CHRISTIAN LIVING: Understanding Modernism


By Kieran Beville

silhouette of churchFrom Modernism to Postmodernism

“The times, they are a-changing”, sang Bob Dylan in 1964. It was the time of the hippies, of free love and flower-power. It was also the time of the Vietnam War, the Cold War, and of questioning authority. It was a time when nuclear arsenals were threatening the very existence of the world. Air travel brought us into contact with diverse cultures and television brought the world into our homes. And while scientific research had advanced to the point of putting a man on the moon, the West became increasingly aware of major world problems such as starvation and dictatorial regimes in places around the world.

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Less obvious, but more profound, was the change that was taking place in the background. While many celebrated this marvelous and incredible achievement, there was also an increasing disquiet that Modernism did not deliver the expected utopia. There had been two world wars, a Holocaust, the development of nuclear power and a cold war. Confronted with this less than wonderful heritage of Modernism many people sought and found a different road in the writings of philosophers like Jacques Derrida and Francois Lyotard, and a different worldview was gradually emerging. This paradigm became known as Postmodernism, and it started to replace the old paradigm of Modernism. First taught in universities, it soon became a significant influence on many academic studies, affecting professors and students together, and thus trickling out into society. There it subtly but profoundly started impacting culture, belief systems, decision-making processes, government, art, religion, entertainment, business, information management, scientific research, moral standards, relationships, and many other areas of public and private life. “Modernism,” says Gene Edward Veith, “is being replaced by the new secular ideology of Postmodernism. This new set of assumptions … is gaining dominance throughout our culture.”[1] Thus, an old era gave way to a new, the era of Postmodernism. Bob Dylan’s prophetic voice (along with the voices and music of many others) championed a protest movement in song. Indeed the times were changing.[2]

What makes this transition so difficult to observe and to describe is that Postmodernism is both a critique of and a continuation from the Modern era. It is not a violent revolution that establishes Postmodernism in the place of Modernism. Rather, it is a very gradual moving away from the principles of Modernism and adopting new principles; ones that are part of what the world is rapidly getting to know as Postmodernism. As Thomas observed:

In Postmodern orthodoxy, we take for granted the achievements of Modernity, of Modern methods of inquiry, Modern procedures of searching scientifically for truth, and Modern assumptions about a just democratic political order.[3]

The transition to Postmodernism is both a rejection of Modernism and a search for an alternative way of thinking, living and seeing the world. Postmodernism is not “a moving away” from Modernism, but rather “a moving beyond.” As Thomas Oden continues:

The axiom of Postmodern consciousness is not that Modernity is corrupt, but that it is defunct, obsolete, passé, antiquated … It is not merely a censorious, embittered, negative emotional reaction against Modernity. That would mistake the Postmodern orthodox premise entirely. Note carefully: there is no reason to be opposed to something that is already dead.[4]

Worldviews and Miscommunication

Developing Healthy ChurchesIf we are to reach people in the Postmodern era with the gospel, it is important that we understand they no longer hold to a Modern philosophical framework or pursue the Modern dream. The Postmodern world is increasingly becoming the new environment in which people live, and such an environment has a conditioning effect. People are both influenced by their context, and participate in the process that proliferates and develops it. If indeed Modernism and Postmodernism both are worldviews that condition the way people live, the way they think, the way they process information, the way they arrive at conclusions and the way they make decisions, then an understanding of each will greatly benefit those who are actively involved in the disciple-making process. As David Hesselgrave states: “Our worldview, then, is the way we see ourselves in relation to all else. Conversely, it is the way we see all else in relation to ourselves.”[5]

Both Modernism and Postmodernism are worldviews, and both are very powerful in their own way. Some writers have complained that evangelicals are relatively ignorant of the transition that is taking place, and that they still use tools and strategies that were devised to reach Modern people while the people they are attempting to reach are in the process of, or have already migrated to a different worldview:

Evangelicalism has been affected in much the same way by the Enlightenment. Certain central Enlightenment ideas appear to have been uncritically taken on board by some evangelicals, with the result that part of the movement runs the risk of becoming a secret prisoner of a secular outlook which is now dying before our eyes.[6]

The results are obvious: not only is there miscommunication, but Christians are effectively marginalizing themselves, making their message appear out of touch and obsolete in the eyes of the world.

This need not be so, or, if we allow for the fact that the message itself is opposed to this world and its rulers, it need not be so to the extent that it is.[7] An understanding of what Modernism and Postmodernism are, and what the implications of the transitions from the former to the latter are, will set the stage for a discussion of means, methods and strategies Christians deploy to reach those who live around them.

