The Acids of Modernity and Christian Theology

The Acids of Modernity and Christian Theology August 22, 2014

Screen Shot 2012-10-07 at 9.47.45 AMModern theology is theology done in the context of modernity, which means, in the context of what happened to thinking and culture as a result of the Enlightenment. Modern theology is often a code expression for “liberal” theology, and many ways that might be right. But Roger Olson, in his big book The Journey of Modern Theology: From Reconstruction to Deconstruction, a massively updated book he co-wrote with Stanley Grenz (called Twentieth Century Theology, 1992), spends less time thinking about “liberal” and far more about “modern.”

To get what he’s doing we have to understand what “modernity” is, what one famous American thinker called the “acids” of modernity? Olson highlights seven features of modernity, each of which has stronger and weaker forms, so that one must have nuances all over the place if one wishes to be intelligent about this kind of subject. I have spent some of the last year reading about liberal theology, and I see Roger’s book as the best sketch of the big picture we have available today.

So, what is modernity?

1. Rationalism: the omnicompetence of autonomous human reason.

2. Skepticism: an anti-posture toward tradition, especially Christian religious traditions, as beliefs not based on reason.

3. Scientism/naturalism: a belief in the scientific method, on the indubitable realities of the empirical world in contrast to beliefs, and in a worldview that is shaped by naturalism.

4. Secularism: life can be lived best without God and religion. Religion belongs in the private, personal sphere of life.

5. Historicism: everything in history is causally related to other historical events.

6. Optimism: modernity, when lived well, leads to inevitable progress in overcoming misery.

7. Anthropocentrism: humans are at the center of knowing and the center of the universe.

(8.) These elements, when pursued, enable us to pursue progress in society and culture.

Many major modernistic voices — e.g., Voltaire, Thomas Jefferson — have contended that modernity’s march would trod religion, especially Christianity, under foot and it will disappear but Christianity, paradoxically, has flourished in a worldview of modernity.

Modern theology traces how various theologians have accommodated to modernity’s central features. Some have capitulated; many have reacted under the control of modernity. So there is a spectrum from capitulation and subversion all the way to robust reframings of the tradition in more modernistic categories (many would say that is what American Protestant fundamentalism was/is).

Where do you place “progressive Christianity” in this discussion? 

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  • tsgIII

    “Modern” seems to promote the power of individual minds( guided by methods of observation, experience and reflection) to attain truths needed for guiding one’s own life. John Dewey’s “modern man”, for example, was self assured, in control of his own destiny, and needing no authority outside himself. Wilhelm Dilthey was a primary figure in a movement called historicism, which he perceived as not being able to escape from our own historical circumstances. Everyone inevitably interprets the past through the concepts and concerns of the present. Putting all these “modern” ideas together and you get a situation where those who claim authority are automatically questioned. We live in a society that regularly and systematically questions any authority, let alone a transcendent one or scriptural one.
    Where does progressive Christianity fit? Well, it is tolerant- it allows for free discussion of ideas. It is a more pluralistic Christianity, not seeking to confine the Gospel to a legalistic one. Progressive Christianity in its pursuit of truth doesn’t rely on rational or volitional abilities alone, but includes the whole story. Also, in this regard, it is affirming of people. Not seeking to lift some to power, while disempowering others.
    I think this leads to discussion of authority and power. The apostle Paul said “my message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with the demonstration of the Spirit’s power”. His intention being, “so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power”. Paul’s message was essentially a declaration of independence from a human metanarrative. That doesn’t throw out the good of modern or post-modern, nor is it particularly liberal or conservative.

  • Joe F Kim

    I think there is no such thing as a static long-thriving religion, Christian or otherwise. Religions with such longevity survive largely because they are able to address whatever “new” issues people find themselves dealing with era to era. I think its in this sense that all religions are necessarily progressive. Even in Christianity, the most conservative fundamentalists, despite their rhetoric, are not practicing Xtnity the same way as first century Xtns. The issues are different and so the responses are new. This is not all bad. I think the best responses age to age, listen and observe well. When the era’s arguments make good points, wise leaders listen, interact and in some cases adopt. Modern Christianity is no different. And when they make errors that need to be corrected, Post-Modern Christianity (or something like it) arises to make the case. (btw…it would be wise for those of us who are conservative to realize that we are a Post Modern conservativism…just sayin).That’s how it was before and thats how it is now. I think the best lesson to be drawn is to keep our eyes and ears open and try to interact with dissenting voices as much as possible until we maximize the Church’s blessings and mitigate its weaknesses. It builds for a stronger church.

  • DJohnson

    “Many major modernistic voices — e.g., Voltaire, Thomas Jefferson — have contended that modernity’s march would trod religion, especially Christianity, under foot and it will disappear but Christianity, paradoxically, has flourished in a worldview of modernity.”

    I think a more nuanced statement would be helpful here. Where has Christianity flourished (Europe?) and where has it not? And did it flourish over one period and more recently has not or has this varied according to specific traditions (mainline churches)? Only with a more nuanced view can we begin to parse out the impact of modernity on religion relative to various other factors.

  • Andrew Dowling

    “Modern theology traces how various theologians have accommodated to modernity’s central features.”

    All modern theology accommodates to modernity . . those that claim they aren’t are living in a delusion. One cannot magically transport themselves to the year 800 anymore than they can pretend that television doesn’t exist or the combustion engine never happened. Modernity simply “is” . . attempts to react against it (conservative evangelical fundamentalism circa 2014) are just as modern as any liberal/progressive theology.

    Joe Kim is also spot on below. Historic Christianity has always evolved and developed over time . .the creeds themselves are products of development and compromise over many years. That certain churches over the centuries pretended to be mimicking exactly how the “earliest apostles” practiced their faith have always been rather ridiculous . . for starters none of those “back to the roots” churches ever went/go to the synagogue. Like Christmas? 1st century Christians didn’t celebrate that either.