“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” —Romans 8:28
Modernity is a dirty word for Christians. Instinctually, Christians are trained to be skeptical of the moment. The moment is a place were we live, but it’s also the place where sin overcomes and tempts us. The past may be forgiven, the future can be prepared for, but the moment must be endured. In a larger sense though, Christians have lamented the notion of modern life for a long time. This is partially because the nature of human sin makes us believe there’s something innately superior for being a modern human. We tend to forget the past easily. As the saying goes, we stand on the shoulders of giants and think we’re flying.
Modern life is defined by this banal sense of pride for our position in life. It’s become the default state of mind that humanity is always moving forward and past the sins of the past. Antiquity becomes blasé and Christianity, like much of the wisdom of the past, gets thrown out like the proverbial baby with the bathwater.
We’re living in a world that fancies itself beyond the need for the traditions of the past. In a world where we can literally shape the surface of the Earth, travel to other planets, and communicate anywhere around the globe in moments, what is human capacity lacking at this point? Technology is incredible and it’s made the human experience more universal and comfortable. At the same time, though, it’s lead us to a point culturally where we feel like we can’t believe in God because of all the progress we’ve made.
As Nietche put it, “God is Dead, God remains dead, and we have killed him.” Because of our notion of transcendence, God or higher morality is effectively dead in this modern culture. We’ve come to seek a new form of morality and transcendence. Through the Enlightenment, we’ve attempted to build a new kind of man, driven by logic above all things.
Unfortunately, this has caused two massive side effects. It’s made us less in touch with our human emotions, and it’s forced us to frame a narrative that cites external ideologies as the central corrupting influence of mankind, instead of us. We think once we shed our dogmas we’ll achieve a mild form of heaven on earth.
The problem with this is it denies human nature. As G.K. Chesterton once put it, “trees have no dogmas. Turnips are singularly broad-minded.”
We are by our nature illogical and flawed creatures. The more we deny that flawed humanity, the more we’ll bend over backwards to obfuscate our problems. This has largely been the mission of modern atheism: To nail tradional religion and spirituality to the wall as the sole source of modernity’s failures.
To quote Steven Weinberg, “with or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil — that takes religion.” Even just a cursory glance at culture throws this notion out. People don’t stop being religious when they abandon religion; they turn that fervor towards things that shouldn’t be worshiped. This is why you see so many radical political ideologies today. It’s why Marxism, white nationalism, and political violence of all stripes is gaining steam. People are worshiping ideas or material things in place of God.
Modern life is failing in spite of the immense technological and social advancements humanity has attained. Science is curing diseases, culture is becoming more accepting, and absolute poverty is rapidly disappearing as a statistic. At the same time, though, our culture is bifurcating. Social cohesion is falling apart. We don’t know our neighbors as well as we used to. This has all coincided with the rise of secularism and the decline of mainstream religion.
Last month for Flawed Faith, I talked in no uncertain terms about the failures of the church and mainstream Christianity in the modern world. As a whole, the piece was mostly about how the enduring difficulty of life in general can break even the strongest of Christians, but I started the piece with an important preface. Simply put, the church is in shambles.
This month however, I want to look at the other side of things. There is a growing sense that the world is facing immense problems amongst people. Amongst a small contingent of the internet, there’s been an active desire to return to faith and embrace a posterity this generation doesn’t offer. You see this clearly in the Jordan Peterson phenomena. Young people who have been given everything are craving responsibility and meaning in a world that’s offered to satiate them without those values. Simply put, to quote Ian Fleming, the world is not enough. We yearn for transcendence and grace beyond this world and when we try to satiate our senses to keep us happy, it fills us with nihilism and hopelessness.
Ironically, like most people my age, I’ve spent the last several months thinking about Avengers: Endgame given it’s been one of the most culturally embraced films this year. I probably could’ve been considering more profound things, but what’re you gonna do? There’s a lot that can be said about how well it approaches the issue of resolving a decade’s worth of story arcs, but there’s no argument the movie brings many of it’s most prominent character’s arcs to a conclusive finale. The most prominent of these is Tony Stark, who goes out at the end of the film in a blaze of glory and receives the film’s most touching send off of any character.
If any character has defined this generation of popular storytelling, it’s him. The star of the Iron Man Trilogy, all four Avengers films and a co-star in Captain America: Civil War and Spiderman: Homecoming, Robert Downey Jr.’s character has risen from one of the more obscure Marvel Comics heroes to one of the most celebrated characters in popular fiction.
