The Despair of Modernity – It Might Not Be All Bad

It is a commonplace in the Fathers to describe despair or sadness as the result of failing to get what we want. It sounds quite simple, but it cuts to the very heart of our sadness. There is a melancholy of our age that is born from the expectations of modernity. The mantra of progress and our belief that no matter the problems confronting us, there is always a solution, are an ideal breeding ground for modern despair.

My experience within social media is that any observed problem within our culture that is presented will attract an immediate flood of proposed solutions. The belief in the solvability of all things is a foundation of the modern world. We are nurtured with an expectation of progress and solutions. When this turns out not to be the case, despair is a natural result.

That same despair is a primary engine for modern anger. We want solutions. We believe that solutions are possible. When solutions fail to be enacted, we get angry. We blame. The world becomes divided into those who, like ourselves, advocate the right solutions, and those who are standing in the way of that progress we believe is always possible.

“If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” – Bumper Sticker from the 60’s

But, of course, modernity is a false dream. It does not solve problems, on the whole. We chip away at one thing and another and marvel at our technological toys. People still die – all of them. People still suffer, it’s an inevitable part of life in this world. There are vast dislocations and injustices that are as much a product of modernity as they are of their own intractability. The narrative we are taught to believe, viz. progress and solvability, is simply not true. It is only “true enough” in very isolated examples to keep us believing that it can be true always and everywhere.

The Christian teachings on the spiritual life do not teach us how to live a life based on false narratives. To make the gospel “work” in the modern world, the gospel must be changed. But, of course, that means choosing to believe that Jesus didn’t know what He was talking about, or that He was limited by His culture…. “We now know better.” This is heresy, but it is probably the most commonly practiced heresy of our time.

The general means of practicing this “new” gospel is to isolate preferred quotes and systematize a new paradigm. To a certain extent, this took place in the Reformation and has been a constant drive within a Protestantism that morphs to fit the culture (often justified by “evangelizing the culture”). This is not a practice restricted to Protestantism. In a variety of forms, all Christians in the modern world engage in this restructuring of the gospel.

The assumptions of modernity are not a product of the century we live in (they are not ideas that “evolved”). They are specific assumptions put forward by a particular philosophy at a particular time and have been adopted and employed to such an extent that they now seem like “common sense.” They simply become part of our worldview. As such, they are a lens through which we read the Scriptures and become an unconscious filter. We take what seems helpful, and ignore those things that do not. But the “helpful” that we unconsciously intend, is “help me live in a modern way, in a modern world, towards a modern salvation.”

I think we are often disappointed that God refuses to behave as the god of modernity. The extremes of the “prosperity” preachers are only the most egregious examples of modernity’s god. There are others, more subtle. For example, we expect God to cooperate with our political projects (both Left and Right). As the problem-solvers of progress, we assume that God is interested in the same goals as we. He is not.

There are times in our lives when the modern project seems like pristine prophecy. Its promise of a better world feels as though it is being fulfilled before our eyes. People are occasionally nostalgic for one period or another when they think this was true. When these times change and become times of frustration, we begin to wonder why God allows such evil to exist. We do not realize that we are asking why it is that God refuses to go along with the modern project.

Some of the assumptions of the modern world include God’s “place” within it. The modern ideal of a “better world” is not built on communion with God. Indeed, it revels in its own independence. God has been demoted to the patron saint of lost causes: “All we can do is pray.” The ideal in the modern life is self-sufficiency. We want enough for now (at least) and a good nest-egg for the rest. To a certain extent, we pray, “O God, help me not to need you.”

However, we serve a good God who loves mankind, and He understands our unrecognized need for failure. He is at “cross-purposes” with the modern project, working towards our complete transformation in Him rather than a better world. For all the prayers of all humanity through all the ages, His answer was going to the Cross. He is waiting there to meet us.

Photo by ruedi häberli on Unsplash

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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136 responses to “The Despair of Modernity – It Might Not Be All Bad”

  1. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    It’s a terrible mess Matthew.

  2. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    You said: “Doesn’t the Church do this, but only in reverse?” Which makes the point that we are confronted by a secularized religion.

  3. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Nikolaos, Andrew, et al
    If possible to act with a blessing, it’s a good practice. There is a dilemma in the matter of what a beggar might do with the money given to him. What is striking to me is the absence of any reference to this dilemma in the commandments of Christ. Surely it was as real a problem then as it is now. But we are told “give” and there are no stipulations placed on commandment.

