I’ve been discussing the thirteenth shift in thinking that came about during the Enlightenment and that shapes us to this day. Unfortunately, all these shifts had negative consequences for people of faith. For several weeks now I’ve been looking at the shift from facts to values in many areas of knowledge. This shift has had dire consequences in theology. I’ll offer three examples. I’m sure you can think of more.
How Things Used To Be
Prior to this shift, theology was understood to be yet another area where truth existed. By careful research and critical assessment, one could discover truths about theological matters—about God and his relationship to all creation. Once one discovered these truths, one had reliable knowledge in matters of theology. In this regard, theology was no different from science (or history, ethics, or philosophy).
How Things Are Now
But this all changed in the Enlightenment. And this change has echoed through the past several centuries. It reverberates in our conversations today with friends, colleagues, co-workers, and neighbors.
For instance, I was recently on a flight with an intelligent young man in his late twenties. He asked me what I did, and I shared that I serve with a Christian ministry. He promptly informed me that he was an atheist, because he believes only in what he can prove. He said he really wasn’t interested in mere beliefs and opinions, but only the facts of science.
In essence, this young man was saying that theology is about “values” or “beliefs” but not facts. On the other hand, science is about facts, and not about “values” or “beliefs.” Each person must choose which to follow. And the rational person goes with facts, not mere beliefs.
He was espousing the “fact/value dichotomy” that the Enlightenment handed down to us. Many people just assume that this is how reality is. In fact, he was so steeped in this Enlightenment epistemology that, no matter how many different ways I tried to help him see this was a false dichotomy, he just couldn’t grasp what I was saying.
I first offered a number of lines of reasoning showing the Christian faith is based on evidence—that is, on facts (I discuss some of them here). He didn’t have categories to understand what I was saying. So I then tried to explain a number of the faith commitments made in the study of science (I touched on some of these here). He couldn’t see that either. We were at an impasse. He was a chronological snob, and nothing I said was going to convince him that he shouldn’t be!
This epistemological shift is also solidly entrenched in university classes, curricula, and entire departments these days. For instance, theology departments have disappeared from public universities. This is because theology comes from the Greek words “theos” (God) and “logos” (reason or knowledge). Theology is “reason or knowledge concerning God.”
But this won’t do post-Enlightenment. So it’s out with theology departments. In their place, we have religion departments. This distinction may seem minor, but it is not. Whereas theology studies the objective (truths about God), religion studies the subjective experience of religious people. Religion’s focus is on what different people believe–the values and beliefs they hold for personal reasons–without any evaluation of whether those beliefs are true or false concerning God and his relationship to the world. The fundamental assumption is that religion is about private opinions (“values”), not facts and knowledge. If you want facts and knowledge, go over to the science department.
In The Church
Sad to say, many churches have embraced this Enlightenment thinking as well. It is not uncommon for a church, even one that affirms the core doctrines of the faith (such as those contained in the Apostles’ Creed), to function in practice as if our faith consists of mere beliefs, rather than knowledge of facts.
For instance, when someone comes to faith or joins many churches there is very little emphasis on learning (even basic) Christian theology. The message expressed is that our faith is about the subjective, experiential, and relational (which it is) but not about the cognitive.
Compare that with someone who wants to learn about chemistry. She will take a 100-level course and be assigned a thick textbook. Why? Because truths of chemistry have been discovered, and so there is factual knowledge of chemistry to be obtained. Therefore, as one new to this field of knowledge, she needs to do her homework.
This approach to studying chemistry sounds eerily similar to Paul’s words when he challenged Timothy to “study to show yourself approved.” It also sounds a lot like Romans 12:2, “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind” and 1 Peter 3:15, “Always be prepared to give a rational explanation of what you believe.”
Yet, with notable exceptions, this emphasis on theology seems lacking in many churches in these post-Enlightenment days. As a result, I fear that we are hastening the death of the Western church as we know it. (I highly recommend The Gravedigger Files by Os Guinness, an excellent book on this topic.)
Critique Of This Shift In Theology
The critique here is the same as it was regarding the shifts in our understanding of the study of history, philosophy, and ethics. The fact that different instruments and methods are used in the study of theology does not mean that it is not a field in which one can discover truth. The nature of the subject matter demands different instruments and methods. Only if we insist that all truth must be attained through the “scientific method” will we deny the possibility of theological truth. But to do this is to assume Scientism, which has been shown to be wrongheaded (as I discuss in my series on scientism).
This concludes my evaluation of this thirteenth shift in thinking due to the Enlightenment. Next week, it’s on to number fourteen. Until then, grace and peace.