Modernity does not just refer to the time in which we happen to live, the era that follows the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Those who first recognized themselves as modern defined themselves self-consciously over against the ages that preceded them, though few probably grasped in its fullness the gravity of their deed. In declaring their independence from the world of their fathers, the first moderns set themselves against a whole world: the symbolic cosmos of antiquity and the first Christian millennium; the order of universal reason, understood as an attempt to penetrate and contemplate the bottomless meaning of nature and being; God, whose logos, the Creator and measure of all things, is more interior to the world than the world is to itself; and the Church—preeminently the Roman Church—through whom his eternal action is extended into history.
It was this unity of eternity and temporality, this movement of the eternal into time, that Charles Péguy meant in calling Christianity a mystique. And he considered the modern world a “mystical disaster,” a “fault of mystique.” It is not that some semblance of Christianity isn’t allowed to persist; to the contrary, Péguy spoke of disaster even as conservative reactionaries in the Gallican Church were enjoying a revival of fortunes during the French Third Republic. It has been the genius of the American liberal order, moreover, to generate strange forms of Christianity unimaginable to antiquity or the Middle Ages. Nor is Péguy’s point that the modern age is more sinful than ages past. Such a moral diagnosis would still fall reassuringly within the Christian frame of reference. It is rather that the modern world, qua modern, is the negation of this vision of reality. “The modern world,” Péguy says, “is not just a bad Christian world, which would be nothing, but an unchristian world, literally, absolutely, totally de-Christianized.”