Modernity and Tragedy

Ugh. After a long period of being very sick, and an even longer period of not wanting to blog (blogging comes in bursts with me, it seems), I’m finally up to comment on something.

David Brooks has an interesting column in today’s (Friday, 15 July) New York Times. He’s wrong when he writes “[t]he fiscal crisis is driven largely by health care costs,” (it’s driven most by America’s insistence on living beyond its means, whether that “living” is waging war in the Middle East and dominating the world or being “generous” to the poor and supporting the elderly) but he is correct when he notes:

We have the illusion that in spending so much on health care we are radically improving the quality of our lives. We have the illusion that through advances in medical research we are in the process of eradicating deadly diseases. We have the barely suppressed hope that someday all this spending and innovation will produce something close to immortality.

There is, I believe, a larger point to this. The aim of Modernity and the Enlightenment — both stated and unstated — is the eradication of the tragic. Specifically, Modernity and Enlightenment seek the end of death, suffering, accident, inequality, misery and poverty. Modernity and Enlightenment believe that human reason, combined with science (technology and industrial production) and rightly guided (by Morality and Reason to become Progress) can effectively bring about the Kingdom of God on earth, or something akin to that kingdom. It may be these ideals are not as passionately felt as they were 100 years ago, but they are still very intensely felt, and the desires of Modernity and Enlightenment have been almost completely impervious to human history, and humanity’s inability to alter the tragic conditions and nature of human existence.

Modernity and Enlightenment have been quite capable of staggering change, mostly in terms of technology and organization. But that change has mostly been engineering, not moral. It has not altered the fundamental nature of human beings because it cannot. It cannot eradicate sin and all that springs from human sinfulness. And it is a delusion — albeit an incredibly powerful delusion — that somehow this engineering and organizational change can facilitate moral change. It cannot. We cannot evade the tragic, no matter how much we try. There will always be poverty, suffering, misery, accident, inequality, hierarchy and death as long as we are humans existing this side of the eschaton because those tragic elements are essential to the human condition. No amount of production, no amount of wealth, no amount of communication, will make us good enough to share what there is with all who need. Not because there isn’t enough, but because we are people incapable of doing that kind of good.

In scripture, God may promise an eventual transcendence of the tragic, and we who are called by God in Christ to live that kingdom live out that transcendence. But we do so also knowing that God came into the world not to negate or eradicate tragedy but to participate in it, and to be present with us in the midst of it. The goals of Modernity and Enlightenment are misguided, and the Liberal Church is deeply misguided when it mistakes Modernity and Enlightenment for the Kingdom of God. When it mistakes the goals of Modernity and Enlightenment with the promises of God. And when it mistakes society and the nation for the church, the community of people called out to follow.