Sherlock Holmes, the perfect embodiment of modernity’s ideals


Everyone has heard of the fictional “world’s only consulting detective” Sherlock Holmes, the creation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who has been immortalized in numerous short stories, novels, movies and television series. He has been played by more actors than any other character. Almost a century after Conan Doyle put down his pen for the last time, the character Holmes still appeals to readers. Numerous spin-offs have been written, striving to match the genius of the detective’s creator in spinning a yarn about his exploits in defeating crime in late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century England. Hollywood continues to produce movies based on the character.
A series of novels is being published by various mystery writers all competing best to continue the saga of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.
Why mention Sherlock Holmes in a book about modern theology? There is precious little theology in any of the stories. The answer is, “Elementary!” (Holmes frequently said that to the often nonplussed Watson.) Holmes represents the ideal modern man, the paradigm of an Enlightenment person.
He was unemotional, objective, rational and committed to reaching conclusions only by evidence and logical deduction. He said nothing against religion but displayed no interest in it. He refused to take miracles or the supernatural seriously even when a crime seemed to have been perpetrated by a vampire or ghost. Above all, he had a steadfast and unwavering faith in observation and deduction. After finally discovering the truth about a crime, when he had seemed to be wrong about a piece of evidence, the detective declared to Watson, “I should have had more faith [in my methods]. . . . I ought to know by this time that when a fact appears to be opposed to a long train of deductions, it invariably proves to be capable of bearing some other interpretation.”
A person as detached, rational and dedicated to observation as Holmes may never have existed, but it would be surprising if Conan Doyle was not intentionally trying to portray the perfect model of an Enlightenment man of science and reason—the model modern man. (Ironically, Conan Doyle himself was the opposite of Holmes. The author, though a medical doctor and therefore well acquainted with modern science, believed in communication with the dead and “garden fairies.”) One can imagine Holmes sitting in his brother’s Diogenes Club smoking a pipe and congenially conversing with Locke or Hume or even Kant. One way to understand the abstract concept of modernity is to think of a character like Holmes, who seemed to be the perfect embodiment of modernity’s ideals for all people.

Roger E. Olson, The Journey of Modern Theology: From Reconstruction to Deconstruction

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