Belonging Again (Part 12)

Do the “acids of modernity” dissolve our feeling of “quiet certainty?”

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In his book Evangelism, Hunter wrote:

The moral order [or a society] is comprised of symbolic boundaries. These act as rules and guidelines by which ordinary people make sense out of their personal lives. They also establish predictable patterns of relationship and social exchange in the larger community and society. Though there is invariably disagreement, tension, and even conflict over these symbolic boundaries, overall the moral order of society remains a highly organized and cohesive reality. Without these boundaries individual and collective existence would become intolerably disjointed.’¹

Audio Summary

Paradoxically, the doctrine of tolerance, Pluralism, and the State threaten to make our lives “intolerably disjointed,” while at the same time reducing the threat of “the banality of evil.” Liberal science itself, necessary and peace-bringing, has also forced Christians (for example) to reinterpret the meaning of passages where Satan takes Jesus to the top of a tower to see the whole world, implying that the world is flat. This necessarily leads to believers reconsidering the reliability of the whole Bible — to ask “How am I supposed to understand this?” — which necessarily threatens the “symbolic boundaries” of Christian communities. In his book, Hunter examined Evangelicals and how they have adapted to Pluralism to garner insights about how all communities shift and adapt to Modernity; his findings can be applied to everyone.

In regard to all communities, ‘[a]s Walter Lippmann expressed it, the ‘acids of modernity’ dissolve their very feeling of quiet certainty.’² The “acids of modernity” have eaten away our “quiet certainty” that life has meaning, that the family is the central focus of life, that there are only two genders, that it’s always good to have children, that attending church is important, that hard work pays off, that I’m working the right job because it’s providing for loved ones, that God loves me, that eating meat isn’t immoral, that sex is reserved for marriage, that America has overcome it’s racist past, that sending my children to college will guarantee them a future — that I won’t waste my life. These changes are not all bad and certainly many of them are incredibly good: the loss of “quiet certainty” can be extremely beneficial, especially when it dramatically reduces racism, discrimination, etc. The “quiet certainty” that “whites are better than blacks” is a horrible thing, for example, and the world is much better off without it thanks to Lincoln, the State, and the Civil Rights Movement. The trick is to find a “quiet certainty” that isn’t immoral, though if such serenity always requires exclusion, this might not be possible.

The loss of “quiet certainty” isn’t always bad, but the loss of it occurs today at an ever-increasing rate in regard to countless matters that just years ago, average people would have never dreamed would be questioned. And this occurs all while the authority of people’s various communities wanes (via inflation through “The Nova Effect,” tolerance, the State, etc.), making people feel less able to stand against or at least slow down the loss of their “quiet certainty.” Life hence feels “intolerably disjointed,” increasingly more so every day, as increasingly more “symbolic boundaries” are torn down, except perhaps those the State supports. Considering this, we should not be surprised if elections moving forward becomes increasingly bitter, divisive, and partisan. Many will see “getting their person in office” to be their only hope to keep life and their world from further fragmenting.

Many great philosophers warn that the philosophical life should not be entered into lightly, for once accepted, everything is questioned and certainty lost. As discussed in “The Grand Technology” by O.G. Rose, the “acids of modernity” forces everyone to become a philosopher, which though arguably a good thing and necessary for democracy (harking back to Plato and Socrates), is still an incredible burden to throw onto the shoulders of everyday people (whose jobs aren’t to work at a college and study great works). Some of those who have tried to take on the “big questions” have ended up losing their minds (consider Nietzsche), and though I personally would like everyone to be a philosopher, it is foolish to deny that many won’t. As touched on in “The Tragedy of Us” by O.G. Rose, people work six days a work, eight hours a day, support families on dwindling finances, and come home just too tired to read Plato (and even geniuses often need an expert to explain great books to them). Philosophy professors who are paid and live to study philosophy rarely come close to reading all the great works or getting a hold on life’s biggest questions — what should we expect of everyday people? And yet everyday people must adapt and learn to be more philosophical: the “acids of modernity” will not recede.

