23. Modern Secularism
and the Church: I
Why by the 1600s was the idea of "Truth" undergoing a profound change in European culture?
Why by the end of the 1600s can we speak of a Newtonian (or "modern") world-view (or cosmology) that was beginning to replace the older Christian world-view?
- For all Christians, since the very founding of the church, the idea of "Truth" was whatever God himself had made to be True by his own divine will. It was whatever God's mind thought to be True. [In this way of thinking, Christians were very close to the thinking of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato (350 years BC).]
- But what exactly was "Truth"? The Christians [like the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle--whom they studied closely] claimed that actually there were two kinds of Truth.
- First, there was the obvious Truth of whatever was found simply in the physical world around us. This was empirical Truth--which any clear mind could agree upon in observing the world around us. Empirical Truth was contained in what God had created and simply presented itself to any careful observer of the actually workings of that physical world. [This empirical truth was the truth that Plato's student Aristotle tended to focus on since it was more "real" to him] People called "scientists" devoted themselves to the study of this kind of Truth.
- But another kind of Truth also existed--a higher, or revealed Truth. This Truth was more complicated and more difficult to get to for it was the Truth found only in the thoughts or pure will of God. [This was the Truth that Plato had first concentrated his efforts to discover]. To the Christians, this higher Truth had been revealed to the world in and through Jesus Christ. Of course such Truth could not be found without the help of the Holy Spirit to open our minds to the will or design of God. Christians remembered that the disciples who had walked side by side with Jesus did not "get it" until after Jesus had left them to go to the Father and the Holy Spirit finally came to reveal to them the inner meaning of what Jesus had shown them. This was the kind of truth that "theologians" devoted themselves to studying.
- With the coming of the Dark Ages, Truth underwent attack by hordes of German and Viking barbarians who destroyed everything in sight. In the end Truth had been kept alive through those horrible times by the great teachers of the church--and the monks and priests who recorded their thinking on divine matters. Truth was kept alive only by the church. For the next 1000 years (the Middle Ages) the "Truth" was therefore simply a matter of whatever the church scholars and authorities told the people was true.
- But as the 1500s and 1600s moved along, two things happened to challenge that long-held understanding of what Truth was.
- With the settling down of European life (no more attacks by barbarians!) and the return of prosperity to European culture by the 1400s, the Europeans' interest in the physical world around them began to grow in importance. Interest in empirical Truth soon began to grow. By the 1500s and early 1600s, "scientists" such as Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler began to study closely the physical universe around them, fascinated at how it all seemed to work according to fairly fixed rules or scientific "laws."
- Also by the 1500s and early 1600s, many Christians had begun to protest (thus "Protestants") the notion that only the teachers of the church were capable of understanding the higher Truth of God (theological Truth). Protestants claimed that the simple and direct reading of the Bible by any devout (Spirit-inspired) Christian was sufficient to reveal the higher Truth of God's will. You didn't need to be a church-trained priest in order to discover what the Bible said to be true. You needed only to be literate (able to read)--which the Protestant townsmen certainly all were.
- Traditional church authorities (Catholic popes, bishops and priests) all answered back with the charge that turning the study of Truth over to common people was a very dangerous thing. People might interpret the facts of the physical world and the details of scripture in an incorrect fashion. You needed first to be trained by the church, to become learned in the church's traditional interpretations of the Truth, before you dared to study and declare what was True and what was not. Thus scientific or empirical study (such as Galileo's study of the sun, planets and stars) was considered highly dangerous and to be restricted. So also was the reading of Scripture--especially of texts that had been translated from the Latin into the common languages of the people--as the Protestants were doing.
- By the 1600s Truth was clearly undergoing a major change: theological Truth as the higher of the Truths was beginning to lose out to empirical Truth.
- For one thing, the bloody battle between Catholics and Protestants over whose understanding of theological Truth was indeed "true" was wearying the people of such discussions. To see fellow Christians slaughter each other over differing theological issues started to undermine the respect people had for theology and theological Truth.
- Even among the Protestants themselves there seemed to be no deep agreement over theological issues. Lutherans and Calvinists argued constantly over issues such as the real meaning of the Lord's supper--and even let the cruel religious politics of the 1600s shape their loyalties, simply because of these theological issues. And both Lutherans and Calvinists ganged up on the Protestant Anabaptists and Unitarians, even to the point of having them put to death because of their theological "errors."
- Then there was the horrible split within the Dutch Calvinists in the early 1600s between the Remonstrants (followers of Arminius, also called "Arminianists") and the anti-Remonstrants (sometimes called the hyper-Calvinists) over the question of how a person becomes "saved."
- Then there was the Spanish Inquisition that tortured thousands of people on the rack to get them to change their theological stands and put them to death by fire or sword if they still refused to see things in the "true" light of the church's teachings.
- All of these cruel and inhuman theological discussions took place as thousands of people were being slaughtered by wandering armies belonging to this king or that king, fighting in the name of this religious position or that religious position. By the mid 1600s, people were growing sick and tired of the whole lot of theological "Truth."
