The End of the Modern World

Dracula-58-Van-Helsing-Stakes-Lucy“Welcome to the 21st Century!”

Pick your issue, and if its outcome conforms to a popular, desired norm you are likely to hear such a greeting. The greeting also implies that a less than desirable outcome is wrong because it doesn’t belong to our time. It might be characterized as “medieval,” “outmoded,” “out-of-date,” “primitive,” “Neanderthal,” “reactionary,” etc. None of which actually describe anything. Such labels are value judgments and rhetorical devices that dismiss undesirable actions as beneath consideration. We are “modern” people.

 The notion of “modern” is also deeply linked with the myth of progress. The story thus runs that modernity is the natural, even inevitable outcome of history. That which does not fit within the desired modern model is simply outmoded, not yet developed. It is something that will change, inevitably.

 A recent article by Giles Fraser in The Guardian looks at this rhetorical device. Its title says a lot: “Our Secular Salvation Myth Distances Us from Reality.” Indeed. The “Secular Salvation Myth” of Modernity is not just about our time of the world, a time when technology exists at a certain level. The myth says that we live at a point in history that was always the point – everything has always been tending towards this very present time and arrangement.

 Fraser’s article draws attention to a clever trick. Anything in the present time that does not fit the desired model is treated as though it were not actually in the present time.

 Rather than … questioning the arrogance that has led us to believe that we are the inheritors of a historical tradition of success and process, society has developed a neat trick: it simply denies that shocking events are part of our time.

 A massacre in some corner of the world shocks our sensibility. But it is described as “Medieval,” as if the modern world were somehow immune from atrocities. It is worth noting, that the labels attached to various periods of history, “Classical, Dark Ages, Medieval, Modern, etc.,” were all invented in the so-called Modern period. They were invented to support the notion of an evolutionary progress and inevitability in history.

 I have written previously about this myth of progress. Things are not progressing. They change, but they do not progress. History is not going anywhere. Some changes bring benefits, many changes bring misery. The myth of progress is a narrative that justifies the destruction of traditional ways of life (or anything else that is seen as standing in its way). It frequently takes no account of the collateral damage left behind in its march. Progressive-driven accounts of history carefully ignore the carnage and dislocations brought about by change. Progress is the narrative told by those who receive the profits.

 Modernity is a rhetorical device. The modern world does not produce wonders or even Apple Phones. Those are the work of technology, something with roots in the ancient world (cf. the Antikythera Mechanism). Modernity is simply the place where the myth was invented – not technology.

Believers will occasionally be told that their traditional beliefs do not belong in the modern world. Church practices or moral teachings that do not conform to the current ruling ideology are cataloged as belonging to some deluded, patriarchal past (or some other pejorative era). Progress demands that the Church get with the times.

 A very common canard that is trotted forth in these rhetorical assaults is the myth of progressive liberation. It tells us that the Church and society approved slavery and were wrong. The Church and society oppressed women and were wrong. The Church and society oppressed sexual choice and were wrong (etc.). Of course the strongest case in this tale of progress is that of racial slavery. But slavery based on racial inferiority is itself a modern invention. The practice of slavery referenced in the New Testament had nothing to do with racism. It had everything to do with war and the spoils of war. Prisoners of war became slaves in ancient Rome. They could and did find their freedom. It was not a caste system, nor was it ever endorsed by the Church. It was part of the economic system in which the Church was born. A large portion of the early Church were, in fact, slaves.

But it was in the modern world (in the West) that racist slavery had its birth. Slavery had existed in Africa and was quite common there. Its adoption by Western European (and American) powers was tolerated and later endorsed by false Protestant theologies and progressive ideologies. It was never a part of the ancient order.

Racist theories were grounded in notions of “modern superiority,” and of the “white man’s burden of civilization,” or worse still, notions that would later provide a haven to evolutionary racism and modern eugenics. The true problems of modern slavery were barely addressed by the Emancipation Proclamation and subsequent legislation. Its racist basis is not only thoroughly modern, but still alive in the modern breast. All of which is falsely dismissed as something that modernity has swept into the dustbin of history. Modernity is not our savior.

The current culture of abortion enjoys modern popularity and is treated as though it were a product of progressive medicine. Like many other modern schemes, a false myth of progress is employed to justify the unthinkable. Women are encouraged to destroy their children with no compunction and are told that they are in the vanguard of their liberation. Those who oppose them are seen as resisting the inevitable. The abortion culture is considered part of the progressive march of women’s rights.

This pattern is repeated for every practice deemed desirable in the modern setting. Of course, the question must be asked: Who gets to declare which practice is now the march of progress?

Another recent article raised a serious question about modernity: Can a person in the modern world believe in an ancient religion? Are there things about Christianity that are simply impossible for modern people to believe?

Charles Taylor, the Canadian Catholic philosopher, has spent a career mapping the rise of modernity and secularism. He has traced the changes in human consciousness that have accompanied its ascendancy. But a recent article takes him to task for granting modernity more power than it is due – for he suggests that modernity is here to stay and has forever changed the nature of how we think. He does not despair of Christian believing, but suggests that it must change itself and adapt to a new way of seeing the world – to incorporate the inherent doubt of modernity into its faith. Matthew Rose, writing in First Things, suggests this is nothing less than a betrayal of the faith. I would agree.

Modernity presents perhaps the greatest challenge the Church has ever faced. As mythologies go, it has a narrative that enjoys an almost unquestioned position. Its magic is invoked commonly by people everywhere. Political and social elites use it to tailor the world to their own ideologies. But a modern Christianity makes no more sense than a Buddhist Christianity, or an Atheist Christianity – for modernity is itself a religious point of view, with itself as the central point of worship.

But how do Christians live an authentic existence within the modern world? Is such a thing possible?

It is a testament to the power of modernity that such questions even seem plausible. There is nothing about our lives (technology included) that require a “modern” point of view. It is only a cultural habit and an “unexamined” life that give modernity its power.

