Friday, May 12, 2006

The march of the modern

In previoius posts, we reviewed briefly the nature and sources of the dominant modern Western culture. The positive achievements of this modern world, the world of science and the idea of progress, are easy to see. There are technical achievements in medicine, manufacturing and communications, and social achievements in establishing a new ideal of liberty and individual rights that is, at least in part, approached in a number of places around the world. But there are negative achievements as well in this modern world. Starting with the French Revolution and stretching on to global climate change, we have learned of the social and environmental cost of the “modern” world.

One particularly interesting area of modern change is communications. Two hundred years ago, printing still used human power to run the press, and messages could only move as fast as you could move a piece of paper. Over the intervening time, our ability to communicate expanded drastically in both speed and capacity. This process resulted in the creation, in the 20th century, of mass communications, where one person, in the right place with the right resources, could speak to an entire nation at once. This had effects throughout human societies around the world, changing the way we create and maintain organizations, including religious organizations and activities. Protestant churches, the mainline denominations in particular, are very modern in character, and often model their organizations almost exclusively on corporate models. (In fact, after some historical examination, it could be argued that many Protestant bodies are products much more of the Enlightenment and industrial revolution than of the Reformation.)

The Enlightenment and the modern paradigm was an outgrowth of European philosophy and culture – European culture (which includes American culture) developed along with these ideas and structures. Other, non-Western cultures encountered them through colonialism, or 20th century mass culture. These non-Western cultures have adapted to the impact of the modern in various ways, often involving rapid change and social upheaval. The apparent successful adaptation to some Western ideas in much of Asia in the 20th century follows tremendous dislocation and conflict during the 19th century. Islamic cultures have generally not been as successful, even though there have been numerous top-down attempts to force such adaptation over the past century and a half. These failures are partly responsible for the apparent conflict between western and Islamic states at the beginning of the 21st century.

The Catholic Church struggled with these changes throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. The French Revolution (the ultimate example of both the bright and dark sides of the Enlightenment), combined with Napoleon, caused damage that the Church in Europe has not yet fully recovered from. For example, the 1,500-year history of monastic life in much of Europe almost came to an end at that time. The attempts to wrestle with the intellectual challenges of the era led in many ways to the “Modernist“ conflicts of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The centralization of control that started with Pius IX can, in many ways, be seen as a reaction to these political and intellectual stresses, as well as to the introduction of early forms global communications. Word now could and did get to the faithful by other means than the local bishop, which meant that the Church needed to find new ways to try to keep Christian teaching and ministry “on message”, beyond simply the control of the local bishop. (It is interesting to look at the First Vatican Council in this light.) By the end of the 19th century, the Church started its sophisticated reaction to the social and economic changes of the era , as shown by Rerum Novarum (1891) and the subsequent development of Catholic social teachings. In general, the Catholic Church has adapted to the modern era, with varying levels of success, but is less tied to these “modern” ideas than other Christian bodies. At times in the past, this sometimes seemed to be a problem — but in our new predicament this may be a significant advantage, along with the increasingly global nature of the governance of the Church.

Next -- after the modern, what?

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