Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Presuppositions & Patterns of Thought Common to Both Protestantism & Secularism

(A Sociological and Philosophical Analysis of the Success and Popularity of Evangelical Protestantism, by an Anonymous Observer)

I have often asked myself a question: what is it about the Evangelical Protestant churches that makes them so popular with contemporary people, including many Catholics? And why was it that when I first started intellectually exploring my own Catholic faith (having spent my youth unquestioningly accepting the secular world-view around me) that it was the Protestant positions which had immediate appeal and familiarity? Why did Protestant views of the Bible, church, sacraments, authority, etc. elicit spontaneous sympathies (even though I had no interest in becoming Protestant) while Catholic viewpoints seemed more foreign? For the Protestant the answer would be very simple --- because their beliefs are true. I, of course, hold a somewhat different position.

It is my contention that the underlying epistemological presuppositions (i.e. how one habitually evaluates ideas, events and things) inherent in Protestantism have permeated our cultural milieu -- albeit in secularized form. This has happened so profoundly that when one starts exploring Christianity, bringing one's mental faculties to bear on arguments and beliefs, the underlying intellectual premises one is working from are already concordant with Protestantism.

What am I getting at? I am saying that every person intellectually approaches truth claims and ideas with his own habitual presuppositions. These assumptions form a kind of cognitive filter through which claims and ideas must initially pass. They help determine one's understanding and response to them. Many of these intellectual presuppositions come from one's cultural milieu. Constant exposure and habitual use of them makes their influence nearly imperceptible. Yet they have a profound influence on our judgments and understanding.

For example, in our society the idea that all persons are somehow 'equal' is culturally normative. It needs no demonstration, is rarely clarified and never challenged. Its influence can be seen in people's hesitancy to recognize or consider relevant any differences between sexes, religions, ethnic groups, cultures, or persons. When new ideas or issues come to the fore that are perceived as having a bearing on equality, only those views intuited as favourable to it are evaluated positively. All others are either spontaneously dismissed or held in doubt, suspicion or disbelief. The presupposition about equality is not questioned; what is questioned is anything that is perceived to challenge or contravene it. In a sense these assumptions are as much individual and cultural moods as philosophical postulates.

Many of our secular culture's intellectual presuppositions have affinities with Protestant thought. How this historically came about is not of interest here. One must first see it as true before one wonders why it is true. I will try to demonstrate that it is so by articulating in propositional form common Protestant presuppositions and then correlate them with the equivalent secular ones. Where possible I will also try to name the type of philosophical view inherent in such a proposition. This is no mean task since most of these assumptions are used in almost an unconscious manner.

Also, Protestantism comes in various forms. Attempts to call any viewpoint 'Protestant' per se will therefore provoke accusations of being 'simplistic' or a 'caricature'. Notwithstanding this it must be recognized that while there is variation of belief and expression in Protestantism it is still an identifiable movement. It has fundamental differences that distinguish it from Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Otherwise the designation 'Protestant' would have no meaning because it would have no reference.

Before I correlate some intellectual assumptions common to both Protestant and secular thought I will first explore some sociological reasons for the appeal of Evangelical Protestantism. While underlying intellectual presuppositions might help explain the general appeal of Protestantism, the phenomenal growth today is in its Evangelical/Pentecostal form. In fact mainline Protestant denominations in the West are stagnating or in decline. While intellectual affinities may tend to lead one towards Protestantism, it is psychological and sociological factors that will tend to lead seekers towards its evangelical expression. Therefore, I shall first give psychological and sociological reasons for why Evangelicalism is so popular, before I give philosophical reasons for why Protestantism is popular, over against Catholicism.

In evaluating the success of evangelical churches (and by implication related movements) I will make no reference to actions of the Holy Spirit since such claims are beyond the nature of this essay and of dubious value. From a sociological and psychological perspective the attractiveness of Evangelical/Pentecostal Protestant churches today can be attributable to a number of factors. They include (in no particular order) the following:

1. Their corporate emphasis on fellowship that gives to members and prospective members Christian support, encouragement, and friendship. This is very appealing in our often impersonal and fragmented society. The congregations impress one as warm, inviting and sincerely interested in you. Congregations not accustomed to offering such fellowship (i.e. older mainline churches) appear cold or indifferent to newcomers and even long-time members. Pope John XXIII once said that there are seven sacraments in the Church that can only be given to Christians but that there is an eighth sacrament that can and should be given to everyone: The Christian himself. Evangelical churches have developed an attitude and method that attempts to do just that.

2. Their zeal and apparent unity, which give positive motivation and a sense of common purpose. Division and dissent in the Catholic Church enervates and demoralizes more than it enthuses.

3. Their emphasis on individual conversions and personal witness. Older churches have developed a missiology that is often too daunting and abstract (e.g., "working for more just and equitable social structures") or associated with a special vocation. Evangelical churches have an approach that is more popular, personal and practical (i.e. "converting people to Christ"). This
appeals by giving every individual a sense of being able to do God's work and without having to change vocations. One's present circumstances and surroundings can become a mission field. Whether you are a student, small businessman, or biker you can concretely evangelize through what you already enjoy doing or are familiar with. This can harness creativity and disperse energy.

4. Their nature as largely lay-run movements. This appeals to egalitarian sentiments and personal ambitions. It removes subtle barriers that often inhibit lay people from taking initiatives in churches with hierarchical or rigidly established structures of approbation. Catholic laity are often
passive, confused or frustrated as to their role and purpose in the church.

5. They have a simple, direct message which is easily understood and can be quite compelling. Its simplicity makes it readily translated into catchy slogans and shibboleths ("Bible-believing," "saving-faith" "born-again," etc.). Its simplicity also makes measuring one's success at "spreading the Gospel" more tangible and therefore encouraging. "Confess your sinfulness and admit Jesus Christ into your heart as your personal Lord and Saviour and you're saved!" "Are you saved?" "How many others have you brought to the Lord?"

6. Their straightforward recognition of sin and need for repentance. They do not nuance sin out of existence. This may turn off many but for those who are disappointed or damaged by hedonism or materialism it is often just what they are ready to hear. It challenges them to change what they know needs to change. We have the papacy but often preach pap-acy.

7. Personal testimonials are encouraging, entertaining, and build comeradery. They help others overcome fear of admitting failure and prejudices that Christians think themselves better than other human beings. Stories about people are always popular. People telling their own 'Cross and the
Switchblade' stories can captivate an audience. Such testimonials make God seem more concretely present and active and encourages one to anticipate personal transformation.

8. Promises of assured forgiveness and salvation makes everything seem easier and more certain. Jesus has already done it all for you. No penances, no Purgatories, no need to fret about the Judgment Day.

9. Their emphasis on God's healing and transforming power. Many public 'miracles' and confessions give seeming proof to the reality of God, the validity of belief, the possibility of radical change, and of God's special favour being upon them. Such 'miracles' (some real, some not) help confidence and sustain hope.

10. Their seemingly informal and malleable way of worshiping which can be easily adjusted for the particular audience. Contemporary people associate spontaneity and informality with authenticity and freedom. Set rituals and formality appear artificial, stifling and tediously conventional.

11. The use of contemporary music forms by evangelical Christians for private pleasure and public worship and prayer. Since its inception as a mass industry music has come to play an exaggerated role in people's lives; especially in that of young people. It has become a powerful venue for self and peer identification, mood enhancement, and imaginative escape. As long ago as Plato it was recognized that visceral or sentimental forms of music bypass the intellect and directly appeal to the passions and emotions. The music industry understands this and caters to it.