There are several key strategies that are important for a contemporary Christian:

  1. Pay attention to the present. “Modernity” is a theory of history and the future. We do not live theoretical lives – we live in the present. The present constantly offers itself to us. It is our inattention that removes us from this reality. The Fathers speak of “watchfulness.” In our present struggle against a false myth, our watchfulness to what is truly around us is an indispensable way of life.
  2. Take your place. The myth of progress constantly diverts our attention away from the task at hand. We are always looking for the next job, the next opportunity, the next bargain, the next fashion. Following the strategy of watchfulness, we commit ourselves to the life that is given to us. The Fathers say to the monk, “Stay in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.” Modernity constantly seeks to disrupt the stability of our lives and cultures. Staying put is a Christian life-strategy. Take your place in the world.
  3. Make real choices. Although the modern myth tells us that choice is an essential part of our modern lives, we rarely make real choices. Instead, we live by our desires (which are passions and not products of the will). We spend our days living “unintentionally.” We get up, go to work, come home, etc., never actually exercising our will. We live passively and are carried along by circumstance and desire. You can only live in the present by wanting to be there. Choose to do what you do – and do it repeatedly throughout the day.
  4. Become a modern agnostic. What I mean by this is to refuse to agree to the modern myth. Are things progressing? We don’t know. Do not agree that you know what you don’t. Ignorance is just honesty most of the time.
  5. Refuse the lie. Either deeply increase your awareness of modern propaganda, or diminish your exposure (and your family’s). Become deeply aware of the constant barrage of propaganda that assaults us, selling the modern myth. Advertising, news stories, false documentaries, etc. Ignore them. Do not make them part of your mental diet or feed them to your children.
  6. Give thanks for all things. Nothing grounds us in the present as firmly and securely as giving thanks to God for all things at all times.

These, of course, are simple strategies for daily living (among many). We do well to remember that modernity is mostly powerful and important in its own mind. We are not attempting to reject some piece of hard-bitten reality – it is a myth – a false set of beliefs. We do not live in a period of time. We do not live at a climax of history. Our world is not the result of progress. Rejecting the myth of the modern world is, to a large extent, simply coming to our senses.

68 comments:

  1. Father Bless!

    I have nothing to add other than “awesome!”. Another wonderful and thoughtful post on the modern world and the inherently (secular) religious aspects fused into it.

  2. Thank you, Father. Fantastic! And so uplifting and encouraging to those of us struggling to live our faith daily, in all things.

  3. Thanks Father,

    i have come to believe that for instance the abolishment of slavetrade (slavery still exists in a different forms unfortunately) is not the result of the enlightenment or modernistic thinking, but mostly thanks to the industrial revolution; it made slavery more or less redundant so the slavetrade enterprises were weakened and could be abolished without too much economic pain.
    The same counts for women rights, the washing machine (as an extremely simplified example) freed up time that could be used for increasing “production” and thus the standard of living.

    Activists are of all times, but society doesn’t listen to them untill doing what they preach doesn’t take a huge sacrifice.

    So i believe the progress made during the last centuries (as in making daily life easier, more comfortable) is almost exclusively thanks to better technology, which in itself is absolutely neutral and not linked to modernism or anything (since technological progress is of all times).

    Anyway, what i meant to say is that while modernists think they’re worshipping the god of modernity, they actually are worshipping the god of technology, while both are, redundant to say, leading astray towards a perpetual dead end.

  4. I think too much is made of the word “progress” when critiquing from the Right, so to speak. “Progressing to where, what?” is a common counter. While the ‘myth of progress’ may be real is some academic circles, in its more everyday usage would seem to simply admit belief in the possibility that things can be changed for the better, ‘progressively’. That is counter to those who think things should be changed ‘radically’ and those who think we should seek to change little placing the focus on ‘conserving’ what we already have in the way of traditions, cultures, institutions, values, etc. There is no mythos here, it is simply the interests of those for who the existing situation is good or bad. If you are rewarded in the culture as it is, you are more concerned with conserving and protecting the status quo as a good thing – it is, for you. If you are not rewarded in the culture as is, if you struggle for respect, work, housing, education, access to opportunity, etc. then you are more concerned with change, whether progressive or radical.

    I would argue that modernity has more to do with the creation of space for those who believe in ways other than the predominant religion. In fact, while it has opened up ways for atheists and agnostics to live out their beliefs in public, it has also allowed you and I to convert from the faith we were born into. Secularism in its best form is the best of modernity; secularism as opposition to religion in the name of a competing materialism should also be opposed, but opposed on the grounds that it is yet another of the theocraticies (‘atheocracy’ in this case) modernism has fought against allowing persons to exercise judgment in matters of faith, science, politics, and everyday life that would otherwise fetter our consciences and keep us from the ‘true faith’. Were I to have lived elsewhere in time prior to modernity, I would never have ‘progressively’ changed my understanding of what the true ‘true faith’ is.

    For that matter, the spiritual life itself is a progression toward deification. The issue isn’t modernity or living in the future or believing in a materialist mythos of progress as antithetical to Christianity, it is simply whether one has chosen well in the exercise of freedom to change (progressively or radically) and to conserve as best we can to the best end we can. The fact that we are not winning the fight for hearts and minds in the modern world is not the fault of the modern world.

  5. A crucial insight indeed. I don’t want to sound pessimistic but I often think that, from a Christian perspective, we are in fact, in a process of continual decline rather than progress. Us mollycoddled ‘moderns’ are raised with increasing ‘options’, increasing outward orientation, decreasing inwards reflection, air-conditioning, daily meat diets, a culture of distraction and technological entertainment, a lack of contact with nature, an expanded sense of entitlement, and therefore a markedly decreased ability for ascesis, for watchfulness, for patience, for wonder and gratitude.

  6. Blessings to you Father,

    This text is very powerful and will make me think. I wanted to know if you had read anything from the «traditionalists» or «counter-revolutionary» concerning the myth of the modern world ? Mostly Spengler’s «Decline of the West», Evola’s «Revolt against the Modern World» or Guenon’s «Crisis of the Modern World» ? They are not Christian (for some, maybe even anti-Christian at times), but they still are very good critics of the Modern World.

    David.

  7. aka,
    Progress is a myth. Change is real. But progress requires direction, goal, etc. It is a judgment. Change is real. There’s nothing inherently wrong in change. But the myth of progress is a story told in order to justify the change that someone desires, often over the objections of someone who will suffer as a result. I stand by the article.

