The 19th and 20th Centuries


Kant, with his icy cold logic, had shown the limits of reason.  Hot-blooded Romantic poets and artists saw another limitation of the Enlightenment’s exclusive obsession with reason: Life is about passion more than logic.

The romantics valued primitive society with its unbridled passions, enthusiasm, and naive joy in life.  Where the patrons of Reason had contempt for myths, legends, and superstitions, the romantics thought myth and legend powerfully expressed the heart of ancient cultures.

Romanticism is not just an adjective describing the behavior of teenagers; it was a serious movement in the 19th century in philosophy, poetry, and art.

History of Religions

The History of Religions school studied religion as a universal human phenomenon.  They were not anti-religious; they were pluralistic.  They were both scientific and romantic.  They believed one could study religion scientifically using the tools of sociology and anthropology.  But they also believed a proper understanding of religion required a sympathetic perspective, a desire to get inside the religious experience of other people.

As scientists, they believed they could explain the origins of all religions and yet still value and practice their own religion.  For example a sociologist could explain the origins of marriage and contrast different marriage practices in other cultures: that did not prevent him from falling in love and getting married according to his own cultural practices.


Romanticism notwithstanding, science continued to advance in the 19th and 20th centuries.  Darwin undercut the faith of the deists who believed one could have religion without revelation.  Marx claimed to have established politics on a scientific basis: his philosophy was called “scientific materialism.”  Sociology arose as a new discipline following Marx.  Psychoanalysis arose as Freud explored the workings of the Ego, the Id, and the Superego.  Meanwhile Einstein and his colleagues changed the way we understand the laws of physics and unleashed the power of the atom.

The 19th century was a very optimistic time as progress continued apace.   In the 20th century, World War I shook the optimistic confidence of some liberal theologians about the basic goodness of humanity.  Some theologians trained in the liberal tradition began to reconsider the orthodox doctrine of human sinfulness.

The 20th century became the century of mass murders.


In the 19th century it seemed that Darwin’s biology and Newton’s physics had reduced the human being to a machine or an animal.  The new sciences of psychology and sociology did nothing to sustain the concepts of human freedom and dignity.  Hegel’s philosophy of history, which saw the battlefields of history as the place where the Absolute Spirit expressed itself, seemed to leave no room for individuals.

Existential philosophers rebelled and raised the cry of freedom.  Secular existentialists (Nietzsche in the 19th century, others in the 20th) blamed Christianity for stifling the drive for human excellence, aggression, lust, and pride.  Christian existentialists like Kierkegaard blamed Christendom for stifling genuine passionate Christian faith.

To mechanistic science, human freedom seemed like an illusion.  The existentialists countered that I am always aware of my existence, not as an object but as a subject; and I am always encountered by the gift and demand of freedom.  I may and must choose free responsible action in the world.  Both secular and religious existentialists demanded authentic existence.

Heidegger explored the human consciousness systematically.  His demand for “authentic existence” became the key to his university colleague Rudolph Bultmann for unlocking the New Testament.  Heidegger himself expressed his authentic existence by fully supporting the Nazi party.


Sometime in the 1970s people began to think modernism is dead.  In some ways the Romantics and even Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason paved the way for post-modernism.  All our science and engineering had created concrete jungles unfit for human habitation.

The Baltic Sea’s beautiful blue waters churn up raw amber that is made into jewelry.  In recent years the countries along the Baltic have taken great pains to clean up the pollution that the 19th and 20th century industry dumped into the waters.  There is one exception, Kaliningrad (the city once named Königsberg, Kant’s city) the Russian city continues to spew raw sewage into the Sea.  A post modern might see this as an example of the heritage of the modern, “enlightened” age.

The British, French, and Germans, convinced they had a superior culture based on the “universal truths of reason” had merely imposed their own sense of racial superiority on others they considered primitive and superstitious.  Post modernism is anti-imperial.

Marx contended that knowledge and thinking are not neutral.  Knowledge is always interested.  In other words, the ruling classes control the output and flow of knowledge (for example by making their dialect the standard or correct form of the language, and by making diplomas from schools they control keys to participation in their society).  They don’t always do this consciously.  They are deceived themselves, but all thinking is directed toward preserving their own privileged position.

Post modernism denies the existence (or attainability for humans) of universal truths.  Following Marx and the ancient sophists, truth is the advantage of the stronger.  Or, from another perspective, truth or knowledge is socially constructed.  Think about this: We think in words and sentences; i.e., in a language we didn’t invent: we inherited it from our culture.  Once we master the language we may participate in it and even contribute to it–but no one creates or discovers meaning on their own.  The social construction of knowledge is a key conviction of post modernism.

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