Scattering the Proud – Chapter VII

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Downward Journeys

The reasons typically given by historians for the decline of the western church, from about 1200 CE, do not concern us here. What matters is that this descent was, in the end, salutary and providential from a Christian perspective, as it stripped from the papacy the worldly power it had acquired in contradiction of Jesus’ downward journey.

Already weakened by the forced removal of the popes to Avignon in 1309, and the Black Death of the mid-fourteenth century, the papacy lost further prestige in the Great Western Schism of 1378-1417. The crusades had not only degraded Christianity generally, but greatly strengthened the separation of the eastern and western churches. And the hubris of the western church suffered another devastating blow in 1517, when Martin Luther began his protest against indulgences and other perceived corruptions in the church. There followed almost two centuries of conflict inspired by religious hatred.

Coincidentally there was a reawakening of the European mind from about 1450. This was inspired by a renewed interest in the classical civilisations of Greece and Rome, and by western voyages of global exploration. The rediscovery of the truth that Athens and Rome had created orderly societies without the church, and the discovery of foreign lands that the bible knew nothing of, raised questions about the intellectual authority of the church. The printing press removed the reproduction of information from the control of clergy, and enabled a far more rapid spread of information and ideas to a far wider readership. Religious wars, and the memory of religious violence over centuries, equally questioned the churches’ moral authority. The silencing of Galileo, however it may now be defended, was another devastating blow to both, setting the scene for a western ideological assault upon Christianity per se. Even before Newton the alienation of the western mind from Christianity, and the rise of what we call secularism, were well under way.

The ‘Enlightenment

Isaac Newton’s Principia, published in 1687, had probably more impact on the modern world than any other work, including the bible. Newton had discovered some of the most important laws of physics, including those that took man to the moon in 1969. The western mind woke up to the power of natural scientific laws. ‘To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.’ This, Newton’s third law of motion, explains why an inflated balloon, released without tying the neck, will fly off in the direction opposite to the escape of air through the neck itself. It is also the principle behind the rockets that launched the Apollo missions into space less than two centuries after Newton’s revolution.

Using these basic laws of motion and gravitation, Newton was able to solve a problem that had baffled scientists of his time: why earth, and the other planets that make up our solar system, orbit the sun – a perpetual journey around the source of warmth and light and life itself. He explained this in terms of a balance between two forces: the gravitational attraction of the sun upon the earth, and the earth’s own velocity or speed through space, which tends to take it away from the sun. Moreover he was able to prove his theory mathematically, and insisted that the laws he had discovered were natural laws that applied throughout the universe, as well as upon earth itself.

This scientific revelation astonished the most intelligent men of Newton’s time and, in the aftermath of the Galileo affair, further undermined the authority of the Catholic Church. If profound truths unknown to the church could be discovered by unaided human observation, experiment, insight, logic and mathematics – the tools of reason – what value had religious faith? The most dramatic Christian claims about the existence of a personal

God who had intervened in the history of mankind could not be proven by the same ‘scientific’ method, so what status had they?


Probably the most influential reader of Newton was the French writer, Voltaire — not a scientist but a propagandist for the application of ‘reason’ in all spheres of knowledge and life. He became chief spokesman for the ‘Enlightenment’, an intellectual movement which dominated the eighteenth century and shaped the whole idea of modernity. Its purpose was to make ‘reason’, not religious faith, the basis of European culture. Its leaders, the ‘philosophes ’, were convinced that the natural laws of physics discovered by Newton were merely the first to be discovered of many other similar laws governing other branches of knowledge, and simply waiting to be identified. They believed they were on the brink of a universal understanding, that reason was the only key to knowledge and would soon unlock all of it.

Among those other areas of knowledge were the nature of man and society, until then largely monopolised by the churches. The enlightenment became convinced that, applied to these, reason would reveal similar scientific laws which would make theology and the churches redundant. Profoundly optimistic about man released from clerical obscurantism, the Enlightenment challenged the whole concept of sin, particularly original sin. The only basic evils, they argued, were ignorance and confusion, which they charged the clergy with deliberately exploiting in order to maintain their own monopoly of thought. Out of this belief arose branches of science unknown until then — including economics, psychology, political science, sociology and anthropology. Out of these in turn emerged the ideologies which caused such havoc in the twentieth century.