  8. Father,,would,it be fair to say that some changes are good, some bad, but the idea that the underlying technological progress is part of some grander metaphysical process is false?

    It seems to me that worldwide, when we take family life and morality into consideration, the past fifty years have seen a great amount of regress and even our technological progress has been in many respects much slower than anticipated in the 1950s. Even in the IT industry, some things have slowed down (consider the fact that the linear increase in CPU speed hit a brick wall in the mid 2000s due to cooling and power envelopes and since that time most performance improvements have been the result of hard-fought struggles in other areas). This alone should dispel the myth of progress.

    Ultimately, for me, the biggest validation of your point is that 66% of my closest relatives are deceased and have been for many years. Having an iPad does not make me feel better. Progress is much less of an appealing religion when one is essentially asked to sacrifice ones relatives at the Altar of Time.

    Christianity, through its promise of a general resurrection and a world to come, an end of time, as it were, seems all the more compelling.

  9. I think your characterization is spot on. Progress is not just a “myth” it’s a rhetoric myth – meaning it’s a story that is told in order for someone to benefit. We watch Star Trek and are given to think that this is what things are moving towards – instant food, no poverty – technology that makes disease obsolete, etc. We forget that’s it’s fantasy.

    IT is good. It creates jobs, but it also disenfranchises many people. The continued growth of maldistributed wealth is another product of progressive myths. Who is in charge of the myth? Those who stand to gain the most by it. They “buy” the myth. They sell the myth to us.

    I just saw a news clip of the building of a new sports stadium (doubtless done at taxpayer expense). It was described as “progress” for its local city. Really? How so?

    Change happens and will always happen. Some is good. Some is bad. But whenever the language of “progress” is being invoked, hold on to your wallet – someone is selling you something.

    We do technological change, call it “progress,” without ever asking ourselves the question, “Are we actually moving in a direction that we desire to go?” When was the last time anyone ever asked such a thing?

    And, important for believers, is the frequent use of the progress and modern myth in efforts to undermine traditional beliefs and moral practices. It’s time that we pulled the curtain back from the rhetoric of progress and deconstructed this sorry tale.

  10. If I may again bring attention to that CS Lewis quote from ‘Screwtape’, where he famously puts in the demon’s mouth these words:

    We want a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow’s end, never honest, nor kind, nor happy now, but always using as mere fuel wherewith to heap the altar of the future every real gift which is offered them in the Present.”

  11. C.S. Lewis’s description of “something we may loosely call the Scientific Outlook” as “…one of the finest myths which human imagination has yet produced” is something that ought to be read more (in “The Weight of Glory”). As Lewis so ably expounds, it is a ‘myth’ not because of it’s ‘scientific’ content (which in the end is surprisingly little) but because of it’s mythic commitment to progress and meaning.

    When Fr. Stephen says in the post that “modernity is itself a religious point of view, with itself as the central point of worship.” I want to scream from the rooftops YES! Modernity and its permutations (such as the “Scientific Outlook”, etc.) is a religious viewpoint – one with as many faith commitments as any other (more actually, since it is self referenced). If you want to see the Sunday liturgy of this modernism in action go to your local Unitarian “church”.

  12. Doesn’t Lewis’ ‘The Magician’s twin’ make the point that science -Scientism more precisely- is a religion (the twin of magic) the way it is espoused in modernity?

  13. Ah, Father you make things so hard sometimes: so easy to shout Amen but then that list.

    Especially the first three (for me).

    I have long tried #4 and have been aware of and trying to understand the Myth of Progress (really deep voice with lots of reverb) since my college days over 40 years ago. I saw it as pernicious and destructive to humanity even then–not a small part of what makes the Orthodox Church so attractive.

    But really: Make real choices? We are seldom presented with real choices. Is it enough to do the mundane and the given with genuine intent? (Had an acting teacher who always said in any scene to “Play the intention”. She would always challenge actors with the dreaded question: “What is your intention?”. Few could answer. )

    The worst consequence of the myth is its destructive anthropology. I am beginning to see that step 6 is perhaps the only antidote and, perhaps subsumes the other steps?

  14. To update my favorite line from the movie Patton: “God how I hate the 21st Century!”

    Of course that is but the reciprocal of the myth and just as dependent on the fallcious assumptions of the myth.

  15. Michael,
    By “real choices” I mean “with intent,” real intent. I actually direct some people in their confessions to return to their day and live more intentionally. Don’t just get up and go to work before you have to, eat because you have to, live because you have to… WANT to go to work. Do it intentionally. Eat intentionally (you’ll not forgive to give thanks), live intentionally and not because you have to.

    My description for the opposite is to live in the passive voice. On a tombstone it will read, “A life was lived…” This living in the passive voice has no real choice, only a sort of acquiescence. And this goes on day after day in a culture that thinks that it champions free choice. Choice is wasted on such living.

    That’s what I mean.

  16. I refuse to hate the 21st century. We don’t live “in the 21st century.” We live now. Who needs to count? I am suggesting to people that we take back our lives – take back our time – take back the present tense. It does not belong to some century, much less a mythological one.

  17. Thank you for this article, Fr. Stephen, I am sure I will print it and carry with me the suggestions at the end. You have placed into words and into print the thoughts that I have been carrying around for quite some time. We have discussed this topic for quite awhile, my husband and I, and one current result is to have our teenage son meet with another Orthodox Christian in his 20’s who holds his masters in philosophy. We believe that our son is not going to be able to use his thought processes as well as he might if we leave his education to our local schools and our home — although through prayer I’m sure we’re getting more guidance from God than I will ever know.

    I very much appreciate your comments here too, especially your statement above “And, important for believers, is the frequent use of the progress and modern myth in efforts to undermine traditional beliefs and moral practices. It’s time that we pulled the curtain back from the rhetoric of progress and deconstructed this sorry tale.”

    God bless you and yours in all ways, Fr. Stephen!

  18. Margaret,
    I would ask prayers of my readers. This general topic – Orthodoxy and Modernity – is my intention for my coming book. If it comes together as I hope – it would make a good resource for thinking and sharing.

  19. “I refuse to hate the 21st century…”

    That was really my point made in a convoluted manner.