People who have grown up under its influence have come to expect such a response. If a musical
style does not elicit the expected emotional reaction then people generally perceive it as dull and uninspiring. Classical hymns and traditional sacred music receives this appellation. Christian music that emulates contemporary forms, however, causes the expected emotional response. When used in a worship setting the sentiments evoked are then interpreted spiritually, as when used in
a romantic setting the emotions are interpreted amorously.

In evangelical churches choirs are often replaced by bands. Congregational singing then becomes analogous to a participatory concert. This can attract musically talented youth and their peers, as well as the baby-boomers who grew up with rock 'n roll. It is all very modern and Western but can also have universal appeal insofar as visceral music and 'American pop' have universal appeal. In traditional tribal societies (e.g., African and Native American) and in the lower social stratas of more sophisticated societies music was often more passionate and participatory. In the higher social stratas of sophisticated cultures (eg. Chinese and Indian) music was frequently composed with a more cognitive appeal. Traditional mainline church music also tended to be relatively cognitive and staid. Today popular/contemporary music has become a dominant cultural force. Churches that tend to accommodate themselves and their worship to this reality tend to be the more successful.

12. Their encouragement of strong emotional expressiveness in faith and worship. Human beings are emotional as well as intellectual creatures. In fact, in convincing or attracting people, engaging the emotions is usually more effective than trying to engage the intellect. Advertisers know this well. Evangelical churches intentionally give play to the affective side of man, sometimes even in extravagant forms. Emotional expression is even given divine approbation. This has proven successful around the world.

13. Their newness and youthfulness. As new churches they have short and less significant histories that make them look more ideal and less tainted by the past (e.g., the Inquisition, Crusades, bad popes, Thirty Years War, slavery, etc.). Being also new movements that originated and developed in response to their times, they have a contemporary feel about them that seems more relevant to modern man. And the dynamics of successful religious movements, past and present, is that youth attracts youth, enthusiasm stimulates enthusiasm, and success breeds success.

14. Their implementing of many programs and ministries in their churches. Today people comparison-shop, even for churches, and a one-stop church that addresses a wide range of individual and family needs is consumer friendly. In religion, as in everything else today, marketability depends on discovering what your target audience wants or needs then designing a package that addresses those expectations. When people come to discover the value and need of a Christian moral and spiritual life they also discover just how counterproductive the world is to it. So they turn to the church for guidance and support. This is a large order. Just offering a Sunday worship service doesn't fill the bill. They want a church that meets a wide spectrum of personal and family needs. Evangelical churches do a commendable job at recognizing and trying to address these needs.

15. Often their leadership have qualities or skills that are practical and proven successful (e.g., enthralling preaching style; marketing savvy; youth appeal; organizational skills; dynamic personality; etc.). The number and quality of candidates available makes for greater prospects in selection. So does the freedom available to start one's own church. If one has the requisite qualities or abilities the church might survive and prosper. If not it will fail. The market decides. Catholic leadership (i.e. priesthood) is selected in a more onerous manner. Also, the priesthood presently has little appeal. This means less candidates to select from and less prospects of acquiring those with the most advantageous qualities or skills. This is not said out of cruelty or cynical disregard of divine calling. It is simply stated as a sociological observation.

16. Their appeal to the Bible. This is not uniquely Evangelical. All Protestant churches appeal to the Bible and many expect one to bring a copy to church on Sunday to look up references during sermons. But once one is introduced to other attractive aspects of Evangelicalism this gives it a further feel of validity. One's beliefs are being presented as evident in Scripture.

17. Their strategic moral flexibility. This seems a rather unusual observation since Evangelical Protestant churches usually teach a high moral standard. However, there are three key issues in our society where even Evangelical churches fear to tread: They are the indissolubility of marriage and divorce; conjugal love and contraception; the call to Gospel poverty and admonitions about seeking after material prosperity. In the first two areas Protestant churches have formally compromised or capitulated to their host culture. In the area of material wealth many even claim material prosperity can be a sign of God's favour. The Catholic Church commends one's free choice of material poverty for the sake of the Gospel. It is considered an evangelical perfection. Likewise it warns of the inherent risks in pursuing wealth. Of course, as in the other two areas, many priests and prelates are timid about preaching an unpopular message.

While compromise may be bad for the full Gospel message and ultimately for the health of the soul and society, it does make a church more appealing to the general population. Catholic Church teaching in these areas (especially the first two, which are better known) causes a great deal of
resentment, hostility, and dissent even among Catholics. A lot of Catholics may even be expressing passive-aggressive behaviour (inert parish involvement, tepid practice, lack of financial support, etc.) partially as a response to these teachings. I suspect the attempt of many Catholic hierarchies and their administrations to soften the teachings with ready annulments or silence on contraception only aggravates the situation. They make it look like even the Church doesn't believe its own teachings.

Suspicions may arise that the clergy use these teachings to try to control people's lives and when that fails engage in a kind of hypocritical casuistry to keep support and the appearances of infallibility. In any case these teachings make it easier for many Catholics or potential converts to feel more comfortable in another church.

18. Evangelical Protestantism seems to offer protection from the present state of confusion in the world. It seems so certain and self-confident. Other Christian churches often do not give that impression. In fact the incessant theological controversy and indecisiveness in mainline denominations, exacerbated as it is by the catechetical ignorance of members, weakens their
credibility. Because Catholics and mainline Protestants often do not know or understand their faith very well it appears irrelevant to their lived experience. This leaves them intellectually unsatisfied and vulnerable. Mormons, Secular Humanists, as well as Evangelical Protestants all seem more clear and certain about what they believe. When someone begins the search for some deeper meaning and purpose to their lives these other belief systems all seem to offer something more substantial, stable and secure than present-day Catholicism.

19. Evangelical churches and their members give mutual support to each other, have a welcoming spirit, and openly and aggressively seek new members. In changing one's lifestyle support and encouragement are needed since it is a difficult adjustment and can often cause family tensions
and loss of friends. New friends are needed who understand, care, and encourage one. Conversion can be a lonely prospect without them. In the Catholic Church it often is. In the Catholic and mainline Protestant churches support and friendship can be found but is not readily offered and generally has to be sought out. In the evangelical churches it is automatically given. This support can even be financial. Such kindness and generosity does not go unnoticed.

In the old mainline churches the environment is not geared toward being a support network. Many older mainline church members grew up in an era when this was not generally perceived as needed. Society at large was regarded as Christian. The family and neighbourhood were relatively strong and took care of their own. Also, evangelization had largely ceased in these churches. Most people were 'born' into a particular church and strongly identified themselves with it (even if they did not practice). Aggressive evangelization was seen as disrespectful and confrontational. History had taught the churches to get along by avoiding such things.

With the post-war prosperity, mobility, and moral revolution the strength and protection of family and neighbourhood waned, leaving individuals in the lurch. Mainstream churches did not develop the necessary support networks. Their members were not prepared or accustomed to such an approach. Neither did they yet perceive the necessity for it. It would take decades before the full implication of what was happening would be realized. It still hasn't been. Likewise, the importance of re-evangelizing was not recognized early enough, nor did members and leadership know how to go about it. Their own churches were also plagued with dissent and confusion caused by the same forces affecting society. It was enough sometimes just to keep their heads above water.

