Modernism & Theology
The First Moderns: Profiles in the Origins of Twentieth-Century Thought
reviewed by S. M. Hutchens
In 1901 James Joyce wrote to Henrik Ibsen,
Is this sheer Prometheanism, the word of one literary Invictus to another? Surely it sounds like what one would expect from the fashionable writers who, uninhibited by “public canons” have been busily at work puzzling and offending ordinary people for more than a century now. Or are we to believe Joyce, that what he and Ibsen were trying to find was the secret of life, which Christians know is like a treasure hidden in a field. Truth, we would agree, while it leads the true seeker to itself, does not obtrude upon the consciousness of those who prefer convention instead. And so the labors of the adventurous modernist cannot be judged without a fair hearing.
Everdell’s erudite yet readable book is an extended consideration of the hidden life of the mid-nineteenth to early twentieth-century mind. Underneath its confident and orderly materialism things were coming apart. Something new, complex, and with infinitely receding lineaments, was breaking out. This new view of the world—sensed in art, music, literature, physics, philosophy, and the general attitude of forward-thinking people—could be described, but haltingly, and pictured, but not in the old way. A shell was breaking, what we have come to know as modernism was emerging. This is an attempt to chronicle the birth.
The book is useful not only for increasing one’s familiarity with the period—Everdell’s clearly written chapters on math and physics will be most welcome to those who fear the subjects—but also will serve as a valuable aid to reflection. It struck this reviewer that some of the old absolutisms to which this emerging worldview was unfriendly are traceable to the Enlightenment from which it arose. Religious people frequently complain that the advent of modernism spelled an end to the assertion of religious dogma as prescriptive public truth. Modernism did not, however, save its solvents solely for political Christianity; it was also unfriendly toward many constrictions of pagan classicism.
The freedoms modernism claimed for its adherents against many established systems had different effects depending upon whom they touched. For some, the new age dawning brought an aggressive surrender to anomie and the beginning of our time’s end for ideas of order and meaning that can claim universal assent. For others, their eyes were opened to beauties that had been hard to see. It is one thing for a Seurat, with labor as immense as his obvious delight in the project, to explore light and color in La Grande Jatte; it is quite another for a Picasso to tear down nature with cubist prostitutes in his Demoiselles. It is one thing for Debussy to embrace the sea and clouds with tonal icons of the harmonies he heard in them, and another for Schoenberg to put the scale through a twelve-tone mangle.
Although Schleiermacher is mentioned, Everdell does not include a chapter on theological modernism. While my first impression was that this was a glowing omission that required severe comment, the book seems uncannily complete without it. Perhaps the reason is that Modernism by its very nature cannot concern itself with God. It represents a “natural” interlude in which religion is either ignored or taken for granted, for religion— religion, that is, not “progressive religion”—is neither quantitatively scientific, nor does it “advance” with the addition of empirical data. It is inherently dogmatic in structure and character, and therefore incapable of evolution as modernism would define it. It has reason and order, and may therefore be studied scientifically, and as a science in an Aristotelian-Thomistic sense. It may be plumbed deeper with piety. But it stands outside all progressing fields because of its prior claim to contain them all within the boundaries of revealed truth, which can be neither advanced nor effaced by human effort. If Theology is the Queen of Sciences—and it is this by its very definition, however humble it may otherwise wish to appear—then it cannot disport itself as a commoner by indulging in modernism.
This has often been better understood by modernists in other fields than it has by academic theologians, who tend to be regarded as pseudo-scientific interlopers by their university colleagues. David Tracy laments,
What Professor Tracy describes as unfortunate and hopes may be overcome—the prejudices of the modern university against the putatively normative and exclusivist claims of theology—does not appear possible because the prerogatives of theology as the science of religion are indeed, at the end of the day, normative and exclusivist so far as they claim to be founded in divine revelation and represented, in accordance with their nature, by symbols that are not amenable to critical reconstruction.
Modernism, however, posits as an epistemological entrance requirement that all prior canons of knowledge and method must submit to precisely that, although it cannot tell us by what canon the canons are to be judged once they enter and remove their clothes. That is why it is more like a mood than a philosophy, and why all of its attempted liaisons with art or knowledge, which may indeed begin in some sort of liberation, when pressed to the limit, terminate in the chaotic and the absurd. This is also why one can write a capital book on modernism, as Mr. Everdell has, without saying much about theology at all: If it is modernist, it isn’t theology. If it is theology, it isn’t modernist.
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“Modernism & Theology” first appeared in the July/August 1999 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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