An essential component in the Enlightenment’s reaction against institutional Christianity was a reaction against the history of religious violence which had followed the union of church and state in Europe in the fourth century. Voltaire, in his Dictionary of Philosophy, portrayed Christ as wringing his hands over the mounds of human bones resulting from the persecution of heresy, the Crusades, the burning of witches, the work of the Inquisition (still operating in Spain in the era of the Enlightenment) and the wars of religion which had followed the protestant Reformation and Counter (i.e. Catholic) Reformation in the 1500s. ‘Crush the infamy!’ was his attitude towards institutional Christianity, in particular the Catholic Church. Clerics were from that point on generally on the defensive, no longer capable of forming the minds of most intellectuals of the West.

Applied Science – The Industrial Revolution

Applied to technology, science and reason had spectacular success. The best early example was the Watt steam engine, first applied not to the problem of transport but to powering other machines, such as the spinning and weaving machines of the cotton industry in England. These and other similar developments began the industrial revolutions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which brought about the fastest social changes in the whole of human history. The steam engine did for the nineteenth century what the microchip will do for the twenty-first – and both are owed to the scientific attitude towards knowledge that began with the Enlightenment. The idea of progress, expected in all areas of life, began to dominate not only the intelligentsia, but popular culture also.

In the aftermath of the French Revolution, the Catholic Church scored another spectacular own-goal by siding with the forces of reaction against the principle of democracy. The future lay as much with democracy in the world of politics as it did with science in the realm of education. In alienating both, the church was guaranteeing the advance of secularism. Slow to detach itself from the principle of slavery, it also suffered by rejecting the principle of religious freedom. Until Napoleon’s armies marched into the papal States in the early years of the nineteenth century, Jewish ghettos had existed there. As a result, few sympathised with the papacy when it lost most of its territorial independence to the advance of Italian nationalism by 1870.

Meanwhile the power of technology to change and control our material circumstances necessarily also undermined the sense of being at the mercy of uncontrollable forces such as weather patterns, which had periodically caused famines throughout Europe. Advances in medical science showed that human disease might also be scientifically controllable. Reliance upon God to ‘deliver us from evil’ tended to be replaced by faith in science. The status of the cleric necessarily plummeted as that of the scientist rose.

Darwin’s Impact

Another hammer blow struck the churches in 1859, as a direct consequence of the Enlightenment, when the biologist Charles Darwin advanced the theory that all species of life were subject to very gradual change through vast periods of time, as the result of the success of slight genetic variations in helping particular strains to survive. He pointed out the similarity between the physiology of man and that of primates, implying an evolutionary relationship and the gradual emergence of all forms of life from more primitive forms. The implications of this appeared to contradict the biblical account of creation. Another new science, Geology, pointed to other evidence that the earth was not just about 4,000 years old, as the bible suggested, but many millions, and that the many different layers of rock and clay beneath man’s feet testified to the truth of slow evolutionary change over this vast period.

Meanwhile the industrial revolutions of the west had led to an age of European imperialism, a secular upward journey which made Europe, by the mid-nineteenth century, master of the world in economic and military terms. However, the rise of the USA, and the great wars of the twentieth century, brought an end to this era, and encouraged the spread of anti-European nationalisms to what had been European colonies.

The Sexual Revolution

In the twentieth century, the Enlightenment delivered another series of shocks to Christendom. Freud, the greatest single influence on the science of psychology, insisted upon the baneful influence of Christian sexual repression upon the health of the human psyche. In so doing he began a revolution in western attitudes to sexuality which eventually deprived the celibate Catholic clergy of their last ideological lever. Freud also dismissed religion as a neurotic fantasy based upon infantile longing for an authoritarian parent. This seemed even more persuasive when cultural anthropologists later pointed to the strong similarity of the bible texts to other ancient foundation myths, suggesting that all were simply manifestations of the human psyche and ancient culture, with no revelatory power and no profound message for twentieth-century humanity.

