The “Crisis” of Modernity

What do you call a Christian whose mind is so constructed that belief in God is almost impossible?

Answer: a modern man.

I occasionally make allusions to the crisis of modernity (in one form or another), as in a recent post in which I made reference to Florovsky’s term, the tragedy of Western Christianity. The crisis is not financial, though financial stumbles do reveal some of the cultural weakness within modernity. In many countries, it appears that very little is required to fill the streets with violent protest (though often the protest is itself without clear guidance or purpose).

The tragedy of Western Christianity is often shared by Eastern Christianity: that tragedy is the failure of the Church. I certainly believe Christ’s words that the “gates of hell” would not prevail against His Church. Despite its tragic failures, the Church has not disappeared (for thoughts on the historical problems within the Eastern Church, I reference an article by Met. Hilarion Alfeyev).

Much of Christian practice today has fallen into the individualism of modernity. The Christian life as a common life, lived only in the context of Christ Body, the Church, is, for many, a concept that has little content beyond a sense of camaraderie with other Christians. Such an appropriation of Christianity renders the faith as simply one of many modern “life-style choices.” It is therefore not surprising that many “life-styles” that are traditionally rejected by the Scriptures are easily embraced within a Christianity that exists only as a set of “choices.”

The earliest Christians understood the true nature of the Church and did so in the context of a hostile, pagan culture. Modern Christians, even those that perceive the Church properly in its fullness as the Body of Christ, do so in a very strange society – a secular world that is “post-Christian” rather than simply pagan and hostile.

The “post-Christian” aspects of our culture make belief in Christ, as traditionally given by the fathers and the Church in its fullness, nearly impossible. To say that Christianity is “a way of life” is not the same thing as saying that Christianity is “a life-style choice.” Many modern Christians would be hard put to explain the difference.

Answer: a life-style choice is a set of actions based on decisions of an individual. A way of life (in its true meaning) refers to the fact that true union with Christ is the only means of true existence – all else is death or a movement towards non-existence.

In the post-Christian world, institutions have become ephemeral, based, at best, on the raw, coercive power they possess and can threaten to wield. That a pope could bring the Holy Roman Emperor (Henry IV) to his knees in the snow is now a tale of things past (and was not much of a tale at the time). Christians speak, issue statements to various governmental bodies, usually to no avail. The Church is not as strong as an opinion poll.

To approach Christianity as a “way of life” is to reject the Post-Christian world itself – to recognize the emptiness of secularism – and to set one’s life on a path that has no particular public standing in the world in which we live. To recognize Christ as the very source of our existence and well-being is to place nothing ahead of Him, or in competition with Him. It is to recognize that our true life is constituted by love of God, love of neighbor, and love of enemy. Everything else is subsidiary and of less significance. It is to place our life under the judgement of the End of all Things, rather than any other time or place.

The world which we now call the “modern” is simply one of many cultural arrangements that people have used for their daily intercourse. There is nothing inherently good or true in its constitution, nothing which demands our loyalty. Though “God” has been assigned a place within the secular order, such a place is not occupied by God, but only things which “stand” for God, and therefore are modern idols. A real God, is the end of all that secularism professes.

The crisis of our present world order is that it has no particular relationship with the God Who Is. It has established itself as superior to all else and the judge of the utility of all things. As such, it can have no true God.

To reject modernity and secularism sets a Christian on a path of conflict and difficulty. It requires that we see modernity for what it is (simply another human construct) and secularism for what it is (another human effort to relegate God to a relative station). It is a path marked by tension and struggle and much misunderstanding. But this is the struggle of our time, the crisis and tragedy which belong to our age.

May we have the wisdom to know our own age, and to know the true God in the midst of all things and to discern His voice from all of the delusions which seductively call to us.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.





25 responses to “The “Crisis” of Modernity”

  1. Darrell Lahay Avatar
    Darrell Lahay

    In order to live man must believe in that for which he lives.
    –Huston Smith

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Fabio Leite, Ζωντανό Ιστολόγιο. Ζωντανό Ιστολόγιο said: The “Crisis” of Modernity: What do you call a Christian whose mind is so constructed that belief in God is almos… […]

  3. Steven Clark Avatar

    the modernist vs. fundamentalist controversy that plagues our political discourse is a function of this alienation from our ground. They both use the same decadent hermeneutic to come to different conclusions.

  4. Robert Avatar

    About idols, this quote by Olivier Clement seems apropos:

    “People never cease to project on to God their individual and collective obsessions, so that they can appropriate and make use of him. But they ought to understand that God cannot be apprehended from without, as if he were an object, for with him there is no outside nor can the Creator be set side by side with the creature.”

  5. Rebecca Juliana Avatar

    Father, bless.
    I hear the wisdom of what you say…please tell me, then, HOW do we then reject modernity and secularism.

    I ask, because I fear I could be the seed that grew, but because of the cares of this world, wilted.

    It is frightening to me.

    thank you for your response.

  6. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Fundamentalism vs. Modernity is a false dichotomy as Mr. Clark points out they do partake of the same spirit. The real dicotomy is between a traditional faith vs a faith molded by and to the spirit of the times.

