"OUR STORY"

21.  Modern Secularism
and the Church:  II

How was it that by the early 1800s the secular spirit was able to seriously challenge the Christian faith?
  • Ever since the bitter religious wars of the 1600s Westerners had grown weary of bitter battles over great issues of religious "Truth"--issues that seemed only to divide people, issues that seemed to have no good solution that everyone could agree on..
  • We have seen that Descartes, Newton and Locke in the 1600s introduced to the Western mind a new way of approaching truth:  through the use of science and the focus only on empirical (worldly) "facts."  They began to build a vast field of "practical" knowledge that was not dependent upon any religious principle whatsoever.
  • Furthermore, in just sticking to empirical "facts" science and technology seemed simply to "take off" in its discovery of one great principle of physical life after another:  astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, human anatomy.
  • By the 1700s it was beginning to occur to Western "natural philosophers" (as scientists called themselves at that time) to begin to apply the same logical, mathematical study to human society and behavior.  As the 1700s rolled along such natural philosophers became increasingly convinced that there were empirical laws just as in physics and chemistry that governed human social behavior.  Thus you got the beginning of a new study of "political science" by such scholars as John Locke (he was a very versatile thinker), Baron de Montesquieu, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and such practical theorists as Adam Smith, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Jeremy Bentham.
  • By the late 1700s a revolutionary spirit was beginning to infect many of the rising political leaders of the Western world.  Although the American Declaration of Independence (1776) pointed to the rights given by God to all men to resist tyranny--once the Revolution was won and it was time to create from scratch an entirely new form of Government, a Republic run by principles of law , no mention of God was made in the new program.  The American Constitution of 1789 was built entirely upon logical secular (non-religious) principles.  In fact, through the Bill of Rights (the first Amendments to that Constitution) the principle was firmly established that there should be a total separation between the Republic and the religion(s) of the nation in terms of how they would each operate.
  • In France, during the same year that the American Constitution was established (1789), there was a violent uprising of mobs in Paris and in some of the cities in the countryside against the "Old Order" of the monarch (King Louis the 16th), the aristocracy (French noblemen) and the church (run by aristocratic, king-appointed or dominated bishops).  The Catholic Church in France had been used to prop up the decaying feudal government of France--and many of the French were growing just as bitter against the church and clergy as they were against the King and aristocracy.  When the French Revolution broke out in 1789 churches were burned and bishops beheaded on the guillotine along with other leaders of the French Old Order (Ancien Régime).
  • The French New Order was however slow in replacing the overthrown Ancien Régime--and pure chaos resulted that was brutal and bloody.  Finally an ambitious French general, Napoléon Bonaparte, took control of the New Order and established a new government dedicated to the careful governance of the country under rational principles of administration.  Feudal regional governments and feudal laws were replaced by a trained bureaucracy enforcing the new Napoleonic Law Code drawn up by selected legal scholars.  Young men were encouraged to study law, engineering, science--rather than religion and theology (which had previously been the mainstay of the universities).
  • Napoleon's French Empire claimed to be the center of "Enlightenment" for the whole of the Western world--if not even the whole world itself.  During this period of "French Enlightenment" it was believed that the world was nearing a time when we would live entirely through the exercise of well-trained human reason.
  • In a conversation between Napoleon and a famous French scientist, Pierre Simon de Laplace, Laplace was describing the coming use of mathematics that would bring the entire world under human intellectual control.  To Laplace, everything appeared to work in accordance with statistical principles, which careful mathematical study would soon bring to full human understanding.  Napoleon stopped him and asked him:  "but what about God?"  Laplace's answer:  My theory has no need for such a hypothesis!

Why were some Western thinkers becoming even very disdaining or haughty in their attitude towards Christianity?
  • Again, the religious bickering that produced nothing but hatred and bloodshed made Christianity appear to be very hypocritical in its claim to be about the spirit of love demonstrated and commanded by Christianity's founder, Jesus Christ.  In stark contrast, the secular mood seemed to produce less dangerous emotionalism than religion--and people seemed to live more peacefully under secularism than under religion.
  • Furthermore, drawing on the European experience of having religion determined largely by the power of the ruling classes of Europe, Karl Marx in the mid 1800s claimed that religion was merely a form of spiritual opium given to the people to dumb them down and make then not only obedient to a political order that exploited them cruelly, but even make them love their chains.  Marx called not only for an overthrow of these political oppressors, but also an overthrow of the religions they used to keep themselves in power over the people.

Why was the most serious challenge to Christianity posed by the English naturalist, Charles Darwin?
  • In the mid-1800s the Western world was taken by storm through the writings of Charles Darwin.  It was not his work about "evolution" itself that was the cause of the storm.  The idea of evolution was not new.  Every notion of progress was built on the principle of evolution.  Even Christians understood that God worked through a process of evolution--for the whole Bible was itself a story of God's progressive work among His people over time.
  • It was not even the question of whether God made the universe in 7 days or 7 great epochs or eras lasting thousands (some even suggested millions) of years.  While some in the church read those 7 days in a literal sense, many others were sure that those were symbolic terms of time, periods that defied human definition.
  • What was shocking about Darwin's work was not therefore the idea of "evolution."  It was how he stated that this evolutionary process took place.  The way Darwin described evolution, it could have all happened strictly through biological accident (he did not attempt to explain how the stars and planets themselves came into being, only how life itself came into being once the earth was formed).  The idea of accident was what was shocking about Darwin's theory--for it pushed God completely out of the picture.
  • But his "proofs" seemed so compelling that no one could argue that his work itself was inaccurate.  Rather, people lashed back at him as being some kind of servant of Satan.  While his ideas could not be "disproven" Darwin himself could be attacked as some kind of monster trying to undermine the dignity of human life.

