Sunday, December 30, 2007

Matter/Spirit Dualism and the Sacramental State

In my last post I chronicled the rise of empiricism and its political offspring of secularism. In this post I will continue that thread, but focus instead on the effect that empiricism and secularism has had on the church. This will, in turn, feed back into the discussion about the maternal state that was begun HERE and HERE, fulfilling the promise I made HERE to show how epistemology helped to remove the mantle of motherhood from the Church and bestow it on statecraft.
The Enlightenment would doubtless have exercised the long-term effect that it did had it not been for the fact that most Christians were caught off guard by the new ideas which I have already articulated (see HERE). While rejecting the Enlightenment’s conclusions, few Christian thinkers took the challenge of offering a rational critique of the assumptions on which these conclusions were based, notably the divided epistemology. Like the Romantics in the 19th century, serious Christians at the time of the Enlightenment tended to emphasize the importance of religious truth, while still unconsciously accepting the epistemological package which kept that truth subjective and private. The Church tended to react to the new wave of secular philosophy by taking refuge in an emotional, devotional kind of Christianity that did not require any intellectual underpinning and, as such, fit nicely into the divided paradigm.
On the surface, Christianity seemed to spread in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Movements sprung up all over the place, including the Quakers and Methodists in England, the Great Awakening in America, Jansenism in France, Pietism in Germany, etc.. However, beneath the apparent progress Christianity was making, there was an underlying, usually unconscious, acceptance of the divided epistemology. This is because these movements tended to emphasize the personal, emotional and inspirational aspects of faith often at the expense of the objective, public elements.
In his article, ‘The Pietistic Roots of Evangelicalism Today’, Ranald Macaulay shows that these pietistic evangelical movement led to an almost exclusive emphasis on saving souls while the domains of culture, society, politics, art and philosophy were left firmly in the hands of the secularists.[1] The Enlightenment’s compartmentalization of the sacred and the secular, together with their definition of which belonged in which box, seemed to be winning the day. Christianity was fast ceasing to function as a religion in the classic sense of being a totalising system that structured the whole of one’s life, but was instead becoming, at best, a system of strong personal piety and, at worst, a personal worship hobby. Further, as faith became analogous to a personal, inward experience, anti-intellectualism was the natural result.
As time progressed, these strains only heightened, culminating in the strident anti-intellectual evangelicalism of the late 19th and early 20th century. Evangelists like Dwight Moody began to appear on the scene who boasted about not having any theology (“My theology! I didn’t know I had any”[2]) or Billy Sunday who declared he didn’t “know any more about theology than a jack-rabbit knew about ping pong.”[3]
The “double-truth universe” bequeathed by the Enlightenment found renewed impetus in the increasing polarization between earth and heaven that was so characteristic of 20th century piety. If religion is about our personal and private experiences with God, then true piety consists in having our minds fixed on heavenly realities instead of earthly concerns. In practice this meant getting as many people into heaven as possible. Once you were “saved” - that is, once your ticket to a happy afterlife was secured – Christian living was thought to involve little more than living by a pedestrian code of personal pietism. No longer was the Bible seen as giving us a worldview that structured the whole of public reality. It became a privatised faith that, as Roszak put it, was “socially irrelevant even if privately engaging.”[4] It is hardly surprising that around this same time (late 19th early 20th century) hymnology began to be increasingly ‘feminised’, with the singing of robust psalms and hymns being replaced by subjective sentiments (“he lives within my heart” or “now I am happy all the day” or “precious memories of everything Jesus has done for me”).[5]
Religion, like nature, abhors a vacuum. Thus it was that as Christians retreated from the academic pursuits, the Church lost its defences against the influx of liberal theology and deconstructionism in the early 20th century. Secular philosophy and liberal theology a free ride, and it was only when this began to infiltrate the Church that Christian pastors and teachers began to sit up and take notice. As a consequence, in the early 20th century, three Christians wrote a twelve volume work titled The Fundamentals. The Christians who affirmed the doctrines in this book soon came to be known as fundamentalists, a term which has subsequently come to carry pejorative connotations. As fundamentalism began to be a badge to distinguish a true “Bible-believing-Christian”, the emphasis came to rest more on what you believed rather than why you should believe it. The notion of ‘faith’, long since subjectivized, deteriorated further to become an approximation for anti-intellectualism, to the point where the word is now practically useless. All the while, the Church was becoming more and more insular, deliberately isolating itself from the concerns of culture, which was viewed as innately secular. Wherever there was a residue of proper Christian thinking, this tended to be a specialist domain, detached from the concerns of the mainstream evangelical movement.[6]
This kept the secularists happy, since religion was keeping within the sphere circumscribed to it by the Enlightenment’s divided epistemology, and it kept Christians happy since they were then let off the hook from having to engage with the increasingly hostile physical and intellectual culture.
It will be useful to pause and briefly recap the ground we have covered so far. I tried to show HERE that the philosophy of Empiricism led to a divided field of truth. On one side of the divide were those truths that could be known through empirical observation, while on the other side of the divide were ideas derived from other means. Since religious ideas were thought to belong within the later category, it followed that religious truth was a personal and private kind of truth, existing in a different sphere. We saw that the Church generally accepted this basic polarity, redrafting faith in subjective and individualistic categories. Our discussion so far has focused primarily on the anti-intellectual tendencies resulting from this epistemological duality. It is now time to turn out attention to another consequence: matter-spirit dualism.

