Skip to main content

🚨 URGENT: Mere Orthodoxy Needs YOUR Help

The Distortion of Vulnerability

May 10th, 2024 | 4 min read

By Andy Hood

“Vulnerability was the most basic reality - reinforced by every aspect of human experience and never forgotten in the sweat and labour it took to maintain a flourishing life in its face.”

Joseph Minich, Bulwarks of Unbelief

What Max Weber described as the ‘iron cage’ of modernity distorts Christian life and community in countless ways. But perhaps one of the most pertinent is when it comes to the idea of vulnerability.

‘Classic’ Vulnerability

As the quote above suggests, premodern existence was profoundly colored by a pervasive sense of vulnerability - that life was lived at the mercy of external agencies and powers to an almost unfathomable extent. This was an existence in a world that was beyond our comprehension and control - what I will call a world of ‘classic’ vulnerability. A world in which the edges of maps were marked ‘here be dragons’ - territories and geographies beyond the bounds of our knowledge, beset with unknown dangers. 

Closer to home, as the father of three young children, I can hardly (bear to) imagine what it was like to inhabit a world where infant mortality was not a theoretical possibility but a lived reality. Where which of the children I loved survived to adulthood seemed to be determined either by brute chance, or the inscrutable providence of God. Where Job’s cry that ‘The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away’ (1:21) was woven into the fabric of existence. 

In this world, the basic reality of vulnerability provided a natural motivation for the building and maintaining of human communities and companionship, of structures of order and authority - namely to hold the forces of chaos and destruction at bay to whatever extent possible, and to provide networks of care and support when disaster did (inevitably) strike. And for most of its life the church has been more than, but not less than, such a human community. ‘Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress’ (James 1:27).

Post-Vulnerability

Many of us no longer live in a world where vulnerability accosts us as a basic reality of our existence. Indeed, the central thrust of the industrial project of science and technology is to extend human power into the world around us in such a way as to push back the forces of chaos around us, and create an ever increasing space of perceived invulnerability. As products of modernity our precognitive “take” on the world around us is that it is something that is, in all meaningful respects, within the scope of human comprehension and control. It is something that can be understood, managed and used for our ends.., This is what Weber meant by his much employed concept of ‘disenchantment’:

It means principally there are no mysterious incalculable forces that come into play, but rather that one can, in principle, master all things by calculation.

Importantly, to overcome ‘classic’ vulnerability it is not necessary for the world to be completely disenchanted. I only need it to be disenchanted enough that I see the important parts of my life as invulnerable to external forces. Believing in ghosts doesn’t make me feel vulnerable, unless I think they might actually hurt me or my children. Believing in the healing power of crystals isn’t the same as believing in the possibility of demon possession. In the modern world, when we think about what matters to us, there are no spaces that need to be labelled ‘here be dragons.’

Distorted Vulnerability

But we can’t quite dispense of vulnerability - particularly when it comes to finding a glue to hold together human communities. And so instead of simply receding into the background in the face of the scientific and technological advance of modernity, vulnerability has become distorted. Rather than characterizing our relationship to the world around us, vulnerability has come to mean how much we share about our inner lives, and in particular our fears and failures, with other people. The only dragons left are those in our hearts, and we have to choose how much to let other people see them. We are not vulnerable by default, instead we “choose” to be vulnerable in service of authentic relationships.

The purpose of this piece is not to put forward an argument about the appropriate balance between vulnerability and discretion in interpersonal relationships. Rather, I want to suggest that this distorted version of vulnerability, turned in on the self in absence of plausible external referents, cannot serve the cohesive function of what I’ve called ‘classic’ vulnerability. To put it bluntly, the fact that I know the man standing next to me in the trenches struggles with pornography can’t substitute for the presence of a real and present danger in bonding us to one another. An extreme form of this distorted vulnerability might bind us to each other in a relationship of ‘mutually assured destruction’ - we both have kompromat on each other and so can’t risk a total breakdown of relationship. But that is no substitute for the true fraternity of a common ‘classic’ vulnerability to an external power. In fact, a distorted vulnerability risks weakening the bonds of human community, as a healthy sense of respect for one another is undermined, and a community becomes characterized by gossip, slander, and secrets as confidences are betrayed and truths misplaced sow discord and dissension.

Spiritual Warfare and Vulnerability in the Iron Cage

‘Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.’ (Ephesians 6:11-12)

Within the community of the church, we need not depend on the distorted vulnerability offered to us within the iron cage of modernity to act as a kind of social glue. Instead, we simply need to see beyond the bars to the unchanging spiritual reality described for us in the New Testament - the reality of forces and persons of evil beyond our comprehension and control, and yet no match for our Lord, the risen Jesus Christ. We must resist the disenchantment of the modern world, and instead maintain our grasp on the reality that we are deeply vulnerable - to the devil’s schemes, to the powers of this dark world and the spiritual forces of evil. 

And as we open our eyes to recognize this ‘classic’ vulnerability we will find that such an honest appraisal of our circumstances brings great blessings. First, we will enjoy a true and deep fellowship as we pray and labor alongside one another in our struggle and our stand against the forces of evil. Second, we will find that unlike distorted vulnerability, which can only lead to a dependence on others, ‘classic’ vulnerability opens us up to an awareness of and dependence on God in Christ, who will crush Satan under our feet (Romans 16:20).

Andy Hood

Andy Hood is an Anglican ordinand at Cranmer Hall, Durham.