Modern Sphinx

Modernity, Sergei Bulgakov once said, is a sphinx. It poses a riddle, and those who cannot or will not answer the riddle are devoured.

The editors of Political Theology in Orthodox Christianity cite this at the beginning of their study to highlight the ambivalence of modernity. It has both constructive and destructive qualities, and the two aren’t opposed but deeply united. The very constructive, positive features of modernity end up devouring modernity.

They point, for instance, to the political individualism accounts by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “the normative guiding vision of political modernity is to grant individuals as much freedom as possible, so they may live in self-determination within a political community that watches over their security internally and externally (human rights, democracy) and further assists in fulfillment of basic needs in a way that rectifies unequal social conditions (social rights).”

But this emphasis on individual self-determination and rights stands in tension with modernity’s penchant for large-scale social and political organization. Two additional developments complicate this tension – “the emergence of supranational forms of organizationm, regulations, and markets, which defy direct democratic control at the national level” and the simultaneous “pluralization of societies (through migration, industrialization, and so on) that results in less social homogeneity and less consensus on shared cultural values.”

Thus, modernity erodes “the model of the limited governance of political liberalism complemented by a civil society based on effective human rights.” Modernity is thus “met with discontent and protest.”

The editors argue that Orthodoxy has a unique vantage point to solve the riddle of the sphinx: “Orthodox theologians deserve attention beyond the narrow circle of theology, since their status as non-Western participants and observers of the ambivalence of the modern condition offers an original perspective on the conundrum, which the sphinx of modernity has posed to the contemporary world.”

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