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Peter Toon on Postmodernity & Asceticism
Why do we refer to a lengthy period of Western European history, from the early Middle Ages through the Reformation, as “Christendom”? Not because every person in that period, or even the majority of people, were living virtuous lives, obeying the commandments of Christ Jesus.
We call it Christendom for several reasons. (The word means “the Christian jurisdiction” or “the place where Christianity prevails.”) First, everyone was baptized in the Name of the Holy Trinity. Second, history was universally seen as beginning with the Creation and then the Fall, as centering upon the Incarnation, and as ending with the Second Coming of Christ Jesus and the Final Judgment. Third, the Christian Festivals, including the weekly Lord’s Day (Sunday), gave meaning to the days and weeks and months of the year. Public worship was central to life.
Fourth, the laws of the nations upheld the truth and priority of the Christian faith and the Church. Fifth, people lived with a sense that all their life was watched by, guided by, and to be judged by God the Creator, Redeemer, and Judge. Everything they did was a preparation for death and entry into the next life. And sixth, virtually all education and charity was initiated by and controlled by the Church. The Church determined the dominant worldview.
A Very Different World
Today we live in a very different situation. Our society no longer enjoys the same unity and belief in God that characterized the world of Christendom, or even the world of modernity that replaced it. Today the key terms are multicultural, multiethnic, pluralistic, and so on. Though individuals may believe in a deity or deities if they choose, a nation-state does not publicly confess faith in God and order its laws according to his will. Religion, worship, and morality are considered private activities, marginal to the public business of running the country.
All this means that, today, God is not the One to whom history, nature, conscience, and culture point. The once supreme, transcendent God is now at best the immanent God, for moderns believe that the center of the universe is the human being, the climax of biological evolution, who may (must!) look for deity in the center of his or her being. And meaning is no longer sought in the confession of God and a Christian universe but discovered by autonomous persons. This means not merely that “man is the measure of all things,” but that human beings rejoice in and see meaning in their subjectivism and permissiveness as autonomous inward-looking beings.
This is the world of postmodernity. What have the churches done as the West has moved into postmodernity? Almost all have moved with the flow and accommodated their teaching of the faith and their worship to the dominant assumptions of society. Others have resisted on this or that front and sought to preserve the faith intact.
However, what seems to be true is that all of us, and all churches in the West, have been more deeply affected by modernity and then postmodernity than most of their members ever realize or could in fact realize. And this most certainly includes those who believe themselves to be orthodox, whether Catholic or Protestant.
This may be illustrated by what they believe, teach, and confess as the Christian faith, Christian morality, and Christian living. If we take Christian living as an example, what seems to have happened as Christendom collapsed and first modernity and then postmodernity arrived, is that the churches have dramatically reduced their commitment to asceticism, the mortification of the sinful self.
The churches have called for much less ascetical discipline than was the norm and expectation in the Middle Ages, when Christendom thrived, or even in the seventeenth century, when it was coming to an end under the impact of modernity. As the dominant culture has moved away from confessing God as Lord, the churches have taught (in effect if not in intent) that he demands less and less of us.
It seems that the churches in the West have lost their nerve. They do not want to ask too much of their members for fear of losing them. In response to postmodernity, they have each devised a story and form of Christian living designed to give them an edge in the active competition of the supermarket of religions, and for most of the time this means that the demands upon Christians are much more in conformity with the world and therefore much less onerous.
The rules for fasting in the Catholic Church are a simple example. Once, the worshiper was expected to fast from rising until taking Communion, which could mean hours of abstinence and real feelings of hunger. Now the period of fasting is virtually no time at all, so that it may include only the time taken up by driving to church and the service itself, a time when most people would not be eating anyway. Lenten fasting, once designed to make people feel a little of the Lord’s suffering, has also been reduced to an easily attainable rule that disrupts peoples’ lives and curbs their appetites as little as possible.
Most contemporary Protestants seem to pay only lip service to fasting. It is not a regular discipline but either a mode of self-help (teaching people to control their appetites so they can be thinner) or a technique to get God’s attention for special needs (as when organizations ask people to fast on a particular day for the budget).
Likewise, the teaching of the duty of daily self-examination, with the confession of one’s sins and seeking of God’s pardon, so as to open up one’s soul for God’s penetrating light, has diminished dramatically in all jurisdictions of the Church. Many popular devotionals no longer include any element of confession and no guide to self-examination.
Further, the spiritual life is rarely seen as allowing the Holy Spirit to rule and guide one’s heart, mind, and will by the use of demanding gospel disciplines, but as cultivating an inner journey into the depths of one’s own soul to find one’s own spirit and feel its connection with an affirming and encouraging God. The latter journey is pleasant and soothing, while the former is demanding and painful because there is always sin to be discovered and mortified.
In Christendom, freedom was seen as liberation from one’s selfish and disordered passions in order to love God and neighbor. Now freedom is usually seen as liberation from this-worldly oppressors by using one’s (unsanctified) passions. For example, even conservative people will proclaim liberation not from one’s bondage to sin but from “low self-esteem,” the answer to which is the assertion of their will against the wills of others.
The worship of Almighty God—often called “celebration”—is now placed at the same level as every other activity. No one looks up or kneels or bows. All look at each other, for God is to be found primarily in other people. The highlight of many services seems to be the passing of the peace.
People wear jeans at home and at the ballpark and they wear jeans to engage in worship. They save their best clothing for dinner parties and other this-worldly activities. In many churches, the only people who dress up for worship are those in the choir, who put on a special uniform to present worship as a form of theater and a show: They give a musical presentation to the congregation, which is casually dressed for the performance. Apparently now to be casual is to be spiritual.
Of course there are always notable exceptions, but in general where religion still thrives in the West (particularly in the competitive religious supermarket of the United States) it has accommodated itself to a large degree to the individualism, subjectivity, personal autonomy, permissiveness, casualness, materialism, and pragmatism of what we call postmodernity.
It is very different from the religion of Christendom. It is very different indeed from the religion of the Protestants and Catholics of the seventeenth century, for whom God was the very center and substance of all life and things and possibilities. And it is very different even from the religion that was found in the height of modernity in the mid-nineteenth century, which still looked to God and believed he was leading them forward, and which still had a sense of public duty and responsibility as well as personal discipline.
We cannot return to Christendom. We cannot return to modernity. We live in a postmodern society and cannot escape. But for Christians that condition only defines the world in which we must live out our faith. It does not (as liberal Christians believe) determine for us what that faith is. If postmodernity is blind to the truth, we can still learn from earlier times what in fact is the truth of godliness and how we can be God-fearing people.
We can, for example, try to worship with rites not affected by postmodernity. One advantage in using a classic or traditional Liturgy—such as the Book of Common Prayer (in the 1662 or 1928 version), the Tridentine Mass, or the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom—is that it offers the worshiper a content and language so different from the religion of the day that it may shock him into questioning the modern values. They are to postmodernity a sign of contradiction.
In these Liturgies—much more so than in the contemporary Liturgies—is found the substance that inspired people in Christendom to love God and that caused them to lift up their eyes unto the Lord of all being. Of course to use one of these Liturgies means much more than merely admiring it: To use it means adopting its doctrine and discipline and entering fully into its presentation of the worship of the Holy Trinity, who is just as much the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit today as in the days of Christendom.
Peter Toon is Vice President of the Prayer Book Society (www.episcopalian.org/pbs1928/index.htm).