Modern Illusions

mirageA “better world” and “making a difference” are deeply embedded in our cultural consciousness. They seem to be obvious goals for the human life. My recent articles questioning this consciousness have touched a deep chord for many, some wondering that if such things are wrong, “why bother?” There are two thoughts I want to offer in this article. The first addresses the illusion of the better world and making a difference, while the second addresses what it is that we can do.

The Illusion

Change is a constant in human history. No doubt, telephones, television, medicines, water purification, computers, and many other technological inventions change the way people go about doing a wide range of activities. However, modernity is not about change – it is a story about change. It is a narrative about the role change plays in the world and our part in it. What is illusory about modernity is that the narrative is false.

Generally speaking, individuals labor over the course of their days with a vague hope, or almost religious faith, that they are “making a difference.” We cannot really know what difference we make, or whether, in the long term, the difference we might make will be beneficial or not. The scope and scale of the world are simply too large for anyone to know such a thing. The so-called “butterfly effect” is true – even the smallest action creates change. A collision of atoms on the other side of the universe changes the whole universe. The scope and scale of the world and the long stretch of history make it impossible for us to know whether the change of which we are a part of beneficial or not.

It interests me that my critique of modernity is often met with the suggestion that I want to abandon technology, or that I’m ignoring its place in our lives. Technology and various innovations are not inherently modern. The only thing modern about such things is the place they hold in the narrative of modernity.

Once upon a time, human beings labored using stone upon stone to grind wheat into usable flour. At some point, that method was replaced with larger grinding stones that worked on the basis of a wheel. Later still, larger constructions were powered by animals. And several centuries before Christ (to the best of our knowledge), the use of water-powered mills was invented, creating a method that remained largely unchanged until the invention of a practical steam engine in the late 1700’s. This is a pattern of invention and innovation, all of which took place outside of modernity. Invention and technology is not a modern activity – it is a human activity. The structures of free-market capitalism have encouraged and rewarded this human activity – but change and technology are not some marvelous gift bestowed on us by modernity.

To understand modernity, you have to first untangle the cords of its narrative and its false claims. “Making a difference” and “building a better world” are typical slogans of our age. However, they belong to the realm of political rhetoric (and not only in recent times). A “better world” has been the rhetoric behind colonial efforts, the Communist revolutions, and any number of genocides. Political debate is invariably about competing versions of a better world with little effect other than the faces that stare out from various parliaments. Versions of the better world are not slogans drawn from Christian tradition.

Is technology actually taking us somewhere “better?”

We are, in fact, all headed in the same direction human life has always gone: death. No technology can change this fact. At most, it can create new scenery as a diversion along the way. In general, the term “better” refers to “less suffering.” By a “better world” we simply mean a world with less suffering. But, like death itself, suffering is a fact of life. We suffer in different ways, some of them begotten by technology itself, but no amount of technology will ever change the landscape of human existence into a journey devoid of suffering. In the modern narrative, what is abolished is a reason to suffer. Suffering is understood as evil. But if it is unavoidable, then the modern project will always fail, and by refusing to rightly understand suffering, it renders suffering itself to be unbearable.

What We Can Do

Only an understanding of the Good can provide a proper measure for “better.” But the various philosophies that undergird modernity reject the notion of the Good. Christians in the modern world have all too readily translated the Christian gospel into the terms of the modern narrative. The Kingdom of God cannot (and must not) be equated with an improved world. Though the relief of suffering is often a very good thing, it is not necessarily an inherently good thing. Christ did not die in order to make a better world – He died in order to raise us from the dead.

That Paschal reality unites us to Christ’s death and resurrection and this becomes the measure and true vehicle of our existence. An alternate way to think about suffering is to ask, “How can I help you bear legitimate suffering?” There is no such thing as a non-suffering human existence. In the end, those who imagine the relief of suffering to be the overriding goal of life, will also accept death as a means to achieve it. Abortion and euthanasia are modern efforts whose use is defended as a relief of suffering. Putting someone to death certainly relieves suffering, after a fashion. A massive nuclear strike could end all suffering – for ever. It is, strangely, a logical conclusion that has so far been overlooked.

Overlooked by those who choose to use the language of modernity to describe the Christian life (“better world”) is the fact that such a description or self-understanding makes the Church just one more partner in the common secular effort to make the world marginally better. Christ founded the Church as His body, not as the Rotary Club. The fact that many members of the Church cannot give a description of a substantial difference between the purpose of Rotary and the Church is a testament to the power of the modern narrative. (Incidentally, Rotary has much more stringent attendance rules).

There is a “spirituality” that naturally flows from the modern drive for improvement and progress. Spiritual growth is cast in terms of improvement, getting better. And though Protestant and Evangelical theology classically champion the work of grace, modernity has high-jacked their movements and replaced them with self-improvement. Grace has been reduced to God agreeing to grade us on a curve.

The Classical Christian life, as described in the New Testament, is grounded in weakness and true grace (the Divine Energies). Our modern instincts urge us to try harder and get better. The New Testament tells us that we are saved in our weakness: the way down is the way up. Modernity has turned Christianity on its head and converted us into a society of the above average.

And this is very much my point. The critique of modernity is not the complaint of a curmudgeonly priest. It is a cry for us to return to the faith as it was once and for all delivered to the saints. The modern mind instinctively rejects the Cross as a way of life while the mind of Christ (Philippians 2:5-11) instinctively rejects modernity.

For while we are commanded to do good, to share, to serve, to love, to forgive, we do these things knowing that all of our efforts do not change the world. The slogans of “making a difference” and “making the world a better place” are illusions, figments of our imagination. They entice us to plot and plan, argue and harangue. They do not nurture the spirit nor point us towards the way of Christ.

Empty yourself.

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.



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102 responses to “Modern Illusions”

  1. SB Avatar

    I dont believe in the modernist ideas of progress, but at the same time it true that there are healthier and less healthy societies, and that one major factor in the degree of health has to do with structural issues of power relations in the society. I am certainly not holding up modern-day France as my ideal kind of society, but to suggest that there is no appreciable difference between contemporary France and France at the end of the Ancien Regime is preposterous.

    Unintended consequence are unavoidable, but that does not mean that we should walk though life blindfolded and abandon responsibility for bringing our intelligence to all situations. If I am considering moving with family to another city for work, there are a huge number of unknown and unpredictable factors that will determine what this move actually brings, but I would not, on that basis, just abnegate responsibility for the decision. Instead I gather what information I can about neighborhoods, church community, schools, etc, and then make the best decision I can.

    Healing comes from Christ, but that healing is meant for all parts of human life, including social and political matters (the government shall be upon his shoulders). This healing does not proceed by seeking to implement grand ideological schemes, as in the modernist systems, but it does require our continued thoughtful, prayerful, and repenting engagement with this part of life.

  2. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    France is definitely different now than at the end of the Ancien Regime. Germany, circa 1939 was greatly improved compared to its life 200 years before – or perhaps not. If things are measured solely in terms of safety, health, material prosperity, your case will, from time to time, be plausible. However, if, for example, it could be demonstrated that those modern, prosperous people also murdered one third of all children in the womb, (and I could go on stacking up the present consequences of our enlightened world), it might be that prosperity is a curse.

    I in no way have suggested some form of Quietism. The “continued, thoughtful, prayerful and repenting engagement” with this part of life is simply keeping the commandments. Which was already part of my point.

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