Matter-Spirit Dualism
It does not take a prophet to tell that once you introduce a separation between beliefs about the material province vs. beliefs about the spiritual province, with the former being objective (because empirically verifiable) and the later being subjective (because allegedly not to be empirically verifiable), the next step will be a separation between matter itself and spirit itself.
Unlike anti-intellectualism, which was a distinctly religious reaction to Enlightenment secularism, the upstairs-downstairs partition between spirit and matter (or equally between nature and supernature) was characteristic of both secular and Christian thought following the Enlightenment. From the perspective of Enlightenment Deism, God was impersonal, having set the world in motion but then abandoned it to its own devices. Since the God of deism has no active part to play in the world after the initial act of creation, matter can exist independently of spirit in the same way that a watch can run independently of the one who originally wound it up. Matter thus becomes ‘dead.’ What a thing is– whether it be a star, a tree or a human person – is reduced to what that thing is made out of. This radical materialism has no use for ritual or sacrament, both of which work on the assumption that there is more to matter than meets the eye. As such, one of the key aspects of modernity has been a revolt against ritual.[7]
Christian theology has unknowingly colluded with the deism of the Enlightenment. We have a God who creates the world as well as a set of laws for its operation, occasionally intervening through the acts we call miracles, but whose presence is essentially the property of the ‘upstairs’ region of the supernatural.[8] The latent Gnosticism within such a dualism is reflected in the pervasive assumption within evangelicalism that one’s internal salvific relationship to God operates independently to the physical world and external means. In such a schema, the relation between matter and spirit is accidental at best.
To this we might add the pedigree left by the reformation and the pessimistic view of matter that we find in some of the reformers.[9] Calvin, for example, says, “And when Christ commended his spirit to the Father [Luke 23:46] and Stephen his to Christ [Acts 7:59] they mean only that when the soul is freed from the prison house of the body, God is its perpetual guardian…. It is of course true that while men are tied to earth more than they should be they grow dull…[10] Elsewhere Calvin refers to ‘this earthly prison of the body…’[11] The latent Gnosticism in such a position also led Calvin to suggest that Galatianism was found wherever there is an emphasis on ritual.[12]
The practical consequences of this outlook are legion, affecting the Church in areas as diverse as how we view the sacraments to the décor (or lack thereof) in our Churches. Where the external-physical is of little or no importance compared to matters of the heart, there is no need for Churches to be beautified. We prepare our hearts for worship but not our walls.
Significant as well has been the effect that matter-spirit dualism has had on Christian theology. Instead of a fully orbed Biblical theology structured around the story of the world’s redemption, as outworked in the visible space-time universe, the emphasis is placed on systematic treatments of abstract doctrines. The story of salvation history is then viewed as flowing out of theology rather than theology flowing out of story. Redemption history is seen as valuable to the extent that it illustrates particular doctrines or as the mechanism whereby God gets us to our ultimate destination of heaven. The rationalism of the former and the semi-gnosticism of the later both do homage to the great legacy of matter-spirit dualism, namely a discomfort for things earthly.
The striking example of matter-spirit dualism applied to theology has to be dispensationalism. By making a distinction between the physical promises to Israel in the old covenant and the spiritual promises to the Church in the new, dispensationalism has done more to entrench the evangelical community in matter-spirit dualism than any other idea.
Dispensationalism comes in many varieties, all involving the idea that God’s dealings with man can be divided up into different compartments. Each dispensation represents a time of testing for human beings, ending in judgment.[13] Dispensationalism is over and against the reformed view of covenantal continuity, which sees all God’s dealings with man as being a single work with various administrations. It follows from the reformed view that God has only ever had one people, to whom He relates through a covenant of grace administered in successive phases. The people of God in the Old Testament are the same people of God that we find in the New Testament.[14] This subverts the dualism between physical-public-corporate-old-covenant vs. spiritual-private-individual-new-covenant that has slotted in nicely to the post-Enlightenment assumptions of modern evangelicalism. Over and against this the reformed covenantal paradigm has argued that the physical is spiritual and the spiritual is physical because there is no intrinsic distinction between matter and spirit.
In emphasizing the discontinuity of God’s purposes, dispensationalists find themselves without a sense of story. The history of God’s dealings with man do not form a continuous metanarrative because scripture is viewed as many isolated bits and pieces. Yet because the sense of story-telling remains a uniquely human impulse, dispensationalists have a psychological need to create new pseudo-stories for themselves, such as their end-times mythology. The reason dispensationalists are so obsessed with the ‘end times’ is because that is the only place where they get a sense of story, even though it is a pessimistic story with a tragic ending.
Dispensationalism has also contributed to the post-Enlightenment sense of cultural retreat. It is not hard to see why this is the case. Dispensationalism, at least in its premillennial variety, affirms that unbelief and apostasy will increase, the gospel will be preached to all nations unsuccessfully, the Church will eventually lose influence, fail its mission and become corrupt. To make matters worse, at some point the anti-Christ will appear in the temple of Jerusalem, and he will become ruler of the world and persecute Jews and Christians. He will try to put the mark of the beast on everyone’s foreheads, and many Christians will be deceived into letting him do this. Then, when no one expects it, the, so called, ‘rapture’ will happen[15], in which Christians will go to heaven while the rest of the world endures a seven year period of tribulation.[16] God eventually pours out His wrath on the earth until the battle of Armageddon, where Jesus comes back physically to the earth and then the millennium finally gets underway. When that happens, the Jewish temple will be physically rebuilt and the sacrificial system will be reinstated.[17] Such prospects not only fail to provide an incentive for Christian cultural involvement, but in presenting the present physical earth as beyond God’s saving power solidifies the assumption that earthly culture is ‘secular’ in the true Enlightenment sense. Because everything will get worse and worse, all we can do is watch impotently as the devil wins. In fact, if we are consistent we should even hope that things get worse in the world since that signals Christ’s imminent return. Thus, the purpose of the Christian’s mission is essentially negative rather than affirmative for the dispensational premillennialist: the best we can hope to do is avoid the mark of the beast, keep ourselves from the corruption and apostasy that will take over the world and the Church, and bide our time until the rapture. The belief that the Church and culture are beyond reform this side of the rapture inevitably leads to an isolationism, at least for those who live consistently with this eschatology. Thus, many evangelicals who hold to this paradigm withdraw from the world and practice an insular private Christianity that has little relevance to the public arena. Though they may be involved in the political right (especially in America), their vision is necessary truncated precisely because they do not, and indeed cannot, have a long-term vision for the Church and culture. As Os Guinness explains it,
the dispensational movement reinforces anti-intellectualism by its general indifference to serious engagement with culture. Put simply, it is a form of the earlier false polarization and shrunken pietism reinforced by a distracting preoccupation with the end times…. Dispensationalists at the popular level tend to overlook creation as they emphasize salvation… [exchanging] the visible present for the invisible future, and the normal and everyday for the dramatic and the apocalyptic.
Little wonder that popular dispensationalism has cultural consequences. When the house is on fire, life is worth more than books and precious objects. When the end times are on the slipway, such cultural pursuits as art and music are frivolous. Where earlier Christians fell into dualism by placing the spiritual above the secular, contemplation above actions, “full-time Christian service” above ordinary life, and “soul saving” above study, many dispensationalists have followed the course of “end times” events with the consuming fascination of a betting man at a race track. In doing so they have virtually turned their backs on the world in which they live.
The negativism of the dispensationalist paradigm also breeds an anti-intellectualism which slots nicely into the sphere circumscribed to religion by the epistemology of the Enlightenment project. It does so by promoting a simplistic “just-the-simple-biblical-truth” kind of populism. The result is hermeneutical anti-intellectualism manifested in an irresponsibly literalistic method for interpreting apocalyptic literature.
It will be useful now to summarie the ground we have just covered. So far in this post we have explored the ramifications of matter-spirit dualism, focusing primarily on those aspects which have proceeded out of empiricist epistemology. We touched briefly on the matter-spirit dichotomy within the secular philosophy of Deism before looking at theological formulations which take a similar reductionist approach to matter. This was illustrated in aspects of the reform reaction against Rome, anti-sacramentalism, the preference for systematic theology over Biblical theology, and finally dispensationalism. We will now go on to explore how matter-spirit dualism has affected the Church’s role as mother.

