Modernity has gradually abandoned the love of Jesus as the key tenet of society with predictably disastrous effects. Ever since the Enlightenment (1650-1900) mankind has committed itself to a mission of analyzing technical and societal problems and, through its own IQ, skills, and determination (you know, “hard work”, etc.), “fixing” them. Society became one grand enterprise of knowing more and applying that knowledge to engineer solutions to age-old problems, from carts to cars and airplanes; from wells, latrines, and wood-burning fireplaces to central plumbing and air; from hand tools to advanced manufacturing. And, as it turns out, we did pretty well at those things.
But, despite our best minds and efforts, we have not come close to solving any of society’s real problems: child abuse, spousal abuse, substance abuse, petty disputes that fester into national conflicts, murder, rape, and other violence of one group or nation against another. Man remains inhumane to man. And his victims become wounded, bitter, distrustful and in many cases unable to love.
In a very real sense, the Enlightenment redefined what it meant to “know”. Once, knowledge was denominated in units of awe, mystery and reverence. Confronted with the messy, fraught challenges of pre-modern life, men developed philosophies focused on striving for the good (e.g. Socrates), the beautiful (e.g. Plato), and the divine (e.g. the Stoics, Aquinas, Dante). “Knowledge” was understanding life as the pursuit of human “goodness”, as creations of God.
The Enlightenment changed the focus of “knowledge” to that of our physical and scientific environment. Rational, objective inquiry into the nature of the physical world dominated prior philosophical inquiry, refocusing attention away from the understanding of what was “good”.
The Enlightenment and the Resurrection of Epicureanism
The Enlightenment, so-called because it ushered in an explosion both in learning and discovery, turned our gaze from the heavens and our natures, to methods and machines to make us more comfortable; more in control of our environment. Before say 1700, the typical agrarian family saw themselves as members of a humanity engaged in simple daily existence. They understood that this existence was subject in every meaningful way to their Creator, but that it confronted a pantheon of millennia-old threats; illnesses, hardships, lawlessness and wars. With the Enlightenment’s advances, key figures in society were saying these things could and would be surmounted. They were no longer permanent features of human existence, as they had been essentially from the beginning. The future was bright; progress was being made, sometimes at breakneck speed. In fact, the whole concept of material progress was new and quite revolutionary.
Now all of the early pioneers of the Enlightenment were religious men: Englishmen Francis Bacon (scientific method) and Thomas Hobbes (political philosophy), the Frenchman René Descartes (philosophy, mind-body dualism) and the key natural philosophers of the Scientific Revolution, including Galileo Galilei (astronomy), Johannes Kepler (astronomy, mathematics) and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (mathematics, philosophy, science). This was not particularly surprising since in the late 1600’s everybody was religious – meaning they at least acknowledged God and His role in man’s destiny. Those who hadn’t held fast to the Catholic Church were mostly found in Luther’s Reformed churches.
Soon, however, the philosophical presumptions of the enlightened began to progress not forward, but backward – back to the philosophical theology first articulated by Epicurus in the 4th century BC, eponymously named Epicureanism. The essential tenet of Epicureanism was that, indeed, God existed, but was in general removed from – even disinterested in — man’s affairs. Sure, He would occasionally intervene, say to adjudicate some profound injustice. But in general, man was his own master; the captain of his own destiny, and distinctly separated from God’s will for his life.
Why is this important? For two, significant reasons. First, the premise of Epicureanism – that God is uninvolved in the affairs of men — communicated the idea that man was essentially on his own in forming his destiny. God just wasn’t about to call into question any of the new social philosophies (democracy, nationalism, socialism, communism), thus allowing man freedom to be whatever, and to organize his fellows however, he wanted.
This was intoxicating to the enlightened. And, it emboldened the likes of John Locke, Thomas Jefferson and Karl Marx, with dramatic, albeit dramatically opposed, results.
The second reason it’s important is that it insinuated itself into the modern church. Although Epicurus himself disavowed Platonism, what we find in Christian churches in the West today is an admixture of Platonist dualism, in which the material (man) and the spiritual (man) exist in two distinct – never to be united – realms, plus Epicurus’ God-as-hands-off presupposition.
Both of these ideas are anathema to authentic Christianity. The modern church espouses something like “God is in His heaven and all we have to do is to believe that enough that when we die, we get to go there too”. This isn’t what the Bible (ever) teaches. Yet this is the worldview (or “God view”) of the vast majority of those today calling themselves “Christian”.
Given our post-enlightenment history, this is precisely what we should expect. After all, we have evidence, on the one hand, that there are seemingly no obstacles in our way to enjoying the highest standard of living in all of history. This material prosperity nicely supports the teaching of many post-enlightenment philosophers that venerate the advance of rational knowledge and its resultant achievements, becoming a kind of substitute deity. Such worldviews leave man free to pursue his quest to be the Lord of his own existence, having no other Lord above himself to be concerned with.
On the other hand, we have the protestant evangelical churches pumping out a corrupted Christian message that says that one who “believes” – who has faith — that Christ exists gets to be saved to eternal life by Him. (“You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!” James 2:19)
If we step back a bit we see that this modern worldview tragically suffers from a self-absorbed immaturity. We’re not mature enough to examine our lives and the assumptions we live by and abandon that which act to separate us from God[i]. We’re a bit like a teenager who can’t listen to the wisdom of his elders that challenges his self-image, even if that self-image is built on a myopic fiction. The fact is, we’re most comfortable acting childishly – just doing our thing unencumbered by any concern of a deeper reality.
