I linked to this earlier, but amateur history buffs will find Cato Unbound’s discussion on the origins of modernity pretty fascinating. The central point of contention is the so-called “first cause” of modernity – did the West develop because of spontaneous social change, secularism, the rise of “engineering culture,” or competition between European states? I’m inclined to agree with Stephen Davies insofar as competition among states probably laid the groundwork for the subsequent cultural, political and social changes we associate with modernity, but all four contributors raise some interesting objections.
One point of agreement among the contributors is the radical discontinuity between pre-modern Western civilization (read: Christendom) and modern culture. All four authors seem to agree that the connection between Christendom’s essential features and Western modernity is pretty tenuous, which raises a few interesting questions about other religions’ encounters with modernity.
Some of the best evidence for the modern departure from Christendom are what early European liberals had to say about religion. I’m immediately reminded of Leon Gambetta’s famous utterance, ,”Le cléricalisme, voilà l’ennemi!” His views on Christianity were shared by any number of his classically liberal contemporaries. From Galileo to Darwin to the Scopes Monkey Trial, innumerable scientists of the early modern era also held skeptical views about the compatibility of science, reason and faith.
Christianity and modernity survived this encounter. The pope now speaks of the fundamental relationship between God and reason. The recent Manhattan Declaration emphasizes the connection between liberal accomplishments like ending slavery and challenging the divine right of kings and Christianity. The theological and historical truth of these claims are almost irrelevant – the larger point is that Christians have self-consciously accepted the legitimacy (and, indeed, desirability) of liberalism and modernity.
The disconnect between how the contemporary Church views its relationship with liberalism, modernity and science and how early liberals viewed the church is worth remembering in the context of the current debate over Islam. You frequently hear that Islam is fundamentally incompatible with pluralism, liberalism, and the penumbra of Western political and cultural practices. If the Christian experience teachers us anything, however, it’s that the fluidity of historical interpretation and theology can open up space for liberalizing movements to take hold within a major Abrahamic faith. Over the next few decades, it will not surprise me if major Muslim leaders begin emphasizing how Islam preserved the works of great philosophers and fostered scientific learning throughout the Middle Ages as evidence of their faith’s integral relationship with science and modernity. In fact, it’s already pretty common to hear similar talking points from moderate Islamic leaders in the United States and Europe. This narrative may not be completely accurate, but that’s almost beside the point. If the number of liberal Muslims reaches a critical mass, they’ll find ways to justify their political and cultural outlook within a rich theological tradition, just as liberal Christians have done in the West.
UPDATE: See also Johnathan Rowe at Positive Liberty.