Modernity and Christianity: Like Oil and Water? Part 1

Modernity and Christianity: Like Oil and Water? Part 1

My immediately preceding post announced my forthcoming book about modern (and postmodern) theologies: The Journey of Modern Theology: From Reconstruction to Deconstruction (InterVarsity Press, 2013). A major thesis of the book is that virtually every Western (and some non-Western) theology since the early nineteenth century is influenced in some way by the modern mindset. Even those like Charles Hodge’s that resisted innovation and claimed to be simply restatements in systematic form of the Bible were influenced more than they knew or admitted by modernity. Modernity is in the air we breathe and the water we drink. Europeans and Americans can hardly escape it. Some Christians (and others) have made overt efforts to escape it. The Amish come to mind. But theologians, among other church professionals, have rarely escaped its influence—even when they have set out to avoid that.

But all that begs an answer to a fundamental question: What is “modernity?” Above I called it a “mindset.” By that I mean a certain way of perceiving and interpreting reality, a “blik,” to borrow philosopher R. M. Hare’s term (which I believe he coined). A blik is a way of seeing reality “as” something such that it takes a kind of conversion to see it “as” something else. Let’s take a mundane example or analogy from physical existence. Recently I suffered a bout of altitude sickness from hiking in the Rocky Mountains. One side effect was double vision, for a whole day my binocular vision was gone and no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t get it back. I saw two of everything where others saw only one. Needless to say, that day I couldn’t drive or hardly function. To me the world was double and I couldn’t see it “as” otherwise.

A blik is a way of seeing reality “as,” a way of processing and interpreting the data of experience in the world. Modernity, stemming from the Enlightenment and scientific revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries, became so pervasive and influenced so many aspects of social and individual life that it changed reality as we (at least in the so-called West) perceive it. Most people are unaware of that. It’s like a fish is unaware of water. Even committed Christians are largely unaware of how modernity shapes their understanding of the Bible and Christianity.

Two experiences can alter that. One is going to live in a non-Western culture and become acquainted first hand with “nonmodern Christianity” there. A lighter form of the same experience is to become acquainted with Christian people in one’s own culture (Western) that come from a culture that does not assume modernity. I have not had the advantage of living in a non-Western culture, but I have had many students over the years who came to my classes directly from non-Western cultures and whose Christianity was virtually untouched by modernity.

The other experience that can affect allowing modernity’s blik’s influence one’s Christianity is growing up in or converting to a Christian community here, in a Western cultural context, that consciously resists modernity as a mindset. For example, I grew up in a Christian form of life that I call “urban Amish.” We drove cares and sometimes had televisions, etc., but much of our Christianity revolved around consciously rejecting “worldliness” by which we meant not only blatant sins of the flesh but also the life of the mind—especially insofar as it was corrupted by modernity. I recently heard a story about a pastor’s widow. She and her husband were my pastor for a time while I was in college. When her son showed her a dinosaur footprint in a slab of stone cut out of a river bed and now erected in front of a county courthouse (in a county famous for dinosaur fossils) she just stared at it as if it were an apparition. Her son, a seminary student, asked her what she thought of it. Her response was predictable (to any of us who grew up in that Christian form of life): “I don’t believe in dinosaurs.”

I remember a Bible college class where the majority of the students argued that ancient fossils were put in the ground by God at creation, about ten thousand years ago, to test our faith in his Word which requires disbelief in such things as an ancient earth and pre-Adamic animals.

There are intentional forms of religious life (and perhaps some non-religious ones) in Western societies that intentionally resist modernity; they work hard to inoculate their youth against believing anything they read or hear at school or see on television that contradicts what they believe is pre-modern, traditional, “true” Christian belief. That is the way I was raised. We didn’t have a Christian school, so my parents, church and spiritual mentors taught me from a very early age that “the modern world” was evil and its influence to be avoided as much as possible. (We thought most Baptists were corrupted by modernity because they didn’t “really” believe in miracles—at least not contemporary ones. Baptists thought we were corrupted by modernity because we insisted there had to be “initial, physical evidence” of Spirit baptism.)

