The Impersonalist Dynamic of Modernity

Modernity is normally defined as a complex outcome of the scientific, industrial, and political revolutions, but something must be said also about the “early modern” period, since it was from this period that, alongside the unquestionable “progress” in some respects that I will point to shortly, the West began to evolve modes of thought and in some respects of cultural, social, and political practice that could in fact under some historical conditions become more systematically at odds with and more sharply opposed to the tensional field of differential experience that can be seen on a deeper level to be decisive for at least some dimensions of the Western understanding and recognition of personhood.

When we begin to look closer at this, it should be understood that this is not an assessment of the relative value of different historical periods as such with reference to their degree of realization of personalist values. It is an analysis only of some cultural and intellectual factors, which coexist and interrelate with many others in these respective periods. It is certainly not the case that because the differential shift took place in antiquity and became gradually institutionalized in various ways both then and in the subsequent medieval culture, the distinctive values of personal life was, in general, to a greater extent acknowledged and respected in those periods and that in the course of modernity they were gradually obscured and ruined by a pantheistic revolution. As I will argue, it is rather the case that the results of the differentiational shift in some respects became apparent and manifest only in modernity. Neither is, as already in some respects indicated, pantheism a simple phenomenon, and this is true not just with regard to the “compact” civilizations imperfectly analysed by at least the early Voegelin, i.e. what I called “early pantheism”, but even with regard to specifically modern pantheism and the factors underlying it. The aim of this analysis is simply to lay bare the particular impersonalistic dynamic that is also an undeniable part of modernity and that ever tends to distort and at least under some historical circumstances has demonstrably and violently destroyed the differential achievements of the recognition of the true values of the person.

These modes of thought display two pairs of in some respects dialectical “opposites” in new relations of tension and interdependence that are basic to the understanding of modernity. The first is the pair of the new individualistic and the new anti-individualistic, socially holistic modes. The second is the pair of the new rationalistic, empiricist, and scientistic modes on the one hand and the new romantic, sentimentalist, and irrationalist modes on the other. In both cases, the “opposites” are in fact closely related and mutually supportive underneath their obvious surface clashes. Both the pairs and their respective “opposites” are inextricably intervolved in many subtle ways. In light of the differentiational framework, all of the four modes are impersonalistic, and share common impersonalistic roots.

On the most basic level, modernity is impersonalistic because of some aspects of its secularization, quite regardless of whether the latter are understood in terms of a reinterpretation of religion or in those of its rejection, and quite regardless of the degree of validity of the particular, long dominant Christian representation of transcendence. For in whichever way it comes about, secularization in those aspects represents a process of a new kind of immanentistic closure, of disregard or rejection of transcendence, the order that is rooted in it, and its sphere of values, and thus of the real nature of the immanent sphere as perceivable only through the contrast. The reality of the person was discovered and the nature of its potential realization understood in decisive respects only with the deepened awareness of its position between transendence and immanence.

It is first of all in this very general sense that these broad intellectual currents of modernity, in their typical expressions and with their concomitant political, social, and cultural forms, represent impersonalistic modes of thought and practice, a new cultural dynamic. But they also do so in more specific ways, and these too must be understood. Yet these are often much more closely interconnected than is normally perceived. On closer scrutiny, and against the background of differentiation, the ways in which secularization does in fact come about in the West are surprisingly unitary in their deepest spiritual inspirations, psychological motivations, and worldly aspirations.

In deepening this analysis precisely with regard to the dimension of personality, it is necessary to go beyond Voegelin. Neither on the level of “man” nor on the level of God does he place the emphasis on personality in his accounts of the experience of differentiation. Although his analysis indirectly covers some of the distinctly impersonalistic consequences of what he speaks of as the Gnostic immanentization of the eschaton, it obscures the extent to which a certain onesidedly impersonal conception of the divine similar to the one to which he limits his description of the experience of transcendence could in fact be seen to be in some respects the point of departure of this immanentization. Such an impersonal, non-relational conception is of the essence of radical monism and pantheism, and seems in one version or another to be at the basis of all worldviews that are ultimately incapable of sustaining the essential distinctions and dualities of differentiation – including the one between “man” and God.

Although historically, onesidedly impersonalistic views of the divine have sustained impressive, structured, and rigorous spiritual practices and even whole cultures, primarily in the East but to some extent also in the premodern West, it seems to me they have signally failed to do so in the modern West. It seems possible that much of Western secular modernity springs precisely from such a onesided conception, and that it accounts for some of the character of the new pantheism through which this secular modernity took shape.

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Jan Olof Bengtsson D.Phil. (Oxon.)

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