Our challenge is to see why this is, and how we should proceed to correct it.
What Does the Bible Say?
The Bible’s overarching narrative is that man, even those specifically chosen by God to be His priests (Ex 19:6) and His glory (Is 43:7), are woefully not up to the job. The Old Testament in its entirety, and the New Testament in its characterization of those Jews who rejected Christ, are unequivocal. The natural man is not positioned to receive God’s favor (1 Cor 2:14) – to experience His reality. God wants us to be in relationship with Him as our Father and Lord; for us to not only acknowledge that we are His workmanship (Ps 139:13), but to surrender our lives to Him (Mt. 16:24-27) and His grace (Tit 2:11). Whether you believe our condition is the result of Adam’s sin or something else, the empirical evidence is overwhelming that sinfulness is our nature. We’re just lousy at taking instruction, especially from God, let alone being like Him.
Obviously, this was no surprise to God. He knew the nature of what He had created. And, He knew perfectly well what the remedy for it was.
Is God an “Add-On” to Our Life, or Its Source?
The common perception today among self-professed Christians is that they’re going to do what they believe they have to do to stay in God’s good graces, but, you know, life is hard and there are things we have to do just to get by. This attitude stems from their “remote God” understanding. He’s “up there”. We’re “down here”. And, down here you have to spend time on stuff and work on stuff that really doesn’t affect God one way or the other.
This is the modern “two lives” model: one life that acknowledges, thinks about and even worships God; another – the predominant – that virtually never entertains a thought of God. One “puts on” the first life on the Sabbath, but then takes it off for the workweek.
Nothing could be more destructive to producing a fully alive humanity. What’s missing in this approach is that everything is God’s business and His interest.
This is one of the places where modern Christianity seems to have spun off the rails. Few of today’s Christians have any idea that being one of God’s people requires one’s life: not a part or some aspect of your life. Your life. This mistaken notion is abetted by the Church’s embedded Epicureanism.
What Does Christianity Actually Teach Us?
What Christ taught us through His literal presence among us, His ministry to us, His death, and His resurrection was that God had extended to us His infinite love through His Christ. What Christianity used to teach is that Christ’s death and resurrection provided to us a way, His Holy Spirit, to escape our enslavement to our worldly gods – lusts and envy and riches and self-promotion.
All of those freed from the imperative of receiving this gift of Christ by Enlightenment thinking have succumbed to one or more of these failures.
What Christ taught was love – of God and your neighbor as yourself. And, recognizing we are not equipped to do this naturally, He said He would send a “helper” – His Spirit – to dispense to us His Grace to do this.
This is what the Christian Gospel actually says and is. We are not naturally equipped to meet the expectations for love of one another that God requires. Knowing that, He has provided a way, through Christ’s sacrifice, to enable us to act in love in a way that does fulfill His desire.
We do this by accepting that God’s promise is true; that Christ’s sacrifice and gift is true. And by relinquishing control of ourselves, in faith, and instead committing our lives to Him. This is the Christian proposition, long obscured and hidden by the modern church[ii].
NT Wright has a great article (which I highly recommend[iii]) in which he breaks all of this backstory down and proposes that what we modern Westerns are missing in the modern Christian message is an “epistemology of love”: that is, a worldview focused on Christ as the purveyor of (an increasing) knowledge of love. Bingo!
What we moderns remain at arms-length from, both from nature and nurture, is an embracing of the experience of divine-instilled love. How are we to know God’s love if we stubbornly refuse to acknowledge Him as our Lord? And how are we to acknowledge Him as our Lord if we prize ourselves above Him? How can we experience His love if we insist on remaining apart from it?
The closely held secret within Western Christianity is that experiencing God and His love – His desire for our lives – requires us to forego our control of ourselves and to simply submit ourselves to His enduring Grace.
I’ve written elsewhere on the Grace of God and it’s key, irreplaceable role in enabling us to live lives that He would live if He were us. Yes, it takes a step of serious faith to relinquish ourselves to someone other than ourselves. But in so doing, we have at least the testimony of the Bible (in addition to the testimonies of Christ-followers that have done so, including myself) that this is precisely the necessary step to enter into the Kingdom of God where His love can be not only experienced, but disseminated through us to those around us.
How does our knowledge of divine love increase in God’s Kingdom? Through experience. As we confront more and more situations in which our natural resources for love are depleted yet we nevertheless succeed in transmitting authentic love to the other (through our voice or our hands or our muscles or our finances), we learn. We gain knowledge of the incomparable power of the love of God, through His grace to us, to minister good to others.
The Enlightenment, for all of its accomplishments in the advancement of our knowledge of the physical world, extracted a huge cost from us of the awe and reverence of the true power of the Universe to change lives. Knowing material, physical facts is not true “knowing”. It does not comprehend knowledge of the ultimate reality, and in fact has the tendency to dismiss such knowledge as “unprovable”.
Yet many of us know it and its power. It is not some mysticism, some theory. It is the everyday reality of our lives.
The key takeaway for you should be that it is available now to you, if you will only approach its author on His terms, rather than your own.
[ii] Who wants you only to say a prayer for salvation, maybe be baptized, and then wait for heaven when you die.