We all live in a state of “nosey uncertainty,” and this leads to existential tension and anxiety that we rarely know how to respond to (especially if we lack philosophical training), anxiety that could, like a pressure cooker, lead to an explosion (as perhaps Trump, the Culture Wars, and Brexit show). Increasingly, as Walter Lippmann put it, our ‘whole field of consciousness is trembling with uncertainties,’ and increasingly it feels like this situation is forced upon us by forces outside of our control — the State, Pluralism, Globalization, etc. (and all we want to do is watch a football game for once and relax).³ The fact we live increasingly uncertain may help us understand one of ‘the most remarkable and obvious features of modern life’: why the authority of ‘informal and natural associations’ — the family, the community, the church, etc. — ‘has diminished over time,’ while ‘the strength of the formal, organized, national ruling authority has increased.’⁴ Unlike the State, organic communities do not possess legal power and force: they are held together at least in part because of the “quiet certainty” that members hold within about those communities. With that waning, the only institution increasingly left standing is the State, for even though people’s trust, fondness, and what have you wanes, the State’s power only increases, providing an anchor in the storm of Modernity, Pluralism, and Globalization. Paradoxically, the State also gives people hope (even those who claim to be mostly against the government), for if only their candidate were to be in charge, then maybe, just maybe, everything would return to normal.

A community is “a world within a world,” and increasingly people feel like they live in a state where their left leg is in one community and their right in another, split and splitting.⁵ Furthermore, the more Pluralistic the globe becomes, the more members of a community, especially a religious community, must personally face the fact that their way of living is only one among many options: they always knew that not everyone agreed with them, but when that truth is personalized in actually meeting a Muslim, Atheist, etc. (or having one write laws over them), then the fact one is subjective moves from being mere knowledge to a full body experience, and that can lead to a profound reevaluation of one’s entire way of life (for good and for bad).⁶ Increasingly, thanks to Pluralism, “The Nova Effect,” and tolerance, people must see what they believe as a mere choice, and ‘[w]hen opinion motivates the believer and not conviction born out of total certainty, any effort to revitalize the boundaries of a moral community will be difficult.’⁷ It will arguably be impossible, and faced with the great challenge of restoring the communities which they cherish, believe in, and require to feel like they belong — a challenge people feel was thrown upon them due to forces outside of their control, a challenge they didn’t ask to face, having been happy with the lives of “quiet certainty” they had been living — people might be enraged.

Another reason it is likely that communities will become increasingly incapable of ‘reinforcing the[ir] [symbolic] boundaries [is because] there is no longer any abiding consensus as to what many of the boundaries are.’⁸ In Christianity, for example, it is no longer clear if a Christian to be a Christian must support traditional marriage, be against premarital sex, believe in a literal Genesis, and so on. It is not simply that some Christians are orthodox and others aren’t; rather, it’s not even fully agreed on what constitutes “orthodoxy” (not to say it ever was fully). Yes, a Christian will follow Jesus Christ, but what it means to “follow Jesus Christ” is increasingly up for debate.

Many people like “black and white” answers, especially “practical people” (and those who don’t like solving complex, abstract, ethical puzzles, which is likely the majority), but increasingly everyone is being forced to see the “grayness” of everything — “pinned down” (Sartre). This is arguably for people to see reality clearer and a positive development, but without training, most are likely to end up like the crazed murderers in Plato’s Cave. And there is no guarantee everyone can be philosophically trained in this age in which everyone is increasingly forced to be philosophical, no matter how hard they may try to ignore the sociological shift and just live their lives peacefully, in “quiet certainty.”

On Evangelicals, Hunter noted that ‘maintenance of the symbolic boundaries making up the traditions of orthodox Protestantism was possible because [Protestants] rarely were constrained by social decorum or fear of offending the deviant, because there was a high degree of consensus on what constituted the moral order, and because they knew with the certainty of the sun’s rising that the traditions were from God.’⁹ This applies to all communities in different ways and to different extremes: no community can easily maintain their “symbolic boundaries” anymore. Not even the State can (consider the erosion of American hegemony), though the State has the advantage of legal force on its side, and even if its symbolic boundaries dissolve, it’s legal boundaries do not, providing that which can function as a potential “anchor” for community/identity as other social arrangement inflate away (though do note that force of law can feel oppressive and totalitarian). Do note that it is not necessarily bad that Protestants can no longer “offend the deviant” without fear of repercussion: the Protestant now much think twice before banishing the LGBT from out of his or her midst, increasing the likelihood of empathy. My point is only that it’s more difficult now to maintain “symbolic boundaries,” and as those boundaries dissolve, so too wanes the capacity of communities to provide members with a sense of belonging, character, identity, and the like.

