From December 1811 through February 1812, a series of earthquakes ripped through the Mississippi River valley in what is today southern Missouri. The earthquakes, not measured at the time but estimated by modern-day geologists to measure between 7.0 and 8.0 on the Richter scale, were felt as far away as New York, Boston and Canada.
They destroyed the town of New Madrid and, for a brief time, sent water flowing upstream on the Mississippi and changed the region’s geological characteristics so greatly that it created Reelfoot Lake in western Tennessee. Eyewitnesses at the time said water flowed backward on the Mississippi for more than 10 hours, helping to fill the lake.
Our world is experiencing a change no less significant.
“We have experienced a massive earthquake,” my Worship professor said in his lecture yesterday morning, “that is changing the course of the river. “We live in a world marked by a gaping cultural chasm – the kind of chasm that only happens every 500 years.”
That’s right. Not since the Protestant Reformation has Christianity and the social structures underpinning it been so violently shaken as is occurring right now. His explanation is a key that unlocks the reason for the increasing polarity of our political debates, our theological discussions and our everyday lives. He argues we are witnessing another battle in the millennia-long war between the followers of Plato and the followers of Aristotle.
I bet you didn’t even know you had a side in the Platonic-Aristotelian debates, but if I can accurately summarize the lecture from yesterday, by the end hopefully you will see that you do, and know which is yours.
A child born in 1500, by the time she was 30, would have known that the world in which her parents lived was dramatically different than the world in which her children would live. Those born in the late 1400s would have lived in a feudal culture dominated by the church based in Rome – the one and only catholic church, those Eastern Orthodox notwithstanding. A child born in the early 1500s would have been raised in a culture with Protestantism, churches started by Luther and Calvin and Zwingli – and others, too. Likewise, she would have grown up during a time of unceasing warfare, increased access to books and witnessed the birth of the Renaissance.
My professor argues that he is in that position today. Born in 1951, he realized by 1969 that the world his children inherited would be vastly different from the one known by his parents. Anyone with a grasp of American history knows that’s true. The father fought in World War II; the son came home with a Peace symbol on his car; the grandson uses the Internet like it’s second nature. But the rift goes deeper than mere cultural changes; those changes are a symptom of a greater philosophical shift.
“Today, there are a different set of values, a different set of norms, a different set of questions,” he said. “A different understanding of the world, a different understanding of scripture, a different understanding of discipleship, a different understanding of worship.”
It all goes back to what he calls “the greatest chasm in Western civilization,” the one between Plato and his student, Aristotle.
You may be familiar with Plato’s belief that what can be discerned with the five senses cannot be trusted. Like a group of people looking at shadows thrown by firelight on a cave wall, our understanding is and can only be incomplete. Therefore, ample room exists for an element of faith.
Aristotle rejected this idea, arguing the exact opposite: The only things we can trust are those we can experience. Understanding is primary under this philosophy; humanity can discern for itself the truth of the matter.
For the first 1,000 years of the Christian faith, Plato ran the show.
About midway through that time, Augustine of Hippo asked the question Christians have unknowingly been answering for the next 1,500 years: Which comes first, faith or understanding? Do you understand so that you may believe, or believe so that you may understand? Augustine concluded it is “reasonable to expect that faith leads to reason.” A successor to Augustine, Anselm of Canterbury, writing in the late 1000s, argued, “I believe in order to understand.”
But when Aristotle’s works were rediscovered by the west, the church began to shift intellectually, incorporating more and more rationalist elements. As previously discussed, these led to the formalization of transubstantiation after centuries of relying more on the mystery of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. The philosopher Thomas Aquinas, writing in the mid 1200s, popularized the beliefs of Aristotle by writing a series of commentaries and holding him in such high esteem he referred to him simply as The Philosopher.
For 300 years, the rationality of Aristotle held sway over the church until Martin Luther pushed for reforms in the church.
Sensing Aristotelianism as a threat to Christianity’s essential nature, Luther spoke strongly against what he called the “theology of glory” – the idea that by formalizing doctrine and rationalizing faith, God himself could be apprehended, likening the church’s practices to the Tower of Babel, a doctrine-built edifice by which humanity would climb to the heavens and see God.
Luther argued instead for the glory of the cross. God’s ways cannot be understood, he argued, because they are secret and surprising. “He is at his greatest when he is a baby in a manger, and he saves the world with his hands nailed to a tree.”