In the Catholic Church a further complication was added in some quarters by the existence of a parochial school system. This gave a false hope that the re-evangelization would somehow be there met. It wasn't and yet the running of the schools absorbed much financial cost and human energy. Also, priests were accustomed more to sacramentalizing than evangelizing and found the shifting expectations both unfamiliar and intimidating. Catholic laypeople tended to look upon evangelization as 'missionary work' belonging to the clergy and religious congregations.

Meanwhile, new churches and religions had been developing on the fringes of society that would now come to the fore. These churches and groups (such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, and Pentecostals) already had internal support systems. They also possessed a strong evangelizing attitude and had developed techniques for gaining new members. Because of their different beliefs or practices they had been seen by mainstream churches and society as outsiders since their inceptions. Joining them was, to a degree, a stepping out of mainstream society. Membership growth was largely by conversion.

As a convert to a new and outside group one had to seek support and friendship within its fold. This was known, understood and offered. Established members were expected to be open, friendly, and supportive. Thus when the social revolution hit in the 1960s, with the loneliness, pain and confusion that followed in its wake, these churches and groups were ready with support structures and outreach techniques. For them, the revolution became a source of unprecedented growth while for the mainline churches a cause of radical decline.

Even today, within the older mainline churches, the only substantial growth appears to be among those groups (i.e. the charismatics) who have imitated the fellowship approach, the evangelizing attitudes and techniques --- as well as the other sociological factors mentioned above --- of the most successful of the Christian fringe groups: the Pentecostal churches.

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While Evangelical Christianity's current ascendancy may be understood in psychological and sociological terms, we must still address the intellectual attraction of Protestantism. And I believe much of the intellectual appeal of Protestantism is rooted in a philosophical shift in Western civilization that began before the Reformation, but gained a firm hold through it. I contend that this shift has become so pervasive and profound that the culture at large, even in its secular form, works with many of the same philosophical presuppositions as Protestantism, minus any reference to God, the Bible, or the supernatural. In their stead is usually put the self or another human authority (science, culture, etc).

I will try to illustrate this observation. If I am correct it also helps explain what makes Protestantism intellectually more familiar and appealing than Catholicism. At the cognitive level to become Protestant is simply to factor God back into the underlying epistemological assumptions one already holds. Since our culture operates largely on the same philosophical premises as Protestantism, but in their secular form, these assumptions have more or less influenced everyone in our society. Even nominal or practicing Catholics can have a sense an intellectual affinity with Protestantism.

What I will present in propositional form are at times actual Protestant doctrines. What I am trying to get at, however, are the philosophical underpinnings that influence them and their secular equivalents as well. While certain Protestant beliefs or practices may officially contradict some of these assumptions, I would (brashly) contend that such positions are maintained more out of formal obedience or unavoidable necessity than any intrinsic congruence with Protestant thought. This is not a gratuitous contention. The vague and malleable way these doctrines are defined makes the teaching difficult for a Catholic apologist to pin down and refute them.

A good example of this problem is Baptism and the Lord's Supper. Biblically they are unavoidable practices. That is why virtually all Protestant denominations maintain them as they have not maintained the other sacraments. But they are defined and practiced in widely variant ways. This illustrates the immiscibility of the sacramental nature of Baptism and Eucharist with a purely Protestant theology. Baptism and the Lord's Supper are kept only because they are in the Bible. But one gets the impression that, on the whole, Protestantism would suffer no identity crisis without them. Could Catholicism or Orthodoxy say the same?

When contradiction or tension exists between an explicit belief or practice and an implicit philosophical leaning eventually what is implicit will triumph over what is explicit. In regards to the sacraments, for example, the Anglican and Lutheran churches have tended to maintain a relatively 'high' sacramental theology. Both claim something changes in the bread and wine during the eucharistic service, and something changes in the believer at baptism. Methodist and Baptist churches do not teach this. The Lord's Supper and baptism are strictly symbolic. Nothing changes. The believer's faith and the community's obedience are only publicly manifested.

Protestantism's implicit anti-physicalist spirituality favours the Baptist and Methodist approach. Thus the older churches may hang onto a sacramental theology but their membership will increasingly interpret them in purely symbolic ways. More recent Protestant denominations will tend to be overtly non-sacramental. Anglican and Lutheran sacramentalism is more rooted in their historical proximity to Catholicism than in strictly Protestant theology.

To reiterate and clarify a point: I am not saying all the assumptions listed below have their origins uniquely in Protestantism. Many were floating around Europe long before the Reformation. Some of these presuppositions may even be latent within the human psyche, surfacing around the world and throughout history in various religious and philosophical movements. Catholicism has struggled with them before under other guises. What Protestantism did was give them lasting voice, validity, and venue. And secularism simply adopted them. I think it will be readily seen how each paired premise listed contains an analogous presupposition. The difference between them is that the one formulates the presupposition within a supernatural referent while the other does not.

The following premises suggest presuppositional sympathies which exist between Protestant and Secular thought:

1. Authority

Protestantism: 'Human authorities' (i.e. Church hierarchy and Tradition) denied in favour of the Divine Authority of the Bible. [Human Skepticism]

Secularism: Divine or religious authority denied in favour of the human authority of science, reason, or one's own opinion. [Religious Skepticism]

2. Subjectivism

Protestantism: God is found in the Bible. By reading it He will reveal Himself to you. [Unmediated/Direct, Simplified, and semi-Subjective revelation]

Secularism: Higher consciousness/God is found in oneself. By 'looking' inside you will find God. [Unmediated/Direct, Simplified, and completely Subjective revelation]

3. Radical Individualism

Protestantism: Each individual is guided by the Holy Spirit in interpreting the (literal) meaning of the Bible. [semi-Subjectivism]

Secularism: Each individual is guided by his own values in interpreting what things --- like family, sex, religion, career --- (presently) mean to him. [Subjectivism]

4. Psychological Assurance

Protestantism: The atoning worth of Christ's death and resurrection gives assurance of one's salvation. Past, present or future personal sins cannot eliminate what Jesus has done for me. I am still saved so long as I keep faith in Him. [Subjective Soteriological Assurance; Gnosticism]

Secularism: One's personal motives in acting determine whether one is basically a good person or not. Past, present or future mistakes cannot eliminate one's personal integrity so long as you acted with good intentions. [Subjective Psychological Assurance; Gnosticism]

5. Aversion to Community and Ritual in Worship and Religion

Protestantism: Worship that is pleasing to God is not found in some formal, repetitious human ritual but "in spirit and in truth." Honest and true prayer is from the heart (i.e. subjective) and biblically based (i.e. anti-ritualistic). [Subjectivism, Gnosticism]

Secularism: Each person who prays to "God" does so in his own way. Honest and true prayer expresses one's own experience and understanding of God. Church rituals are seen as unnecessary, cramped and artificial. [Subjectivism, Gnosticism]

6. Emotionalism

Protestantism: Import is given to a positive emotional response in substantiating one's decisions in faith. [Emotivism]

Secularism: Import is given to a positive emotional response in substantiating one's personal decisions. [Emotivism]

7. Personal Relationships

Protestantism: The primacy of one's personal relationship with Jesus. [Individualism]

Secularism: The primacy of one's own needs (i.e. oneself) in all personal relationships. [Individualism]

8. Moral and Psychological Determinism

Protestantism: Man is totally depraved and so everything he does is tainted by sin. The important thing is repenting and accepting what Jesus has done for you. Christ then covers your sins with His atoning sacrifice. Your sins are then forgiven and all penalty due to them is removed. Temporal penance is seen as an inappropriate response. Man cannot rectify his depravity but can respond to it with faith in Christ. [Moral Determinism]