The De-Mothering of the Church
Central to the Church’s role as mother is that she feeds us. The maternal Church is Eucharistic. The importance of a mother feeding her children is not simply that it nourishes her offspring and keeps them alive, although that is certainly important. Rather, it is also that this teaches the children who is the source of life. It seems to be a universal human instinct to follow and cling to the people who provide food. In the gospel, it was after Jesus fed the crowds that they were ready to follow Him. We expect food from our parents and that is why we pray to our Father in heaven – not the government – “give us this day our daily bread.”
The Eucharist, and indeed all the sacraments, become especially troubling among evangelicals for whom the spirit/matter dualism is the uber-presupposition. Since the modern evangelical finds it offensive that God’s grace would be mediated through physical means or instruments (even as classical Gnosticism found it offensive that God would be incarnated in flesh), so the sacraments are reduced to being a symbol for what goes on inside the individual. The ‘physical manifestations’ are simply epiphenomena of a relationship that can be fully defined apart from those physical manifestations.[18] The Protestant tendency to separate spirit from matter means that the Eucharist is merely an appendix to the Word, a disguised sermon or an approximation for our own spiritual interiority instead of a rite that objectively conveys grace. The kind of radical Protestantism ends up doing to the sacraments what Schoenberg tried to do to music. For Schoenberg (1874-1951) the tangible sounds of music became swallowed up in the abstract idea behind the music. As Jeremy Begbie put it,
“Schoenberg believed that music’s sensory pleasure – how beautiful it sounds to the ear – is irrelevant to the question of artistic significance… Music should be concerned chiefly with the creation and development of artistic ideas; the pleasure it affords should be primarily intellectual”.[19]
In a similar way, radical Protestantism believes that the physicality of the sacraments is irrelevant to the question of spiritual significance. The sacraments should be concerned chiefly with the buttressing of our intellectual assent to the propositions of faith or our psychological ‘heart-felt’ relationship with the object of our faith but have little or no value outside these ego-centric categories.[20]
This feeds on the assumption that “the created order isn’t really important because secondary, mediating causes are at best unnecessary and are often problematic.”[21] This is the error that B. B. Warfield makes in his book The Plan of Salvation. He asserts that “precisely what evangelical religion means it immediate dependence of the soul on God and on God alone for salvation” and is critical of any theology that “separates the soul from direct contact with and immediate dependence upon God the Holy Spirit…”[22]
Central to the Church’s role as mother is that she exists in a visible, tangible, physical and public sense just as our mothers are visible, tangible, physical and public. Yet after each person’s personal relationship to God has been divorced from all external means, it is hard to understand the Church as having any significance beyond simply being God’s mechanism for bringing more solitary souls to himself, an opportunity for our personal relationship with God to be recharged or else a stopgap in the gaping parenthesis between the age of earth and the age of heaven. While Church is beneficial, according to this schema, it is not necessary, since a personal relationship with Jesus has been effectively severed from His Body and from the ministry and sacraments she provides.
When, on the other hand, we appreciate the visibility and physicality of the Church, it immediately becomes a rival to the kinds of socio-political structures considered in the first part of this essay. The rival to maternal statecraft is not an invisible non-physical Church, nor is it individuals exploring their own spiritual interiority. The natural rival to bloated government is the announcement that new creation has burst forth in the midst of our physical world – a new creation which is social, temporal, political, earthly and physical.[23] Instead, as Peter Leithart laments,
We have made the Church strange and alien to the world, as if she were of a completely different order than the institutions of common social and political life. Paradoxically, the result of this estrangement has been to reshape the Church into the image of the world….
The Church can cut across the grain of existing human social and cultural life only if she bears some likeness to existing societies. If she is a completely different sort of thing, then societies and nations and empires can go on their merry way ignoring the Church, or, equally deadly, find some murky alleyway to push her into.
But if the Church is God’s society among human societies, a heavenly city invading the earthly city then a territorial conflict is inevitable.
Central to the Church’s role as mother is that she constantly tells us stories, just as a good mother tells and retells her children stories even before they understand what the stories mean. Through story telling, the Church imparts to her children the Christian metanarrative – that grand story that begins at creation and ends at new creation. This story is told in word, symbol, sacrament and ritual. Through such means, the Church constantly reminds us who we are in the story and where we are in the story, just as a good mother helps her child develop a sense of identity in relation to the larger world.
Put another way, the maternal Church will provide her people with a metanarrative with which to structure the whole of their lives. A meta-narrative is an over-arching story or thought structure that lends meaning and context to the particulars of experience, normally group experience. Human societies will always gravitate towards meta-narratives as water runs downhill. For example, many pagan cultures revolve around a religion of harvest gods. The harvest, and all the symbolism that surrounded it, would be a meta-narrative that gave cohesion to the society. Or a meta-narrative can be an ideology, like the way in which the elevation of the working class became a meta-narrative in the communist state, or the way in which national socialism and fascism provided a framework in which to organize Nazi Germany. Both Marxism and Fascism told stories about history that enabled the participants to mark an X and say “We are here.” This gave eschatological significance to the struggle of the proletariat in the case of Marxism or the struggle of the Arian race in the case of Fascism. In ancient Athens the Homeric epics were the Greek people’s meta-narrative, since their whole society was, in some sense, structured around the mythology that derived from these texts. When Darwinism came along it was more than just a theory: it was a story, a grand story about life’s unceasing struggle to survive. Evolution provided its own answer to the question “Where are we?” by answering the question of where we came from and where we are going. During the time of the Enlightenment, a new meta-narrative was formed in which rational thought allied to scientific reasoning was thought to lead toward an inevitable progression for mankind. This meta-narrative was utopian and created a sense of optimism about where we are in the story of human progress which survived well into the 20th century until the world wars, and finally Vietnam, brought an end to all that. In the Bible, the meta-narrative for the Jews as well as the early Christians was the story of God’s kingdom. They told and retold a story about history that God had told them and which enabled the participants to mark an X and say “We are here in redemption history.” Modern dispensational premellenial evangelical theology has its own twist on this story, ending with the antichrist, the rapture and finally Armageddon. That story places great emphasis on where we are in the story, and it will always be the second to last chapter, that period known as the “End Times” which is forever just about to end.
Postmodernism, like post-Enlightenment pietistic evangelical individualism, tries to ignore metanarratives by fracturing them into a myriad of mini-narratives that each one of us is personally writing. In the case of postmodernism, the new metanarrative is that there are no metanarratives and postmodernism, so ironically like its precursors, has its own pantheon of symbols with which to tell this story. In post-Enlightenment pietistic evangelical individualism, however, all the individual stories look remarkably similar: it begins the moment we choose to be ‘saved’ and ends when God rewards us by taking us away from the earth to live eternally in “heaven.” The external means of symbol, sacrament and ritual are then finished off by matter-spirit dualism, which says that since the real stuff is what happens in the mind and not in matter (the assumption being that because matter and spirit are distinguishable that they must be divisible), it follows that symbol, sacrament and ritual are only approximations for that higher reality. As such they are unnecessary at best and a practical hindrance to true spirituality at worst.
Central to the Church’s role as mother is that she gives us a language for communicating with our father, even as our earthly mothers taught us to speak by giving us language to imitate. This means that creeds and liturgy can play an important part in the Church’s role as mother. However, the spirit/matter dualism implicated by the Enlightenment’s divided field has manifested itself in an approach to prayer and worship that is distinctly anti-liturgical and an approach to theology that is anti-creedal. Because the individual’s internal state and not any physical means is the nexus of the Christian life, prayer must proceed directly out of the reservoir of the individual’s own thoughts and feelings in order to be authentic, just as theology must proceed from “just me and the Bible.” Prayers that are composed at any time other than the present, and by anyone other than myself, like theology that is taken on the authority of the Church, are greeted with a degree of suspicion at best, and viewed as completely invalid at worst.[25] Modern evangelicalism attempts to achieve a ritual-less Church, equating liturgy with formalism and formalism with vanity. However, since routine is necessary to avoid chaos, new taboos are inevitably created, not least the taboo against ritual, which only means that informality becomes the new ritual. Spontaneity is pursued with a ritualistic tenacity. It should not be overlooked that motherhood is innately ritualistic. Early life is characterised by the rhythms our mother establishes. Initially, this is simply the rhythm of feeding, sleeping and eating. Very soon new rhythms are given. Language is introduced through the rhythms of nursery rhymes and song. Food is introduced through the recurring rhythms of mealtime. Life is sustained through the recurring rhythms of exercise and sleep while life is celebrated through the recurring events of festivals and feasts, in particularly birthdays. This mimics the recurring rhythms that lie at the heart of the universe: days and nights, seasons and years. All life revolves around rhythm and ritual because it lies at the heart of what it means to be human in general and to be mother in particular.
The Sacramental State
My theory is that as the Church ceases to be viewed as mother, it has created a vacuum that is being filled by the maternal state. Sometimes this can be seen in obvious ways. In America, evangelicals who would never dream of making the sign of the cross will put their hands on their hearts every morning to say the, so called, “Pledge of Allegiance” with liturgical devotion. Similarly, modern evangelicals who have long ceased to tell the story of redemption through the yearly cycle of Church holidays – and who have a natural antipathy to Advent, Epiphany, Lent, and Pentecost (but not Easter and Christmas as if their secularisation has legitimised them) - will celebrate Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Veterans and Independence Day with almost religious regularity. In place of the rejected church year, these holidays become public festivals of a new civic order. Or again, how many evangelical Christians, having no sense of the Biblical metanarrative, tell the story of liberal democracy as their own, operating in what Leithart calls ‘Eusebian mode’, treating America as the culmination of redemptive history?[26] Or again, those for whom religion has been individualised find corporate, covenantal identity living out the drama of what it means to be American.[27] We may also note with irony that when the egalitarianism levelling began sweeping through the 20th century Church[28], it was the priestcraft of political bureaucrats that became the new hierarchy – a trend which survives to this day despite the pervasive cynicism the average person feels towards the political institutions in general and their political leaders in particular. They are the ones we look to for security and they are the ones who offer intercession and make sacrifices. As Ellul put it in his book New Demons: “It is not the state which enslaves us, not even a centralized police state. It is its sacral transfiguration…which makes us direct our worship to this conglomeration of offices.”[29]
In a myriad of implicit ways, liberals and conservatives alike tell the story of progress in terms of statecraft. It is the state, like a good mother, that is there to nurture human civilization to progress. Liberals and conservatives disagree on both the definition of progress as well as the means for attaining it, but they are still working within the same basic paradigm. This is why politicians are increasingly becoming story-tellers, claiming to come from traditions that are bringing civic maturity. In countless ways we are urged to trust them, like we trust our mothers, and to structure our lives around the benefits they bring and the obligations they demand.
In one sense this is an understandable heresy to commit. By its very nature government is physical and earthy and, as such, offers a substitute for religion after religion has been emptied of its sacramental centre. Government offers to satisfy that innate human need no longer provided by the Church: the need for a communal centre, that need for ritual, rhythm, a sense of story, and a story with eschatological progress. As such, the modern state has become a symbol for the aspirations of humanity. With its humanitarian ethic, its national glory and its sense of endless (and therefore eschatological) progress, it has a religious significance which parodies the vocation of the Church. At the heart of this statist religion is the supper it provides to its votaries, known variously as welfare, entitlements or state benefits.
God’s answer to the maternal state is the maternal Church. The state makes but a wicked step-mother. God’s solution is for us to run to Mother, to be nourished at her breasts, to listen to her stories, to repeat her words and rhymes, to obey her voice and to be brought to maturity by her loving hand and her nourishing food. The Church as mother is gentle, lovingly bringing her children to maturity over thousands of years. “She may not be able to rejoice at the moment, with all the diapers and infant screams, but she will in the future. She is patient, She knows the frame of her children. Only a tyrannical mother would expect instant maturity and perfection. They have so much to learn and she is gentle.”[30] The state as mother is tyrannical, harsh, impatient to achieve perfection immediately.
There is one area which the church and the state share in common, and it is the key for the former to present an adequate challenge to the latter. Both the Church and the state are physical. The difference is that only the former is also spiritual. But herein lies the problem: to our post-Enlightenment ears, when we say that the church is ‘spiritual’ we hear this as meaning that it is non-physical, just as we assume that when Paul contrasts the natural body with the spiritual body in his discussion of resurrection, he must be referring to a body that is non-spatial temporal.
Since the Church is physical, we will never be able to appreciate her significance, let alone draw on her riches, so long as our thinking is plagued by the matter-spirit dualism that has become a truism since the Enlightenment. Instead of thinking of matter as dead and spirit as living, we must learn to have the kind of holistic worldview that we find in ancient paganism, where the earth is literally animated by the spirit of divinity. This is also, incidentally, the view of the Bible. The earth is not an autonomous system that God simply created to get on with its own thing, apart from when He occasionally chooses to interfere; rather, the earth is God’s very footstool.[31] When the earth thunders, we are hearing God’s voice.[32] When we see lightening, we are watching God’s arrows.[33] It is God who sends man the snow and the rain[34] and who feeds the young ravens when they call upon him.[35] It is God who blasts His nostrils to uncover the foundations of the world.[36] The earth quakes and smokes when God is angry.[37] The firmament and all the stars declare God’s glory.[38] Furthermore, we are told that the whole creation groans in eager expectation for the day when God will renew the earth.[39] In that day, we are told that the heavens will rejoice, the earth will be glad and the sea and all its fullness will roar, the field and all that is in it will be joyful, the trees and the woods will rejoice and clap their hands before the Lord, while the mountains and the whole earth break forth into singing.[40]
With our post-Enlightenment presuppositions, we are uncomfortable with this kind of language, and quick to dismiss it as metaphorical. We are even more uncomfortable to learn that scripture makes no hard or absolute demarcation between inner and outer, the spiritual and the physical.
As Peter Leithart puts it,
Scripture makes no hard or absolute demarcation between inner and outer. When people eat and drink, Scripture says their ‘souls’ are refreshed (e.g., 1 Sam. 30:12), and exterior discipline of our children purges foolishness from their hearts (Prov. 22:15). So, outer events invade the inner life. And, inner things come to outer expression, for out of the thoughts of the heart come murders, adulteries, and other evils (Mk. 7:20-23). The mere fact that the Bible often names the ‘inner’ man by reference to bodily organs (heart, kidneys, liver) is a hint that Scripture does not sharply distinguish inner spiritual from outer physical realities; even the ‘inner’ man is conceived phsycially, not as an unbodied, ghostly self. Scripture thus teaches a complex interplay of inner/outer in human existence, a duality within unified human being.” (Against Christianity, op. cit., p. 77)

