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Modernity and Christ

The great contribution religion can make to us today is to liberate us from the chains of modernity. “Religion today must speak to modern man” is true the way “religion in a jail must speak to prisoners” is true.

Fundamentally, modernity is an attempt to abolish the transcendent and reconstruct the world as a system men can fully understand and control for their own purposes. Thus, the supreme achievement of modernity, modern natural science, makes knowledge a matter of standardized public observation and control. To the extent that something can’t be quantified, verified by reproducible experiment and explained by reference to uniform mathematical relationships among operationally-definable properties, it’s not knowledge but preference. A consequence is that the realm of “values” becomes the realm of preferences, with “justice” a matter of ensuring that one preference does not violate the equal rights of other preferences. The moral view that has triumphed everywhere is thus the liberal one, that what we choose as our good really is our good, or at least must be treated as such by all concerned.

So what’s wrong with getting what we want, or with knowledge that we can demonstrate and use? Only that taken purely by themselves the first isn’t what we want and the second isn’t knowledge. We want our aims and actions to make sense in some way that goes beyond the mere fact that they happen to be our aims and actions, that makes them part of a larger moral world that does not depend on us. If we don’t get that, we don’t get what we want. Hedonism thus contradicts itself. And since demonstrations and uses can exist only within a broader system of things that tells us what the world is like and what goals make sense within it, modern natural science cannot help but depend on the kind of metaphysical presumptions and ultimate ethical standards that moderns, as moderns, refuse to treat as objective. Although modern natural science claims to deal with the whole of reality, it is essentially incomplete. It cannot, for example, explain itself.

Modernity therefore necessarily fails by its own standards of usefulness, clarity, and self-contained consistency. Its successes depend on things that it cannot explain or even recognize, like rational objective order within the moral and physical universe. Its attempt to treat itself as complete while excluding consideration of the things on which it depends necessarily ends in incoherence and obfuscation. The latter are manifested in growing moral and social disorder and in a political correctness that tries to make criticisms of the status quo unthinkable and has already begun to attack even the pure and applied sciences.

It is therefore a mistake for religion to explain itself to modern man by complying with modernity, for example by limiting itself to what modern natural science can justify and downplaying troublesome moral demands. What modern man needs more than anything is something that opens a window out of modernity, that gives him back the transcendent. He needs religion that makes of a point of its unyielding nonempirical and even miraculous aspects and emphasizes a morality that goes beyond personal preference and therefore enables him to see his actions as finding their sense within a system of things that he did not make up.

Saint Paul was all things to all men, but only for the sake of transforming them. He wasn’t afraid to preach what seemed foolishness. Christ is a sign of contradiction. In a time that would abolish the possibility of God in the interests of a purely this-worldly order of things we need to remember those things and accept and pass on to others the whole of the truth that sets men free.