Secularism: Man is impelled by sexual drives and egoistic impulses. The important thing is to recognize and accept them as a natural. One then needs to find healthy ways of expressing them. Feelings of guilt are an inappropriate moralistic response. Man cannot rectify his unconscious, instinctual drives only learn to express/externalize them in appropriate ways. [Psychological Determinism]

9. Radical Autonomy and Anti-Institutionalism

Protestantism: Denial of any divinely established ecclesiastical structure with like authority. Denial of any sacramental mediation of one's relationship with God. Christ's Church is not a visible structure. It is in the heart of all true believers who then gather together to manifest its presence and give mutual support. Grace is not dependent on any sacrament. Such belief puts human works before grace and makes God dependent on them. God gives His grace directly to the believer. 'Sacraments' are merely visible, public symbols performed in obedience to Christ that make visible what He has already invisibly done in the person's own heart. They are not a means of grace but only represent its presence. To think otherwise would be to make grace dependent on human actions. [Angelism: An overly spiritualized understanding of human nature and divine mediation]

Secularism: Denial of any social structures having natural rights over the individual. Denial of any social institutions as necessary to mediate relationships. The individual is an autonomous agent. Social structures exist as human constructs to manifest social bonds and promote the common good. They are a means of providing mutual support to individuals. The exercise of one's freedom is not dependent on state approval. Such a belief puts laws before freedom and makes freedom dependent on the law. Marriage is a publicly and legally recognized social institution. It is established by cultural convention and is performed in obedience to those conventions. As such it symbolizes bonds of love but is not a means to them. To think otherwise would be to make sexual love dependent on social conventions. [Angelism: An overly idealized understanding of human nature and society]

10. The Road to Hell is Paved With Good Intentions

Protestantism: I am saved by faith not works. In fact my salvation is determined by God's predestining me -- not by anything I might do myself. [Religious dichotomy]

Secularism: The true person is known by their intentions more than his actions. In fact the moral nature of an action is determined more by the actor's intention than by what is done (eg. in abortion, euthanasia, pre-marital sex, lying). [Anthropological Dichotomy]
Similar to an earlier premise but highlighting a different philosophical presupposition.

11. Historical Revisionism and Subjectivism

Protestantism: One's Christian life is definitively guided by the Bible, the true meaning of which was rediscovered during the Reformation. Attitudes toward Christian beliefs between New Testament times and the Reformation range from diffident, to indifferent, to suspicious, to contemptuous. Allegiance to much of what was believed in this earlier period is not necessary. Biblical truths may be found then but were progressively corrupted by Romanized interpretations. With the advent of the Reformation the true nature of biblical Christianity was rediscovered. Reformed theology helps guide the individual in understanding what the Holy Spirit is teaching him through the Bible. [Historical Subjectivism; Historico-religious Fiction; Anti-progressivism]

Secularism: A person's life is definitively guided by his own values, within the context of one's culture. Attitudes to the West's moral heritage range from diffident, to indifferent, to suspicious, to contemptuous. Allegiance to the values of the past is not necessary. Many of one's beliefs or values may be found then but often in archaic form or biased by a religious interpretation. With the advent of a more global perspective values have been shown to be culturally relative. Contemporary cultural norms help guide the individual in choosing amongst competing values what ones are true to himself. [Historical Subjectivism; Historico-cultural Fiction; Progressivism]

12. Aversion to History, Heritage, and Tradition

Protestantism: For all practical purposes the above point can also be commonly reduced to this: The believer is guided by the Bible applied to today. The origin of his particular denomination or church and the historical and theological background of their interpretation is of little interest. It just 'came from the Bible.' The historical or cultural context of scriptural passages is of only peripheral importance (it is usually only a concern when a passage is difficult to reconcile with one's own 'biblical' views). That one has reworked or developed an idea or moral view from the Bible goes largely unacknowledged. It is as if God were speaking directly to me and my times. [A-historicism]

Secularism: For all practical purposes (and more so than in Protestantism) the present generation guides itself as if the world began with them. The historical and philosophical background of their culture or views is of little interest. It is just 'the way things are,' or 'what I believe.' It is as if the past has no bearing on the present or anything necessarily of value to teach (it is all 'Dark Ages' or 'ancient history'). It is simply myself and my life and times. [A-historicism]

13. Irrationalism and Anti-Intellectualism

Protestantism: Too much of Catholic theology is empty and vain human philosophy. God revealed Himself for salvation, not speculation. God is beyond human reason. He is known by faith not by syllogism. [anti-intellectualism]

Secularism: Too much of Christian belief is focused on narrow doctrines and right belief. Higher consciousness/God is meant to free our spirits not imprison them in dogmas. Spirituality is beyond human reason. It is grasped more by the heart than by the head. [anti-intellectualism]

14. Pragmatism

Protestantism: Living in God's righteousness can bring immediate blessings as a sign of His favour. These can include spiritual fulfillment, physical health, emotional happiness or financial success. The same is true of church growth: It too can be a sign of God's favour upon true belief. [semi-Pragmatism]

Secularism: Religion is too other-worldly. It has not proven itself beneficial to present human needs. Science and technology have proven practically beneficial. The world has grown healthier and more prosperous because of them. Science has proven itself true while religion only claims to be. [Pragmatism]

15. Legal Positivism

Protestantism: What is morally right and wrong is based on God's decrees and so is absolute. [Moral legalism]

Secularism: Religion claims there are moral absolutes. Actually, what people consider morally right or wrong is based on cultural/religious norms and so is relative. [Moral legalism]

16. Anthropological Pessimism

Protestantism: Sin has left man totally depraved. Therefore, even the good we do is tainted by it. [Anthropological Pessimism]

Secularism: Our psychological history (heredity & environment) effects our thoughts and actions. What we perceive as good to do is influenced by it. [Anthropological Pessimism]

17. Mistrust and Suspicion of Other Belief-Systems

Protestantism: Other religions are false and often under diabolical influence. They are at best human works giving a false sense of freedom from sin or security from damnation. The Bible alone gives us true belief. The battle is between false religion and true belief. Until all are brought to faith in Jesus Christ the world will remain blind and enslaved to sin. The consequence will be damnation for the unregenerated. With belief in Christ comes freedom from sin through Christ's redemptive work and the eternal security it gives us. [Mistrust of other religions and negative assessment of their value]

Note: Historically Catholics have often embraced a similar attitude. As with most of the premises presented this is not completely erroneous. It is simply too one-sided, negative and legalistic an assessment.