[1] See Ranald Macaulay’s article, ‘The Pietistic Roots of Evangelicalism Today’, in A Collection of Thirteen Lectures by L’Abri Authors, (Greatham: L’Abri Fellowship), 1991.

[2] Cited by Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (New York: Vintage, 1962) p. 108.

[3] Cited by William G McLoughlin, Billy Sunday Was His Real Name (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955), p. 123.

[4] Theodore Roszak, Where the Wassteland Ends (New York: Doubleday, 1973), p. 449.

[5] On the gradual feminisation of American culture, see Ann Douglas’ book The Feminisation of American Culture (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1977).

[6] See David Wells, No Place For Truth or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993); David Wells, Losing Our Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover its Moral Vision (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998).

[7] See Peter J. Leithart, Against Christianity (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2003), chapter 3. “There is a circular relationship between modernity’s aversion to ritual and the Church’s. The Reformation interpreted the progress of history as a movement from ritual to non-ritual, and this shaped a bias against ritual in the consciousness of the early modern Europe. This anti-ritual consciousness, radicalised and secularised, reinvaded the Church from which it had arisen.” Ibid, p. 80.

[8] In his essay ‘The Empty Universe’, C. S. Lewis suggests that in rejecting paganism, we threw the baby out with the bathwater. Lewis traces the progression by which the universe was first perceived to be animating with life, will and positive qualities (the days when “every tree is a nymph and every planet a god”) to the present condition where nature is completely disenchanted. The rich, genial universe is ‘emptied out’ and reduced to depersonalised mater or even less. C. S. Lewis, ‘The Empty Universe’ in Present Concerns: Ethical Essays (London: Fount Paperbacks, 1986).

[9] To be fair to the reformers, many of them were simply echoing the bias against the physical world inherited from the early Christian fathers. See Brian Walsh and J. Richard Middleton, The Transforming Vision (Downers Grove, ILL: InterVarsity Press, 1984), chapter 7.

[10] Calvin’s Institutes (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960, Battled translation), Ixv.2. See Stephen Perks comments in ‘Is There an Afterlife? The Intermediate State Reconsidered’ in Christianity and Society Vol IX, No. 3, July 1999.

[11] Institutes, Book III. Vii.5.

[12] See Peter Leithart’s comments about Calvin, op. cit., pp. 79-80.

[13] Dispensationalism originated in the 1820s in Ireland from the teachings of John Nelson Darby, who founding the Plymouth Brethren. As his movement expanded, Darby visited the United States and Canada seven times between 1859 and 1874. His teachings were not very well received in America and Canada, particular his strong antagonism to the institutional Church and his pessimism about modern society. However, his systematic unfolding of prophetic events, soon known as dispensationalism, did make a lasting impact. Many evangelical leaders of the late nineteenth century jumped on the dispensationalist bandwagon, included Dwight Moody and A. J. Gordon. From there dispensationalism took off through four main avenues: the Bible conference movement, Bible colleges, the Scofield Reference Bible (published in 1909) and the Dallas Theological Seminary (founded in 1924). At some point dispensationalism combined itself with premillennialism, so that now the two normally go together, as in Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth and Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’ popular Left Behind flicks.

[14] See Douglas Wilson’s book Standing on the Promises (Moscow ID: Canon Press, 1997), chapter 4.

[15] See N.T. Wright’s short deconstruction of the rapture, ‘Bible Review, August 2001’, reprinted at

[16] In the older historic non-dispensational premillennialism, the Church went through the tribulation

[17] This again represents a difference between the older historic non-dispensational premillennialism which affirmed that the sacrificial system and the physical temple were done away. Perhaps the most crucial difference between historic premillennialism and the new dispensational variety is that, according to the later, it is not until the millennium that Christ’s kingdom becomes a present reality, while all other eschatologies, including historic premillennialism, teach that Christ’s kingdom is a present reality now even though it hasn’t yet been consummated.

[18] I am indebted to Derrick Olliff, whose ‘American P.I.E.’ series helped me to formulate some of these thoughts. See “Flowing from the spiritual-physical dichotomy, salvation refers to what happens to individuals only. There is almost never any meaningful focus on God’s salvation and restoration of the created order as a whole or the consequences of such. Nature (the created order) and grace/salvation are distinct and one doesn’t have much to do with the other. So while the temporary and weak old covenant may have had some ‘fleshy accoutrements, this baggage was discarded in favour of the much more ‘spiritual’ and much less physical new covenant.”

[19] Jeremy S. Begbie, ‘Music in God’s World’, Books & Culture, September/October 2007, available online at

[20] Further, as Olliff points out, this pietistic paradigm presupposes maturity. “Only a non-mentally handicapped adolescent or adult can have the kind of unmediated, ‘heartfelt’ relationship with God that characterizes pietism. And since the sacraments are viewed as testimonies or reminders of that relationship, they only belong to those who are mentally mature.” Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] B. B. Warfield, The Plan of Salvation (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1915), 66.

[23] Jesus never said that His kingdom is not of this world, as a careful look at the Greek in John 18:36 reveals. The RSV translates John 18:36 closest to the original: ‘My kingdom is not from this world.’ Christ’s kingdom is certainly of and for this world, but it does not arise out of or (from) this earth. It comes from heaven to the earth. That is why Jesus taught us to pray, ‘thy kingdom come on earth…as it is in heaven’ (Mat. 6:10). The phrase ‘kingdom of heaven’ in the gospels has this same underpinning, referring to the rule of heaven (that is, of God), being brought to bear in the present space-time world. (See N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, throughout) This draws on the theological backdrop of passages like Daniel 7: 26-27 and is the same crowning vision we find in Rev. 11:15, where we are told that “The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and His Christ…” See my article ‘Political Christianity’ at

[24] Peter Leithart, Against Christianity, op.cit., pp. 17-18.

[25] See N.T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (SPCK, 2006), pp. 164-167.

[26] Leithart, Against Christianity, op. cit., p. 63.

