What’s Wrong with Modernism? Part 1

PaineAgeReason(Another old article I had written. This was originally published in The Banner, April 23, 2001, pp. 24-26.)

Postmodernism is all the rage these days. Plenty of books and articles have been written about it. Students take classes about it. Even The Banner published an article on it last year (Jan. 31, 2000).

Many Christians oppose postmodernism’s teachings, especially the claim that there is no absolute truth – or at the very least, if there is absolute truth, that we can never know it. I think Christians have good reasons to be suspicious and critical of postmodernism. However, in their fight against postmodernism, many have allied themselves with modernism. These Christians see modernism as the bastion of absolute truth and a safeguard against postmodernity’s skepticism and relativism.

This is a dangerous trend. We must remember that before postmodernism came along, modernism was an enemy to the faith. Simply because Christianity and modernism now share a common foe in postmodernism does not mean that we should be allies!

Modernism as an intellectual movement has bred many idols. Among them are rationalism, scientism, and individualism. Even Christians have not been immune from unwittingly bowing down to these idols alongside their worship of the one true God. Before we observe these three idols, let us take a brief look at their source – modernism.

Modernism

In the book Moving Between the Times, Modernity and Postmodernity: A Christian View (Brian Carrell, The DeepSight Trust, 1998, p. 30), modernity is defined as “the intellectual and cultural heritage of the Enlightenment project – namely, the rejection of traditional and religious sources of authority in favour of reason and knowledge as the road to human emancipation.” This Enlightenment project dreams of achieving ultimate human progress by first understanding and then manipulating, or controlling, the world.

The original “Star Trek” TV series, according to theologian Stanley Grenz in A Primer on Postmodernism (Eerdmans, 1996), is an excellent example of this modern dream. In “Star Trek,” the spaceship Enterprise travels through space to “explore strange new worlds, so to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man [sic] has gone before.” Its mission, ultimately, is a quest for new knowledge. The show assumes that, by increasing our knowledge, humanity can find better ways to understand and control the mysteries of space to serve human progress.

“Star Trek” also implies that science and reason have eliminated war, poverty, racism, and all kinds of human evils on earth. So much so that there are no challenges left on earth itself; the final challenge is that of outer space, “the final frontier.”

Leonard_Nimoy_Mr._Spock_Star_TrekA famous hero and icon of “Star Trek” is Mr. Spock. Spock is half-human, half-Vulcan (an alien species) with the ability to control his emotions and be completely rational. Logic and reason are his keys to solving many of the problems that the Enterprise crew faces each week in the series. Spock symbolizes the ideal modern man.

Rationalism

This leads us to our first idol – rationalism. Rationalism is faith in human reason blown out of proportion. Modernism teaches that reason is the only reliable guide to absolute truth. It is not enough for our beliefs to be reasonable; they must be proven by reason. Any belief that rests ultimately on sources other than reason, such as divine revelation in a book, is considered either false or unworthy of our belief.

That’s why in the modern age (which dates approximately from the 18th century to the late 20th) Christian thinkers were compelled to defend their beliefs by use of reason. Unfortunately that has often led Christians to accept implicitly the modernist idea that human reason is the final arbiter of truth. For example, liberal theologians used to discard anything in the Bible that did not measure up to human reason, such as miracles. This has led some even to deny the virgin birth of Christ.

On the other hand, conservative Christians tend to defend the Bible’s reliability by appealing to arguments from logic and empirical evidence. Any hints of inconsistency or contradiction in the Bible are explained away. Unfortunately these well-meaning evangelicals end up in the same boat as their liberal and modern atheist counterparts. While the atheist uses reason to prove that the Bible is unreliable, the evangelical uses reason to prove that it is reliable, and the liberal uses reason to dissect Scripture into acceptable and unacceptable portions. Ultimately, reason rules.

I remember attending a lecture by an evangelical Christian philosopher during my university days. I still remember squirming in my seat when he confidently exclaimed, “God cannot make square circles!” In other words, God cannot break the laws of logic; the laws of logic apply both to creation and to the Creator. I find this disturbing because it implies that God is subject to logic, that logic is almost equal to God.

Granted, a square circle is, for us, a contradiction in terms. But just because we cannot imagine a square circle does not mean that God can’t. As Isaiah writes, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways. … As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (55:8-9). I would be happier if the philosopher had instead said, “God will not make square circles” – that is, God is able to but freely chooses not to break the laws of logic.

But such talk about logic is quite common among evangelical thinkers. Christians, too, have bought into modernist rationalism. Its roots stem from the Greeks, who believed that the essential nature of reality is rational. But the Bible sees ultimate reality as relational: “In [Christ] all things hold together” (Col. 1:17). It does not say that all things hold together in logic but in a divine person whom we relate to and not merely comprehend intellectually.

When John began his gospel with “In the beginning was the word [logos in Greek],” he used the common Greek philosophical concept of logos, or reason, the force that holds and orders the universe. But John radically transformed this concept and scandalized the Greeks when he went on to write, “the logos became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (1:14). What the Greeks thought was an impersonal, rational force is really a personal, living being.

Granted, truth has to be understandable, hence reasonable. But it does not follow that all truths have to be proven by reason. It’s time we start trimming human reason back down to size.

(Continued in Part 2)

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About Shiao Chong

Editor in Chief of The Banner, official magazine of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC). Formerly CRC Campus Minister serving at York University in Toronto, Canada. (All postings here are my personal opinion and does not necessarily represent the views of the CRC or of The Banner.)
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One Response to What’s Wrong with Modernism? Part 1

  1. Pingback: What’s Wrong with Modernism? Part 2 | 3-D Christianity

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