Secularism: Religions (and Christianity in particular) are false and often used by the religious elite to control their members. They are at best human myths and superstitious rituals that seek to explain the natural universe and give one a sense of security from harsh natural forces and the reality of death. More often they are a cause of intolerance and war. Science gives us true knowledge of the natural world and universe. Until our secular, pluralistic society came about the West was enslaved to organized religion and its incessant religious wars. Secular pluralism gives us freedom from religious control and intolerance. [Mistrust of religion/Christianity and negative assessment of its value]

18. Radical Egalitarianism

Protestantism: All are equally sinners before God. To think otherwise is Pharisaic hypocrisy. This being so, no human being can claim special status before God. Christ alone is our Mediator. Grace comes to us directly through Him. Thus, Mary and the saints have no personal merits or special intercessory power. Claims of a sacramental priesthood with mediating powers or privilege is clerical arrogance and elitism. [Egalitarianism]

Secularism: All persons, beliefs and values are equal. No religion has a corner on the truth. To claim yourself in a privileged position before God because of your beliefs is arrogant and elitist. [Egalitarianism]

19. Determinism and Fatalism

Protestantism: Our human nature is corrupt and of itself doomed to eternal Hell. We are saved only by faith. Until we recognize this we tend not to realize our predicament nor address it properly. We either don't see ourselves as sinners or, if we do, think we can save ourselves by our actions. Faith alone saves. Faith is given by means of God's grace. No one can earn it. God has to choose to give it. Divine predestination determines your eternal future. [Emphasis on humanity's enslavement to sin resulting in a tacit Denial of Free Will; Double Predestination]

Secularism: Our human nature is controlled by unconscious biological and psychological drives. Many of these drives are affected by heredity or by our upbringing and environment. We cannot control them only respond to them in appropriate ways. But because we are not always aware of this we frequently misunderstand them and respond in inappropriate ways. When we do recognize there is a problem we either deny the cause or think we can repress it. But we can only overcome the negative effects with professional help. We cannot diagnose and treat ourselves. Without it these drives will control one's future direction.

[Exaggerated emphasis on humanity's enslavement to unconscious drives resulting in a tacit denial of Free Will and a type of Double Predestination]

Note: I am using here the psychological model (ala Freud & Skinner). I could just as easily have used the economic model of Marx; the biological-evolutionist model; or the cultural anthropologist model. Each supposes an unavoidable force we are not quite aware of that is controlling much of our attitude, actions and destiny. Usually a degree of liberation is offered either through the acceptance and application of the particular ideology's prescriptive claims, or by the enlightenment it offers.

20. Religious Relativism

Protestantism: Denominations are merely different ways Christians corporately express their [Protestant] faith. No one can claim with certitude his particular denomination is the only true one, only that it is truest for him. [Egalitarianism/Nominalism]

Secularism: Religions are merely different ways humans corporately express their spiritual beliefs. No one can claim his particular religion is the only true one, only that it is true for him. [Egalitarianism/Nominalism]

21. Simplistic Epistemology

Protestantism: God's revelation is found in Scripture alone. Scriptural truths are given with clarity and certitude. The standard for interpreting Scripture rightly is Scripture itself. [Epistemological Simplicity/Certitude; semi-Subjectism]

Secularism: What is true for my life can be discerned by me alone. My heart's promptings and my personal convictions are a sure guide. Each person must judge his life by his own standard. I must be true to my own self. [Epistemological Simplicity/ Certitude; Subjectivism]

If I am correct about this premise then notice how it conflicts with earlier deterministic & pessimistic ones. Protestantism (and secularistic views) have unresolvable internal contradictions. For example claiming human reason corrupted by sin and yet using reason to understand and defend revelation; claiming faith is totally gratuitous and without human contribution yet challenging people to make a commitment in faith; saying all that we need to guide our lives by is in the Bible yet unable to verify this in the Bible; claiming we can be certain of our salvation yet doubting that those who renounce their faith or behave in a way markedly contrary to it were ever really saved; claiming to be a return to the beliefs of early Christianity yet dismissing Catholic elements in early Christian writings; escaping lack of historical evidence for Protestant beliefs in the early church by claiming the true church was always invisible (and evidently inaudible), yet having no problem tracing its historical development since the Reformation.

22. Privatization and Marginalization of Religion

Protestantism: The Church's primary concern is the spiritual and moral life of her members while the state is properly concerned with the civic life of the community. However the state, under God, should respect and reflect Christian beliefs and morals. [Compartmentalization: Between the private and civic spheres]

Secularism: One's values and religious beliefs are strictly one's private concern. Personal values and religious beliefs should not be imposed on the civic life of the whole community. However the state should respect the different values and beliefs of its diverse members. It does this by adopting an religiously neutral or secular position. [Compartmentalization: Between the private and public spheres]

23. "Either/Or" / Dichotomous Thinking

Protestantism: A tendency to radically oppose doctrines in either/or categories. Either one is saved by faith or works; either Scriptures is authoritative or the Church; either righteousness is imputed by Christ or from oneself; either Jesus is our one Mediator or He is not (if you believe in the intercession of saints then He is not); either grace is from Christ or from the sacraments. [Antithetical Approach/Oppositionalism]

Note: The Catholic tendency is often to take a both/and approach.

Secularism: A tendency to radically oppose ideas in either/or categories: Either we have freedom or censorship; either you believe in tolerance or absolutes; either you favour individual rights or state/institutional control; either you believe in science or religion; either you believe in the separation of church and state or you believe in a theocracy. [Antithetical Approach/Oppositionalism]

24. Unnatural Sexuality / Contraceptive Mentality / Hedonism

Protestantism: Christian understanding of human sexuality is dichotomized. Marital love is emphasized as the Christian ideal to the detriment of celibate love. Vows of celibacy are seen as too restrictive and inhuman. When externally imposed by the Church they lead to all kinds of hypocrisy and abuse. Celibacy is left optional and always revocable. The conjugal act is also dichotomized. Morally it can be love-giving and pleasure-seeking without necessarily being open to procreation. God's lordship here becomes a legal formality of restricting sex to within marriage, not over the integrity of the act itself. Contraception is permissible. The morality of variant sexual acts within marriage is not discussed. The moral criteria for choosing to have children or not, and how many is largely undiscussed. [Subjectivism/Gnosticism/Legalism]

Secularism: Understanding of human sexuality is dichotomized. Mutual affection and sexual pleasure are emphasized as the ideal to the detriment of marriage and chastity. Marital vows are seen as too restrictive on sexual expression. When externally imposed by social conventions they lead to all kinds of hypocrisy and abuse. Marriage is left optional and always dissoluble. The sexual act is also dichotomized. Pleasure can be separated from love and either from procreation. Each can be a separate end in itself. Marriage becomes a legal formality without any intrinsic moral relation to sexual activity. Contraception is not only permissible but often proper. Variant sexual acts are accepted and encouraged. Children are an option. [Subjectivism/Gnosticism/Hedonism]

Note: The Protestant view outlined in the last premise is largely modern but is a logical outcome of certain aspects of mainstream Protestantism's approach to marriage and sexuality which was inherently ambivalent, legalistic, and conventional.

******************************************************************

If what I am struggling to present is true --- if Protestant philosophical presuppositions have permeated our society in their secular form --- then beyond the challenge of Protestantism's familiarity and attractiveness is possibly a greater issue. The issue is whether Protestantism can supply the needed corrective to many of the contemporary social problems it decries (individualism, subjectivism, egalitarianism, etc.). For it is a carrier of the same disease. In the end, while many Evangelicals have made heroic and admirable attempts at turning the tide of secularization, Protestantism itself is simply not radical enough to effect the needed change. In fact, it is the precursor of the present situation.

I have tried to avoid any misrepresentation. Some points probably stretch the parallels too far. My purpose is not to score points or posture superior, but rather, to discover and reflect on the nature and meaning of things, including current trends in Christianity and our secular society.

Uploaded, and very slightly edited (mostly the bolding and subject categories) by Dave Armstrong on 6 February 2002.

