A note on modernity

Religion is an illness in storybook form, and modernity – dispossession, pragmatism, rigor in method – is the antidote.

Yet in its precepts religion is the anti-narrative. Avoid false prophets. Be wary of seduction. God’s will is beyond human understanding. Hubris leads us astray. Do not idolize. Worship no other God but the one true God. Do not speak ill of others.

These are admonishments against an impulse so primitive, it afflicts us in our grammar. The sentence is always already a story: “this is that”– causal, with an implied chronology; seeking an audience, even if in the singular. So long as one speaks, one cannot avoid telling stories, and therefore telling lies.

Why stress the word of God? Because God is sovereign. His word is the root and the source. Hear no other word but God’s word: a willful blindness to illusion.

Conversely, to be secular is to reject God’s sovereignty but to request it at the same time. Like an adolescent in rebellion, secular modernity is defined by what it abhors. It seeks the root and the source but has already denied them, so it flounders perpetually. Modernity is meta-narrative, our supposed liberation from narrative; but it too must have recourse to grammar. It tells stories but cannot found them on anything transcendent.

The ‘new traditionalists’ and their rise is a symptom, not the cure. They have recoiled from the horror of the modern and seek comfort in new varieties of old narratives. Yet as reactions rooted in groundless modern ideas – dispossessed, pragmatic, rigorous unto themselves – these are not sovereign. They merely stress one lie against another.

Meanwhile, we have a multiplicity of personal narratives, the frenetic overlapping of Instagrammed microcosms. Here a sovereign self appears and immediately relinquishes its claim to sovereignty: for the self is all-important, yet the other is superfluous. The modern self enacts its own unseating by forsaking the other, in whose gaze alone self-recognition becomes possible.

What does it mean to say that God is dead? Where God once stood – between humanity and the abyss – there is now a wisp, a translucent reflection of the self. By looking through it we receive the terrible intimation that God has never been real, that even ‘the real’ is not real – that sovereignty itself is a sham, a trick we have played on ourselves.

Is the answer a retreat into religion? Only for those who are truly capable of faith, and they have never been many. To the extent that religion is anti-narrative, it is superior to any other story crafted by humanity: at least it has the good sense to keep the sovereign forever out of reach.

For the rest of us, the way forward lies not in stories; still less in stories about stories. What might save us from ourselves is a flight from narrative, a denial of the impulse by which humanity stands or falls but never simply abides.