The Widening Chasm
The history of the western world in 1600 words.
There was a time when the world was mysterious at every turn. Much was inexplicable to us: what makes plants grow? How do children come from sexual union? What makes the sun rise and set? From ancient times much that was not yet understood was attributed to supernatural forces. There was a belief that our ancestors lived on, through us, in some mysterious way. Pagan gods evolved from this primitive ancestor worship.
At the same time, people began to master their environment, by learning more and more of the natural processes there at work. A philosophically necessary creator god superior to the demiurge of pagan imagining was conceived. This deist conception of creator God as necessary to explain reality was thus poised to supersede the pagan gods. This ultimate God was thought to be aloof, however; not amenable to personal interaction with His creation.
Among one people-group, however, this creator God was understood to be something more personal to us than the necessary First Cause. The Hebrews understood God to have revealed Himself to them, directly and in the workings of history, choosing them as the vehicle for a message to the rest of the world about His nature and ours. The essence of that message was that God loved His creation, especially those He made in His image, and He was active in the world, to the point of transcending at will the natural mechanisms He set in place, even reconciling Himself to those of us who accept Him, in the person of Christ.
Christianity spread from Jerusalem, to Syrian Antioch, to lands that comprise present-day Turkey, and then far beyond, quickly becoming the dominant religion in the western world. Like other religions, it supposes a metaphysical reality. Other religions were swept aside as Christianity advanced, but the view that there was a metaphysical reality of some sort still predominated. There was only a tiny minority that considered there to be no metaphysical reality at all: Nothing above or behind or beyond that which is physical.
For hundreds of years, Christian thought settled into a coherent systematic theology, but with divisions and schisms separating the different Christian points of view. Despite those divisions, there was mostly agreement, across societies, about the existence of a metaphysical reality pervading the world, and a God active in it, as most clearly proven in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Christ. This had the effect of consolidating supernatural beliefs into the form held by Christianity.
The advance of Christianity was therefore also a process of winnowing out magical or mystical supernatural beliefs in competition with it. By salting the ground against such other beliefs, Christianity was left alone to be embraced or rejected on its own merits, such that if one were to reject it, he would be bereft of any supernatural belief at all:
In the same way that civilized men had cleared the earth, pruned back the forests, planted villages, towns, and cities, so had Christianity stripped its world of magic and mystery, and of the possibility of spiritual renewal through itself. In cutting down the sacred trees in the mystic groves, in building sanctuaries on the rubble of chthonic shrines, and in branding all vestiges of ancient mythic practices vain, imperious superstition, the Church has effectively removed divinity from its world. But its victory here was Pyrrhic, for it had rendered its people alienated sojourners in a spiritually barren world where the only outlet for the urge to life was the restless drive onward . . . Eventually this drive would leave the religion itself behind.
Frederick Turner, Beyond Geography (1980). From a materialist point of view, there is truth to this, in that the seemingly magical elements of Christianity — belief in an entire superstructure of the unseen — was de-emphasized, over time, reduced to austere doctrine and thus becoming vulnerable to skeptical rationalist empiricism.
By the 17th century, the anti-metaphysical point of view began to gain traction. Great advances in science and technology brought renewed vigor to the perception that everything is explainable without the necessity of a god. In addition, established religion was often rejected because it was thought to be a handmaiden of oppressive authority. By the time of the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century, the anti-theist point of view was openly presented as a viable explanation for all of reality. This was a significant step forward for anti-metaphysical anti-theists. Their materialist point of view was its own affirmative philosophy, not just a void resulting from rejection of Christianity.
