Friday, May 16, 2014

A.D. 33: The Death of Modernity

Modernity began over two thousand years ago, when Socrates was executed for denying the gods. He was guilty as charged: in Socrates’ worldview, the gods had been reduced to vague philosophical ideas, robbed of their real powers. Soon after Socrates' death, people stopped believing in them altogether, or made them so sublime that they had nothing to do with humans.

A great misconception is that Christianity replaced paganism in the West. It didn’t. By the time Christianity spread across the West, almost no one who could read still believed in Jupiter or Venus. Instead, there were two serious doctrines left. One was Epicureanism: the teaching that, in the absence of the gods, we should live our lives as pleasantly as possible. The other was Stoicism: in the absence of the gods, we should declare freedom from our desires and assert moral control over our lives.

Both of these teachings, you might notice, did very little to make real meaning out of human life. Both allowed men to make whatever they wanted out of their spiritual destiny. Both were responses to questions that were pervasive in a post-religious society: if the old rules don’t apply anymore, how do we know our way about? Does heroism mean anything? Does love?

Accordingly, most of the writing we have from the first century B.C. expresses a deep skepticism about the world. Tribes, like the Jews and the Celts, that still believed in a god were treated as quaint relics. Though there was vast commentary on the dignity of man, there was no agreement on what the grounds for that dignity were.

This world of freedom was too much for humanity, and it ended abruptly with Christ.

Of the symbols of early Christianity, the anchor was one of the most important. In a world in which truth had been upended, where there were no certainties left, where no one knew the will of Heaven—if Heaven even had a will—Christ was stability. The patristic authors are united on one point: in a world in which reason has burned down all the old superstitions, Christ transcends reason. God invaded the world and—in erring reason’s spite—gave peace to his believers.
I'm still stumped about the fish.

So modernity died with Christ on the cross. And whereas Christ rose on the third day, modernity was dead for 1,700 years before it came back to life. For the entirety of the Middle Ages, no matter the political turmoil, Christian faith was a certainty that had no serious challengers. In fact, until the Enlightenment began to take root in the 17th century, atheism was not unpopular but inconceivable. Christian certainty had pervaded European life to such an extent that no one could think outside of it. (Jews, by the way, had a parallel experience: the worldliness of the Hellenistic and Roman periods faded quickly into Rabbinical dominance that lasted for millennia.)

This is one reason why the Middle Ages are much more alien to us than antiquity. It’s why Homer, who wrote 1,750 years before the author of Beowulf, makes much more sense to us than that axe-wielding Christian poet. For the warriors at Troy, even though they're outright pagans and pre-moderns, have to reckon with death as a brutal end, with a Heaven that’s wild and fickle, and a world whose values are inscrutable. They have much more to say to us than anyone who died with unshakeable faith in Christ.

To sum up, the intellectual world of Late Antiquity had deep similarities to our own. Under the weight of evolution, Biblical archaeology and the Holocaust, the religious certainties that we’ve lived in for centuries have given way. Just like the Greeks and Romans who had lost their gods, we’re living in a world of profound uncertainty—and with it, great freedom. This time around, can we make it last? Or will we cast a new anchor into the sea?

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