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4. Modernity and the New


The growing influence of the new mythology in even the most sophisticated populations in the West is a crucially significant development. It is not merely a reaction against what are widely perceived to be the limitations of science and reason. It is more significantly a reflection of essential human needs that have been met, and experiences that have been explained, throughout all ages and cultures in terms of religious, mythological, and/or magic-based idioms. As the technology of the modern world becomes more complex and incomprehensible, more people are seeking out religious, mythical, and magical frames of reference to make it palatable ...

implications of technological change for christianity

The change of attitude toward the past and the future was paralleled by a profound but little recognized change of attitude toward religion in general and Christianity in particular. Prior to the nineteenth century, Christians identified with the wisdom of the ages and claimed the heritage of Roman civilization. Christians were able to argue that the Romans were the most advanced people on earth and that at the height of their achievements they had chosen Christianity. If Christianity was good enough for the advanced and sophisticated Romans, it should surely be adequate for less advanced and more barbaric peoples.

Miracles, prophecy, and a host of other beliefs that modern people find problematic were not an issue for our ancestors. Indeed, Christian apologists freely appealed to miracles and prophecy as evidence for the truth of Christianity. In the period from the fall of Rome to the nineteenth century, very few people questioned the essential claims of the church. Such skeptics as did make their presence felt were generally considered misfits who were objecting to the whole trend of European civilization. If the Romans could accept the validity of miracles, then how could less-educated people with a lower level of scientific and technological skill possibly doubt them?

All of this changed in the nineteenth century. The intellectual doubts of a few individuals in the eighteenth century became a torrent of skepticism as ordinary people experienced the impact of technological change in their daily lives.

Suddenly progress made the Greeks and the Romans appear ignorant and pre-scientific. We became more aware of their superstitions and irrationality. The conversion of Roman civilization to Christianity was no longer considered remarkable; it simply confirmed the credulity of ignorant people. Religion was, in other words, old fashioned. For the first time since the conversion of the Roman empire, Christians found themselves on the defensive against progress and the findings of science. Miracles and prophecies that had once been convincing now became embarrassments. It was as if science had declared biblical reality a primitive illusion.

The rapidity with which Christianity lost its dominant position as the preserver of civilization and knowledge in the West has not been fully appreciated by most people. Indeed, one might say the church is still in a state of culture shock following its loss of respect and authority. Nevertheless, there is no disputing the fact that the church is no longer at the center of our culture. It has been replaced by the sciences. Among other things, this displacement has created a spiritual vacuum--and it is now being filled by new religions.

In the nineteenth century, such thinkers as Auguste Comte, T. H. Huxley, and Karl Marx felt that science could replace religion as the universal source of meaning for humans. As the twentieth century dawned, however, the limitations of science became clear. While it excelled in answering questions about the How of things, it had no answers concerning their Why. Instead of providing new meaning, it accelerated the loss of faith. Ultimate questions remained unasked and unanswered. In the long run, people find such a situation unbearable, especially when primal experiences, joys, and tragedies shake their complacency. In such a context, religion finds a ready response--and new religions, which speak the idiom of modernity, thrive.

In the past, when a people's confidence in modernity and a purely secular existence was shaken, it was expected that they would turn to traditional Christianity. Such an expectation is no longer valid. It underestimates the appeal of modernity. People are not much inclined to turn to the church, because from childhood they have been taught that Christianity is old fashioned, that it has been disproved. Many people suppose that Christianity conflicts with the findings of science and that it must therefore be wrong. Predictably, many youths are more inclined to turn to new religions or new forms of old religions, which are not tainted by the charge of being old fashioned.

Some reactionary new religions reject scientific aspects of modernity without rejecting its technology. They deny scientific findings on the grounds that such findings contradict the "true Christianity" that they claim to represent. Converts to these new religions rarely realize that they are not really embracing historical Christianity. Historical Christianity has not rejected science. The gurus of these new religions claim continuity with the Christian tradition, but in fact they are like the gurus of other new religions that are not even nominally Christian because they have no ties to any historical past. They have rejected history and reason, and in doing so they have rejected the God of historical Christianity as well.

mormonism: a new religion based on a new mythology

Mormonism, or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, is one of the first religious movements to display clearly the influence of modernity. Founded in 1830 with the publication of the Book of Mormon, this new religion is an intriguing blend of old and new. TheBook of Mormon itself is a form of "Christian" romance. It tells the story of two groups of Jews who left Jerusalem and eventually settled in the Americas. Their descendants then experienced periods of revival and apostasy until finally Jesus preached the gospel to them following his resurrection. Finally, however, the apostates massacred the true believers and degenerated into a state of barbarism.

As a romantic novel, the Book of Mormon is basically Christian. With the exception of its teaching about the Fall, its theology is simple and fundamentally orthodox. It does, however, embellish the biblical account when it clarifies certain points that are seemingly unclear in the Bible (e.g., the proper mode of baptism). Nevertheless, its overall orthodoxy is used to great advantage by Mormon missionaries in presentations to unsuspecting people who come from Christian backgrounds. It is of course more difficult to convince the potential convert of the "historical" truth of the book in light of its rather unusual and farfetched story about the migration of Jewish peoples to the Americas. On the whole, however, Mormons encounter fewer objections concerning doctrinal deviations than do disciples of other new religions.

The effects of modernity on Mormonism are best seen in the later "revelations" of Joseph Smith and the "scriptures" he claimed to have discovered. A prime example is The Book of Abraham, which is found in the Mormon Pearl of Great Price. These works develop the theme of eternal progression--the doctrine that human souls exist prior to their earthly lives. This doctrine, which is the cornerstone of modern Mormon theology, is clearly a mythologization of the idea of progress and evolutionary philosophy.

The genius of Smith was his ability to appeal to the common man, to people with little to no education. He took progressive and fashionable ideas, embedded them in specific contexts of "new revelations," and told these in the form of stories resembling those of the biblical writers. As Fawn Brodie shows in her brilliant biography of Joseph Smith, he was a popularizer of new ideas. (5) More importantly, he was able to turn the confusion produced by intellectual and social change into new certainty, and he did so by being sensitive to the idiom of his audience. In Mormonism, modernity finds its first great religious expression, although it is combined with ideas from the Abramic tradition.

During the nineteenth century, there emerged other religious movements that responded in equally creative ways to modernity. Most of these movements were short-lived. Others, such as Christian Science, are still with us ...