Entering the presence of Innocent II., before whom a large sum of money was spread out, the Pope observed, “You see, the Church is no longer in that age in which she said, ‘Silver and gold have I none.’”—“True, holy father,” replied Aquinas; “neither can she any longer say to the lame, ‘Rise up and walk.’” Vide Acts iii.2–8

-S.A. Bent: comp.  Familiar Short Sayings of Great Men.  1887.

Suppose you wanted to ensure a good harvest, or cure a some illness, or attain a military victory. How would you go about it? Most people of course will consult an agriculturalist, a biologist, a doctor, an engineer, etc. However very few people today will actually consult a prophet or priest to effect fair weather or to win a battle as we do in the past. This post is an exploration about this shifting relationship between religion and its claims of power over the material world.

What is “Religious Modernism”?

The term “modernism” denotes a very wide plurality of phenomenon which are not easy to spell out exactly. However one characteristic which most of them share is the idea that radical changes in prevailing philosophies, culture, economic and political patterns (e.g. the Cartesian self, the Scientific Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the rise of the Westphalian political order, etc) lead to strong discontinuities to the way we live and think compared to the past. Modernity, especially in theological circles, is normally analysed in terms of ideas rather than in terms of altering material, economic and social conditions. It is frequently blamed on nominalism, lost of some narrative or ideological vision, maybe people don’t read enough Aristotle or Plato or the classics or great chain of being or something.

Personally I think the role of ideas in leading to changes in the way we live and do religion has been greatly exaggerated. But rather than engage in entirely pointless no true Scotsman disputes abut what is “really” modernism, I shall simply define the way I am using it in this context. My understanding of modernism refers primarily to alterations to the material, economic, and social conditions as it impacts on concrete forms of lives rather than as alterations in the academia or realm of ideas. In this post I intend to demonstrate a very particular set of theses about specifically religious modernism and how Christian Humanism is an expression of that modernism. I would argue for the following claims:

(1) Pre-modern religious practices and beliefs held that the correct religious persons, rites, or rituals were efficacious in accomplishing empirically discernible goals. I will call this the supernatural power thesis.

(2) The advent of religious modernity came about with the decline of faith in the material efficacy of religious persons, rites, or rituals and a transfer of that faith to other this-worldly technically masterable sources of power and means for effecting those very same material ends, e.g. science, technology, political organisation, etc. To frame it in terms of the anecdote about Aquinas at the start, the advent of religious modernity came about when money started to displace miracles as the means for accomplishing material ends. I will call this the religious modernity thesis.

(3) As faith in the material efficacy of religious persons and acts declined, religions adapt by shifting their focus away from claiming the power to move mountains to holding the key to successful mental furniture rearrangement and human behaviourial modification. Thus the focus shifts away from claiming supernatural powers over the material world to claiming power over human spirits and the ability to “make better man”. From here we see a rise in popular spiritual devotions and meditative techniques. When Christianity shifted away from supernatural power over the world to being able to make superior souls, that is the advent of Christian Humanism. It is a way of reorientating themselves in a world where religious modernity prevails. As human power over nature grows, the need for the ability to regiment the way humanity uses this new found power for human good, via spiritual disciplines and ideals, also grows. I will call this the spiritualisation thesis.

Finally I will conclude with some Hegelian reconciliatory remarks about how both may still be necessary and that religious pre-modernity is always in negotiation with religious modernity and Christian Humanism as long as humanity holds substantial but not complete power over the world.

The Nature of Pre-Modern Religion

Although the nature of pre-modern religion is something which I have discussed frequently on this blog (here and here), I believe that a quote from Richard Fletcher’s book The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity will focus the discussion.

Caesarius of Arles, Martin of Braga, Gregory of Tours, Pope Gregory the Great, had as their principal concern the problem of how to make people who were nominally Christian more thoroughly Christian, the more effectively to guard them from demonic assault which would threaten God’s protection of the whole community.


They were also clear about what the good Christian should avoid. All four of these writers would probably have agreed in terming it /rusticitas/, ‘rusticity’. The notion of rusticity comprehended not just doing a bit of fencing or brushing your hair on Sunday, not just boorish junketings at the Kalends of January, but potentially also something much more menacing in the guise of resort to alternative systems of explanation, propitiation and control. This is the lesson of the story about Aquilinus and the arioli (an arioli was sort of like a witch).There existed an alternative network to the one presented by Christian teachers. There were other persons about, easily resorted to, claiming access to the means of explaining misfortune, curing sickness, stimulating love, wreaking vengeance, foretelling the future, advising when to undertake a journey, interpreting the flight of birds or the patterns on the shoulder-blades of the sheep.

Historians have often written dismissively of ‘pagan survivals’, old beliefs and practices tolerated by a sagely easy-going church, which would subside harmlessly into the quaint and folkloric. But this is to miss the point. The men of the sixth century – and not just the sixth century by any means – were engaged in an urgent and competitive enterprise. In a European countryside where over hundreds of years diverse rituals had evolved for coping with the forces of nature, Christian holy men had to show that they had access to more efficacious power… Competition involves an element of comparability, even of compromise.


