The modern character
We see that the movement from a Christian worldview to a secular worldview was over-determined. In fact, the overall driving force of secularism did not lie in any specific factors or combination of factor – (e.g., the scientific discrepancies with Biblical revelation, the metaphysical consequences of empiricism, the social political critiques of organized religion, the growing psychological acuity, the changing sexual mores, etc.) any of these could have been negotiable as in fact they were for many Christians. Rather, secularism reflected a more general shift in the character of the Western psyche, one that was evident in many specific factors but also one that transcended all of them in a global logic of its own. The psychological constitution of the modern character had been developing since the high Middle Ages, had emerged in the Renaissance, was sharply clarified in the scientific revolution, and then extended and solidified during the Enlightenment. By the 19th c, in the wake of the industrial and democratic revolutions, it has achieved mature form. The direction and quality of that character reflected a gradual but finally radical shift
of psychological allegiance from God to man,
from dependence to independence,
from other-worldliness to this worldliness,
from transcendent to empirical, from myth and belief to reason and fact,
from universals to particulars,
from a supernaturally determined static cosmos to a naturally determining evolving cosmos, and from a fallen humanity to an advancing one.
The tenor of Christianity no longer suited the prevailing mood of man’s self-sustaining progress and mastery of the world. Modern man’s capacity to understand nature, and the natural order, to bend that order to its own benefit diminished our sense of dependency on God. Using our own intelligence, and without the aid of Holy Scripture and revelation, man had penetrated nature’s mysteries and transformed this universe, and so immeasurably enhanced his existence.
Combined with the seemingly non-Christian character of the scientifically revealed natural order, this new sense of human dignity and power inevitably moved man towards his secular self. The tangible immediacy of this world and man’s ability to find meaning in it, to respond to its demands, to experience progress within it, all relieved him of that incessant striving for and anxiety about the afterworld salvation. Man was responsible for his own earthly destiny; by his own wits could he change the world; he began to have faith not only in scientific knowledge but also in himself.
It was this emerging psychological climate that made the sequence of philosophical and scientific advances (whether by Locke, Hume, Kant, or Darwin, Marx, and Freud) so potent and effective in undercutting religion and its role in Western life. The Christian attitudes were no longer appropriate to the modern mind.
Especially consequential for the secularization of the modern character was its allegiance to reason. The modern mind exulted in reason, in critical independence of judgment, an existential posture that was not easily compatible with pious surrender required of belief in divine revelation or obedience to the precepts of the priestly hierarchy. Modern autonomous personal judgment in Luther, Galileo, and Descartes made continuation of the medieval reliance on external authority (church and Aristotle) almost impossible. As modern man continued to mature, intellectual independence grew absolute.
Thus, the advance of the modern era brought about a massive shift in the psychological vector of perceived authority. Whereas in earlier periods wisdom and authority were characteristically located in the past (prophets, ancient bards, classical philosophers, the apostles, early church fathers_ modern awareness increasingly located that power in the present, in its own unprecedented achievements, its own self-consciousness as the evolutionary vanguard of human experience. Earlier era looked backward while the modern era looks at itself and forward. Modern culture’s complexity, productivity, and sophistication put this era beyond all previous ones. This passion placed all transcendence in the now, the immanent. Medieval theism and ancient cosmism gave way to modern humanism.
The West lost its faith and found a new one in science and man. Paradoxically the Christian worldview continued in the West’s new secular outlook. Just as the evolving Christian worldview did not fully divorce itself from its Hellenistic predecessors, so the modern humanist world retained elements of Christianity.
The Christian ethical values and Scholastic-developed faith in human reason and the intelligibility of the empirical universe were conspicuous, but even as fundamentalist a Judaic-Christian doctrine as the command in Genesis that man exercise dominion over nature was affirmed in Bacon, Descartes, and subsequent technological and scientific advances. [This view was contested by Christians who interpreted that command as signifying “stewardship” rather than exploitation – where the latter was seen as reflecting the alienation of the fall.]
The Judaic-Christian regard for the individual soul, endowed with sacred individual rights and intrinsic dignity was also something that continued in the secular humanist ideal of modern liberalism. Other themes such as moral self-responsibility, the tension between the ethical and political, the imperative to care for the poor and less fortunate, and the ultimate unity of humankind were also Christian themes marking secularism.
The West’s belief in itself as the most historically significant and favored culture also reflected the Judaic-Christian theme of a chosen people.
The global expansion of Western culture as the best and most appropriate for all humankind represented a continuation of the RC church’s self-concept as the one universal church for all humanity.
Modern civilization now replaced Christianity as the cultural norm and ideal with which other societies were to be compared and to which they were to be converted. Just as Christianity had in succeeding the Roman Empire become the centralized, hierarchical, and politically motivated RC church, so too did the modern secular Wets in the process of overcoming Christianity incorporate many of its characteristic approaches.
But the most pervasive and specifically Judaic-Christian component that was tacitly retained in the modern worldview was the belief in man’s linear historical progress toward ultimate fulfillment. Modern man’s self-understanding was emphatically teleological with humanity seen as moving in a historical development out of a dark past (of ignorance, primitiveness, poverty, suffering, and oppression) towards a brighter ideal future characterized by intelligence, sophistication, prosperity, happiness, and freedom. The faith in that movement is based on an underlying trust in the redeeming effect of expanding human knowledge and a world reconstructed by science. The original Judaic-Christian eschatological expectation has been transformed into a secular faith. The religious faith in God’s eventual salvation of humankind (whether Israel’s arrival in the Promised land, the church’s arrival at the millennium, the Holy Spirit’s progressive perfecting of humanity, or the Second Coming of Christ) now became the evolutionary confidence in a this-worldly utopia whose realization would come in the application of reason to nature and society.
Even the Christian’s own understanding of the end of time moved from a passive waiting to an active preparation for the Second Coming. Erasmus had suggested a new understanding of the Christian eschatology whereby humanity might move towards perfection in this world with history realizing the Kingdom of God in a peaceful earthly society not through apocalypse divine intervention, or otherworldly escape, but through divine immanence working within historical evolution. Similarly, Bacon heralded the coming scientific revolution towards material redemption as coincident with the Christian millennium. As secularization advanced during the modern era, the Christian element in the forthcoming utopia waned even though the expectation continued. In time the focus on social utopia merged into futurology which replaced earlier anticipations of the Kingdom of Heaven. “Planning” replaced “hoping” as human reason and technology demonstrated their miraculous efficacy.
Confidence in human progress, akin to the Biblical faith in humanity’s spiritual evolution and future consummation, was so central to the modern worldview that it notably increased with the decline of Christianity. Expectations of humankind’s fulfillment found vivid expression in Condorcet, Comte, and Marx. Indeed, the ultimate statement of belief in evolutionary human deification was found in Christianity’s most fervent antagonist Friedrich Nietzsche, whose superman would be born out of the death of God and the overcoming of the old and limited man.
Robust modernity would replace religion and faith with science and instrumental reason (“I know”), and God’s will with the human will (“I can”).