What I shall here call “modernity” antedates the Enlightenment. It represents a trajectory that was launched by the full development and acceptance of Nominalism during the late medieval period. Much of Western civilization followed this trajectory through the mid-to-late Twentieth Century, when it finally became untenable.
Where premoderns began with primacy of faith, moderns began with the primacy of doubt. Nothing was to be affirmed that could not be established upon clear and objective foundations. The nature of the foundation differed among different schools of moderns, but the yearning for an abstract, neutral, detached starting point is the most distinguishing feature of modernity.
Therefore, moderns had to begin with what was given, and for them that always meant the particulars of immanent reality. Moderns believed that the best way of understanding the world was to look at the world itself. They attempted to observe the world and to amass observations about it. Their core assumption was that, if they could collect enough facts and look at them long enough, then the truth was sure to emerge.
Modernity did not begin with a denial of the ordered, transcendent, moral universe. It began by shifting its gaze away from the transcendent and toward the immanent. Moderns assumed that “fact” and “truth” are equivalent terms. In some cases, they did not even admit to being guided by an inner map of reality. Certain versions of modernity assumed that reality is so transparent that no image is necessary. According to their view, one simply encounters and navigates through reality itself.
While modernity did not begin by denying the existence of a transcendent universe, it reversed the roles of immanent and transcendent reality. For the modern, transcendence could not simply be assumed. It had to be justified by an appeal to abstract, detached, neutral foundations. While premoderns attempted to access immanent reality through the grid of transcendent reality, moderns insisted upon beginning with immanent reality and working upward to the transcendent. At the most, revelation could contribute to our knowledge only if it could be proven to be true—and the proof necessarily involved some appeal to the immanent.
Let’s go back to the car. We are lost in the city, the snow is piling up on the windshield, and the glass is getting foggy. What would a modern do in this situation?
Moderns would insist that the only way to navigate the city is by exploring the city itself. They would maintain that we can gather enough information about the city simply by observing the phenomena that present themselves to us. They might try to turn on the headlights and wear polarized glasses to cut through the snow, but they would have no use for a GPS. In fact, they would not trust a GPS unless they could actually compare it to the landscape to see whether it was accurate.
To the extent that moderns even admitted to having an inner map of the world, they wanted it to be compiled by the direct examination of the world itself. In their opinion, no other guide was trustworthy. Any image of the world had to demonstrate its value by direct comparison with the world itself. Such a strong focus upon immanent reality necessarily downplayed the importance of transcendence, and it is no accident that the further modernity progressed, the greater became the tendency to deny the transcendent altogether.
Once the transcendent universe had been demoted or denied, moderns found it increasingly difficult to envision a moral universe. Without transcendence, the barrier between fact and value became almost insurmountable. Moderns repeatedly attempted to justify morality by an appeal to immanent reality, but these attempts rarely captured the loyalty of more than a single party. Near the end of the modern period, the strongest of the logical positivists (A. J. Ayer, Bertrand Russell) began to advocate the position known as emotivism, announcing that values were merely expressions of preference and could not be universally binding.
When both the transcendent universe and the moral universe had been denied, all that remained to moderns was an ordered universe. What they discovered, however, was that they could not remain loyal even to that much of their metaphysical dream. Einstein’s theory of relativity and Max Planck’s quantum hypothesis seemed to stretch the notion of order to the breaking point. The new discipline of phenomenology observed that humans always interpret facts from some point of view, and this observation was strengthened by another new discipline, the sociology of knowledge. At the very moment that scientists (those quintessential modernists) were becoming aware of their inability to explain the order of the universe, phenomenologists and sociologists were narrowing the limitations of human objectivity. By the Second World War, modernity was tottering; by the end of the Viet Nam conflict, it was in shambles.
Before we begin to explore postmodernity, it is worth saying something about the modern appropriation of the imagination. Whether or not they admitted it, moderns were just as dependent as their forebears upon an imagined map of the world. They simply wanted to appeal to a different source for the construction of the map. Rather than accepting a transcendent revelation, they insisted upon the sufficiency of human reason or experience or both to compile the map. For moderns, The Truth was not up there. Instead, the truth was out there. By the end of the modern period, however, they could no longer even speak of “the truth.” They could only discuss truths, bits of the map here and there that survived the ravages of modernity’s decay.
It is as if moderns, sitting in their cars, blinded by snow and fog, convinced themselves that they could see enough of the city to get along. Full of their own putative insights, they put the car in gear and stepped on the gas. No wonder the modern period witnessed greater human wreckage than all of preceding history.
Moderns insisted that their image of the world was formed by direct examination of the world itself. Trapped in their cars, however, they could see no more of the world than anyone else. Not knowing what they didn’t know proved disastrous. It gave them the opportunity to treat every snow bank and every patch of ice like a Rorschach ink blot. They looked at their foggy windshield and they thought that they saw reality.
What they perceived in this reality was, as much as anything, the product of their own appetites. Faced with a whiteout, what they observed was not a blank, but rather the world as they wished it to be. They read their own desires into their image of reality.
Moderns did exercise their imaginations—usually without realizing it. Theirs was not an exercise of the moral imagination, however, for the moral imagination looks upward and attempts to see the world as God says it really is. On the contrary, theirs was an exercise of what Edmund Burke called the “idyllic imagination.”
The idyllic imagination is employed by those who attempt to understand the world only in reference to itself. Gazing as they do through the fog and ice, their notion of reality has huge gaps that must be filled. Most frequently they fill these gaps with an image of the world as they wish it were.
This image usually turns out to be utopian. Furthermore, it ends up drastically redefining moral realities. For example, freedom may no longer be understood as the liberty to fulfill one’s true obligations without restraint, but rather as the opportunity to do what one wishes. Equality might cease to be understood as possessing no special privileges before the law, but instead come to be understood as possessing similar advantages of condition. Most forms of modernism propagated a myth of progress, according to which humanity would (or at least could and should) move incrementally toward the utopian ideal.
The outworking of these revised images necessarily affects every aspect of life. It intrudes into matters of philosophy, government, property, sexuality, expression, and, ultimately, life and death. What we now call the “culture wars” are the result of the late medieval turn from the transcendent to the immanent, from the universal to the particular, and from the moral imagination to the idyllic imagination. The abandonment of one metaphysical dream for another was bound to result in diametrically opposed visions of reality.
“Surely He Hath Borne Our Griefs.”
Christina Rossetti (1830 - 1894)
Christ’s heart was wrung for me, if mine is sore;
And if my feet are weary, His have bled;
He had no place wherein to lay His Head;
If I am burdened, He was burdened more.
The cup I drink, He drank of long before;
He felt the unuttered anguish which I dread;
He hungered who the thousands fed,
And thirsted who the world’s refreshment bore.
If grief be such a looking-glass as shows
Christ’s Face and man’s in some sort made alike,
Then grief is pleasure with a subtle taste:
Wherefore should any fret or faint or haste?
Grief is not grievous to a soul that knows
Christ comes,—and listens for the hour to strike.
This essay is by Dr. Kevin T. Bauder, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). Not every professor, student, or alumnus of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.