Flipping the Script: The False Immanence of Modernity
During many of my video interviews, especially on the topic of education, I have frequently mentioned the absolute necessity for the teacher of Catholic theology, in order to be effective, to “flip the script” of the dominant cultural narrative that is the default worldview of almost everyone in the modern West. A few readers have written to me and asked me to elaborate on this concept further. What follows is my attempt at doing just that.
As in most things, it is best to begin at the beginning. When I was a young man my own upbringing was quintessentially post-war American: suburban, middle class, patriotic, and midwestern. I attended decent, but not great, public schools and received a better-than-most catechetical formation for that era at my local Catholic Church. Lincoln, Nebraska (my hometown) had been preserved from the worst of the post-conciliar insanities and, therefore, my experience of Catholicism was a rather humdrum affair of Sunday Mass attendance and sacramental preparation. And when I got confirmed in the fourth grade (why so early I cannot recall) all catechetical formation ceased. And I was quite happy about that since as I grew older I found “religion” to be a dreadful bore and saw in none of the catechesis I had gotten anything that rose, even remotely, to the level of something “interesting”. I was a nerdy little turd of a kid — bookish, gangly, and obsessed with science — and could most often be found in my underground lair (my basement bedroom) reading books on evolution and astronomy, while listening to my Monty Python albums.
I became convinced at about the age of twelve that God, even if he existed, was some distant entity that you would meet when you died so long as you had been “a good person” in this life, and that all of the religions of the world were equally adept at making us into such good persons. But since you could also be a good person without being religious I just did not see much point to religion at all. And after all, don’t religions cause wars and wasn’t Hitler Catholic … or something? I did like meatless Fridays since for my family that meant eating shrimp instead of beef or chicken, which was a delightful step-up in culinary enjoyment. Heck, I even liked fish sticks so long as they were drenched in cocktail sauce (still do actually). But on the whole, religion for me was just a monumentally drab affair of silly men in colorful costumes talking about ancient miracles that most likely had never happened, distributing little tasteless wafers of bread that looked like poker chips, after a boring ritual that was nothing more to me than something to endure before hitting the post-Mass breakfast at Perkins. I loved praying the Agnus Dei at Mass but only because it was the tell-tale signal that the entire affair was fixin’ to wrap up and bacon and Belgian waffles were soon to follow. It is kind of the same feeling one gets at the end of Beethoven’s ninth when you know the fat tenor has sung his last “Tochter aus Elysium” and the rousing ending is soon to follow. But the words of the Mass were no Schiller to me and the hippie lady who smelled of jasmine and cigarettes directing the folk group was no Beethoven.
And don’t get me started on the homilies. Mein Gott in Himmel they were awful. Almost all of them could be summarized as follows: “It is nice to be nice to the nice.” I sometimes also refer to this type of preaching as “lettuce homilies”, as in, “Let us go forth and love our neighbor”, which, in the context of all that preceded it in the homily, really meant nothing more than I learned from my second grade teacher concerning lunch line etiquette. This was the infamous beige Catholicism of bourgeois, spiritual rice cakes that challenged nothing, said nothing, and stood for nothing beyond the culturally obvious. And it was all shot-through with a “don’t rock the boat” ethos lest the envelopes start to disappear from the collection basket. After all, somebody needed to pay for all of those Catholic schools that churned out future lapsed Catholics by the millions.
What is the point to this sarcastic trip down memory lane? The point is that despite some of the idiosyncratic oddities of my own personality and history, there is an all too typical and, I think, paradigmatic script embedded in that narrative. And by “script” I do not mean a superficial set of intellectual ideas that are a mere gloss on our deeper, truer selves. Rather, I mean this is how we think most aboriginally and it is what defines for us what is truly real.
And what is that script and how does my personal narrative bear it out? The script has been described in various ways by various thinkers, too numerous to discuss at length here. It is Charles Taylor’s “modernity as an immanent frame”, Berdyaev’s “cult of bourgeois well-being”, del Noce’s “religion of scientism” and its dogma, “today it is no longer possible to hold…”. It is Lewis’s dystopian technocracy of “the conditioners and the conditioned”, McCarraher’s “Enchantments of Mammon”, Bernanos’s “boredom”, Illich’s “institutionalized bureaucratization of the elites”, David Hart’s “Christ or Nothing”, Cavanaugh’s “modernity as a simulacrum of the Church”, and de Lubac’s “Drama of Atheist Humanism”.
