“Histories make men wise.”
-- Frances Bacon
“To be ignorant of what happened before you were born is to
remain a child always.”
Understanding our day demands understanding the day before. This means history.
I write these words with a fair amount of hesitation. In high school many of us were forced to study history under a person singularly gifted to present the subject with numbing dullness. As a result, many of us read the word history and instantly want to close the book and reach for the remote control—as long as it doesn’t turn on the History Channel.
But history is not simply a cascade of names and dates divorced from meaning and relevance. It is the story of our world. Just as learning about your family of origin helps put the pieces of a larger puzzle together in terms of who you are, so understanding the flow of events and ideas from centuries past brings clarity and insight to the present moment. There is an old adage suggesting that the person who forgets history is condemned to repeat it. Perhaps more to the point, the person who ignores history is condemned to be swept away by its force. So what do we need to know about the past that has led to the day we live in?
There has been a second fall.
The first fall led to God’s expulsion of humans from the Garden of Eden. The second fall occurred when we returned the favor. The leaders of science and commerce, of education and political machination have ceased operating with any reference to a transcendent truth, much less a deity.
This is a new and profound break with the history of Western thought and culture. Even among those who might be called “pagan,” true secularity in this sense has been unknown. Whether the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob or the gods of Greece and Rome, generations assumed there was a world beyond the one in which they lived, and they lived accordingly. It would have been alien to their thinking to begin and end with themselves—alone in terms of truth and morality. The second fall changed all of that, and now it shapes the world we live in.
But to feel the need to rise to this challenge—much less to actually rise to it—demands understanding the grand sweep of ideas and events that have led to this condition. So we must travel back in time, beginning with the Middle Ages, and work our way forward through Western history. There are two ways to take such a journey: one is to go slow, taking many stops along the way; the second is to travel fast and light. We will take the second approach in order to gain a sense of the broad outlines of history—particularly of how far we have fallen and why this moment in time (and our life in it) is so critical.
THE MIDDLE AGES
The foundation of the Western intellectual tradition can be traced back to the Middle Ages. Some may wish to go further, say to classical Greece and Rome, but a growing number of historians, among them Marcia L. Colish in her book Medieval Foundations of the Western Intellectual Tradition, 400-1400, have determined that it was during the medieval era that the history of Western culture as we know it began.
The concept of a “Middle Age” can be found as early as Petrarch (d. 1374), a Renaissance scholar who defined historical periods in cultural terms. He perceived that art and language had fallen into decay since the fall of the Roman Empire, which he equated with the sack of Rome in A.D. 410. Petrarch defined the period between 410 and his own day of “rebirth” as an “Age of Darkness,” which is why for so long the medieval era was called the Dark Ages.1 In truth, the medieval era was anything but dark. It witnessed the birth of the university, produced the great writings of Augustine and Aquinas, provided the context for the founding of the influential monastic movement, and gave rise to the engineering marvels of the great cathedrals.
But the brightest light illuminating the Middle Ages was the light of Christ, for the medieval world was profoundly Christian. While the religious beliefs of the common people—often a mixture of pagan thinking and Christian philosophy—were less refined than those of the educated churchmen, their worldview remained thoroughly spiritual. And not just any spirituality. While many would argue against the Middle Ages as being a “golden age of faith,” there is little doubt that a common understanding of the world based on Christian foundations was firmly in place. Reflecting on the popular religious sentiment of the day, historian Christopher Dawson notes that “religion was not a particular way of life but the way of all life.”2 Fellow historian Johan Huizinga contends that the “life of medieval Christendom is permeated in all aspects by religious images. There is nothing and no action that is not put in its relationship to Christ and faith.”3 Men and women living during the medieval era knew they lived in open view of the living God. So while men and women still sinned and fell short of the glory of God, many without shame, they knew they were falling short—and of what, and most importantly Who. This should not be surprising: “Medieval culture was a culture of the Book,” reminds Norman F. Cantor in The Civilization of the Middle Ages, “and in the Middle Ages, the Book was the Bible.”
Few mediums provide a clearer window into the soul of an age than art. In our day film presents the clearest view. During the Middle Ages the canvas told the tale. Considering the nature of the time, it should not be surprising that the most depicted scene during the Middle Ages was the crucifixion of Christ. Medieval art was informed by not simply the biblical text but by a profoundly theological understanding of the world and humanity’s place in it. Because of the nature of sin in relation to the holiness of God, human beings became inconsequential for artistic representation. Humans remained the object, but not the subject, of art for nearly a millennium.4
The reality of a living God so permeated medieval social thinking that there was no doubt of an absolute moral law. Humans did not make laws, they discovered them. When a human law conformed to the divine law, it was considered just. When it did not, it was unjust. Little wonder that theology reigned as the queen of the sciences and would remain on this throne throughout the medieval era.
