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Modernity and Christianity: Like Oil and Water? Part 2

Modernity and Christianity: Like Oil and Water? Part 2 August 29, 2013

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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