When I was doing a graduate degree in theology, it was not uncommon to hear discussion of the “project of modernity.” It was an academic catch-phrase to describe the social/philosophical/political/religious efforts to construct the modern world. The Enlightenment (17th-18th centuries) brought new ways of thinking into the mainstream of Western culture (and now the world). It newly imagined the meaning and construction of the State; it pondered and reinvented Christianity; most importantly, it re-imagined what it meant to be a human being. We are the heirs of that legacy. The most uneducated person in our society shares the assumptions of the “modern project,” regardless of whether he is even remotely aware of it. We are the modern project.
In the modern project, human beings are autonomous centers of consciousness whose choices and decisions bring about their self-actualization. I will explain:
We are autonomous centers of consciousness. My identity is rooted in the fact that I am conscious and aware. It is the center of my self and belongs to me alone. I may choose to share with others and make common cause with others – but I am defined only by myself. This is the heart of individualism.
Our choices and decisions bring about our self-actualization. Who I am in the world is a product of my experiences and the choices and decisions I make. Those decisions create my identity – they are my means of actualization. My decisions and choices are what determine the meaning of my life. I am who I choose to be.
When you look at these critical ideas, it is easy to understand why the primary driving force of modern history is freedom. This definition of what it means to be human makes a certain version of freedom the most essential part of life. Anything that restricts freedom becomes an enemy of individual existence and self-actualization. Only if I am free to choose am I able to properly exist as a self-actualized individual.
These are not necessarily conscious ideas, but they are almost universal in the modern world. We discuss “freedom” and “choice” without the need to define our terms and with a wide-range of social agreement. Just as certain Christian groups played a major role in the development of the modern world-view, so their spiritual heirs have become the dominant modern form of Christianity. Churches that practice infant baptism (normative in Classical Christianity), once the dominant practice even among Protestants, today constantly have to defend a practice that seems to contradict the most basic assumptions of human freedom. “Shouldn’t the child be able to choose for themselves whether to be Baptized?” Anything that impinges or limits choice seems dangerous or questionable within the modern project. A relationship with Christ is something that must be freely chosen. “The Hour of Decision” is a phrase that resonates with the modern heart.
Church discipline on moral matters (or otherwise) has also come under increasing scrutiny. Modern persons may associate themselves with a Church, becoming “Catholic,” or “Orthodox,” or “Presbyterian,” etc. But that the moral details of their lives should be governed by that association seems questionable to them. A majority of Americans who identify as “Roman Catholic” ignore the Church’s teaching on many issues – particularly those that they regard as “private” (sexual issues in particular). The Church serves a function in their lives, but only the private choice of the individual has the power to define and determine true identity. In such a world “Catholic,” “Orthodox,” “Calvinist,” is more a label, a self-chosen identifier, than a community in which identity and life are formed.
There is a civilizational clash between Classical Christianity and the Modern Project.
In the Classical understanding we are not autonomous individuals. We are contingent beings whose existence is a gift with purpose, meaning and direction given by God. We have value as persons, not because of our choices or our ability to choose, but because we are created in the image of God. Thus the least of us, including the incompetent and the vegetative, have true worth and dignity.
We are not defined by our choices and decisions. Who we are is the gift of God – it is a given. Its identity is a matter of revelation and transformation in the Christian life and not a private work of self-construction. Our choices and decisions are not unimportant, but they only have relative merit or power. In the end, we are God’s creation and our decisions only have meaning in relationship to Him.
The civilizational clash is perhaps most poignant at the places where modern choice and classical givenness most contradict one another. The most common points have been on the level of biology and relationships. The instincts of Classical Christianity are to treat biology and relationships as givens. Gender is not a choice. Family is biological rather than associational. Sexual relationships serve a given order rather than private needs. The instincts of the Modern Project are to maximize freedom and choice. Biology is real, but not necessarily determinative (thus some today self-identify their gender). Family is increasingly defined as a set of choices – relationships that we prefer. The givenness of blood-ties with inherent responsibilities are largely disappearing in current jurisprudence. Thus we have the “accident of birth,” which cannot begin to compete with “freedom of choice.”
The often maligned popular version of relativism (“if it’s true for you”) is simply an expression that maximizes choice. Truth that is not chosen is experienced in the modern world as oppressive. The Classical Christian world of doctrine and dogma is thus endangered as a set of extremely inconvenient truths. Why would it be wrong for us to re-imagine God?
The End of Civilization
Christian civilization ended somewhere around the time that the modern world began. The Modern Project has not asked how it could save Christian civilization – that civilization was its enemy from the beginning. The modern question has been: “What do we want the world to look like?” For how the world looks is a matter of choice. Thus Protestant theology (which is itself a modern project) has largely been driven not by deeper exploration of its roots and traditions, but by continued exploration and re-imaginings of the Christian gospel. Sola Scriptura was never imagined to be a controlling force directing the course of civilization. It was first and foremost a wedge used to dismiss the Classical Church and its Traditions. Like the American Constitution, Scripture has been “evolving” ever since.
Today Classical Christianity has not disappeared. It remains and is a thorn in the side of modernity. The popular media keep a constant watch on the Vatican, hoping for any sign that its classical foundations are slipping. Orthodoxy in its resurrected Russian vehemence is characterized as allied with a “thug,” and as thoroughly reactionary.
Meanwhile, Christianity in its classical form is set upon a difficult road. The temptation is simply to be reactionary – to see itself as the conservative “choice,” in which case the Modern Project will be complete. For if Christianity will simply agree to be a choice then it can be understood (and marginalized). It is, however, the Classical contention that we are not the product of our own choices, that our lives are defined by God’s gracious gift and that all things are relative to God alone that flies in the face of the modern world. It is the place of Tradition – something given that is not a choice – that refuses to yield to modern pressures.
The spirituality of Classical Christianity is that of self-emptying rather than self-choosing. It recognizes that life is, finally, always a given. The demands of blood and kinship are real and rightly lay claim. My imaginings and demands for a world of my own fashioning are seen as temptations that draw me away from the difficult tasks that lay most rightly at hand. The Modern Project has always promised a better world – and for those with the wealth and intelligence to profit most from freedom – the promise has paid great dividends. But the promise has also been a hollow mockery of our existence. For we are, in fact, contingent. And though we may imagine ourselves able to be something other than what we are, in the end the grave refuses to yield to our choices. In perhaps the greatest irony of all, the Modern Project now champions the right to die – as if we actually had a choice.
Next article: A Modern Conversion