The Crisis of Modern Culture: Ivan Ilyin’s Opening Salvo

In about one month, I will be presenting a lecture on the creation of Christian culture at the Ancient Faith Writing and Podcasting Conference. Part of my presentation will be a brand new translation of Ivan Ilyin’s fascinating work on the subject of The Foundations of Christian Culture. It has not, as far as I know, ever been translated. But it deserves to be studied and considered by all culture creators, especially because of the author’s uniquely Orthodox perspective on the issue.

crisis of modern culture

In the weeks before the conference, I’ll be sharing bits of my translation with you all. But if you want to receive actual paper copies of this new book, come to the conference. All attendants will receive a copy.

The Crisis of Modern Culture

crisis of modern culture

Ilyin begins his book with a consideration of the crisis of culture in the twentieth century. He wrote this book in 1937, before WWII, so his perspective can sometimes read a bit dated. However, I was more impressed with how current his insights continue to be. Even in his first paragraph, he anticipates some far more current ideas about secularization:

Everything that has occurred in the twentieth century, and continues today, is proof of the fact that Christianity in the world is suffering a serious religious crisis. A large percentage of the population have lost their living faith and have left the Christian church. But, having left it, many have not remained indifferent to it. Many have become antagonistic, judgmental, and estranged from it. For some, the antagonism is passive and cold. But others organize a willful battle against it, though still adhering to the rules of war. Still others have a fanatical hatred toward Christianity, and sometimes this spills over into outright persecution.

In this opening salvo, Ilyin makes clear that there are different levels of secularism in our world. Although he considers the differences not that important, he does anticipate an important point made by Charles Taylor in a later book, A Secular Age. This point is that not all secularities are created equal. I’ll speak more about this point in a future post.

How We Got Here

Ilyin then considers the larger historical picture of how we got here in the first place. It’s brief, but to the point:

Within the limits of what was formerly Christendom (we leave aside other religions such as Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, etc.), there is a wide anti-Christian front that has tried to create an un-Christian and anti-Christian culture. This phenomenon is not a new one. The twentieth century, following in the footsteps of the nineteenth, only manifested a process that has been dormant, but developing, for centuries. The process of separation of culture from faith, religion, and the Church began a long time ago. It has been going on for several centuries. In Europe and America, “secular culture” and secularization itself can trace their beginnings all the way to the Renaissance.

European culture of the 19th century was in essence already secular and de-sacralized. Science, art, law, agriculture, worldview, cosmology—all of these were thoroughly secularized. The culture of our own time continues this separation from Christianity, but not only from Christianity. Contemporary culture is losing its religious spirit, its meaning, and its beauty. It has not turned to any “new religion,” nor has it even started to seek anything of the sort.

Written in 1937, this essay is sometimes limited in its applicability to the 21st century. I think that it’s safe to say that the rise of the intellectual dark web, New Age spirituality, and a secularity that sees Christianity only as “one option among many” does entail a kind of search for spiritual meaning. However, it is chaotic and completely devoid of a unified system of meaning or significance. In an interesting video interview between the Orthodox artist Jonathan Pageau and a secular Englishman, the impossibility of a unified culture or worldview without Christianity becomes painfully obvious. 

The Wasteland

Ilyin makes this point clear:

Having separated from Christianity, it has gone into an a-religious, godless wasteland. Mankind has not only ceased to contemplate, develop, and preserve the experience of the Christian church, but it has brought fruit to no other religious experience at all. It has left Christianity, but wanders the wasteland aimlessly.

Beginning with the French Enlightenment (and the Revolution it spawned), the history of the nineteenth century is one of many attempts to build a spiritually rich culture outside “religious prejudices” and without any unnecessary hypotheses concerning metaphysics and the soul. Slowly, a faithless culture arose, one devoid of faith, God, Christ, and the Gospels. And the Church gradually found itself in the position of having to grapple with this “independent” new culture.

The problem is that in large part, the Church has not done a good job of grappling. Among the Russian cultural diaspora, the revolution didn’t help, but neither did ethnocentrism and Russian exceptionalism. In America, American exceptionalism and a distrust of ethnocentrism have done equal damage. The so-called culture wars didn’t help.

What ended up happening was a formation of a world-vision that was completely separate from a vision of God. Positive science made huge leaps; those leaps led to ever increasing practical and technical improvements, leading even to social revolutions. All this, taken together, has so changed the makeup, striving, taste, and needs of the human soul, that the Christian church with its natural conservatism in teaching (dogmas!), organization (canon law!), and prayer (ritualism!) did not find enough creative initiative and flexibility within itself to preserve its previous authoritative position in questions of human knowledge and activity, in questions of cultural theory and practice.