Eventually the deeply entrenched awareness and acceptance of God developed into the full-blown idea of a Christian society. From this, Christendom was born. Following the edict of Emperor Theodosius in 380 mandating that all under his rule profess Christianity, writes historian Martin Marty, “The question was no longer whether society would be Christian, but rather how this was to be realized.”5
Thus came medieval theocracy, with various twists and turns along the way, but culminating on Christmas Day in 800 when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne as emperor and bestowed on him titles that had been reserved for the Roman rulers of the past. This was the strategic union of church and state, religion and society. Though it would quickly descend into a feudal society and become littered with papal and imperial conflict, for the next eight hundred or more years the politics, learning, social organization, art, music, economics and laws of Europe would be “Christian.” Not Christian in the sense of fully incorporating the values of the gospel: no one should romanticize the piety of the individual or community during the Middle Ages. In fact, it would be the worldliness of the institutional church toward the end of the Middle Ages that would provide much of the fuel for the Reformation.
But the decisively Christian nature of self and society should not be trivialized as merely political either.6 No matter how much the balance tipped between pope and emperor or church and state, no one could conceive of a secular society. “Even when laymen attacked churchmen,” notes J. M. Roberts, “they did so in the name of the standards the Church had itself taught them and with appeals to the knowledge of God’s purpose it gave them.”7
This “medieval synthesis,” as it has sometimes been called, brought together the secular and the sacred spheres of life.8 So despite tensions over power and control, the high point of imperial authority under King Henry I (1002-1024) and King Henry III (1039-1056) was no different in vision from the height of papal authority under Gregory VIII (1073-1085) and Innocent III (1198-1216). The vision for all was a Christian society and to live and act and think Christianly within it.
This was the beginning of our culture. Understanding the West’s deeply Christian roots is not meant to envision a return to medieval Christendom or to unduly glorify what was in truth a society with many deficiencies. But it is important to establish where our culture began, in relation to things of God and Christianity in particular, in order to grasp how our culture is changing and in which direction. Which leads us to the Renaissance.
The period known as the Renaissance (fourteenth to sixteenth centuries), which was birthed in Italy but spread gradually to other countries, marked the beginning of the transition from the medieval to the modern world of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. As the word itself means, the Renaissance was a “re-birth” because it was seen as a return to the learning and knowledge reflected in ancient Greece and Rome. It was a turn from the medieval focus on the world-to-come to a fascination with the world-at-hand.
There were many forces that went into the making of the Renaissance, though the most significant development initiating the period was the rediscovery of ancient texts (and ancient languages) and an accompanying set of skills to study them by. The entire rebirth was tied to a recovery of those disciplines, from art to science, which had been lost in the collapse of Roman civilization.9 So while Leonardo da Vinci wears the famed tag of “Renaissance Man” through his multiple interests and talents, a more accurate example of the rebirth of the classical spirit was Erasmus of Rotterdam (1467-1536). In his studies of the Greek New Testament and the early church fathers, and in his vigorous defense of the pagan classics, Erasmus became a champion of Renaissance discovery. Even the book that made him famous, Adagia, reflects the spirit of the day—it was an annotated collection of over three thousand previously unknown Greek and Latin adages.
From the Renaissance came the creation of what many have called “humanism.” As the name implies, much of this was simply a celebration of the humanities and humanity itself. Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, celebrating life and sensuality, marked a turning point in literature. In art, the medieval hesitance to capture the human image became a distant memory as portraits—both painted and carved—burst onto the scene. Typified by Michelangelo’s towering, fourteen-foot sculpture David, the human body had been “transfigured into heroic proportions and attitude, not seen since ancient times.”10
At first this humanism did not involve—much less demand—an undermining of the well-established Christian worldview. In many ways it invigorated it, for the learning was taking place within the Christian context that was still in effect from the Middle Ages. As a result, it merely served to expand the existing Christian vision. Social historian Fernand Braudel referred to the early humanism of the Renaissance as a robust and complimentary “dialogue of Rome with Rome,” meaning pagan Rome and Christian Rome, between classical and Christian civilization.11 So during the sixteenth century, Raphael painted the pagan god Apollo on the walls of the papal apartments in Rome. This was not done as a sign of acceptance but of cultural appreciation. 12 This reveals the confidence of the time that knowledge and art were pursued within the context and under the authority of the Christian faith.
So while the early humanism of the Renaissance was built around a return to things classical, it was done in light of the Creator. This was a Christian, or sacred, humanism. Despite some bumps along the road the early humanism of the Renaissance was actually a call for a richer and more well-rounded Christian culture. It was decisively religious and, if anything, was concerned with the renewal rather than the abolition of the Christian church. Thus the cry of ad fontes—“back to the sources”—provided devout men and women with the impetus to reach back into the past, beyond any corruption that might have developed in and through the medieval church, to the golden age of the apostolic era. No group would take greater advantage of this than the Reformers. Though disagreement would erupt between the Reformers and the Renaissance humanists, it is often observed that Luther hatched the egg that Erasmus had laid.
