Modernity Doesn’t Keep Its Promises

COMMENTARY: Saints, martyrs and miracles give us hope in times of distress.

Father Jacques Hamel, priest and martyr.
Father Jacques Hamel, priest and martyr. (photo: Diocese of Rouen, France)

Modernity is supposed to offer us a compromise. There will be no miracles, but also no martyrs. It hasn’t kept its end of the bargain. I want my miracles back.

Modern life offers us an abundance of material comfort, but despite that, it is in many ways appallingly bleak. Our culture declines, and our political order is spiraling into serious disrepair. For the first time in recent memory, U.S. Christians find themselves wondering whether their freedom to live and worship openly might be in jeopardy. Millions live lonely and isolated lives, using addictive substances, alcohol, sex or electronic devices as stand-ins for the human relationships they no longer know how to forge.

In such a context, it’s interesting to reflect on martyrdom and the significance of willingly offered blood as a source of inspiration and hope for the faithful. The recent commemoration of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist (on Aug. 29) offers a good occasion for reflecting on the recent slaying of the French priest, Father Jacques Hamel, by Islamic terrorists. It was interesting how, in the wake of the tragedy, many seemed desperate to avoid letting the word “martyr” fall from their lips.

If Catholic priests can be martyred on French soil, that might represent the opening of a Pandora’s box of ancient hatreds, curses and blood feuds. Who knows where it would end? We know that atrocities like this happen in Africa, the Middle East and North Korea. Many persuaded themselves that the developed world, for all its alienation and loneliness, had at least left the wars of religion in the history books. Apparently not.

Of course, all good people should decry this kind of bloodshed. Still, we Catholics at least know that the bad old days were not entirely bad.

As we see from St. John the Baptist’s execution, believers were giving their blood for Christ even in his own lifetime. Surely God could have arranged to rescue the Baptist from his fate. That didn’t happen. His sacrifice, along with so many others, inspires Christians across the ages to offer everything they have in exchange for that “pearl of great price.”

Of course, in other parts of the world today, Christians are suffering immensely for their faith.

In the Islamic world and North Korea, Christians are tortured and killed for their faith. Many other countries in Africa and Asia imprison Christians who preach or evangelize or penalize them in other ways for practicing their faith. Last year, about 7,000 Christians around the globe were killed for their allegiance to Christ. Modernity obviously has not saved us from martyrdom.

Where are our miracles?

Perhaps we’re not looking in the right places, or perhaps an outpouring is just around the bend. We should pray and keep our eyes open.

The Christian life is full of surprises, and here is one: Bad times often set the stage for remarkable outpourings of grace. As in the theater, a dimming of lights can precede a remarkable show.

Preparing for miracles is actually quite difficult for many of us. In my early years as a college instructor, I was appalled to find that my students were, almost without exception, lazy skeptics. They didn’t believe in miracles, mythical beasts, visions, angels, demon possession or ghosts. I pressed them to explain themselves: How could they, with their limited experience of the world, be so confident that none of these things existed? Had they plumbed the depths of the ocean for mermaids? What pedigree did they have to declare that visionaries or self-described exorcists were merely delusional?

In the end, it came down to this: They were modern people. Supernatural beings and events are simply among the things in which modern man as a whole does not believe.

That doesn’t diminish our need for them. We’re impoverished by our lack. And despite its reputation for stubborn religiosity, in many respects, the United States is a modern nation par excellence. We were born in the modern era. Even self-described conservative Americans tend to pride themselves in the classical-liberal philosophical tradition that exercised such heavy influence on our nation’s Constitution. Our Founders were, in their way, religious men, but they also understood themselves to be enlightened, modern men. The age of miracles was already behind them. I suspect they did not believe in mermaids.

As Americans (and compared to our European brethren), we are planted on somewhat thinner soil, metaphysically speaking. Our traditions are younger and our roots shallower. We have less baggage, but also fewer heroes, and very few contributions to the ranks of canonized saints (though we have some amazingly holy people).

Perhaps our time is at hand. If modernity itself is teetering on the brink of collapse, it may be that spirits of past ages will come creeping back into human life and culture. Modern men (like my students) may discover that demons are real and go looking for exorcists to expel them. People who have spent their whole adult lives buried in a bottle or a video game may suddenly be thrown into circumstances that require them to re-evaluate their complacent nonbelief. They may find themselves asking the fundamental questions. What is man? What is the purpose of our earthly life? How is it possible that human beings can have such a capacity for greatness and yet also be so terrible?

Catholics have answers to these questions, and we should stand ready to supply them as needed.

In a young country, with comparatively little history and tradition to bolster us in times of uncertainty, we have resources that our compatriots may need. America has never dealt with serious wars of religion. We’ve never weathered widespread political or social collapse. We’ve never coped with widespread tyranny. Indeed, there are many challenges that are foreign to us as a people.

The saints, however, have dealt with virtually every trial known to man. We can look to them for guidance, insight and moral support.

Of course, we should not hope for a collapse of the social structures that secure peace and stability for millions of our compatriots. Nevertheless, if a postmodern age of miracles is soon to unfold, we should prepare ourselves to serve as needed. And where better to watch the show than here, in this most quintessentially modern of nations?

Americans have always cherished a sense of exceptionalism and are now distressed by the impression that their nation is in decline. From a Catholic perspective, however, our best days may still be ahead.

Right now, many U.S. Catholics are participating in a “Novena for Our Nation.” Anyone is welcome to join, and if you didn’t start on time, that needn’t deter you from finishing. Of course, we can pray for peace and prosperity, for social justice and for political stability. At the same time, that may not be God’s will, so we can also pray for saints, martyrs and miracles to give us hope in times of distress.

Modern life may not keep its promises, but we can be assured that God always will.

Rachel Lu, Ph.D., 

teaches philosophy at the

University of St. Thomas

in St. Paul, Minnesota.