  20. Wonderful article, Father Stephen!

    So much of what you write resonates (sometimes word for word!) with what I hear in homilies from elders in Greece and here, in Cyprus, on the radio.

    About living life intentionally, I was reminded of what Geronda Paisios had to say about the thoughts of a bricklayer, which for most of us has got to be the dullest idea of an occupation ever. Not so for that bricklayer; to him, every brick had its own beauty and its own story to tell. Talk about being intentional while working!

    May the Lord bless you and your family, always.
    Eleftheria

  21. Father,
    I didn’t see (if I recall well) the paragraph you had quoted in an earlier comment (to Drewster I think) of this upcoming article, and I remembered I valued that important aditional point you had then made…

    There is a movement (kinesis) in the universe. But this movement is measured only as movement towards or away from God. As such, it could be described as a “progress” of sorts. But I think the word in the modern mind does far more harm than good. What good does it do for an individual to think that they have made progress in the spiritual life? Is there a single prayer in Orthodox material in which we are instructed to pray in a way that observes our progress? All of the prayers do quite the opposite. “The way up is the way down,” in the words of Elder Sophrony. “Progress” is a lie we tell ourselves because we cannot bear the shame of our sin. True “progress” comes in the increasing journey downwards, into the depth of human shame and nothingness, following Christ into Hades where we will find Him as friend and Savior. That, I suggest with a smile, is like jumping off a cliff and observing to yourself as you fall that your “making progress” towards the bottom.

    Michael,
    I found the ‘list’ to be wisely practical. First and last points certainly subsume all others.

  22. It is difficult for me to believe that any thoughtful person could still believe in the “myth of modernity,” (guaranteed progress) after hearing the guns of August 1914.

    I watched the Mercury 7 flights during grade school assemblies. It would have been impossible for teachers or students to believe that we would not see a man on Mars within my lifetime. However, a lack of national wills, the debt loads of the developed world, and advances in robotics now make it unlikely that anyone living today will ever see interplanetary journeys.

    Still there is such a thing as progress. Dentistry has progressed significantly since Doc Holiday practiced in Tombstone. I was quite thankful that I live in 21st century America when my wife recently required a specialized type of oral surgery. I am also glad that researchers and scientists are constantly working to improve the state of their arts. But progress is not guaranteed. Civilizations rise, fall, and disappear.

    Christian or not it is wise to invest in tomorrow because there will be a tomorrow. If not for you, then for someone you love.

    Start with what is in your hand.

  23. Well if secularism thinks it has gotten rid of slavery it has not been paying much attention, slavery and human trafficking and abuse remains a massive sore of human misery and dehumanization in massive numbers including Western ‘modern’ countries, and that doesn’t address the massive whole scale enslavement and impoverishing of the weakest and poorest nations and people as a result of the ‘blessings’ of secular and modern economics.

    But one thing I find intriguing is the idea that secularism is something new even among educated philosophers when it is nothing of the sort. It is an ancient belief system and worldview itself, that of Epicureanism and one Paul references with a quote and the early Christians were familiar with. It has been re-implemented during the Enlightenment project and developed from there usually called secularism, modernity etc there and whether someone is Deistic, agonistic or atheistic in this belief and scheme is rather incidental on the whole to their life and function (and of course it has it own competing versions to which presented the right progress, liberal/conservative, right/left, free markets, social government, Communism, Fascism etc, and have fought their religious wars over it and still are, particularly as ISIS owes at least as much of it’s ideology to ideas born during the French Revolution and the birth of the Enlightenment as Islamic theology).

    There is nothing realm in current ideas in those terms that are really new at all, just ancient beliefs re-packaged.

  24. When people praise the observable progress they fail to see that they are already well within a context of a “self-help” orientated interpretation of reality, rather than the classic Christian “Eternal Truth” orientated interpretation of reality.

  25. Henry,
    I’m sorry you don’t understand the point. There is such a thing as technology and there is such a thing as technological improvement. That is not at all the same thing as progress. Progress is a myth that misuses the occasion of improvement for other things.

    The sad state of modern Protestantism (and it is sad indeed) is the spiritual fruit of embracing the idea of progress. They have nearly destroyed themselves in the mainline, and become caricatures of the faith in the broad Evangelical world.

    I’m glad your investments have worked out. But it mocks the poor. Matt. 6:31-34. Argue with Christ.

  26. Oh, man! Dino, I love that quote from Father Stephen! Thanks for bringing it to our attention again.

    Father, that was, indeed, very well said.

  27. The eternal truth that transcends all categories, past, present, future, was equally accessible (if not more so) to pre-modern man as it is to any future age. From an ontological point of view there’s perhaps more of a cumulative effect in relation to man’s falleness than his supposed ‘progress’- Cain’s children enter a world in which an unacceptable murder has happened, ours enter one where a great deal more passes as acceptable.

  28. Dino, the list is great it is the fact that the list takes it from the general to the specific and makes it a lot more real and the effort of doing it becomes more real as well. I was not negative about the list, only my own ability to accomplish it or even give a consistent attempt at it.

  29. Henry, technological improvement is not progress in and of itself. It is a doubled-edge sword. We have also become more proficient in killing people; enslaving people; manipulating people; spy on people. We have gone beyond the Communist public self-flagellation to the public celebration of all sorts of depravity, stupidity and general narcissism. We have even gotten to the point that we think we can replace ourselves with robots.

    WWI did indeed disabuse many concerning the inevitability of progress, but not for long. Ideologically it became a call to double down on the myth. So now the brutality of modern warfare is both sanitized and more destructive than the horrors of the trenches. Now we kill with drones–real video games.

    But even my exercise here is, as I noted before, a mere reciprocal of the same myth because the part of the myth that is least discussed is that those currently in the forefront of the myth promotion use a tactic to keep everybody on board: the state of fear is promoted right along with the need to keep faith in progress even while despair is inculcated.

    Jesus tells us not to be afraid for He has overcome the world.