In any, some Christians in Western societies (and probably most in non-Western societies) think modernity and Christianity are like oil and water—they cannot be made to mix. You have one or the other, never both together.

However, unless a person is raised in something like “The Village” (of M. Night Shyamalan’s movie), it’s very difficult not to be influenced by modernity. For example, the vast majority of Americans simply take for granted radical individualism—a product of modernity. More specifically, Americans (and most other Westerners) take from granted the “social contract theory” of government. They may not have studied it, but if they do (as I did) they will recognize it as a product of modernity.

Throughout my higher education, after college, I began to recognize that many of the things even my parents and grandparents took for granted as benefits of “the American Way of Life” were products of modernity. Democracy itself, as we know it, anyway, is that. So I opened my mind to at least considering the possibility that modernity is not unequivocally bad.

But then I began to encounter forms of Christianity that seemed totally accommodated to modernity. During seminary I read the “radical theologians” of the 1960s (Cox, Robinson, Hamilton, Altizer, van Buren, et al.) and was shocked to discover that there were (and still are) “Christian” theologians who believed Christianity must shed everything pre-modern and adopt a modern blik as its framework of thought. I began to trace that tendency backwards from them to “Christian” thinkers like Matthew Tyndal (Christianity as Old as the Creation) and Adolf Harnack, Ernst Troeltsch and Rudolf Bultmann. Then I began to see that virtually every Western Christian theologian was influenced by modernity, some more and some less, some critically and some uncritically, some consciously and some unwittingly. I decided to make the study of modern theology the center of my life’s research as a theologian. Of course, I branched out into many other areas, teaching about and conducting research into the reformers and post-reformation theologians (prior to the Enlightenment). But over the thirty-one years of my professional life as a theologian my main interest has been “modern theology”—theologians and theological ideas as they are influenced by and respond to the modern blik or Zeitgeist.

Without doubt, many modern Christian theologians believe modernity and Christianity are not oil and water; it is possible and even necessary (for the survival of Christianity in the modern world) to have them in some kind of combination. The Journey of Modern Theology is the story of how leading Christian thinkers have wrestled with the often tense relationship between Christianity and modernity and have sought to integrate them or “rescue” Christianity from being totally accommodated to modernity.

Next I will discuss how I understand “modernity” as a blik—a perspective on reality.

  • Derek

    Wow, thanks so much for this post Dr. Olson. I have been thinking through and wrestling with this very issue for quite some time myself.

    It definitely is interesting how many Christian’s resist modern ways of living and thinking. This resistance is literally manifested in tangible ways – often times walking into a Church is like walking into a time warp and arriving in another era. I think one of the major contributing factors to this phenomena is simply being faithful to the call – the Bible admonishes Christian’s to place their minds upon heavenly realities because this world is not our true home, and therefore, we ought not strive to make little kingdom’s for ourselves here on earth but rather help usher in the spiritual kingdom of God. The pressure to “follow Christ” naturally entails neglecting the things and pursuits of this world, for many.

    It seems that appropriating modern knowledge often results in theological liberalism because we now have a robust understanding of the human condition so categories of sin and such have very little to contribute to the natural progress made in secular disciplines, that most likely wouldn’t exist if we all maintained a strict, high view of the bible. Indeed, I think its quite clear that our modern society wouldn’t be so modern if left in the hands of faithful(fundamentalist?), bible-believing Christian’s – we would be living in abject primitivism, comparatively speaking.

    Personally, I often sense a form of dissonance just from being a faithful Christian in the modern world, because my worldview is biblically-based and the Bible is an ancient book. To use and enjoy modern conveniences and technology day-in and day-out or just simply live as a modern person in a modern society, well, it almost seems to render the Christian worldview as somewhat antiquated – its not easy driving a mitsibishi and holding onto the existence of demons or the revelation of God at Mt. Siani.

