A Genealogy of the Lonely Modern

In the typical scenario, which comes loaded with the modern view of history, the question is posed, “Would you smother baby Hitler in the crib, given the opportunity?” What if we discover, perhaps with the deed complete, it was actually Hitler’s reading of Nietzsche, and that in fact there were many German boys of a peculiar intellect and disposition who, given bad philosophy, could fill the role of Hitler candidates. Smothering baby Nietzsche will not really help, as he too arises with the secular age whose end he envisions.[1] The problem with the scenario is contained in the presumption that Hitler is an isolated, unique individual, and not a product of his time and circumstance.

John Milbank though, has the perfect candidate for smothering. According to Milbank, Duns Scotus is the culprit who created the theological vision that ultimately disenchanted the world which has given rise to both modern experience and modern political structure, with all of its attendant disasters. Milbank would explain the modern and secular, whether modern American evangelicalism or modern global Christianity as a “thinned out version of the Catholic faith” – all the result of the theology of Scotus.[2] In turn, Milbank imagines that if we could recover medieval ecclesial and political structures the root problem would be addressed. He puts on display both a failed understanding of the nature and depth of the human predicament and its solution.

My point here is not simply to indicate the weakness in attaching blame for all of modern thought to one medieval scholar. Milbank, after all, is simply following a long line of modern scholarship (the very thing he is critiquing) which would attach supreme importance to one individual or a particular stream of history. While it is not exactly “the great man theory of history” (in which history is biography), it is something of a “disastrous idea theory of history” which attaches a near sui generis notion to particular ideas, periods and persons. For example, Leslie Newbigin, typical of the previous generation, wrote of Rene Descartes having caused the second Fall of humanity. He presumed that if Descartes had not gone into that warm room on a cold day and composed his meditations (beginning with “I think, therefore I am”) the modern period would not have commenced or would not have been so disastrous. The tendency is to think, “That darn Descartes, he ruined it for all of us.” This, “If it weren’t for that darn Descartes-that darn Scotus-that darn Hitler-view of history,” is faulty, not simply in its simplistic view of history but is attached, I would claim, to a peculiarly thin (modernist) theology which does not presume, as I think the New Testament does, something like a negative unified field theory of sin (addressed in the work of Christ).

It is not that we cannot or should not trace the genealogy of ideas, as we really do live in a world impacted by the thought of particular individuals and there really are streams of thought or historical circumstances that shape our horizons. It is true, that basic human experience is changed up in this secular age and that our world has been disenchanted, no matter our personal (religious or nonreligious) frame of reference. There is no passing over the depth of details to be found in Scotus or William of Ockham and their part in bringing about the secular. The mistake is not in tracing the genealogy of ideas, but it is in imagining that any one individual or any one age or epoch is a realm apart and thus does not share in a common root failure. Milbank’s intense focus on Scotus could and has been argued on the details but the larger error, whatever the merit or lack in the details, is to imagine this failure is a one-off event which can then be corrected by returning the world to something like its pre-Scotus state.[3]

Conceptually modernity, for example, with its turn to nominalism and the focus on divine sovereignty (divine power) in philosophy and theology (something like a pure formalism or legalism), with its juridical-constitutional model of autonomous state authority (the government is secular and the ecclesial powers are now subservient), with its presumption of bio-political control of the human body through the body politic (the biological body is written over with secular law), seems to simply be an aggravated reconstitution of Paul’s depiction of sin as a misorientation to law. The voluntarist conception of God (focus on the will or causal power of God) was secularized in the conception of the state and in the focus on the individual, and this raw power is codified in law and by legal (state) institutions.

The steps that lead to exclusive focus on divine sovereignty (as opposed to divine love or beauty) follows the course Paul traces as the universal predicament, in which the unmediated presence of God is traded for the force of the law. For Paul, the reality of every individual is understood in light of the experience or identity of corporate humanity (unregenerate humanity) in Adam and in Israel. In Eden, the law of the knowledge of good and evil literally displaces God and is made the means to life, and the law of Sinai is made to serve the same end. Part of the point of Christianity, perhaps the main point, is to separate out this obscene orientation to the law (psychologically and religiously) so as to be able to arrive at the law of love. Sin, in Paul’s definition, fuses itself with the law so that one who becomes a servant of the law (as Paul did, and as Adam did, and as, in Paul’s explanation, everyone does) becomes a servant of sin and incapacitates agape love.

The irony is that Christianity has done its work in extracting this condition (orientation to the law of sin and death) from religious enchantment. Now the law is not presumed to have any religious (ontological) ground but is a secular establishment, a bare and open law built upon raw power, that nonetheless reigns in the psychic and social orientation. In this nominalist universe no appeal can be made to an actually existing goodness, as the best we have – all we have – is the mediating power of law and legal institutions. “Might makes right” may have always been the case, but in the medieval period kings presumed they were the channel of a divinely bestowed power (and there was a check on this power), but in the secular realm power is its own legitimating force (there is no ecclesial legitimating power) so that war is the constituting power of the state to which it will need continual recourse. Making war makes the state. In the same way money, in the early stages of capitalism, was a sign of God’s blessing and depended upon this theological construct, now money need not appeal to any outside legitimation. Money is its own legitimating power. Human life is literally and metaphorically put on the market, so that life and time become a commodity to be bought and sold.  

