Modernism is the term often used for the Twentieth-Century movement, which sought a break with the traditional ideas, norms and styles of Western Civilization, and adopted innovative ways for understanding the world and human living. The term “modernism” had its specific connotations for art, music and the general world-view of the times, but in the area of religion, modernism has attempted to examine and re-define traditional belief-systems in light of contemporary values and trends. Modernism’s view of traditional religion (including the traditional understanding of Christianity) is that it is incompatible with the modern age for the following reasons:
The Vastness of the Cosmos. Argument: If a personal God exists, why would that God be concerned about a single, rather insignificant planet, such as earth? Religion, therefore, is only the human aspiration for meaning and infinity in the desperate hope that we are more than organisms on a speck in the hugeness of the universe.
Many who raise this objection probably take an atheistic or agnostic religious position, though some might opt for Deism or Pantheism.
Science has Discredited Religion. Argument: Scientific methodology offers explanations for natural phenomena which primitive people explained religiously. For example, thunder was seen by early humans as a deity beating lightning bolts his hammer, but science shows that it is caused by complex electrical processes in the atmosphere. Early man saw the harvest cycle as being related to the sexual relations of the gods. Now we know about rainfall, soil chemistry, and modern agricultural methods.
Therefore, science and technology have replaced the need for supernatural explanations. Assuming that the Cosmos is essentially a product of natural generation, nature is therefore a vast machine. Human beings are a part of that machinery, having been produced by it.
Religion can be explained psychologically. Modernism tended to explain the human religious impulse in light of naturalistic causes. Some possible modernistic explanations for the universal human religious impulse included:
Religion as a social glue. Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) saw religion as a tool, which enabled society to function harmoniously. In his view, religion provides stability through a definite moral code, which becomes formalized into law. Religion also validates authority structures, which can discourage anti-social behavior.
Religion as a tool of oppression. Karl Marx (1818-1883) called religion “the opiate of the people.” He saw it as keeping people relatively content in their place (or at least afraid to rock the boat), keeping them pacified with promises of a better life hereafter and the threats of judgment. In this view, the upper classes use religion to maintain their control and manipulate the masses.
Religion as neurosis. In The Future of an Illusion, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) argued that religion could be explained psychologically. Freud believed that religious belief is an expression of certain deep psychological needs, such as the fear resulting from not being able to control nature. Religion assures people that someone is in control and might be persuaded to protect and guide through the uncertainties of existence. Freud saw belief in God as providing some social and psychological benefits, but felt that its downside was to keep people in an infantile state. Mature, well-adjusted people should have no need for God or religion.
Religion as a remedy for social frustration. In society, biological urges must be limited in order to achieve stability. But the repression of natural drives causes mental and emotional distress, so religion serves the function of lending authority social norms which impose morality, promising rewards to the compliant and punishments for the non-compliant.
Conclusion and Application: The adoption of a modernistic viewpoint in Western Civilization during the early Twentieth Century had the effect of forcing a choice upon most religious groups to either hold fast to traditional ways of understanding faith or adapting religion to the new point of view. In Christianity, Modernism brought about splits in almost all groups of Protestants and serious strains in Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Issues such as the nature and role of the Bible, the authority of the Church and its traditions, the role of science in determining truth and the relationship of believers with culture were major battlegrounds in the conflict.
In the Twenty-first Century, Modernism is increasingly being supplanted by Postmodern views of reality and culture. Though its views of truth are at significant odds with developing Postmodern concepts, Modernism played a decisive role in the departure from centuries of tradition which had engendered and nourished the West. With the ascendancy of the Postmodern focus on relativity and individuality, the Modernist confidence in science, technology, education and mass society seem to be on the decline. The challenge for the church is to shift the focus of its apologetics and theology from countering modernism’s critique of Christianity and its alternative worldview to understanding and interacting with the new and largely unexplored challenge of Postmodern thought and culture.