What’s interesting about that mass appeal is Stark is the MCU’s stand in for a vision of modern man. While Steve Rogers represents a nostalgia for the past as a literal “Man out of Time,” and while Thor represents a culture that doesn’t exist, Tony has always been the stand-in for the best foot forward of modern secular life. As he describes himself, he’s a “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist.” He’s a fusion of Elon Musk and Steve Jobs. He’s a great-man in the vision of an Ayn Randian superhero who uses his intellect and wealth for what he sees as the greater good. He’s everything the modern man wants to be: Successful, witty, intelligent, and proud of all of those things. Women want him and men want to be him. He’s the pinnacle of what we would consider the highest a human being can achieve.
He’s also deeply depressed, scarred, and broken. Tony’s journey from the outset of the first Iron Man movie is beset by wounds, pain, and personal strife. He’s given a great deal of prosperity in his life, but that prosperity is undercut by his own mistakes and the agendas of other worse people around him. His prosperity in fact comes at the expense of others as he discovers his company’s weapons being used against Americans, wounding him in the process nearly mortally.
Tony Stark’s story can effectively be cut into two separate acts. The first, taking place between Iron Man and Iron Man 3, concerns Tony Stark’s personal internal journey as a man looking to become a better man, overcome his alcoholism, defeat his trauma, and fully realize himself as a man separate from the tools he creates. The second half of that story starts in Age of Ultron and concludes in Endgame, and concerns the story of one man’s attempts to reshape the world. It asks the difficult question of to what degree a man can truly change the world for the better.
As we see in several occasions, Tony Stark’s attempts to do so end in catastrophe. He creates Ultron to replace the Avengers and gets hundreds of innocent people killed. He tries to delegate authority of the Avengers to the United Nations and it breaks the team in half. He tries to face off against Thanos and fails, leaving half the universe dusted. Finally, he works out a method of traveling through time which unintentionally drags a second Thanos into the present.
The disparity between his status and weaknesses is the driving force behind his entire character. He knows perfectly well he has the power to change the world, but knows if he tries he might fail. Often his failures are caused by his action or lack there of. As Happy Hogan describes him in Spiderman: Far From Home, he’s a man who questions himself at every step of his life.
Tony Stark as a character is often defined by his futurism. He believes science and technology can create a more innovative, peaceful, and humanistic future for mankind. At the same time, Stark is a nihilist. He’s a materialist, a paranoid wreck, and constantly racked by guilt over his inability to totally control the world around him. Maybe that’s what makes his final act in Avengers: Endgame so emotionally fulfilling. The modern man becomes a God and performs a Christ-like act of selfless sacrifice to restore the world.
Tony Stark is simultaneously the best and worst case for modernity in the modern world. Just as the later Captain America movies lament the death of a more simple, old-fashioned morality in modern life, the Iron Man films lament the immense inner turmoil that living in the post-Christian world can inflict on the soul. At the same time, the movies fully embrace his status and relish in showing us just how incredibly the gains of modern life are. After all, Tony Stark only wins the day because of his technological innovation. Without the Nano-suit, Thanos would’ve won.
Where does this leave us, though? If Tony Stark is our collective vision of the best of modern man, then what does his sacrifice say?
As uncertain as the future is, we find ourselves in a world where the foundations of our beliefs and institutions are more rocky then ever. Some people believe we’re facing down the end of the world as we know it. While I’m skeptical of the most cataclysmic scenerios of total societal and ecological breakdown, it’s not hard to look at the future with an air of uncertainty. I am somewhat optimistic, though. The world is a pendulum eternally swinging between chaos and order. Chaos always gives way to order eventually. As the world slowly reforms, reconnects, and rekindles the ideas that allowed us to thrive, it’s likely the instincts that created modernity will give way and we’ll build something new.
It’s a sad irony that the world is only saved in the end when the symbol of modernity sacrifices himself to build a future past him. If we wish to survive this difficult cultural moment, we have to realize there’s a life ahead of us. Thankfully, humanity isn’t coming to an end anytime soon. As Christians, we must put our faith in Christ to help lead the tense world around us into a better place. We don’t have to live lives of inner turmoil alone amidst the wreckage of modernity. The future is uncertain, but eventually it will give way and a better world will emerge in this life or the next. Man is flawed and broken, but he is made in the image of God and he capable of great things. In the wake of modernity, we will find hope for a brighter future.