The Modern Era

Postmodernism follows the era that in Western thought and culture has become known as Modernism. Finding proper dates for Modernism is an interesting effort, as different authors give different dates. Part of the confusion stems from the fact that the transition from one era to the next is never a black-and-white distinction, but rather a process. The confusion over Modernism’s dates is also a result of disagreement over definition: do we consider the Enlightenment as part of Modernism? Could we consider the Renaissance part of the Modern era? As an era Modernism, defined in its widest sense, stands as the transition between the Middle- Ages and the current period. Modernism can be seen as an attempt to reconstruct the world in the perceived absence of God. This absence can be seen in some of the historical developments for which Modernism is remembered as scientific research starts to lay bare the secrets of the cosmos. Humanism teaches the value of man apart from his divine image. Evolutionary thinking discovers the origin of man, once more negating any human need for God. Technological advance culminates in the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the one side, and the walking of a man on the moon on the other.

Oden dates Modernism from the storming of the Bastille to the fall of the Berlin wall.

The duration of the epoch of Modernity is now clearly identifiable as a precise two-hundred-year period between 1789 and 1989, between the French revolution and the collapse of communism. Such dating is always disputable… but this one cries out with clarity. The analogies between the revolutions of 1789 and 1989 will intrigue historians for centuries to come.[8]

In placing such clear dates on Modernism Oden takes a very specific view of the end of Modernism. Others, like Grenz and Veith, recognize that we are currently in a transition from the Modern era to the Postmodern era. If we are indeed in transition, then Modernism still plays a role in today’s society, albeit a receding one.[9]

Key Aspects of Modernism

The following characteristics identify modernism:


Rationalism, with its emphasis on human intellectual ability, meant that the mind became the arbiter of truth, and replaced the need for Scripture as the source of authority. This way of thinking started with Renee Descartes (1596-1650), who, in his effort to reduce reality to a set of mathematical principles, coined his famous dictum, “cogito, ergo sum” (“I think, therefore I am”). While Descartes himself was a Christian, his philosophical deliberations exalted the human being to a position of supremacy, making him autonomous, and relegating God to the fringes of reality.[10] In so doing, rationalism became the foundation of that period in Western thought called the Enlightenment. Characterized by reason, scientific discovery and human autonomy, the Enlightenment embraced classical thinking with its order and rationality, while at the same time lumping Christianity with paganism as outdated superstition. Reason, it was thought, would liberate mankind out of reliance on the supernatural.[11]


The emphasis on human autonomy was only the start of a whole new view of human beings that was distinctly different from biblical teaching. An emphasis on the essential goodness of mankind replaced the view of moral depravity. This basic human goodness would cause man to make good and healthy choices, contributing to progress and the eradication of evil. An important part of humanism was a shift in attention from the corporate structure to the individual. “Autonomous individualism”, says Oden, “focuses on the detached individual as a self-sufficient, sovereign self.”[12] With God out of the picture, there was no longer any need for the individual to live for a goal outside of himself. Instead, there is now no higher goal than personal happiness. Modernism, says Oden, was characterized by a constant search for pleasure of the self.[13]

 Reductive Naturalism

With God out of the way, and a fundamental belief in the explicability of everything through human research, Modern man viewed reality as a clock; “we may not know how it works yet, but we’ll find out.” The universe became a matter of cause and effect. Reductive Naturalism, says Oden, is that view that reduces all forms of knowing to laboratory experiments, empirical observation or quantitative analysis. It is the reduction of sex to orgasm, persons to bodies, psychology to stimuli, economics to planning mechanics, and politics to machinery.[14]

Absolute Moral Relativism

One thing has to lead to another, and, as Oden concludes, the logical outcome of all this is absolute moral relativism. If there is no God creating and ordering reality, then man is left to his own devices. Such relativism, says Oden, views all morals as merely relative to the changing, processing determinants of human cultures. It is dogmatically absolute in its moral relativism because it asserts that relativism uncritically.[15]

Scientific Research and Technological Advancement

Faith in human supremacy led to a desire to master that universe. Newtonian physics ushered in a clockwork view of reality, opening everything from outer-space to the inner parts of physical and psychological man to the eye of the empirical researcher.

Belief in Progress

There was a reason for the zeal with which Modern man applied himself to science, namely the belief that ultimately science would lead to the eradication of hunger, war, poverty, inequality, oppression, and every other evil in this world. Such Positivism was evident in John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address when he declared: “The world is very different now. For man holds the power to abolish all forms of human poverty.”[16]

With science as its guide, mankind would come to its full potential. Science, writes Stanley Grenz, coupled with the power of education, would eventually free us from our vulnerability to nature, as well as from all social bondage.[17] The effort to come to the point in history where such evils would no longer exist was termed “the Enlightenment project”.[18]

Superiority over Other Cultures

     Scientific research brought means to travel far and this, in turn, brought us into contact with other cultures. Modern man viewed those cultures with a sense of superiority. On the one side, there was the mission to bring progress to places that had not tasted it which made it morally correct for Modern man to conquer territories far away, taking whatever resources were needed and reducing those of other cultures and convictions to laborers.

