Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

search engine by freefind

hit counter

The Great Divide

This is an overview of a large subject area - from a helicopter perspective. I'll attempt to describe what I call the Great Divide between pre-modern and modern. I'll deal briefly with its symptoms, glance at what lies either side of the Divide, and try to make a little sense of it.

When we don't or can't see the bigger picture, it's easy to perceive the Great Divide in terms of its symptoms. One such is ongoing conflict between so-called traditional and liberal Christians, between those who operate from a supernatural world-view and those who think in scientific terms, between the official church and a secular outlook. 

The conflict isn't confined to Christians. It rages throughout the world in many aspects of our lives, and is seldom remarked upon except in terms of its particulars. An author in the field of religious studies, Lloyd Geering puts it like this:

... a new world-view is taking shape, which is undermining all of the traditional world-views and which does have the power to win universal conviction. This has been transported all over the globe in the past 200 years .. [1]

The common foe of all the world's religions is this so-called secular world-view - yet they continue to dispute with each other. Strife within each religion also continues. Unfortunately, in the process of conflicting, we attach labels to others, formulate stereotypes, and test whether others conform to our ideologies. What we don't often do is wonder if the conflict has underlying, unseen origins. These ideological battles are seldom won or lost. Why is there no resolution? Is it not possible that the two sides can't meet because neither really comprehends what's being argued about?

Before the Great Divide
What is the Great Divide? One way of describing it is to explore what people once thought about discovering truth. What is the best way to plough? Is the earth round or flat? Should a king be obeyed? Is usury right?

How did they settle such questions?

We know that until the late 1400s in Western Europe, and probably throughout the world, the source of truth lay primarily with "authority". In the intensely hierarchical society of the age, authority was rated according to a person's place in the social pecking order. The higher the status, the greater the authority. A philosopher might have great authority; the Pope had greater. The words of an Apostle were true but the words of Jesus, Son of God, were supremely true.

Because the essentials of society were thought to be essentially unchanging, everyone looked to the golden past for the best sources of authority.

As one author puts it:

� Christians � required the past to justify an institution which could control and help fulfill the Christian Mission, namely, an organised Church with a hierarchy of bishops, priests and deacons capable of interpreting the present condition of men in the light of the past. [2]

Lest this seem somewhat outrageous, it should be noted that the medieval respect for, and dependence on, the past was itself of revision of a much more ancient standpoint. The intellectuals and rulers of the Roman Empire thought that their society was definitely inferior to that which had gone before. Looking back into the past they saw their ancestors performing deeds far greater than anything they knew. We now know that these were more mythical than historical. But that didn't diminish the power of the past.

Writing about the Jewish historian Josephus, Steve Mason describes this view of the past:

In the earliest known Greek texts we already see an image of the world in decline ... Among the Roman elite this basic worldview became ever more concrete in the face of a perceived rise in corruption, crime, social dislocation, violence and political upheaval ... Many Roman authors saw their generation as vastly inferior to the glorious men of old ... character was dependent on bloodlines and the illustrious deeds of one's ancestors ... Progress, by contrast, was not an established good. "Innovation" was often a synonym for revolution ... [3]

This way of thinking may seem strange to us today. What if, for example, a President of the United States told us that he could make gold out of lead? Would we believe him because he was President? Or the Pope if he said he could personally cure cancer by touching the sick? What Prime Minister of Britain would get votes by claiming that things were better in King Henry the 8th's time?

If people once looked to authority for truth, that's not to say they didn't use their powers of reason. But the point is that reasoned answers were regarded as less weighty than those derived from authority - preferably past authority. Ultimate truth was derived from the past. One Bible scholar has described such truths as "doctrines felt as facts" [4]. That is, the authority of the past was so much a part of people, so deeply embedded in their nature and culture, that it was largely beyond their awareness.

How the Great Divide began
In the late 1400s and on into the 16th and 17th centuries (the period from the Renaissance and on into the Enlightenment) an increasingly large number of people in Western Europe began to do something very different.

