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We Are All Moderns Now, but What Has Modernity Done to Us?

by Andy Patton

Everyone alive today—unless they live in remote places where the changes of the past 500 years have not touched them as deeply—is a citizen of modernity. We are all living in modernity’s matrix. It is in us, and we are in it.

I am no different. As I write this, I’m on a train and still getting wifi even though we’re moving at 100 mph. There are probably satellites involved. I’m listening to Spotify, and the library of human musical achievement is available at the swipe of a finger. I’m writing on a computer assembled on the other side of the planet. It is the concatenation of 10,000 technologies. It was made using rare earth metals born in the gravity tides at the edge of a black hole only to be sent careening across the galaxy to become the cloud of space dust that became planet Earth. Then they became my Mac.

But what is modernity? 

David Wells describes it this way:

“Modernity is the language that those who are modernized speak. The external shaping of our world by the process of modernization typically creates an internal world of diminished cognitive horizons, appetites for affluence, a definition of meaning in terms of material possessions, an ethic that equates what is efficient (or what is self-serving) with what is morally right, and the relocation of all meaning from the outside world of creation and the public world of human organization to the inside, private world of intuition and of the self.”

That’s us. That’s me.

Put this way, modernity is the plausibility supersystem in which we live and move and have our being, the thing we think before we think we are thinking. It is the prevailing consciousness today which conditions all human ideas and actions. It is the zeitgeist, the spirit of the age, the system, the matrix, the way of life and thought that has come to dominate the West. It is the air we breathe and the water we drink.

Modernity in this sense is true of almost all Westerners (an increasingly true of everyone else in the world). It unites people across all the other divides that might separate them. Even the most polarized and entrenched groups from the Left or the Right will still believe that the world can be improved by rendering all things countable, for instance. They will both still reach toward instrumental rationality when something goes wrong (a habit captured so elegantly in the phrase “There’s an app for that”). Despite all the things that still divide us, we are all moderns now.

From my seat on the train, I have access to power and knowledge that has been the domain of the gods for most of human history. I am Hercules and the Oracle of Delphi. All these changes have made me a different sort of being than my ancestors. My body has become integrated with modern technology in subtle ways. Even the structure of my brain has changed, rewiring itself to help me cope with the flashing, the noise, the speed of modern life. 

A woman joined me in the row not long after I sat down. Her oversized, puffy coat is spilling across the armrest onto my half of the row. The tag is scratchy. I thought about mentioning it, but she closed her eyes and went to sleep. So I am writing about it instead.

Comfort is essential to me. Like all citizens of modernity, my life moves between thousands of little comfort objects every day. I wake up in cotton sheets. I shuffle to the kitchen in slippers. I drink my coffee, which is made by my choice of brewing gizmos. My house is always just the right temperature. If I have a headache, I can take a pill to make it disappear. If I get sick enough, I can go to a hospital, and machines will look inside my body. Then they will gently put me to sleep, open my body, cut out what is wrong, and seal it up again like God making Eve of Adam’s rib and closing the hole afterward. Bone of my bone. Flesh of my flesh.

There is a scene in Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris in which Owen Wilson finally receives the opportunity to stay in the earlier epoch that he so romanticizes, and he realizes that if he does, he will have to live through his headaches and endure his surgeries while conscious. That seals the deal. He returns to his own time in 2010.

Though we complain when there is a rip in the fabric of the seamless dream of comfort and convenience we weave around ourselves, which of us moderns would trade it all away? Maybe Wendell Berry. I suspect I am too accustomed to my coffee, slippers, and Ibuprofen.

But today, I am annoyed. It seems this train is going to be late. I have a full day, and now my thumbs are tapping out texts that will rearrange my schedule on the fly.

I like it when things run smoothly and efficiently. As a good modern man, I consider optimization my birthright. I have the (largely unexplored) presupposition that if something can be improved upon, it should have been by now. If it has not gotten better yet, surely soon it will. Science has pulled so many rabbits out of its hat that deep down, I’m sure the magic will roll on forever.

There is an unproven but powerful hypothesis drilled into me: given enough time, we will make everything all right. Surely, at least 51% of things are getting better every year. This hypothesis makes modern people very optimistic despite the fact that there is ample evidence that even though things are improving, they are getting worse, too.

