This week a friend asked me to define modernism and postmodernism. She didn’t want the sort of definition scholars use, she wanted a general sense of what they are, the sort of explanation someone might find helpful who wants to be faithful as a Christian. She raised her question in light of a discussion she and friends were having about what Christian witness should look like today. I said I’d try.
Modernism developed in the West at the end of the medieval period (also called the Middle Ages), which lasted (more or less) from the 5th to the 15th century. The 16th century began a period of great change. Martin Luther posted his revolutionary 95 Thesis (1517), launching the Protestant Reformation. In 1543 the astronomer Copernicus published his finding that the earth revolved around the sun. Galileo’s (1564-1642) technical improvement of the telescope launched modern astronomy, while Kepler’s (1571-1630) study of planetary motion helped give birth to modern physics. And the fact that Gutenberg had already developed the printing press (1441) meant that these new ideas could spread more rapidly than ever.
Science took off with a seemingly endless series of amazing discoveries and a clear method by which to test its theories. Technology followed close behind, transforming daily life. Medicine began to identify the causes of disease, developing new techniques to diagnose and push back illnesses that had long plagued humankind. Since germs (not humors) were now known to cause illness, public health measures could eradicate vermin, provide clean water, and dispose of waste. Life in the West was increasingly defined by science and technology, and thinking was increasingly defined by reason and scientific method.
It was a time of great optimism. Thinkers were increasingly convinced that by carefully using reason, they could take any problem, reduce it to its essentials, and figure out a solution. That is what was happening in physics, astronomy, and medicine, and the progress was extraordinary. In fact, the progress was so astounding that people began thinking of the previous medieval period as the “Dark Ages.”
Progress continued. Isaac Newton (1643-1727) shaped physics by introducing the three laws of motion, and helped to develop calculus. James Watt (1763-1775) improved an earlier design and invented the first viable steam engine. The textile industry was revolutionized, factories took work outside the home and the Industrial Revolution took off. For the first time in history human beings could travel faster than a horse could run. Time was thought of differently when clocks and watches allowed trains and work to be scheduled—before that people had lived according to the rising and setting of the sun and the passing of the seasons. In 1837 Samuel Morse patented the telegraph and communications were revolutionized. The rest, as they say, is history.
I can imagine someone interrupting here. “But wait a minute. You are supposed to be talking about modernism—and doesn’t the ism at the end of a word mean that it is a philosophy or world view or way of thinking?” Absolutely correct—I was just getting to that.
At the heart of all this was a simple yet powerful conviction I have already mentioned: with reason, we can tackle any problem or challenge or question, dissect it into its basic parts, and given time solve the problem. And we can apply this approach to every aspect of life and reality.
The early scientists were people of faith, and their belief that nature was created and maintained by a personal God gave them confidence in the scientific method. Slowly though, as thinkers and scientists took this reliance on reason and applied it to more and more of life, the belief in reason seemed to make revelation unnecessary. Charles Darwin (1809-1882) published The Origin of the Species, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) developed psychoanalysis, and Auguste Comte (1798–1857), the father of sociology, applied the scientific method to society as a whole.
This confidence about reason could also be found in the church. Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), for example, adopted the new approach to theology with what came to be known as “the higher critical study of the Bible,” resulting in a liberalism that rejected much of what had been accepted as historic orthodox doctrine. And during the Second Great Awakening, evangelical leaders like Charles Finney (1792-1875) reduced the message Christian evangelists needed to preach to help people make a decision for Christ, and introduced the “anxious seat,” a place non-Christians could come for prayer. This revivalism shaped modern evangelicalism and there was optimism that if enough Christians witnessed about their faith, the world would be won for Christ.
Then the 20th century dawned, and with it doubts about the proud optimism of modernism. Science and technology advance, true, but they also produce weapons of unbelievable savagery and pollution that can no longer be ignored. A world war is fought—the “war to end all wars” if you can believe that—followed a few years later by a second, far more destructive world war. Racism, the breakdown of the family, the loss of meaning, bloody regional conflicts, brutal dictatorships, grinding poverty—all this and so much more seems intractable. Modernism had promised that with reason, problems like this could be diagnosed and solved, but it was increasingly clear the promise had not been fulfilled, nor could it. And modernism’s efforts to explain the bigger questions, about life after death, or God, or meaning had come to nothing. No matter how awesome the Milky Way is, if there is nothing and no one out there and if we are nothing more than molecules interacting by chance in an impersonal universe, then the feeling of awe is merely the some sort of neurological spasm that has no ultimate significance.
As part of modernism, some thinkers worked to address issues like finding meaning in a cosmos where everything is left to natural selection. Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), for example, argued that we live existentially in that our choices have consequences and so we gain significance in the very act of choosing. Existentialism was very popular for a while, expressed for example in the films of Swedish director Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007). Others began to look to the East, to Hinduism and Buddhism, with pop versions of these ancient worldviews being introduced into the West, as in the case of Transcendental Meditation by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (1917-2008) under the influence of the Beetles. By the time of the Sixties, the ferment below the surface of society from the broken promise of modernism burst into the open.
It was really quite simple: the modernist experiment had failed. Modernism, with all its vaunted promise, was a bust. Not the technology, or medical progress—though even here it became clear each advance came with blessing and with curse. But the promise of modernism, the promise that reason and the scientific method would solve all problems and answer all questions—that was harder and harder, if not impossible, to believe. The modernist experiment had failed.
Images (in order): Copernicus, Isaac Newton, Charles Finney and Ingmar Bergman.
…to be continued.