My own take on this, born of my own experience, is that all of this constitutes, not the denial of God’s existence — a trivial denial really — but rather God’s nullification as something publicly real. It is in other words a poisoning of the wells of our imagination to the extent that the more we drink from our cultural well, the more the toxin of modernity builds up within us, rendering the very question of God noxious in its irrelevance. Our imaginative capacity is changed from within, and at its roots, and my own early life is testimony to the deadly potency of this modern mythos of worldly immanence as the only thing that is truly real. And the religion I suffered under was banal and lifeless since it too had succumbed to the succubus and incubus of an absolutized immanence masquerading as our truest Spouse who had finally, after all these centuries, come into the marital chamber. The message of our culture and of the forms of religiosity it spawns is clear: only worldly immanence is real. One may be allowed the freedom to emotionally affirm Transcendence, but this is purely private and subjective and has no public purchase on anything we take to be truly real in our immanent world of sticks and stuff.
In other words, all of these things taken together — the myth of atheism as the inevitable result of critical reason, scientism as its only proper language, the cult and enchantments of Mammon, the bourgeois substitution of the penultimate for the ultimate, and the existential boredom, world-weariness, and hostility all of this produces — comprise a modern cultural matrix that has changed the perception of what counts as the “really real” in a constitutive way and which makes it virtually impossible for average believers to fully grasp the totalizing nature of the Gospel. This in turn has led to a compartmentalization of “religion” as just one aspect of our bourgeois lifestyle and which must now be redefined along the lines of modernity’s canons of rationality. And once this move is made, it is death to the faith. It certainly was in my early life. There can be no compromise between these two incommensurate worldviews — the Christian and the modern as I have described it — and all attempts to do so end with a religion as thin as gossamer and just as fragile since it can only proceed along the pathways allowed to it by secular modernity and the very acquiescence of the Church to such marginalization is already a sign of utter defeat.
And it is death to the faith because the entire Christian project of saint-making, of sanctity conceived of as a public witness to the point of martyrdom and with the entire cosmos viewed as a sacramental and epiphanic icon of God with Christ as its incarnational center, becomes literally unimaginable now. It doesn’t become harder to imagine, where we can still imagine it if we just try harder, nor is its unimaginability a simple function of spiritual laziness, easily overcome with a little spiritual reading from the rack in the parish vestibule and a short respite at the local retreat center. No, it becomes epistemically unimaginable to all but a few, rendering the Gospel in its fullness as something quite literally incomprehensible to most ordinary people. And it is precisely this unimaginability that has led many in the Church today to the conclusion that the only proper way forward if the Church is to remain “relevant” is to accommodate ourselves to the new matrix of God’s imaginative nullification. We have even invented, as Augusto del Noce noted, whole new theologies of the “death of God” and of secularism as the true end of Christianity in order to turn the dog kennels of our cultural sequestration into pleasant mansions of a new-found relevance.
Perhaps no thinker has done more to drive this point home than John Henry Newman who already saw as early as the 1830’s that modernity represented a lethal and toxic existential threat to the Church. The theologian Cyril O’Regan, in an excellent and underappreciated essay, outlines Newman’s prescient and prophetic warning in a quote worthy of full citation:
The phenomenon of secular modernity is not another historical change for Newman. The way Newman sees it, it is nothing less than a complete change in the entire fabric of society and culture and of human beings as such. Newman is speaking to what pretentious postmoderns speak of as a change of mentalite or episteme. In our brave new, enlightened, and very clean world, … the concept of sin no longer rhymes; nor does justification; nor does the concept of holiness; nor even the concept of the Holy. … Such an idea becomes more or less incomprehensible; it does not compute and its not computing is a banishing far more absolute than a cadre of intellectuals arguing against it. Modernity is the world changed, in which it is not simply that we have different thoughts, but thinking itself has changed; what one can experience has changed and the way one experiences has changed. …Newman thinks that the irresistible expansion of secular modernity, its evacuation of the meaning of symbols and the attenuation of experience, makes it extraordinarily difficult to get to God’s glory — even if not quite impossible.