How did secularism continue to push Christianity off center stage--in order to take that position for itself?
  • Bit by bit "fact" was taking over "faith" as the foundation for Truth in the Western mind.  Western science, built on "fact" since the time of Descartes, Newton and Locke, pushed on ahead of Christian faith as the "true" source of the West's growing strength in the world.
  • True, during the 1800s the church sent out an increasing number of Christian missionaries to the world:  to Africa, Asia, the Pacific Islands. But these tended to follow the armies also sent out by Western governments, whose primary interest was commerce and political control.
  • The search for wealth and political control ("fact") was always the more dominant influence within the events of the West's new nationalist struggles that broke out in the 1800s.  Italy was finally formed into a single political unit in the 1860s and Germany in the 1870s.
  • Science and industry--not religious issues--are what drove Western politics during the 1800s--and right into the 1900s (20th century) as well.

How did the work of Sigmund Freud in the early 20th century contribute further to the rise of secularism in the West?
  • The psychologist-psychoanalyst Freud, in his study of dreams, concluded that all inner thoughts of great outer realities such as "God" and "heaven" are merely creations of the human mind, existing only to give psychological comfort to troubled minds.  There was clearly no "factual" truth to such imaginings.  They were just personal wishes projected out onto the surrounding world:  just mere "wish-fulfillment."  People believed in God not because God actually existed, but because they needed to feel that God existed in order to feel safe and strong.
  • Given the "fact" basis of Western secular society, Freud's theories of religion as mere fantasy seemed to "prove" the suspicions that a number of people had, namely that all of that "religious stuff" was just so much superstition and a sign of a weak mind or even character in a person.

What was happening to Christianity during the rise of secular science to dominance over Western culture?
  • More and more, Christianity was being forced into a Sunday sideline activity offered to the "polite" citizens of the new modern world.  "Christianity" no longer defined deep or intense matters of faith, but became the label for Western "politeness."  Thus to be "Christian" was to be "civilized"; to be "civilized" was to be "Christian."  By the beginning of the year 1900 Christianity was more of a mark of cultural status than of spiritual conviction.
  • Not all "Christians" however reacted so lamely to the rise of secularism.
    • Some--who called themselves Christian "Liberals"--felt that Christianity still had a very important role to play in the unfolding of modern civilization.  Being intellectual descendants of the Deists of the 1700s, the Liberals of the 1800s (and 1900s) felt that the actual or "factual" person of Jesus (the "historical Jesus") was a glorious model of the kind of Enlightened character that modern culture was trying to bring the world to.  They placed no value in Scripture's reports of Jesus' miracles and other superstitious happenings by observers in the early church who wrote the Gospels and Epistles (letters) found in Scripture.  These kinds of cultural errors could be safely eliminated from our estimation of Jesus.  Rather, they felt that we should focus on the "pure Jesus" who taught love and forgiveness and who modeled his own teachings by his self-sacrificing death on the cross.  The church should teach such a humane Jesus as model to the world.  Thus the Liberals felt that by rescuing Jesus from the reportings of his superstitious followers they were actually strengthening Christianity.
    • Others--who came to be called Christian Conservatives--simply denied the whole secular direction that the West was taking and dug in more intensely in their claim that only the teachings of Scripture as given by God would ever be considered the foundation for Truth for them.  No matter what the factual evidence offered by secular society, it must all be rejected if it did not conform to what Scripture taught, for Scripture was true in all matters of knowledge, even matters of "fact."  As far as these persons were concerned, no person had a right to call themselves "Christian" unless they held to a number of "fundamental" ideas about Christianity, most important of which was the infallibility of Scripture.  Eventually these people were called "Fundamentalists."
    • Another group, the Pentacostalists, tended to ignore the whole debate altogether.  Their whole take on the Christian faith was that it was all a matter of the heart and not of the head.  These were the children of the American Great Awakening of the 1740s, who in the 1830s and 1840s were undergoing another or Second Great Awakening--and then just after the turn of the century in the early 1900s in the Pentecostal Movement went through yet a Third Great Awakening.  These were marked by great emotional revivals, by outpourings of commitment to ministry and mission and by a renewed interest in reforming and renewing the church.
    • Meanwhile the Roman Catholics formed yet another reaction--which was to retreat even more deeply into the idea of the infallibility of the church, and in particular the Pope himself.  The Protestants could argue among themselves all they wanted to about modern culture.  The Catholics however felt that none of this touched on the ancient Catholic Truth that the church and Pope were infallible in all their pronouncements on religious doctrine.
  • In the early 1900s the relations among some of the Protestant groupings were marked by angry dispute.  In the 1920s, over 1600 Liberal Presbyterian ministers signed the Auburn Affirmation that a person did not need to believe in all the miracle stories (including even Jesus' physical resurrection from the dead) in order to be a good Christian.  If they just practiced the moral teachings of Jesus and thereby helped raise the dignity of human life itself, that was true gospel behavior.  The Fundamentalists howled!
  • By the 1930s the Presbyterian denomination was splitting--with the Conservatives and Fundamentalist being forced out and the Liberals basically taking over the denomination.

Continue on to the next section:  Modern Secularism and the Church III
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Miles H. Hodges