Ever wonder about the nebulousness of the term Modern Orthodox? Or why no one seems to be able to move the term or the ideology forward? There is a new book by Webb Keane called Christian Moderns, featured at the Immanent Frame, that may offer some tools for thought. (I ask in advance for people not to leave in the comments the usual homiletical pabulum defining Modern Orthodoxy fit only for day school mission statements.)
Webb does not define modern in a temporal sense, rather modernity is a moral issue of self transformation. One wants to raise oneself to a new stage of autonomy, freedom, and liberation from false beliefs. Think of modernity as a form of ethical training to think a new way. One labeled those who accept different positions as lacking rationality. Modernity, as a Protestant virtue, also implies the lack of materiality, physicality, and externalization. But if one is not striving for self-transformation then one cannot call oneself modern.
This moralization of history—a largely tacit set of expectations about what a modern, progressive person, subject, and citizen, should be…I do not try to define modernity as an objective aspect of a period of history, but rather as a feature of people’s historical consciousness. Enlightenment thought about morality, autonomy, and freedom, which became central to later secular institutions and habits.
They are asking things like: Are we there yet? How do we get there? What will it cost us? How can we get out of it? Why are others not as modern as we are? Are they going to drag us back?
Modernity is a story of human liberation from a host of false beliefs and fetishisms that undermine freedom. Conversely, those people who seem to persist in displacing their own agency onto such rules, traditions, or fetishes (including sacred texts) are out of step with the times. They are morally and politically troubling anachronisms, pre-moderns or anti-moderns.
A great deal of contemporary academic and political work tends to presuppose the moral narrative of modernity. Arguments about agency, rationality, or freedom, for instance, are often tacitly informed by the assumption that self-transformation is not only a central aspect of historical progress, but also a good that exceeds local systems of value.
Those people who reject the claims of modern agency—those non-moderns who defer to (excessively material) gods, scriptures, or traditions, for example—are subject to accusations of “fetishism.” To accuse people of fetishism is to indict them for misunderstanding their own capacities.
Now to return to the Jewish community, those authors who used the term in the 1950’s and 1960’s specifically showed their modernity by their use of Kantian philosophy and existentialism. These philosophic movements stressed autonomy, freedom, and responsibility. This helps explain their avoidance of the myriad of other viable theological partners that did not emphasize the modernist ethos. They wanted to remove the physicality of the mizvot and say that what counts if the fulfillment in the heart.
But what about now? What happens when people are not striving for self-transformation to autonomy anymore? This is where Webb may be the most handy. If one is Modern Orthodox and does not have a moral issue of transformation then one has no way to describe oneself.
One approach is to define oneself in the negative by saying that one is not one of those “non-modern” groups. But that may not be empirical about the negated group or even about one’s own group. The Conservative movement has a similar problem In their period of triumphalism they were embracing the modern world and could say that Orthodoxy was not embracing the modern world. Now, they simple say they are the only ones making a hybrid of modernity and tradition.
A second approach is to define oneself as rational, but that falters because rationality is not defined, as Steve Nadler pointed out on Angel. And is hard to define in the age after modernity, unless one is using Habermas, Taylor et al. More importantly, rationality is no longer seen as a moral issue of transformation. If being modern is a simply quality that one has naturally then one is not modern. According to Webb, one would need to work to be modern, at least as much as one works to keep up with computer/web literacy.
A different point is that many of those who want to call themselves modern Orthodox stress how they are open, sensitive, or dealing with the needs of the people. This is a definition, but leaves the problem of gaining any traction in rhetoric or ideology. Open orthodoxy has a self-definition is that open and sensitive but that has nothing to do with modern. To be modern is to speak of autonomy and freedom. They are not looking to start accusing people of fetishism.
The new open Orthodoxies are not modern but have developed a new ethos. But they have not found a means of articulation.
For example, Rick Warren offers the language of the purpose driven life; the virtue is to build a meaningful life. Here is not medieval, but now lives in the post-secular post-modern world and functions with a new ethical scale of self-transformation based on meaning in a suburban life. Open modern Orthodox, in contrast, keep calling themselves modern as if that is to have a resonance. And their rhetoric is off, since they keep citing as their exemplars 1960’s Orthodox about autonomy, when they are striving for inclusivism (feminism, GLBT rights, acknowledgment of handicaps and psychological difficulties).
I found that similar comments to mine about Rick Warren were made in a later post to Webb, “After Purification” by Philip Gorski. Engaged Yeshivish and Kiruv has much in common with Pentacostalism and are better are playing the inclusivism card.
But this process of purification is necessarily incomplete. Humans, after all, are social and physical creatures. Thus, processes of purification inevitably give rise to new forms of hybridity—in this case, to new texts, rituals, incantations and so on, either directly, in the form of routinized religious practices or, indirectly, in the form of heterodox religious movements, such as Pentecostalism. Gorski notes that much of the critique of the modern position has been from those returning to the classical tradition.
For MacIntyre, Hauerwas, Elshtain, Milbank and Taylor critique modern liberal secularism not from without, but from within, by drawing variously on Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas.
Does this mean that prophetic critique is the only possible form that a critique of secularism can take? That one must be a theist to be a critic in our secular age? By no means. Political philosophers such as…Michael Sandel, amongst others, have elaborated a powerful neo-republican critique of modern liberalism Even Jürgen Habermas, that icon of Euro-American enlightenment, has recently urged his partisans to recognize the untapped “semantic potentials” and “moral resources” still contained within religious languages and communities
Do those who formulate other position offer any alternate to modernity? Centrist Orthodoxy offers a relinquishment of autonomy and the promise of living an idealized halakhic existence Mekhon Hartman offer the modernist vision of autonomy and freedom. What do those who want something else offer? In the 1950’s, there were many rhetorical devices that made people in the Levitttowns think they were into freedom,autonomy, and rationality. But there seems to be a gnawing sense that the idealized halakhah does not not correspond to otherwise observant suburban family life.