The Violence of Modernity

The calm voice at the helm says, “Make it so…” and with it, the mantra of modernity is invoked. The philosophy that governs our culture is rooted in violence, the ability to make things happen and to control the outcome. It is a deeply factual belief. We can indeed make things happen, and, in a limited way, control their outcome. But we soon discover (and have proven it time and again) that our ability to control is quite limited. Many, many unforeseeable consequences flow from every action. If I am working in a very, self-contained environment, then the illusion of total control can be maintained for a very long time. If, say, I am building a watch, my actions and their results can remain on a desktop. However, when the scale of action begins to increase, the lack of true control begins to manifest itself. Actions on the level of an entire society or culture are beyond our ability to manage. A culture is not a very large watch.

But we think it is. That delusion lies at the very heart of the philosophy of modernity.

The arguments supporting the success of modernity are always misleading. The single desired effect becomes the focus while the unintended consequences that follow in its wake are ignored. Modernity always wins, because it cooks the books.

The work of “making it so,” is always an act of violence. We take what is not so and force it to be otherwise. Whether it is the violence of a plow making a field suitable for planting, or the violence of creating a parking lot, human beings have formed and shaped their world by “making it so,” throughout our existence. The field and the parking lot, as innocuous and innocent as they may be, also create consequences that were not part of the plan. The only means of dealing with these consequences are to employ more violence to alter things yet again (requiring yet more violence, ad infinitum), or to treat the consequences as an acceptable change.

In this sense, to be an active part of the world is to employ violence. We do not sit lightly on the surface of our planet. Most human societies across history, have made a moderate peace with the world in which they live, using forms of violence whose consequences have been well-enough tolerated and accounted for so as to be bearable. The rate of change in such societies was modest, and within the limits that a culture could easily accommodate.

Large and rapid change is another thing entirely. “Changing the world,” under a variety of slogans, is the essence of the modern project. Modernity is not about how to live rightly in the world, but about how to make the world itself live rightly. The difference could hardly be greater. The inception of modernity, across the 18th and 19th centuries, was marked by revolution. The Industrial Revolution, the rise of various forms of capitalism, the birth of the modern state with its political revolutions, all initiated a period of ceaseless change marked by winners and losers. Of course, success is measured by statistics that blur the edges of reality. X-number of people find their incomes increased, while only Y-number of people suffer displacement and ruination. So long as X is greater than Y, the change is a success. The trick is to be an X.

The ceaseless re-invention of the better world rarely takes stock of its own actions. That large amounts of any present ruination that are the result of the last push for progress is ignored. It is treated as nothing more than another set of problems to be fixed. As the fixes add up, a toxic culture begins to emerge: food that cannot be eaten; air that cannot be breathed; relationships that cannot be endured; safety that cannot be maintained, etc. As the toxicity rises, so the demand for ever more action and change grows, and, with it, the increase in violence (of all types). The amount of our human existence that now requires rather constant technological intervention is staggering. The entire modern pattern of dating, marriage, family and procreation are impossible without chemical and biological intervention. There has been no “sexual revolution,” only the application of technology into one of the most all-pervasive and normal parts of human existence, creating an artificial aspect to our lives that rests on violence. The abortion of nearly one-third of all children conceived is but a single example. The foundations of our present society are built on doing profound violence to human nature.

It should be noted that I have not suggested some mode of existence that is free of violence. Human beings make things happen, as does most of creation. Modernity, however, is another matter. Its better world has no limits, its project is never-ending. What are the proper limits of violence? Are there boundaries that must not be crossed?

Modernity has as its goal the creation of a better world with no particular reference to God – it is a secular concept. As such, that which constitutes “better” is, or can be, a shifting definition. In Soviet Russia it was one thing, in Nazi Germany another, in Consumer-Capitalist societies yet another still. Indeed, that which is “better” is often the subject of the political sphere. But there is no inherent content to the “better,” nor any inherent limits on the measures taken to achieve it. The pursuit of the better (“progress”) becomes its own morality.

The approach of classical Christianity does not oppose change (there is always change), nor does it deny that one thing might be better than another. But the “good” which gives every action its meaning is God Himself, as made known in Christ. In classical terms, this is expressed as “keeping the commandments.” Those commandments are summarized in the love of God and the love of neighbor. There are other elements within the commandments of Christ that minimize and restrict the use of violence.

There is, for example, no commandment to make the world a better place, nor even to make progress towards a better world. The “better world” concept is, historically, a heretical borrowing from Christianity, a secularization of the notion of the Kingdom of God, translated into terms of progressive technology and laws (violence). But, in truth, the management of history’s outcomes is idolatrous. Only God controls the outcome of history.

