Far from dying of modernity, might the world's religions merge into a single system? Not if you regard the teacher as more important than the lessonby prospect / August 22, 2004 / Leave a comment
Whatever you may think about the fading fads of postmodernism, you can hardly deny that modernity itself has seen better days. A hundred years ago it was poised to fulfil the cherished hopes of the Enlightenment. Gullibility, irrationality and deference were going to be cleared away like old slums and replaced by the shiny new edifices of secularism, toleration and universal high principle. If Prospect had existed then, its Edwardian contributors would have been heralding a new age in which poverty, ignorance and disease were about to surrender to the forces of political internationalism and scientific materialism. Meanwhile, poetry and the arts would have been preparing to take over the residual functions of religion, offering solace to those who had not recovered from the death of God.
But the 20th century failed to stick to the modernist script. Politics did not become scientific and religion did not wither away. Far from triumphing over all challengers, reason was dragged into a mire of sentimentalism and superstition. The assurance of rational progress began to seem like another irrational dream. The question that puzzles us today is not so much whether modernity has died of inanition as whether it ever got a life at all.
The crisis of modernist hope calls for some rethinking in the camp of sceptical progressive rationalists. We may have been right to scoff at the idea of God, but we were certainly wrong in thinking that religion would evaporate like the morning mist once the sun of science began to shine. Whether we like it or not, there is something in religion that even the most modern people seem unwilling to do without. But does that mean that history has vindicated the theists, as they laugh all the way back to church?
Keith Ward thinks so. He is a liberal Christian who has spent most of his life teaching theology at Oxford University, producing a shelf of lucid and well informed books about Christianity and the other great religions of the world. His latest, The Case for Religion, is a compendium of a lifetime’s thought and a testimony to his optimism. Like the modernists of the past, he believes in the irresistible progress of reason, but unlike them, he does not think it will lead to the extinction of religion. He is convinced that religion – defined as the attempt to form a “relationship to a supernatural…