These developments all combined to persuade many in the educated classes in the west of the unlikelihood of the existence of a non-material being with human sympathies who had intervened in human history, most notably through divine incarnation in the man Jesus. Many others, although unable to contest the findings of science, argued that religion had an important moral and cultural role, and so could not be simply jettisoned. So, both the rational outlook and the churches survived, but the latter were badly shaken and generally in retreat. Only fundamentalism – a rejection of the scientific outlook in favour of a literalist interpretation of the bible – thrived, at the expense of an even wider chasm between the western mind and the downward journey of Jesus. The Christian view of the world was gradually displaced by a secular cast of mind in almost all aspects of life. The average Christian in the west came to live mentally in two different worlds – the Sunday world of God, sin and redemption, and the weekday world which knew nothing of these and was increasingly governed by the attitudes of the Enlightenment and the values of the expanding global market.

The latter world is the world of the secular, that is, of all that is non-religious. The normal discourse of this world has to do with the problem of making a living in an increasingly technological culture. It tends to be embarrassed by, and even hostile to, talk of the spiritual, the non-material – matters not subject to observation, measurement and control.

The Birth of Secularism

Thus, religious claims to important truth are under attack on two fronts: for being a potential source of violence, and for being intellectually unverifiable and obscurantist.

However, as we have seen, the political and economic ideologies which emerged from the enlightenment, together with all of the human and political sciences, did not fulfil the expectations of the philosophes. The century of technological marvels just ended was also the century of greatest human violence and suffering, by an enormous margin, largely due to improvements in the technology of death. The Enlightenment had entrusted the fate of man to science, but scientists too were corruptible by the upward journey of nations — turning their attention to the invention of weapons such as breech-loading rifles and artillery, machine guns and poison gas. In the trenches of World War I, these slaughtered young men in their millions. Tanks and military aircraft appeared for the first time, and proved their potential for mass slaughter in World War 2.

The Age of Ideology

The ideologies that justified these wars also originated in the Enlightenment. Nationalism assured young men all over Europe in 1914 that they would be in one another’s capital cities by Christmas. It was also the fundamental driving force of German expansion that caused World War 2. It still plagues the Balkans and the Middle East. And socialism justified a programme of mass terror in eastern Europe from 1917 until 1953.

And the ultimate cost of our extraordinary technical advance in the west is an endangered environment for which the greatest economic powers as yet take no global responsibility. Extolling the benefits of individual ownership of an eternally expanding array of consumer goods, we have adopted and globalised a lifestyle of material profligacy on a scale which, as a model for the developing world, promises certain global disaster.

Thus, the extraordinary enthusiasm generated by the early Enlightenment has evaporated. The confidence that reason could build Utopia has been replaced by a drug-induced flight from reality among our young.

Moreover, the progress of reason itself has undermined the optimism of the Enlightenment by questioning the possibility of us humans ever arriving at what used to be called absolute truth. Since the existence of a God cannot be proved by reason, the existence of absolute objective truth is equally questionable. All truth must be said to be relative, dependent upon the mentality and culture and experience and era of the individual. This pessimism about the whole human project, and about our ability to know anything for sure about anything, is broadly termed ‘post-modernism’. The sheer nihilism of the term is itself evidence of reason at the end of its tether.

At the end of the second millennium we therefore find both faith and reason, both Christendom and secularism, bereft of confidence about the future. Both are situated spiritually at the terminus of historical arcs which led them upwards, willingly, towards intellectual and political dominance and hubris, then, unwillingly, downwards towards an unprecedented and simultaneous crisis of faith. Confident Christianity has become almost the monopoly, and thus the victim, of fundamentalism, which serves simply to deepen the chasm between secularism and Christianity. The west’s economic ascendancy continues, but we have almost lost direction and idealism.

We are therefore spiritually ready to understand the full implications of Jesus’ downward journey, which bridges all chasms.