Monday, April 19, 2004

Thoughts on the Historical Causes of Secularization

Peter Berger, an eminent Lutheran sociologist, who specializes in the sociology of religion, discusses with great insight the crucial role which Protestantism played in the development of the radical secularization with which all serious Christians are plagued today, and from which society at large reels and staggers in moral turpitude:

    Protestantism may be described in terms of an immense shrinkage in the scope of the sacred in reality . . . The sacramental apparatus is reduced to a minimum and, even there, divested of its more numinous qualities. The miracle of the mass disappears altogether . . . Protestantism ceased praying for the dead . . . [and] divested itself as much as possible from the three most ancient and most powerful concomitants of the sacred - mystery, miracle, and magic . . . The Protestant believer no longer lives in a world ongoingly penetrated by sacred beings and forces. Reality is polarized between a radically transcendent divinity and a radically 'fallen' humanity that, 'ipso facto,' is devoid of sacred qualities . . .

    The Catholic lives in a world in which the sacred is mediated to him through a variety of channels - the sacraments . . . intercession of the saints . . . a vast continuity of being between the seen and the unseen. Protestantism abolished most of these mediations. It broke the continuity, cut the umbilical cord between heaven and earth, and thereby threw man back upon himself in a historically unprecedented manner . . . It narrowed man's relationship to the sacred to the one . . . channel that it called God's word . . . - the 'sola gratia' of the Lutheran confessions . . . It needed only the cutting of this one narrow channel of mediation, though, to open the floodgates of secularization . . .

    It may be maintained, then, that Protestantism served as a historically decisive prelude to secularization, whatever may have been the importance of other factors . . . This interpretation . . . is accepted . . . probably today by a majority of scholarly opinion . . .

    The Protestant Reformation . . . may then be understood as a powerful reemergence of precisely those secularizing forces that had been 'contained' by Catholicism . . . The question, 'Why in the modern West?' asked with respect to the phenomenon of secularization, must be answered at least in part by looking at its roots in the religious tradition of the modern West.

    (The Sacred Canopy, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967, 111-113, 124-125)

I think complex causality and multiple causality are involved in virtually all historical matters, especially those involving ideas, and those as vast and huge as a topic like secularization (arguably one of the most nebulous and subjective of any concept in the history of ideas in general and cultural sociology in particular).

I rarely if ever subscribe to hypotheses concerning Great Cultural Forces so excessively reductionist and simplistic as Neo-Platonism vs. Neo-Scholasticism Within an Overall Realist Framework, or some such Grand Explanation.

To illustrate such erroneous and shortsighted thinking (using one prominent and influential example), I've always loved Francis Schaeffer (I even named my evangelical campus outreach "True Truth Ministries" after a famous phrase of his), but I knew 20 years ago in my evangelical Protestant period that he was all wet when trying to grapple with St. Thomas Aquinas. He was clearly in over his head (and seemed to have no awareness of this at all).

I am not alone in that analysis. Ronald W. Ruegsegger, editor of Reflections on Francis Schaeffer (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1986), is a philosopher himself, and he takes the same position I have for a long time (which is not against Schaeffer -- he appreciates him a lot, as I do -- ; but rather, simply realistic in appraising his strengths and weaknesses), in his chapter, "Francis Schaeffer on Philosophy":

. . . Aquinas' incorporation of particulars as well as universals seems to be a step in the right direction, rather than a mistake as Schaeffer sees it . . .

Schaeffer overstates his case when he asserts that Aquinas made man's reason -- and thereby products of man's reason such as natural theology and philosophy -- independent from revelation.

. . . Schaeffer is not completely clear about what is at issue in the problem of universals . . .

I think it is indeed important to recognize that Schaeffer is a popularizer rather than a scholar. As such it is not fair to expect him to understand the details of philosophy as well as someone who is trained in the discipline . . . it is a mistake to promote Schaeffer as an authority in philosophical matters. He was not . . . the fact that Schaeffer is enormously popular among evangelicals, despite his not being an authority, suggests that all too often we are satisfied with simple answers to complex questions.

(pp. 114-115, 126-127)

I agree with what Peter Berger says, but his analysis is only on one aspect of many that I think come into play. He can make his point without denying my present one (as suggested in his phrase, "whatever may have been the importance of other factors"). He has a sociological mind which is nothing if not attuned to the variety of factors that play a part in any large-scale societal and cultural force. My own major was sociology (something I have regretted, but sometimes it comes in handy).

That said, I hereby offer an additional analysis of another important cause of secularization, from Catholic (oops; now we know he is incorrigibly biased . . . ) cultural historian Christopher Dawson:

It is difficult to exaggerate the harm that was inflicted on Christian culture by the century of religious strife that followed the Reformation . . . It was during this century of sterile and inconclusive religious conflict that the ground was prepared for the secularization of European culture. The convinced secularists were an infinitesimal minority of the European population, but they had no need to be strong since the Christians did their work for them . . .

It is impossible to ignore this dark and tragic side of religious history; for if we do not face it, we cannot understand the inevitable character of the movement of secularization . . .

The immediate cause of the secularization of European culture was the frustration and discouragement resulting from a century of religious wars, and above all from the inconclusiveness of their end. After the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the necessity for the co-existence of Catholics and Protestants in Europe became generally recognized, and since men still valued their common culture they were forced to emphasize those elements which were common to Catholics and Protestants, i.e., its secular aspects . . .

The merchant class in Holland and England and the lawyers and officials in France gradually took the place of the nobility as the real leaders of culture . . . They were apt to be critical of authority and naturally tended to adopt a sectarian type of religion - Puritans and Nonconformists in England, and Huguenots in France. Theirs was among the strongest influences making for the secularization of culture, as so many writers have argued . . . They regarded religion as a private matter which concerned the conscience of the individual only, whereas public life was essentially business life; a sphere in which the profit motive was supreme and a man's moral and religious duties were best fulfilled by the punctual and industrious performance of his professional activities.

(The Dividing of Christendom, New York: Sheed & Ward, 1965, 9-11, 253-255)

The chief cause of the secularization of Western culture was the loss of Christian unity . . . The mere fact of this loss of unity created a neutral territory which gradually expanded till it came to include almost the whole of social life . . . When once men had admitted the principle that a heretic could be a good citizen (and even that an infidel could be a good man of business), they inevitably tended to regard this common ground of practical action as the real world, and the exclusive sphere of religion as a private world, whether of personal faith or merely private opinion . . .

In this way there arose the new liberal humanitarian culture which represents an intermediate stage between the religious unity of Christendom and a totally secularized world.

(The Judgment of the Nations, New York: Sheed & Ward, 1942, 103-104)

One might argue along these lines that Protestantism emerged as a quasi-Donatist, ostensibly and theoretically (but not in practice or long-run outcome) rigorist and schismatic cultural force in the 16th century. The inevitable split from the Catholic Church led to equally inevitable religious wars (as men on both sides then still cared deeply about religious matters, unlike today where doctrinal disagreements are winked at and cheerfully dismissed as of no import, and nothing worth fighting over -- not even in rational discussion).

The wars in turn led to the cultural exhaustion and malaise described by Dawson. In that sense of a causal chain one might argue that Protestantism caused the drive towards secularization that has never ceased to increase from that day to this. But as I say, this is only one aspect among many, and neither it nor Berger's analysis should be construed as the be-all and end-all of historical discussion concerning secularization. That's far too simplistic, in my opinion.

I would also point out, in fairness (to give much credit to Protestantism in this respect) that the history of revivalism within the Protestant tradition has been a great cultural force against secularization. This can be seen especially in the Wesleyan and Whitefield revivals in 17th-century England, which had vast positive social consequences, and the First and Second Great Awakenings in America: arguably responsible for slowing down the subsequent slide into a thorough quasi-humanist secularism for a good century (for early America was greatly influenced by the Enlightenment, deism, and a liberal brand of disillusioned post-Calvinist, post-Puritan Christianity).

