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The Charism of Modernity

October 22, 2010

To know when a subjective experience is subjective–is that what is meant by the phrase so common since Weber among sociologists, so prominent in the argument over secularization, Entzauberung, de-magification, dis-enchantment? Once upon a time the wood was bewitched, and goblins and fair spirits dwelt in the trunks of trees and among the roots. But now the wood is administered by the Forestry Commission, and although romantic men still hear a goblin running in the undergrowth and glimpse beauty behind a bush, they know a subjective experience is subjective. Entzauberung.

It will not do to exaggerate the number of goblins that used to run. You need to beware of the word Entzauberung as cautiously as you beware of the word secularization. Both describe processes where it is easy to have fanciful pictures of an earlier age, and as easy to have illusions of our own generation. We got rid of imps and demons but we pushed them into the subconscious and called them by different names. We got rid of witches by learning to take no notice of their spells.

–Owen Chadwick, The Secularization of the European Mind in the Nineteenth Century [The Gifford Lectures in the University of Edinburgh for 1973-4] (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1975), 258

Reading traditional and traditionalist/perennialist religious authorities as well as localist and thoughtful conservative commentators, one sometimes gets the view that modernity and the ideas behind it are without positive value, and have contributed only to the destruction of social and individual well being, and the enshrinement of lies in the eccentric (in the root sense–decentered) forms of society around us. While I believe this is true in the deepest sense, and think that anyone who is a thoughtful believer in a major religion must hold this as at least partially true, I do believe that there are compensatory and providential mechanisms at work. These are the subject of this essay, on the charism of modernity.

The enlightenment represented a stark break from the philosophical and religious past of Christian Europe in terms of both personal and social ideals and goals. Premodern ideas were vertical and metaphysical in orientation: reality was hierarchical, atemporal, static, and, while these ideas validated the reality of the material world, they also included higher and lower levels of being that gave meaning and even a provisional degree of centrality to the physical. It was a world simultaneously of intellect and symbol, where transcendent referent and intense physicality could coincide. There were both surfaces and depths; and in the ideal, the surfaces led to the depths.

The enlightenment instead presented a flattened and horizontal world, one where the empirical ruled, and where only mathematical qualities, their flux, and the temporality that allowed change were considered real. Anything that claimed existence beyond these confines was illusory, childlike, even deluded. Paradoxically, modernity involved simultaneously the coagulating and reification of the physical world and its utter dissolution through abstraction: by rendering physical surfaces completely opaque, it allowed their quantification through science as well as their increasing abstraction from lived experience. So while premodernity is a world of simultaneous surface textures and depth (the Advaita Vedanta concept of maya is profoundly helpful here), modernity is instead constituted by disembodied consciousness inhabiting a world of mathematical abstractions. There is no depth; no true meaning; life is no longer involves any attemptĀ  to pierce the veil of maya or to see all things shining in an immanent glory, as connected with each other through their origin.

Presented in this way, modernity seems utterly about the disenchantment of the world. We go from a world of immortal cosmic intelligences guiding the planets to one of inertia and gravity, two impersonal laws of the universe doing the same work. That initially, in early modernity, this might have involved a deistic watchmaker God leaves humans with a cold comfort: one certainly better than no comfort at all, but hardly the ontologically rich world that Newton’s system replaced. And while early modernity allows for the watchmaker God, full modernity does away with even this nod toward the vertical dimension. Instead, the physical world is a product of some form of necessity: physical laws, natural selection, and other immutable processes that involve no intelligence and no benevolence, just the magic, inexorable, solar-fueled leap from non-life to life, and the even more magical leap from primitive and simple life to full consciousness of environment, others, and self.

Again, if disenchantment is all modernity can offer, how can we speak of its charism? How can it have anything positive about it at all? There are two kinds of answer to this question, the first philosophical and about empirical science as a corrective, the second a deeper one, focusing on modern views involving a rewording and reenvisaging of traditional belief: not a change; but as providing an opportunity to understand religious and philosophical traditions more deeply.

First the philosophical one. Insofar as modernity and particularly modern science involves paying attention to secondary material causes, and we do not confuse these causes with either first causes or all causes, what it discovers is true and valid; and even secondary truths are worth our respect. If approached in the right spirit, perhaps they lead to greater truths. The problem of course occurs when we become hubristic about just what we know. As some smart people–even smart scientists–have noted, we need humility in the face of the ignorance that our scientific knowledge paradoxically reveals to us; mystery has its place even when empirical science reveals some instrumental cause. Furthermore, perhaps the relative ignoring of secondary material causation in European thought before early modernity was based upon a blind spot in an inherited Greek world view, an intrinsic diffidence about material existence, and a binary idea about the mutable–material and the immutable–immaterial. It is hard to read certain passages of Plato, or of Plotinus, and not come to the conclusion that such ambivalence–even if exaggerated by modern thinkers–exists, even if it does not equally run through all of their writings. In this reading, the charism of modernity is a corrective one: a restoration of the a certain kind of attention to the material, the empirical; and a chance to see in some tentative way the blind spot that inherited philosophical traditions imposed upon premodern Christian worldviews.

The second charism is similar in its effects, but in a different area. Modernity as typified by modern science forces those of us with premodern leanings to enunciate in a much more careful way our beliefs. First of all, crudely put, without modernity, there could be no Bede Griffiths, no Schuon, no Coomaraswamy, no author of Christianity and the Doctrine of Non-Dualism. Regardless of what one thinks about any single member of this group, taken as a whole, their ideas enrich our understanding of not only our own religious, metaphysical, and philsophical traditions, but also our understanding of how these might be illuminated by other traditions. Our understanding of the depths of our beliefs is transformed, however inadvertently, by modernity’s combination of indifference and hostility. While premodern man has beliefs enunciated in myth, he need not figure out the referents of these myths: he is instead enriched in a holistic, almost impersonal way by their embodied presence in his life through decorative art, folklore, and religious practice. The lack of these supports in the modern world, while profoundly impoverishing in real ways, forces us to become more aware of just how–and just what–these myths mean. Our knowledge of our beliefs becomes more precise and more analytical; and while this is a mixed blessing, it is at least in some ways indeed a blessing.

As a closely related corollary to this, modernity forces us to investigate the truth claims of other religions, and to come to some intellectual and spiritual framework that allows for the truth of these claims. In a world where interreligious contact was infrequent or much less frequent (or dominated by one majority group at the expense of a religious minority, as in the case of Christians and Jews in Europe) humans could afford to either ignore or marginalize those “others’ who worshiped an apparently different God or gods. This is less possible, at least for those who aspire to live fully up to their beliefs in a thoughtful and considered way. The fact of modernity forces even the some of relatively unreformed churches–the Catholic, for example–to tentatively confront the existence of other faiths in a non-triumphal way that simultaneously respects their own revelation and tradition; this indeed is a benefit, even though a benefit made necessary precisely by what what made it possible.

It is in these respects that I believe that there is in fact a “charism of modernity.” All that exists must exist for some reason: this is a basic idea behind all traditional or premodern thought. Given this basic belief, even modernity, with its philosophical incoherence and manifold flaws must have something positive to offer humankind, and perhaps these past several paragraphs contain ideas that at least touch upon some of what it offers us premodern hybrids.

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