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How the Enlightenment made Christian belief impossible

By Peter Sellick - posted Tuesday, 19 August 2003

We are used to reading about the decline of the church; with glee from secular commentators who think we would be better off without religion and with sadness, even despair, from those in the church. The church growth movement arose in response to this decline and represents a new thing in the history of the church.

Never before could it be imagined that the church could be or needed to be managed into health. Was not the life of the church the work of the Holy Spirit? It was thought that if we reformed the ancient liturgy the people would come, we did but they didn't. It was thought that if we ordained women, people who saw the church as a boys club would come. We did, but they didn't. This sort of analysis was applied to music, Christian education, and congregational attitude. If the church were friendlier, easier to join, and reduced the emphasis on doctrine in an attempt to be where the people were, then they will surely come. They did not. Liberal Protestants stopped saying the creed, de-emphasised the brokenness of humankind and took up the insights of popular psychology. Still they did not come.

All of these attempts to resuscitate the church ignored the history of post-Enlightenment thought that made it impossible for modern men and women to believe. We have lost the intellectual debate about God and it has been lost for going on 400 years. That is a long time for the church to be on the back foot and long enough to so invade our thinking that it is very difficult indeed to see beyond it. This is not to say that we could return to a golden age of medieval theology - there was no golden age but there was some kind of theological coherence that unified culture. A reading of the church fathers reminds us how far we have travelled away from a coherent formulation of the faith before faith became a choice one made instead of an inherited place in a community of practice.


What were the intellectual moves that made faith impossible for modern man? It is important to understand that these moves were made by people who believed in God, not by atheists. They came later in the Enlightenment history and founded the basis of their atheism on the mistaken theism of the early Enlightenment.

Modernity began with Descartes and his grounding of the certainty of existence on the thought of the individual. Clear and certain ideas could be obtained via this thought. The emphasis on certitude is the key. In the thought of John Locke, who was a defender of the faith, certainty was a moral imperative and it was thus immoral to make religious statements that were irrational. He was prompted to think thus by the excesses of the religious enthusiasts of his day who were fond of claiming as a revelation from God their own religious ideas, as so often still happens in or own day. While I sympathise with this thinking as regards undisciplined claims on the authority of God, it set up a false alternative between certain knowledge and faith. If we entertain beliefs that cannot be rationally upheld then we are morally corrupt and socially pernicious: we take the stand that "anything goes". Locke held that believers should be challenged to validate their beliefs according to a particular tradition of rationality. This assertion neglected the rationality of theologians which had guided theology from the beginning. Locke's move opened the way for a positivist critique of faith.

It did not take long for Continental philosophers like Diderot to use this critique to the devastation of belief. Many educated, especially scientifically educated, men and women in the West reside in this critique that makes even a step towards the church impossible. To acquiesce in any religious belief is to let down the side and demean oneself. If there is no valid reason for believing that God exists then to believe so is reprehensible and to open the way to antinomianism. It is ironic that the rationality that was thought to be a property of God became God's demise.

Part of our problem in this is that Christianity has been confused with a theism that is more the product of early Enlightenment thought in which God became and object in the universe. This identification broke the nexus between God and the tradition of scripture, liturgy, practice and thought that was a mark of the medieval church. God was perceived to be an immaterial entity that could nevertheless interact with the material world. Such a construction produced obvious problems with the theology of creation and was a sitting duck for a rationality that demanded validation. While fundamentalism strived to believe in such a god no matter what, liberalism let this god go but was left with trying to fulfil the assumed religious needs of humanity. Thus human subjectivity replaced God. It is obvious that both fundamentalism and liberalism are products of Enlightenment thought. This is why the present-day church must look beyond the 17thC to search out those rich traditions that bear witness to a reality that is not so easily disposed of by human reason and which informs and confronts our living.

If the church is to become an authentic voice in our time it must confront the false alternatives that have come down to us from the Enlightenment and write a theology that is faithful to the early church. This can be done in the face of our changed thought about mechanism in the world because God is not a part of that mechanism. Any god that is part of the world is world, and a god of the world is an idol. This conception is faithful to the creation narratives in that God is distinct from creation.

If modernity produced fundamentalism that is irrational and the liberal church that has nothing to say, post-modernity must produce the post-liberal church that finds its life in close contact with those rich texts and practices that produced the cultural coherence of the past. It is the loss of this coherence that lays waste our cities and our citizens.


The process of secularisation has proceeded to the point that the church has now no voice in public life other than as the moral guardian beset by a sea of relative values. Again the irony; the quest for certainty has finally found its expression in the absence of all certainty.

Our media do not carry discussion about theology. Religious reportage treats its object as politically significant or as a set of unexamined beliefs privately and mysteriously held by individuals. This is the end result of the removal of theology from the public sphere to the private and this means that public debate is nonexistent. We empty debate by avowing that everyone has a right to believe what they like even if those beliefs are, as Locke would have it, the product of a "warmed or overweening brain". Debate is further attenuated out of the fear of sectarian strife. As a consequence the general public have no understanding of what Christianity is about and do not even know the difference between denominations and religions.

If the church has little voice in public life it has no voice in academia. Australian universities, with few exceptions, are marked by the almost systematic eradication of the theological stance. Because a basis of moral judgment or value is absent, our educational institutions are unable to articulate the purpose of education. When my university wants to make a defining statement about its purpose it produces unreadable documents that couch common sense in the terms of the language of managerialism. We have mission statements and strategic plans which are insulting to academics and form no connection with what actually goes on in the classroom. The vacuum of purpose is covered by such superlatives as "excellence" and "quality". This state of affairs has come about because we have lost any concept of what life is for let alone what education is for.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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