More thoughts about stuff that doesn’t seem to matter all that much, except to me. This is really two posts, but they are sort of, more or less, related.
If you’ve been around a while you might recall a book and subsequent TV series by Jacob Bronowski (pictured below). Then again, you might not. Either way, it’s not really central to the topic, but it’s a handy place for me to start.
At the time (early 1970s) I was quite taken with its grand story of how human kind had emerged from caves, lifted itself out of ignorance, cast off superstition, and scaled the heights of science to reach enlightenment. Heady stuff, and I was on the brink of adulthood. The future stretched out, assured, onwards and upwards, to ever greater achievements until all the questions worth asking had been answered, with the help of science of course, and of the human intellect. And I would be part of all that.
Or so I assumed. Looking back, I think I was sold a pup.
How’s it all gone in the years since then? Have we stuck to the script? Answered all questions have we? Especially those that gnaw at the human soul? Have hopelessness, loneliness and meaninglessness been given their marching orders? Eliminated poverty have we? Banished violence and warfare? Created a completely just, equitable and safe society anywhere yet?
On the other hand, I guess I should concede that in many matters science has taken central position and assumes it can speak with authority on what is ethical and good for us. Religion, tradition and superstition have lost a lot of ground in western culture, if not elsewhere. “Scientifically proven” is still a well used phrase in knock down arguments by people everywhere who should know better. I don’t have time or space to explain or debate that here, except to say that “scientifically supported” is a much more accurate phrase. Science does not, in general, prove anything. It is a very good method for establishing whether certain propositions are consistent with starting assumptions but, unfortunately, shiny instruments, miracle cures and wonder materials aside, that is all it can ever be. You may not agree with me on this, and may think science has, or can find, all the answers worth finding, and if so I know I cannot convert you and I wish you well in your belief.
I no longer buy it myself however.
To summarise. There is a popular way of viewing the world that elevates science and the human intellect to the pinnacle of all existence. It is not my world view.
That popular world view can be represented, admittedly in a fairly simplistic way, as follows:
Ignorance and superstition, epitomised by religious belief, is a primitive state for people to occupy until they discover more advanced ways of thinking. These advanced ways have grown out of scientific study of nature . . . With this telescope for example . . .
(Photo taken in the Science Museum, Munich)
which has been followed by ever more advanced contraptions such as this early mechanical clock . . .
(Science Museum, Munich)
and this early digital computer:
(Science Museum, Munich)
I could (and maybe should) continue with examples of the advancement of science bringing with it the advancement of human civilization. I don’t have the space however, and I suspect you may not have the patience.
Suffice to say that, while I believe in the value of science, have studied it, and appreciate the things it produces, I do not have any faith that it can answer questions that are important to me, or serve as a guide to my ethical decision making, or tell me who I am, or where I fit into the scheme of things.
Anyhow, I sense myself drifting off topic a little.
Back on topic.
The reason I began to write this is I read a commentary article in a national newspaper on the weekend. The article argued that the fabric of western societies was crumbling, disintegrating, weakening, whatever, and that the cause of this was the declining interest of western people in Christian faith.
Naturally, it elicited a host of feedback comments from defenders of Christian faith and attackers of that faith. Nothing new there. Ho hum . . . I prepared to move on, but then I began to think. I did not agree with one of the article’s central propositions.
The decline of western civilization may indeed be underway (I don’t want to get involved in any arguments on this) or it may not be. It depends on what you use to measure whether civilization is declining. I would, however, take issue with the assumption that the level of Christian faith in the population is the same thing as the level of influence of the established Christian church. I think that’s nonsense! They are two very different things.
Where I part company with the newspaper article bemoaning the loss of faith and its effect on society is that I just don’t believe that the level of individual faith is lower these days than it ever has been in the past. My reasoning is this:
The Christian church took a wrong turn and transformed itself into a great edifice of power when it allowed itself to be aligned with the civil government of the Roman emporer Constantine, 1700 years ago. It never looked back from there, gaining influence, wealth, power and adherents who basically had no choice but to join up. In the years since, the church institution has kept itself closely associated with the powerful and successful end of town in all countries where it established itself. This necessarily compromised its role as messenger of Christ’s gospel.
In my view, the Christian church as an institution compromised its authenticity as Christ’s followers and representatives by embracing worldly success, amassing wealth, and legitimating the rule of the powerful. The Christian gospel is, and always was, the complete antithesis and repudiation of the seeking of worldly power and wealth.
(Photo taken in the cathedral choir, Toledo, Spain)
Recently, of course, the moral authority of the church has all but collapsed in western countries as a result of reveations of sexual abuse of children and the protection of offenders by church heirarchies. The church has been exposed as caring more about appearances than the children in its care.
I grant and admit that the Church ( with a capital ‘C’) is doing it tough in western countries these days. So it should be! There are very good reasons for where it finds itself at present.
On the other hand Christian faith exists both in the church and outside its established structures. As the church loses legitimacy and influence, it is my belief that individuals with Christian faith find new and different ways to live their faith.
In the past, it was not nearly so easy for people to live outside the structure of the church. It would be a mistake to interpret this as evidence of higher levels of faith in the past. There has always been probably a majority of people at all times in the history of the Church, especially since the time of Emporer Constantine when it became more or less compulsory to be a ‘Christian’, whose ‘faith’ was little more than a matter of convenience. The declining numbers of people who list Christian adherence on census forms is, in my view, simply a result of a decline in social pressure to declare Christian status. It is not evidence of a general decline in Christian faith among the population. Put more simply, there has never been a time when the majority of people had any more than a passing interest in faith, still less an active personal faith in the Christ of the gospels.
The doomsaying in the weekend newspaper article may well have been justified. There is evidence enough of societal decline around us. Whether or not our civilization is decaying has little to do, however, with a general decline in personal faith as the article argued. The declining power and influence of the Christian church may indeed be related to the general decline of the west, but that decline is more likely due to the church having long since backed the wrong horse and forgotten its reason for being.
Those of us who have faith in the Christ of the gospels will continue regardless.