As we Christians seek to live Christianly in the culture in which we find ourselves, it is important that we recognize how values contrary to God have infiltrated our culture so that we can respond appropriately. The naturalist and empiricist philosophies that emerged in western civilization as a result of the Enlightenment began quickly to spread, first among the elite intelligencia, and eventually to the public largely through culture. The ultimate result of these philosophical shifts was a fundamental change in worldview from metaphysical realism to nominalism, which denies transcendent reality and intrinsic meaning—ultimately reality exists in what can be experienced with the physical senses. Faulkner describes the worldview that dominates post-Enlightenment as “self-conscious”—indeed, he calls the Enlightenment “The Self-Conscious Revolution”1—and characterizes it as follows:
- It excels in detail, in providing reasonable answers to various specific elements of the complex mysteries of the universe.
- To do this, it insists on organization and efficiency.
- The primary satisfactions in offers to its adherents are a sense of freedom, initiative, and adventure.2
As Faulkner notes, each of these emphases have always been somewhat inherent in the world-conscious worldview of Christianity, but in healthy measure. However, “the appreciation of human individuality grew steadily stronger in the wake of Renaissance humanism. Among its many effects were a rise in the estimation of private, individual worship as over against cultic worship (which is always communal in spirit) and a corresponding slackening of the indispensable requirement for full participation in cultic events.”3 He further explains, “The cult places God at the absolute, unrivaled center of consciousness. When the consciousness of God as the center is dislodged by a focus on the human self as the center of interest and concern, then the cult is inevitably transformed.”4
This fundamental shift of worldview put Christians in an awkward position because many of their beliefs were not able to be proven through empirical evidence, leading many toward a rejection of God altogether. People in the eighteenth century did not throw away any conception of God immediately, of course. Changes in philosophy and culture, as quickly as they did occur during this period, do not happen overnight.
Yet a new theology emerged as a result of change in worldview. This theology first affirmed the existence of a Creator God, but one who had not revealed himself to humanity nor has any contact with them now. Combination of a nominalist worldview with this new theology created the religion of Deism, a drastically secularized portrait of the relationship between God and man. Most of the Founding Fathers of America were Deists.
This also changed their view of Scripture. Working from the basis of naturalist assumptions, German higher critics attempted to “demythologize” Scripture by extracting the biblical “narrative” (Geschichte) from the historical “event” (Historie). They began to argue that a group of Hebrew editors composed the Pentateuch after the return from exile out of a desire to unity the struggling nation around a common religious heritage, most of which is fabricated from myths and legends. Thus, they claimed that the OT’s historical genre was rooted in the erroneous supernaturalist worldview of its time and concluded that biblical events were recorded on the basis of cultural conventions rather than revealed truth.
While early Enlightenment philosophers were Deists, affirming the existence but impersonality of God, by the nineteenth century the dominant worldview shifted to pure materialism. The rational basis for explaining the world in purely natural terms without the need to acknowledge a Creator was Charles Darwin’s (1809–1882) 1859 The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life. Man was now understood to be a machine, his actions the product of chemical reactions, with no inherent morality or value at all. This naturalist evolutionary explanation also spread to other philosophical disciplines, such as anthropology and its insistence upon the value-free nature of culture. For example, the father of British anthropology, Edward Tylor, applied Darwin’s evolutionary theories to the way people behave in different societies, formulating a conception of the idea of culture that continues to this day. Even religion, in this theory, is merely one aspect of culture that has simply evolved in human societies.5
What these developments have created is essentially a new religion—a secular religion dominated by the central doctrine of pluralism, which D. A. Carson describes: “Any notion that a particular ideological or religious claim is intrinsically superior to another is necessarily wrong. The only absolute creed is the creed of pluralism. No religion has the right to pronounce itself right or true, and the others false, or even (in the majority view) relatively inferior.”6
A final essential component of the secular religion is pragmatism, the first distinctly American school of philosophy, formulated by John Dewey, William James, and John Sanders Peirce. Peirce succinctly articulated the core of pragmatism: “Consider the practical effects of the objects of your conception. Then, your conception of those effects is the whole of your conception of the object.”7 These philosophers wanted to bring the successes of scientific problem solving to other realms of life, and therefore what answers practical needs becomes the most important. James defined truth on the basis of what has “cash value in experiential terms.” He argued, “true ideas are those that we can assimilate, validate, corroborate, and verify. False ideas are those that we cannot.”8 Dewey, whose influence in America spans from education to politics and art, believed that practical answers to real problems was more important than theoretical contemplation. Experience is ultimate, for only through testing what works can we come to know what is true.9 Since only the natural world exists, and therefore there are no transcendent universal moral principles, the ends justify the means in the secular religion.
- Faulkner, Wiser Than Despair, 161. [↩]
- Ibid., 2. [↩]
- Ibid., 11. [↩]
- Ibid., 165–66. [↩]
- Tylor, Primitive Culture. [↩]
- D. A. Carson, The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 19. Emphasis original. [↩]
- Charles Peirce, “How to Make Our Ideas Clear,” 1878, in The Essential Peirce, Volume 1: Selected Philosophical Writings (1867–1893) (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1992), 124–141. [↩]
- Williams James, The Meaning of Truth (New York: Longmans Green, and Co., 1909), v–vi. [↩]
- John Dewey, Logic: The Theory of Inquiry (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1938), 154. [↩]