    As Andrew noted above, if someone says they need money to eat, it is good to offer them a meal. I once took a man to a store and we bought groceries for him. Later in the day I found him selling the groceries on the street to get money for alcohol. So even giving food can be problematic. Nonetheless, I do not believe I shared in his sin of drunkenness – that was on his head. I also offered to go with him to an AA meeting and talked with him about his addiction.

    What I am cautious about is our own reluctance towards generosity – our own temptations to control others. Each of us has to attend to our own heart in these matters and give or not give in good conscience.

  4. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Andrew,
    Perhaps I’ve overstated the “violence” angle. But the coercion of many state actions sometimes has this effect (and we share in similar actions). I’ve had a lot of involvement in these questions over the years – particularly in the years as an Anglican priest where I had significant funds to manage. I remember working with a local social agency (not government) who needed funds for a used car for a family. They could not work without transportation to a job, but there was no government assistance for such a thing. We gave them money for a car and they were able to “drive” their way out of poverty. We could have ignored that need – the government assistance allowed them to live (but not work). They asked for a car. We gave them one.

    It was a wonderful agency – being flexible and helping people solve their own problems. There are no perfect guidelines – but I’ve seen lots of “violence” of a sort worked by the many strings attached to money. As I noted to Nikolaos – we have to do these things in our own good conscience.

  5. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    Fr. Stephen,
    indeed it is a mine field at times in situations of giving money, etc. How to be generous without adding to an already bad situation. I agree with you about the control aspect and making demands. A gift is a gift and is hopefully freely given, no strings attached. The example of the car being a case in point; what is really needed here.
    I’m not totally adverse to giving money though.
    Thank you.

  6. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Hello again Fr. Stephen.

    Matthew,
    You said: “Doesn’t the Church do this, but only in reverse?” Which makes the point that we are confronted by a secularized religion.

    What I meant was, doesn´t the Church preach a morality that it expects society to accept and then calls those who don´t accept it evildoers? It seems the same as what the cancel culture crowd and those who bark at religion do.

    What makes the Church different?

  7. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    A fresh thought about giving aid to strangers that only just now occurred to me (despite thinking about this for years) is “practice.” That is, most things in life we have to practice to get better at, and we accept that we’ll make mistakes along the way. I have been taken advantage of and conned multiple times in my life by trying to help those in need, and it’s easy to become cynical from those misguided attempts.

    Instead of giving up and concluding that I shouldn’t do it, those were just indications I had (have?) not gotten very good at it. Perhaps this is the meaning of being “wise as serpents”–we ought not expect just throwing money mindlessly at a problem will produce the best result. Rather, we should take the time to be more engaged with the person we’re trying to help (not so as to be judgmental, but rather our of caring for more than the transitory need).

    The model provided by the Good Samaritan requires pretty extensive personal involvement.

  8. Justin Avatar
    Justin

    Matthew et al,

    Being an old man looking at life in the rearview mirror (thanks, Fr Stephen, for that image, I think), and tending toward the more practical side, my comment to you (for what it’s worth) is this:

    “Social justice” or whatever “justice” we are working out is only and always toward the person next to me, my next-door neighbor, or the coworker I share an office with, or the clerk at the store, or the beggar on the street. Justice/doing the Commandments is always toward another person; the next good thing is always toward the next man or woman I see. “Making the world a better place” is always making my neighbor’s “world” better (perhaps to the deterioration of my own).

    It is love my neighbor, right next to me, in the immediacy of the present. Now.

    You all may have already said that in not so many words… but the bottom line is this for me. And… Lord have mercy on me the sinner, because I am very bad at this.

  9. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Fr. Stephen said:

    “The Kingdom of God is God’s own gift and is a “supernatural” reality. It is coming into the world whether we want it or not – and is already among us. We will, no doubt, be judged by it.”

    If the Kingdom is a spiritual and supernatural reality that is coming into the world whether we want it to or not, then I understand this as the Kingdom being everywhere God is, which in simple terms means “everywhere”.

    If I am correct, then I am confused as to why Williams and Anstall in their book Orthodox Worship seem to suggest that the Kingdom is only present in the Divine Liturgy, a Kingdom that the people of God enter into during the Liturgy.

    I would think the fullness of the Kingdom is experienced in the Divine Liturgy but it is not the only place where the Kingdom is.

    Help!

  10. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    I certainly would not say that the Kingdom is less than everywhere (much less only in the Liturgy). I suspect that they are not suggesting it as limited to the Liturgy.

