The Rise Of Modernity

This series of blogs is examining what I am referring to as “the transition zone” – called by some post-modernity, or the great emergence.  The thesis is that culture is in a period of upheavel and transition as one paradigm is dying, and another is being birthed.

Last blog we talked about the last great transition – from what we called pre-modernity into an epoch called “modernity” – which has been the paradigm which has dominated culture for the better part of 500 year.  Briefly, in this post, let me offer a description of “modernity.”

The beginning of modernity is clearly associated with the 18th century philosophical movement known as the Enlightenment.  During the early days of the Enlightenment, dramatic changes took place in the way people gathered, interpreted, and made use of information.  The epistemological shift of the Enlightenment can be traced back to the thoughts of Enlightenment philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650 ACE). 

René Descartes lived during the period of Europe’s Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648 ACE).   Though it was primarily a civil war between European Protestants leaders (in Germany, France, Sweden, Denmark, England, the United Provinces) and the unity and power of the Holy Roman Empire, the conflict still involved many religious overtones.  In the midst of the wars, Henry IV of Navarre rose to prominence with the promise that he would end the religious wars that had plagued the continent for several decades.  He promised to establish ecumenical peace throughout Europe. Unfortunately, as Henry was on the verge of fulfilling his promise, his life was cut short by an assassin.  Out of great respect for Henry and the noble cause he had endeavored to fulfill, his heart was taken as a religious relic—enshrined at La Flèche, just outside Paris, where a young René Descartes was a student.[i]

The bloodshed caused by these religious wars, and the hopelessness experienced as a result of the assassination of Henry IV, created a social crisis for the generation of Descartes.  If objective religious truth existed, as the neoplatonic Christian thinkers claimed, why was there so much bloodshed and religious conflict?  This social crisis caused such anxiety for the Enlightenment philosophers[ii] that their overarching passion became a search for an epistemology that could serve the cause of peace and resist the continued chaos in Europe.  Cartesian philosophy was not, according to Walter Brueggemann, Steven Toulmin, and Susan Bordo,  a “buoyant act of imagination, but was instead a desperate maneuver to cope with anxiety.  Thus ‘objectivity’ emerged as a way to fend off ominous chaos.”[iii]

 In the pre-modern era, knowledge was viewed cosmologically.  In other words, all knowledge was objective fact that was out there ready to be grasped.  At the dawning of the Enlightenment, however, Descartes argued that all claims to knowledge ought to be questioned—critically examined to see whether or not they were true.[iv]  A critical examination of all epistemological claims should continue until one of two things occurred:  either the epistemological claim was proven unjustifiable, or the critical examination lead to a foundational fact—a core truth that could not be questioned.  Since this core truth is considered foundational for the rest of knowledge—Cartesian philosophy has sometimes been called foundationalism. [v]  According to Murphy foundationalism…

…is a theory about how claims to know can be justified.  When we seek to justify a belief, we do so by relating it to (basing it upon, deriving it from) other beliefs.  If these other beliefs are called into question, then they too must be justified.  Foundationalists insist that this chain of justifications must stop somewhere:  it must not be circular nor must it constitute an infinite regress.  Thus, the regress must end in a “foundation” of beliefs that cannot themselves be called into question.[vi]

What was the core fact that could not be called into question?  According to Descartes, the core that could not be questioned was the existence of the thinking subject.  Everything could be questioned except the reality of his existence—“Cogito, ergo sum”  (“I think, therefore I am”).  From this one axiom, Descartes rebuilt the superstructure of Western philosophy.[vii]  He questioned all commonly held convictions about the world until he came to the conclusion that the only thing that could not be questioned was that he questioned—that he was exercising human reason.  This ability to ask questions and critically analyze life was, according to Descartes, foundational and universal in the human experience.  This being the case, any new epistemological structures necessarily had to be built on the foundation of human reason to garner universal consent.  “So, from Descartes’ time forward,” says Nancey Murphy, “the idea of human knowledge focused on the general, the universal, the timeless, the theoretical.”[viii] 

During the paradigm shift of Enlightenment, epistemology changed from being cosmological to foundational.  Knowledge was no longer simply considered some sort of objective fact that was out there ready to be grasped.  Instead, knowledge was viewed as dualistic.  There were two differing realms of knowledge.  Objective knowledge (truth) was anything that could be known about the world of matter—anything that could be examined and proven through the exercise of human reason.  Subjective knowledge (opinion) was anything that could be known about the individual self—knowledge about things such as personal preference and taste. 

