What is Modernism?
Modernism is a search for universal knowledge: that is, not only for all knowledge, but also for knowledge viewed from all angles in a way that that transcends bias or limited perspective. It is the perfect tradition that privileges no tradition. It achieves this by the ideal methodology of science, which stresses the need to test all things and to limit truth claims to what has (and can be) verified.
Modernism is a myth against myths: once upon a time, it says, the world was ruled by storytellers who wove bewitching stories about gods, spirits, prophets, priests, and kings to titillate their audiences and justify the status quo. These stories infantilized the pre-moderns because they reflected tribal prejudices and perpetuated ignorance. When the prophets of modernism came, they preached repentance from myths, idols, and superstition and faith in proper methodology. Science replaced the old theology, allowing civilization to come of age and progress rapidly.
Modernism vs. Christianity
Modernism emerged from the West largely in the works of Christian thinkers (such as Rene Descartes and Immanuel Kant) who wished to move beyond interminable disputes toward certainty. In many ways, over time, theology has striven to adapt itself to the scientific ideal, but evaluations of its success have depended on the sympathy of those judging it. That sympathy comes in increasingly short supply.
Modernism has seen an increase in the number of people promoting materialism (the belief that life consists of matter devoid of spirit). Old religion suffered from comparison in the eyes of some: science could claim to have cured many diseases and to be working on curing all the rest, whereas old religion hearkened back to when only prayers and hospitality could be offered to the dying. Significant advances made in modern science lead to the development of powerful technology, which has lent a divine aura of inspiration and credibility to scientists. Prophets of materialism, resplendent in that aura, spin an anti-myth that displaces all other myths about what happened “in the beginning”, how mankind “fell” (or fall), and how we may be raised to a state of grace. Succeeding waves of scientific “discoveries” that reveal the nature of reality create a scientific scriptural canon for the modern anti-religion of secularism.
For every secular contention of the irrelevance of the old religion, Christian believers have protested that there are other ways to look at it, even on modern terms. Curing disease with new knowledge is a gift from God, an answer to prayer. The secular reply that calling it a gift from a god that has no part in their myth does nothing for them and so, on and on, the conflict goes.
The account given above includes a critique: of everything modernism claims to surpass, it is merely an iteration. Ascendency can feel like objectivity, power to control a narrative can feel like finally, at last, reality as you know it is being recognized. However, modernism has not achieved a simultaneous 360 degree view of reality, much less given an adequate account of everything it sees. As much as it sneers at perspectives, it cannot escape being a series of them. For all of its ambition to transcend history like a space shuttle escaping gravity, it remains historically situated and therefore doomed to see blind spots in hindsight later. In the words of a forerunner of postmodernism, it is merely human, all too human.
Where do we go from here?
I think it is foolish to dismiss periods of history carte blanche. Like it or not, they are part of our cultural inheritance and have much to teach us, especially the dead ends.
I am grateful for the material benefits of living in the modern age: much of its science and technology has improved our lives and bids fair to continue doing so. Its tools have their proper use — I just lament when they are used to bash all that is pre-modern.
In my view, the most harmful delusion of modernism is the myth of objectivity. I personally deplore the way its secular ideologies tout themselves as objective accounts of reality and don’t admit their mythical underpinnings. Let me hasten to add, I know Christianity has done the same at many times and places instead of acknowledging the contingency of human life and knowledge. We have all been proud and foolish.
A personal aside
I must admit I am not able to construct much of this narrative from my own reading of primary sources. I am attempting to process the narratives I have found in the books I have read for my own benefit, to the continuance of my own education. This is, after all, the education of a working man.