Modernity and Christianity: Like Oil and Water? Part 2

Modernity and Christianity: Like Oil and Water? Part 2

In my immediately preceding post, part 1 of this series, I mentioned that I view modernity as a “blik”—a fundamental perspective, a way of seeing the world “as,” a world view. Of course, it is also a cultural “Zeitgeist,” a “spirit of the age,” a collection of socio-cultural habits shared by people and societies. I talked about how some Christians view Christianity and modernity as like oil and water—incapable of integration. That’s true of many radical moderns as well, of course. They too see at least traditional Christianity and modernity as antithetical to one another. Others, especially many “progressive Christians,” see modernity as a challenge to traditional Christianity but not to “the essence of Christianity.” In other words, modernity, as they view it, helps clean away the Hellenistic and medieval accretions that have attached to simple, original Christianity and forces us to rediscover Christianity’s true essence which turns out to be compatible with much of modernity.

So what is “modernity” in the sense of a blik? What new mindset or set of cultural habits of thought arose with the Enlightenment and scientific revolutions? I remind you that “modernity,” in this sense, as I am using the concept in this series (and as I use it in The Journey of Modern Theology) is not a time period nor is it “what’s trending now.” Rather, it’s a blik shared by most educated people in the Western world during the last three to four hundred years. Am I now contradicting myself? No, because not all people living in Western societies in the last three to four hundred years shared that blik. I argue, however, that it influences virtually everyone in some way. It “trickles down” to them.

Describing both modernity’s blik and “authentic Christianity” is essential to deciding whether they are like oil and water, incapable of integration, or whether they are capable of integration. This is important, of course, because of the perceived need to “contextualize” Christianity in culture as part of the missionary endeavor. Must we call people out of modernity in order to disciple them? Or can true Christian discipleship combine modernity and gospel belief and life? Can one be both thoroughly modern and authentically Christian? Or will there necessarily be harsh cognitive dissonance within any person or group that tries to be both?

What follows here are the results of my study of and reflection on “modernity” as a blik. Others may disagree; they may want to subtract from it or add to it. It seems to me, however, that these tendencies, directions of thought and interpretation, are the core elements of what it means to be “modern.”

At the root of everything modern, it seems to me, is Immanuel Kant’s imperative “Sapere aude!”—“think for yourself!” In other words, the mature individual ought to believe only what is convincing to his or her own mind and not allow external authorities to determine what to believe just because they hold positions of authority. Of course we can find examples of this before the Enlightenment. During the middle ages Peter Abelard broke from authority and thought for himself. During the reformation Martin Luther thought for himself. But neither Abelard nor Luther thought it should be a policy for all mature people to think for themselves, that it was a sign of weakness, immaturity, to allow one’s beliefs to be determined by others. Both claimed the right to choose one authority over another, but neither thought the reasoning, autonomous self should be the highest authority.

Second, the modern blik includes belief that “knowledge” is “justified true belief” and that “justified true” means rationally certain beyond reasonable doubt. Beliefs held on the basis of authority, tradition, inspiration or intuition do not count as “knowledge.” Logic and evidence govern knowledge. People believe many things, and have the right to believe what is illogical, mysterious, unprovable. But if a truth claim is to be counted as knowledge, it must carry the credential of rational proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Until then it is at best theory and at worst superstition. In between lies “opinion.”

Both the first and second aspects of the modern blik assume the potential of a “view from nowhere” approach to knowledge. That is, knowledge is not tied to any life narrative or bias or prejudice or narrow perspective determined by one’s gender, ethnicity or social location.

Third, the modern blik is, as a matter of policy or habit, skeptical toward claims of the supernatural (miracles, the paranormal). Some moderns reject such claims out of hand; others simply turn them aside as possibly true but, if so, eventually capable, in principle, of rational explanation.

Fourth, the modern blik views religion as primarily functional. It is valuable not for explanation but for therapy and ethical motivation. It inspires, motivates, comforts, but it does not explain anything that truly needs explanation. People who do not need the inspiration, motivation and comfort offered by religion do not need religion.

Fifth, the modern blik regards tradition (other than that launched by the Enlightenment) with suspicion. “Newer is better.” That something is “traditional” carries no weight when deciding whether it is true or good.

Sixth, the modern blik places great value on (the right kind of) education, science and technology. These are the paths toward solving humanity’s problems. Evil arises out of ignorance, disease and poverty. The cures for these ills, and therefore for evil, lie in education, science and technology. (Religion can also play a role through inspiration, motivation and comfort.)

Seventh, the modern blik values and rewards “mastery”—the achievement of conquering and subduing what needs to be conquered and subdued—and regards everyone as inherently capable of it. The person who “masters” something, whether language or nature or people, who tames, controls, civilizes what is wild and out of control, is admirable. Of course, most modern people would argue that mastery should be ethical; it should not be unnecessarily violent.

So, together, these seven “signs” of modernity as a blik raise to intense pitch the question of whether Christianity and modernity are compatible. Can they mix, be integrated, or are they like oil and water—inevitably separate and even in tension with each other?

