David Bentley Hart on Modernity and Freedom

As a sort of follow-up to my last post, David Bentley Hart makes the astonishing claim in his Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies that to be modern is not, as is sometimes argued, to insist upon rationality and reasonableness over against benighted superstition and fanaticism, but to believe in a particular sort of freedom.  As a slight correction to this account, I would argue that an overweening confidence in rationality is still an implicitly appealed to foundation in our culture as a result of the dominance, invisibility, and ubiquity of technology. I am not, for instance, unaware of the irony that I am posting this complaint about modernity on a MacBook Air, an incredible invention in its own right, on a ‘blog’ which can potentially (though is not likely to!) be read by anyone perusing the internet. My point is that ‘science’, and in particular the natural sciences, which by their massive success in transforming our lived experience since the 19th century have managed to isolate the authority of that term for themselves, dominates our conception of what is ‘True’ and indisputable. Science is the realm of ‘fact’, and the meaning we generate for ourselves (empowered largely by our greatly augmented ability to transform our surroundings through the technology generated by ‘science’) is merely subjective and individualized ‘truth’. In other words, it’s true for me, but not necessarily for you, and it is therefore relegated to the fuzzy realm of ‘value’. But Hart is right to note that the tendency to abstract the individual from his or her roles in society so as to insist upon the individual’s radical autonomy and self-constitution, even at the expense of the vitality of mediating institutions in society, has accelerated in the past few decades. Although the metaphysics of this observation were even then quite muddled, up to a few decades ago it was acknowledged that individual ‘rights’ entailed ‘obligations’, such that justice should really be thought of in some sense as ‘just order’, rights now are asserted independent of the framework of participatory responsibility within a social order and independent of the idea of ‘human nature’ altogether:

Freedom for us today is something transcendent even of reason, and we no longer really feel that we must justify our liberties by recourse to some prior standard of responsible rationality. Freedom–conceived as the perfect, unconstrained spontaneity of individual will–is its own justification, its own highest standard, its own unquestionable truth. It is true, admittedly, that the modern understanding of freedom was for a time still bound to some concept of nature: many Enlightenment and Romantic narratives of human liberation concerned the rescue of an aborginal human essence from the laws, creeds, customs, and institutions that suppressed it. Ultimately, though, even the idea of an invariable human nature came to seem something arbitrary and extrinsic, an intolerable limitation imposed upon a still more original, inward, pure, and indeterminate freedom of the will. We no longer seek so much to liberate human nature from the bondage of social convention as to liberate the individual from all conventions, especially those regarding what is natural. (p. 105)

But the hope that the west has overcome a pre-modern understanding of freedom, understood as a willing conformity with our fundamental nature as human beings, is but a legitimating myth of Enlightenment. It is what Charles Taylor calls a ‘subtraction story’ account of the Secular Age: the idea that waiting behind the oppressive structures of the premodern world the liberated self was waiting to unleash itself. In reality, the ‘liberators’ of the west have always and in the present day continue to feed on the cultural capital bequeathed to them by the bygone Christian world. Again, here is DBH:

It is my governing conviction…that much of modernity should be understood not as a grand revolt against the tyranny of faith, not as a movement of human liberation and progress, but as a counterrevolution, a reactionary rejection of a freedom which it no longer understands, but upon which it remains parisitic….A post-Christian unbeliever is still, most definitely, for good or for ill, post-Christian. (p. 108)