12 June 2017

What is modernism?

The June 5/12 issue of The Nation had a review of a book I'm interested in reading, Frances FitzGerald's The Evangelicals. The book surveys the evolution of American evangelism and its relationship with American politics. The reviewer, Chris Lehmann, takes FitzGerald to task for overemphasizing a schism between "fundamentalist" and "modernist" Christianity. Lehmann thinks that the author misses evangelicals' "deep and incorrigible roots in modernity" on an assumption that they're "stalwart antimodernists calling for modern society's regress." Lehmann's own belief is that "For all their conservative cultural associations, fundamentalism and biblical literalism are profoundly modern approaches to interpreting Scripture," in the sense of modern that gives postmodern its meaning. He also notes that evangelicals, like their more militant Muslim counterparts, readily embrace modern communications technologies. In his summation, "The evangelical movement, in other words, may oppose certain aspects of modernity -- such as Darwinian evolution and moral and cultural relativism -- but it has come to rely on many others." Failure to recognize this "hidden modernism" weakens FitzGerald's account, Lehmann concludes.

Whatever FitzGerald's faults may be, Lehmann seems to be confusing two different things. He uses the words modernity and modernism interchangeably without appearing to recognize that religious reactionaries can and do embrace modernity while rejecting something that rightly can be called modernism. Leaving aside Lehmann's curious claim that fundamentalist literalism is "modernist" in some way, he really describes modernity in value-free materialist terms. Modernity gives us upgraded equipment that changes the way we live our lives in both quantitative and qualitative terms, but the improvements in both cases are objective, so long as you agree that having to spend less time each day on basic household tasks, for instance, is a good thing. Modernity can be judged as good or bad, since technological change and globalization may make economic competition more challenging than many people can tolerate, but modernity unto itself is not a value judgment. The difference between modernity and modernism is that modernism is an "ism," a contention that modernity entitles or requires us to rethink and reject traditional assumptions about life. Revealed religion must reject that claim, or so many adherents assume, but it need not reject modernity as a material fact, and especially not if it can be used to a proselytizing religion's advantage. This distinction blurs when you get to more orthopractic religions like Islam that mandate multitudes of specific trivial-seeming behaviors, but even in such cases no one really wants to live materially like the Companions of the Prophet, while in more orthodox faiths like Christianity it should be easier, most of the time, to accept modernity while guarding against modernism.

The historic schism between modernism and fundamentalism emerged when some Christians de-emphasized myths like the Genesis creation story that no longer made sense in light of modern science, while fundamentalists worried that the substitutionary-atonement story (i.e. "Jesus died for your sins") on which their understanding of Christianity rested seemed less certain once people could pick and choose which parts of scripture to take more or less seriously. Some historians of religion argue that fundamentalism actually is a "modernism" because few Christians, so these historians claim, really asserted before the challenge of actual modernism that every word of scripture was literally true, treating the Bible as a wisdom book rather than an exact account of the universe. The argument is valid if you agree that fundamentalism is a response to modernism, but it would be a modernism only in a paradoxical, self-negating way, since fundamentalism still denies that modernity mandates a conscious reinterpretation of revealed religion. Fundamentalists fully embraced modernity and the tools it offered to fight its battle against modernism, and continues to do so today. To return to the famous line from The Leopard that I often cite, modernity is everything that must change in order for things to stay the same, i.e. to stave off modernism. To reject the claim that religious fundamentalists are "antimodernists" because fundamentalists (not to mention terrorists) use the internet is to deny anti-fundamentalists a powerful rhetorical tool for no good reason.


Anonymous said...

I watched a video last week of an evangelist in Africa, preaching to his congregation. As part of the sermon, he answered a phone call on his cell phone, telling his congregation that he was (literally) speaking to god on his phone. And his idiotic followers actually believed him. Obviously this man is *NOT* a christian, since christians are prohibited from lying. I'm having a difficult time deciding who is likely more stupid, the average muslim or the average christian.

Samuel Wilson said...

A perfect illustration of my point. Lehmann would argue that the evangelist is not "anti-modernist" in any meaningful way because he has a cell phone!

Anonymous said...

And yet, they are anti-modernist in that they refuse to acknowledge any of the discoveries of the last 200 years that might cast doubt on the particular version of 'the message' that might result in a loss of power, prestige and loot for themselves.