THE early-modern historian Dick Southern used to say that modernity began at the turn of the 11th century. He saw the second millennium of the Christian era as an extended exploration of human being — its capacities and its limitations.
Theologically, it began with monastic theologians such as Anselm of Canterbury, whose view of humanity was still substantially pre-modern. (More precisely, his view of the interaction between God and humanity was substantially pre-modern.)
The breathtaking developments in human achievement throughout the second millennium provided us with a complex and ambiguous legacy. The unfolding story of Western music has moments of sublimity in every age; and art and literature from those centuries continue to mould and influence us.
Similarly, advances in medical science are now so much part of our experience that it would be unimaginable to have to forego them, in spite of all the uncertainties that have accompanied our ability to extend lives that, as recently as the 19th century, would have ended in middle age, at best.
The focus on human capacity made it increasingly difficult, however, to maintain a truly Christian understanding of dependence on God. Indeed, the goal of much of the exploring of later modernity was to satisfy the desire for autonomy: to be able to make God optional.
As we know only too well, at the end of the millennium many in the northern hemisphere found themselves deeply unsatisfied, insecure, and uncertain — not least in seeking to come to terms with the catastrophic violence and loss of life through the two world wars that so coloured the 20th century.
WITHOUT in any way wanting to overplay the millennial hand, it may be fruitful to think of the rhythm and structure of a symphony: the first Christian millennium, the first movement, was very much a time of beginnings; the second movement focused on the project of modernity and its particular engagement with the possibilities of being human — a project that was signally influenced by the recognition of the importance of the humanity of Jesus. The emphasis was increasingly on God’s sending of the Son to share our humanity — leading, predictably, to the “myth of God incarnate”.
What, then, may we expect of the third movement? First, there is surely an invitation to discover a new direction, a new focus. The rapid development of technology and science continues to dazzle and amaze, but, as some of the rhetoric about Artificial Intelligence (AI) shows, there is also anxiety. As modernity seemingly failed to raise human being to the pedestal it sought, so we are now fearful that the tools we make may be cleverer, smarter, better than us.
The idea of robots staffing our residential care homes is both unnerving and slightly
comical. At the moment, there appears to be a risk that, rather than settling down to attend to the third movement of this symphony of creation, we shall try to extend the second movement in a series of endless variations.
There is risk, of course, in attending to the new, not least in the need to reassess our assumptions and prejudices if we are to be open to a re-engagement with the story of God. The truth is, God did, indeed, become human in Jesus — not to canonise human being as we know it, but to show us what it is to be fully human: one wholly enfolded in God’s very being.
This also contains a more sobering message: humanity is not well described as the “crown of all creation”, as one of our eucharistic prayers has it (a phrase that belongs firmly to the second movement of our symphony). We are, rather, one part of God’s creation and the object of God’s love, as is everything that God has made.
IN THIS sense, it matters not at all whether we are at the top, the bottom, or somewhere near the middle of the unfolding story of creation. Put differently, this may suggest that Christian anthropology in the succeeding centuries will be concerned primarily with the rekindling of an attitude of awe and wonder. Then, set free from the nervous compulsion to seek to control and exploit, we may begin again to trust the Creator of all and discern God’s hand in the new technologies and systems.
To speak thus is to imply renewed trust in God, but also in humanity as God’s creation — and everything else in creation, both already realised and yet to come. It also implies a new awareness of the meaning of God’s incarnation in the Son for the whole of creation, and of the particular responsibility belonging to human persons who respond to that incarnation.
What is not going to change is humanity’s unique gift for understanding creation
relationally. The challenge will be to see the continuing possibilities of relationality, and encourage their development, without needing or claiming to be the ultimate reference point.
This, in turn, challenges us to a new appreciation of God’s mysterious generosity in taking humanity as the focus of revelation, just as we are beginning to understand that God’s work in creation is not finished.
It is an invitation to be more curious, more excited by the mysterious generosity of God, and more inclined to shout for joy.
Fr Peter Allan CR is Principal of the College of the Resurrection, Mirfield.