Is it modern to be modern?

by Jonathan Clatworthy

from Signs of the Times, No. 36 - Jan 2010

'Modern Churchpeople's Union' is not the most attractive name for an organisation.

We began in 1898 as The Churchmen's Union for the Advancement of Liberal Religious Thought. We owe the word 'modern' to an unlikely benefactor, Pope Pius X whose 1907 encyclical condemned as 'modernists' those Roman Catholics who developed their own ideas instead of just accepting what the Vatican taught. Many Anglican catholics were happy to call themselves modernists, and by way of including them we became The Modern Churchmen's Union in the 1920s. In 1987 'Churchmen' became 'Churchpeople', producing the name we have now.

The word 'modern', with its various connotations, strikes different people in different ways. For some it evokes the modernist movements of the 1920s and 1930s, especially in art and architecture. Others associate it with the old expectation that scientists would produce total knowledge of the universe; by the 1920s leading physicists had already undermined the idea, but it remained popular elsewhere. Even chess had a 'modernist' movement in the 1920s, expecting the game to be 'solved', so that experts could work out the best move at every position. They were wrong, but the popularity of the idea witnesses to the mood of the age.

Modernism in theology also had its heyday in the 1920s. The debates with fundamentalists culminated in the 1925 Scopes trial over teaching evolution in USA schools. What theological modernists claimed, though, was not that modern research methods could establish all knowledge, but that they could establish some knowledge, and that religious believers should be prepared to adapt their doctrines and values in the light of it even at the expense of inherited dogmas. By recognising that they were right about this, we stand in their tradition.

More recently postmodernism has been in the air. In philosophy, ethics, history and literary studies postmodernist theorists have said a great deal with which many MCU members would agree. However there are also many points on which we would resist postmodernism: most of us believe in universal human rights, and the ability to understand people from different traditions.

The word 'postmodernism' does not tell us what postmodernism is; it just tells us that it comes after modernism. A common classification is into three types. 'Radical postmodernism' treats all truth-claims and moral standards as local and temporary products of rhetoric; 'late modernism' seeks to adapt modernism rather than ditch it altogether; and 'premodernism' appeals to medieval or older ideas in reaction against all modernism. It may seem bizarre to treat premodernism as a type of postmodernism, but it is this type which has proved most popular among conservative theologians, as they seek to defend beliefs which the modern mind has largely rejected. Given the range of ideas, the word 'postmodernism' is already losing popularity as those who welcomed its initial insights now prefer more precise descriptions.

Meanwhile, politicians and economists continue to use the rhetoric of 'modernising', assuming that everyone will agree on the need to modernise things. This sense of the word is closer to what we mean by calling ourselves modernists.

What our founders rejected in 1898, and we today still reject, can perhaps be summarised as 'dogmatism'. According to dogmatic theory the human brain does not have the capacity to discover or deduce truths in matters of religion. We therefore depend on direct information from God; and since it comes from a source altogether superior to human reason, any attempt to question or challenge it is always mistaken. The implications are only too well known. Truth is to be read off from the pages of the Bible as more certain than any other information. The truths of modern scientific research become relative, conditional on not contradicting what God has revealed. From the dogmatic perspective, truth is always to be found in the past, never in the present or future; and it is always to be found in Christian revelation, never in other faiths or secular research. Inevitably, any religion based on these ideas becomes backward-looking, inward-looking, exclusive and authoritarian. All power rests with those authorised to explain revelation. In reality, nobody applies dogmatic principles consistently; but religious discourse today is persistently handicapped by dogmatic appeals on one issue or another.

By calling ourselves modernists we are rejecting all that. Historically, not a single doctrine - not even the Ten Commandments - fell out of the sky tied up with a gift tag saying 'The last word - from God'. We learn in matters of religion in much the same way as we learn about everything else. All doctrines have their origins in a time when they were publicly debated. Each of us has some knowledge and rational ability, but we do not know everything and we all make mistakes. We learn by paying attention to the world around us, listening to each other, asking questions and examining the answers. We develop hypotheses and test them. A statement which is true for all known purposes at one time becomes inadequate at another. The more we reflect on what we know, the more we discover other things which we did not know before. This is the process which was in fact used by the authors of the Bible and successive church leaders who hammered out the creeds, the 39 Articles and countless other statements of belief.

By affirming this process we are being modern in three senses. Firstly, it typifies the way modern society seeks knowledge on all matters. It is how we learn about the sciences, the arts, how to improve our football skills, which colour of dress suits us and how to avoid rows with our partner.

Secondly, it is modern in the sense that it affirms the present age as an age which can discover new insights and develop the Christian tradition in new ways. Many of our Christian predecessors impress us with their brilliance, and we are right to stand in awe of them; but even so, as John of Salisbury pointed out, we can still see further than they did because we are dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants. We might add that if they could produce giants, perhaps we can too.

Thirdly, our modernism produces a religion for modern society. Dogmatic forms of religion usually have an outdated feel because of their commitment to past doctrines. Modernism, on the other hand, adapts and develops in the light of new insights and changing circumstances, and can therefore make constructive contributions to modern society.

This understanding of religion is more positive, because it affirms the human ability to perceive and understand; it is more democratic because everybody has something to contribute and something to learn; and it is more progressive because there are always new things to discover. We can be proud to be modernists.

Jonathan Clatworthy lives in Liverpool and is Modern Church General Secretary. He has worked as a parish priest, university chaplain and lecturer in Ethics.