When I was doing a graduate degree in theology, it was not uncommon to hear discussions of what was called the “project of modernity.” It was an academic catch-phrase to describe the social-philosophical-political-religious efforts to construct the modern world. The Enlightenment, which took place in the 17th and 18th centuries describes a collection of efforts that changed how people saw the world, how they saw themselves, how they saw their faith, how they saw the state. It brought new ways of thinking into the mainstream of Western culture and newly imagined the meaning and construction of politics; it pondered and reinvented Christianity. Most importantly, it re-imagined what it meant to be a human being. We, today, are heirs of that legacy. The most uneducated person who never heard anything about the Enlightenment, the most uneducated person in our society shares the assumptions of the “modern project,” regardless of whether they’re even remotely aware of I, for we are the modern project.
In the modern project, human beings are understood to be autonomous centers of consciousness whose choices and decisions bring about their self-actualization. That’s a mouthful, but I’ll explain what I mean. First, we are autonomous centers of consciousness. That is, we understand that our identity is rooted in the fact that we’re conscious and aware and that the center of myself belongs to me alone. I can choose to share with others and make common cause with others, but I am defined only by myself. So this is also a heart of individualism: I am my own man.
Secondly, our choices and decisions are what bring about our self-actualization, that who I am in the world we think of as being a product of our experiences and the choices and decisions we make and have made. Those decisions, we think, create our identity—they are our means of actualization. So we’re self-actualized; my decisions and choices are what determine the meaning of my life so that I am who I choose to be.
When you look at these critical ideas, it’s easy to understand why the primary driving force of modern history is freedom. This definition of what it means to be human makes a certain version of freedom the most essential part of life, such that a nything that restricts freedom quickly becomes an enemy of individual existence and self-actualization. Only if I am free to choose am I able to properly exist as a self-actualized individual.
These are not necessarily conscious ideas, but they are almost universal in the modern world. We don’t have to think about them; we think them. We discuss “freedom” and “choice” without ever having to define our terms, with a wide-range of social agreement. Just as certain Christian groups played a major role in the development of the modern world-view, so their spiritual heirs today have become the dominant modern form of Christianity.
Churches, for instance, that practice infant baptism, which used to be a normative classical Christian practice and was once the dominant practice among all Protestants with the exception of Baptists, but churches who engage in that practice today constantly have to defend themselves. Infant baptism in the modern world seems to contradict the most basic assumptions about human freedom. “Shouldn’t a child be able to choose for themselves whether to be baptized?” The logic of that seems obvious to a modern man. Anything that impinges or limits choice seems dangerous or questionable within the modern project. A relationship with Christ is something that must be freely chosen. “The Hour of Decision” is a phrase that resonates with the modern heart.
Church discipline on moral matters—or on other matters, but on moral matters—has come under increasing scrutiny. Church discipline, of course, impinges on people’s freedom. Modern persons may associate themselves with a church so that they become “Catholic” or “Orthodox” or “Presbyterian,” or whatever, but that the moral details of their lives should be governed by that association seems questionable to them. For instance, a majority of Americans who identify as “Roman Catholic” ignore that Church’s teaching on many social issues—particularly those issues that they regard as “private,” that is, sexual issues. The Church serves a function in their lives, but only the private choice of the individual is given the power to define and determine true identity. In such a world, words like “Catholic,” “Orthodox,” “Calvinist” are more a label, a self-chosen identifier, than a community in which identity and life themselves are formed.
There is a civilizational clash between classical Christianity and the “modern project,” and I’ll explain that. In the classical understanding we are not autonomous individuals. We are contingent beings, that is, beings whose lives depend on something else. We’re contingent beings whose existence is in fact a gift: a gift with purpose, meaning, and direction that’s given by God. We have value as persons not because of our choices or our ability to choose but because we are created in the image of God. Thus the least of us, including the incompetent, even those in a vegetative state, have true worth and dignity, because it’s a gift.
