Sunday, April 12, 2015

Being Modern

What is it to be modern? What, in other words, is it that differentiates being modern from being pre-modern, i.e. being medieval or ancient, being non-Western?

The standard answer that was given through the 19th and 20th centuries was that modernity went hand in hand with a trust in rationality and science, while medieval-ness and antiquity rested on faith and miracles. The Ancient Greek and Roman philosophers were an exception to the rule, insofar as their confidence in the nascent powers of human rationality anticipated the modern Enlightenment. They were reasonable, where the rest of the pre-modern (and non-Western) world was inveterately religious. Theravadan Buddhism might also have been an exception, but that is story for another day.

The picture of human history as an inevitable march towards a reasonable, secular conclusion suggested itself to most every 20th century Western thinker, regardless whether they were secular or religious. The ideologies that dominated the 20th century were explicitly materialistic: Western capitalism and Eastern communism. And they impressed themselves on everything, even if only as a negative image. The most trenchant religious criticisms of a secular order to this day remain critiques of materialism: both in the naturalistic and economic senses of the term. The secular order denies that human life possesses a spiritual dimension and debases human interaction with the mindless pursuit of more things.

Then the Iranian Revolution happened in 1979. The event interrupted what seemed an otherwise smooth secular ascent. To many, it seemed as though history had reversed itself.

The resurgence of religious conservativisms and fundamentalisms around the world in the years following the Iranian Revolution forced scholars reassess the standard answer. Modernity was not as secular as it once seemed. It too had its characteristic forms of religion: one that tended to be intolerant, irrational, anti-scientific, and authoritarian. Of course, the extremities didn't manifest themselves everywhere. But the general form could easily be discerned: in an assertive American evangelicalism, Pentecostal revivalism in central and southern Africa, resurgent Islam in the Middle East and North Africa, Hindu nationalism in India, Buddhist insurgencies in Southeast Asia. The list goes on. One might also add, for example, atheist fundamentalism in Oxfordshire, England.

In his A Secular Age (2007), the Canadian Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor has suggested that our generic categories need to be rethought in the light of the resurgence of religion around the world. Since religion did not wither under the secular sun, but seems to have flourished, how modernity differs from the pre-modern (and non-Western) world requires a more nuanced explanation.

Taylor suggests that modernity differs from what came before by the fact of the proliferation of choices. Our pre-modern ancestors were born, lived their lives, and died rarely ever being confronted by a difference of opinion in matters divine. What difference of belief that did exist was usually condemned as evil or heretical. The scale of life was small; the oppourtunities it afforded smaller. Whereas today we are born into a world that is saturated with a smorgasbord of religious options. Even the staunchly orthodox must now define their orthodoxy over against a plethora of choices that before did not exist. The scale of life has expanded exponentially; and with it, an almost infinite number of possible options.

I am more or less on board with Taylor's account of a secular age: defined not by the absence of religion, but a plethora of choices for what or what not to believe in. I appreciate, for example, how Taylor's account encourages you to inhabit the mental spaces of other person. Subtract the internet, television, telephones, newspapers, mass-produced books. Add a strong sense of life's uncertainty, whether the roof is going to hold up under the next storm, where the next meal is coming from. And yes, subsistence living without a whole lot of outside information does look a lot more confined. In such circumstances, it is not hard to imagine how it would be impossible not to belief in the gods or God. Conversely, if you add a world of information and relative material security, then a plethora of choice would seem to be the natural result.

Even so, in my estimation, Taylor's account doesn't go deep enough to get at what differentiates modernity from its pre-modern antecedents. My discomfort arises from his subtle insistence that there is something about our modernity that fundamentally different about us, which sets us apart from everyone that came before. It defines us as special unique. Or, it is supposed to. Our democracy, science, technology, etc., have precipitated an radically new epistemic situation. These are supposed to fundamentally separates us from what came before.

This is not very likely. As shiny and new our ideas about ourselves may seem to us, it is best to remind ourselves that everything is relative, every perspective is partial, and will all be gone tomorrow. Put it this way: the more special we moderns we think are, the more we are fooling ourselves. We have extended human life, improved health care, sent men to the moon, unlocked the atom. But these constitute merely incremental improvements, which will never add up to anything radically new.

I propose that if we want to determine what essentially differentiates modernity from its pre-modern antecedents, our inquiry must begin by assuming how unexceptional we moderns actually are--in relation to each other, to our forebearers, in the grand scheme of things.

If we do so, some rather obvious points of comparison suggest themselves. Ancient and medieval ways of thinking about things tend to be defined by a spatial orientation: up and down. God is above, the earth below. The king is above, the subjects below. Etc. Modernity--how we think about things--tends to be defined by a temporal orientation: past and future. Religion belongs to the past, secularity to the future. Monarchy to the past, democracy to the future. Etc.

These are ultimately not comparable, you might say. We know what there is no God above us in the spatial sense of the word. Yes, I grant the point. We will get to it in a minute. My contention is that the spatial and temporal orientations are comparable because they are essentially moral orientations. They denote how things ought to be. Earthly things ought to be subject to heavenly things, just as subjects ought to be 'subject' to the rule of kings. Religion ought to belong to the past because the future is secular, just as monarchy ought to belong to the past because the future belongs to much more egalitarian forms of democracy.