But modernity isn’t making things better, per se. Instead, it is making everything more powerful. Power multiplies by magnitudes over time. Everything is moving faster now and making a bigger impact: thoughts, bodies, messages, missiles. The modern age has seen the elimination of many of the things that killed, sickened, bothered, or aggrieved humans throughout history, but it has also invented a slew of new ways to die, sicken, be bothered, or meet face-to-face with that feral, prowling enemy, grief.

Despite the optimistic promises, modernity will never deliver utopia. Already, the cracks are showing.

Local cultures are dissolving in the face of globalization. Species are vanishing. The twentieth century was the bloodiest yet. For the first time in human history, we are capable of destroying all life on the planet, and not only in one terrible way but many. If the futurists are right, more are on the way once we fully unzip and plunder the genome and begin tinkering with the nano realm. 

Despite the information around us, we trust in strange ways now. The internet has inflamed our passions and girded our patriotism, but we all have the nagging question of whether we have been deceived. As time goes by, the question grows. We are both more empowered and more disempowered than ever.

The woman next to me on the train has begun to snore. I swap out my wireless earbuds for my big, ear-encasing headphones. Now, safely ensconced in a private, curated soundscape, I return to writing.

Everyone around me is nicely buffered from everyone else by the devices in front of them. We have all wrapped ourselves in sights and sounds that would have seemed like magic to an earlier age. We are bodies pressed together, but we are dreaming separate dreams in separate worlds. 

I’m as dislocated as anybody these days, having lived in a handful of states in my childhood and as many countries in my adulthood. I call many places “home,” but for us moderns home is not what it used to be. For most of human history, people died where they were born. The people they shared their place with, they shared their lives with. Today, we are potted plants—transportable and mobile-ready. We are root-bound, having learned the skills of being wrapped around ourselves. We carry our dislocation with us.

Places still evoke many sentiments, but they are not the sentiments that long endurance in a place brings; they are often shallow and wide, quick and vivid. We try to capture the kinds of sentiments in snapshots that we can share with our followers to gain more followers.

It takes intention if you want to stay in one place. There are forces arrayed against you, like a rock in the riverbed. The current wants to sweep you downstream. And if you can stay put in one place, you will see everyone else come into and out of your life as the currents of modernity carry them out to sea. 

Some drown.

Is this the Good Life?

All this makes you pause and ask: Is this the good life? If not, what is?

I have coffee in the morning and Netflix at night, but am I choosing my weekly, daily, and moment-by-moment rhythms, or are they choosing me?

I can get my work done while on a speeding train, but have I retained the ability to slow the pace of my life down enough to be able to walk with the Living God?

I can watch trade skill tutorials on YouTube and try mixing mortar to tuckpoint a wall, but that is worlds apart from the careful discipline it takes to become the disciple of a craft.

I can use Google to help me skim across the river of human knowledge like a stone, but am I growing wiser? Am I becoming like the tree in Psalm 1—able to sink my roots down into the river of God’s richness and meditate on his ways day and night?

When everything is offered to me, what will I deny myself and why?

In the words of Kathleen Norris from The Cloister Walk, the prophet’s task “is to reveal the fault lines hidden beneath the comfortable surface of the worlds we invent for ourselves.” Modernity supplies many answers to the questions about the good life, but I suspect that I am surrounded by too many advocates and too few prophets.

Sometimes, it seems that if I could even manage not to be swept off my feet by the swirling changes all around me, it would be a great gift to offer the world. I would be like T. S. Eliot’s man who “appears to run away when he takes the opposite course,” but only because he lives in a world of fugitives.

As I got off the train, I realized I knew the woman who was in the seat next to me, the one with the coat. We used to work together, but I had not seen her in years. Nor had I seen her in the four hours we sat together. By the time I realized it, she was walking away. 

So it goes in modernity.


Andy Patton is the creator of the Darkling Psalter, a collection of creative renditions of the Psalms paired with new poems. He writes about biblical theology at Pattern Bible and co-edits a newsletter of cultural resources at Three Things. He holds an M.A. in theology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He works for the Rabbit Room and is a former staff member at L'Abri Fellowship in England.

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