[27] This sense of patriotism to a more or less distinct national identity has not been a regular feature in Britain for a number of years, although there have been recent attempts to change that. See ‘Brown speech promotes Britishness’, BBC News, Saturday, 14 January 2006, available online at See also ‘Britain rediscovered’ by Neal Ascherson, Prospect Magazine, Issue 109 , April 2005, available online at

[28] See Os Guinness Fit Bodies Fat Minds, section on Populism.

[29] Jacques Ellul, The New Demons (Seabury Press: 1975).

[30] Angels in the Architecture, op. cit., p. 94.

[31] Isaiah 66:1.

[32] Job 37:2-5; 40:9; Psalm 18:13; 77:17-18 & 104:7.

[33] Psalm 18:14; Zechariah. 9:14.

[34] Job 37:6; Matthew 5:45.

[35] Psalm 147:9; Luke 12:24.

[36] Psalm 18:15

[37] Psalm 18:7.

[38] Psalm 19:1

[39] Roman 8:18-22

[40] Palms 96:11-12; Isaiah 44:23; 55:12.

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The Rise of Secularism

On the 23rd of this month I posted an article critiquing the tendency to treat government like a mother. I suggested, as an antidote to this tendency, that we should think of the church as mother. In the following two posts I wish to build on that foundation by considering the role that epistemology in general, and matter-spirit dualism in particular, has played in removing the mantle of motherhood from Church and bestowing it on statecraft. To do this I will have to take a long rabbet trial and explain about the origins of secularism.


Why has our society forgotten who Mother is? Since this is an historical question, there are necessarily a multiplicity of equally correct ways to answer it, seeing that every historical event is the product of a network of causation. Therefore, as I follow a certain thread of cause and effects, the reader should keep this in mind that there are dozens of similar threads that I might just as easily charted. This is an important qualification lest it be assumed that I am claiming more than I am. Just as the metaphor of mother was only one among many that I might have chosen to describe the Church (with each yielding its own peculiar field of insights), so the historical sequence I am about to outline is one among a myriad of causal progressions antecedent to the neurosis earlier described.

The problem on which I wish to focus our attention is matter/spirit dualism. While such dualism goes all the way back to the pre-Socratics, it is the philosophy of Empiricism that gives us the pedigree to the modern manifestation of this heresy. Empiricism is part of the branch of philosophy known as epistemology. Epistemology is the study or science of knowing. An epistemological question, therefore, is a question about knowledge.

Empiricism is an epistemological system which asserts that the only legitimate means for acquiring knowledge is through the five senses.

At first this doesn’t seem such a very strange thing to say. After all, it is difficult to imagine what we could know if we were deprived of our sense of smell, touch, taste, and most importantly, our sense of sight and hearing. But, of course, nobody would deny that the five senses play a crucial part in bringing knowledge to our minds. That is not the issue. The question is: are the senses the only means by which knowledge is acquired? If yes, then it follows that those things which are necessarily beyond the scope of sense perception – such as God, the soul, angels, heaven and hell, etc. – are necessarily outside the scope of objective knowledge.

Though the tension between the empirical method and abstract speculation has always been at the heart of the Western philosophical tradition, going back to controversies between Plato and Aristotle and then finding renewed expression in the debates between the medieval Nomists and Realists, the radical empiricism of the Enlightenment owes its roots to Francis Bacon (1561-1626).

Bacon and the Divided Field of Knowledge

Bacon believed that if the empirical method could be properly adopted, then science would flourish, enabling man to regain that mastery over nature which he had lost at the fall of Adam. Bacon’s vision of scientific progress was utopian in so far as he believed that science – as embodied in the concrete methodology of empiricism – would herald a new age of mankind and progress.

Bacon’s thinking was in reaction to the Western philosophical tradition of the medieval Scholastics, with their emphasis on deductive proofs and a priori categories of logic. The legacy of such abstract, non-empirical thinking, Bacon believed, held the West back from the scientific revolution that lay at the door.

Not only did Bacon teach that knowledge through concrete observation was the way of the future and progress but he also preached that this was the only truly ‘humble’ way. To vainly presume our minds capable of discovering any truth through abstract reasoning was symptomatic of the worst type of intellectual pride.

The implications of Bacon’s divided field went beyond simply a polarization between deduction and induction or between the experimental method vs. deductive reasoning. It affected the more practical categories of science vs. religion, reason vs. faith, nature vs. theology, etc.. This is because the principles on which religion, faith and theology depended were outside the realm of empirical observation (or so Bacon assumed). According to Bacon, each of these realms operated according to a different set of rules. As Tarnis put it, summarizing Bacon’s thought, “Each realm had its own laws and its own appropriate method…. Kept rightly separate, both theology and science could better flourish…”[1]

Because belief in God belonged in the non-empirical category, it followed necessarily that it is impossible to infer anything about God from the natural world. (A walk round the pond with Coleridge and Wordsworth would have been torture for Bacon.) Thus, Bacon wrote that

Nothing of God’s nature and essence is to be found through the study of this world. There is no divine efficiency in its movement or divine form in its structure. It possesses no divine causation, divine motivation or any attributes of divinity. It is formed matter acting through varieties of locomotion inherent within itself and nothing more.[2]

Bacon was followed by others who advocated this rift between religious truth vs. normal truth and knowledge vs. faith. For example, Benedict De Spinoza (1632-77) taught that the purpose of scripture and religion is to give a simple moral message, as epitemized in the injunction “Love your neighbor”, but is quite distinct from what he called “natural truth.” In his Theological-Political Treatise, Spinoza was very concerned to show that faith is something separate from philosophy and that “philosophy and religion, reason and faith, inhabit two distinct and exclusive spheres, and neither should tread in the domain of the other.”[3]

Empiricism and Rationalism

During the 17th century, thinkers continued to develop the empiricist concept with an increasing degree of philosophical sophistication. On the other side of the coin, there continued to be thinkers who followed in the Scholastic, Aristotelian tradition against which empiricism was a reaction. These were known as rationalists. The goal of the rationalist was to attain certainty through abstraction rather than observation. Where the empiricist began by opening his eyes to the world around him, the rationalist began by defining his terms and stating the first principles or axioms from which to reason. The paradigm for the rationalist was not science but geometry, yet at the same time they used rationalistic principles as the basis for learning about the natural world (a method which, if they were not careful, could lead to an unhelpful imposition of conceptual categories onto material nature).

Descartes was the prime example of a rationalist. He started by doubting everything, including the elements of perception. He was then able to deduce his own existence since he must first exist in order to doubt (hence, his famous Cogito ergo sum.) From there Descartes gradually reasoned his way to a belief in a perfect God, the material universe and other truths.

The rationalist method and the empiricist method were, in one sense, diametrically opposed. The rationalists affirmed the existence of metaphysical realities such as God and the soul, both of which were thought to be logical necessities, while the empiricists were scathing at the idea of objective knowledge about anything invisible. Yet, in many ways, both ideologies were two sides of the same coin. Both camps began with man’s mind as the starting point, believing it was possible for the intellect to autonomously attain certainty about reality. Both camps strongly reacted against external forms of authority. Both camps rebelled against what they perceived to be an irrational, unthinking past, and both camps championed a constricting, lopsided criteria for knowledge which ultimately reinforced the widening dived.

The Rift Widens

It was both these streams of thought that ran into the Enlightenment of the 18th century. The Enlightenment inherited a complex mesh of ideas, many of which were contradictory, but which contributed to a whole network of intuitions. The result was a kind of philosophical soup that could be constantly amended but which was rarely adequately assessed. Thus it was that the method of empiricism could be more loudly advanced during the 18th century while still retaining an emphasis on selected aspects of the rationalist method, such as reasoning from first principles and the assumption that there are a priori normatives of human nature. Similarly, we find Enlightenment writers like Hume and Diderot pushing abstract metaphysics firmly into the distance of a non-scientific past, but resurrecting it on certain select occasions in order to construct an argument for deism or to attack a specific tenet of Christian doctrine.

Contradictions not withstanding, it was the empiricist outlook that dominated the intellectual landscape of the Enlightenment, as epitomized by the Lockean dictum, “Nihil est in intellectu quod non antea fuerit in sens,” (“there is nothing in the intellect that was not previously in the senses”). One of the factors contributing to the domination of Empiricism was its confluence with a materialistic metaphysic. In a world where the only reality is that of material forces, it follows that our knowledge must come through the purely physical means of sense observation. Yet just as empiricism was the logical consequence of materialism, so the reverse is also true: materialism logically follows from empiricism. If the only kind of knowledge is that which we can attain through physical observation, then that which is beyond the scope of the physical world can never come under the category of knowledge. Therefore, since belief in such non-physical entities as the human soul, God, angels, heaven and hell, cannot be the subject of empirical observation, they must have arisen instead out of superstition, ignorance and lack of true knowledge.