My experience is that questioning our responsibility for history’s outcome will always be met with anxious objections that we would be agreeing “to do nothing” and the results would be terrible. Keeping the commandments of Christ is not doing nothing. It is, however, the refusal to use violence to force the world into ever-changing imaginary versions of the good.

I will cite a somewhat controversial example (all examples would be controversial, for modernists love nothing better than to argue about how to next use violence to improve the world). Consider the task of education. Teaching children to read, write and do numbers is not a terribly modern thing. It has been done for centuries, and, occasionally, done rather successfully. But the education industry (a subset of government) exists as an ever-changing set of standards, techniques, and procedures, whose constantly changing results occasion ever-increasing testing, change, control, management and violence to yield frequently lesser results. It has largely produced a cult of management and administration (the bane of every teacher’s existence). This example could be, mutatis mutandis, multiplied over the whole of our increasingly dysfunctional culture.

Sadly, as the results of modernity’s violent progress become more dysfunctional, the greater the temptation grows to do more of the same. Every problem is greeted only with the question of how it might be fixed, with no one ever suggesting that the fixing of the world might be our largest problem.

Again, this is not an all-or-nothing thing. The classical world was not passive nor was there an absence of change. Modernity has chosen economics as the measure of the good, treating increasing productivity as the engine of progress and prosperity and the primary measure of a better world. Debates over the best means of driving such productivity, whether through command-and-control or passive market forces, have been the primary arguments within modernity.

There are many, many other goods that could be, and have been the measure of a culture. The only reason for using economic productivity is the false belief that material prosperity is the fount of all blessings. If we are rich enough, we will be happy.

At the very dark end of the spectrum, America’s philosophical assumptions have made it the servant of modernity-as-export where literal violence is the day-to-day result. Remaking the Middle East has not only failed (completely) but cost hundreds of thousands of lives, a large proportion of which were complete innocents. The resulting chaos has been, at best, a distraction from our unrelenting pleasure in the entertainment industry, though our wars have generated a very popular genre of video game. Violence itself has become a consumer product.

This picture of the modern world can, in the modern Christian mind, provoke an immediate response of wondering what can be done to change it. The difficult answer is to quit living as though modernity were true. Quit validating modernity’s questions. Do not ask, “How can we fix the world?” Instead, ask, “How should Christians live?” and give the outcome of history back to God.

How should we live?

  • First, live as though in the coming of Jesus Christ, the Kingdom of God has been inaugurated into the world and the outcome of history has already been determined. (Quit worrying)
  • Second, love people as the very image of God and resist the temptation to improve them.
  • Third, refuse to make economics the basis of your life. Your job is not even of secondary importance.
  • Fourth, quit arguing about politics as though the political realm were the answer to the world’s problems. It gives it power that is not legitimate and enables a project that is anti-God.
  • Fifth, learn to love your enemies. God did not place them in the world for us to fix or eliminate. If possible, refrain from violence.
  • Sixth, raise the taking of human life to a matter of prime importance and refuse to accept violence as a means to peace. Every single life is a vast and irreplaceable treasure.
  • Seventh, cultivate contentment rather than pleasure. It will help you consume less and free you from slavery to your economic masters.
  • Eighth, as much as possible, think small. You are not in charge of the world. Love what is local, at hand, personal, intimate, unique, and natural. It’s a preference that matters.
  • Ninth, learn another language. Very few things are better at teaching you about who you are not.
  • Tenth, be thankful for everything, remembering that the world we live in and everything in it belongs to God.

That’s but a minor list, a few things that occur to me offhand. They are things that encourage us to live in a “non-modern” manner. It is worth noting that when Roman soldiers approached John the Baptist and asked him how they should live, he told them to be content with their wages and to do violence to no one. They were in charge of the world in their day – or so they could mistakenly think. My few bits of advice are of a piece with that beloved saint’s words.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



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123 responses to “The Violence of Modernity”

  1. William Avatar


    Certainly what the word “racism” used to refer to is real, and you can “do a racism” against all kinds and colors of people. It’s ugly. Maybe it’s because I’ve lived in progressive cities recently that the word has lost its original meaning to me, and so perhaps we need a different word to get at what “racism” used to refer to. As far as I can tell–in the context of progressive America–it now means nothing more or less than “You are white, so shut up.” So that when many people call others “racist” (in the new sense of the term), they are themselves being racist (in the older sense of the term).