The New Idols of Modern Man

And so, modern man found himself running after new idols. Ilyin categorizes the worst of them as the following:

1) First, materialist science. This science bases its success on how much it furthers its “truths” from the “hypothesis of God,” breaking nearly all links with any kind of religion. Positive naturalism, with its “proofs”, immediately provides utility with every new finding. Too often, scientific breakthroughs lead to more effective and cruel methods of waging war. This is not science, but “technical knowledge” that has no interest in exalted goals or the meaning of life.

2) Second, secular, a-religious politics. Modern man doesn’t understand that politics have been cut off from its highest goal, which is (and always has been and always will be) to prepare people for the “beautiful life” (Aristotle), for life “in God” (Augustine). Modern governments don’t serve quality of life or perfection of life. They serve private interests, whether class interests or individual interests.

3) Third, modern man is governed by an instinct to obtain and consume. The laws of the market rule over him, and he has no power over these laws, because he has lost the sense of the presence of the Living God in his heart. Having lost both God and Christ, the soul of modern man, religiously chaotic and morally degenerate as it is becoming, cannot help but become a victim of the instinct to buy and buy and buy some more.

4) Fourth, modern man has abandoned himself to a-religious and godless art that is becoming nothing more than vain entertainment, an enervating and depressing spectacle. In all times and places, there has been a call for “bread and circuses.” But the bread and circuses have never pretended to be high art.But now, so-called modern art, which has “freed” itself from religious feeling and nuance, dances hand in hand with the desires of the masses. There is no longer a distinction between high and low art. It’s as though art has become two-dimensional, losing its artistry, sacredness, objectiveness. The two-dimensional soul can only produce two-dimensional art, remarkable only for its triteness, its lack of depth.

This last point, about the degeneracy of modern art, is a point repeated ad nauseam. It has been so often repeated that in some ways it has lost its power, and in some cases it has been used too vigorously. Personally, I think that it’s necessary to differentiate high and low art. However, I’m not sure that “low art” is all degenerate. In next week’s post, I’ll make the argument that there is much in modern art that can be revelatory and beautiful. However, in 1937, this was a point that needed to be made.

Where do we go from here?

Ilyin ends his introduction with the questions:

Is there a creative way out of this situation? How can we find it? Is a renewal of culture even possible? And how can we help bring it about?

This, of course, is the point of this blog. Ilyin goes on to provide a comprehensive program for creating Christian art for the modern age. I’ll be dissecting his arguments in the coming weeks.

What do you think? Where did Ilyin overstep the mark, where did he not go far enough? Is his critique of modernity a fair one? I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments. 

12 comments:

  1. Christ is risen!

    Dear Nikolas
    Thank you for many interesting posts including this one. Since I live in Denmark, I won’t be attending said conference … so, is it possible for me to purchase your translation in any other way?

    You ask for our thoughts on the subject. For what they are worth, here are some of mine.

    I think Ilyin is quite spot on, although I don’t think we wonder about aimlessly spiritually speaking; having studied History amongst other things, I can’t help but think, that there is a sort of historical/spiritual regression taking place, with the spiritual relativism hinted at in the post very similar to the milieu in the Roman Empire before Christendom; or similar to the many instances in the OT when Gods Israel fell away in apostasy. Isn’t that, what is happening now? A new era of idolworship (real idols/demons beyond and behind the 4 points above), that echoes the first falling away from God (instigated by the serpent/dragon/devil), that again has reverberated throughout the millenia resulting in worship of demons or of ourselves, which ultimately amounts to the same thing; a sort of continual fall perhaps? Anyway, I don’t think for a minute, that the present chaos is incidental or just a result of shortcomings within the Church.

    As far as art is concerned (which I also studied and worked with), I think you are right, Nikolas, we must differentiate. From my view the degeneration of art is much more prevalent in what could be called high art (the stuff you see in modern art museums) than in so-called low art. Why? Because “high art” is the art of the elites (yes, it is, still), and the elites are the driving forces in anti-christian movements of all sorts, not “the masses”. In itself that has nothing to do with the methods of modern art, but with the mentality behind it; for instance there is a striking similarity (in thought and presence) between the two-dimensionality of cubist art and icons.

    1. Truly He is Risen!

      Robert, you’ve said so many good things! I wonder if, being in Denmark, you’re seeing a more active regression to idol worship than in America? What some cultural commentators suggest is that in America, there’s a different kind of secularism in addition to the angry, anti-Christian kind. This is the kind that looks for transformational experiences, and can be moved by intense beauty, but such people often don’t find it in churches any more. But they can be reached with the right combination of beauty and truth, I think.