With this outlook came a gradual, but eventually pervasive, acceptance of empiricism’s natural corollary, Bacon’s divided epistemology. This comes across in the seventeen volume Encyclopédie assembled by Diderot.[4] At the heart of this work is the recurring idea that the only reliable knowledge is that which comes through “particular observation”, as Diderot put it. This led to a pronounced scorn of metaphysics that confronted the reader right on the pictorial front piece of the work where there is a visual depiction which included, among other things, a female personification of Truth, Metaphysics, Reason, Theology and Philosophy. Significantly, truth is adorned with a veil which Reason and Philosophy are lifting off, which is a clear statement about the role reason and philosophy play in illuminating the truth for us. But what is Metaphysics doing? “Proud Metaphysics”, to quote from the ‘explication’ that accompanied the frontispiece, “tries to divine her {Truth’s} presence rather than to see her. Theology turns her back and waits for light from on high.”

The implied disjunction here between Reason and Theology, and similarly between Truth and Metaphysics, is indicative of Bacon’s divided epistemology. The fact that Theology turns her back on truth to await light from on high suggests the schism between religious truth and normal truth that was quickly widening during the Enlightenment. We see a further disjunction between thought (abstraction) and sight (induction/observation) implied by the picture of Reason and Philosophy removing the veil to look at Truth, while Metaphysics turns away to think about Truth.[5]

These bifurcations implicated a further series of dualities. If – as empiricism taught - any knowledge not acquired through the medium of the senses was outside the limits of objective publicly accessible knowledge, then matters of religion, metaphysics and spirituality must be subjective and private. Religious ideas could be a personal kind of truth that, by its very nature, need not have any relation to the outside world of fact.

Prior to these developments, thinkers had generally tried to achieve integration between these two spheres. The Enlightenment, following in the steps of Francis Bacon, said not only that such integration was unobtainable, but that to even seek it was a category confusion. Factual coherence need not be antecedent to religious belief since such belief is a personal, private, autonomous affair, freed from the constriction of objective fixity.

Lessing and the Three Rings

Gotthold Lessing (1729-81) was an important figure in the German Enlightenment. Lessing is probably best remembered for his play, Nathan the Wise, and the message of religious tolerance that it preaches. However, beneath the message of tolerance is another more subtle message which relates to the concept of truth and faith. To fully appreciate the significance of this, however, some background information about Lessing will be helpful.

In 1774, Lessing published the first of six extracts, collectively referred to as Fragments of an Anonymous Author. These extracts were taken from an enormous manuscript written by the lately deceased Hermann Reimarus (1694-1768). Reimarus had not published this work while alive because of the hugely controversial nature of its contents. The book is an outright attack on the Bible, suggesting that Jesus was an imprudent Jewish agitator whose messianic dreams came to nothing, that the disciples faked the resurrection for political purposes, and so on. Not surprisingly, when Lessing began publishing sections of Reimarus’ work, the Lutheran clergy were scandalized. A fierce debate ensued between Lessing and a few Lutheran pastors, in particularly the pastor Johann Goeze. In the course of 1778, Lessing wrote eleven diatribes to attack Goeze’s views. While Goeze upheld the inerrancy of scripture which Reimarus had attacked, Lessing argued for a separation of the spirit of the Bible from the letter of the Bible. In this way, Lessing hoped to clear away the mud in order that the “true Christianity” of the Bible might flourish, disengaged from the inessential and damaging doctrines also found in scripture.

For all Lessing’s high-minded ambitions, the debate with Goeze turned into little more than a mud-slinging match, with the famous champion of tolerance accusing Goeze of everything from hypocrisy to barbarity. Scandalized, Goeze approached the Duke of Brunswick who ordered that all Lessing’s future works be submitted to the censor. The result of this restriction was that Lessing simply began to promote his ideas through more subtle, innocuous means. Thus it was that in 1779 Lessing published his most famous work, Nathan the Wise.

Nathan the Wise takes place in Jerusalem at the time of the crusades, so Lessing is able to have interplay between all three of the main religions: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. The portion of the play that is most famous, as well as most significant, is a parable that the wise Nathan tells to the Sultan. The Islamic Sultan had asked the Jewish Nathan to tell him which religion was the true one. Suspicious of the Sultan’s motives, Nathan answers with the parable of the three rings.

In this parable, there was once a rich man who possessed a magic ring. This ring had secret power which caused the owner of the ring to gain favour in the sight of God and humankind. Now the owner of this ring took precautions to leave the ring in his family, ensuring that it was faithfully passed on from generation to generation, from son to son. Finally, the ring reached a man who had three sons, each of which he loved alike. As the father drew near his death, he was in a quandary as to which son to leave the ring to since he had promised the ring, in turn, to each.

As a solution, the father secretly contacted a craftsman who made two identical replicas of the ring. Not being able to distinguished the original, the father left each son with one of the three rings. Of course, when the father died, disputes immediately arose between the sons since each believed the one they possessed to be the genuine ring.

At this point, Nathan pauses the story to say that just as it was impossible to distinguish which was the correct ring, in a similar way, we cannot trust ourselves to distinguish the grounds on which the different religions rest.

The story continues with each of the three sons believing their ring to be the true one since each had received it directly from the hand of the father. In the end the brothers take their problem before a judge. The judge enjoins the brothers that what is more important than knowing the truth about their rings, is the motivation and inspiration each will achieve through believing that their ring is the genuine one.

Thus ends the parable that Nathan used to answer the Sultan’s question, namely, which religion is the correct one. The important thing is not what is true but what you believe.

There are many things we could say in response to this tale. We might point out that in actual fact the religion of Islam, and even Judaism, is distinguishable from Christianity. Or we might say that since one of the rings actually was the correct one, it follows that two of the brothers would have spent their life believing something false. But that misses the whole point Lessing is trying to make. His point is that truth doesn’t matter. There is something far more important than questions of truth and falsehood in the narrow, letter-of-the-law sense. “Stop trying to defend what you believe is true”, he seems to be saying “and instead concentrate on letting that belief motivate and inspire you.” There is no need for factual coherence to be antecedent to religious belief as it must be with scientific belief; rather, the nature of religious belief is such that it can exist on its own, so to speak, without needing to appeal to historical grounds. In fact, Lessing saw the very attempt of Christians to defend the historical veracity of their faith as intolerant since it failed to recognize that all the major religions, if rightly understood, were equally valuable routes to God.

Lessing’s parable illustrates the Enlightenment commitment to relegating religious belief to the realm of the subjective, private and unverifiable. This idea began to gradually affect popular thinking from the 18th century forward, even among those who had never heard of Empiricism. This divided epistemology invited people to view religion and worship of God as a personal matter - a solitary experience between the individual and God that had little relevance to the objective world. What you believe is up to you, but don’t let that infringe on public reality. To seek objective verification about a matter of faith was now almost to commit a category mistake, since the ‘truth’ of religion is a personal truth that is discontinuous with the fixity of the external world of science, history and public life. Nancy Pearcey well described this aspect of secularism:

Religion is no longer considered the source of serious truth claims that could potentially conflict with public agendas. The private realm has been reduced to an ‘innocuous play area’, says Peter Berger, where religion is acceptable for people who need that kind of crutch – but where it won’t upset any important applecarts in the larger world of politics and economics.[6]

The Rise of Secularism

Postmodernists may be exaggerating when they claim that power games are always behind the history of human ideas. Nevertheless there is some truth to the claim. Certainly when we consider the epistemological debates of the 18th century, questions of political and social power formed the impetus behind most of the developments.

By the time Europe reached the 18th century, it was weary from years – even centuries – of religious conflict. Whether it was because of Protestants persecuting Catholics or Catholics persecuting Protestants or Anglicans persecuting Puritans or Puritans persecuting Anabaptists, the secular intelligencia of Europe perceived religion to be antithetical to social peace, harmony and justice. The reigns of civil power had to somehow be wrested out of the hands of the Church and given to a thoroughly secularised government. Empiricism gave this project the legitimisation it needed. After all, if religion – by virtue of being a non-empirically derived belief – was a personal and private matter, then it had no place in the public square. If religion was confined to what occurred between someone’s right ear and their left ear, then there is no point in fighting anymore about those beliefs.