  2. Sue Avatar

    I am confused about something I often see in the comments on this blog. It can be summed up like this: “Forgive me, but I disagree with you.” Do we need to be forgiven for disagreeing with someone? Does saying “Forgive me, but. . . “ mean that you are repenting of the view you hold, or are you simply asking the other person not to hold your opposing view against you? Michael Bauman, may I ask why you asked your friend to forgive you for your politics?
    I suspect this is a matter of politeness in Orthodox culture, but the language confuses me, especially since I was once upbraided by a reader on this blog for being polite and considerate in my comments while expressing a different view.

  3. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    For me, it’s sort of a polite Southern thing. To disagree with someone is disagreeable – sometimes, it even provokes shame (which is why people react with anger). It’s an attempt at civility even when you disagree. So, I think it means, “Forgive me for being disagreeable,” or “Forgive me for challenging you in front of other people, etc.”

    And, then, sometimes all of that just falls apart and it gets a bit rough. And, as moderator of the conversation, it’s not fun. But, it’s also not the ok corral. At least, I don’t want it to be.

    After a fashion, and I don’t want to overdo this point, it’s my blog. The conversation centers around what I’ve written, and I try to engage the comments. I don’t want to be dogmatic about things – but, I do mean to teach. So, it’s more like a seminar discussion at times – with the professor in the room.

    Good question, by the way.

  4. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Thanks so very much for your response.
    That song I quoted from Pink Floyd is titled “Comfortably Numb”. It is undoubtedly about the effects of heroine…how it marvelously, instantly. provides the most euphoric high that will drive away any and all kind of soul pain imaginable….and it will fast kill you. It was most aptly described as “chasing the dragon”. Eric, the effects that that drug gave, I can easily compare to what has happened to the human soul in just a generation or two. You say it well, ” Much of who we are is stripped away as we conform our selves to machines.” We as a culture are becoming less human. Inhuman. We have lost that human contact, the irreplaceable face to face, face to face , communication, and yes Eric “no one seems to notice”. For the young people, how could they if they are raised in age of human-contact-replaced-by-machines?! What baffles me is how the older generation has succumbed so complacently, like ‘oh well….it’s not all that bad…there are some good points…’ . No…it’s bad! It is a travesty. Like machines who are discarded to the trash, so are relationships these days.
    Yes, I feel this especially keenly as of late, because that very loss has hit me in the face . I think we are so disconnected these days that that ‘hitting you in the face’ is what it takes to open the eyes. My eyes were greatly opened.

    How ironic a statement, “if we were all like Jesus we’d never get anything done”… tongue in cheek, yes, but also true. First thing we’d have to do is to get to know each other, for real.

    I helps my heart, Eric, to read your words. I really was wondering if “there was anybody out there”.

    Thank you. Rich blessings to you.

  5. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Sue, I asked him to forgive me because it is critically important to him that I vote “Progressive”. In fact he told me he was going to try to convert me. Even though he is highly intelligent, warm, caring and loves the Lord, becoming Orthodox several years ago–he is still bound by race in many ways and the politics of race.

    I had to tell him I did not agree with him and asked that he forgive me reminding him that I called to touch base with him and let him know i love him.

    One of the reasons he became Orthodox was because we made an empathetic connection that went beyond race. The fact that a white guy like me could and would do that was amazing to him. He told me so, in fact several months later. It was certainly a God Thing. I had gifted him a copy of a book by Prof Albert Raboteau. I believe it was “Slave Religion” as a way to navigate the deep truth of the Orthodox faith from a black man who had made the journey himself. Of course my years of friendship with Fr. Moses Berry did not hurt. Fr. Moses has taught me a lot.

    I did not apologize for not agreeing with him. I told him why I disagreed but ultimately our friendship was vastly more important. I want nothing to damage that–certainly nothing as trivial as electoral politics. But they are not trivial to him. It seemed to be what was needed at the time. Despite his intelligence, money and genuine kindness he is deeply fragile when it comes to matters of race. I asked him to forgive me in case I had hurt him. The last thing I want to do is hurt him but I was not going to lie either.

    I hope that answers your question.

  6. Dino Avatar

    You make a profoundly important point.

  7. Sue Avatar

    Father Stephen and Michael Bauman, thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. Your explanations were very helpful to me.

  8. George Avatar

    Thank you for this post, Father. Your writings and talks on this topic provide great comfort and are always insightful. One of the traps of modernity which seems to be rearing its head more and more these days is this idea that we are somehow more evolved and superior to our ancestors. We judge them because we are smarter and better today and so we can succeed where they failed “This time it will be different.” God help us from these delusions.

  9. Yvette Cathers Avatar
    Yvette Cathers

    Wow! Another outstanding blog post. Thank you so much!

