Two Worlds: Notes on the Death of Modernity in America & Russia
Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992,170 pp., $12.95
Drew University's Professor of Theology, Thomas Oden, was invited to Moscow State University to speak to the Department of Scientific and Historical Study of Religion and Freethinking (formerly called the Department of Atheism) in February, 1991. The once "evil empire" implacably opposed to religion is now "looking with quiet desperation for ways to incorporate the vitality of religious understandings and communities and sacramental life into its common ethos" (p. 12). This excellent little book is Oden's reflections on that trip. It is at once philosophical, theological, political, economic, and very personal. For all of us trying to make sense of what is happening in the former Soviet Union and having to digest the radical changes taking place there, Oden's "notes" are perceptive and helpful.
Former Soviet premier Khrushchev said, "Whether you like it or not history is on our side. We will bury you." Many of us will be tempted to reply, "Look who's burying whom!" To Thomas Oden, however, both "megasocieties" are decaying, "suffering from the rapidly deteriorating assumptions of modernity." The West suffers from "idolatrous individualism" and the East from "idolatrous collectivism," both terminally. Oden draws philosophic, social, religious, and economic analogies between the two in order to get at the deeper structural illness of these two modernist societies heading into a postmodern world. But he does it with insight and sensitivity, and with none of the "moral equivalence" obfuscation that is frequently offered up as "analysis" of Western culture.
Modernity, characterized by reductive naturalism, historical utopianism, and narcissistic assertiveness, is on the decline and rotting from within as it fails to deliver on its promises. In fact, it delivers the opposite: anxiety, guilt, boredom, the specific content of which differs from society to society. The good news in this, Professor Oden feels, is "the fresh occasions for responsible human life" brought out of this decaying carcass. As the values of modernity prove bankrupt, postmodern ("what follows modernity") values and critiques can have their say and can influence the outcome of the postmodern world.
Here is the opportunity for Christians, especially with regard to Russia, but also, by extension, with respect to Western culture. Christians have been invited by previously atheistic Communists to help them rebuild their society (see Praying with the KGB by Philip Yancey for a similar invitation). They have witnessed in Christians a norm of life that taps spiritual roots unavailable to the atheist. "There is a pathos-laden mourning not for communism or totalitarianism or a centralized economy, but for an organic, stable social order" (p. 25). They believe Christianity will be able to supply it. Oden believes it can too, and shows how.
Although Oden's critique of modernity is engaging and helpful, it is his personal comments on the trip that are most memorable. As a former leftist, his comments on the value of the free market are encouraging. "Human self-assertiveness," he says, "is always dangerous, but less so in the form of market exchange than that found in the form of rational planning by political elites, in which the planner's hidden interests are always the thing planned. The democratic process...is a more reliable expression of proximate justice than the fantasies of intelligentsia about how they would order all things rationally if given a chance" (p. 136). The result of all that planning, good willed or not, is that things don't work well.
Oden also takes well-deserved swipes at the World Council of Churches. It made a reprehensible "Faustian bargain" with the Soviet authorities to tone down its resistance to Soviet religious repressions in exchange for having the huge Russian Orthodox church remain in the WCC. Many, many Christians were horribly mistreated or murdered. "Many Russian saints freely withheld their obeisance to idolatrous, atheistic ideology. A deadly history of martyrdom resulted which is yet to be recounted accurately. A twentieth-century hagiography is needed for the saints of Russian martyrdom under communism" (p. 164).
Although this book is a critique of modernity, it is also a scathing indictment of the "idolatrous collectivism" embodied in the Soviet Union and, surprisingly, still alive in North America. Bob Rae and other well-meaning, but ultimately destructive, socialists should take note when Oden says, "Moscow has had to suffer much more concretely and directly from Marxist follies. Our knowledge elites still have the blessed privilege of treating Marxist notions as untested theory—this cannot be said of Soviet academics" (p. 87).