Medieval Modernity
November 8, 2017
"Modern" is an invention of the Christian Middle Ages. According to Krishan Kumar (From Post-Industrial to Post-Modern Society), "Modernus, from modo (‘recently’, ‘just now’) was a late Latin coinage on the model of hodiernus (from hodie, ‘today’). It was first used, as an antonym to antiquus, in the late fifth century AD. Later such terms as modernitas (‘modern times’) and moderni (‘men of today’) also became common, especially after the tenth century" (91). The contrast of "ancient" and "modern" wasn't an accident of medieval culture. It was rooted in basic Christian convictions: "The ancient world was pagan, the modern world Christian. That is to say, the former had been shrouded in darkness, the latter transformed by the appearance of God among men in the form of his son, Jesus Christ. With Christ, the whole meaning of human history was changed – or rather, we should say, history was for the first time given a meaning" (91). By proclaiming the fullness of times, and the in-breaking of the kingdom, the gospel disrupted "the naturalistic conception of the ancient world, whereby time was seen in the mirror of the cyclical change of the seasons, or the ceaseless alternation of day and night, or the generational cycles of birth, death, and new birth. In such a perspective, human time was regular and repetitive. It partook of the cyclical character of all created matter. There was change but no novelty" (91-2). Time is a moving image of changeless eternity, and so for ancient historians (in the words of RG Collingwood) "events are important chiefly for the light they throw on eternal and substantial entities of which they are mere accidents" (quoted, 92). The Incarnation, however, was "something absolutely new" that split time "time ‘before Christ’ and time ‘after Christ.'" This caesura in time was, paradoxically, the ground of time's unity: "Past, present and future were linked in a meaningful sequence; Christ’s appearance had revealed the secret of history concealed from the ancients. The events narrated in the Bible, from the creation to the Incarnation, and its promise and prophecy of a future consummation in the Second Coming and the Last Judgement, tells a story of sin and redemption which occurs in time" (92). A time focused on the incarnation is a time focused on humanity. Time isn't an impersonal something that over-masters man. Rather history is "human time, historical time. Humanity is lifted above all the other orders of creation and made the vehicle of the divine purpose. Human history has, and must have, a different principle from natural history. All creation is God’s creation, and subject to his will. But he has freely chosen to send his son among men, and so injected into human history a value indescribably higher than any in the non-human world" (92). Besides, Christianity, drawing from the Hebrew Scriptures, has a future-oriented, eschatological understanding of time: "The whole of history is seen from the point of view of its final end or consummation; all else is preparation, or waiting. The connection between past, present and future is not simply chronological but more importantly teleological. It is the final redemption of humanity, through Christ’s agency, that makes sense of the human story, with all its vicissitudes and apparent obscurities" (92-3). Even the past is re-cast in the light of the future: "The past, as a tract of time, gets its meaning only retrospectively, through its contribution to the future. The past is not neutral, but neither does it have any value in and for itself. History, said Augustine, unfolds itself in ‘the shadow of the future'" (93). Kumar remarks on the analogies between this Christian understanding of time and that of modernity. Already in Christianity, "we have time taken out of the natural sphere and thoroughly humanized (even though under divine guidance). It is portrayed as linear and irreversible, unlike the cycles and recurrences of ancient thought. Christianity tells a story with a beginning (the creation and the Fall), a middle (Christ’s first coming), and an end (Christ’s second coming) – and it insists on that necessary order of events. At the same time in its understanding of the story it reverses chronology and views the story backwards, from its end point. It is future-oriented. It fills the present with a sense of expectation, setting up a permanent tension between the present and the future. It views the past merely as prologue to a present on its way to fulfilling the promise of the future. These are . . . some of the principal hall-marks of modernity" (93). The seeds were there, but they didn't germinate in the medieval period: "although the Middle Ages invented modernus and modernitas they made remarkably little of them. So far as their attitude to their own time were concerned, their ‘modernity’ differed little from the time conceptions of the ancients. For more than a millennium, in fact, ‘modernity’ displayed towards both the present and the future an indifference, bordering on contempt, that is in startling contrast to the radical reorientation towards time implicit in the Christian philosophy of history. It was not until the end of the seventeenth century that this concept of history precipitated the idea of modernity as we understand it today – and then only by jettisoning the framework of religion that had made the conception possible in the first place" (93-4). Only after the Reformation, and indeed only at the beginning of the Enlightenment, did Christian "modernity" come into its own. (I've written about Kumar's book here, here, here, and here.)

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