  30. Michael,
    Not to be too strident – but you are correct – the myth of progress and modernity is ultimately a demonic project and resisting it requires spiritual warfare. This morning I had to wait for a long time at the FedEx depot to sign for a package. Standing around, I was talking with FedEx employees. They noted that it was clearly slower this year than last, and they were glad of it – not because they would work less (though much of a slow down could endanger jobs) but because they themselves recognize the insanity of Black Friday, etc. Many people know that something is wrong and they don’t want to live this way but the merchants of death (for that’s what Modernity is) keep telling them that they must live this way because they’re making progress and that were they to stop living like this we would suddenly be plunged into the Dark Ages.

    We live in the midst of a great cultural dance (like the Macabre dances pictured of dancing with death during the Black Death plagues). Everyone fears that leaving the dance will someone destroy their lives. And so they agree to go into debt, buying educations they often cannot use, relocating and destroying their ties with an extended family to get a job that they will soon only endure, in order to support a marriage that bores them, that produces children who ignore them to spend time on their cell phones, and on and on. This is not a caricature – it’s a frighteningly common picture of the “American Dream.”

    We live in something of an empire that is at least as dysfunctional as the old Soviet Empire – but more insidious. The propaganda that manages our lives is far more effective than the old Soviet nonsense that almost no one believed. It is not only not working for many people – it is seriously not working for most people. And we have very few words to describe it other than to think that the next voting cycle will make a change – and it never will. The disease is spiritual and the cure is spiritual. We will not fix the culture. But the Kingdom of God is in our midst and we do not need to live modern, progressive lives. Why would we trade the Kingdom of God for that rancid mess of pottage?

  31. Michael,
    you mentioned that we “have even gotten to the point that we think we can replace ourselves with robots.” It’s shocking indeed that one might now encounter certain poor souls, so thoroughly brainwashed with this covertly nihilistic strand of progressivism that are paradoxically jubilant about a future where robots can become the next logical step in this religion of evolutionism.

  32. The challenge is not to fight it or despair but to rejoice especially in the mundane, the boring (as in most work) and the delightfully ridiculous. I would that I could carry the sense of warmth, humanity, and place that I experience each time worship in my parish over into the rest of my life.

  33. Fr. Stephen,

    Your last comment got me thinking about your list again. My first reading was “in the world but not of it”, but there is a way to read it (in light of your last comment) of “separate from the world”, a call to an Amish like household/economy/community, or in following McIntyre a “benedictine” like option. Did you mean to go in this direction?

    Also, as far as Matt. 6:31-34, we still do “plant the field” in anticipation of the harvest do we not? In my case, I still put money away for retirement (if it is God’s will, one day I will be alive and not able to work due to real physical and/or mental incapacity, and I don’t take it to be prudent to rely on the very modern and utopic schemes of “social security” and the like) and our children’s education, etc. Now, I try not to imitate the rich man in Luke 12:16-21 – I try not to hoard or be anxious or make any of this the central goal of my life and thus making them impediments to following the Gospel, but would you say that “selling all we have, taking up our cross, and following Him” means an Amish or some similar like household economy?

  34. Grant,

    “particularly as ISIS owes at least as much of it’s ideology to ideas born during the French Revolution and the birth of the Enlightenment as Islamic theology).”

    Would you say more? When I think of Islam’s theology and history of conquest I don’t see the need to add anything from the “French Revolution” and the like. How are they borrowing from it?

    Fr. Stephen,

    A friend of mine from my Unitarian days just sent me an email, and his signature at the bottom is this:

    “I have sworn upon the altar of God
    eternal hostility against every form
    of tyranny over the mind [voice] of man.”

    — Thomas Jefferson

    What a good illustration of taking a truth (our freedom in God, our Christian freedom) and stretching it to mean something completely different (in this case, the absolute autonomy of man’s self, mind, and “voice”)…

  35. progress may be a rhetorical myth, but it is neutral. Were gay marriage to be overturned nationwide you would likely view that as ‘progress’, which is really just another way of saying ‘change [you agree with]’. Others use it relative to other ends they view as ‘positive change’, which is another way of defining ‘progress’, too. I would argue your issue isn’t with the myth of progress, thought that is what you seem to be focusing on in a rather uncharacteristic bout of crankiness, it seems. The issue is with the definition of what constitutes ‘positive change’ or ‘change [you agree with]’ and the fact that so many people disagree with your (and mine own) definition of positive. Tilting at ‘progress’ is tilting at windmills; it assumes a sort of Romantic-era, secular eschatology that simply does not exist in the minds of those using the term in the way you say they are. It interprets secularism through the paradigm of Christian thought. The real problem is that while that was likely a valid critique of the 19th and early 20th century versions of the myth of Progress, there is not enough in the way of Christian echoes in our culture to warrant that same critique of today’s culture – even if they look to be superficially similar. The revolutions in biology and physics, together with a greater awareness of the diversity of cultures and religion have convinced our culture of its own random, accidental, even if beautiful existence. We are not moving toward anything, but we can make things better (whatever that means to us) along the way.

  36. Christopher,
    No. Not an Amish sort of thing at all. Deconstructing Modernity, for us, means unmasking it. It really is only a “myth” in the worst sense. We can go about our daily lives without it, actually, though this requires a struggle, some resistance.

    It is to do my work for the sake of my work and for those whom it is engaged and not for some sort of “progress” or other utility. Being present may very well mean ignoring the mass media. I got rid of cable tv a good while back. I sat in a restaurant last night beneath a screen with CNN yapping on and on. I reminded me why I don’t watch it at all anymore. Watching and not liking it is far worse than not watching it. I scan a little news each day – mostly on the internet – always noting who the source is and taking that into account. Generally, all sources are engaging in propaganda. It’s just what they do.

    And of course we plant the field and pray to the Lord of the harvest. I am grateful for things like pensions and social security, though I know they are subject to failure. We should always be prepared to be poorer than we are at present.

    If you are a householder, you should provide for your family as well as you can. That includes much besides an income. Stability is essential as is relational matters. Everyone in your child’s life is responsible for raising them. Everyone. No one is “just a teacher.” That said, we live carefully, but not anxiously.

    As for this world’s goods – tithe. A real tithe. Above that God will show you. And when you give – forget about it. Never seek to control your money when you give it away.

    A secular household often feels like that. What is there in our homes and households that “feels” Christian? Orthodox? At least with the Amish, you know where you are. The practices of our lives should have tangible marks of Christ about them, I think. Too many don’t. There are no simple prescriptions for this – but money is a great place to begin.

