Pope Benedict XVI said, “The Lord has allowed you to live in this moment of history so that, by your faith, His name will continue to resound throughout the world.” It’s a two-fold reminder to me that I often need to return to. First, no matter what the times are, it is necessary for Christians to live in them and to carry the faith through. We cannot retreat because it is a time of persecution or heresy; that is when the faithful are needed most. Second, the times in which I live will shape me. I will be susceptible to certain temptations or heresies that someone 400 years ago might not. Rather than bemoan my predicament, I should use my position best I can to carry forward the mission of the Church. We don’t get to pick the circumstances we face, but we have an obligation to face them anyway.
In college, I was around a lot of both modernist and postmodernist thought (though it was rarely labeled as such). And it seemed logical and consistent with what I’d already developed about reality, knowledge, philosophy. It’s not so much that I was taught this ideology but rather that I was surrounded by it as “just the way things are” so that it seemed silly to think otherwise. Modernism posits that human reason is bound entirely to what is perceptible to the senses and in the manner in which they are perceptible. Therefore, we are capable to finding all our answers anew through experience and observation. From this spring postmodernism, which rejects any overarching theories or ideologies; it must all be defined by the individual. Both posit that traditions (art, architecture, literature, religion, organizations, daily activities, etc) are outdated for an industrial world and must continually evolve to sate a developing society as it sees fit. Simple, right? Look around, take what works for you. Tear apart structure and form and build anew as you deem necessary.
But it’s too simple. And it’s untrue. By rejecting realism, modernism rejects reality. In Pascendi Domninici Gregis, Pope Pius X says, “It is a fixed and established principle among them[modernists] that both science and history must be atheistic: and within their boundaries there is room for nothing but phenomena; God and all that is divine are utterly excluded.” He saw the deceptions of modernism and the ideas of relative truth they led toward.
Under modernism, at best, religion is born out of an innate, animal desire for the divine being expressed. Religious reality exists in the experience of the individual, and the individual’s experience is proof enough. Absolute truth is meaningless, as experience can be had in any religion. It also cannot be argued against, for that would be an attack on the personal believer. We see this in the “spiritual but not religious” crowd, and in “well, this is true for me.”
This aspect of modernism is something I’ve believed for a long time, and it’s still a work to break out of this cycle of thinking. Because to tell someone that they are wrong feels like a personal attack. I feel that I am judging them or devaluing their life experience. We’re told not to judge, right? Then who’s to say that I am right or they are wrong? My truth is not their truth, and it’s intolerant for me to suggest otherwise. So how do I defend objective truth?
When original experience trumps passed-down tradition, all religions become equally true (or rather, equally untrue). When the Church is criticized as being judgmental and rigid, the criticism comes from the belief that there is no authority and there is no universal truth. All personal experiences, insomuch as they are perceived, are equally valid. In this ideology, tradition and authority try to conserve the status quo while modernism and individual consciences try to continually evolve and progress, pitting tradition against conscience and authority against the individual.
As Pius X says, “With all this in mind, one understands how it is that the Modernists express astonishment when they are reprimanded or punished. What is imputed to them as a fault they regard as a sacred duty. Being in intimate contact with consciences they know better than anybody else, and certainly better than the ecclesiastical authority, what needs exist - nay, they embody them, so to speak, in themselves. Having a voice and a pen they use both publicly, for this is their duty. Let authority rebuke them as much as it pleases - they have their own conscience on their side and an intimate experience which tells them with certainty that what they deserve is not blame but praise. Then they reflect that, after all there is no progress without a battle and no battle without its victim, and victims they are willing to be like the prophets and Christ Himself. They have no bitterness in their hearts against the authority which uses them roughly, for after all it is only doing its duty as authority.”
Disagreement on the existence of truth, on the authority of experience, on foundational ways of understanding the world seems like insurmountable barriers to communication. And many days, it feels like modernism has won, in society, in corners of the Church, in myself. I don’t have solutions, other than recognizing my own faults, and vocalizing that there are ideologies that are not rooted in modernism. It is not “just the way things are” and debates do not need to follow the rules of modernist thought. I do not have to bow to that standard just because I live at this moment in history.