  11. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks so much Fr. Stephen. What a great book!

  12. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Matthew,
    The Church does have a special function with the Holy Spirit for the lifting up all of the creation to God in the Liturgy. But God’s presence is not limited to one place in His creation. I refer to
    Ephesians chapter 3.

    Father if I’m in error please correct.

  13. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Andrew, my late wife was a street minister in San Francisco and other places in the late 60’s. She told one story that I always enjoyed. There was one beggar who was a regular on the streets. He would always ask for a quarter for a cup of coffee. My wife was pretty certain he was a pro rather 5han in need. One day, before he could ask she said to him, “Hey, you got a quarter for a cup of coffee? I am short today

    She said he started laughing said, “You got me this time!’ and began pulling out of the pockets of his pants handfuls of quarters. My late wife never recounted any other contacts so I expect he avoided her after that.

  14. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Dee,
    I have been asked, “When does the Liturgy begin and when does it end?” I think that the Liturgy, though punctuated with things such as, “Blessed is the Kingdom…” etc. It, in fact, never ends and is always beginning. From a priest’s perspective, this is pretty literal. So much has taken place before we hear those words, and the Liturgy moves out of the building into the world…but…if, in the world, lives are not embodying what has been set before us in the Liturgy, then we are seeking to “leave” that which should be everywhere present and filling all things.

  15. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Dear Father! Beautifully said! Amen!!

  16. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks for that beautiful image Fr. Stephen. Does Orthodoxy believe that the priest actually becomes Christ when he celebrates the Eucharist? I think I read this too in Orthodox Worship. If true, not comfortable with that without an explanation. I am more comfortable with the priest being an icon of Christ during the celebration.

  17. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    Orthodoxy does not teach that the priest literally becomes Christ in the celebration of the Liturgy. It is, indeed, more proper to describe him as “icon,” in that setting. However, “icon” is a stronger word than merely saying that the priest is like a picture. We begin to tread on territory where words fail us.

  18. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks Fr. Stephen. Are we all not icons of Christ in some way? I mean the image of God (of which Christ is part) exists in every human being.

  19. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    Yes, we are all icons of Christ in some way…which would require “unpacking” as they say. I have written, in various places, about the importance of “veneration” (what we do with an icon). Here’s an example.

  20. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks so much for your help Dee with your thoughts about the Kingdom and the liturgy.

  21. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks so much for the link Fr. Stephen. Would it be correct to say that modern nominalists only see reality as a figment of imagination and that no other reality exists outside of that?

  22. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    Modern nominalists see things as things and words as words – and they are disconnected. Ideas are just thoughts. Stuff is just stuff. It’s a lonely secularized world that might, in their view, have no meaning at all (since meaning is just words).

  23. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    A couple of weeks ago, my parish had our annual Lebanese Dinner. As part of the dinner experience we also give tours of our sanctuary and principally its icons. I have been leading such tours for years. The tours this year were different some how. There was a deeper engagement by the people. A Baptist gentleman who clearly knew his Scripture found inner joy in seeing the Scripture he loved for instance.
    The word most used in response to the icons was “Beautiful”. The topper came on my last tour–given to my boss and his wife. We have known each other for decades but it was the first time they have come on a tour. They are staunch Roman Catholics and will always be what they are. Kathy is far more expressive than her husband. She kept remarking “beautiful” frequently especially as she looked at the icons of the Theotokos we have that depict the Holy Scriptures about Mary.

    At the end she said, “This is as beautiful as the Sistine Chapel but with so much more color, warmth and depth.”

    It fascinates me that she used the word “depth” to describe icons in comparison to sculpture.

    Her husband is a wealthy man but they live simply. I know for a fact that he is also generous to those in need even though, following the Scripture, he gives quietly. Perhaps because he sees the beauty and depth of the living icons around him.

  24. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Simon, having been angry most of my life(I am 75), by God’s Grace I have begun to find my antidote in beauty, thanksgiving and repentance, my wife’s patience and prayers. The victim of anger from two abusive husbands she has helped me to see the futility of my anger and the damage it does to her and others I care for.

    For what it is worth, you will be in our prayers. Let prayer arise….

  25. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Simon, Matthew, et. al.
    The prayer to the Cross which I posted in the “Tree” thread has recently become my weapon against the anger the evil one tries to arouse in me when I start moving toward Christ. It has its roots in Psalm 68 (KJV).