      As for my translation of Ivan Ilyin’s book, that’ll definitely be available for sale, and I’ll be letting my readers here on the blog know about that soon.

      1. Thank you for your kind words.

        Hmm, I think the spiritual environment of chrisitanity in the US and in Europe/Denmark is similar in many ways; there are those with a genuine, spirutal longing, that for some reason reject the Faith and organised spirituality altogether and make up their own self-centred way; usually some kind of pseudo-buddhism.
        And there are those similar to what you describe, who seek fulfilment in art – be it music, painting, dance etc. – because they have a sincere longing for beauty. Perhaps they can be reached, because the Church certainly contains much beauty – outwardly and inwardly.
        And there are those who adhere to another faith system of course.

        But the two biggest idols here, and I believe in the US, are democracy/politics/the state and science. That even goes for people who claim to be christian; that really scares me, because it demonstrates, that we are like fish: Since we’re in the water all the time, we don’t realise, that we’re wet.
        Our whole life is permeated by an overwhelming trust in the powers of politics and scientific discovery to such a degree that we don’t see the shadows they cast and the blind angles they create.

        I think you are right to suggest, that we need to find other – visibly different – ways of living, which incidentally was also what the first christians did, when they managed to defy the odds and win people for the Fatih. Of course they didn’t earn a lot of applause at first, and I think we can safely assume that the sanhedrin of our day will let us feel the whip. But then again, that is what we signed up for.

        1. I find a lot of inspiration in the anonymous letter to Diognetus, which gives a good characterization of Christians in the Roman Empire that I wish we all would aspire to. Thank you for your comments, Robert! They’re giving me much food for thought.

        2. Robert,
          These are outstanding comments. Thank you very much! You make a great point about politics being an idol. This is very true in America, even (especially??) among Christians, which is believe is very sad. Not sure how that came to be and not sure how to get out of that trap / idol worship.
          Your final paragraph is spot on. Thanks again.

  2. I too think Ilyin’s writing was well perceived in 1937. I myself am an after WWII European born individual who grew up in Germany, but my family came from the northern eastern European Countries. {Silesia, Lithuania and Polen} It is easy to relate to Ilyin’s writings for me, and yes, it is the way in the US happening now where I’ve been living over half of my life. It hits home and is so close to my experiences as an immigrant here to the US, but also saw the decline of Christianity in Germany. We were a small tied community, but could not deal with modern times of divorce etc. so as Teenagers we all left Church, but Church or God never left me. One good trade about Europeans, we are so darn serious and committed minded.. Old school they say.
    Love reading the comments too. Sometimes it is not that I learn a lot of new things , but I relate and I know it is the way it is and perceive it too, though I am always told otherwise by my secular surroundings (in denial). America lives in slumber, advancing the feel good lies instead of facing the cold, hard and naked truth, because it hurts. Refuses to grow up kind of. And so they drug themselves in all kinds of fashions to not feel the dying of our precious life’s given and not valued. So sad to watch. I console and remind myself of the 4 Seasons. Complacency has no place in the struggle for LIFE, The question is who will do the struggling for meaning, culture, morals etc. ? Its Christianities Opportunity when everything else is dying around them, but not like in the past with powerful, controlling authority. God is a Gentlemen, patient and kind. But it will be a long and hard road ahead. Not sure if what has been lost to complacency or ignorance will ever come back. …like the loss of killing your own. When I was a child I wondered why there were Catholics, Protestant and Free Churches like Baptists = one God, they’ve just started to stop fighting and forming coalitions. Now here in the US there are 200+ denominations and now Orthodoxy competing in the role of the real or original church, taking control of culture building, like Judaism/vs. Christianity did in Europe for 2000 Years. Like Rome everyone will leave their best and their worse to remember. But God/Life is with us!
    THANK YOU FOR YOUR BLOG, IT IS ALWAYS A GREAT AND ENDEARING READ

  3. I for one found myself nodding along as I read! Very excited for this to be released as I won’t be able to make the conference but have found Ilyin to be so underrated as a philosopher. Most people know nothing about him. Western art in particular has gone to the dogs, mainly architecture (which I consider an art form). I wonder what Ilyin would have made of brutalism!

    I would definitely like to see you review the Singing Heart and on Resistance to Evil by Force which are also now in English. If you’ve read them, what were your general impressions?

    1. I think it’s pretty clear what he would have thought of brutalism! I love The Singing Heart. It was translated by my sister, actually, and she did a lovely job of a difficult work (he wrote it initially in German, then translated it into Russian himself, which makes for an odd reading experience). Resistance to Evil by Force I haven’t read in English. I didn’t know that it was translated. I’ll definitely check it out.

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