You will notice, I hope, that here “modernity” does not mean a certain style of clothes or architecture or music, etc. A very modern person, a person who embodies and lives out this modern blik to a “t” (a person like the fictional character Sherlock Holmes), might prefer old fashioned clothes, traditional furniture (and worship!), etc. Think of the prototypical Oxford or Cambridge “don” who wears an academic robe everywhere on campus, just like in the distant past, but who thinks the “modern way” (as described above). It’s a shallow view of modernity that regards it as a matter of style or fashion. Strangely enough, many “modern Christians,” in terms of “blik,” prefer traditional, liturgical worship! And many anti-modern Christians, those who regard the modern blik as I’ve described it here as antithetical to true Christianity, prefer “contemporary worship.” This is one of the most fascinating enigmas of church life.

In part 3 of this series I will take up the question of how Christians have responded to modernity. As you might expect, the approaches have been and are many and varied.

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  • labreuer

    At the root of everything modern, it seems to me, is Immanuel Kant’s imperative “Sapere aude!”—“think for yourself!”

    Heb 8:11 and Jer 31:34 seem to support a reality closer to Kant’s idea than I’ve seen defended. Recall Paul: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.” Do these childish ways include believing that something is good ‘because the Bible says so’, and adult ways involve understanding why? I think so. This doesn’t quite get one to Kant’s statement, because there is still the question of what one does with the remaining bits of the Bible one understands well enough to obey, but not well enough to understand why it is a good idea. But I’m actually not sure Kant would disagree with this practice of faith, for we are not guaranteed that all knowledge can be gained theoretically before experimentally. Indeed, one could call this idea disproven on the basis of the history of science.

    Fifth, the modern blik regards tradition (other than that launched by the Enlightenment) with suspicion. “Newer is better.” That something is “traditional” carries no weight when deciding whether it is true or good.

    This seems a bit specious. History has a wealth of information that we can utilize, instead of just building models of reality that utterly ignore history. Does modernity really view tradition as worthless? I should think a charitable interpretation would be that each of us ought to be convinced in his own mind (Rom 14:5). That means a willingness to question any and all beliefs we hold, in the event that they form a likeness (Ex 20:4) of God which he is trying to shake up and improve. Failure to properly question is tantamount to idol worship!

    • Roger Olson

      I didn’t say modernity regards tradition as worthless. I said it views tradition with suspicion.

      • labreuer

        I see. Merely because humans have believed a thing for a while ought not lend any credence to that belief. If tradition is no more than this, I see your statement as completely consonant with the Bible. If, however, we add things like “I tested this belief and its fruit was good” into what we mean by ‘tradition’, things change. Lending no [special] credence to tradition becomes tantamount to failing to trust those who have gone before us. This is, it seems to me, part of the “wisdom propagation problem”.

  • Ryan

    I appreciate this list; a very helpful account. How many times have I tried to find a good list to describe modernity…

    One thing I’d add to the fifth point about tradition, is that primitivism seems to also be an attack against tradition, in the modern vein. So, not only is it the “Newer is better.” but also the attempt to return to the unalloyed original.

    • Roger Olson

      Yes, many anti-moderns believe “oldest” (not older) is best. That’s what I grew up with, but, of course, our vision of “oldest” was very selective and mirrored our fundamentalist desires.

      • Beth Bilynskyj

        I would appreciate a similar list giving your characterization of premodernity, Roger. As a philosopher, I’m used to seeing the distinction between premodernity and modernity made in regard to nominalism, the idea that there are no universals. Premoderns definitely DID accept the existence of universals, and hence, the idea of “participation” was available to counter any notions of extreme individualism. But that doesn’t seem to be the way you are defining premodernity. Can you say more along these lines, or do you not find them relevant?

        • Roger Olson

          In The Journey of Modern Theology I strongly hint that modernity began with Ockham and nominalism (or conceptualism). But one has to jump in somewhere and he seems so far removed from the”Age of Reason” that it is better to begin with Descartes and Galileo. Still and nevertheless, I agree that nominalism is part of the modern blik and a major culprit in the worst effects of modernity on Christianity. I tell my students we Americans are all raised to be nominalists; shaking it off is a major task of the Christian discipleship of the mind and no easy task. Once shaken off, however, thinking Christianly is so much easier!

  • Joel

    Some questions:
    If the individual must ultimately decide which authority(s) to trust, then isn’t the individual necessarily the highest authority?

    Also, it seems that thinking for one’s self is not a modern invention. In Plato’s dialogues, Socrates is not just an authority handing down truths to be accepted, but is constantly trying to get people to reason for themselves. That’s the whole point of the Socratic method. I suppose you could reply that the Greeks executed Socrates for it, but they later did embrace Plato, Aristotle, etc.

    As for your second “sign”, if I remember right, Plato’s best definition of ‘knowledge’ is something pretty close to ‘justified true belief’. And Plato and Aristotle seek rational justification. As did the Medieval Scholastics. They can be considered rationalists. It seems to me that what modernity demands is not rational justification, but *empirical* justification. They were empiricists who rejected the rationalism of the Scholastics. And then from this empiricism follows much of the remaining signs, especially the third. Yes?