- At the same time, scientists who quietly went about the business of merely looking at empirical questions, such as how the body works, why chemical react the way they do, how the laws of mechanics (physics) can improve the efficiency of the way that we do our work, etc--these scientists were beginning to make a deep impact on life--without all the bloodshed.
- It was the Protestants who took the lead in this--because Catholics still felt that such research was dangerous. In Protestant England scholars such as Robert Boyle (chemistry), Isaac Newton (physics and astronomy), and John Locke (anatomy and psychology) took the lead in developing empirical science and in the Protestant Netherlands such scientists as Christian Huygens (physics and astronomy) and Anton van Leeuwenhoek (microscopic life) took the lead.
Where did the Newtonian "revolution" leave us in our thinking about God?
- Certainly by the end of the 1600s a new way of looking at the world, at life itself, was beginning to reshape the thinking of Europeans (and American colonists). Sir Isaac Newton had a lot to do with it. And thus it eventually came to be called "Newtonian." But Newton did not invent this new way of looking at life. He simply made the issue very clear: the modern way of understanding the universe, the cosmos, was not like the older Christian world-view or cosmology.
- But there was an earlier philosopher (1630s-1640s) who really got the Newtonian world-view up and running. This was a very brilliant but odd Frenchman by the name of René Descartes. It was Descartes who began to wonder if all Truth couldn't have some firm foundation that the human mind, without all the theological stuff, could rest on. The endless debates about the higher will of God seemed to him unanswerable--and dangerous. Couldn't we find a base for Truth that didn't need theology to get there.
- In thinking on this matter it finally came to him that human reason itself was a wonderfully firm foundation for Truth. The fact that we were able to think at all was the one foundational Truth that other truths could be logically built upon. As he put it, the foundational Truth of all truths could be summed up in the simple statement, "I think therefore I am" (cogito ergo sum)!!! You didn't need to start Truth from the fact of God's existence (as all Christians had done for centuries) but from the fact of our own existence. Once you accepted the absolute Truth of our own existence, of the fundamental fact that we see and know what we do, you have the key to all knowledge.
- Of course that left remaining the question of "what about God?" Descartes "logically" demonstrated that God could be proven through our own logical thoughts about God. Of course this meant that God could be understood only in terms of what we were able to understand about God. And that understanding was likely to differ from person to person, from religious group to religious group. But to Descartes the facts about God were likely to be beyond our reach--even though the fact of God could not be disputed. What Descartes was doing was inviting the Christian world to stop arguing about God and simply begin to accept the fact of God--and focus our energies on exploring the more real world of what our senses could actually see, hear, touch and taste.
- Thus It was Descartes' thoughts that got modern thinking up and running.
- Isaac Newton (1660s-1680s) however took Descartes' strong beginning and turned it into an absolute rule of all modern thinking by his mathematical proofs of how all things in the universe work according to fixed mathematical laws which a skilled human mind (such as his own) is fully able to grasp.
- The universe is not a great mystery--but is instead a precise product of a very logical divine mind we know as God. All creation is made up of very real physical materials which work with each other in accordance to very real laws of physical behavior. Reality has an absolute existence "out there" beyond the human mind--which the human mind is able to come to an understanding of through the use of scientific reason.
- That reality and its factual laws seem fixed forever. Long ago God, as a "Divine Architect," set all of creation into place and got it up and running in accordance to permanent physical laws.
- Thus we don't need to bother ourselves with the study of God's mind. Who could ever know that anyway? Instead, if we just focus our thoughts on the empirical "facts" of God's universe, we will have all the knowledge we need to live perfectly.
- (But interestingly, in the last years of Newton's life he gave up his study of mathematics and physics and became an ardent mystic, focusing on the mysteries of God!!!!)
- After Newton another key figure in the shaping of the modern mind and world-view or cosmology needs to be mentioned: John Locke (1680s-1690s). Locke focused more on the question of "why do we know what do know?" "How is it that we have knowledge of anything at all?" Locke is not only the "Father" of modern psychology, but also one of the key shapers of the modern mindset.
- Locke took Newton's view that the world "out there" is made up of a number of hard realities and hard facts. Things just simply "exist" out there. We come to know about this world of hard facts out there because we have sensory devices (eyes, ears, nose, fingers, tongue) that have "receptors" to receive the bits of reality that these hard facts out there give off. We are being constantly bombarded by such hard "facts." What our minds or brains do is sort these facts out logically into patterns called thoughts or ideas. These thoughts or ideas then become for us the pictures of that wonderfully made outside reality that we hold in our minds. On the basis of these thoughts or ideas we then can respond to the world with understanding, with creativity of our own, with human brilliance.
- Locke's theory of human understanding was so powerful--that ever since then it has been the totally accepted view of the universe and how we know and understand that universe. [But these views are coming to be challenged today. I'll have more to say about that in later lessons!]
Where did such "Deism" leave the church?