    Traditional faiths have the capcity to adapt to the surrounding culture and the times without betraying the core of their belief. For Orthodox that core is the Truth revealed in the person of Jesus Christ to whom everyone is called.

    Traditional faiths allow for and flourish within community and are handed down from elder to disciple. The tradition transmits the faith and continuity of life that is necessary to learn how to be human, how to become a person within the context of a larger whole that has both temporal and eternal dimension. Love is kenotic and focused on the other whether it is God or community of spouse. Obedience allows one the freedom to love.

    Modernity is centered on the individual rather than the person and foster the false notion of autonomy; the worship of self or the material world: an ephemeral nothingness that has no substance. It destroys life. There are so many forms and mutations of the same basic idea and approach they are beyond naming. They transmit themselves much like viruses and we are all subject to them.

    In traditional faith obedience is easily understood and is life affirming; a hierarchical submission of student to elder to the wisdom and life of the of the community. In modernity, if there is obedience at all it tends to be servile, controlling and cultic; ideological and political. Love is simply the narcissistic satisfaction of one’s own desires whether erotic, or material or even ‘spiritual’. Thus the common declaration, I’m spiritual, not religious.

    Orthodox life in our time, as in all times, is a unique mixture of the traditional and the modern: the tension between this world and the Kingdom of Heaven. Triumphal legalism whether it is ethnocentric or of the ‘super spiritual’ variety denies the human and the personal even though it purports to be founded in the tradition. Identification of the faith with the state or with a political ideology is not the tradition. The fruit of such pseudo-traditionalism is the same as the adherence to the modern: corruption, faithlessness and death.

    It has never been possible to live a common life, not of this world, yet in the world, without the overwhelming grace of God. There has been and always will be a modernity (mind of the world) with which to contend.

    The spirit of the world is antithetical to the spirit of the Kingdom. Where is our treasure? Do we hear the grand and glorious song of the siren and eat the Turkish delight (as Edward in Narnia) that turns our heart cold or do we listen to the still, small voice within and receive the simple heavely food, the Body and Blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ?

    Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.

  7. Andrew Battenti Avatar
    Andrew Battenti

    Mrs Juliana if I might — in a sense there is nothing to reject because modernity and secularism are illusions or unreal inventions of man. By this I mean that they attempt to promote a reality that is not sustained by the continual action of God’s grace (love and truth). The link to Met Hilarion’s paper titled Atheism and Orthodoxy in Modern Russia kindly provided by Father Stephen is a must read and it draws a surprising but appropriate conclusion that might catch many unawares. Only prayer, fasting and continual almsgiving guarantees we escape the illusion of a self sustaining world (as the picture above shows) — Father where did this come from?

  8. Karen Avatar

    Robert, very appropriate quote. Thanks.

  9. Daniel Wilson Avatar
    Daniel Wilson

    Bless Father!
    What about the G-O-D worshippers (Good Old Days)?
    I react very negatively to faithful people who dress and act as if they lived in a mythical Russian village of years gone by. I have read Orthodox materials that extoll serfdom as a way of life. This is the G-O-D’s answer to a conflicted world.
    As you say, our task is to travel “a path marked by tension and struggle.” Is the problem you illuminate- life in the two storied universe- the problem of our age alone or the struggle of all believers from the beginning? The lectionary of the last three days has St. James spending a lot of energy addressing those who “talk” but don’t “walk.” What is the actual difference between his time and ours?
    From “About Christian Struggle” by John Kalomiros: “It is important for us, the Christians of our era, to realize the difference between two opposing approaches to the faith. The first is to practice the elements of tradition and teachings of the Holy Fathers in a way that they are living, vital and illuminating to our lives The second is the pursuit of a psychological security, an adherence to some individual certainties, a comfort to a conservative culture that often is false Christianity. It is one thing to look for a light and compass in our life in order to go forward creatively. However, it is quite a different thing to refuse to follow a personal path of internal search and self-discovery, using the excuse that everything is already known and clear in the framework of our holy tradition. We all have fallen into this trap quite often and when we do, we see no progress in our spiritual struggle.”

  10. Bill M Avatar

    Is this entry part of a chapter in your book? It should be. 🙂 Thank you (again) for putting into words these concepts of life and faith.

    I’ll echo Andrew’s recommendation of the article by Met. Hilarion.

    Thanks, too, Daniel, for the Kalomiros quote.

  11. fatherstephen Avatar

    Daniel I do not think it is at all correct to concise what has been described here with a misguided yearning for an earlier period. Every time and place has its own struggle. But it is useful to understand some of the unique aspects of our own age

    Modernity presents its own challenges.

    Sent via DROID on Verizon Wireless

  12. Robert Avatar


    It is from his book Clement’s “The Roots of Christian Mysticism” page 26.

  13. Daniel Avatar

    Thank You father!…the last paragraph is a very beautiful Prayer!!!.

