Modernism and Modernity

by Professor Percy Gardner, D.Litt., Oxford

from The Modern Churchman, Vol. 1, No. 1, April 1911
A Mid-Monthly magazine to maintain the cause of truth, freedom and progress in the National Church.

The term Modernism, as applied to a widely spread movement in the Church of Rome, was officially promulgated in the Encyclical Pascendi, published in 1907. In the Syllabus, published a little earlier by the Roman inquisition, and approved by Pius X., sixty-five propositions to be found in the writings of authors belonging to the Roman Church had been formulated and condemned. This Syllabus was supplemented by the more elaborate Encyclical, said to be drawn up by a noted Jesuit, in which the whole of the teaching condemned as Modernist was ranged in careful order, was formed, as was supposed into an elaborate and consistent system of thought, opposed to the orthodox doctrine, and was held up to the execration of all Catholics.

It must be confessed that in the propositions of the Syllabus the tendencies of modern Christian thought were set out with considerable insight. The Encyclical which followed was much less trustworthy. The author, though a writer of remarkable ability, had been too thoroughly trained in Roman methods of thinking and arguing to be able to adapt himself to the freer and less rigid movements of the modern intellect. He has created a portentous system, the whole of which was probably never accepted by any human mind. Agnosticism in philosophy and the critical spirit in history are its two main props; and in the connecting with these supports of all the religious views of which Rome disapproves, the writer of the document shews a rigour and a subtlety which arouse great admiration.

While it would be easy to extract from liberal writers in England passages which would support most of the theses condemned in the Syllabus, the Encyclical does not seriously strike us. We may leave aside this marvellous construction, together with the ugly and barbarous word modernism with which the Pope labels it. But the tendencies which when reflected in a papal mirror take such a monstrous form exist and are working in other churches than that of Rome. Let us, however, leave the Graeco-Roman hybrid word modernism to the papal phantom, and use the good Latin word modernity to signify these tendencies.

But Anglican liberals would be even more clever than the Roman author of the Encyclical if they could knead into their religious faith all the tendencies which may fairly be called modern. Modern tendencies, like those of every other age, are a mixture of good and bad, of the spiritual and the materialist, of the ethical and the wicked. Many of them are definitely anti-religious, more tend, by exaggerating the importance of the trivial and indifferent, to turn the minds of men from what really matters, from that serious view of life without which religion becomes a poor and superficial convention.

Modernity in religion does not imply a modern spirit in all things. It certainly does not imply secularity, for secularity is the direct negation of religion. It does not imply that vague sentimentalism and ethical indifference which is perhaps the most dangerous of all the foes of European society at the present moment. It certainly does not imply a reversion to the ritualism and materialism in which the Christian Church of the Middle Ages was steeped. That those who want to put back the clock of Christianity for six centuries should be spoken of as advanced is one of the oddest abuses of language and confusions of thought.

In fact, modernity in religion is just like modernity in everything else. it is an adaptation of religion to the changed circumstances of the time, a re-reading of the venerable documents of religion in the light of history and experience, an attempt to find for the undying spirit of Christianity an intellectual and social framework better fitted to the modern world.

There is a deeply seated and fundamental contrast between the academic or strictly historic view of the documents of Christianity on the one hand, and a practical or ethical view of them on the other. The tendency of modernity is to develop and further both points of view. In our Universities there is a growing tendency to place in a white light the writings of the Bible and the facts of Church history; to range the sacred books of Christianity in their time and place among other books; to set forth the history of the Church in lines parallel to the history of other phases of thought and the growth of other institutions. The spirit of historic criticism is steadily eating its way into theological literature, and every ten years sees a further advance. One may, as an individual, set limits to the process, but one cannot wholly deny its efficacy without falling into the ranks of hopeless obscurantism. But at the same time other needs than those of mere intelligence have to be regarded. The mass of mankind are interested, not in the history of religion, but in the experiences of religion. Their starting point is not the desire of a consistent view of the past, but the need of salvation in the present. They are driven to look on the Bible, the Prayer Book, creeds, and hymns, not in the pure white light of science, but through the mists of hope and fear, desire, and imagination. They care but little about the dates or even the authenticity of the sacred hooks, or the intentions of those who compiled the Prayer Book or wrote the hymns; what they need is something to make life more self-consistent and happy, and to make it easier to face duty and death. With growing democracy, this point of view also becomes more marked.

