Any attempt to understand the relationship between theology and modernity involves the interpreter in a fundamental ambiguity from the outset, for the two are by no means independently identifiable quantities but rather are interlinked in a complex history. Such, at any rate, is the case for the tradition of modern Christian theology, which will be our primary concern here. From one perspective modernity itself might plausibly be interpreted as the product of Western Christian culture, springing from sources in Renaissance and Reformation Europe that blossomed into maturity in the Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But if that is the case, how do we account for the radically anti-Christian character of some of the most important writings of that very Enlightenment, not to mention its aftermath in the secular thought of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries? One of the most dramatic and influential of those later thinkers, Friedrich Nietzsche, argued explicitly that both were in fact true: modernity is the inevitable outcome of Christianity and is at the same time its dissolution. The event that he calls "the death of God" does not result from the assault of some external enemy on the fortress of Christian theology; rather, it is the ironic outcome of Christian belief itself - what he calls its morality. "What it was that really triumphed over the Christian god," Nietzsche writes, was "Christian morality itself, the concept of truthfulness that was understood ever more rigorously . . . translated and sublimated into a scientific conscience, into intellectual cleanliness at any price." The history of Christian thought on this account is the history of its progressive dissolution: "After Christian truthfulness has drawn one inference after another, it must end by drawing its most striking inference, its inference against itself" (Nietzsche 1967:161, 1974:307)/ One need not share Nietzsche's jaundiced view of Christianity in order to agree with him that the seeds of secular modernity are contained within its history.
The term modern is one of those unavoidable but elusive terms we employ in order to organize the vast and complex flow of historical time into manageable chunks, and to identify the broad patterns that enable us to distinguish one age from another. Since the seventeenth century in Europe, the word modern has become the favored designation for our own time in contradistinction to the ancient and medieval periods. It had been used in a variety of ways in the history of Western culture, beginning as early as the fifth century ce, when Latin Christians called their new age modernus to distinguish it from pagan antiquity. Recent historians have variously associated the origins of modernity with the European Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, or the Enlightenment. In our present context - the relationship of theology and modernity - the most useful point at which to locate the beginnings of modernity is in seventeenth-century Europe. It was during this period that a new sensibility and new cultural forms first emerged that were no longer based on ecclesiastical authority or religious tradition. These emerging modern ideas and institutions, however, were not simply anti-religious; rather, they represent an attempt to ground religion itself in a new way, to build culture on a new and modern foundation and to know God and to justify belief in him without recourse to the authoritarianism of the previous age. The twentieth-century theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing from a prison cell in the waning days of the Third Reich, seized upon a phrase from the seventeenth-century philosopher and statesman Hugo Grotius to capture the essential feature of modernity: etsi deus non daretur, to be modern is to live one's life, to do one's thinking, and to organize society "as if there were no God." For Bonhoeffer this motto came to represent die mundigge-wordene Welt, the modern world that has "come of age," the era of cultural adulthood when we no longer seek the solace and support of traditional authority but strive to live in a this-worldly (secular) manner, relying on our own resources as human beings.
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