at a social, political, and psychological one. An ordinary modern life is profoundly affected – and in local ways – by events that are unseen and far away. The third world factory worker is profoundly and immediately dependent upon activity in Washington D.C. Most of the educated are far more informed about world and national affairs than local ones. The age of mobility and (after Giddens’ time) of the internet has drastically increased this disembedding from the local. At each remove from a state of default inheritances and dependencies, at each moment an ordinary life demands perpetual response to constant change – precisely to that extent does human identity become reflexive, changing as what is inherited constantly meets and adjusts to what is new (not pre-contained). Of course, the sages have long told us that our friends are our “second selves,” and that we grow in the mirror of one another’s gaze. And perhaps some have even argued that society ultimately participates in something like this exchange. But few have experienced their placement in society this way (even if they have experienced friendships in this manner). D’Tocqueville understood it. The late modern social arrangement will demand mature citizens, for without them, the story of mutual benefit and exchange (which we cannot help but enact) will give way to elite manipulation of mob demand (“some men” / “other men” ) rather than the perpetual and free negotiation without which we cannot remain a stable social order. We will become the story we tell ourselves about ourselves at the level of concrete habit. This helps us locate the core of our modern social crisis. We have made and subsist in a social order that absolutely requires collective embodied mutual trust. We have also made and subsist in a social order that has progressively evaporated and prevented those conditions which cultivate that trust. 

20. Luther was right. It is all about trust. Problematically for us, it is ultimately persons whom we trust, and persons are inherently embodied. Giddens points out that even when we place our trust in a system (the science of flight, the competency of an unknown pilot), it is crucial that we walk onto a plane with smiling faces that totemically assure us that the system can be trusted. Imagine getting onto a flight without those faces. Minimally, the humanoid voice of the Enterprise computer or the likely future use of hologram technology suggest to us that our trust will ultimately be placed in something that – don’t be triggered – feels human to us. Advertisers and campaign advisors know what intellectuals and philosophers forget. And here Lewis’ “some men / other men” structure is of the utmost concern. For behind systems are persons. And in a society where trust is increasingly disembodied, it is increasingly possible to create a massive disjunct between the face of a system and its heart. And for this reason, it is difficult to maintain the levels of trust that have historically made society possible (sustained in overlapping and textured ways). Especially in America, which was designed around the automobile, the evaporation of the local has perhaps been at its civilizational climax. Always a frontier nation, America has always been a nation where political and religious affiliation took on the character of tribe and kinship. Election cycles split more families and churches in America than in many (even developed) countries, and this is very likely related to the manner in which trust is so associated with agreement in our nation. Modern Americans especially tend toward ideology, the reduction of people to predictable “walking worldviews.” This is profoundly related to how we form social bonds (A person is their ideas to many). This especially becomes a crisis in an era of the internet wherein our tendency to so reduce people is at its zenith, precisely as our actual embodied mutual dependency is at a minimum. In the next post, then, I will finish my preliminary analysis of our condition, and then catalogue what I gather are the available responses. 


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