Along these lines, I would cite and recommend books such as Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform, by William G. McLoughlin (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1978), and Revivalism and Social Reform, by Timothy L. Smith (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1957). The latter begins with this delightful passage:

Could Thomas Paine, the free-thinking pamphleteer of the American and French revolutions, have visited Broadway in 1865, he would have been amazed to find that the nation conceived in rational liberty was at last fulfilling its democratic promise in the power of evangelical faith. The emancipating glory of the great awakenings had made Christian liberty, Christian equality and Christian fraternity the passion of the land . . . Religious doctrines which Paine, in his book The Age of Reason, had discarded as the tattered vestment of an outworn aristocracy, became the wedding garb of a democratized church, bent on preparing men and institutions for a kind of proletarian marriage supper of the Lamb.

(Preface, p. 7)

These movements were not without their own faults, and arguably contained the seeds of an eventual further descent into secularism and sectarianism, but that is beyond my immediate point, which is simply that Protestant revivalism has been a considerably powerful force against secularism and irreligion, and towards a Christian worldview with culturally-transformative power and import. It would be just as wrong for a Protestant with a sophisticated view of history, sociology, and culture to deny the positive aspects of revivalism, as it would be for a Catholic to do so. What's true (and documented from history) is true.

I would argue (if I must make a general statement) that it is not Protestantism per se which caused secularization, but rather, that some aspects of Protestantism tied in with some aspects of existing forces destructive of the unified medieval and Catholic synthesis and worldview (nominalism, the Renaissance, nationalism, the Divine Right of Kings, unbridled capitalism, the so-called "Enlightenment," the philosophers Locke, Kant, Hume, etc.). Catholicism-in-practice also contributed to this demise insofar as it was nominal and morally-compromised. After all, the rise of Protestantism was not hindered by Italian and Roman decadence, and the "Enlightenment" and the hideous French Revolution took place in Catholic France.

In any event, the medieval synthesis and Christian culture was Catholic through and through, and Protestantism obviously helped to bring that to an end (thus playing a "decisive" role, as Berger argues), but it alone was not the primary factor (though I regard it as a major one), and it often worked as a counter-force to secularization, as argued in the above examples.

Whatever the cause, we are in a mess today, because people do not think "Christianly." One of the most extraordinary and remarkably insightful books I have ever read was The Gravedigger Files, by Os Guinness (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1983). The subtitle is "Papers on the Subversion of the Modern Church." It is a masterpiece of Christian sociology, written in the style of C.S. Lewis's Screwtape Letters. I shall cite just one passage, where Guinness is dealing with what he calls "The Private-Zoo Factor" (privatization of religion):

If the ultimate value is survival and the immediate value is personal peace and prosperity, then those brought up to live for themselves will be less inclined to live (or die) for others . . . the privatized person is . . . a "classic narcissist," client to the multiplying therapeutic agencies in a world in which, as Orwell said, "Freud and Machiavelli have reached the outer suburbs"; . . . The extremes here do not have to be coaxed into a cage; they virtually sit mewing for one.

Notice again how the contradiction between the ostensible freedom and the true situation is entirely to our advantage [these are demons speaking, remember]. Once more privatized freedom is not the freedom it seems . . . In the past we have cultivated religious individualism and have found that certain strains of faith such as pietism are particularly fruitful for our purposes. But never have we had such harvest as this. You know that the Greeks defined the idiot as a wholly private person. Privatization multiplies the number of Christians who fall prey to this and makes such idiocy a spiritual condition.

I would not deny that there are exceptions to all this. There are theological traditions (such as the reformed) which refuse to fall for narrow pietism . . . or recent movements which have made a noise about faith in public (though mostly about more personal things, such as abortion and pornography). But these, fortunately, are exceptions.

(pp. 85-86)

Many evangelical spokesmen have become alarmed at the sorts of trends that Os Guinness decried above. David Wells, professor of Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, wrote:
We . . . are reducing historical Protestant faith to a mass of diverse, conflicting 'models.' I cannot see it all surviving. That a sundering of the movement is coming seems utterly certain to me; the only question is when, how, and with what consequences.

("Evangelical Megashift", Christianity Today, February 19, 1990, 15 ff. )

Jon Johnston, professor of Urban Ministry and Sociology of Religion at Fuller Theological Seminary in California, and a Church of the Nazarene minister, wrote cogently in a work on this very subject, back in 1980:
Evangelicals . . . are increasingly opting for godless cultural values. Our degree of
compromise has reached epidemlc proportions . . .

Popularity can prompt disastrous compromise. I firmly believe that compromise, or
'accommodation,' is the most formidable threat to evangelicalism today' . . . Evangelicalism is in serious danger of . . . becoming engulfed by the surrounding culture.

(Will Evangelicalism Survive Its Own Popularity?, preface, 35, 39)

Lastly, I would cite James Davison Hunter, professor of Sociology at the University of Virginia, and one of the leading authorities on evangelicalism today; the author of American Evangelicalism (1983) and Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation (1987). Another article in Christianity Today described an address of his on this general theme:
Hunter identified the major combatants in the cultural war. Traditional Orthodoxy, he said, holds a transcendent view of moral authority, as expressed in Scripture, the Roman Catholic magisterium, the Torah. What Hunter called a 'progressive' view of authority, based on Enlightenment thinking, is grounded in human, rational discourse. Hunter contended that advocates of the new way of thinking are winning the war. While allowing that 'evangelicalism is the most vibrant form of religious expression,' he said there is no evidence to support the oft-stated assertion that the evangelical faith is in the midst of revival . . . Hunter . . . added, 'There is a very strong undercurrent of subjectivizing the gospel and the theological task.'

(Randy Frame, "Theological Drift: Christian Higher Ed the Culprit?," Christianity Today, April 9, 1990; citation from pp. 43, 46)

Catholics are, of course, subject to the same cultural influences and are increasingly Americanized, privatized, and rendered ignorant from abominable catechesis and the liberal crisis in our own Church. To the extent that Catholics suffer that fate, they, too, do not think Christianly and contribute to the continuing secularization and decadance of our society and culture.

So (to end on an ecumenical note), I would echo C.S. Lewis's comment that those at the center of their own theological traditions are all closer to one another in spirit than those on the outer edges (liberals, modernists, nominalists, semi-non-Christian syncretists, etc.). This is a fight of serious, committed Christians of all stripes against the postmodernist, humanist culture of death and all that it entails.

That is one reason (of many) why I absolutely despise both anti-Catholicism and anti-Protestantism, because they zap the energy and influence that the already weak Christian community has (itself the last hope against the encroaching darkness), by dividing Christians and setting them against each other. Nero fiddled while Rome burned. We Christians mock and battle and lie about and misrepresent each other on the Internet while western civilization goes to hell in a handbasket. It is wicked, and it is the devil's victory.

It is to be expected that we will all stand up for our own Christian beliefs in gentlemanly yet vigorous principled discourse; but this should not be to the extent of reading others out of the faith entirely and questioning their personal standing before God and their salvation or eternal destiny, as the case may be.

I wanted to note that two out of the four revivals I mentioned were Calvinist-dominated:

1. The First Great Awakening arguably led by Jonathan Edwards.

2. The Whitefield revival in England.

The other two are Arminian:
3. The Wesleyan revival (which could be said to be an Anglican revival, since Wesley never formally split from that denomination).