    • Roger Olson

      Moderns rediscovered and embraced Socrates’ method while discarding Plato’s and Aristotle’s metaphysics. Not everything about modernity’s blik is absolutely new; what’s new is the emphasis and what is ignored or excluded (from the past).

    • labreuer

      This could be completely wrong, but if I recall correctly, Augustine said something along the lines of: “First you must choose which authority to follow, after which you must submit your will to him/her/it.” That is perhaps an exaggeration, but it does have the element of ‘deciding’ that you mention.

      After deciding, you agree to trust, which means obeying even when you can’t see why obedience is asked. Many rationalists will refuse to do something until you convince them to do it, ‘rationally’. There are all sorts of rabbit (or rabid?) trails here, but the Christian says that trust is essential, while the modern rationalist wants to be convinced, according to the rules he/she thinks are best.

    • labreuer

      If you submit your will to an external authority and obey it even when you don’t fully understand “Why?”, then this would appear to deviate from modernist thinking, toward Biblical thinking. I’m reminded of William Clifford’s The Ethics of Belief, contrasted to William James’ The Will to Believe. The former always requires sufficient reason to precede action, while the latter requires some sort of trust/hope/faith in some circumstances.

      • Roger Olson

        But James relegated the “will to believe” to religion which he viewed as private. So he, unlike Clifford, was giving modernist permission to religious persons to decide to believe something without sufficient reason, but he did not think that was a good policy outside the confines of spirituality.

        • labreuer

          This begs the question of whether non-rationally-justified-belief should play a role in e.g. secular governance. Or are theocracies alright? I’m inclined to say “no”, based on their horrible track record.

          Maybe it would be fun to discuss (or have you write a post) on what we ought to believe that doesn’t have ‘enough’ evidence—according to someone like Bertrand Russell—and for what we ought to really have justified reasons. God says to love him with our minds, among other things; perhaps this means being “fully convinced in [one’s] own mind”, a la Rom 14:6?

          Something that strikes me of consistent atheists and even folks like Dawkins from time to time, is that they’re upset when we use “God did it” or “because God said so” as an end to the conversation and an end to asking, “Why?” It’s as if Is 55:8 is being used to discourage obedience to Prov 25:2, instead of encourage. It’s as if some (most?) Christians are afraid that if we find reasons within ourselves to obey God, we’ll stop trusting him. Such would seem to do violence to e.g. Jer 33:34.

          • Roger Olson

            The point being driven home to everyone by postmodernity is, of course, that there is no “view from nowhere.” All beliefs are value-laden (except purely analytical ones such as that “all bachelors are single males”). Somehow or other we religious believers have allowed ourselves to be put on the defensive with the “burden of proof” whereas even the most hardened atheist has a burden of proof as well (e.g., why he is not a nihilist). Still, I agree that there is a difference between the warrants for truth claims in the public square and those for truth claims in private spheres of life. When I make a truth claim in the public, pluralistic “square” I try to use reasoning that not only religious people can follow and accept–as much as possible. That’s why, for example, I find John Rawls helpful when arguing with secular people about justice. My belief in justice, as a Christian, is tied to my belief in God, but Rawls’s theory of justice is helpful when I’m trying to convince a secular person he should be in favor of redistribution of wealth.

          • labreuer

            I have also noticed that when modernists and postmodernists ‘weaken’ epistemology, they also weaken the ground they are standing on. The postmodernist might say that we can’t be sure of things, but if this way of thinking is adopted by everyone and people still act in ways predicated on beliefs, we’ve just changed how we talk about confidence in beliefs, but not really how we act.

            Perhaps a better way to address this issue is to ask the question: How do we properly critique tradition, in order to separate the wheat from the tares? Hopefully the answer is something that doesn’t require ninety-five theses every millennium; that seems like too much inertia behind sarx-contaminated ideas.

          • Roger Olson

            Perhaps if we adopt a posture of intellectual humility we will act accordingly–with acknowledgement that we could be wrong but not be paralyzed by that awareness.

  • ortcutt

    Modernism doesn’t claim that newer is better. What it does claim is that newer may be better, and we should overcome our status quo bias when it is. People are scared of change, even when it would make them better off by their own standards. This status quo bias is a well-studied psychological and sociological phenomenon. It’s something that is difficult to overcome and the only way to do so is to do policy analysis. This goes to the core of modernism’s claim that you’ll never know until you actually look.

    • Roger Olson

      Well, “what modernism claims” is, of course, debatable. Who speaks for it? My point (in my post) was that modernity (as a blik) leans into that attitude–of skepticism toward the past. I don’t think there’s any serious doubt about that as an attitude change that came about with modernity.

  • Roger Olson

    I’ve never heard or seen the term used. I suppose a large number and wide variety of theological views could be called “semi-Arminian”–especially by the purist Arminians (those who think they are the gate-keepers of “pure Arminianism”–what Arminius himself believed about everything).

  • Russ Slater

    I would be curious to see your list on what marked Medievalism v. Renaissance/Enlightenment, and Postmodernism… to fill the gaps as it were between those ages and the Modernistic age…. Perhaps a separate article on each, with names and movements? Thanks.