The ensuing spread of this materialist belief had a cost little appreciated at the time: namely, the “disenchantment” of the world (Friedrich Schiller, Max Weber) or, as Charles Taylor described it, the loss of the “imaginary,” by which he meant not the loss of something fictional, but the loss of something accessible only to our minds. In short: faith, which is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen.” (Hebrews 11:1). The existence of the unseen world is rejected, by materialism, leaving us intellectually and spiritually impoverished. This was noticed and remarked upon, by a few, such as in Matthew Arnold’s famous poem Dover Beach, published c. 1861. Among those who continued to believe in the unseen reality, doctrinal rigor began to deteriorate. In 1860, Henry David Thoreau wrote:
The ancients, one would say, with their gorgons, sphinxes, satyrs, mantichora, etc., could imagine more than existed, while the moderns cannot imagine so much as exists.
“The moderns,” for him, were mid-19th-century people for whom the existence of magical mystery had disappeared entirely, but for the mysteries manifested in Christianity. Thoreau was referring to our lack of attention to the natural world. His perspective adumbrated modern (early-21st-century) emphasis on finding mystery in the form of not-yet-discovered nature, rather than in the putative unseen world.
Ascendancy of Materialism
The 19th century also saw important intellectual developments within the materialist paradigm. It had developed as a systematic belief system unto itself, with implications for social living. Of particular note were the philosophical foundations for communism. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels developed their philosophy of economics and historical evolution on a foundation of atheism. Darwinism boosted the materialist view of reality. By the late 19th century, materialists could and did preach their anti-gospel without fear of retribution. In Europe, ahead of the United States, genuine Christianity was slipping into a minority position.
Theism, denatured of specifically Christian content, hung on for a time, and does so today, though it is fading further into the background. It is sometimes put forward in expressions like this:
A lot that goes on out there is invisible to us. Some of it’s visible to science. Some of it’s visible to mystics, some of it’s visible to local inhabitants, but much of it is unreachable, uncontainable. I think of it as having authority because its order is, at least in some places, still innate. It’s part of what we call “God.” It is the face of God.
Barry Lopez, “An Interview,” Western American Literature (1986). While this kind of spiritual mysticism continued through the 19th and 20th century for people who regarded themselves as “not very religious,” it evinces only a residual tolerance for a more developed theism like Christianity.
In the 20th century, the materialist paradigm had sufficiently gestated and now began to loose its toxins on the world, in the form of wars, revolutions, and genocides. The horrors of Soviet communism, Nazism, and Chinese communism resulted in the deaths of more than a hundred million people. Today, we study these travesties of history with little understanding, straining out gnats only to choke on a camel. At the heart of these evil empires was venomous materialist philosophy.
Now, materialism is ascendant over Christianity, in our culture. Not to say that it’s right or true or ultimately the winner in God’s economy. Materialism is still the driver of collectivist impulses like those of communism, but that impulse is so pervasive in our society now that bloody upheaval may not be necessary to further establish or sustain it. Instead, we are witnessing an ever-increasing insistence on uniformity of thought incorporating the anti-metaphysical presumption.
Modern Moral Reasoning
The signal event at this moment in the slow suicide of the west is the normalization of homosexuality and fluidity of gender. It is a striking instance of the differences in moral reasoning, as between Christianity and materialism. Christianity and materialism are both deeply vested with foundational moral principles, though that of materialism is not codified so explicitly as is Christianity’s. Moral reasoning is at the heart of what it means to be human, regardless of one’s point of view about metaphysical reality.
For materialists, morality is premised on philosophical coherentism and pragmatism, which, without getting into too deep an explanation here (I’ve only got 1600 words) means that our morality is to be based on agreement, not some external objective measure. Agreement will not be achieved voluntarily, as long as Christians hold out for a holy God. So “agreement” is achieved involuntarily, which of course is not agreement at all. It requires restraint of religious freedom. It manifests as shaming of moral conclusions which implicitly reject materialism and its attendant moral pragmatism.
All of that might be ok, we might conclude, if there is no God and it takes us to a better place as a society. But God exists, and cares, and materialism does not take us to a better place. We should know that from our experience of the accelerating devastation of the last 300 or so years, whether we acknowledge God or not.