In my 2009 publication The Twilight of Liberalism, I discuss how beneath the apparent success of Christianity in the West during the 18th and 19th centuries, a subtle dualism crept into the picture which found expression in the anti-intellectual trends of the 20th century.
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. 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 movements 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. The Enlightenment’s compartmentalization of the sacred and the secular, together with its 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 totalizing 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 followed as surely as water runs downhill.
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”) or Billy Sunday who declared he didn’t “know any more about theology than a jack-rabbit knew about ping pong.”
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 instead a privatized faith that, as Roszak put it, was “socially irrelevant even if privately engaging.” It is hardly surprising that around this same time (late 19th, early 20th century) hymnology began to be increasingly “feminized,” with the singing of robust psalms and hymns 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”).
Religion, like nature, abhors a vacuum. Thus it was that as the church became diluted by anti-intellectualism, feminization, pietism and cultural anorexia, it retreated from the academic pursuits. Thus it was that the church as a whole was largely unprepared to combat the influx of liberal theology and deconstructionism that began to pour into England and America in the 19th and 20th centuries.
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