  10. Jeremias Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I’m revisiting a book on Existentialism from 1958 (Irrational Man by William Barrett) and much of the second chapter sounds like things you have written. Thought I would just offer a quick passage or two in case you’re interested:

    “Collectivized man, whether communist or capitalist, is still only an abstract fragment of man.

    We are so used to the fact that we forget it or fail to perceive that the man of the present day lives on a level of abstraction altogether beyond the man of the past. When the contemporary man in the street with only an ordinary education quickly solves an elementary problem in arithmetic, he is doing something which for a medieval mathematician—an expert—would have required hours. No doubt, the medieval man would have produced along with his calculation a rigorous proof of the whole process; it does not matter that the modem man does not know what he is doing, so long as he can manipulate abstractions easily and efficiently. The ordinary man today answers complicated questionnaires, fills out tax forms, performs elaborate calculations, which the medieval man was never called upon to do—and all this merely in the normal routine of being a responsible citizen within a mass society. Every step forward in mechanical technique is a step in the direction of ‘abstraction. This capacity for living easily and familiarly at an extraordinary level of abstraction is the source of modem man’s power. With it he has transformed the planet, annihilated space, and trebled the world’s population. But it is also a power which has, like everything human, its negative side, in the desolating sense of rootlessness, vacuity, and the lack of concrete feeling that assails modem man in his moments of real anxiety.

    “The machinery of communication makes possible the almost instantaneous conveying of news from one point on the globe to another. People read three or four editions of a daily paper, hear the news on the radio, or see tomorrow morning’s news on their television screen at night. Journalism has become a great god of the period, and gods have a way of ruthlessly and demonically taking over their servitors. In thus becoming a state of mind—as Kierkegaard prophesied it would do, writing with amazing clairvoyance more than a century ago—journalism enables people to deal with life more and more at second hand. Information usually consists of half-truths, and ‘knowledgeability’ becomes a substitute for real knowledge. Moreover, popular journalism has by now extended its operations into what were previously considered the strongholds of culture—religion, art, philosophy. Everyman walks around with a pocket digest of culture in his head. The more competent and streamlined journalism becomes, the greater its threat to the public mind—particularly in a country like the United States. It becomes more and more difficult to distinguish the second-hand from the real thing, until most people end by forgetting there is such a distinction. The very success of technique engenders a whole style of life for the period, which subsists purely on externals. What lies behind those externals—the human person, in its uniqueness and its totality—dwindles to a shadow and a ghost.”

  11. Joseph Barabbas Theophorus Avatar


    Interesting quote. I tend to think of the first part, abstraction, as a good thing: it is what underlies our ability to create icon and symbol. It is one of the traits that distinguishes us from a computer, which could also perform those Medieval proofs but has no concept of the interrelatedness of all things. I also wonder about the second part: sure, journalism can be (and is!) misused but it is, at its best, a form of hagiography, theology, and revelation. And what is “the real thing”? Would we see it even if we were there? I think reality is only found in Christ. Maybe more context would help, because I see his internals and externals reversed in my mind; I’m sure Michael Bauman could speak to that more, too, if he catches the comment.

  12. Jeremias Avatar

    Perhaps more context is needed, but I’d refer you to Fr. Stephen’s other post, “Living in the Real World” for the thematic overlap that I intended.

    Abstraction in this context means being pulled from the particularity and concreteness of actual human personhood and lived experience. I do not think abstraction, in this sense, has anything to do with iconography or symbolism, which are inherently particular and concrete, and by being so, refer beyond themselves to draw us to the Ultimate Particular, God Himself.

  13. Esmee La Fleur Avatar
    Esmee La Fleur

    Thank you. 🙏💗

  14. David Avatar

    Thank you Father for your beautiful article. I have always enjoyed your insightful critique of modernity in that it does not disappear into the realm of despair but manages to find hope in all things. I am history teacher at an alternative inner city school. I wonder, how can I teach history in an Orthodox fashion? Many times I examine the past of the United States, and I despair seeing only the Modern Project and the destruction of humanity in community. How can I teach about the value of political rights that our culture values so much while said rights disregard our complex humanity? Also should I teach and try to shape my students’ character beyond my own example?
    These are questions that I struggle with as an American teacher. I sometimes despair and see America as the antichrist though the people in this country are good. How should we respond?

  15. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Seems to me that you’ve already begun by asking such questions. It’s good, on the one hand, to read widely in historical analysis so that you draw from a large pool of thought. I think it’s always good to help people to think critically when they read history – which means to see a number of viewpoints. There are no simple answers to your questions – but there are the good struggles that God will lead you into as you try to fulfill your vocation. Don’t despair. All of us will likely do our jobs badly. But, even so, we should not despair.