Thus arose the division between religion and politics that has been a truism ever since. In fact, the contemporary notion of the ‘State’ arose out of this ideological matrix. N.T. Wright tells us how “the word ‘state’ in the way we use it today is basically an Enlightenment invention, designed at least in part to be precisely the sort of self-operating system, free from religious influence, never mind control, that the world had not seen before.”[7]

Diderot advocated a disjunction between the state and religion on just such grounds. “Whenever civil power supports religion or seeks its support, the progress of reason must necessarily be retarded[8] wrote Diderot, joined the general chorus that religion should occupy itself exclusively with the internal landscape of the individual rather than the sphere of the objective world. To achieve this goal, a reduction of Christianity was required. Not only was it necessary to conceive faith in fideistic terms (i.e., blind faith completely divorced from objective knowledge), but the sharp and craggy message of Jesus was reconstructed in terms of timeless platitudes. This enabled Jesus to be seen as a great moral teacher whose example might be brought forward to champion humanitarianism and condemn religious hypocrisy, but whose relevance in the public, objective world of truth was either limited or non-existent. The exclusivist truth claims of Christian theology were replaced by a ‘faith’ that was common to all religions, underpinned by a vague pseudo-inspirational rhetoric of brotherly love.

The corollary of reducing religion to a personal and private affair, divorced from the concerns of the objective, external world, was that now humans could run the world however they liked without being accountable to God. As N.T. Wright recently pointed out in a lecture presented at Asbury Theological Seminary, kicking God upstairs like that always was a way for humans to claim power over the world. Naturally, when humans seek to augment their power base, they will favour political models such as the maternal paradigm discussed above. And there is a certain consistency to that. After all, if ultimate power does not rest with God, then it is hard to argue why it should not rest with the state. If God is an absentee Father, then there is a power vacuum which Mother state will rush to fill.

Thus emerged the idea of Secularism. Originally secularism was not about getting rid of faith but simply making sure that it remained in its place (i.e. a personal and private affair). This is where many Christians often misunderstand the real threat that secularism poses. As David Wells puts it,

"It is axiomatic that secularism strips life of the divine, but it is important to see that it does so by relocating the divine in that part of life which is private. Viewing the process from one angle, one can quite validly say that secular humanism is irreligious in its effects; from another angle, it is equally valid to say that it allows for a cohabitation with religion under certain circumstances. Those who have become alarmed by its first aspect, attacking ‘secular humanism’ for its irreligion in the public sphere, may sometimes have done us a disservice by failing to acknowledge its other aspect, its effect in the private sphere, its religiousness."[9]

Secularism effectively privatised Christianity as “‘sectarian,’ while secular philosophies like materialism and naturalism were put forth as ‘objective’ and ‘neutral,’ and therefore the only perspectives suitable for the public sphere…. Faith is often reduced to a separate add-on for personal and private life – on the order of a private indulgence, like a weakness for chocolates – and not an appropriate topic in the public arena.”[10] This created a hitherto unprecedented gap between the sacred and the secular spheres, with religion having increasingly less relevance to everyday life in the real world. It is unprecedented because, as Irving Kristol noted:
religion that is a merely private affair has been, until our time, unknown in the annals of mankind…. Such religion quickly diminishes into an indoor pleasure, a kind of hobby of one or more individuals, like reading a book or watching television.[11]
Lesslie Newbigin made the same point in his book The Gospel in Pluralist Society:
The sharp line which modern Western culture has drawn between religious affairs and secular affairs is itself one of the most significant peculiarities of our culture, and would be incomprehensible to the vast majority of people.[12]

In his survey of the Western mind, Tarnis speaks of the “double-truth universe” that followed the advent of secularism:

"Thus arose the psychological necessity of a double-truth universe. Reason and faith came to be seen as pertaining to different realms, with Christian philosophers and scientists, and the larger educated Christian public, perceiving no genuine integration between the scientific reality and the religious reality."[13]

The sure sign that Secularism is fully entrenched in society is when we are precluded from even asking whether a particular religious belief is true or false since it is a universally accepted axiom that faith is completely outside rational discourse. In such a society, the real crime of the Christian is not what he happens to believe, but that he claims objectivity for his beliefs in the first place. As David Wells points out,
Critics of Christian faith used to set themselves in opposition to it on the grounds that this or that tenet was unbelievable. Today, postmodern critics oppose Christianity not because of its particulars, but simply because it claims to be true.[14]

[1] Tarnis, Passion of the Western Mind, p. 274.

[2] Cited by Rietkerk, The Future Great Planet Earth (Nivedit Good Books, 1989), p. 11.

[3] Steven M. Nadler, A Companion to Early Modern Philosophy (Wiley-Blackwell, 2002), p. 239.

[4] The Encyclopédie was paradigmatic of Enlightenment thought. It consists of seventeen volumes, put together in France under the supervision of Diderot, during the years of 1751 and 1772. This Encyclopédie attempted to catalogue the whole of human knowledge. It was a noble undertaking with its aim to create “a universal and rational dictionary…to bring together the knowledge scattered over the surface of the earth,” as Diderot wrote of it. The Encyclopédie has almost become synonymous with the Enlightenment, for it offered more than what we think of an encyclopaedia offering. Not only did it give the latest facts about everything under the sun, it was full of ‘enlightened’ interpretation. Put another way, it was rather like a massive editorial on all aspects of life. So controversial were many of the viewpoints that the writers were frequently in trouble with the censor. Indeed, Diderot even had to spend some time in prison as a result of his controversial opinions. Nevertheless, the message of the encyclopaedists did get out. Their message was that we should view reality in a whole new way, with man rather than God being the centre. The quotations I am using are taken from extracts of the Encyclopédie from The Enlightenment: Texts, I, edited by Simon Eliot and Keith Whitlock (Milton Keynes: The Open University, 1992).

[5] To this might be added many other dualities that were popularised at the time of the Enlightenment. Bishop Tom Wright has written that the splitting apart of history and faith, facts and values, religion and politics, nature and supernature, liberal and conservative, can all be traced make to the 18th century. The consequence is that “each of those categories now carries with it, in the minds of millions of people around the world, an implicit opposition to its twin, so that we are left with the great difficulty of even conceiving of a world in which they belong to one another as part of a single indivisible whole.” N.T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus (London: SPCK, 2000), p. 9.

[6] Nancy Pearcey, ibid, p. 68. See also Peter Berger, Facing Up to Modernity: Excursions in Society, Politics, and Religion (New York: Basic Books, 1977), p. 18.

[7] Wright, ibid.

[8] From his Encyclopédie article ‘Pyrrhonian Philosophy’.

[9] David F. Wells, No Place for Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993), p. 79.

[10] Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2004), pp. 98-99.

[11] Irving Kristol, ‘The Welfare State’s Spiritual Crisis,’ The Wall Street Journal 229, no 23 (February 3, 1997), A6.

[12] Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), p. 172.

[13] Tarnis, op. cit., p. 302.

[14] David Wells, Losing Our Virtue (Leicestershire, England, Inter-Varsity Press, 1998), p. 19. The American edition is published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
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Saturday, December 29, 2007

More Pictures From Visit

In November I posted some pictures of my visit to England. For some reason I omitted to publish the following photographs, which I think are quit good.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Isn't Technology Wonderful?

I have always had a great thankfulness for modern technology, but never so much as yesterday. By using a webcam in conjunction with Skype software, my wife and son in England were able to watch the rest of my family here in America open our presents on Christmas morning. Although not a substitute for being together, it certainly did help to bridge the gap. Thank God for technology! (I don’t say that trivially becaue technology, like everything in life, is thoroughly theological. See Denis Alexander's excellent article 'Worshiping God With Technology')
Every evening our family tries to do some form of liturgical family worship. During the season of Advent we used the book The Season of Light, to direct our worship. I would highly recommend it.
We are now celebrating the Twelve Days of Christmas leading into Epiphany, with special scripture readings, poems and activities for the children on each day. Today (the first of the twelve days of Christmas) is also distinguished for being St. Stephen's day.
Update on Problems With IRS

Some people have asked about my earlier comment about our problems with the IRS. Here's what the deal was: when I was living in England I had no idea that I was supposed to be filing IRS tax returns during my period of self-employment. As a consequence, the IRS charged us fines for late filing of our 2004-6 tax returns, even though for 2004 and 2005 I didn't actually earn enough to have to pay taxes. In 2006 I earned sufficient income to pay taxes (which were demanded by both countries!) and in addition to this I also had to pay penalties for late filing. We have now managed to catch up with all the back-log of payments and penalties, so we now have a clean slate. I appreciate everybody's concern.

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Sunday, December 23, 2007

Critique of Maternal Statecraft

In a previous post I explored a number of areas in which the modern state assumes the role of mother. These thoughts built on some of the points I made in the article I wrote for the Kuyper Foundation and may possibly form the backdrop to an additional article for that journal. In a series of successive posts, I want to share some of my thoughts on this subject and hopefully get some feedback before going to print.