(“Newman and the Dis-Asters of Modernity,” Church Life Journal, (October 10, 2019)
The point I am laboring to make here is that modernity is not just one more challenge to the Church in a long line of similar challenges. In ancient Rome the Church faced the challenge of a pagan sacral order. But that order still lived within the classical world’s affirmation of the reality of the divine realm and as such could at least be counted on to take the Church’s supernatural claims seriously. Then came the medieval world where the Church faced the challenge of heresy and a political sphere that constantly sought to usurp the Church’s proper ordering role in society. But even here the battle lines were classical ones involving theological disputes and garden variety struggles over power. The first birth pangs of the truly modern world begin to emerge in the humanism of the Renaissance and the nominalist theological extrinsicism of the Reformation, both of which interjected into the history of ideas a more autonomous view of the worldly world. Nevertheless, even here the battle lines were still largely classical and theological with many Renaissance humanists actually seeking to develop a deeper theology of grace in an anthropological register and many Reformers arguing for a more central place for scripture in a streamlined and simplified Church. But with the rise of modern science, philosophical rationalism and empiricism (and eventually idealism), and the structures of political Liberalism that flowed out of these intellectual revolutions, we see an altogether different animal emerge: a cultural matrix ordered to the irrelevance of God, theology, and all metaphysical metanarratives for the construction of the social order.
What transpired in all that followed was a counter revolution to the Christian revolution that was not a simple revivification of the old paganism, but a resurgence of the unbridled elemental entelechy of blood and soil now transferred from the personified and dialogical realm of the gods into a purely immanent, impersonal, monochrome, non-dialogical realm of technocracized concupiscence. It is Augustine’s Libido Dominandi on steroids, repackaged as enlightened liberation, and unmoored from the constraints of tradition and even of human nature as such, as everything now falls under the rubric of a fungibility in the service of a “desire” now recast as “identity”. Beauty was the first victim of this counter revolution, followed by truth and goodness. Atomized, anomic, and agonistic, true freedom collapses into the solipsistic black hole of a subjectivity now viewed as the ephemeral epiphenomenon of irrational subterranean forces — forces which can only be understood by evolutionary psychology whose view of the human is that we are nothing more than trousered apes with bigger brains. Bipedal chemistry sets signifying nothing. In such a world, beauty, truth, and goodness are mere ciphers for subjective dispositions and if meaning is to be found in such terms it is purely stipulative and is grounded in nothing more than the current humours and vapors of the social contract. Here is Balthasar’s trenchant take on that reality:
“In a world without beauty … in such a world the good also loses its attractiveness, the self-evidence of why it must be carried out. Man stands before good and asks himself why it must be done and not rather its alternative, evil. For this too, is a possibility, and even the more exciting one. Why not investigate Satan’s depths? In a world that no longer has enough confidence in itself to affirm the beautiful, the proofs of the truth have lost their cogency. In other words, syllogisms may still dutifully clatter away like rotary presses or computers which infallibly spew out an exact number of answers is itself a mechanism which no longer captivates anyone. The very conclusions are no longer conclusive. And if this is how the transcendentals fare because one of them has been banished, what will happen with Being itself?” (The Glory of the Lord: Volume One, p. 19)
Along these lines, my claim is that our contemporary post-modern culture represents an unveiling (apocalypse) of the latent anti-Gospel that is at the heart of the modern project. And that this anti-Gospel is the atheistic path of a total, hegemonic immanence which, having untethered itself utterly from Transcendence, makes all things metaphysically flat and, therefore, ugly and uncaptivating. And since there can never be a pure immanence totally divorced from God (because such an immanence is a flight into nothingness), then the modern project of hyper immanence must engage in acts of bait and switch deception as to the true nature of our immanent desires, dressing up what is evil with the adornments and accoutrement of the good which it inherited from a past it paradoxically and simultaneously seeks to destroy and off of which it feeds, parasitically. The radical deconstructionists understand this as well, which is why, having rejected Transcendence, they understand that the entire realm of the human must now be recast from below, and this recasting will involve a rethinking of all of reality through the lens of suspicion. The suspicion that reason and language are merely veiled graspings after power, that all erotic love is veiled lust and all agapeic love is veiled selfish manipulation, that all “justice” is veiled revenge, and so on. Pope Benedict understands this as well when he points out that eros can’t even remain eros unless it finds fulfillment in agape. And when it does, it becomes not less erotic, but more, as we see in Lewis’s imaginative fantasy, “The Great Divorce”, where the sinner who was held down by lust, becomes the only denizen of Hell who chooses Heaven once his lust is transformed by agape into true eros.
