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Volume 13, Issue 3: Thema

A Primer on Modernities

Douglas Jones


no triumph tastes good without a robust enemy. A world devoid of enemies is mere prison food—tan on gray on slippery. Even weak enemies are no fun. They just squawk and go limp.

But outright talk of enemies makes many people toy with their hair. To them, speaking of enemies automatically implies a lack of love and adult sophistication. It's a little barbaric.
Enemies, however, are good for the soul, and Scripture is packed with them. Evil opponents are there to be mocked (Ps. 2), conquered (1 Cor. 10:4, 5), and loved (Matt. 5:44). You can't sing a psalm without bumping into them, and the Lamb of God Himself challenges them (Matt. 12:3; 19:17; 22:29), mocks them (Matt. 23:17, 24), pushes over their stuff (Matt. 21:12), and eats their flesh (Rev. 19). But finding good enemies takes skill and practice. It's easy to be wrong or just play with surfaces—school-prayer, guns, race, consumerism, abortion—and miss the weightier idols.
Modernity is the most pervasive and invisible enemy of our time and locale. It permeates everything from our politics to our bedrooms, our recreations to our worship. It stands in flagrant opposition to everything Christian, but it has become so embedded and normal we can't pick it out. It is air and light around us.
First what it's not: modernity is not technological progress. The modernity we should be concerned with is a set of powerful values, but it's not mere modernization. Though the two do intertwine at places, technological modernization isn't hostile to Christianity. We were set on Earth to develop the potentials of created order. As Peter Leithart notes, "Technological development does not pose a challenge to the biblical description of man and his role in the world; instead, technology is presented as a fulfillment of the imago Dei."1
Nor is the modernity in question that which is regularly attacked by relativists and post-modernists. Not everyone who attacks modernity is a friend. Postmodernist sorts attack modernity because they oppose its grasp for objective truth and morality. They despise Christianity for the same reason. Postmodernists seek to undermine the marginalizing tyranny of modernism so that they themselves can play the tyrants of knowledge and politics. It's a pretty shallow power play. And a Christian understanding recognizes that modernity and postmodernity are minor variations on the same theme, a parasitic relationship. They do not stand antithetically against one another, as much as the postmodernists like to prate. But what is modernity? What are the values that permeate our world?
The Path to Modernity
The full history of philosophy tells a fascinating, interconnected tale of positions that grow out of one another in nice narrative fashion. The full story can be summarized in many noble ways, but here I'd like to view it rather simply as a struggle over ultimate jello molds.
The general enemy in the history of philosophy has always been the skeptic and relativist about knowledge. Christians have not been the only ones concerned to fight relativism. Non-Christian philosophers from the ancient Greeks to the modern period and beyond have sought to undo those who deny the possibility of knowledge. The most famous folks in the history of philosophy have always been those who told the most intriguing story to beat the skeptic. Plato (427_347 b.c.) in the ancient period and Immanuel Kant (1724_1804) in the modern period told stories that have had the strongest grips, and their stories have largely concerned the "jello molds" of reality. The skeptics about knowledge show up in every era, but they don't get great name recognition, largely because they're boring and negative. Leech traditions like the ancient sophists and recent postmodernists can't create but only tear down. History says that that is worth forgetting.
Ancient philosophy led by Plato and Aristotle (384_322 b.c.) shared a relatively similar account of jello molds in order to beat the skeptics. Skeptics always tend to picture reality as a chaotic flow of inferior matter (say, like dirty jello). If all reality is just a jello flow, then we can't know anything. The world is always chaotic and disordered. There are no standards for knowledge and meaning, and nothing stays the same to be known.
In response, Plato argued that it's obvious that we do in fact know things, especially math. So instead of just insisting on the chaotic nature of jello, we need to ask what does reality have to be in order for us to know truth. His answer was that there must be ultimate jello molds; knowledge presupposes jello molds. For Plato, these molds, or Forms, are not made of jello but are made of eternal, generic (abstract), impersonal, invisible, unchanging substance. Every different type or kind of thing in the world has its own generic mold. There are jello horses and their mold, the same for dogs, chairs, numbers, ships, justice, etc. (or their properties). We look at a bit of matter and through our mind connect to its mold in the upper mold realm. Since different people can all connect up to the same mold, they all can know the same thing and share meanings. Knowledge is possible, and the skeptic is answered.