  37. aka,
    I think you might be missing the point perhaps, as stated earlier, that the eternal truth that transcends all categories, past, present, future, has already been given to us. There is no development or progress therefore, (from a Paschal vantage point) other than to delve deeper into what the Apostles had already delved in. The only thing that progresses -if anything- is ‘the fall’.
    There is therefore no real issue “with the definition of what constitutes ‘positive change’” either.

  38. Hi Christopher 🙂 ,

    While on the face of it it doesn’t at first seem obvious (since ISIS and current Islamic extremism place the vision of jihad and the Islamic caliphate and a violent eschatological vision as a major center-point for the exposition – with very worrying similarities to some evangelical visions- of their theology and ideology, presenting a vision of idealistic past until you peal back the layer a little) until you get into the history a little.

    Simply the current control and ideas were not even possible with the technology of the past, and the current presentation has significant differences in worldview, function and practice (and what was possible practice) with the various different types of Islamic realms in the path, language is the same but it has some significant perception differences in ideology, anthropology, and in terms of reach and conception (secular of progress are re-packaged again in their violent vision).

    But the current extreme jihadic Islamic movement had it’s beginning as such with thinkers in Pakistan during the division between Pakistan and India and the formation of the Pakistan state, and those thinkers drew their inspiration from the French revolution. In the French Revolution, all people became defined by their relationship to the state, in essence the person only existed in relation to the state and it’s goals, and the myth of progress and that it’s embrace of the coming of age of humanity was essential and vital doctrine in the view (as it together with the American revolution were two of the major drivers in bringing about the revival the Epicurean view which said if God or the gods existed were far away and not connected to this world, life emerging from it’s own verve, energy or drive and human civilization and it’s processes the dominate purpose to be defined by, which happened now to be Western civilization of the 18th century, this was were human civilization in this view ‘comes of age’ and so must shake all enemies and other views that oppose it away and treat them as ignorant, superstitious etc, as it’s founding narrative is it the great turning point of history, the purpose humanity must be defined by, hence it’s attacks on the Resurrection for that is true that not the Enlightenment revolutions is the great turning point of history and everything) and attacked the Church and all opposing views viciously (in the American revolution it settled for the church-state divide to demanded it keep out of the public life thus keeping it’s religious dominance much like the Caesar cult of the 1st century).

    Anyway, in the French revolution and the social change it endeavored to bring about, persons are only persons in relation to the state, they only exist in relation to the state and it’s goals, purposes and existence, and all other claims against that view and doctrine are excluded (and in the revolution itself were violently attacked and destroyed) for it’s dominance in the life at all levels of people, so that their own value and existence is defined and given by the state and it’s ideological basis. And so brings with it’s victory a fear and reaction against anything that challenges that religious and ideological dominance (since it becomes a threat to their existence) of any sign of opposing or challenging views seen even now in the deep-set French instinct against other religious displays or comments in public life at all. This view of the existence of a person being given and only having value in relation to the state and it’s worldview, and only having legitimacy by it together with the aggressive and violent attack and extermination of all opposing ideas, movements and people in them to dominate society and it’s communal life at all levels was taken up by the political thinkers in Pakistan and re-packaged to the vision of the ideal Islamic state.

    So though it proclaimed an vision of an ideal Islamic state of the past, with the combination of violent escatological rhetoric it draws much more from ideals and a worldview and belief system of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution than it does from Islamic past or belief. It re-packaged the ideas of the state and it’s ideology and ‘coming of age’ with all justified to bring about the proclaimed movement of history to destroy all that opposes or stands against that, and that defines people’s existence, their family and relations and value solely in relation to the state and to the Islamic state or caliphate and to it’s purposes and views, and substitutes the proclamations of ‘coming of age’ and the other claims for the re-birth of Islamic glory and a vision escatoloigical struggle.

    But behind the language, the world-view itself owes much to the ideas of the French revolution, which were a major influence of the formation of the current ideology being implemented by the extreme jihadist movement.

  39. aka,
    I’m sure I’m guilty of being cranky. I plead not guilty on change I agree with. Progress is a false myth and I do not think of progress as applying to things I like.

    I agree that the easy progressive ideology of the late 19th and early 20th century have disappeared. But I hear the notion of progress day in and day out. It is a dominant matrix through which we see the world. It is part and parcel of modernity.

    It is worth noting that I cited a secular article in the Guardian, not an ideological journal. I felt like I could have written the article myself – and I heartily recommend it. It’s good to see that others are noticing the same thing.

    I have not disparaged change per se. But progress is a very different thing. It requires a mental discipline to separate the two. But it is quite liberating when it is done.

  40. Aka says:

    ” it assumes a sort of Romantic-era, secular eschatology that simply does not exist in the minds of those using the term in the way you say they are.”

    I am a bit surprised you say this. While the myth is no longer quite as simple and linear as it was, it is alive and well. While a strain of nihilism has come in, even the father of nihilism moved quickly on to “will to power” which is it’s own myth of course. nihilism never lasts very long (it is too dark) so the progress myth comes rushing back in to fill the void. Even the academic “intelligentsia” find a way for a “life to go on” even when they determine man is the source of all evil and his days are numbered. Yes, the myth stands, and you state it quite well when you say:

    “The revolutions in biology and physics, together with a greater awareness of the diversity of cultures and religion have convinced our culture of its own random, accidental, even if beautiful existence. We are not moving toward anything, but we can make things better (whatever that means to us) along the way.”

  41. The idea of “living with real intent” as opposed to “living in the passive voice” in Fr. Stephen’s comments makes me think of some research on mindless eating. This research shows that often people eat not because they are hungry and choose/want to eat, but because they follow different prompts in their environment (i.e., mindless eating). I’ve been thinking about this idea lately not just in relation to eating habits, but also about mindless use of technology such as watching TV, checking email, Facebook, etc. People engage in these behaviors many times a day, but often without intent or making a real choice. Fr. Stephen’s comments take this idea further to show that people can have a mindless way of living:

    “My description for the opposite is to live in the passive voice. On a tombstone it will read, “A life was lived…” This living in the passive voice has no real choice, only a sort of acquiescence. And this goes on day after day in a culture that thinks that it champions free choice. Choice is wasted on such living.”

