Written by Carl R. Trueman |
Friday, December 15, 2023
Our fundamental problem today is not that man is disenchanted or turned into liquid, but that he has been desecrated, in part by the impersonal forces of modernity, but largely by his own hand. The answer, therefore, must have consecration at its core. This cannot be legislated. Politicians have no authority over the spiritual imagination, to which the language of consecration speaks. The modern crisis of anthropology must find its solution among religious communities worshiping in local contexts. The answer is first and foremost a theologically informed liturgical one, for it is in worship that human beings are brought into the presence of the God, in whose image they are made and who grounds their common human nature.
This year marks the eightieth anniversary of the lectures that became C. S. Lewis’s book The Abolition of Man. Speaking to an audience at the height of the Second World War, Lewis identified the central problem of the modern age: The world was losing its sense of what it meant to be human. As man’s technological achievements were once again being used to destroy human life on an industrial scale, Lewis pointed to the dehumanization that was occurring all around. And as the war continued, the Final Solution and the atomic bomb served to reinforce his claims. Yet modern warfare was not the only problem. As Lewis argued, the intellectual and cultural currents of modernity were also culpable. The war was as much a symptom of the problem as a cause. Modernity was abolishing man. It represented nothing less than a crisis of anthropology.
Sociologists have proposed a number of concepts that characterize the modern age. These provide a useful backdrop to Lewis’s observations. Perhaps the most influential is the Weberian thesis of disenchantment. Whereas once the local god or saint kept the water supply fresh and sweet, now the local water purification plant does the same. Village life has been replaced by the anonymity of the city. People have come to be valued not for themselves but for their earning potential or their consumption. And disenchantment has worked its way into every corner of life: Whereas once love was a serendipitous force that culminated in a lifelong bond between two people, now we swipe left or right on our apps for the next hookup.
These changes bring with them a sense of loss. Modernity has shunted religion and the supernatural to the margins, at the cost of stripping the world of its mystery. The sea of faith recedes, Matthew Arnold wrote in a great poem, and we hear only its “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar.”
The problem is not merely that the world has become prosaic. It is also that man has lost his sense of his own significance. The more we understand and control nature, the more we realize our own contingency and smallness amid the vastness of an impersonal universe. The unique intellectual brilliance of our species has, ironically, deprived us of any sense that we have special significance. As Pascal observed, the eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens those who reflect upon it. This is the ethos that haunts the work of many modern and postmodern writers: Kafka, Beckett, Sartre, Pinter. With no God-given human nature and no God-ordained human end, the question “What is man?” is easily answered: He is nothing much. His nature too is disenchanted.
A second facet of modernity, identified by Zygmunt Bauman, is its liquidity. We live in a world that is in constant flux. This observation is not original to Bauman. Both Marx and Nietzsche voiced it in the nineteenth century. The Communist Manifesto famously declared that the bourgeois era required a constant revolutionizing of production and of markets and thus of all social relations. Constant disturbance was a hallmark of modernity; as Marx put it, “all that is sold melts into air.” Likewise, Nietzsche’s madman, reflecting on the death of God, described the earth as unhitched from the sun, turning all old certainties into chaos. Both men spoke truth: The modern West is indeed in state of endless flux and offers us no place to stand, no firm grasp of who we are.
More recently, the flux has been intensified by what Hartmut Rosa calls social acceleration. If Marx was correct that industrial production was a source of constant change in society, it was so in large part because it depended on technology that was itself constantly changing. We too live in an era of constant technological change, but it no longer affects merely industrial production. Technology shapes how we live in every area, from education to romance. Our lives are technologically shaped in public and in private, and the technology changes so fast that we are unable to assimilate one development before another overtakes it. The result is a dizzy feeling that our ability to control even our personal worlds is constantly slipping further away. In such a context, the questions of who we are and what we are meant for become impossible to answer. Indeed, to borrow from Yeats’s “The Second Coming,” things seem constantly falling apart, and that includes the consensus on who or what man is and what he is for.
The abolition of man as Lewis describes it takes place against the background of two aspects of modernity: its disenchantment and its accelerating liquidity. Yet I want to suggest that we need to add a third category, that of desecration. Man is made in God’s image. That means that the abolition of man is a theological act with theological consequences. Neither disenchantment nor liquidity by itself adequately expresses this aspect of the problem. Desecration, a theological concept, does so.