As Charles Taylor has described it, the immanent frame now prevails, or as Carl Schmitt (the famous Nazi jurist) has put it, “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts not only because of their historical development—in which they were transferred from theology to the theory of the state but also because of their systematic structure.” As Schmitt describes it, “the omnipotent God became the omnipotent lawgiver” and with secularization we are left with omnipotent law.[4] It is no surprise then that miracles (due to natural law), become an impossibility, and by the same token, according to Mike Pompeo, there should not even be the possibility of questioning the constitution. The modern constitutional state reigns supreme (in place of the divine). The constitution replaces commandments, the nation replaces the community of faith, and at an individual level human decision and will is the final arbiter of ethics.

Among the many consequences of modern secularism is the rise of an intense and peculiar individualism, in which the organic and communal sense of the subject is displaced by the notion that the individual is a monad – an isolated entity.  It is only with the secular that there needs to be a reaffirmation of a basic biblical understanding and an integral part of medieval culture: humans are constituted as part of a family or group. Hegel hits upon this truth as if it is a discovery. As he explains in the very beginning of “Independence and Dependence of Self-Consciousness: Lordship and Bondage,” self-consciousness could be achieved only through being acknowledged by others. As the philosopher Immanuel Levinas has described it, at the most fundamental level, “self-consciousness is not one-sided action as people assume, but; it necessitates an other to reach it.” Facing with an “other” is not only necessary for the recognition of the self but it is also a must to have a self-consciousness.

The necessity to describe this mutuality would not likely have arisen in a traditional culture. As Taylor describes it, “One of the big differences between us and them is that we live with a much firmer sense of the boundary between self and other. We are ‘buffered’ selves.” The traditional porous sense of self came with certain deficits in that the emotional and moral life did not exist in an inner, mental space and was thus subject to a variety of malevolent influences such as spirits, demons, or cosmic forces.[5] But the buffered individual has been removed from this world of fear at the price of a profound sense of isolation. An article in JAMA journal of psychiatry refers to this as an epidemic of loneliness responsible for the death of 1 American every 5.5 minutes due to suicide and opioid overdose, which is chalked up to the root cause of loneliness. An annual mortality of 162 000 Americans is attributable to loneliness (exceeding the number of deaths from cancer or stroke), which is a term that, according to the British historian Fay Bound Alberti, did not exist in the English language until 1800.[6]  

Is not the destructive nature of modern loneliness an indication this is simply an aggravated condition of the objectified “I” which Paul depicts as arising in conjunction with the alienating law? In Paul’s depiction, this ἐγὼ or “I” is not subject to growth and change as it is an object fixed as part of a formal structure under the law, characterized by fear and struggle. The antagonistic dialectic between the law of the mind and the law of the body is, according to Paul, the very thing that produces this isolated ego desperately grasping after life and power through the law. Freud could be quoting Paul in calling the ego “the seat of anxiety” due to its fear of annihilation under the cathected law (the superego).[7] As Lacan will describe the ego (renaming it the imaginary), “Alienation is the imaginary as such.”[8] This fully interior or self-conscious ego, or this “I” which is one’s own is, in Paul’s description (and Paul is commenting on Genesis 3) the Subject of sin.  

This is not an attempt to simply lump together all forms of sin, but it is to suggest that a true genealogy of the modern begins with a biblical diagnosis, which also promises more than a return to the medieval or artificial attempts to reenchant the world.


[1] Enough smothered babies equal a holocaust type strategy – Hitler was, after all, attempting to correct history. It is the strategy of the powers from Pharaoh to Herod to the late modern Democratic Party.

[2] See John Milbank, Beyond the Secular Order: The Representation of Being and the Representation of People, (Wiley Blackwell).

[3] If modernity is a turn to the individual, and society is pictured simultaneously as made up of individual monad’s, this is not an error corrected by imagining one individual has reconstituted the whole.

[4] Carl Schmitt,  1928 (2008), Constitutional Theory, transl. J. Seitzer, (Duke University Press, London), p. 36.

[5] Charles Taylor, “Buffered and porous selves” https://tif.ssrc.org/2008/09/02/buffered-and-porous-selves/

[6] Dilip V Jeste, Ellen E Lee, Stephanie Cacioppo, “Battling the Modern Behavioral Epidemic of Loneliness: Suggestions for Research and Interventions,” JAMA psychiatry, 77(6) https://escholarship.org/content/qt47n6790s/qt47n6790s.pdf?t=q7c0kj

[7] Sigmund Freud, The Ego and the Id (Standard Edition), 59-60.

[8] Jacques Lacan, Seminar III, 146

Beyond Medicine, Miracles, Reason, and Science: What Difference Marks the Experience of the Christian?

I was asked this excellent question recently and wanted to share the thoughts it provoked.

“Is preaching all there is to the kingdom of God in this present age? Does God not work miracles through men anymore? Must we have only rational ideas to be in the kingdom of God?” Continue reading “Beyond Medicine, Miracles, Reason, and Science: What Difference Marks the Experience of the Christian?”