Country people were notoriously conservative. We may be absolutely certain that more than a few generations of episcopal exhortation or lordly harassment would be needed to alter the habits inherited from time out of mind. Ways of doing things, ways that grindingly poor people living at subsistence level had devised for managing their visible and invisible environments, were not going to yield easily, perhaps were not going to yield at all, to ecclesiastical injunction.

Most people in our time discuss the reconciliation of native/pagan culture with Christianity mostly in terms of theology or symbolism or meaning, etc. But pre-modern people did not think that way. Pagan rituals and practices involved actual spiritual powers from malevolent forces which could have discernible empirical effects. Christian clerics attempted to suppress them because they empirically and materially competed with the Christian faith’s claims of power over the material world. It wasn’t that they were philosophically or theologically narrow minded and unable to discern some deeper harmony between the meaning of pagan religious symbols/practices and the truth of the Logos or whatever. It was that they believed that these symbols and practices contained less than charitable supernatural forces which they must stem out or face the consequences.

The most far right traditionalists to the most left liberal, most Christians today have more or less already “modernised” in severing the link between religious acts and rituals and concrete empirical affects. For example most people would often mistake blasphemy laws as ways of defending the name and honour of a religion or to protect the faith of its community or even the vanity of God. The actual fact is that in pre-modern societies blasphemy law was not so much meant to protect the religion or God’s honour but to protect them against God’s wrath lest he punishes the community. How many of us today actually believe that God does in fact empirically punish people for sin? As the Westminster Confessions puts it:

Church censures are necessary…  for preventing the wrath of God, which might justly fall upon the Church, if they should suffer His covenant, and the seals thereof, to be profaned by notorious and obstinate offenders.

The earlier Christians did believe that religious, or irreligious, acts have an actual effect in our space-time reality, and more importantly, God does respond to these human actions. The congregation which tolerates an open blasphemer risks the wrath of God falling upon the entire congregation as God punishes the singular offender and his retribution consumes all those around him. Excommunication and blasphemy laws were intended to “isolate” the blasphemer or even “purged” him from their midst to protect themselves from God’s retribution.

Despite my calling these ways of thinking and acting as “pre-modern”, this must not be taken in the chronological sense of a stage which has passed away. The interesting thing is that you can still find such ways of thinking in mostly charismatic and pentecostal churches and third world nations. The Roman Church may officially, on paper, censure things like Santa Muerte and unapproved folksy practices, but most of them lack the will to enforce it nowadays, especially in third world countries. Active exorcisms and charismatic battles against the devil’s agency is something which one can only find in mostly pentecostal and charismatic circles where they still retain the idea that supernatural realities do have empirical effects.

The Advent of Religious Modernity

Religious modernity occurs in concert with confidence in human power, and not just over nature but also in its ability to organise the commonwealth and the distribution of resources. Of course the displacement of miracles with money occurred long before the Enlightenment as the Catholic Church acquired material power over human society in the Medieval Age. Why do you need the ability to bring about a good harvest when you can just tithe good crop years and store them for the lean years? When you can build an impressive cathedral, why do you need signs and wonders? When you can command armies and civil lords to do your bidding and punish your religious competitors or destroy their idols , why do you need the power to call fire down from heaven or summon a legion of angels or inflict heretics with a plague?

So the process of religious modernisation occurred long before any of the revolutions of the 16th-19th century in European history. The predictive powers of the prophet gave way to the scientist and the miracles of the saint gave way to the doctors and engineers. Public policy experts and government institutions slowly but surely replaced the priests and the church as the key providers of welfare and poverty relief. As science and technology increased its mastery over nature, religious claims of supernatural power declined. For the Christian, Christ’s teaching that God indifferently causes the sun to rise upon the righteous and the unrighteous according to mechanical amoral laws of nature acquires a vivid instantiation. As political institutions expanded to efficiently provide welfare and relief poverty, the churches declined. Today we are more or less left with a “God of the gaps” understanding of supernatural power where we invoke God in those instances beyond the reach of science and technology or our present politics.

Religious Modernity and the Christian Humanist Adaptation

However it would be a mistake to think that even as the supernatural claims of religion declined religions would disappear. With the advent of religious modernity religions simply shifted their claims and their wares. Even as they grant that no miracle is as efficacious at securing a good harvest as a good genetically modified seed, the entire human structure or institutions which enables these are still dependent upon mankind working harmoniously together and behaving honestly and dutifully. The generation of scientific truths for example is contingent upon the honesty and integrity of the scientific community to check up on each other and publish the truth. (Unfortunately recently there has been many reports and studies on the lack of replicability and even outright fabrication of data on many a research projects.) Technologies which we are so reliant on needs be designed by engineers whose interest is in our safety and our welfare, not with profit maximising motives whereby they cut corners, dump waste or expose us to dangerous side effects leading to environmental disasters or human suffering. Welfare funds must not be misused or misspent or embezzled, the public purse must not fall to corruption, the people placed in charged with coordinating the commonwealth or these distribution of resources for the common good needs to be persons of honestly and reliability.