To illustrate what I mean, consider that the biblical texts repeatedly claim that God is 'enthroned above the circle of the earth.' Modern exegetes would love to regard statements that seem to place God 'up there' above the clouds as spiritual metaphors. But that is not what they were for the original audience. Statements to this effect can be found in most ancient cultures. The Ancient Greeks and Romans were no exception. Aristotle thought of reason in the human being as divine. In his On the Heavens, he also claims that perfectly circular nature of reason was best exampled in the perfectly circular motions of celestial objects: sun, moon, planets, and stars. Like the ancient Hebrews, the Roman encyclopedist Pliny the Elder, though of the heavens as a dome encompassing the earth. What was beyond the dome? Pliny did not think it fit for human beings to inquire. Human understanding was suited only to terrestrial things. The next time you are standing in an open field, throw your head back and look up. The sky looks like a shallow over-turned bowl: the 'firmament.' God is above, in the spatial sense, whatever you find within your field of vision.

On the other hand, modern Western thought after the Enlightenment becomes progressively more temporal in orientation. One of the influential thinkers of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, argued people formerly though of God as 'above' and humanity as 'below,' but now they think about God as being everywhere and in everyone and everything. Christians, of course, believed that God revealed himself in a specific person: Jesus. Hegel believed the time had come that God could be found in every person. Karl Marx would later alter slightly the forms of Hegel's argument to say that formerly people thought that kings and lords ruled by divine right and commoners had a duty to submit to their rulers as they would to God. Whereas now, Marx thought, people can see these claims for what they actually are: false consciousness. Social divisions between rulers and subjects--which, in the 19th century, meant capital and labour--could only continue to grow more and more intolerable. What humanity desperately needs (in Marx' estimation) is a classless society. Friedrich Nietzsche would take the argument one step further: each of us, individually, must strive to overcome every distinction imposed on us from the outside. God has died, and we must become over-men.

Examples of outlooks, both from the ancient and medieval worlds and from the modern world, can be multiplied indefinitely. The appearance of these outlooks are many and various, but the essential spatial vs. temporal orientation remains roughly the same. The most recent versions of the modern outlook, for example are generally evolutionary in character: they show us a world 14 billion years old, while the evolutionary history of life extends 3.5 billion years. The question, What is it to be modern? concerns how one gets from the spatial orientation to the temporal orientation; i.e. how to get from thinking about the world in terms of up and down to thinking about it in terms of past and future.

Now, I grant that many 'causes' for how one gets from one to the other may be offered. My question asks about the necessary 'intellectual conditions.' The most basic requirement is that God cannot be thought of as being 'up there' in any literal spatial sense. We have sent men to the moon and satellites to the most distant planets in our solar system and beyond. No God anywhere to be found.

Once God is figuratively 'driven' from a literal place in space ('up there'), it becomes possible to conceive of space as (potentially) infinite. It becomes possible to conceive of the universe as tens of billions of light-years across, not just 100s or maybe 1000s of miles across. From here it is a short step to conceiving of time as (potentially) infinite as well. A spatially infinite world is not very interesting, since such a world never changes--at least not in any significant sense. It is always what it presently is. But we know that things change. The evidence is all around us--if only we know how to interpret it. If the world is spatially infinite, this line of argument goes, perhaps it is temporally infinite as well. If it is, then we should be able to figure out where things came from (in the past) and make some educated guesses about where they are going (in the future).

The transformation of these intellectual conditions began with Nicholas Copernicus and Galileo Galilee (16th and 17th centuries) and came to a provisional conclusion with Isaac Newton and Immanuel Kant (17th and 18th centuries). They make possible for someone like Charles Darwin to come along in the 19th century and think the way that he does about The Origin of Species. Their influence was so pervasive, you will notice, that even my discussion here is framed by a temporal orientation: past, present, and future.

To be modern, then, is to think about the world in terms of before and after, and to be implicitly uncomfortable with thinking about it in terms of up and down. This is the point that Taylor, who thinks about the world in terms of past, present, and future, does not quite grasp.

If this is what it is to be modern, why does religion persist, and even thrive, in modernity? Isn't it obvious that all of that is behind us?

Actually, no. It is to misunderstand what religion is about to say that because God's existence cannot be demonstrated scientifically, religion must wither away. The clue to why religion will not die is found at the intersection of space and time: with the conscious human awareness of being situated here and now in a world filled with many other being and things, including other persons. Religion has always been about what persons have made of their individual bodily lives: where the person comes from before they are born into the world, what they should and should not do while they are in the world (e.g. how people behave towards others in community), and what happens after they die.

Claims that seem to have been disproved by modern science, like the fact that God is not literally above the sky, do not actually discredit religion. The moral meaning is that the God who 'sits enthroned above the earth' is ultimately inaccessible to everyone in the same way. No person, therefore, is in a position to claim to be naturally closer to God.

Religion will persist and thrive in modernity because religion gets at the one thing modern science cannot assign: moral value to a person's bodily life. Yes, modern science can understand how bodies work. It may even suggest how human life can be extended and improved. But its statements are always generic and empirical, never individual and moral. And it is the latter, not the former, that people require to make sense of the day to day interactions with other people.

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