Lawyers began to interpret the contemporary meaning of legal language, rather than deriving rulings from past authority. This new investigative mode quickly took root in other disciplines. If one could investigate the contemporary meaning of language, then why not also chemistry, astronomy and even theology? Truth gradually began to change its shape. It began to involve attempting to describe things as they actually are, rather than as an authority says they are. One aspect of working out how things are was to analyse them, to take them apart and describe them.

This new way of thinking took centuries to develop and involved many aspects of life. Before the end of the 17th century the Great Divide of the present from the past had become more apparent. In Western Europe, a significant number of people had begun thinking in an entirely new way never before known to mankind. This is a vital point to appreciate. It was not a revision or reformation of older thought modes. It was radically unlike anything before. That is, it differed not in the branch but at the very roots.

In passing, it's worth noting that Socrates did think logically and analytically, as we attempt to do nowadays. But note that his analysis was of language, not of the physical world. Note also that his death sentence was imposed not for thinking like this, but for "corrupting the youth" by challenging the authority of the gods. Herodotus and then Thucydides evolved something very close to the analytical, evidence-based methods of modern history, but the latter couldn't quite carry it through in his History of the Peloponnesian War. Muslim mathematicians preserved and developed algebra while the West lost it. That and other glimmerings of what gave birth to our modern culture have no doubt arisen and been extinguished many times.

The Great Divide grew at a particular point in history, it seems, because a large enough group of people and cultures was able to nurture what we now call modern analytical thought long and pervasively enough to reach critical mass. Changes in perception took place, of course, within the context of larger cultural movements.

Karen Armstrong describes how modern Europe evolved its questioning, probing, sceptical outlook. It is

... the child of logos, which is always looking forward, seeking to know more and to extend [its] areas of competence and control of the environment. [5]

In contrast, the conservative cultures of Islam

Instead of expecting continuous improvement ... assumed that the next generation could easily regress ... it was by approximating to this [golden] past that a society would fulfill its potential ... It would be difficult to imagine an attitude more at odds with the thrusting, iconoclastic spirit of the modern West.

And so the fate of the Ottoman, Safavid (Iran) and Moghul (India) empires was sealed. By the mid-twentieth century, all three would apparently have been largely conquered by Western culture, despite rearguard actions by fundamentalist extremists. It may be too early to identify the reasons for an apparent exception to this defeat - the rise in Middle East countries of invasive violence by Muslim extremists. Some think that this is actually an ongoing religious war between two rival branches of Islam.

The Great Divide grows
Between the 17th and 21st centuries the Great Divide had grown deeper and wider. It has now spread from the West to every part of the globe.

If one were to contrast the pre-modern way of deriving truth with the modern, some of the main features would be:

  • Before our age the unquestioned source of truth was authority. Ultimate authority lay in the past. On the other side of the Great Divide, truth is determined by reason. It's possible to think one's way towards truth. The "scientific method" is a way of investigating phenomena. The results, though always open to revision, can be counted as "true" by all who accept the method. Variants of the method are used in almost every modern discipline.
  • The pre-modern world was regarded as existing on unchanging foundations. We now think of the universe as in continual flux. Humans and society change constantly. Truth itself is provisional upon discovery and the formulation of new paradigms [6].
  • Pre-modern authority derived its credibility from God. In other words, reality was perceived as a continuum stretching from the supernatural world into the natural. Now many think that the universe is the only reality accessible to us.
  • Our ancestors valued tradition because it reflected their concept of a stable order. Now, as the way we think changes, tradition as an image of truth begins increasingly to take a back seat. It is replaced by the notion of development.