Here is where religion steps in to claim an important, if not necessary role. While no longer claiming supernatural power over nature, religion claims to the key to regimenting the souls of man, to be able to moralise them, nurture them to become honest and dutiful servants of the common good. Moving mountains gives way to moving mental furniture, whether it is to provide psychological comfort or solace, as a source of moral values or principles, as a means for harmonising discordant segments of society or in its ability to turn bad man into productive members of society, religion now claims to have power over man’s souls. From here we have prayer manuals and other spiritual and meditative techniques.

(It is of some interest that this “humanist” turn has already been anticipated by Aquinas himself. In his Summa Contra Gentiles he says in Chapter 6:

In this faith there are truths preached that surpass every human intellect; the pleasures of the flesh are curbed; it is taught that the things of the world should be spurned. Now, for the minds of mortal men to assent to these things is the greatest of miracles, just as it is a manifest work of divine inspiration that, spurning visible things, men should seek only what is invisible.

Now, one must be clear that this sentence does precede his acknowledgement of the many signs and wonders done by the prophets and apostles as themselves confirmations of the divine revelation witnessed by the same. However the bizarre idea here is that just believing in the Christian faith *itself* is the “greatest miracle” and confirmatory of the Christian faith.

We can discern here a clear shift from miracles as having actual power and effects in the real world to miracles as acts of God wholly “inside”. It is a short path from saying that some human act is the “greatest miracle” to the modern liberal or Tilichian idea that supernatural miracles over external reality are mere superstitious nonsense and that the “true” miracles are those of love or faith or something.)

Thus even as man’s power over nature and his organisation skills over the commonwealth increased, man’s ability to use his new found power and skills for the common good were in considerable doubt. The same technology which gave us nuclear power also gave us the atomic bomb. Our increased mastery over nature increased our capacity for destroying human lives. Christian Humanism, with its focus on changing man rather than the world, was thus born. The material world and even its economic and political organisation, they leave to the politicians, the experts, the engineers, and the scientists. However the politicians, experts, engineers and scientists themselves, needs fall under the purview of religion. The Church now claims, not the power to tame nature or to organise the commonwealth, but the power to organise man’s souls.

Conclusion: Unattained Goals and the Providential God

Unless we are primitivists, there is little doubt that the world we have today is objectively better than it was in the distant past. Most of us cannot imagine living without antibiotics or anaesthetic or a world where drought meant a famine or a world where the civic institutions for containing a plague were non-existent.

Despite however the advances we have made in civics, technology and science, we still do not live in heaven. Though slavery is gone, human trafficking is on the rise, wickedness and evil still exists. Poverty, destitution and even starvation are still amongst us. For all our sociological and economic models and modern political forms, we are no closer to eliminating homelessness or poverty or corruption. We are still vulnerable to accidents (which by definition cannot be unforeseen by any human planning) and natural disasters, and sometimes of a horrific scale.

We are thus still reminded of the sobering truth that even as our power increases, we are not omnipotent, we are still susceptible to the caprice of man, nature, and the accidents of history.

Perhaps what we need is a recovery of the doctrine of Providence in its full Calvinistic sense. Contra the “God of the gaps”, God doesn’t only coordinate the natural forces which he relinquishes to engineers and scientists once he reveals the secrets of the laws of nature, nor is he the God who merely dwells in the minds of man and has no effect in the empirical world.

The Christian God is the God of Providence. All empirical, material and historical forces are in his hands. However he has manifold ways of distributing his goods to mankind. Some he distributes through miracles, through direct providence (answered prayers) and providential coincidences. Others he is pleased to distribute through governments and human authorities, both epistemic and political, he has instituted. He is pleased to grant mankind a share in the dominion of nature as intended from the beginning through their rational faculties as images of God. He is well pleased to grant mankind the ability to participate in his creative actions by giving them the ability to shape and create goods for his own and his neighbour’s enjoyment as well as to provide for his own and the needs of others. However even mankind’s ability so to use their reason and create goods are contingent upon God’s good graces. The fact that we can receive our goods from our fellow man itself is an act of Providence granting the charity, honesty, and righteousness necessary for them to do their duty. 

Eventually what is important is that we remember that all of our good and all that we receive comes from divine Providence even as he has manifold ways of distributing it. The Pentecostal who believes in answered prayers and lived presence must not despise the Reformed Christian who works to increase human mastery over nature, but neither must the Reformed Christian despise the Pentecostal who believes that God does actually move mountains to give the poor jobs or the hungry bread. Whether it is through prayers or this-worldly works, both eventually are means whereby we participate in the divine charity to give his creation good things out of the abundance of his riches and that eventually all good things come about by the grace of God whatever the means he is pleased to employ.

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