Wednesday, May 10, 2006

So, what does "modern" mean anyway

There are few words that have been more popular in use over the last century than “modern”. (The main rivals, I think, have been “new”, “improved”, and “scientific” -- perhaps I have watched too many soap ads lately.) For the past couple of centuries, those of us in the West have been living in what is usually called the modern world, a system of ideas and social structures that has transformed the world, or at least the part of it we live in. In trying to analyze the current challenges to Christian belief, the Rt. Rev. N.T. Wright, Anglican Bishop of Durham, England, outlined what “modern” means:

But, in case some feel left behind by all this jargon, what do we mean by 'modernity' and 'postmodernity', anyway? A quick thumbnail sketch is all we have time for. By the 'modern' world I mean, broadly, the western world from the eighteenth century to the present. The European Enlightenment at the intellectual level, and the Industrial Revolution at the social level, produced enormous changes both in how society worked, literally and metaphorically, and in how people thought. The large-scale shift from agrarian economies to factory economies had, of course, profound social consequences, of which some parts of New Zealand at least are, I am sure, very much aware. Those who learnt to think for themselves in the Enlightenment without fear of tradition, and then in the Industrial Revolution, those who learnt to make things for themselves rather than having to grow them, acquired a new confidence: they could take on the world.

Thus there grew up the modernist trinity: first, the confident individual who says, 'I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.' Secondly, there was certainty about the world and about our objective knowledge of it. We can look at the world and know things, and that is objective knowledge. (Someone said facts, like telescopes and wigs for gentlemen, were an 18th century invention.) Thirdly, and perhaps above all, there grew up a new mythology of progress; the belief that the world was actually going somewhere, was progressing, and was about to reach its goal. Reality was then conveniently divided up into facts and values; facts were objective, values were subjective. Or, in another of the great Enlightenment ways of carving up the world, there were the truths of reason 'out there' which the mind might be able to grasp, and the truths of the empirical world, the things that you could actually do business with. There was an ugly ditch, said the German philosopher Lessing, between the two of them. Split level reality, is what the modernist trinity purchased at considerable cost, and we have been paying that cost ever since.

The negative corollaries of all this are quite clear: the European world said we are no longer bound to traditional religions or ethics. We live in the real world, people said, and religion and ethics are a matter of private opinion. Part of the avowed aim of modernity was to get away from endless European wars of religion, by showing that religions were simply about what people did with their solitude, and that it was therefore absurd to fight one another about such beliefs. We have learnt to think for ourselves, and can use this ability to show up barbarity and superstition, to free ourselves from the tyranny of tradition.
This is from a 1999 lecture by Wright, and the whole thing is worth reading. More on modernity and the Church in the next post.

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