A penetrating but little-known scholar put it this way at the beginning of the 20th century. Whereas in previous ages 

� all the foundations of culture were complete, we are essentially future-orientated; the world is to be changed, truth is to be guaranteed only by the inner necessity of the human spirit, not by deference to past authorities. [7]

The Great Divide today
In the light of the above, the main points of dispute in Christianity
today are, I think, entirely understandable. Particularly at issue are:

  • Revelation, and the Bible as a special case of revelation;
  • Miracles as events which contradict what we know of
    the universe;
  • Original sin as inherited corruption of human nature;
  • Evil as a supernatural force corrupting and destroying
  • Jesus Christ as both man and God;
  • The resurrection as a unique historical event;

and, of course, a host of other doctrines, dogmas and religious images.

However, if one examines the situation it turns out that Christians
squabble amongst themselves within a relatively minor tributary of the Great Divide.

The main divide is that great river which separates the religious from the a-religious. The Great Divide is not between believers and atheists but between two mutually exclusive modes of perceiving reality.

 The so-called atheist no longer responds with "I don't believe" but with "So what!" The reason is that not only do such people regard traditional Christianity as irrational but, more importantly, they cannot understand it and its presuppositions.

Explaining traditional Christianity to a modern a-theist is like trying to explain colour to someone blind from birth. Just as colour is essentially unimportant to a blind person, so are supernaturally-based concepts irrelevant to most moderns. For them the past is a source of information and perhaps an object of nostalgia. It certainly has no intrinsic authority.

Can the Great Divide be bridged?
The brief answer is no. The terms in which those each side of the divide perceive reality appear to be incompatible.

Nevertheless, a tiny minority in Western Christendom, who might be termed the "new heretics", suppose that their faith can be re-framed in terms meaningful to the modern mind. They seek to remain part of the contemporary world rather than try in vain to drag it back into pre-modern mode.

They argue that Christians must reformulate every aspect of their faith if it is to have long-term intellectual credibility. Faith, though it goes beyond reason, must be based upon it. A majority of humanity will one day cross the Great Divide. What then? New heretics would say that there is something about being a Christian which should be able speak to any culture, in any age.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of Christians (and, indeed, religious
people) remain largely in pre-modern, traditional mode as far as their faith is concerned. Some more extreme pre-moderns have taken up cudgels against the new heretics,
whose position within the official Church can be difficult or even precarious as a result.

One writer put it well more than 30 years ago:

To express it in wholly political terminology, the revolutionary regime has seized power but the symbols of authority are still in the hands of the old displaced rulers � each man is confronted by a choice � Shall he obey the new authority � or shall he obey the "duly constituted authorities" who still claim the right to govern? [8]

Some foundations of a reformulation would, I think, be that:

  • All truth is necessarily provisional. Nobody can claim access to absolute truth;
  • The universe we know is all we can know;
  • God-talk (theology) is inevitably in images of our own creation;
  • Being Christian is about serving and healing - not about proselytising;
  • We can learn from the past, but what matters is "now" and what we make of the future;
  • We are not here to dominate our planet but to harmonise with it.
  • Choice, not compliance with declared truth, is the essence of being human.

To sum up: A Great Divide has opened up between two ways of interpreting the universe.

On one side are those who, while living cheek-by-jowl with the paradigms and technology of modern Western society, think that the pre-modern essentials of Christianity are unchangeable. The old, old story is sufficient.

On the other are those whose lives are no longer deeply touched by pre-modern faith. In response, they seek to speak of God and Jesus in terms which harmonise with their world. They seek to write a new story.

[1] Christian Faith at the Crossroads, Polebridge Press,2001
[2] Ernst Troeltsch, Collected Writings (Gesammelte Schriften)
[3] Josephus and the New Testament, Hendrickson, 2003
[4] Dennis Nineham, The Use and Abuse of the Bible, SPCK, 1976
[5] The Battle For God, HarperCollins, 2001
[6] Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, The University of
      Chicago Press, 1962
[7] J H Plumb, The Death of the Past, Penguin Books
[8] Harvey Cox, The Secular City, SCM Press Ltd, 1965