Only when humanism was ripped from its Christian moorings and became a secular humanism did the interplay between Renaissance humanism and Christianity become adversarial. As Francis Schaeffer puts it in his Escape from Reason, when humanism became autonomous—meaning divorced from the anchor of biblical revelation and a Christian worldview—it became destructive. Such a return to Athens, independent of Jerusalem, increasingly elevated Plato’s contention that “Man is the measure of all things.”
This was a radical reversal of medieval understandings, and not unappreciated at the time. William J. Bouwsma, in his study on the waning of the Renaissance, notes the anxiety among many of its leading proponents; many who initially celebrated the humanism of the Renaissance became deeply ambivalent about the future it would bring.13 With “man,” as opposed to God, as the measure of all things, what kind of world would there be? In a bold rejection of previously held truths, values and perspectives, many would claim it to be “enlightened.”
Those who lived in the eighteenth century had little doubt that they were living in an enlightened age, one that had emerged from a time of twilight. Between 1650 and 1750 lived such luminaries as Sir Isaac Newton, Friedrich Leibniz, John Locke, David Hume, Denis Diderot and Voltaire. Historian Owen Chadwick rightly notes that these were the seminal years of modern intellectual history, and that within this span of time the last remaining vestiges of the Middle Ages ended.14 But more than an era ended.
“An increasing number of European intellectuals used new ideas about the natural world, society and the nature of things to attack the established churches, to question traditional views of divine revelation,” Mark Noll writes, “and even (in an unprecedented step) to doubt the existence of God.”15 Or at least the Christian idea of God as Father. At best, the divine had become a philosophical category, a “first mover” in the grand scheme of things. With the Enlightenment came the “rise of modern paganism.”16
To properly understand the Enlightenment, it must be seen as more than an age—it was a spirit or mood. While the Enlightenment period produced the hymns of Isaac Watts, the deeply Christian music of J. S. Bach, Handel’s Messiah, German Pietism, the ministries of John Wesley and George Whitefield, and the First Great Awakening, the dominant spirit of the age was anything but Christian. The spirit of the age instead belonged to the philosophes, those who embraced the Enlightenment culture and popularized it for all who would listen. And many did.
Henry May captures the spirit of the Enlightenment as the belief in two propositions: first, that the present age is more enlightened than the past, and, second, that we understand nature and humanity best through the use of our natural faculties.17 The Enlightenment project was the rejection of revelation, tradition or divine illumination as the surest guide for human beings. Instead, autonomous human reason reigned supreme. The motto of Immanuel Kant, one of the most significant thinkers of the time, was “Dare to use your own reason” (or simply, “Dare to know”).
There are several words worth noting in Kant’s challenge: First, the word dare, meaning that those who did use reason would inevitably come up against traditional authorities, namely, the church. But that was the point. There could be no authority over the exercise or conclusion of reason. This idea of authority is critical, for the Enlightenment was a rebellion against one source of authority—the church and its appeal to God and his revelation—and the enthronement of another authority, human reason. For someone like the French philosopher Voltaire, the Enlightenment offered emancipation from “prone submission to the heavenly will.”
That the reason we use be our own also highlights the independence of human intellect, answerable to none and best able to function separate of anything thought to come from God.
And then there is Kant’s use of the word reason, which for most Enlightenment thinkers, such as the Scottish philosopher David Hume, meant some form of empiricism.19 Empiricism elevated sense experience above all other sources for gaining knowledge. Sense experience refers to that which can be seen, tasted, touched, heard or smelled. What could not be observed, or at least replicated, was met with skepticism. The fundamental idea was that we could—and should—begin with ourselves and autonomously gain the means by which to judge all things.
The challenge this brought to Christian faith was profound. Alister McGrath charts the development concisely, noting that it was first sympathetically argued that the beliefs of Christianity were rational and thus able to stand up under any amount of intellectual scrutiny. It was then argued that the basic ideas of Christianity, being rational, could be derived from reason itself, independent of divine revelation. Then came the final step, the idea that reason was able to stand over revelation as judge. If reason was omnicompetent, as Enlightenment thinkers believed, it was supremely qualified to judge Christian beliefs and practices.20 If reason could not independently produce or verify a particular tenet of Christian faith, then that particular tenet was suspect. Only what human reason could demonstrate became enshrined. While this did not happen overnight, such movements illustrate Henry May’s observation that the issue is not about the Enlightenment’s relationship to religion but rather about the Enlightenment as a religion.21
The speed by which Enlightenment thinking took hold is breathtaking. Prior to the Enlightenment the unquestioned voice of authority for the Western European mind was that of God himself, particularly as conveyed through the Old Testament writings. Whether the task was reflecting on the history of the human race or the explanation of divine purpose, theology reigned supreme over science and philosophy. It was not that science or philosophy were ignored— only that they were to be submitted to revelation for final interpretation or meaning. Even Descartes, in concluding his Principes de la philosophie, wrote “Above all, we will observe as an infallible rule that what God has revealed is incomparably more certain than all the rest.” Yet by the end of the seventeenth century the church had been marginalized, theology dethroned as the queen of the sciences and the Christian worldview reduced to a fading memory among the intelligentsia. For the first time since the fourth century, the church would once again face persecution.