4. The Second Great Awakening.

The latter two are more illustrative of what I would say are the inherent shortcomings in the Protestant system. "Mainline" or "culturally-respectable" (which meant largely "properly English") Anglicanism couldn't handle Wesley due to the "enthusiasm" and evangelicalism and so he was forced to take to the fields and reluctantly consent to a start-up of yet another denomination: the Methodists. Thus, further sectarianism is the result even when great, noble men are in leadership and don't desire a split, because the Protestant tendency to dichotomize everything and to create unnecessarily-polarized competing camps would not allow a radical like Wesley to be contained within an Anglican framework.

In Catholicism, on the other hand, there is a place for all these different aspects of Christian expression and emphasis. We have quietism, we have mysticism; we have St. Francis on one hand and St. Thomas Aquinas on the other; St. Therese on one pole (monasticism) and Merton and Dorothy Day on the other (social activism). We have the jolly wise man Chesterton and super-serious folks like St. Ignatius Loyola. Even the charismatic movement flourished recently and was accepted by Rome without a crisis. None of these things cause a split. But Protestants will split because they lack a unifying principle which will prevent this.

As for Charles Finney and the Second Great Awakening, I understand that Finney went liberal (which is a real shame). Arguably, this was due to orthodox Arminianism being distorted and turned into a self-generation of holiness and sanctification. Again, I would contend that this is at least partially because of the structure of Protestantism which is insufficiently "magisterial."

In contrast, the essentially Arminian soteriology of Catholicism does not become transformed into Pelagianism and then process theology, as we see occurring among Protestants (Clark Pinnock being one sad example). One must have some theory as to why this happens. I say that the dogmatic, magisterial structure of Catholicism prevents it, while the individualism and private judgment of Protestantism not only doesn't prevent it, but encourages it by an interior logic.

The individualism in turn evolves into subjectivism and privatization, and there we are: back to some of the important contributing factors of secularization. So the second two revivalistic traditions contained the seeds of later trouble: the holiness movements spawned from Wesleyanism led to some pentecostal groups which were non-trinitarian and other groups which became so isolated, pietistic, and fundamentalist in the anti-intellectual, a-cultural sense, that they ceased to become salt to the society.

But then it can be disputed whether the break-offs were consistent with the original movement (development) or corruptions of it. I tend to think they are corruptions where Wesley is concerned; not so much regarding Finney, from what I hear about his errors.

Edwards and Whitefield seem to have fared better, in historical retrospect, except where the extremes of some aspects of Calvinism with regard to predestination caused a backlash, whereby people overreacted and went to deism, Unitarianism, and transcendentalism in New England (Schaeffer wrote that Harvard was controlled by Unitarians as early as 1802).

There is a "Golden Mean" somewhere in all this confusion. For my money, it exists in Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and classical (doctrinally-orthodox as originally determined internally) Reformed, Methodist, Lutheran, and Anglican traditions. Of course, as a Catholic and an apologist, I go on to critique all Protestant systems as fundamentally-flawed in principle, but in terms of secularism, the Christian traditions above do best at opposing it, with the Reformed doing the best among Protestant choices, in my opinion.

Uploaded by Dave Armstrong on 13 September 2003. Revised on 20 January 2004.

Why I Love Dialogues and Oppose Oversimplification in Apologetics

I am a Socratic. I learn and am most motivated by dialogue with those of differing opinions, and I think that is a great way to encourage others to think critically also: by weighing the two alternative options. It is the lack of critical thinking in our time which causes people to believe any dopey thing they hear, because they lack the ability to think critically about it. Dialogue helps people to acquire that vital skill. It's the working through of opposing arguments which is stimulating (at least that is very true with me).

It's irrelevant to me how big of an audience dialogues draw. I do them because of the above reasons. I understand that some people will not like them or care for the format, but I simply do what I am motivated to do, and dialogue is a large part of that. I seem to have been (by God's grace) "successful" enough (judging by website hits, book sales, and reported conversions and reversions), so at this point I am certainly not inclined to "mess with the formula."

I have a lot of short and long papers that are not dialogues on my website, also. I have no objection to other formats. The world is interesting because different people like different stuff. Otherwise, it would be very boring. I like all kinds of writing, too, but dialogues are my favorite, when it comes to apologetics.

I don't like short summaries much, because it defeats the purpose of what I am trying to do: present complex issues at the length they require and deserve rather than simplify them. Simplification is much of the problem in Protestantism to begin with. Many theological issues are very complex and nuanced (look, e.g., at topics such as the Two Natures or the filioque -- I won't even deal with the latter because I consider it totally out of my ballpark and abilities), and my policy is to treat them at the length required to explain them properly.

Some people don't like that. One (very intelligent and educated) Catholic I know is notorious for wanting me to sum something up in one or two sentences. I just say (in so many words), "that's tough; if you don't care for my presentation, and can't devote 5 or 10 minutes to it, by all means go somewhere else. But I won't change my style just to suit you." I don't write such things with personal offense or anger; not at all. I am objecting to the very notion that theology has to be ultra-simplified because (bottom line) people (i.e., the public at large) are "too dumb" to understand it or unwilling to spend any significant time trying to (like they would spend, e.g., watching TV or reading novels).

I think it is much better to challenge and stretch people rather than to assume they are mental midgets who can't grasp things. Many times they are, no doubt, but why not try to encourage them to use the grey matter between their ears a bit? At worst, at least we can show that there is enough thought behind theology to require a little bit of mental or intellectual work to understand it, and that is a good thing.

Some people, therefore, won't like or care for my work; thinking it is on too high of a level, and too much "trouble" to spend time reading -- too much "work." I don't want to give anyone a headache . . . Perhaps surprisingly, however, I don't hear those complaints very much. On the other hand, I do receive a lot of letters telling me that I have the ability to clearly explain things. It's clarity and organization, then, that I strive for in my writings, not brevity or simplification.

I always say that people are willing to study things for years, go to college, read excruciatingly boring, abstract texts (science, math, engineering, physiology, chemistry, philosophy, etc. -- the four fields in the middle I care for very little, myself, though I got A's in Algebra 3 and 4 in high school), yet when it comes to theology they want everything real simple and elementary.

I contend that if we give in to this double standard, we are selling out theology and strengthening the impression people have that it has no intellectual depth, content, or challenge to begin with. I've thought a lot about all these sorts of things, in my 23 years of apologetic writing and debating and evangelizing.

Also, many times when I am writing, I am anticipating objections and answering them as I write. It takes a lot of ink to answer the many errors and charges and misunderstandings involved where Catholicism is concerned. One or two lines which contain massive propaganda-like slander and disinformation might take ten pages to properly refute because one has to produce hard evidence to convince skeptics to change their mind.

Lastly, apologetics -- almost by definition -- is for "thinking people": those who require or desire rational, reasoned explanations for why they believe what they do. Unfortunately, that will always be a rather small minority in Christian ranks. Most Christians (and, more specifically, Catholics) will accept their faith beliefs without thinking them through, on authority. There is nothing wrong with that in and of itself (faith is good; so is a proper submission to legitimate, God-ordained ecclesiastical authority), yet when an outsider attacks their belief-system, they may be vulnerable and in danger of losing their faith because they can't produce any reason for it other than "the Church said so."

For those who care relatively little about reasons for their belief, catechetics is the ticket, rather than apologetics. So that is another reason why I think over-simplification in apologetics is somewhat self-defeating.

Uploaded by Dave Armstrong on 29 December 2003.