Therefore, these are the battle lines. Our immanence either trends “upwards” towards transposition into a higher register of Being, all the while remaining truly itself, or it trends “downwards” where we are left staring at our gut, or our crotch, or our veins. In other words, what is the true immanence? Christ’s divinely transformed and transposed humanity or post-modernity’s deconstructed and ultimately nihilistic concept of worldly freedom? That is the cultural script that must be flipped.
We simply must understand before we can even begin to teach the faith to “modern man” that the hyper-immanence of modernity is a counterfeit, a simulacrum of the true unveiling within immanence of God’s Revelation in Christ, wherein all that is hidden will be made known through the light that it casts. The true unveiling of Revelation is the true immanence of our deepest and most intimate selves now made known in the light of God’s truth, which is to say God’s transcendence, and which elevates and transforms our immanence, precisely as immanence, into Transcendence. The essence of the demonic is a false unveiling of the dark and evil side of our immanence as the “truly good” which has been suppressed by “religion”. Thus does the hyper-immanence of modernity, with its rejection of upward fulfilment in Transcendence, lead, paradoxically, to an unveiling of our immanence that issues forth into the realm of the “private” where secrecy and double life dishonesty are viewed as virtues. The demonic is thus characterized by a hyper immanence that resists all true unveiling of the good with relational charity as its spiritual engine, which is then replaced with the unveiling of dark forces as our truest selves, but which, being dark, must be recast in new linguistic paradigms. And what cannot be so transposed publicly must be rendered hidden and secret. But even here, this hiddenness and secrecy is recast as a sacred right — the right to privacy of the monadic and atomized individual subjectivity.
Satan does not lurk in our secrets. He is our secrets. Which is why damnation is indeed possible for any of us since it is nothing more than the desire to remain hidden from God, from others, and indeed, even from ourselves. Satan is he who hides. Which is why confession on the lips is required for salvation. Demonic immanence is thus characterized as the unveiling of a mendacious veiling, where our affective impulses are not transformed inwardly by virtue in any ordering according to a hierarchy of goods, but are rather indulged in in ways that make them publicly respectable. This requires a public falsification of the good (including God’s nullification) and a reversal of values so that what was once deemed evil is now viewed as enlightened liberation. It is all a sad affair of unveiling to the world a puppet show of shadows in order to veil the truly sadistic and sick nature of my disordered impulses.
The regime of Divine charity, Augustine’s “City of God”, is the opposite of this hiddenness, of this false immanence which is the immanence of sinful secrets and of hidden desires masquerading as virtues. Charity is relational and it is only in relation that we can be most properly “unveiled” as beings whose immanence can only come into its own through the dispossession of love. Which is why the greatest unveiling of love ever known is that of the Cross wherein dispossession and possession perfectly coincide in the Sacred Heart of He who brings together immanence and transcendence in the fires of God’s relational trinitarian oneness. This is the true script and the truest unveiling. The unveiling of God’s charity in us. This is the true apocalypse. The only possible apocalypse. And we must choose.
And the script of modernity’s false unveiling, which is after all no unveiling at all but merely the illusion of such in the modern anti-Gospel which turns Christ’s dispossession as true possession into a posture of “grasping” and “acquisition” as the only true freedom — a freedom whose banner these days, ironically, is “privacy” — is the script that needs flipping. But it is a hard script to flip since this kind requires “prayer and fasting” to cast out. And how clever of Satan to convince the modern world that the pseudo-reality of hyper immanence is the truly real, but the true immanence in Transcendence that is God, is the unreal. Christ is for suckers and saps. True happiness resides with Dionysius, Moloch, and Ares.
