Modernism brought with it many benefits, but also led to a number of complex challenges.
The transition from the pre-modern world to the modern world resulted from a variety of technological and scientific advances, among them movable type and the printing press, and the telescope and a variety of other scientific discoveries, not the least of which was the scientific method itself.
The beginning of the period known today as Modernity is difficult to nail down, but most people date it from the beginning of the Enlightenment in the mid-17th century. Rene Descarte laid the philosophical foundation for modernity with his focus on doubt as the pathway to knowledge. His famous dictum, “I think, therefore I am,” or better, “I am thinking, therefore I exist,” was the bedrock of a new way of knowing. The path to knowledge, he argued, was through doubt. You must doubt everything. The thing you cannot doubt (i.e., the fact that you are doubting, therefore thinking) is the beginning of knowledge.
Descartes built a philosophical system that distrusted the senses and allowed only for deductive reasoning. Pure reason is the only way to knowledge. From this he arrived at the idea that human beings were autonomous thinking subjects. Isaac Newton later provided the scientific framework for modernity. Newton postulated a world that operates like a machine, based on immutable laws.
Stanley Grenz says in his book, A Primer on Postmodernism, “The postulates of the thinking self and the mechanistic universe opened the way for the explosion of knowledge under the banner of what Jurgen Habermas called the ‘Enlightenment Project.’ It became the goal of the human intellectual quest to unlock the secrets of the universe in order to master nature for human benefit and create a better world.”1 Grenz goes on to argue that there are certain “epistemological assumptions” that form the basis of the Enlightenment project—that knowledge is certain, objective, and good. He says that the quest of certainty places “absolute faith in human rational capabilities.”2 The Enlightenment project goes on to say that knowledge is not only certain and rational, but also objective. This means that modernists claim to be able to be dispassionate, uninvolved observers who do not affect the subject of their knowledge.
This period also saw all knowledge as inherently good, giving rise to a contagious optimism and the human ability to understand and control nature for our betterment.
On the opposite end of things, but arising around the same time, is the theory of knowledge known as empiricism, which essentially argues that truth is known through the experience of a thing. This is not so much subjective experience as it is observational knowledge. That is, truth is known by being perceived through the five senses. If you can see it, touch it, taste it—it exists.
Modernism brought with it many benefits, including this optimism about what humans could grasp and control. But this optimism about what humanity could accomplish also led to a number of complex challenges, and to systems that continue to provide unique threats to faith, like Freudian psychology, communism, and even the more rapacious forms of capitalism. Some of these approaches have proven to be incredibly lacking, but they nevertheless helped to shape our age.
The next reading, “Knowing Jesus: Perspective 3,” will look at postmodernism and some of the more positive possibilities of Christian thought on how to know Jesus.3