Modernity as the Refusal of Innocence

If you remember your childhood, or have children, or grandchildren, or nieces and nephews, then you know what it is like to see the world as enchanted.  In such a world, monsters exist…under beds, in closets, and so on.  The dark can be foreboding.  The forest holds secrets, both wonderful and horrifying.  The night sky is an unending kaleidoscope of light and movement.  Falling stars are magical.  Grass and flowers are shockingly beautiful and “feel” good to our feet and eyes.  “Imaginary” friends are possible and blankets, stuffed toys, and any number of supposed “inanimate” objects are comforting—even…friends.  And, we are told beguiling stories by our parents, extended family, churches, schools, neighbors, and friends.  We start off in a world that is perceived as enchanted, both comforting, wonderful and terrifying, all at the same time.

If you have ever been a teenager, young adult, or raised them, or been around them in some form or fashion, then you know what it is like to see the world as dis-enchanted.  Innocence is lost.  This age can begin to see the world from a jaded perspective; the world is suspect, and we cannot trust many people, institutions, beliefs, and perhaps even our parents.  And against all the deceit, against all the drivel we were force-fed, we strike out on our own (together…with everyone else our age…but, anyway…), and we, in our idealism, begin to make the world anew.  This one though is accurate, true, and not weighed down by the false stories we were told as children. Oh, how silly. Oh, how we have moved on now.  We are adults; we have “matured” and we now know such earlier understandings were just part of being a child, of not knowing how the world works.  We are “past” that now.  We have “grown” up.

Something strange begins to happen though as we get older (although what I’m describing isn’t age/time dependent).  It’s something that comes from tears.  It comes from heart-break.  It also comes from joy and laughter.  It comes from living life, from experience.  It is possible, not always, but possible, we sometimes learn the child knew more than we did.  In their ignorance, in their innocence, perhaps they knew something we’ve forgotten over time.

David Bentley Hart, has a wonderful description or definition of wisdom.  He writes:

“Wisdom is the recovery of innocence at the far end of experience.”

Wisdom is a return, not an arrival.  It is a recovery of something present (possible), and yet hidden, or lost along the way.  What allows for this recovery or return is experience, living and dying.  The scars, the joys, the successes, the failures, relationships, the hopes and dreams, all of it—leads us, if we are open, to a place of innocence again.  East of Eden, the journey away, is the far end of experience that returns us (possibly), to the garden once again.

If we were to apply this truth to cultures or historical moments, we might say that to be modern, or modernity, is the refusal of this return or recovery.  It is, in effect, the refusal of innocence, the decision to not mature and move past the adolescent mark of jadedness and suspicion.  It remains stuck in that time where we think we know more than the child we were or the aged person we eventually will become (the aged and the child are very alike).  Because modernity is the very loss of innocence, of an enchanted universe, it remains stuck in that mind-set, and can never allow the experiences of living lead it back to innocence because to do so would call into question modernity/modernism itself.  After all, it defines itself as that which is “enlightened”—that which has “progressed” beyond the naive innocence of earlier times.  One can almost hear the teenager/young adult commenting, “Oh, I haven’t believed that since I was a child.”

We can see this most readily in the jaundiced eye with which the modern sees myths, mystery, mysticism, fables, stories, and, of course, religion.  It has out-grown such idle and, clearly, false tales and superstitions.  Only a child, in their naive innocence, believes such things.

We can also see it in the worship of youth and being young.  Modernity fetishizes youth.  We have a multi-billion-dollar industry that revolves around keeping us all young-looking.

I’m reminded of the sobering Who lyric from “My Generation,”— “I hope I die before I get old…”

However, maybe they meant I hope I don’t ever lose my innocence and, if I do, I’m dead.  But I digress…

To the extent the FG world is also modern, it suffers from the same sensibility.  One example of this is in their worship.  It is constantly changing to attract and keep the young.  Another is it too thinks it has out-grown the “superstitious” beliefs of the early church (meaning Catholicism/Orthodoxy).  There is no place for mystery or enchantment in the FG world.

The modern (and its imitators) wanders then in a place of spiritual and intellectual stagnation and stasis, refusing to mature, because to do so would require a return to innocence, which is a return to enchantment and mystery—all the things it supposedly left behind.


“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matt 18:3


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