 Modernists, of course, were far more interested in objective knowledge.  Objective knowledge was “real” or “factual” because it could be grasped through scientific inquiry.[ix]  Everything that could not be proven was considered to be subjective belief rather than objective fact.  This analysis is confirmed by Steven Toulmin in his book Cosmopolis:  The Hidden Agenda of Modernity.  Toulmin declares that in modernity only certain types of knowledge could be classified as real or factual.  What types of knowledge?  Toulmin says that in modernity, there was

  • a move from oral to written, so that what is reliable is what is written;
  • a move from the particular to the universal, so that real truth is what is true everywhere;
  • a move from local to general, so that real truth had to be the same from locale to locale; and
  • a move from the timely to the timeless, so that the real is the unchanging.[x]

In modernity, therefore, real or factual knowledge is that which is written, universal, general, and timeless—as opposed to that which is oral, particular, local, and timely.             

Modernity posed some specific challenges to Christian theology and ecclesiology.  First, modernity brought about the rise of atheism. In the pre-modern era, religious convictions were considered to be  absolute truth.  In modernity, since religious claims could not be scientifically proven, they were considered belief—not fact.  As such religion became a matter of choice and personal preference.  In such a climate, it was conceivable that many individuals would choose to believe that God did not exist.  If anyone denied the existence of God in the pre-modern era, they generally kept their thoughts to themselves.  The idea that some sort of divine entity existed which was responsible for the creation of the cosmos was commonly accepted throughout the pre-modern world.   This commonly held conviction was no longer taken for granted in modernity. 

Along with the specter of atheism, modernity also had an important impact on the Church’s doctrine of soteriology (salvation).  In pre-modern times, salvation was clearly understood to be wholly the work of God—an act of grace through which God provided all humanity the gift of salvation.  The proper human response to the knowledge that God had provided about salvation was a confession of faith, entrance into the church through baptism, and a life of obedience to the commands of Christ as mediated through the teaching offices of the church.  In the modern era, however, the locus of authority shifted from the church as repository of God’s word, to the reasoning, rational individual.  Modernity’s emphasis on the authority of the individual—and the contention that religious conviction was a matter of personal preference and opinion—demanded that the individual had to personally choose or accept salvation.  In the modern church,  salvation was no longer considered to be wholly the work of God.  Instead it had become the work of the individual exercising his or her will by accepting salvation.

In the modern era the authority of the church was also severely challenged—thus providing occasions for alterations in its ecclesiology.   In pre-modern times, the church was looked upon as the repository of absolute truth.  The church stood at the pinnacle of human society as the unifying force bringing about social cohesion.  This was no longer so in modernity.  In modernity, the individual, not the church, was the ultimate authority.  Matters of religious conviction became products of personal choice—not ecclesiastical pronouncement.  In modernity the individual—not the church—became the ultimate authority in matters pertaining to religious conviction.

According to Carl F.H. Henry, the modern era “sought to liberate humanity from the fate of existence in the God-ordered universe” of medieval philosophy.  It did so by relocating the intellectual order of the world in human reason.  The exercise of human reason—the use of scientific investigation—promised “new freedom for humanity and a new era of progress for the planet.” [xi]  Human reason could provide humanity with a peaceful and prosperous world.

In this milieu, churches became places for the gathering of “like-minded individuals.”  The church became voluntaristic collections of individual entities joined by a religious social contract—denomination, creeds and confessional statements (both formal and informal).  Churches became religious communities to which individuals voluntarily pledged their allegiance.  No longer was there a single, monolithic, authoritative Church.  Instead there were many churches. The slogan became attend the church of your choice.

Next blog will look at the decline of modernity and the rise of “post-modernity” – which we defined briefly in previous blogs in this series. 

[i] Steven Toulin, Cosmopolis:  The Hidden Agenda of Modernity.  (New York:  Free Press, 1990), 57, 212.

[ii] The central theorists of Enlightenment thought were Descartes, Hobbe, and Locke.

[iii] Walter Brueggemann,  Texts Under Negotiation:  The Bible and Postmodern Imagination. (Minneapolis:  Augsburg Fortress, 1993), 5.

[iv] René Descartes, Discourse on Method (1637), second part, quoted in Theology Without Foundations, 10.

[v] Nancey Murphy, “Introduction” in Theology Without Foundations:  Religious Practice and the Future of Theological Truth,  eds. Stanley Hauerwas, Nancy Murphy, and Mark Nation, (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1994), 9.

[vi]Stanley Hauerwas, Nancy Murphy, and Mark Nation, Theology Without Foundations , 9.

[vii] A.K.M. Adam, What is Postmodern Biblical Criticism?  (Minneapolis:  Augsburg Fortress, 1995), 5.

[viii]Stanley Hauerwas, Nancy Murphy, and Mark Nation, Theology Without Foundations, 11.

[ix] David S. Dockery, “The Challenge of Postmodernism,” in The Challenge of Postmodernism, 13.

[x] Toulmin, Cosmopolis, 30-35.

[xi] Carl F.H. Henry, “Postmodernism:  The New Spectre?” in The Challenge of Postmodernism, 36

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