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It can feel pedantic to insist on the distinction between modernity and modernism (as I do in my tag cloud). I’ve seen eyes roll when I do it, and understandably so. Two nouns both deriving from the word modern: surely between them is the ultimate example of a trivial distinction, a hair-splitting, a difference that does not make a difference?

In fact the difference between modernity and modernism can make all the difference in the world. The importance of the distinction may become a little bit clearer when we move from the nouns to their corresponding adjectives. Modernity is simply the noun form of “modern”, as we might expect. But modernism is not. Modernity is merely the state of being modern. Modernism is the state of being modernist. And that is a difference that makes a huge difference.

We are all modern today, you and me, every one of us. The very fact that you are reading this document, composed in electrons without a pen ever having touched a paper – something scarcely imaginable when my parents were growing up – is testament enough to that. But that does not make us modernists.

Simply put: while we are all modern, we do not necessarily all think that being modern is a good thing. A modernist is someone who thinks that being modern is good. So likewise, modernism is the belief or ideology that says modernity is good. We can choose whether or not to be modernists, to believe in modernism – to endorse modernity. But we can’t choose whether or not to be modern – to be a part of modernity. That choice is made for us, like it or lump it. If we like it, we’re modernists; if we lump it, we’re not. But either way, we’re modern.

It is this difference that I think Ken Wilber, especially Wilber-5, misses. He is not strictly wrong when he says “any premodern spirituality that does not come to terms with… modernity… has no chance of survival in tomorrow’s world”. The modern world is so different from the premodern, and so encompassing of the world’s people, that a surviving spirituality (however defined) must become a part of that modern world; it must become modern. What it doesn’t need to become is modernist; it does not need to endorse modernity. It needs to “come to terms” in that it needs to take a position on modernity – as fully premodern spiritualities did not. But that position can certainly be a position against modernity.

A reactionary conservatism, an innovation through conservatism, has every chance of flourishing in the modern world. When it comes to spirituality or “religion”, indeed, such worldviews seem to be flourishing more than more liberal (modernist) ones. The flourishing modernist worldviews are atheistic and outside tradition. The flourishing “spiritual” or “religious” worldviews are modern but anti-modern; they are part of the modern world and not particularly happy that they are.

Anti-modernism now can no longer be simply conservative. It must be innovation through conservatism; it must be reactionary. Although the term “reactionary” is usually used as a pejorative, I don’t mean to use it that way; so far it’s the best term I know for those who do wish to embrace the past (as opposed to literal conservatives, who wish to sustain the present against an imagined future). “Innovation through conservatism” might be a bit better and more neutral, but it’s also awkward and wordy.

This all matters if we are to have any hope of understanding reactionary conservatism, of which various fundamentalisms are the most visible example. The American Moral Majority, the Taliban, the Ayatollah Khomeini – these all have ideologies defined by an opposition to modernity, a way of coming to terms with modernity by reacting against it. In this respect they are very different from conservative medieval Christianity or Islam, for which modernity simply wasn’t an issue. Fundamentalism per se is a modern phenomenon, but it is the antithesis of a modernist one. It is deeply embedded in modernity, but it is as far as can be from modernism.

Now when I quoted Wilber above and said he was not strictly wrong, the quote had some omissions in ellipses. That’s because the parts I left out, I suspect, are wrong. What Wilber originally said was: “any premodern spirituality that does not come to terms with both modernity and postmodernity has no chance of survival in tomorrow’s world.” [emphasis added] And here there is an additional problem. But more on that next week.