In the middle ages, Christianity was like a circle with a single centre; now it is like an ellipse drawn with reference to two points, the centre of knowledge and centre of action. And the religion alike of Churches and individuals is best understood when we define its position in regard to these two governing points.

The misfortune is that the scholar and the worker are not content each with affirming his own point of view, but they must proceed to vilify that which they do not choose. The scholar is apt to regard the worker as an obscurantist, and the worker to condemn the scholar as a rationalist or even an atheist. But in this case, as in so many, we may apply the favourite maxim of F. D. Maurice: each party is right in what it affirms but wrong in what it denies. To reject the results of modern scientific criticism is to dwarf the intelligence, to remove religion from that healthy light of day, which Newman in an unfortunate moment called garish, into a dim and failing light. To despise the demands of practical life is to drift into pedantry and inefficiency.

I have said that modernity in religion is not essentially different from modernity in other things. A man cannot have much experience in teaching at a University without discovering that in all studies which have a near bearing on life the same contrast of the academic or scientific and the practical point of view prevails. One may study the history of philosophy as a pure matter of knowledge, without giving in one's adherence to any particular school. But the moment one tries to look at the living world philosophically, or aspires to live a philosophic life, the practical view breaks up the dead level of historic investigation, and compels one to hate one system or writer and to love another, or to cleave to one and despise another. And then a real living interest in the subject begins. One can only make Plato or Kant attractive by reading into them the experiences of actual life. Again, one may study the history of art merely as an evolution without much emotion, but when one begins to practice art, or even to care much about it, it at once seems a succession of mountains and valleys; and one loves the artists of the past not because they represent the culminating point of a particular tendency, but because they appeal to the individual heart and imagination. In physical studies the same differentiation appears when the worker begins to see that his knowledge may be put to some practical purpose, and be of advantage either to himself or to the community. In other pursuits, as well as in religion, the increasing differentiation of modern society into students and practical workers produces similar results to those observable in religion, and we have everywhere the ellipse in place of the circle.

Let us return, however, to the subject of religions. Everyone would allow that a circle is a more perfect form than an ellipse. And a complete reconcilement between the student and the worker would be an ideal to be longed for. But meantime, as such a consummation lies below the horizon, we have as best we can to find a modus vivendi, a practical via media. The modernists of the continent attempt to do without any reconciliation, to keep knowledge and practice in separate regions of the brain. While they indulge their critical tendencies to the full in dealing with sacred books and religious history, they are ready to conform to the rites and support the sacraments of the dominant Church. This is an almost exactly parallel attitude to that of philosophers under the Roman Empire, who set no limits to their theoretical scepticism, while they' were prepared to take part in any religious cult approved by the State. Is it not a better course to search for means of reconciling the spirit of criticism and the spirit of belief, by some concessions of the extreme rights on both sides in the interests of an intelligent morality, and a softened criticism? This is the way which has been generally taken by liberals in Protestant countries. It is the way of Maurice and Kingsley, of Stanley and Jowett, of Thomas Arnold and his son. It is really also the way of Newman, though the further growth of criticism and the recent hardening of the attitude of the Roman Church has made the solution of Newman no longer possible. There are in England, in Germany, and in America, a number of earnest thinkers and workers who are trying to move in this way, to cut a path through the thick forest towards a land of peace and unity, where the clashing between the interests of knowledge and the necessities of life may be less fierce and incessant. Any success on their part is a gain to religion, and a step towards a better order of society. Those who try to find a middle way between intellectual extremes often meet the fate of those who try to reconcile a quarrelling husband and wife; they are fallen upon by both parties. But after all life is a series of compromises; and it is to the appreciation in England of that fact that we owe the practical success which foreign observers often find it hard to account for.

In conclusion, I must add that every member of the Church of England is of necessity bound to take a middle course. That is our Church's condition of existence. If she ceased to regard either the intellectual or the practical necessities of the age, she would cease to be a Church, and become a sect.