I place the origins of modern intellectual tradition in the seventeenth century for the purposes of this discussion, granting that assertions of this kind are most useful when they are understood as provisional. The “modern,” however the word is understood, has been going on for a very long time, has in fact grown old in the course of its pilgrimage from the late Renaissance to the day before yesterday. Here, in brief, is my theory of how the modern period arose and how it has become another era, and in need of another name. The term post-modern doesn’t serve—it only connotes namelessness. The fact that it has not been improved upon is interesting in its own right, of course.
The modern, the era of science, arose when the Renaissance and the Reformation brought acute and positive attention to human subjectivity. The mind became a sacred space where God communed with the individual in ways that enabled thought and perception in the discovery of empirical fact. While it is difficult to imagine a purer statement of subjectivity than Descartes’ I think therefore I am, his subjectivity is not entrapment because God permits him his perceptions, and God would not lie. Scientific inquiry in its beginnings was one mode of interaction between the human and the divine that arouses those gifts of the mind that were thought of then as proof of a human and divine bond and likeness.
Scientific method proved powerful, empiricism allayed philosophical worries about subjectivity until they were in effect forgotten, and the assumption became general that science could and sometime would explain everything, including the mind itself. So over time the mind was desacralized and the world as well, metaphysics was put aside, and science, brilliant as it was, took on the character of dispeller of myth and agent of disillusionment. There was nothing inevitable about this. In the first place, the remarkable capacities of the mind, in the Renaissance often celebrated in terms of its ability to understand the movements of the stars and planets and their relative size and distance, were spectacularly demonstrated in the emergence of vast new areas of knowledge. Yet somehow that central mystery, the ability of the mind to deeply know the physical world, ceased to be acknowledged, even as its impact on thought and culture grew continuously. The most remarkable thing about the universe, Einstein and others have said, is that it is accessible to our understanding. Then the converse must also be true—the most remarkable thing about us is that our understanding is of a kind to find the universe accessible. A good Renaissance humanist, a Pico della Mirandola, would seize on this as proof of our central place in creation. But as science developed it put such thoughts aside. It dropped the great Renaissance fascination with our singular character as creatures who learn, devise, imagine, create. Brilliant science celebrated itself, rightly enough, but it ceased to marvel over the gifts of the singular species that invented science and has persisted in it. Humankind has fallen in its own estimation, while the notion emerged and still vigorously persists that this utterly human project is somehow inhuman. Among other things, it is usually taken to be aloof from the errors we are prone to.
Religion came to be reckoned among these errors. It began to be regarded as a crude explanatory system, an attempt to do what science actually could do, that is, account for the origins and the workings of things. And on these grounds religion came to be treated as though it had been discredited by science. Scripture, the Church Fathers, and classical theology have far other interests, yet Christianity has been earnestly and ineptly defended by some as if it really were battling science for the same terrain, as if it really were a collection of just-so stories all along, rather than the body of history, poetry, ethical instruction and reflection, and metaphysics as well, that had deeply informed, dignified, and beautified Western Civilization for so many centuries. Science has not produced social ethics or poetry. It has very little to say about history, has induced little in the way of philosophical reflection. This is nothing against it, of course. It is about other business.
But to put science in place of religion as if it were an equivalent framing of reality must necessarily entail the loss of many things that have indeed been lost. There are some transformations that are worth pausing over, simply to appreciate their strangeness. Christianity, which had shaped literatures and cities and regimes, had structured time, and consecrated the passages of life, began to be tendentiously misrepresented, and very few seemed even to notice what was happening. This is as true now as it has ever been. And there are still the would-be loyalists who will forever insist that the Bible is in fact a collection of utterly veracious just-so stories, reinforcing the arguments of their supposed adversaries.