Modernism: Bad Points

I have two major criticisms of modernism. (My analysis and criticism of modernism is limited to the intellectual history of modernism as it relates to secularization and the philosophy of religion.) Both of these criticisms are attacks on the status of absolute reason as understood by moderns. Moderns believed, especially after Lessing, that rational thought sought out truths of reason rather than truths of history. They also believed that statements could either be demonstrated by reason or they were contradictory. This is known as the autonomy of reason. Both of these assertions are serious errors.

One might believe that the goal of rational thinkers is a system of thought that makes to essential references to history. All of the important truths are timeless truths. This might even sound noble because these timeless truths are difficult to obtain and available to everyone equally. The only problem is that the justification for this is historically situated. It has not been obvious to everyone throughout history that all the important truths are non-historical. One might also believe that rational agents should be unbiased and objective. There is a sense in which this is true, but modernists tend to believe that this means we should all start with the same position! Finally, modernists tend to believe that there is a sort of univerally recognized (or recognizable) standard of “good” positions and arguments. These positions all treat the history of a person’s thought and history in general as irrelevant to good arguments and theories. This is modernism’s avoidance of history.

Leibniz believed that there were some truths that we both above reason and not contrary to reason. These truths included the trinity and the incarnation, and required revelation in order to know them. Later on, the pietists and Socianisms were united (!) in claiming that any truth “above reason” was also contrary to reason. The Socianisms claimed that this gave reason to reject the mysteries of the faith. The pietists claimed that this was the virtue of faith – believing contradictory claims. Both sides accepted the idea that there were no mysteries of the kind that Leibniz espoused. If human reason could not reconcile two claims, then those two claims were contradictions. This placed human reason in autonomy in the realm of rationality. Human reason did not have to answer to anything. This is was modernisms avoidance of mystery.

I am not (yet) going to argue against these positions. I am just going to point out how common they are. Consider the case of Bart Erhman. He claimed that those who believed that the Bible is inerrant and were aware of Biblical problems would lose their faith. This is only true if that same person believed in a strong form of the autonomy of reason. If we should be able to reconcile all Biblical problems right now, then that is true. Otherwise his warning is silly. Consider the case of those who believe that God exists in the philosophy classroom. They will be asked to defend their belief. Yet those who believe that God does not exist, those who believe that we cannot know whether he exists or not and those who believe that there is no practical difference are not asked to defend their belief. The is only a good method if some universal standard tells us that “God exists” is an inferior position to the other ones. Consider the case of politics. Some people are for the Iraq war and others are against it. Both positions (or neither) require defense equally. Yet very few treat it that way. That imbalance is evidence of the modernist avoidance of history. (Not everyone shares your intellectual history.)