  42. Talya,
    you make a most valid point concerning mindfullness (Nepsis) regarding the use of technology.
    There cannot be any part of life that is not subject to this watchfulness for a believer. “Living with real intent” means that there can never be the slightest displeasurable reaction to anything that befalls us – it is easy to accept as if from the hand of God’s providence, Whom we strive to never let out of sight, precisely because our very awareness makes us impervious to a godless interpretation of reality and occurrences. An attention fixed on the entrance of one’s heart, in awareness of God’s ears and eyes attending that very place provides this sort of intent in the most natural way…
    Stabilising such a habit is definitely progress. 🙂

  43. It would probably spell the destruction of consumerism if many people discovered and adopted it though…

  44. Father,

    One of the things you touched on, “the news”, I have realized is simply part of the modernism. The ideal of “journalism”, “a free press”, etc. is so much nonsense. It’s all biased to some degree for some purpose. I choose my news based on the bias I most understand and can accept. I pay attention to it less and less, focusing on things that indicate something about the culture or something about my business, etc. I long ago quit paying attention to local “absurd crime of the day” news.

    My patience for various tv shows and movies is also much less than it used to be. My wife watches these police procedurals that look exactly like the ones she watched 15 years ago. I think the only thing I watch now with any regularity is Doctor Who and the cartoon “Star Wars”, and English football (aka “soccer”). The idea of throwing out my tv (and I know some Orthodox who have done it) even 5 years ago was something I could not have imagined, but now I would really do it if I could get the rest of my family to go along. Shoot, it would probably motivate me to go down to the local Irish pub to catch a game every now and then and perhaps find a friend or two.

    With money I have to admit it is one of my lessor passions. This is not to say I don’t have my attachments – that new corvette is nice but I simply don’t have any strong desire for such things. In this, I am truly blessed because if I struggled with avarice like I do with some of my other passions I can really see how difficult it would be – I have seen it in my family. Frankly, I would rather be a drug addict as I think the chances for salvation are much better. If anything, I have to motivate myself to spend enough time with my retirement adviser to properly plan, etc. I honestly struggle to understand my wife’s more overt anxiety about retirement, etc. Slothfulness is the devils way in on me in this area.

    Dislocation, by chasing after jobs and education has been our big “modern sin”. Now that we have young children, we see this much more clearly. You are very correct when you say “everyone is a teacher”. I see the effect of our relatively stable small city and her wonderful little RC school, in my older daughters life. In the past we would probably already moved on but now it will take something beyond our control to get us to move. Frankly, both my wife’s family and my family are of that modern, “independent” mindset and moved themselves quite a bit while we were young and after we left. Without a change in their hearts also a coming together of the extended family is not in the cards.

    I say all this not to boost, but to say that Orthodoxy and my acesis has not been all in vain. In my more clear moments, I can see the good and His Grace, even if I still despair when I stumble and can sometimes be slow to get up…

  45. Grant,

    I was not aware that the Pakistani’s were influenced by the French Revolution. Thanks for the reply.

  46. Dino, thanks for the follow-up. This is quite timely for me, as I have been contemplating on Fr. Stephen’s blog post “Shopping for God”, which he wrote after the Thanksgiving holiday two years ago (it felt like I was two years late coming to that blog post). I have been thinking about his words about consumerism, and how it feeds on people’s passions because people are driven by their disordered desires and wants. One of the solutions offered in that post was centering the human life in the heart as opposed to the mind: “The heart is not subject to the passions, not driven by desire and necessity. It is not the same thing as the mind. It does not compare or judge, measure or spin tales of its own existence. It simply is. It is in the heart that we know God (truly know).” I see the connection between Fr. Stephen’s point about the heart as the center of a human life and your words about fixing attention on the entrance of the heart. This is helpful, as I am trying to understand the meaning of Fr. Stephen’s words about the heart as the center of a human existence. Thank you.

  47. Talya,
    The mindful awareness (‘Nepsis’) that the holy Fathers keep talking of (the entire five volumes of the Philokalia has that as its theme) is simple. It is called art of all arts and science of all sciences, yet entails only this:
    Keep your attention fixed on the entrance to your heart repeating the short Jesus prayer, do not accept anything other, no matter how good to distract your attention and you will eventually realize you have discovered the entrance to the Kingdom.
    Admittedly it puts one on a certain trajectory where increasingly more light is shed on our darkness and unimaginably more refined distractions are encountered, (rousing ever more firm clinging onto the Lord alone), but the beneficial task of prayerful watchfulness is mighty simple in essence…

  48. Father Stephen,

    It seems to me that it ultimately comes down to unbelief – perhaps more accurately a shift in faith. We have preferred scientific materialism (and positivism, naturalism etc.) over faith in the witness of the Apostles. How is faith restored?

  49. My guess is that a mind skeptical of absolute, unchanging standards -as is the modern mind- becomes enamoured with the idea of progress. A mind that detests the internal (and external) watchfulness that cements the relationship with the Unchanging God requires constant external stimuli and therefore continual change, it is “perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow’s end”.
    Little wonder it has become so easy to manipulate those who are moved by the word “change” that a political candidate can win elections by using that one word as their campaign slogan.
    The Fathers often say that the more we heed the external life the more the internal one withers away. The reverse is therefore the key to the restoration of faith.

  50. The good news is that a life lived externally leaves a person hungry for what is real. Unfortunately, that can actually manifest as physical hunger with gluttony being the response.

    A big part of the Church’s function is to tell folks about the truth and then guide them properly when they come.

    I believe firmly that everyone will have at least one opportunity to meet Jesus Christ face to face and say ‘YES’ or ‘NO’. There may be more than one. They may have that opportunity frequently until they finally say YES.

    I can only work to increase my actions based on faith rather than on the passions.

  51. “How is faith restored?”

    For me, it was the realization, the revelation, that my childhood faith of modernism was itself as much of a “faith commitment” as any other. When I combined that with the fact that modernism’s logical end is nihilism, I was “jolted” as it were, to listen to God who I now realize was talking to me along.

