International Catholic University


Catholic Modernism

James Hitchcock

II -- The Nature of Modernity (II)

The Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century provoked famous conflicts between faith and religion, notably in the Galileo case, turning on the question whether the earth or the sun is the center of the universe. In a sense, however, it was a chimerical issue, eventually resolved, because both sides in the dispute agreed that faith and reason each gives access to truth and, properly used and understood, cannot contradict one another. Almost all the great scientists of the age were believing Christians, some of them quite devout.

At the same time, however, the New Science proved to be what might be called imperialistic. During the seventeenth century the meaning of the word "science" itself changed. Previously it had been used, in its Latin sense, simply to mean knowledge, albeit knowledge which rested on absolutely certain intellectual foundations. (Thus theology was the "queen of the sciences.") Now the word came to be used exclusively to refer to the physical sciences, on the assumption that the new "scientific method" alone gave access to unimpeachable knowledge. Religion was still considered to be valid, but perhaps only on the basis of the subjective experience of believers.

The New Science was highly theoretical and drew no conclusions concerning how life should be lived. The Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, on the other hand, in essence drew out some of the implications of the scientific mentality and applied them to society. In particular the philosophes of the Enlightenment adopted the obligation of scepticism -- the questioning of all received truths, the insistence that every established claim prove itself by rigorous argument. In particular was religion subjected to this scrutiny, which, not surprisingly, forced the conclusion that the mysteries of faith were contrary to reason and that religion was thus nothing but superstition. (The term "religion" survived as Deism, the pallid belief that the universe had to have been created by a superior intelligence.)

The philosophes attacked Christianity not only intellectually but politically and socially, seeking to destroy its influence, especially its influence over education, to discredit it in the eyes of all intelligent people. The French Revolution was not simply the result of the Enlightenment, but the Enlightenment was one of its causes, and in a sense the Revolution can be seen as a logical application of certain Enlightenment ideas, including the idea that Christianity was a pernicious social influence.

The French Revolution's attempt to establish something like democracy ended in the worst kind of dictatorship. But a few years before, in the United States, a working democracy was established which would eventually serve as a political model for the rest of the world, to the point where most modern people think of it as the only legitimate system. In its American manifestation democracy was not anti-religious, and even in fact permitted religion to thrive in ways it did not thrive in Europe. The triumph of democracy, however, raises one long-term question whose ultimate answer is still not clear -- if the judgment of "the people" is given ultimate authority, is it possible to continue to accept divine authority, not subject to the popular will?

Much less conspicuous at the time, the Industrial Revolution occured simultaneous with the Age of Revolutions in politics. For the most part technological change aroused little or no opposition from religious believers, and there is no overt conflict between technology and religious belief, except in the ways in which certain kinds of technology are used. However, in Europe, although not in America, there was a close correlation, historically, between industrialization and secularization, and it has been argued that technology tends to make people feel entirely self-sufficient and weakens their sense of dependence on a higher power.

The nineteenth century was a paradoxical time as far as religion is concerned. On the one hand there was a great religious revival, in part a reaction to the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, while on the other hand the repudiation of religion became even more radical. For the first time atheism became intellectually respectable, and the religious fervor of the West declined somewhat throughout the century.

It was in the nineteenth century that the cultural phenomenon of Modernism emerged, meaning not merely the awareness of change but the insistence that change is itself a way of life and that human beings are in effect obligated to adapt themselves to change in all its forms. In all areas of cultural life -- philosophy, theology, the arts -- Modernists began an experimental quest for what was new and daring.

Modern thought has systematically drawn out all the most radial implications of earlier ideas, including all forms of intellectual relativism -- the contention that there are no truths as such, merely ideas which seem true in particular situations or in terms of particular systems of belief. This has affected ordinary human life, as society has little by little lifted many of its earlier proscriptions on behavior, especially sexual behavior, one of the slogans of radical modernity being in effect "all things are now permitted."

This process has gone so far that it has now become common to speak of "post-modernity" a situation in which even the familiar intellectual props of modernity itself, such as Enlightenment rationalism, are no longer credible, when scepticism runs so deep that almost any position can be asserted as valid, so long as it serves the needs of the person asserting it. How long a culture can survive amidst such corrosive scepticism is an open question.

One of the key features of modernity is precisely the clear sense which people have of their separation from the past. In pre-modern cultures, experience, and tradition tend to be venerated, and change is treated with caution. In modern times that outlook has come to be reversed, as everything new and "modern" is automatically assumed to be superior to the old, and change is thought to promise greater wisdom and freedom.

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