This post is a short historical interlude in the series on liberal Christian theism. We have already looked at a number of things regarding a liberal Christianity, so far by marking it off from its possible rivals, either the modern fundamentalist, who, I have suggested, far from being a literalist, approaches scripture with a pair of hermeneutic theological spectacles firmly in place, or the more conservative traditionalist, who stands firmly within the hermeneutic tradition of the church as this exhibits itself in the church’s long tradition of understanding and interpretation in the light of the fundamental creeds and canons of the undivided church. Since 1054, however, this church has not existed, and different parts of the church have developed separately, and largely without consultation with each other, each believing itself to stand, in some sense, within the true and undoubted tradition of the universal church in which alone the truth is to be found. The Eastern church has been, in this respect, the least fissiparous of the traditions, the Western church at the Reformation having been fractured into literally thousands of parts, each of which claims to have kept the faith entire and undiluted.
One thing, however, becomes clear from this brief survey of possible theological points of convergence, regarding the Christian use of the Bible. It is often said, by nonbelievers, that Christians “cherry pick” the Bible for favourable verses, and leave the less favourable on the tree. But this, of course, is precisely what they do, and are arguably none the worse for that. For, while they may hold the Bible to be inerrant, the Bible has always been received and interpreted by the church. It had never been the intention that there should be free interpretation of the Bible, as though the message of the Bible to the church could simply be read off from its pages without guidance. The Bible was read in such a way as to confirm the faith of the church, much of which was formulated independently of the Bible itself. The old expression, “the church to teach and the Bible to prove,” puts the idea in a nutshell. It was never intended that the Bible itself should be used to criticise the supposed truths of faith. The Bible itself was always recognised (at least until relatively recently) as, in this way, much too diverse and contradictory ever to qualify as the bedrock of Christian faith. This is an idea which only developed at the time of the Reformation, when it was believed by a very few that the Bible could be used to demonstrate that the church had been wrong all along. Luther, for example, never intended to use the Bible in this way, but undertook to criticise Rome for its failure to live up to the standards of the faith “once delivered to the saints.” He did not think of himself as setting up another standard of judgement, but as affirming what the church had always taught.
However, into the midst of the fracturing of the Western Church, subsequent to Luther’s 95 Theses, and Henry VIII’s refusal to permit the pope’s reach to extend to English civil law, as well as many other reforming trends, such as those in Calvin’s Geneva, Zwingli’s Zurich, or John Knox’s Scotland, came the scientific revolution, which turned a critical light, not only onto the hitherto largely unsuccessful probing of nature’s secrets, but onto the many assumptions made by leaders of the church, as well as of the political and economic order, thus within the scope of roughly 150 years holding every aspect of tradition up to searching examination and question. It was a tumultuous time, not only of religious and cultural change, but of political disruption and instability that ended in a fit of indiscriminate carnage, largely in the name of religion, which reordered the European world to such an extent that it is now hard to imagine what life was like before the centre failed to hold and things tore themselves apart. It was not a time when the best lacked all conviction and the worst were full of passionate intensity. Quite the opposite in fact. It was passionate religious conviction which tore the European world apart and reshaped it in such a hurry that we still have not, to this day, digested all the transformations.
Christians sometimes look to the French Revolution as the time when things fell apart, when the world was convulsed by a paroxysm of violence from which we have yet to recover — yet the transformations of the French Revolution were already in train by the time the Bastille was invested. It is easy to ignore this. Atheism, says Alister McGrath, was the guilty party here. The religious settlement of the end of the 17th century — a settlement which maintained itself uneasily during the 18th century – was torn asunder by what its supporters called Enlightenment, which ushered in a world of confusion and uncertainty and violence, from which we are only now recovering as people return to the sanity of religious faith. In a book, published in 2004, just on the cusp of a new flourishing of atheism, be it noted, entitled The Twilight of Atheism, McGrath measures the beginning of the revolutionary period from the Terror of the French Revolution to the fall of the Berlin Wall, a period of roughly two centuries, and interprets it as a time in which atheism attempted to secure its ascendency and failed.
