If there is one adjective that describes Western modernity in a nutshell, I would contend that it is the adjective “self-sufficient”. When the Internationale was first sung by the Parisian Communist insurrectionists of 1848, they sang defiantly that no God, no king and no emperor was coming to save them; they would do it themselves, thank you very much. Embodying the equivalent conviction in the Anglophone pseudo-conservative realm is Frank Sinatra, who adapted the French chanson "Comme d’habitude" into English as “I did it my way” ― a song remarkably popular at funerals in several Western countries.
This self-sufficiency is a new enthusiasm in the history of man. Even in the most autarkic culture that I have studied in any depth ― the Old Norse or Viking world, which I encountered at Cambridge ― there was little or no concept that a successful man, pagan and homesteader though he be, should seek to resolve the questions of his existence and purpose entirely alone and unaided. There were deities and the wisdom of ancestors and kinfolk for that, and not to avail himself of their counsel was counted sheer folly, if not impiety.
The attitude of Western modernity that I have sketched is known to German thinkers as Gottesvergessenheit. A Lutheran friend of mine, a fine scientist, writes the following of the drive to emancipate ourselves from our Creator: Ursprung dieser Haltung ist eine tiefe, reuelose und sich selbst bejahende Gottesvergessenheit des modernen agnostischen Menschen ― “This attitude takes its rise in modern agnostic man’s profound, ruthless and self-affirming forgetfulness of God.” In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, too, the saying is well known that “men have forgotten God”. The Psalms even speak of whole nations that forget God being turned into hell along with the wicked. The next time you find yourself remarking that your nation is going to the dogs, you may wish to consider that scriptural context. And if it is not your nation itself that is wicked ― for many a patriot would reject the assertion ― then does the evident wickedness of our place and time not originate from an external source?
The drive to sort out the meaning of life and the hierarchy of values on our own, Biblically and historically understood, is the direct result of tricks and manipulations by an intelligent and malevolent entity external to mankind: the enemy of souls known as the devil. In the Greek New Testament, he is often spoken of as ho diabolos: the accuser of the brethren, an attorney in the court of supernatural justice slinging well-founded charges at our conscience ― that we who know how to do good are practised at doing evil, that men are so bent that they cannot straighten themselves again. In the Hebrew Old Testament, this figure is referred to as ha-satan ― the adversary, he who stands in the way, blocking our path, or (to express ourselves more congruently with Western modernity) our progress.
The trouble is that we have taken this figure who stands between us and progress, or (if you prefer) enlightenment, and have made him our guide to progress: our enlightener. Have we not, then, acquired an endarkener instead of an enlightener in the figure of Lucifer, the rebel light-bearer? The religion of our modern West ― and as a long-term visitor to the Orthodox East I must assess with grief that it is rapidly becoming the religion of this cultural sphere as well ― is that of scientism. Follow the science. Experts say…
Any honest endeavour to trace this scientism back to its source in Early Modern intellectual history (and I advisedly say intellectual, not spiritual or cultural, history) will be bound to conclude that its murky fathers were not affirming of the universe and of man’s or their own place in it. No, to a man they were nihilists: their creed was not Everything, nor yet Something, nor even Anything, but Nothing. Keen to overturn the millennium of fully-fledged Christian tradition that they had inherited, European man ― north and south, east and west ― substituted for it what the Jewish prophets called “broken cisterns that hold no water”. These cracked vats are, alas, our own brain-pans. They have been leaking since we first inclined our ear to the sibilant serpentine suggestion: “Do it your way!”
Of course, contemporary thought leaders and their acolytes in the population do not conceive of themselves as empty-headed. Rather, they refer to their cultural production as bold or daring or spontaneous or original, and to their thought-patterns as fearless, autonomous, groundbreaking or unprecedented. Has it ever struck you that these terms, in the context of such usage, are elegant synonyms for “rebellious” or “defiant”? Whom are we shaking our collective fist at here? Evidently, our consciences are pricked about some act of insurrection if we keep selecting such adjectives to label our societal endeavours, whether in the Soviet Union or a Western nation.
Today’s nightmare, that which has brought us together at this forum, is the direct result of our sin. We have rejected our Creator ― we are the Gottesvergesser ― and He has given us over to our self-determinism. And who are we to complain at the perceived injustice of the judgement, we who set up courts in The Hague to award new nations their self-determination and tribunals in every district to tell our children that they are mature minors (the contradiction in terms would be stunning, but for the renewed illiteracy of our contemporaries, who fail to notice it): children possessed of the right of self-identification, whose elders taught them by example to aspire to it?
Self-determinism among fallen man is a false bill of goods. It was sold to our forebears as heaven on earth, and there were writers in all our countries who expressly called it that; but the truth of the matter is found even in Huis clos: L’enfer, c’est les autres. We are here today to deplore the absolutisation of metaphysical evil: that it knows no bounds, that there is no longer any check or balance on it in what passes for our civilisation. Has this nothing to do with the removal of God’s authority over us and in us?
Technocracy and transhumanism are the logical result of our fall into the unrelieved immanent. Man’s inward turn has brought him nothing but grief and disappointment, whether we look at the course of Soviet history or the rush to transition our children on the strength of fleeting feelings. To be rescued from this navel-gazing vortex, we cannot come up with our own solutions, for they too would issue from the same tainted source as the problem. The solution is found in the One Who is both immanent and transcendent.
I’d rather have Jesus than men’s applause,
> I’d rather be faithful to His dear cause;
> I’d rather have Jesus than worldwide fame,
> I’d rather be true to His holy Name.