There is only one way to flip this script. And it is for Christians to run into the burning house to save its inhabitants and not to run from it. With all due respect to Rod Dreher, now is not the time for a “Benedict Option”. Now is the time, as Eugene McCarraher notes, for a “Saint Francis Option”. And what that means is we hurl ourselves into the world no matter the risks, no matter the cost, in a great act of self-dispossession for the sake of the world. And what that means concretely is that where the world destroys beauty and replaces it with ugliness, we replace that ugliness with beauty. And where the world disparages truth and replaces it with clever lies and illusions, we cling to truth, promote truth, and that includes truths we find outside of our own tradition that are strewn all about the world like little golden nuggets of sanity from God. And where the world tramples over goodness, both moral and spiritual, we remain steadfast in the good and do not capitulate in our own lives to its attenuation through a million bourgeois paper cuts. It means a simplicity of life, and the living out of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. It means, as Dorothy Day taught, that we live out with earnest seriousness, The Sermon on the Mount. This is not rocket science. The way to flip this script is, quoting David Byrne, the same as it ever was, and that is the path of living the Gospel in all of its radicalizing totality which will most likely include a via dolorosa.
And so please do not ask me, “what does this mean? What, concretely are we to do?” Well, I just outlined above the principles of what we are to do. We must flip the script of modernity’s false immanence by living the true immanence-in-Transcendence of Christ and his cross. And if you are asking me for a concrete “strategy” or “program” I have none to give beyond my own vocational choices in life: seminarian, theologian, Catholic Worker. Those are my concrete ways of running into that burning house and taking on the sufferings of my brothers and sisters in today’s world and to suffer them vicariously as a participation in the unique and absolute sacrifice of Christ. You must figure out for yourself how to translate this call to action into something concrete in your life, based on your own unique vocation and life circumstances.
What this amounts to is a claim that we can only flip the script by making sanity chic again by living sanely in whatever state in life we find ourselves. This is the kind of authenticity that is the fruit of a love that actually shows that it gives a damn about people, including those who oppose us. But there is also something else, something critical, something absolutely indispensable. We must be educated and intelligent. Learn things damn it. Become voraciously interested in all kinds of things. Read. Converse with others outside of your balkanized box of discourse. Pray. Meditate. Contemplate. Read some more. Read still more. Be brutally honest with yourself in an act of prayerful contemplation over your own intellect and its ideas. Think deeply about why it is you most truly think as you do and not about what it is you are “supposed” to think. And do not submerge doubts but entertain them. Not in the sense of allowing them to destroy your faith. But in the sense that you take those doubts to dinner with you and plumb their depths. Do not hide. Seek. Think doubts through to the other end until the doubt becomes a catalyst for an even deeper faith. Think deeply about why other people think as they do. And listen to them first, talk to them second. And when they speak do not be thinking about how to respond to them before they have even finished speaking. Nobody is ever wholly evil and nobody is ever wholly our enemy. There is a freshness deep down things and that includes everyone we meet. Love the people you meet. Know them. Because the greatest apologia of all is friendship.
When this happens, intelligence and sanity emerge once again and the absurdities and insanities of modernity are exposed. For example, everybody knows that women cannot have penises and that men cannot menstruate and get pregnant. Everybody knows that even if I put on army boots, that I am no Marine. Everybody knows that a pregnant woman is carrying a new human life. Everybody knows that a purely stipulative morality of shifting emotions and cultural trends is no real morality at all. Everybody knows that if death is extinction and there is nothing beyond it then nothing really matters in the long run and therefore that life really is a rather shabby and drab affair where eking out some tiny amount of temporary happiness is all we can hope for. In other words, and with regard to all of the above, everybody knows that it is God or nothing. And that reduces to only two options: embracing God, or whistling past the graveyard.