We can see this more clearly when we reflect on the limitations of disenchantment and liquidity as explanatory schemes. The first is that these concepts speak only to a loss of that which once was. Disenchantment, of course, points to the loss of enchantment. Whereas once the supernatural pervaded the natural, and the transcendent set the terms for the immanent, now only the natural and the immanent remain. Likewise with liquidity: We no longer have, in Marx’s phrase, fixed, frozen relations. All true—but, as will be seen, there is more to our modern condition than these losses.
The second problem is that disenchantment and liquidity connote a lack of human agency. Both are the result of impersonal social processes: industrialization, bureaucratization, technologization, globalization. Connected to these processes is the reification in common language of the phenomena to which they refer: industry, bureaucracy, technology, the global economy. Each takes on a life of its own in our imaginations, and we humans feature within these processes as interchangeable objects, not as active subjects or persons. Yet the processes themselves are the result of human activity. If we have become cogs in the machine, it is because we built the machine.
Further, we must not ignore the agency of the cultural elites—the legal, educational, technological, artistic, managerial, and political classes. In the past, such elites saw themselves as tasked with continuity, with the transmission of values from generation to generation and the careful cultivation of the institutions and social practices that were necessary for this task. Today, the dominant impulse of our elites is toward disruption, destruction, and discontinuity. The abolition of man is a conscious project of our culture’s officer class, not merely the outcome of impersonal social and technological forces. Disenchantment and liquidity simply cannot do justice to this project.
The third problem is that neither disenchantment nor liquidity takes account of the theological significance of the transformations that modernity has wrought upon the understanding of what it means to be human. One need not be a Christian or even a theist to grasp that these transformations have theological significance. Both Marx and Nietzsche connect their understandings of the modern world to desecration. In the same passage that pronounces that all that is solid melts into air, The Communist Manifesto declares that all that is holy is profaned. And Nietzsche’s madman makes very clear that God has not simply ceased to exist in the moral imagination, but is dead—more than that, we have killed him. This slaying of God is surely the ultimate act of active desecration.
Both Nietzsche and Marx view this desecration as good. For Marx, religion is an opiate that prevents the proletariat from feeling the full pain caused by capitalism. Criticism of religion is therefore central to the revolutionary project. Desecration is a precondition for the coming of the communist utopia. For Nietzsche, the death of God, though placing a terrifying responsibility on the shoulders of human beings, is a necessary precondition for man’s self-transcendence. The only question is whether we are up to the task.
It is true that in modernity, desecration is not always the result of intentional agency. Mechanized warfare intensified modern problems surrounding theodicy and inflicted serious damage on traditional religion. Wilfred Owen’s great poem “Anthem for Doomed Youth” transposes the language of Christian liturgy to the slaughter of the Great War’s trenches. The faith is desecrated, but not by the actions of any particular individual—rather, by the chaos of a war supercharged by the power of industry, the fruit of a coincidental confluence of numerous aspects of modernity.
Desecration, however, is more often an intentional act. I noted earlier the impulse of modern elites toward disruption and discontinuity. Nowhere is this more obvious than in their preoccupation with desecration. From Algernon Charles Swinburne to Francis Bacon and beyond, the conscious profaning of the holy has been a constant theme. Take, for example, the opening lines of James Joyce’s Ulysses:
Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him by the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned:
— Introibo ad altare Dei.
So begins the greatest masterpiece of modernism, with the first line of the Mass, intoned by a man about to shave, with his genitals flapping in the breeze for all to see. Though Joyce’s conscious intention is presumably not to abolish man—by instantiating Homeric epic in the everyday life of modern Dublin, he ennobles man no less than he ironizes him—Ulysses opens with a moment of desecration that has implications for anthropology. To mock religion is in effect to mock the understanding of God and humanity that religion represents.
Much could be said about the anti-religious tendency of much of high modernism. What is important to note, however, is that intentional desecration has migrated to the popular culture of our own time. As the sophisticated Joyce in the 1920s mocked the Latin Mass, so the talented Billy Joel reminded us in the 1970s that Catholic girls wait far too long to lose their virginity, and now the buffoonish Lil Nas X performs songs as blasphemous as they are banal. Desecration is today mainstream, the preoccupation of even the lowest forms of cultural pond life.
Though further evidence that desecration has gone mainstream may be sought in many areas, I will focus on sex and death. Both have traditionally been matters of deep religious significance. Sex is the mysterious origin of life, death the mysterious end of life. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that a large part of the laws of the Pentateuch is preoccupied with the implications of sex and death for ritual purity.