I begin with a qualification about the previous post through stressing what I am not saying. In claiming that the modern state acts as mother, it does not mean that lawmakers are self-consciously thinking in terms of the maternal paradigm when they construct policy. A conceptual paradigm, like a worldview, can quite easily operate in the background without ever being recognised.

Just as the impulse to be a faithful dog is ennobling in a dog but demeaning when exhibited by a man, so the mothering instinct is nurturing in a mother but tyrannical when assumed by government. Despite this tendency to tyranny, however, it is not by its effects but by its starting point that this pattern of government must ultimately be assessed. The starting point is a rejection of the Biblical teaching on the role of government.

According to scripture, earthly rulers have the God-appointed task to bring God’s order to God’s world against the day when He will take power and rule directly. [Space does not permit me to give a complete Biblical defence of this view, but merely to offer a few scriptural pointers. A good Biblical defence for this view of government can be found in Cary DeMar’s three volume series God and Government (Atlanta, GE: American Vision, 1997).]

This is brought out in Romans 13 where Paul makes it clear that the job of the state is to retrain evil. The state achieves this end through wielding the sword to punish evil-doers. This enables the nation to avoid anarchy and to achieve social order. In a state of anarchy it is normally the rich and powerful who triumph at the expense of the week. The institution of statecraft protects the weak by punishing those who would take away my private property or stop me buying and selling. On a larger scale, if another country tries to invade our land, the government defends our collective property.

Under the above scheme of things, government is there to preserve, not to create, an independent social order. It is not to be salt and light but the sword. It is there to allow people to get on with their lives similar to the way a fence allows sheep to peacefully graze. While it does not have a mandate to try to change the nation for the better, the state has been given the job to protect law and order and, in so doing, preserve what already exists in order that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity” (1 Tim. 2:2) C.S. Lewis makes the point like this in Mere Christianity:

It is easy to think the State has a lot of different objects - military, political, economic, and what not. But in a way things are much simpler than that. The State exists simply to promote and to protect the ordinary happiness of human beings in this life. A husband and wife chatting over a fire, a couple of friends having a game of darts in a pub, a man reading a book in his own room or digging in his own garden - that is what the State is there for. And unless they are helping to increase and prolong and protect such moments, all the laws, parliaments, armies, courts, police, economics, etc., are simply a waste of time.

When we consider the vocation of the Church, we find that the reverse is the case. The Church, not the state, is God’s instrument for bringing life and positive change to the world. The images used in scripture to describe the role of the Church bear this out: the Church is to be the city on a hill (Mt. 5:14), a light to the nations (Mt. 5:14) and God’s means for bringing salt or flavour to the world (Mt. 5:13). Whereas the civil magistrate is mandated to bear the sword against those who practice evil (Rom. 13:4), the Church is not authorized to use force against threats to law and order (Rom. 12:9). Rather, the Church is called to be proactive in bringing good to society (Mt. 28:18-19; Rom. 12:21; 2 Cor. 5:18-19; Col. 1:19-23), as epitomized in our Lord’s prayer, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Mt. 6:10).

The Maternal Church

There are many equally correct ways to organise the above aspects of the Church’s vocation into a single organising principle, and one of these is certainly the motif of motherhood.
[1] The relation of the Church to God’s people is similar to the relation between a mother and her children, a relation which the Head of the Church movingly evoked (Lk. 13:34). The Church, like a good mother, takes responsibility for teaching her children (Rom. 12:7) and equipping them for good works (2 Tim. 3:16-17) and helping them when they are sick (James 5:14). The Church, like a good mother, has a mandate to provide materially for her children (Rom. 12:8 & 13; 2 Cor. 8 & 9), even redistributing wealth among her offspring (2 Cor. 8:14-15) so that none go without. Through the institution of baptism the Church, like a good mother, washes her children. The Church, like a good mother, is called to provide teaching, accountability and discipline to those under her authority. The Church, as a good mother, gently draws us to our Father. To the degree that scripture anticipates the time when the entire earth will be brought into the family of God, it gives us freedom to think of the Church as a mother to all people, in potentiality if not yet in actuality.

The Church acts as mother to the degree that She is central to all of life. Without Mother Church, life would collapse. The entire life of the Christian should revolve around Church just as the entire life of a young child revolves around mother. Douglas Jones describes this aspect of the Church in his essay ‘Mother Kirk’.

The Church should be so central in our thinking that without her life would collapse. She should play prominently in our understanding of the past, the present, and the future. She - not the state or the family or the individual – should be first on our lips when we discuss evangelism and social change and the good life. We should turn to the Church first for doctrinal nourishment and practical raiment.

At the heart of the Church is the institution of the Eucharist. Here the Church, like a good mother, nourishes us with her food. I have already alluded to the principle that human beings have an instinct to follow the person who provides food. In the gospel, it was after Jesus fed the crowds that they were ready to follow Him. We expect food from our parents and that is why we pray to our Father in heaven, ‘give us this day our daily bread.’ That is not something we should pray to the state because the state is not our parent. But when the state feeds us, we unconsciously begin to think of it in a parental light, which itself orients us to look more favourably on its augmented power. As Schlossberg notes, “A class that is able to distribute life’s blessings exercises a godlike power.”

God’s answer to the maternal state is the maternal Church.

The Church and state have opposite goals. While the former is instituted to cultivate virtue and maturity on the earth and is equipped to do this with the gospel, the later is instituted to maintain law on the earth and is equipped to do this with the sword (i.e. force). While the function of the Church and the state are opposite in this respect, they have complimentary ends that should work together like two blades in a pair of scissors: when the Church promotes social good it discourages evil from flourishing; when the state punishes crime it encourages good to flourish.

Just as we saw the state frequently abandons its God-prescribed vocation, so the Church is often tempted to abandon its spiritual weapons and take up the carnal weapons of the state. Thus, instead of promoting redemption in the world through the spiritual resources Christ has provided, many Christians have the tendency to adopt the world’s mindset which says that the solution to any problem is a policy. According to this way of thinking, as soon as enough Christians are elected and as soon as enough godly laws are passed, then the national neurosis can be rectified. Implicit behind such thinking is the salvation through statecraft ideology that Jesus had to continually confront during His earthly ministry. Because many Jews in Jesus’ day saw the kingdom of God in externals only, they expected the Messiah to bring social revolution. Like the Israelites during the time of Gideon, they believed that God was going to fix the earth by first fixing the world’s systems.

Although the Church cannot fix the world through the power of politics, she has been given tools for bringing change into the world. Those tools are Word and Sacrament, the law and the testimony, as outworked into all the nooks and crannies of the life of the expanding Church. While it is true that government must be evangelized as must every other area of culture, the best a truly Christianized government could do is to fulfill its God-appointed goal of retraining evil. Changing hearts must be left up to the Church. As Douglas Jones puts it in Angels in the Architecture,

The restoration of the nations is not, in any important sense, a political process. Rather, the process is one of baptism and catechism. The means given for the conversion of the heathen were the waters of baptism and the words of instruction. When the lessons have been learned, there will of course be some political consequences. But they will be minimal for the simple reason that the state itself, in a nation that has come to repentance, will also be minimal....Our problems are spiritual, and the solutions are the Word and sacraments. The charge was not 'go ye, and elect right-of-center congresspersons.' Now certainly the gospel has an effect on all of culture, as it should. But results are not causes; apples are not roots.”

It will be useful to briefly review the ground we have covered so far. In my
earlier post I suggested that it is a frequent tendency of sinful governments to overstep their circumscribed sphere by assuming the role of National Mother. My Biblical critique of this tendency involved the notion that the Church and state have been given different jobs by God: while the Church has a proactive role in changing society for good, the state has a negative role in restraining external threats to law and order. I moved from there to suggest that the maternal metaphor, while being inappropriate for the state, is a fitting way to describe the function of the Church.

[1] This works on the principle that any motif of the Bible can be used as a single organising motif. We may gain insight by using any number of different themes as the most basic organizing motif of any given passage. See Vern Poythress’ book Symphonic Theology, chapter 7, point 8 & 9, available at

[2] Douglas Jones, ‘Mother Kirk’ in Angels in the Architecture, ibid.

[3] Schlossberg, op. cit, p. 201

[4] Douglas Jones, ‘And Babylons Fall’ in Angels in the Architecture: A Protestant Vision For Middle Earth (Moscow ID: 1998). See also Peter Leithart, The Kingdom and the Power: Rediscovering the Centrality of the Church (Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 1993).

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