    I hope my rambling thoughts make SOME sense! =)

    • Tim Reisdorf

      I think its quite clear that our modern society wouldn’t be so modern if
      left in the hands of faithful(fundamentalist?), bible-believing
      Christian’s – we would be living in abject primitivism, comparatively
      speaking.

      Hi Derek,
      You may have a point, but you ought not miss that modern society would never have occurred without the huge influence of the faithful, Bible-believing Christians. To mangle a quote from Cotton Mather, “Religion begat Modernity, and the daughter devoured the mother.” (originally, “Religion begat Prosperity …”). It is very curious to me how Western Society has turned on itself and sees Western Society as the cause of so many ills. We hate ourselves and blame ourselves first. But more to your comment, we, as a society, hate our roots in the Judeo-Christian worldview.

  • steve rogers

    Back in the day I heard the term “modernist” much more than I did “liberal”. Always in a very negative context. You are correct in remembering that “worldly” and “modernist” were synonyms in those days. Then, as west coast influencers began to introduce strange new things like worship choruses, preaching from a stool rather than a pulpit and not wearing ties to our denomination, we began to use the term “contemporary” (e.g. contemporary worship) and the word “modernist” fell by the wayside. Early adapters took the lead and the old anti-modernists retired and died. Now, we are seeing the influence of so-called post-modern and emergent styles. The “anti” forces are trying to flex their muscle and are expending vast amounts of time and energy trying to resist the change. They will soon retire and die. And the beat goes on…

  • Collins

    Dr. Olson,

    I see in the table of contents you provided yesterday hints of comments about post-modern (rebel?) approaches to theology. I am hoping that you comment on that somewhat in this blog series. I see this as being an almost equally problematic issue in current Christianity: the institutional church is finally catching up to the “modern” world, only to find that that’s “so 1986″ and that post-modernism has arrived in full force (at least for most of us millenials). I realize that this is probably outside the scope of your history of modern theology, but I would be curious to know if you see a changing pattern in how evangelism is adjusting over this journey to the wounded, ueber-skeptical post-modern blik. Thanks!

    • Roger Olson

      As I’m sure you know, “postmodern” is an essentially contested concept–more than “modern.” I include two chapters on postmodern theology in The Journey of Modern Theology–both admitting that few theologians, even the ones I label “postmodern,” like that label. The book deals with theologians’ responses to major trends and ideas in philosophy, science, etc. I think what you’re asking about is something happening “on the ground,” so to speak (among the grassroots of young people). But “incredulity toward metanarratives” is a standard definition of postmodernism (Lyotard) and I do deal with that in the book. John Caputo is my case study of a Christian deconstructionist. So, yes, skepticism toward totalizing world views (including modernity!) is something contemporary Christian thinkers, philosophers and theologians, must deal with. I think that will be another series–after I finish this one on modernity.

  • labreuer

    It has long been my observation that Satan can and will corrupt everything. Therefore, the bare assertion that “X is easy to corrupt”, for all X, is nigh meaningless. In other words, one can err in modernist thinking just as one can err in previous methods of thinking.

    Saying that some type of thinking is better than any other type seems awfully close to worshipping a ‘likeness’ (Ex 20:4). I’ve always interpreted

    For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
        so are my ways higher than your ways
        and my thoughts than your thoughts.

    as a call for our thoughts and ways to continually be pulled higher. Contrast this to concluding that God will always be a mystery and we ought not try to penetrate further and further into that mystery. How else does one understand Mt 5:48 and 2 Cor 3:18, than continually growing closer to God? Surely this “growing [ever] closer” includes increasing knowledge—whether it be scientific, theological, introspective, moral, or otherwise? Who is to say that our current epistemology is perfect and not an approximation which God wishes to improve upon forever?

    Lest I get misunderstood, note that it is possible for core truths to stay unchanged despite learning new things, just like F = ma is still true in most scenarios, and even true once you make the appropriate transformations to time and space. (Fun fact: string/M theory makes plenty use of F = ma.)

    • Roger Olson

      Watch for today’s second installment where I lay out the contours of “modernity” and decide if you think that, overall, it is congenial to Christianity or inimical to it.


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