I must be doing something right. One of Andrew Sullivan’s readers has declared one of my recent posts, to which Sullivan linked, to be “conservative humbug.” Unfortunately, in his haste to declare my view humbug he seems to have read in that post a claim that I did not make and don’t actually believe. The Sullivan reader writes:
I find it difficult to stomach this kind of conservative humbug, that Modernity is anti-spiritual. Western society is the mechanism that allows groups like the Pentacostalists (and cosmos-loving atheists, and Wiccans, Buddhists, et al.) to exist. It is the ground in which they survive. What seems to irritate some conservatives is the fact that they cannot impose their will upon all of society and poison the soil which succors them. If anything, and the USA is the exemplar of this, modern Western society is besotted with spirituality.
You cannot drive down a street in the greater Los Angeles area, a zone of the country supposedly noted for its secular ways, without encountering churches, synagogues, mosques, reading rooms, meditation centers, Scientology storefronts and other physical manifestations of the “higher” realms. Spiritual desert, bah! It’s an earthly garden of a thousand blooms.
I have had many things to say against modernity and even more against those who think there is virtue in modernism in most areas of life, but one thing I have not said and do not really hold is that “Modernity is anti-spiritual.” Modernity is anti-traditional and possibly is inherently anti-Orthodox, but it is certainly not anti-spiritual. I also don’t think I ever used the phrase “spiritual desert,” nor did I imply the existence of such a desert. There is a spiritual desert in this country, but it is assuredly broken up by numerous oases. As spiritual deserts go, it is much better than many. Still, I defy someone to find anything remotely related to such claims in the post in question.
What did I say? I referred on numerous occasions to immorality and cultural decadence or, in one place, to “rampant immorality” and in another to “trashy popular culture.” Perhaps the reader will be able to persuade me that Los Angeles (or any other major metro area) does not have more than its fair share of all these things, but I doubt it. Perhaps the reader will disagree with what traditional Christianity would deem to be immoral, but that is an entirely different question. What did I want to see as the remedies? “Moral renewal” and “cultural regeneration” were my exact words. Of course, those phrases call forth a number of questions (whose culture? what morality?), but since I took it as a given that my readers would understand that I meant the regeneration of a traditional Christian culture and a renewal of traditional Christian morality I did not go into greater detail about what I meant.
Modernisation does not automatically equal secularisation and “de-spiritualisation” as such. Islamic revivalist movements of the last three hundred years, Christian fundamentalist movements of at least the last one hundred years or so, Tenri-kyo and Soka Gakkai originating in 19th century Japan, the enthusiasts for Hindutva in India, Mormonism, and the “progressive” Christianities of liberation theology and feminist theology, to take a few well-known examples, are all products of the modern age and are themselves modern. “Modernity” is not all of one thing or all of another, but refers broadly to a mentality of self-determination and an orientation towards the self, and it also refers to a culture in which religious and political authorities have been stripped of their traditional claims to deference and obedience. This is certainly not an exhaustive definition of an extremely complex subject. Many modern religious movements, even those that stress quite seriously their fidelity to religious tradition, are based on the fairly anti-traditional assumption that it is acceptable to redefine, reorganise or refound a religious traditon. In modern cultures, change and innovation often possess a predominantly positive meaning, such that even traditionalists and fundamentalists find themselves using the language of newness, dynamism, and choice, much to the annoyance of people like me.
Obviously, critics of pluralism and ecumenism have no doubt that the modern world is beset by a rather staggering number of religious and other beliefs. Some of these critics regard this great number of beliefs as the evidence of the inherent undesirability of pluralism, while others are content to stake their own claims in a pluralistic society. Since I actually tend to lean towards the latter, one will be hard-pressed to find in me much of an enemy of the wide variety of religious expression in this country. As an Orthodox Christian, I do not regard the claims of these other religions as true claims, and I think it is a crucial part of religious discourse in this country to state these oppositions and contradictions as flatly and plainly as possible. Ecumenism offends me, for example, to the extent that it declares doctrine to be irrelevant to the proceedings and sees inherited truths as barriers to union to be removed rather than serious obligations that must be paid the proper respect. Today being the Sunday of Orthodoxy, it is rather fitting that there is an opportunity to note the freedom afforded to the Orthodox in this country to gather for services today for the reading of the Synodikon to remember and re-enact the condemnations of many old heresies (Demetrios of Lampe, this means you!), and to acknowledge that it is far better that the Orthodox are free to do this in a country that is overwhelmingly non-Orthodox.
Intellectually sloppy models, in which we ignore truth and privilege some supposed underlying unity of all religious beliefs (as Romney would very much like to do), do seem to appear in the modern age with far greater frequency than in previous periods in human history. This is not because these fundamentally ecumenist models are any more compelling than they have been in the past, but because it was not until the Enlightenment’s attempted emptying of religious doctrines of their claims to being the embodiment of absolute truths that it was even conceivable that vying religious truth-claims could be reduced to the category of opinion. To the extent that religious doctrine and traditional religion in the modern age truly have been devalued and marginalised in social, political and cultural life, the mentality and culture of modernity are hostile to traditional religion and are very supportive of every wind of doctrine and vague “spirituality” that might work to undermine the role and the claims of our civilisation’s religion. Modernity anti-spiritual? Far from it. It is all together too spiritual, like the ages of the Gnostics and Neoplatonists, and not grounded enough in an incarnate Faith.