Towards the end of Evangelism, Hunter described the situation of Modern Evangelicals in terms of The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. He wrote:

Yet what our pilgrim (Evangelism) endures and Bunyan[] does not is a long and sustained season in the Labyrinths of Modernity. Not only does he emerge a little dizzy and confused, but out of the experience our traveler is transformed. The pilgrim becomes a tourist. Though still headed toward the Celestial Country, he is now traveling with less conviction, less confidence about his path, and is perhaps more vulnerable to the worldly distractions encountered by Bunyan’s pilgrim.’¹⁰

Hunter is incredibly perceptive, and I believe all of his books should be read widely. What he has so brilliantly written about Evangelicals applies to some extent to everyone now: we are all tourists, ever so as “The Nova Effect” grows and spreads, and all of us have increasingly ‘less confidence about [our] path.’ This also impacts the State: Americans, for example, are less confident that America is a “shining beacon on a hill,” that it has been good for the world. But again, the State has the advantage of legal force, being seen as a potential tool for bringing about social justice and tolerance, and “hole hope” as everyone imagines that once they get their candidate in office, everything will get better again (as discussed in “(W)hole Hope” by O.G. Rose). Additionally, while communities can come and go, the State cannot lest we dissolve into anarchism, which though possible, strikes me as highly unlikely, except perhaps during the Apocalypse.

‘[L]ess confiden[t] about [our] path,’ when we attend our communities, they don’t feel like they once did. We are aware of the issues outside the communities — the racism, the violence in Syria, the growing poverty — and the communities never seem to be doing enough. We are less sure that we are spending our time well attending, and they don’t manage to make us feel as “restful” and “accepted” as they once did. This is partially because we are no longer confident in the legitimacy of the acceptance: the grounds upon which it is founded are increasingly shaky (even though they might be legitimate). But to know they are legitimate, we have to engage in deep philosophy, which is unsettling and contributes to the very uncertainties we wish to escape. And as we try to be present in our communities, our focus is constantly elsewhere — at work, in our email box, in Paris, in the Middle East — we cannot stop daydreaming. The only option seems to be to turn our brains off, which even if we could, it seems uncompassionate, fake, and intellectually dishonest, and even having to confront the choice to do that or not creates uncertainty and requires an effort that those in the past didn’t have to suffer so much. But if we just abandoned our communities, we wouldn’t suffer this choice or the existential uncertainties we experience in their midst — maybe that would be best? But then we wouldn’t “belong again.”

Ego sum ignis.

Author of The Secular Age, Charles Taylor argued:

‘[We live amidst] the phenomenon of diffusive Christianity, in which people distance themselves from established forms of religion yet at the same time are unwilling to entirely break with them. [Our] future is likely to be determined by the tension between spiritual quest and foreclosing authority and the important cross-pressure that this produces.’¹¹

Though perhaps to religious communities especially, I believe this argument applies to all communities. We all live split between our organic communities and our State, and increasingly our organic communities inflate away and lose their power as the State increases in power (for good and for bad). On this development, Conyers wrote:

‘The society that exists easily between the poles of state and individual is a society that has become featureless. It is a society in which ‘voluntary’ organizations decline, as many sociologists have lately observed in the United States. It has become a ‘mass’ society. Its mode of existence is a secular one. And the individual in such a society stands more or less defenseless against the demands of a powerful state.’¹²

Perhaps Conyers is right, but if it reduces the likelihood of “the banality of evil,” rather against Jews, LGBTS, or anyone, isn’t that trade worth it? ‘Modern people have elected efficiency and the superficial accord of common pragmatic goals rather than the protracted struggles for ideals, which have all too often, historically, erupted into violent conflict.’¹³ Is that such a bad trade? Perhaps to white men, but perhaps not at all to groups who have suffered exclusion. Perhaps it’s possible for us to figure out how to be both Cosmopolitan and to “belong again,” getting the best of both worlds?





¹Hunter, James Davison. Evangelism. The University of Chicago. 1987: 157–158.

²Hunter, James Davison. Evangelism. The University of Chicago. 1987: 185.

³Hunter, James Davison. Evangelism. The University of Chicago. 1987: 213.

⁴Conyers, A.J. The Long Truce. Dallas, TX: Spence Publishing Company, 2001: 189.

⁵Hunter, James Davison. Evangelism. The University of Chicago. 1987: 158.

⁶For more on this, please see “The Heart/Mind Dialectic and the Phenomenology of View(s)” by O.G. Rose.

⁷Hunter, James Davison. Evangelism. The University of Chicago. 1987: 185.

⁸Hunter, James Davison. Evangelism. The University of Chicago. 1987: 185.

⁹Hunter, James Davison. Evangelism. The University of Chicago. 1987: 185.

¹⁰Hunter, James Davison. Evangelism. The University of Chicago. 1987: 213.

¹¹Allusion to “A Secular Age,” as can be found here: http://www.giffordlectures.org/books/secular-age

¹²Conyers, A.J. The Long Truce. Dallas, TX: Spence Publishing Company, 2001: 223.

¹³Conyers, A.J. The Long Truce. Dallas, TX: Spence Publishing Company, 2001: 228.




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