  26. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    When I spoke to my priest about almsgiving, he noted that Jesus commands us to give, and so we should do that. More to the point, he said the we give not so much to help the poor (they will be poor again tomorrow) but to condition our own hearts to be generous.

    The focus of our feeding the poor, giving things away, loving our enemies, etc. is essentially the work of theosis–to become like God. If we think we are “saving” the other (whomever that may be), we are being somewhat delusional. However, as St. Seraphim said, if we “acquire the Spirit of Peace…a thousand souls around you will be saved”. The acts we are commanded to do–the Commandments of Christ–are for our salvation, which is by the grace of God. And by God’s grace as well, will “a thousand around us be saved”.

    I think this dovetails nicely into Father’s question of how can we make the world a better place if we cannot make ourselves good people? God has given us commandments that mold our hearts into His Heart. By His grace, we (all) are saved.

    I hope this is helpful. If I have misspoken, please forgive me.

  27. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Byron,
    Well said.

  28. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    “…the Kingdom of God has come and is already tabernacled among us.”

    And this is such a beautiful image! Many thanks for it, Dee.

  29. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Dear Byron,
    I think I got it from Father Stephen! : )

  30. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks Fr. Stephen for the comment about philosophical nominalism. I was discussing the topic of “making the world a better place” with my wife last night. I offered up some of what we have been discussing in this space and what I have learned. My wife is really drawn to helping improve people´s lives through environmental protection. I told her while I understand the problems with the environment are real and urgent, I feel as though my calling is elsewhere. As I reflect on living out the commandments of Christ, and sharing with people my understanding of the larger reality among us (and beyond us), my thoughts move toward allowing the hoards of people already working on such problems and issues to continue to do so. My energy is better channeled someplace else. Thanks for all the discussion here about modernity everyone. It has really helped me see things in a new light.

  31. Leah Avatar
    Leah

    Fr. Stephen (and others), I am late to this excellent discussion, but I have questions and I wonder if you have any past essays you’ve written that you could link me to. In this thread there has been discussion about using violence for a “greater good.” U.S. history and the current Israel/Palestine atrocities have been given as examples. Am I mistaken, or does the Old Testament not have stories of God seeming to endorse or even command genocide? I’m not sure how to read and understand these Scriptures. I remember Fr. Stephen in a panel discussion once said something to the effect of “my God is not a God of genocide,” but he didn’t give an explanation of what that means when interpreting these clearly genocidal stories in Scripture. Thank you.

  32. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Leah,
    I’d have to do some searching to find a proper and useful earlier article. But I’ll offer something for the moment. First, not all Orthodox priests would agree with me on this (and note, there is no definitive, canoncial way to read the Scriptures). But, some priests would take a strong historical approach on such genocidal passages and present historical/spiritual reasons why God is justified in doing such things (because God can do whatever He wants), and that it was “necessary” (in the sense that it was for the protection of Israel, etc.).

    I find those explanations to be more than troubling and I do not agree with them. I cite, first off, our Lord’s rebuke of the disciples who wanted to call down fire on the Samaritan village that refused to let Christ enter (Luke 9:54). He said, “You do not know what Spirit you are of.” It seems to me to be something of a rebuke of such stories in the Old Testament. It’s hard to argue otherwise.

    Second, and I am not alone in this, there are among the Fathers, those who would treat things like the genocidal stories in an allegorical fashion. St. Gregory of Nyssa is a very famous such case. He argued that there were certain cases that required such a reading: He guides the reader in when to deploy the use of allegorical interpretation for a text, giving four indicators: theological impropriety, physical or logical impossibility, uselessness, and immorality. (cf. Ronald E. Heine, “Gregory of Nyssa’s Apology for Allegory,” in ‘Vigiliae Christianae’, Vol. 38, No. 4, 1984, pp.360-370, p.362)

    He was famously preceded in this approach by the work of Origen. Though later condemned as a heretic – Origen was not condemned for his reading of Scripture. Indeed, he is rightly described by some as the “Augustine of the East,” in that his influence runs profoundly through a great many of the true giants in Eastern Orthodox thought (the Cappadocians, Dionysius, Maximus, etc.)

    Thus, when I see such passages, I read them in an allegorical manner, and frankly, leave aside any question of their historicity. It is historically accurate to say that this is what the Jews of the time believed God to have done – but Christ makes no hesitation critiquing and correcting many things that they did or believed.