McGrath’s understanding of history is desperately confused, but even his confusions show what has been happening. He says that we should see the French Revolution as atheism in action, an action seeking to replace religion with atheism, which ends up, with the fall of the atheistic Soviet Union, a failure. But nothing could be further from the truth. Atheism, while it became more respectable, has never been in the ascendency in Europe, though it is perhaps closer to it now than it was at the time McGrath suggests that it was. Nor is it evident that atheism was central to the French Revolution. Most of the philosophes of the 18th century were deists, not atheists. And while the Terror is widely thought to have discredited the Revolution and its aims, we should not forget Thomas Paine’s retort to Edmund Burke’s lamentation over the destruction of the French monarchy and aristocracy:
He is not affected by the reality of distress touching his heart, but by the showy resemblance of it striking his imagination. He pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird. [The Rights of Man, as I remember it]
Burke simply forgot the oppressiveness of France’s absolute monarchy, as well as the power that Rome wielded through the clergy. Not only did the French Revolution give voice to the goals of liberty, equality and fraternity, which still govern our political aims today; the outcome was that the church was forever demoted from its place of privilege in French public life.
It may be worthwhile here quoting a bit from McGrath’s book, because his interpretation is so desperately muddled that it throws a light on what may have been happening in the centuries since the 18th century Enlightenment. First of all, his judgement of the French Revolution:
Inspiring and ennobling, the project of the French Revolution was at the same time brutal and repressive. The same movement that made such a powerful appeal to nature and reason for its justification ended up using systematic violence to subdue those who were unpersuaded of its merits.” [Twilight, 46]
That is simplistic to say the least. The project was not in itself brutal, though it gave rise to brutality. One does not build Rome in a day, nor is the transition from the repressiveness of monarchy and aristocracy and church as straightforward as it may have looked to those who were at the head of an unpredictable popular movement determined to make things anew. McGrath simply ignores the grievances which centuries of injustice had stored up against the ancien regime.
McGrath, however, is not content with only one misrepresentation.
The new religion of humanity mimicked both the virtues and vices of the Catholicism it hoped to depose. [Twilight, 46]
Again, this is to misunderstand the revolutionary movement. Recall that Wordsworth, in his panegyric to the French Revolution, spoke rapturously of the opportunities that beckoned:
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven! — Oh! times,
In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways
Of custom, law, and statute, took at once
The attraction of a country in romance!
When Reason seemed the most to assert her rights,
When most intent on making of herself
A prime Enchantress — to assist the work,
Which then was going forward in her name!
That Wordsworth’s hopes would be disappointed, and that he should lapse in time into a disgruntled Tory, writing dull ecclesiastical poetry, does not falsify his early hopes. That they were unrealistically high may be true, but that reason was here to stay to assert her rights over “the meagre, stale, forbidding ways of custom, law, and statute” is something upon which he might justly have pinned his hopes. The Declaration of the Rights of Man, an act which the church, despite its idea that God is love and justice, had never encouraged, remains as a lasting symbol of the French Revolution, and what, for all its faults, it achieved. As for McGrath’s claim that the Revolution’s
ten years did not establish atheism as the self-evident religion of European humanity, nor as the philosophical foundation for modern political theory, [Twilight, 47]
it is clear that this is simply a misunderstanding, as well as being staggeringly short-sighted. McGrath, for all his scientific training, simply fails to take into account what the scientific revolution has achieved, and continues to achieve in respect of the shape of government and of public life. Religion continues to play a delaying action, but, in the light of its inability to ground itself, can it be anything more than that? In what sense is religion a foundation for modern political theory?
The question that all this leaves us with is whether there is space, between the ascendency of scientific rationality, and the slow fading away of faith, for a new religious dispensation (to speak grandly), that will not depend upon the waning credibility of the supernatural religions, a religion which would be, in some sense, continuous with the old, but not hampered by its irrational claims to transcendent origins and authority. Such a religion would have to acknowledge the governing rationality of science, at the same time that it borrowed from the old religions the dimensions of personal experience, rootedness in tradition, and affirmative of all that is best and highest in religion’s long history of exploring the depths of human fulfilment and the part that personal commitment plays in a flourishing life. Is such a religion a possibility today? Or will it simply be lost in the conflict between nonbelief and the confused and conflicting world of religion, divided into a myriad of centres of irrationality and oppression?