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.
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
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.
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.