  14. davidperi Avatar

    I guess modern Christianity has missed the point of what was important to the early christians: God, the Father, His Son, the Holy Spirit; Jesus suffering, death, burial and the resurrect living Christ .

  15. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Yes, Davidperi, that is what I’m saying and I’ll gladly continue to back up that contention.

  16. mike Avatar

    ..Father Stephen..I percieve that i took a small step forward in my understanding of secularism through this post..thank you. …..I also think these are some of the better comments that i’ve read here in a while thanks Michael and Daniel…

  17. reader john Avatar
    reader john

    I think it was Pope Benedict that said that Christianity’s nemesis in the coming century was not Islam, but relativism. I suppose that relativism is simply an element of modernism.

  18. DNY Avatar

    The Fathers in the Desert said that in the Last Days it will be a greater work merely to believe than it was for the first Fathers to go without bread for 70 days.

  19. Andrew Battenti Avatar
    Andrew Battenti

    Reader John, if I may. Yes this is true although absolutism has about the same potential for abuse as relativism. The eschatological tension between one and the other can only be resolved when the Lord appears on the scene.

  20. mike Avatar

    ….Im wrestling with some thoughts here Father…after slowly re-reading the post im getting a sense that what your saying in other words is that in this world we exist in a “Matrix”(as in the movie) with ‘Modernity’ being the Matrix designed to innocuously lull us away from the “old” Traditions and way of life and supplant it with ever subtle changes in the name of progress and evolution not only in Theology but mankind itself…it would seem then that even things such as modern amenities have a sinister motive behind them.. enticing us ever deeper into the matrix(the flesh) and away from the ‘reality’ of the mystical realm…What does this imply about America?..are we the Devils Kitchen?…should all christians move to Eastern Europe and seek to emulate the Old Ways of traditional Orthodox life?..i dont know..but I suddenly have a new found sense of “Maranatha”….come Quickly Lord!…

  21. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Mike, while I understand the direction of your thoughts, going to the logical extension of them is beyond the scope of what I perceive Fr. Stephen to be saying (and the Church).

    Each age has always had modern amenities and indeed asceticism in monastaries seeks to limit the extent to which those amenities intrude and control their life of prayer.

    For the rest of us, however, we have to deal with whatever set of amenities are presented to us. Tempation is always present. However, to totally exclude them from our life is to deny a good part of who we are as images of God.

    We have dominion over the earth and we are to exercise it as part of our sacramental office….”Thine own of thine own we offer unto thee” but we are not just offering buried talents. We are commanded to dress and keep the earth so that it can bring forth more abundant fruit.

    When we do it for our own selves, worshipping our own mind, “worshipping the created thing more than the creator” we fall into grave sin. When we exercise our God-given abilities in humility, seeking above all union with Him and our own salvation, we are fullfilling our calling.

    By ourselves, seeking only after our own we will always lack the discipline and the discrernment to act rightly (except by pure chance). Acting in acord with the Church, her teachings and the life of the community (filled by God’s grace) we will be granted the wisdom and the strength to enter into Jesus’ triumph over the world and death. “Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world”.

  22. mike Avatar

    ..Michael Bauman i appreciate the fact that you concede a ‘going to the logical extension” or conclusion is not out of the realm of the plausable..I think your reference to the Monkhood is an excellent example of how through interpretive reasoning and logical extension(of scripture) one could come to the conclusion that the monastic culture or some facsimile thereof is the ‘right’ way to live pleasing to God..then where does that leave the rest of us?… If we truly believe that the “Eastern”Orthodox Tradition and culture hold the Keys to the Kingdom then who/what are we born moderns born outside the Eastern Block?

  23. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    It is not the culture that holds the key it is the faith, the union with Jesus Christ that moves from glory to glory as we deepen our repentance, our prayer and our charity.

    There are several different strains of culture in the Orthodox milleau, the Syrian, the Greek and the Russian. The Greek influenced the other two but did not dominate them. Each had their own ‘modernity’ with which to deal as we do today.

    We have the great blessing of being able to draw on the spiritual experience of the Orthodox from all three major strains as we gradually learn to develop our own.

    It is not Russian culture vs. modernity. It is the Kingdom of Heaven vs the world. Since it is the Kingdom of Heaven, there clearly will be a great deal that does not change, but be mediated by the God-man, Jesus Christ, it will be adaptable to human needs and the specifics of human life in any give time and place.

  24. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Mike, it is not Russian culture vs. modernity. It is the Kingdom of Heaven (God with us) vs the world.

    Since it is the Kingdom much about it will not change, but since it is mediated by the God-man, Jesus Christ, it will be adaptable to specific human needs and challenges in specific times and places.

    Asceticism is required, but not fanaticism–which does not excuse us from the ascetic battle. Not all are capable or called to wield the most powerful weapons. We must attend to our own vocation, not the vocation of others past or present (all one in the eyes of God).

  25. Andrew Battenti Avatar
    Andrew Battenti

    Mike if I may,

    God is the hermeneutical key through which all things (including Scripture) can be rightly interpreted. In other words — we relate to everything else (including history and each other) through God Who is the only true and eternal existence.

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