The key here, for any effective teaching of the faith, is to be educated enough and intelligent enough not to conflate teaching the faith with a narrow version of “apologetics”. Sometimes “Catholic Answers” type approaches are very effective and needed when engaging with fundamentalist, evangelical Protestants. But I think even Karl Keating (who I greatly admire) would agree that for most highly secularized folks out there today something much deeper is needed. What is needed instead is a connatural understanding of the thought world of the modern non believer. And that requires empathic forms of thinking that can be a vicarious taking on of the spiritual suffering of the “other”. It is to treat non-belief with a deep existential seriousness as a truly viable option and not as a mere expression of spiritual laziness and indifference. It is to understand how powerful is the modern pseudo-unveiling of our hyper immanence and how it has poisoned the souls of so many against the notion of Transcendence as fulfillment of immanence.
The goal is to understand the thought world of the unbeliever better than the unbeliever does, which is entirely possible since belief is the more expansive explanatory framework capable of assimilating and transposing divergent and even incongruent data points into a heuristic vision with much greater facility than can the truncated and attenuated theoretical apparatus of non-belief. Thus can the believer take non-belief into himself and suffer it through to the end in order to truly comprehend it and, thus, to “encompass” it and to thereby transform it into a new kind of “believing”: Belief as fulfilled and transposed unbelief, which the convert will bear within himself just as the risen Christ bore the wounds of his crucifixion. It will be a glorified and risen unbelief now made complete via faith in its truest home, the Kingdom of Divine Love. And the effective teacher of the faith can do this for the unbeliever and genuinely flip the script of lies that have choked off faith, and to replace it with the new script of a Christological Kingdom logic, which can now be unveiled with full force.
This then is the true meaning of “accompaniment” which must be a cruciform Christological reality if it is to avoid a mere sentimentalized kindness, which is, as Lewis shows in “The Problem of Pain”, a masked disdain for moral goodness. Therefore as well, any and all apologetics must be a cruciform Christological reality of vicarious “suffering through” if it is to avoid reducing the faith to a debating society among adolescents intent on “winning the argument”.
But a Church of hidden, double life secrets is a Church under the influence of the demonic sense of hyper immanence that closes off the pathways of charity and thus of empathic forms of thinking that can alone address the world’s pain. Hyper immanence closes the door to Transcendence which is why so many clerics and bishops in the Church, as well as millions of lay people, are in reality de facto atheists who no longer see the Sacraments as anything other than purely horizontal “celebrations” of our diversity and as a simplistic baptizing of every frivolous trend in modern culture. And the “unveiling” that takes place in such liturgies — e.g. the common practice of “introducing” yourself to the slob next to you at Mass: “Hi, my name is Larry. I love you.”; or the “expressiveness” of liturgical dancing with maladroit octogenarians in diaphanous dresses (the women are even worse) — is thoroughly contrived, artificial, and inauthentic. Such forms of unveiling in modern liturgies serve the demonic purpose of quashing the true unveiling of a deep confession of sin that is in need of forgiveness and transposition. Modern liturgies are like a doctor who puts a wonderfully colorful and “pretty” band aid over that boil on your face, just because he does not want to lance it.
Therefore, a Church that has succumbed to the hyper immanence of modernity cannot evangelize because it cannot flip the script. Because it actually believes in that script. All that is left for such a Church is to retreat into money and sex, “power and eros”. In other words, we are all Germans now. And underneath it all is an essentially atheistic impulse that cynically manipulates both the teachings of Christ in scripture and the teachings of the Tradition in order to be able to bless sin and to falsify it into its opposite, the Good. And those who resist this within the Church are these days labeled as “rigid pharisees” who place “ideas” over “reality”. Welcome to the world of the upside down, where standing up for the teachings of Christ and his Church are now characterized as being “against Christ” and his mercy. The mendacious manipulation of words and ideas is clearly manifest here, but it is a required step in the false project of reducing the eschatological inbreaking of Christ into His Church into a purely immanent reality.
Sadly, therefore, the sincere teacher of the faith must not only attempt to flip the script of modern unbelief in the world, but will also need to do it in the Church as well. Perhaps, most especially in the Church. Because ours is a Church of secrets. Ours is a Church that hides.
Dorothy Day, pray for us.