We’re not defined by our choices and decisions. Who we are is the gift of God—it’s a given. Its identity is a matter of revelation and transformation in the Christian life and not a private work of self-construction. Our choices and decisions are not unimportant, but they only have relative merit or power. In the end, we are God’s creation, and our decisions only have meaning in relationship to him.
The civilizational clash is perhaps most poignant at the places where modern choice and classical “givenness” most contradict one another. The most common points have been on the level of biology and relationships. The instincts of classical Christianity are to treat biology and relationships as “given"s. For instance, gender, in classical Christianity, is not a choice; it’s something you’re born with. Family is biological rather than associational. We don’t choose our family; our family is given to us. Sexual relationships serve a given order rather than our private needs. We don’t self-define our sexuality.
The instincts of the modern period are to maximize freedom and choice. Biology it considers to be real, but not necessarily determinative (thus some today even self-identify their gender). Family is increasingly defined as a set of choices: relationships, that is, that we prefer, not that are given to us. The “givenness” of blood-ties with inherent responsibilities [is] largely disappearing in current jurisprudence, that is, in the practice of our courts. Thus we have what we call the “accident of birth,” which cannot begin to compete with “freedom of choice.” How can family have the same power as my freedom, since I didn’t choose my family?
The often maligned popular version of relativism that says, “If it’s true for you,” is simply an expression that maximizes choice. Truth that is not chosen is experienced in the modern world as oppressive. “You’re trying to put your truth on me.” The classical Christian world of doctrine and dogma is thus endangered as a set of extremely inconvenient truths. They wonder in the modern project, “Why would it be wrong for us to re-imagine God?”
Christian civilization ended somewhere around the time that the modern world began. It depends on where you want to set the dates, but somewhere around the time the modern world began, classical Christian civilization ended. They cannot co-exist. The “modern project” has not asked how it could save Christian civilization; that civilization was its enemy from the beginning. The modern question has been: “What do we want the world to look like?” For how the world looks is considered to be a matter of choice. Thus Protestant theology, which is itself a modern project, has largely been driven not by deeper exploration of its roots and traditions, but by continued exploration and re-imaginings of the Christian gospel. Sola Scriptura was never imagined to be a controlling force directing the course of civilization. It was first and foremost a wedge used to dismiss the classical Church and its Traditions. Like the American Constitution, Scripture has been “evolving” ever since in the hands of moderns.
Today, classical Christianity has not disappeared. It remains and is a thorn in the side of modernity. The popular media keep a constant watch, for instance, on the Vatican, hoping for any sign that its classical foundations are slipping. Orthodoxy in its resurrected Russian vehemence is characterized as allied with a “thug,” and as thoroughly reactionary.
Meanwhile, Christianity in its classical form is set upon a difficult road. The temptation is simply to be reactionary, that is, for classical Christianity to see itself as simply the conservative “choice,” in which case the “modern project” will be complete. For if Christianity will simply agree to be a choice, then it can be understood in modern times—and marginalized. It is, however, the classical contention that we are not the product of our own choices, that our lives are defined by God’s gracious gift and that all things are relative to God alone, and this flies in the face of the modern world. It is the place of Tradition—something given that is not a choice—that refuses to yield to modern pressures.
The spirituality of classical Christianity is that of self-emptying rather than self-choosing. It recognizes that life is, finally, always a “given.” The demands of blood and kinship are real and rightly lay claim on us. My imaginings and demands for a world of my own fashioning are seen as temptations that draw me away from the difficult tasks that lay most rightly at hand. The “modern project” has always promised a better world, and for those with the wealth and intelligence to profit most from freedom, the promise has paid great dividends. But the promise has also been a hollow mockery of our existence, for we are, in fact, contingent, and though we may imagine ourselves able to be something other than what we are, in the end, the grave refuses to yield to our choices. In perhaps the greatest irony of all, the “modern project” now champions the right to die—as if we actually had a choice.