On Being a Christian in Late Modernity (Part 6: Modern Civilization as Unhomed Juvenility)

21. Bringing my analysis all the way to the ground, it is one thing to see our quandary, and another to know what to do about it. One way through the morass, as Joshua Mitchell has recently argued (see American Awakening) is to remind ourselves what is a supplement and what is a substitute. Virtual relationships are nice, but embodied ones are meant to be the default. Mitchell argues that our entire civilization is caught up in a multi-layered addiction pattern, wherein each of us cede certain degrees of competence for the ease of some modern convenience. These tendencies are pre-theoretical and taken for granted in our habits. Not less than in the past, and in some ways more so, our civilization requires wisdom, and we are not a wise people. A civilization that requires competence and mutual trust necessitates complex persons who unite mind and will. In one sense, older models of civilization permitted a large portion of the population to outsource knowing and willing to the sages (cf. Taylor’s “two-track” spirituality of the Medieval era). The Reformation’s so-called  “affirmation of the ordinary life” was as much, on this register, the erasure of the monk as it was the “monkification” of all believers! (Matthew Boulton’s Life in God is the book to read) That is to say, ordinary believers were not simply required to outsource their knowledge and piety to  others, but rather expected and encouraged to grow in piety and knowledge themselves. This is behind most early modern educational movements, and the modern civil order is an outgrowth of this motif, with both the opportunity and the potential for apocalypse that putting it that way makes plain. It is not obvious, after all, that humanity is fit for organically cultivating mass wisdom. 

22.  Fit or not, this is the irreducible task before us. I have elsewhere likened our condition to the “unhomed juvenile.” To belong to a household involves some degree of hierarchy. The child in the home inherits a world of traditions and ways that it does not choose. The task of child-rearing involves cultivating a soul to choose what the (hopefully!) wiser parents consider wisdom. This can obviously take on tyrannical form, but it would be naive to think that we can finally escape such hierarchy. Those who believe they are training up their children to choose no religion, no politics – and thereby cultivating a “truly free soul” – are only guaranteeing that their children take the parents’ own deepest values for granted (a psychologized freedom). And perhaps this is a better model with better outcomes than some, but there remains a crucial location in which hierarchy is no less drastically consequential and soul-shaping than happens when a child attends Taliban school. But, for the young man removed from the home, there is a new degree of freedom. This is especially true if someone is forced from the home, shoved (apart from their will) into a radically new context to continue the human project. It is this situation that I think is most analogous to our own. In the so-called “developed” world, we have largely un-developed most of the historical institutions that mediated wisdom to the masses. As Lewis puts it, we are now in a situation where an ordinary man must find the truth for himself, or go without it. And most persons have not chosen this state of affairs. It has rather been chosen for them. And so like a child removed from its ancestral and home traditions, we are placed in a context where no center of gravity forces us to be wise, but wherein wisdom is especially urgent.

23. The cultural options in this context are similar to the options for the unhomed juvenile. One may uncritically seek to reclaim (or more typically, demand!) the structures of “home.” Most conservative “recovery” projects have this flavor. And yet for precisely this reason, they tend to “look at” rather than “see with” their own claimed traditions. A map is confused for reality, and LARPing for life. The wisdom of the past tends to become a mere instrument to re-create the sensation of childish stability in a new historical location. And this is precisely the flaw of such projects, because we simply are differently related to traditions that we choose. And if we must choose to continue our ancestral traditions, we gain a new relationship to them that cannot but responsibly require more profound modes of persuasion and internalization. Just as the greatest battles often occur at the moment of greatest exhaustion, so does the greatest need for increasingly conscious self-possession and understanding of our ways come at a moment when this is the most difficult to achieve (even for those who want to do so). This difficulty is especially evidenced by the second option for the existentially homeless, which is the reflexive dismissal of one’s ancestral traditions. Unmoored from more concrete modes of peoplehood, we can reject the need for it altogether, imagining that we can radically create humanity and its ways anew. Of course, the problem is that traditions are not external to human actors, but internal to them. And humans cannot be factory reset. Moreover, the lives of radicals (the people) continually testify to the juxtaposition between radical fancy (the ideas) and crass reality, for no radicalism can fully deprogram what is simply human. Nor, let it be noted, should any human consider wise any person or movements that functionally treats the mass of man as a collection of drones to be programmed rather than a collection of co-sovereigns with whom to negotiate and persuade through their own freedom. 

24. Where, finally, does all of this leave us? We need to be wise, but we are confused. We need to develop mutual trust, but all trends are against it. We need clarity, but we have doubt. We need stability, but we experience ourselves as constantly relativized. Add technological and informational overwhelm, mass wage slavery, frequent sense of disconnection from the social body (in both labor and citizenship), and a dizzying myriad of interpretations about what is most urgent in our moment (justice, climate, freedom of speech, etc), and it is not surprising that this is an era of mental health collapse and surrogate experiences of meaningful agency (games, film, etc). Especially dangerous in our moment is that we increasingly cannot tell the difference between LARPing and life, for part of our (ironically fixed!) tradition is extreme self-confidence that it is we who have overcome a previous condition. It is always we who are awake and others who are asleep. And yet if the simultaneous global renegotiation of all human custom (a better definition of modernity than most I wager) is underway, it would arguably be a tad hubristic to assume there is nothing to purge in the flame, even if there is much to preserve refined through it. The third option of the unhomed juvenile, then – and the mature one – is to stand critically within one’s tradition, to seek (as a full person) to come to a deep persuasion about what should be freely appropriated (through either deference or internalization), and what should freely be allowed to pass away. In the next post, then, I will look at the most common responses to our moment, and then frame my own within the search for third ways.


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