    But what about others, is my experience to be the common path for others, or is it rather more unique and not a “type” typically scene – and thus not something to be recommended to others? I don’t know. Surely this question will be a focus of Fr. Stephens upcoming book.

  52. Skeptical, yes perhaps, but that isn’t so bad in my book. A healthy dose of skepticism keeps the would-be tyrant at bay.
    I can’t blame people from being skeptical about ancient, extra-ordinary claims….

    It seems to me a demonstration of extra-ordinary power and love is what will truly change us.

    But that is not easy to come by. So we struggle on…..

  53. “Skeptical, yes perhaps, but that isn’t so bad in my book.”

    I don’t think I agree, because behind skepticism is an implied self-sufficiency, a “faith” in my ability to discern the truth or untruth of fill_in_the_blank. Skepticism in modern usage is simply another idealism, and part of the modern outlook. If presented with a “fact” or an “assertion” or an “argument” or a “worldview”, to view it “skeptically”, implies that you are viewing it from somewhere. Now, why is the ground you stand on any more solid than the thing you are skeptical of? In the end, its not really all that useful unless you are aware of your own presuppositions…

  54. One of the takeaways for me from the whole discussion of “progress” has been that I must approach life from where I am – that is, a position of weakness.

    Fr. Stephen has told us that we must drop this notion of progress. It’s not that there is nothing to which we can point to that would go by the name of progress; just that we need to let it go. The thought stream of the Modern project which we are swimming in thrives on this concept of progress. It is the current-day Savior. Though all the world is crumbling around us, we can all cling to this tall island of hope unmoved in the middle of the swirling chaos – and this island is called Progress. It is solid, unswerving, trustworthy in its steadfastness. Progress will continue faithfully – no matter how unsettled our individual lives are, no matter if we are for or against Progress itself. It matters not! It is the Savior of modern times.

    But we all know it’s not. I believe Fr. Stephen is asking us to let go of this notion of Progress because he knows we often secretly cling to it as our true hope. We’re not sure about Christ (secretly in the depths of our heart) because we haven’t seen Him act at the global level for a long time, but gosh darn it! at least we can depend on Progress!!!

    No….we can’t. Not even in our own lives. Those who humble themselves will be exalted. We humble ourselves by accepting reality, foremost about ourselves. We are weak. We are nothing without Christ. We need Him. And we need each other. A wise man once told me that every good thing is found in the door of its opposite. We will find our strength through the door of our weakness. Once we accept our weakness, we will start looking for help from Him and from those around us…….not from the god of progress.

  55. Drewster,
    Well said. Father Stephen has spoken before of the deception of choice, which is presented to us as an expression of our supposed secular freedom – a self-determination that disregards that we are contingent beings. Like a fly on an elephant that tries to convince the world that there are no elephants.
    The ‘religion’ of progress is both mother and daughter to this.
    It feels highly ‘inconvenienced’ by Christianity’s eternal, unchanging truths and it ‘finds odd’ any talk of hypostatic actualisation (ie: becoming a saint) taking the place of individualistic consumerist “freedoms”.
    The insidious fraud of this notion of progress, in its conceited arrogance, wants ‘choice’ to enter every single aspect of reality. Therefore, how we come to this world and how we leave it (the two areas where our being is most obviously discerned to be contingent upon someone else) have become a hot topic in the various (closely associated) ‘rights’ conversations; as if the illusion of freedom as a self-determination on even these two great mysteries -through the entrance of choice here- might become reality…!
    May we, the faithful, through the grace of God, demonstrate that unshakeable spiritual joy and captivating spiritual freedom of the saints who have overcome the world, that is a testament capable of silencing all who succumb to the deception of this world, inviting them to repentance.

  56. Christopher,

    Thank you, I meant it in the most noble sense.

    Questioning in the sense of asking “what is the reason for this?” “what does this really mean, and why” “does it really hold up to Truth?”. Mind you, it is a question, one that is asked in earnest, without an answer in mind…

  57. My community celebrated a funeral this week. During the homily, our priest said this: “We often ask, why was this person taken? The Orthodox question should be: Why was this person in my life?”

    We still mourn the loss as appropriate, but the Orthodox funeral service is, in a sense, Holy Friday, Holy Saturday and Pascha all wrapped up together and focused on the life of the one who reposed. Not the individual life, but the complete life of that person. And then, that person is presented to God with prayers for mercy.

    Death is faced head on and found to be powerless despite the loss to us still here. Our loss is truly fleeting.

  58. Fr, Thanks for this great post. I particularly love your comment from 12/02 @ 10:58. It was hard hitting so it might seem odd that I love that comment. Sadly, I must admit, that comment reflects my family life (I’m a father with a wife and younger children).

    Father, I know you listed some steps at the beginning of this article, but I need it dumbed down for me. I’m thinking that I need to cut out our cable TV, spend more time reading books, praying, etc. What else? I’m open to advice from any and all. I hate that I live like you describe, but just don’t know how to get out of the miles deep rut.

  59. I was curious about the use of the Dracula image. What was the intention? Modernity killing or killing Modernity?

  60. Alan,
    The interception of our freedom is done through a rising diversity of means.
    We even adopt – either deliberately or unwittingly – certain common views, which, though unexamined, enter us and convert to crystallized outlooks, established deep within.
    The general spirit of the world fosters – both consciously and unconsciously – its specific life-style, supplied with the illusion of freedom through a supposed range of life-style choices to pick from.
    As much as we like to think of ourselves as discerning and watchful – we delude ourselves, supposing this brainwashing does not affect us. It can abruptly assault or, more often than not, gently corrode, through any particular segment of the vicious circle of “media-and-those-around-me-influenced-by-said-media”. Constant rekindling of the fire of prayer is our great help here.
    Increasing spiritual studying and prayer (that ‘fire’) –time in the exclusive presence of the Lord in focused mindfulness– as well as partaking of the Mysteries frequently, is the only way to claw back the spiritual joy that translates to a spiritual shield at all other times too…
    We cannot give our attention and especially our heart to anything other than that – even if we sometimes find ourselves litterally forced, say, by a well-cultivated sinful habit. The sooner we rekindle that fire every day and every minute the better.

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