  16. David Avatar

    Thank you Father for your kind words. I have recently found some comfort in studying Abraham Lincoln and the peace he sought. Please Father pray for us Americans that we may find beauty and goodness in all, even the mud of history.

  17. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    David, three suggestions that made a difference 8n my reading of American history: Henry Adams, Francis Parkman and Andrew Jackson’s papers and letters from his time as President. Henry Adams of course was a high value secondary source being the great grandson of John Adams and grandson of John Quincy and son of Ambassador Francis Adams. Jackson letters and papers are primary source. Francis Parkman was a 4th generation American who wrote history because of his love this country.
    Are they ‘true”, only in the sense in that they give you a sense of the original narrative of America. It is a narrative that is still active and alive it has not been completely submerged by the critical modern narrative.
    If you are like me, you will find yourself asking “where do I see God here. After all God is the author and finisher of history and if we read carefully and with a quiet mind and heart, He can be discerned. I cannot tell you how to teach all that in a secular setting but it may call your mind so that you can find away.

  18. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    On racial matters the little book: The End of Indian Kansas is a wonder.

  19. Ed Lauber Avatar

    You write that there is no commandment to make the world better. What about the creation mandate (Gen 1:26-28) and the concept of shalom? Those seem to say that humans are here to make things better. Modernity fails for three reasons which you treat eloquently – its definition of “better” is sadly lacking, changing and can be tyrannical; it fails to make it central to make oneself better instead focusing on “the world”; and it ceases to be satisfied with better and wants perfect. But making things better starting with myself and accepting God’s vision of better all while accepting that we can’t make things perfect, all seem central to God’s view of this world and his actions in it.

  20. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I understand your reasoning. However, my caution would be that the concept of “betterment” of the world is inherently modern. It’s simply not the way the Christian tradition has spoken through the centuries until quite recently when that concept became a way of justifying the profit-based exploitation of all things and all people.

    Gen. 1:26-28 has two key words: to subdue (kavash) and to have dominion (radah). Neither says anything about making things better. Instead, they speak of relational matters – humanity as the governors of creation. I’m really not certain how you make a tree “better.” Modernity has come to define better in terms of productivity, efficiency, etc. So much so that we poison things and play games with genetic engineering – not really to make anything better – only to make more profit. At present, our bodies are themselves in rebellion against our “better” world, with food allergies and such at an almost epidemic level. I never knew anyone with gluten intolerance when I was a kid. Now – it’s everywhere.

    My oldest daughter lived a year in Siberia (in 2000). She had terrible food allergies here. In Russia, things were quite “primitive” without preservatives and the corporate produced foods we have here. GMO’s are outlawed there. Oddly, she had almost zero problems with food there.

    I think we should quit talking in “better” terms. We should work at just being good. Same thing for the country. I do want to be great. I want to be good.

    But – I would caution again about reading a meaning into Genesis that is simply not there.

  21. Esmee La Fleur Avatar
    Esmee La Fleur

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for sharing your daughter’s experience. I’ve heard similar stories from others as well. As someone who has body that reacts badly to every food, I am intrigue by this phenomenon.

  22. David Avatar

    Thank you Michael. I am surprised by your inclusion of Jackson. I will have to read what he said instead of what critical historians have said. Reading Lincoln has been helpful for me, especially in better understanding the art of statesmanship. I am still an Illinois boy.

  23. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    David, I include Jackson not as a paragon of virtue, he certainly was not(other than his fierce loyalty to and love of his wife Rachel) but because he truly embodied and articulated a certain idea of America and the idea of Union. It was much different than the Founders. His Letters and Papers are tremendous resources but like all such source material are easy to put into one’s own ideological narrative. I was fortunate enough to spend the better part of a year as a young man in those documents and many others. It was bracing. Dumas Malone said it best (paraphrasing). If you want to know a man, you have to live with him for awhile.

    I love the story of how, as an old man but still President, he was returning to the White House after a official duty and he was acccosted by a man intending to shoot him. In fact the man, a disgruntled office seeker, did fire his flintlock pistol but it misfired. Jackson them attacked the man with his non-ornamental cane. He had to be dragged away from the man or Jackson would have beaten him to death. There is a tremendous amount of US history and personal character wrapped up in that story.

    Another note: he was a slave owner who lit the fuse for the Civil War in his belief in and propagation of Federal supremacy. Complicated man and complicated Presidency.

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