A PLAIN GUIDE TO ...
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 ..
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
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.
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 ...
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
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"
. 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
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
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
- 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 .
- 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.
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
- 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
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
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? 
Some foundations of a reformulation would, I think, be that:
- All truth is necessarily provisional. Nobody can claim access to absolute
- 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
- 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
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.
 Christian Faith at the Crossroads, Polebridge Press,2001
 Ernst Troeltsch, Collected Writings (Gesammelte Schriften)
 Josephus and the New Testament, Hendrickson, 2003
 Dennis Nineham, The Use and Abuse of the Bible, SPCK, 1976
 The Battle For God, HarperCollins, 2001
 Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, The University
Chicago Press, 1962
 J H Plumb, The Death of the Past, Penguin Books
 Harvey Cox, The Secular City, SCM Press Ltd, 1965