- As stated above, God came to be understood mostly in terms being of a Grand Architect, who long ago put the universe into place and cranked it up and got it running according to a number of eternal or unchanging mathematical laws. The world (and ourselves as well) was seen as being some kind of "machine," running along very precise and unchanging lines. True, the world (and we ourselves) will "wind down" and die some day. This too is built into the mechanical laws of the universe (Newton's laws of Thermodynamics). But until then, all life works according to these fixed physical laws.
- Does God "intervene" in his own creation to make things happen? According to Newtonian thinking, why would God need to do so? Everything is up and running already in accordance with these laws. Even for God to intervene would be to upset the perfect mathematical balance of his own creation.
- So to the new modern or scientific minds the answer to that question had to be a very strong "NO"! God does not intervene! That is to say, God does not perform miracles. Everything has a natural or mathematical explanation and does not need the excuse of being a "miracle" in order to happen. People who believe in miracles are people who have not yet really used their mind to understand things. They are "superstitious." They certainly are not "modern" in their thinking--but by their thinking belong to an age that we are finally escaping from, an age of superstition and silly (if not dangerous) thinking. So went (and still goes) the thinking of the new, modern scientific minds.
- So why bother with God at all if everything is already perfectly in place and does not need, or even want, God to get involved? This was a question that immediately (of course!) began to trouble Christians once they began to understand the meaning of the modern cosmological revolution of Newton and friends.
- By the early 1700s the church everywhere was wrestling with just this issue. Books were being published by prominent clergymen calling on the faithful to begin to give reverence to God not as a miracle-worker, but as the Great Creator to whom we owe our great thanks for building such a perfect universe. These people invited us to leave our theological disputes behind and stop thinking of God as "Theos" (a God who manipulates all life) and instead as "Deus" (a God who created a perfect, unchanging order). We thus call such Christians, "Deists."
Why was the Great Awakening (1740s) so important to Christianity?
- Of course Deism didn't have much appeal to people who wanted to look in faith to a God who heard and answered prayers concerning difficulties in their lives: sickness, death, loss of jobs or homes, troubles with spouses, friends and neighbors, etc.
- Deism's answer to their problems went something like: "Work it out yourself, baby. You've got a good mind. Use it. Don't waste your time on your knees in prayer. Life is made up of hard facts. Deal with them. Use facts, not prayers, to come up with your answers."
- Of course Deism left the church spiritless. By the early 1700s, churches were emptying out (much like they are doing today). This was true in colonial America as much as it was true in Europe. Pastors were complaining about how the churches were deserted on a Sunday morning, or filled only with those for whom church-going was more a habit than a true conviction. Many were even coming to church drunk on America's favorite drink, rum.
- Suddenly, and almost without warning, something miraculous happened to the church beginning in the 1740s. Just as Christianity seemed to be dying out, a powerful Spirit of revival suddenly began to sweep through the church. In America we call that massive revival, "The Great Awakening."
- John Wesley and his brother Charles, founders of Methodism, came to America in the early 1700s to start up a mission in Georgia among English prisoners who had been sent to that colony as punishment for various crimes. But nothing came of that venture. The religious situation in America seemed hopeless. Up in New England the Puritans had lost the original deep spiritual convictions of their grandparents and a had become a group of up-tight, legalistic do-gooders. A huge number of them had become merely Deists.
- But in the 1740s when the Wesleys returned to America, with Calvinist friend George Whitfield accompanying them, something was new about the situation. Now when they preached, hundreds, then thousands would turn out to hear their fervent gospel preaching. Finally the crowds became so huge that they had to meet in fields. Tens and twenties of thousands of people would turn out to hear them preach.
- Revival spread throughout the colonies. Jonathan Edwards found himself in New England producing the same kinds of crowds with his preaching. It was amazing. No one had an explanation for it. Prayer certainly had been a huge part of it, as far as the revivalist preachers themselves understood the event. But the regular pastors, a huge number of whom were Deists, consider this all a bunch of humbug. They really didn't believe in prayer. And they were really put off by the spectacle of huge crowds gathering out in the open fields when they themselves couldn't get but a handful to show up for church. Many of the old-line clergy even came out loudly denouncing this revival as just pure hysteria.
- Something seemed out of control about it all. People would swoon, or begin to talk in gibberish languages. They would fling up their arms and sing and sway--for hours on end. They would quake and shake (Quakers and Shakers). It was all very "unmodern."
- But nonetheless, American Pentecostalism was thus born--and infused the Christian faith with a new fervency, a new resolve to worship God and Jesus Christ.
- In the end, the Great Awakening rescued Christianity from the death that seemed to be approaching it--and gave American Christianity a new power, a new life, that was key to the resolve of the American colonists to direct their lives in accordance with the will of God rather than the will of men, no matter how wise or powerful these men might be.
- In the end, the Great Awakening prepared the Americans to resist the move of the English King and Parliament to return the colonists to the status of dependent Englishmen rather than free men. The Great Awakening was the great spiritual preparation that God made for America as the War of American Independence (the Revolutionary War) loomed into being in the later 1700s.
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Miles H. Hodges - 2002