    For me, when asked questions about who God is, or what His character is, I believe that Christ alone is definitive as an answer to the question. “The Only Begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has made Him known” (Jn. 1:18)

    You quoted me correctly (on a Youtube video) as having said, “My God is not a God of genocide.” I cannot look at Christ and believe that God is the God of genocide. Nor could St. Gregory of Nyssa. Here’s a passage from the Life of Moses, responding to story of the killing of the Egyptian first born:

    How would a concept worthy of God be preserved in the description of what happened if one looked only to the history? The Egyptian acts unjustly, and in his place is punished his newborn child, who in his infancy cannot discern what is good and what is not. His life has no experience of evil, for infancy is not capable of passion. He does not know to distinguish between his right hand and his left. The infant lifts his eyes only to his mother’s nipple, and tears are the sole perceptible sign of his sadness. And if he obtains anything which his nature desires, he signifies his pleasure by smiling. If such a one now pays the penalty for his father’s wickedness, where is justice? Where is piety? Where is holiness? Where is Ezekiel, who cries: The man who has sinned is the man who must die and a son is not to suffer for the sins of his father? How can history so contradict reason?

    These are truly obvious questions and they speak to the profoundly Christ-like character of the saint who was once described by one of the Councils as the “Father of Fathers.” I might note that St. Gregory was the first Christian writer (that we know of) to condemn slavery as a practice or institution. He stands as a testimony that such ideas do not “evolve.” It is rather the case that far too many hearts are unable to fully see the truth when it stands before them (both then and now).

    I personally think that making peace with the God of genocide is damaging to the heart.

    All of that, obviously, certainly asks the question of “how do you interpret the Scriptures.” I could write a lot on that topic (and have from time to time). What I can say is that my heart had long been troubled by such questions (genocide). When I first saw in some of the Fathers that it was possible to treat the Scriptures as authoritative without being bound by a literal, historical sense in every case, I felt a freedom and lightness of heart – and an immediate love for the heart of such Fathers.

    Of course, it is possible to abuse such an approach. However, I personally believe that the notion that a literal/historical approach must be preserved in all cases has done far greater danger in the history of Christianity – being used repeatedly to justify genocide on the part of Christians.

    I have noted in this comment that I speak on this topic as an individual (with some authoritative agreement among the Fathers) and not by command of my Bishop – and note that there are priests who approach this differently. We will all answer to God. However, I could never in good conscience teach what I do not believe to be true. I can only say to anyone who is deeply troubled by such stories of genocide that they are not alone – and that some of the finest among the Fathers felt the same and taught accordingly.

  33. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    As someone who has studied both history and the philosophy of history there is no such thing as linear history–only ideologues like it and preach it. While quite easy to fall into, the more one really looks at both events in history and our interpretation of events the more problematic a Jack Webb(just the facts. Mam) approach is simply not warranted or possible. Even in contemporary situations “cold hard facts” are difficult if not impossible to discern and that is before the questions of bias are integrated. Historical facts are mushy things.
    One of the reasons that The Law was not able to take into account the Living Christ.
    I have always liked my mother’s approach (modified by my experience a bit). History is a three dimensional dynamic spiral with everything and everybody interconnected. When one includes a living God, the spiral not only becomes infinite but four dimensional with all and each intra-connected. Some things we can know but most of those are revealed in one way or another. Indeed some philosophies of history say that history changes every time we read about it because we are now part of it.

    Our Lord’s Mercy is the one constant.

  34. Leah Avatar
    Leah

    Thank you, Father, this is very helpful. I will need to do some reading of St. Gregory of Nyssa. In these questions of mine (and glad I am not alone) I always hear the voice of my evangelical father (whose ideas are shared by many other Christians, and probably Jews and Muslims as well) who uses the Old Testament stories of God involving Himself in war and politics as justification and evidence of “God’s will” in many acts of violence and conquest throughout history to the current day. I am always having a mental argument with my dad and over these things. Sometimes he tries to engage me in actual argument as well. I wish I had a simple statement to give to him in response, but I don’t know if that’s possible. I need to learn to disengage from all such discussions, whether in my head or otherwise.

  35. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Leah,
    Sometimes it’s hard to find such a simple statement. St. Gregory would have said, “God is good,” and that would have been definitive. The problem, of course, is that people mistakenly think that the genocidal God is a definition of God (and thus justify the genocidal practices of the various governments). I’ve been attacked on a few occasions (out there on the internet), for holding the same opinion and approach as St. Gregory. Nonetheless, I will stand with him – unfazed.

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