But the Protestant Reformation led to a century of warfare that decimated Europe and left scholars seeking secular means to understand a world in which the church was rapidly losing credibility. So began the Enlightenment, which sought rational rather than spiritual explanations for the workings of the world. By 1690, it became possible to understand the workings of the world without a spirit realm, and modern atheism was possible for the first time.
This is the advent of the modern world, where faith was considered the byproduct of understanding things well, and understanding things well was the key to bettering the lives of humanity. Christianity capitulated to this construct, and Christian intellectuals sought to prove their faith the same way scientists sought to prove their hypotheses – through reason. Thus rose apologetics and the belief that any faith worth having is a faith that can be defended rationally.
Some argued strongly against this idea – Kirkegaard and C.S. Lewis among them. Kirkegaard, who coined the phrase “leap of faith,” argued God’s presence could not be demonstrably proven, and that if we need to understand before we have faith, then it is not faith at all.
Nevertheless, the United States was born in the Enlightenment and birthed by the disciples of John Locke and other prominent Enlightenment thinkers. The founders themselves were no intellectual slouches, and they were firmly ensconced in Enlightenment philosophy. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the American philosophy could be summed up this way: “The world is getting better and better, and America is leading the way.” Scientific advancements seemed to confirm this belief, and for Christians of the day, the world would continue getting better until they ushered in the millennial reign of Christ – right here in the U.S.A., of course. The doctrines of manifest destiny and American exceptionalism were born in the quasi-religious fervor that married Enlightenment philosophy with 2nd Great Awakening values.
And then the 20th century happened.
Scientific research stopped supporting the idea that humanity could know all the answers and started undercutting it, thanks to developments in quantum physics. When Albert Einstein released his Theory of Relativity, it was a shock because relativism implied an ungraspable truth, or even raised the prospect of no sure truth at all.
The theologian Karl Barth stepped away from many of his fellow German theologians to argue against the idea that faith should be premised on reason.
And finally, humanity turned its scientific knowledge into machines of death and destruction as nations, most of them describing themselves as Christian, brutalized each other essentially unchecked between 1914 and 1945.
The church, which had bought so thoroughly into the idea of humanity’s unceasing progress, lost credibility, especially in Europe, where it had been complicit in the atrocities of Naziism. For the first time since Constantine made Christianity the official religion of Rome in 380, religion began to decline in the west. Meanwhile, faith in humanity also disappeared.
As a result, humanity’s institutions came under increasing scrutiny; in America, that was seen in the 1960s-’70s, when a series of events – integration, Civil Rights, Vietnam and Watergate – stripped bare the pretenses of authority and decimated the trust Americans had placed in their leaders. The very concepts of authority, truth and faith became increasingly relative – and understandably so.
Aristotle has fallen. We now live in a Platonic world again.
“We live in a world that is dramatically changing – in which simply saying with certainty one’s understanding of scripture and the truth is not enough,” my professor said.
There are additional elements. Much like the Protestant Reformation was aided by a massive technological advance, the printing press, so too has the invention of the telegraph, then the telephone, then the radio, then the television, then the computer accelerated and magnified the shift from Aristotelian- to Platonic-centered philosophy. Our era has shifted from print-based to image-based at the same time our philosophy has shifted from reason- to belief-based. Each technological advance has democratized discussion, which has further diffused the sense of authority and called into question the exclusivity of truth.
For me, this was a mind-blowing lecture. Not only does it put into perspective the entire history of the last 500 years, but it explains why we see such yawning chasms in our present-day culture. Why a certain segment of the population sees its very way of life under attack by the election of a president with a funny name and fairly mainstream liberal beliefs. Why our churches have been rocked by division over what should be silly differences of opinion. Why the rise of questioners such as Rob Bell and Rachel Held Evans have been met with such bristling hostility from others in the church.
The world is changing – indeed, it already has changed. For many people, that is terrifying. For those of us who will mostly live in years beginning with a “2,” it is far more invigorating and electrifying.
When I grew up, the word “postmodern” was rarely used and said with the tone of voice usually reserved for words with six fewer letters. Christians still tend to view the rise of postmodernism with suspicion, I think. But I don’t think they should.
Why should people of faith mourn the death of certainty? Why should those of us who follow a King who laid down his authority be so eager to hold on to ours? Why shouldn’t we welcome a world increasingly filled with questioners and skeptics? Our God is mysterious, wonderful, awe-inspiring and thrilled to handle the doubts of anyone. Jesus was no Aristotelian; neither should we be.
“A day in which certainty is on trial is a massive opportunity for faith,” my professor argued. “Faith is not driven by certainty. It is driven by doubt.”