When does the modern world begin – and what makes it modern? When I was a child in the 50’s, “modern” meant the world of home appliances and chrome-laden automobiles. The modern world beckoned us to a future with personal helicopters and visi-phones. Today the visi-phones are everywhere (and do things we never imagined). I’m still waiting for the helicopters. But I did not understand the true nature and origins of the modern world until much later in life.
The word “modern” was first used in its Latin form to designate the contemporary (of the day) school of philosophy in contrast with the “ancient” schools of philosophy – new thought versus old thought. It was called the Via Moderna – the “modern way.” The Via Antiqua assumed that the generations of the past represented a repository of wisdom. Thus, the thought of the fathers was considered of greater value than that of contemporaries. The Via Moderna, in overturning the Via Antiqua, considered the thought of the present, the New Philosophy, to be superior. It was a fateful and crucial turning point in human thought. For the Via Moderna, valuing the present over the past, found itself ever driven forward as the present becomes the past. Progress became its hallmark and a means of viewing the world and even truth itself.
The modern world has continued its “progress.” It is marked by change. Of course, the unrelenting march of technology can give the illusion that everything is changing and progressing – getting better. In fact, people have changed very little. The modern world has shown itself capable of great technical feats of mass extinction (of humans, animals and plants). Cruelty is not endemic to the ancient world.
Some of the most ardent presuppositions of modernity have proven themselves to be delusions. The realization of this fact has given rise to what is termed the “post-modern.” There are many elements of philosophy, art, architecture, literature, theology, etc., that are described as “post-modern.” All of them have in common a critique of the assumptions of modernity. Progress has been unmasked and shown to be less than an unmitigated blessing. Knowledge itself has been relativized. Things that we once thought we knew, are today seen to be deeply dependent on bias and perspective. Values such as good and beautiful have become very difficult to assert in any absolute sense. This is not necessarily the great onslaught of relativism that many conservatives allege. It is, to a large extent, simply the questioning of the absurd assumptions of the past 500 years.
Orthodoxy has a peculiar place within all of this. For unlike other forms of Christian thought, Orthodoxy belongs to the Via Antiqua. It was never modernized. Orthodox thought assumes that true knowledge of God will be consistent with what has been known within the life of the Church through the ages. Innovation is not a virtue.
This pre-modern perspective is inherently similar to many aspects of a post-modern perspective. It offers a critique of modernism for the very reason that modernism was itself a rejection of Orthodoxy. Thus many who complain about the constant “bashing of the West,” are simply hearing the sound of antiquity lapping on their shores. The West embraced modernism and became the West in so doing. Call it the West, call it modernity – it is the same rejection of tradition and communion as a means of knowing.
This perspective makes dialog between Orthodoxy and other forms of Christianity difficult (as well as with non-Christian forms of modernity). Orthodoxy is not another version of the modern world, religious or otherwise. Intellectually and spiritually, the encounter between Orthodoxy and the modern world is an encounter between two largely, if not entirely, different cultures. To make matters more complicated, most Orthodox in the modern world have drunk deeply at modernity’s wells (it tends to control the cultural water-supply). Modern Orthodox converts are as much in argument with themselves as they are with the culture around them. Even those born within Orthodoxy and cultures in which Orthodoxy is native are not immune to the modern world. All Orthodox in the modern world are either in a process of conversion or are losing ground to the encroachment of the surrounding world. Globalization is no stranger to theology.
The nature of Church, the nature of Scripture, the role of reason and the character of religious experience have such radically different groundings between Orthodoxy and modernity that the use of the same words can be misleading. What a modern Protestant (a redundant phrase) means by Scripture and what Orthodoxy means by Scripture are two very different things.
I will be taking time through a series of articles to visit areas where Orthodoxy’s Via Antiqua creates misunderstandings. The first topic I will look at will be the concept of history. Thanks for reading.