This basic story held sway for over a millennium and then got revived again in the twentieth century. But in between, Christian philosophers pulled off a wonderful coup. Slowly, the doctrines of creation, Incarnation, and Trinity worked their way through the medieval period and produced a deep clash with ancient Greek thought. Christian philosophers recognized that the material order was glorious, not just dirty jello. But, also, if we can only know the transcendent jello molds, then much of Christianity would be false. If we can only know generic, abstract things, then we couldn't know God, God couldn't know us, we couldn't know each other or the created order. Christianity demanded that we be able to know concrete, individual, unique things.2
Platonism and Aristotelianism had to be overthrown, and they were. The Greek jello molds were a Romans 1 sort of substitute for the true God. The Greek Forms were supposed to supply many of the functions of the Christian God—providence, morality, order, kinds, etc.—without the holy personality. With Him, no Greek forms were needed. He held the world together, sculpting glorious matter into knowable kinds and particulars. The skeptic was beat again.
Internalizing the Molds
For numerous reasons, social, political, and aesthetic, the Christian answer didn't stick in a triumphal way. Philosophy took a back seat during the upheaval of the Reformation, and when it came forward afterward, leading thinkers had little stomach for robust Christianity. But this modern period, starting in the early 1600s, wanted nothing to do with the ancient Greek jello molds either. Moderns took over the Christian model of a world of particulars, but they didn't want any part of the Christian God or the Greek molds. Instead, the jello molds shifted to the individual mind in order to beat the skeptic.
In short, three major phases appear in jello mold history: first, impersonal, general molds (Greeks); second, personal, particular-general Molder (Christianity); third, jello molds in individual minds (modernity).
The constructive, shaping aspect of reality that is crucial to knowledge shifted from the impersonal heaven of the Greeks and the personal sculptor of Christ to the mind of every individual. The once-divine function now resided in human consciousness, but not a consciousness, not a mold that differs from person to person; for modernism, we all have similar molds, and that's what makes for objectivity.
Philosophers of modernity including Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and especially Kant were committed to a new world of chaotic jello to be ordered by the molds of our minds. With no Greek Forms or Augustinian, providential God to order nature, the world appeared chaotic again. The human mind would have to supply the mold in order for knowledge to be possible. With the divine functions shifted, humans were now constructors of reality. The shift from Hellenism to modernity is really just a movement of Forms within chaotic matter; they shifted from the outside to the inside of us.
From this internalization of the jello molds in the human ego drops out all the notorious traits of modernity. If the ultimate molds reside in humans, then we are the measure of possibility and impossibility (egocentrism). We determine what is rational and irrational (rationalism). And since supposedly only the intellect is free from disorder, the aesthetic, poetic, emotional, and unquantifiable aspects of life must be ruled out as knowledge (primacy of the intellect; scientism; mathematicism).
On the ethical side, since individuals are creators, individuals have the most value and authority; no tradition, history, or institution can have authority over an individual (individualism; romanticism). And yet, individuals are supremely equal too. Everyone has equal authority to pronounce (egalitarianism).
Obviously in history, these traits don't all walk together. They take different paths and provoke internecine fights between rationalists and romantics, individualists and egalitarians. But they all spring from the same jello mold of modernity. In short though, all modernity reflects the shape of a pyramid: the apex is an egocentric rationalism; down from it angle the paths of egalitarianism and individualism; on each of those arise romanticism, scientism, and Gnosticisms (like postmodernism).
Postmodernity arose in response and aimed to show that anything modernity held up as a stable jello mold was really just another piece of jiggling jello. But in order to do that, the postmodernists have to share the fundamental assumption of the modernists: that we are all trapped in our jello mold of consciousness, a consciousness that constructs the appearance of reality.
This fear of "presence," this fear of being face to face with the real world is one of the most fascinating aspects of modernity-postmodernity as a Romans 1 phenomena. Presence, especially the presence of God, is one of, if not the lead theme of Scripture, culminating in the Incarnation and Pentecost and New Heavens and Earth. But modernists and postmodernists are glued together in fighting such presence. Like the ancient Greeks, modernists complain about our bodies and hide behind "distortions" of sense perception; postmodernists claim we're trapped in the chaotic forces of language blocking any touch of the real. Whatever the case, they both agree that we're cut off from presence; no one can connect with God or creation. We all have an excuse for rebellion.
Now that's an enemy to chew on.

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