The period from the Enlightenment to the present has been a difficult one for the Church. The reason is that the Church, by and large, has failed to answer the challenges presented by that great intellectual awakening.
The consummate theoretician of Enlightenment principles was a German: Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Kant stressed the principle of human reason, while at the same time acknowledging its limitations. Raymond J. Lawrence, Jr., explains the effects of Kantian thought on the period of the Enlightenment: “The Enlightenment, according to Kant, represents man’s emergence from a self-inflicted state of minority. A minor is dependent upon someone else for parental guidance. Hence Enlightenment ideas ultimately undermined, or at very least challenged, all authority in any form. The American and French Revolutions of the late 18th century were the fruits of Enlightenment ideas in the political arena. The Enlightenment concluded that neither kings nor autocrats in any form were needed in a society where the people can depend on the dictates of their own reason” — (The Poisoning of Eros, p. 200).
Continues Lawrence, “In the religious arena Enlightenment ideas similarly challenged and weakened the receptacles of authority in Protestant orthodoxy. This led directly to the new discipline of historical criticism of the biblical texts. The Bible was no longer treated as a sacrosanct or protected object of devotion, but was made subject to the same kind of scrutiny as other literature. Thus the Enlightenment did to Protestant orthodoxy what Luther and Calvin had done to Roman Catholic authority…As the Reformers appealed to reason and scripture, so the Enlightenment appealed simply to reason” (ibid.).
Today, the greatest crisis in a decaying Church lies in understanding what is the appropriate role of the Bible in determining Christian belief and practice for our post-Enlightenment time. Throughout the Church in general, the Biblical worldview is losing ground. The old Protestant battle cry, “Sola Scriptura!” –Scripture alone! — is giving way to “reason alone.” Science has replaced church hierarchies as the oracle of wisdom in our time. Yet science can be as much a religion as religion is a religion.
If we wish to view the Enlightenment positively, we might say that God used it to create the United States. Or we could surmise that God also used it to wean Christians of Bibliolatry and a dependence upon authoritarian ecclesiastical epistemologies. Throughout its history, the Church, whether Catholic or Protestant has been all too often characterized by the abuse of clerical authority.
No matter how you view it, the Enlightenment has had a significant effect on the intellectual underpinnings of the Church. To deny that would be to deny reality itself.
In the twelfth century, the English philosopher, Roger Bacon, suggested that there are really only three ways of knowing anything: reason, experience and external authority. Throughout the history of the Church, Christians were encouraged – even forced — to deny their reason, override their experience, and accept the authority of the Church Magisterium, even when it made no rational sense. “In some cases the Christian church’s burning of books and repression of intellectual pursuit set humanity back as much as two millennia in its scientific understanding,” writes Helen Ellerbe in The Dark Side of Christian History, p. 44.
Once the Enlightenment liberated reason from its ecclesiastical cage it soared to unprecedented heights. The natural intellectuals of the world embraced it with unabashed glee. They declared open season on every sacred cow.
Enter the Fundamentalists
In response to the application of critical thinking and pure reason applied to the Scriptures, some Protestants sought to circle the wagons around a set of “fundamentals” that were considered non-negotiable. Fundamentalists have often been described as evangelicals who are mad about something. George M. Marsden writes: “…an American fundamentalist is an evangelical who is militant in opposition to liberal theology in the churches or to changes in cultural values or mores, such as those associated with ‘secular humanism’…fundamentalists are a subtype of evangelicals, and militancy is crucial to their outlook. Fundamentalists are not just religious conservatives; they are conservatives who are willing to take a stand and to fight” (Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism, p. 1).
One problem with this approach is that it often leads to anti-intellectualism. This in turn has resulted in a general disrespect for Christian thinking by those who have embraced more rational ways of thinking. Conservative Christians and conservatives generally, are frequently characterized as “stupid” by those who view themselves as intellectually superior. The famed historian, Richard Hofstadter, has identified anti-intellectualism in American life with evangelicals.
Why must Christians be driven in their defense of the faith to anti-intellectualism and irrationality? Are stubborn resistance to reason and common sense hallmarks of spirituality? Must Christians be intellectually dishonest in order to be Christians? Is “intelligent conservative” an oxymoron? It doesn’t have to be, but sometimes it is just that.
The Christian faith has had a number of outstanding apologists (people who advocate and defend the Christian viewpoint). Among them was the late C.S. Lewis. Another is John R.W. Stott. Yet another is Ravi Zacharias. The late Francis Schaeffer also had much to offer. You can find their writings on their web sites. When it comes to the Genesis accounts of creation, Gerald L. Schroeder is excellent. He is a nuclear physicist who is also an Orthodox Jew. Three of his books are: Genesis and the Big Bang, The Science of God and The Hidden Face of God. All make for stimulating reading.