National Organizations

An important aspect of Modernism often missed, is that it was Modern thought that was inspirational in the emergence of nation-states as a product of the Modern era. The Modern era, writes Strphen Toulmin, began with the creation of separate, independent sovereign states, each of them organized around a particular nation, with its own language and culture, maintaining a government that was legitimated as expressing the national will, or national traditions or interests.[19]

Modernism from a Christian Point of View

Postmodernism issues a verdict on Modernism in every way: Modernism did not deliver what it promised. In many ways then Postmodernism is a critique of Modernism and a turning to a different path.

Living on the edge between the Modern and the Postmodern worlds, we have a unique opportunity. Times of transition make people insecure and during such times of insecurity, we can sometimes see some of the motivations that drive people to do what they are doing. As Christians, our worldview is neither Modern nor Postmodern and so we have an ability to look in from the outside. What we see is, people looking for the means to bring about that world in which everyone will have enough, there will be no more war and injustice, and happiness will be accessible to all. From a Christian point of view, it can seem as if people are looking for paradise, but a paradise without God. To adopt a biblical image, it is as if we want to go back to the Garden of Eden, but without ceasing our rebellion. Because it is impossible to return to paradise without making peace with God, such efforts are in fact futile. There is no redemption without God. Modernism, therefore, to the extent that it was an attempt to bring about paradise, was doomed from the start.

In making man the center of the universe, it would seem that Modernism was actually very much a continuation of our rebellion against God. From a biblical perspective, we can say that Modernism was another expression of the fall. In exalting the supremacy and autonomy of mankind, declaring human independence from God, Modernism is nothing short of another affirmation of our choice to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil in the Genesis 3 account. Modernism will not lead us to heaven, and there is no utopia just around the corner – in essence, Modernism is just another stage in man’s rebellion against God.

Three writers, seeking to develop a biblical view of Modernism and Postmodernism, see Modernism as a new tower of Babel ~ an attempt to build a city without God.[20] Just as the story of Babel (recounted in Genesis 11:1-9) summarizes the primordial cultural aspirations of the human race in terms of the building of “a city with a tower reaching to the heavens”, so we could characterize the Modern Western dream of progress as the building of a vast, towering civilization, a social and cultural accomplishment of immense, even mythic proportions.[21]





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Translation and Textual Criticism

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[1] Gene Edward Veith, Jr., Postmodern Times – A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1994), 19.

[2] Walter Truett Anderson, Reality Isn’t What It Used To Be, (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1992), 44.

[3] Thomas Oden, “The Death of Modernity and Postmodern Evangelical Spirituality,” in The Challenge of Postmodernism – An Evangelical Engagement, ed., David S. Dockery (Wheaton, Illinois: BridgePoint, 1995), 20.

[4] Ibid.

[5] David J. Hesselgrave, Communicating Christ Cross-Culturally – an Introduction to Missionary Communication, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1991), 199.

[6] Alistair McGrath, A Passion for Truth – The Intellectual Coherence of Evangelicalism. (Downer’s Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 1996), 173.

[7] John 12:31.

[8] Thomas Oden, Between two World – Notes on the death of Modernity in America and Russia (Downer’s Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 32.

[9] It is however interesting to discuss the extent to which this transition is nearing its completion. Answers to that probably depend on where one is in the world. One could argue that in much of Western Europe (most notably France, The Netherlands and the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand), as well as some of the bigger cities in the U.S. (New York, Chicago, Los Angeles) the transition from Modernism to Postmodernism as the main cultural driving force is now working towards completion.

[10] See Stanley J. Grenz Grenz, Primer on Postmodernism (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdrnans, 1996), 63; D.A Carson, The Gagging of God (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1996), 63-66, 58-60.

[11] Gene Edward Veith, Jr., 33.

[12] Thomas Oden, 33.

[13] Op. Cit., 34.

[14] Op. Cit., 35.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Michael Sandel, “America’s Search for a New Public Philosophy” Atlantic Monthly, March 1996, 66. Quoted in Jimmy Long, Generating Hope – A Strategy for Reaching the Postmodern  Generation (Downer’s Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 64.

[17] Grenz, 4. In a very insightful look at one of Holywood’s more popular television series, Grenz makes a link between Star Trek and Modernism. “Like Modern fiction in general, the original Star Trek series reflected many aspects of the Enlightenment project and of late Modernity. The crew of the Enterprise included persons of various nationalities working together for the common benefit of humankind, (A Primer on Postmodernism), 5.

[18] Grenz, 58.

[19] Stephen Toulmin, Cosmopolis.Chicago, Illinois: Inversity of Chicago Press, 1990, 7. For a very similar list see Millard J. Erickson, PostModernizing the Faith: Evangelical Responses to the Challenge of Postmodernism (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1998), 16-17.

[20] Gene Edward Veith, Jr., 20; Richard J. Middleton and Brian J. Walsh, Truth is Stranger Than It Used to Be (Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 1995), 15.

[21] Middleton and Walsh, 15.

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