What allowed Enlightenment thought to take hold, and with such speed? There can be little doubt that Enlightenment philosophy was reinforced on a popular level by a series of discoveries and breakthroughs that seemed to place reason in charge of public, factual truth and banish biblical revelation to the world of superstition and even outright falsehood. Most well-known is the famed discovery of Copernicus in 1543, verified almost a century later by Galileo, that the earth was not the center of the universe. In determining that we live in a sun-centered universe as opposed to an earth-centered one, the science of Copernicus and Galileo brought into question the trustworthiness of faith itself. At the time, the Catholic Church considered any cosmology other than an earth-centered universe heresy. The Church’s position was based on wooden, literal interpretations of narrative texts that described the sun moving and the earth standing still. With the Protestant Reformation ringing in their ears, the Catholic leaders were overly cautious about new interpretations. 22 The turn of events went beyond anyone’s imagination. Once Copernicus’s theory was proven correct, religious pronouncements on all matters of public discourse became suspect.
So while the early writers of the Enlightenment, including René Descartes and John Locke, attempted to put their “enlightened” reflections within a Christian framework, the way had been cleared for others to embark on an increasingly secular assessment of the world. Their growing radical pronouncements fell like seed on fertile soil watered by the headlines of the day. A foundational shift had taken place: from “faith seeking understanding” to “faith requiring justification.”23 No longer did reason exist to serve faith; faith existed, if at all, on the basis of whether human reason deemed it acceptable.
If the medieval outcome of an entrenched Christian worldview was Christendom, the Enlightenment outcome of the newly entrenched secular humanism was “humandom.” The most visible manifestation of this seismic shift was the French Revolution, where a religion of “man” was established. A process of de-Christianization began, so much so that Alexis de Tocqueville would later write that “in France . . . Christianity was attacked with almost frenzied violence.” 24 One of the more symbolic events took place on November 10, 1793, when Notre-Dame de Paris, the great church of France—most famous of the Gothic cathedrals—was formally declared and transformed into the Temple of Reason, with busts of Rousseau and Voltaire taking the place of the saints. During the ceremony a hymn to “Liberty” was sung with the following words:
Descend, O Liberty, daughter of Nature;
The people have recaptured their immortal power:
Over the pompous remains of age-old imposture
Their hands raise thine altar . . .
Thou, holy Liberty, come dwell in this temple
Be the goddess of the French.25
The second fall was complete.
It has often been observed that ideas have consequences. It’s true. They do. When the Christian worldview was jettisoned, the context for belief was severely weakened and eventually removed. God had been silenced and, as a result, made irrelevant. Humans were left to be their own master. Suddenly we lived in a disenchanted world, forced to submit everything to criticism and skepticism.26
And it gave us the world we now live in.
William Wilberforce (1759-1833) strode onto the stage of human history in order to call the world back to a true view of humanity in relation to God.
In 1780, after graduating from Cambridge with future prime minister William Pitt the Younger, Wilberforce entered the House of Commons. While many would look to later events in his life as more noteworthy, Wilberforce himself pointed to his “great change” during 1784-1785 when he embraced Christianity. “This transformation redirected the course of his life,” writes biographer Kevin Belmonte, “and without it he would not have become the reformer he was.”1 Wilberforce himself writes, “The first years that I was in Parliament I did nothing—nothing I mean to any good purpose. . . . My own distinction was my darling object.”2
The “great change” changed that.
With his new faith Wilberforce scanned where history had brought the world, and he saw with new clarity the horrors of one aspect of its arrival—the slave trade. Arguing for a radical reversal of British policy, Wilberforce stood before Parliament on May 12, 1789, and for three hours poured out his heart and passion, conviction and resolve. Speaking to his colleagues of his own pilgrimage on the issue, Wilberforce said:
I confess to you . . . so enormous, so dreadful, so immediate did
its wickedness appear, that my own mind was completely made
up for its abolition. A trade founded in iniquity, and carried on
as this was, must be abolished, let the policy be what it might—