It is time to grow out of fundamentalist narrow-mindedness. Bibliolatry has no place in the modern Church. The Bible is not God, nor is the Magisterium of the Church God; only God is God and He alone is worthy of worship. Those who choose to do so may enter directly into a relationship with God in Christ. In speaking to the pagan philosophers of first-century Athens, the apostle Paul explained, “God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands;
“Neither is worshiped with men’s hands, as though he needed anything, seeing he giveth to all life and breath, and all things;
“And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed and the bounds of their habitation;
“That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us; for in him we live, and move, and have our being: as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are his offspring…” (Acts 17:24-28).
According to Paul, God wants us to seek him directly. If we are willing to “feel after him,” we will find him. Though God is invisible, he is not distant – he is available to all who seek him. God seeks a relationship with his children. We can have it if we are willing to make the effort.
The late Abraham Heschel wrote: “It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religions speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion – its message becomes meaningless” (God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism, p. 3).
Finding God in the world of our reality calls for intellectual honesty. Each of us has been given the right, even the encouragement, to seek our heavenly Father for ourselves. We have no need to filter our understanding or experience through an ecclesiastical hierarchy that will “screen out” that which does not serve its interests. We can read the Bible for ourselves and for what it is: a collection of religious documents written by at least forty authors and edited by many others over a period of up to 1400 years in three languages. With the exception of Luke’s writings, it is entirely the product of Jewish culture – and even Luke wrote mainly about two Jews, Jesus and Paul.
The Bible contains the distilled essence of the religious experiences of a chosen people: Israel. From Moses to John it is a rich tapestry of spiritual wisdom, insights and commandments. It reaches its apex in the life and teachings of Yeshua the Anointed One. No moral teaching is better, and none is higher. Were the world to adopt the teachings of Jesus, it would be radically changed for the better. Many of mankind’s problems would instantly vaporize.
There is no good reason why Biblically-based Christians cannot be intelligent, sophisticated, and intellectually honest. The Bible is what it is. It is a collection of documents that is at once human and divine. We may have to pass through its humanity to find its divinity, but divinity is there, waiting to be discovered and experienced. A Christian need not deny what has been discovered by the hard sciences. The natural order of things speaks of its Creator: “The heavens declare the glory of God, the sky proclaims his handiwork. Day to day makes utterance, night to night speaks out” (Psalm 19:1, JT). The Bible too reveals things about God that could not be found out by the study of nature. Together they represent divine revelation.
God Won’t Bless Dishonesty
God cannot be expected to bless dishonesty in any form – intellectual or otherwise. We do not need to deny reality to be Christians. The term “rational Christian” is not an oxymoron. The universe is what it is, and the Bible is what it is. We must see the latter in the context of the former. It is the product of God’s promptings (II Timothy 3:16; II Peter 1:21), written by flawed men in a flawed world. These men saw the world through the prism of contemporary cultures. They lived in pre-scientific times. They had Hebraic, rather than Hellenistic, worldviews.
Following the deaths of the original Jewish apostles, the Church took off in Hellenistic directions. It largely abandoned its Hebrew roots and adopted the thought forms of classical Greece. As Abraham Heschel explains, “Geographically and historically, Jerusalem and Athens, the age of the prophets and the age of Pericles, are not too far removed from each other. Spiritually they are worlds apart” — (God in Search of Man, p. 15).
One way to understand the Bible for what it is, is to return to its Hebrew roots and thought forms. The book Our Father Abraham by Marvin Wilson is an excellent primer for this endeavor. When we understand the Bible Hebraically, many of the misunderstandings and theological errors that have long plagued Christianity are cleared up. When we are exposed to the elasticity of the Hebrew language, we are able to see the wide range of possible meanings of any given passage. This releases us from slavish literalism based on mistranslation. At this point, for the umpteenth time, I again quote scholars David Bivin and Roy Blizzard: “The Gospels are rife with mistranslations…had the Church been provided with a proper Hebraic understanding of the words of Jesus, most theological controversies would never have arisen in the first place” – (Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus, p. 67).
I believe it is high time for conservative Christians to grow up intellectually, and to rise to the next level of understanding. Guided by the Holy Spirit, we can reach new heights of insight. We can shed the detritus of entrenched thinking, ecclesiastical authoritarianism, hide-bound tradition, and paranoid anti-science theology. We can learn to better understand and reconcile the natural revelation of the material universe and the Spirit-led revelations of Scripture. Truth is truth, and it can stand on its own. The Church does not need to be intimidated by the findings and methods of the Enlightenment. It can provide even greater light to the modern world. At a time when moral relativism is fostering moral anarchy, the timeless teachings of Jesus Christ are more relevant than ever. Such teachings can provide modern man with a moral center that will hold up under any challenge.
What the Church needs is an intellectual and spiritual renaissance.