No human culture has ever been truly Christian. In some instances, however, the influence of Christian categories has been greater than others. Particularly in the West, a sort of Christianization held sway for a millennium or more. The question is, how and why did that consensus change?
A short answer to this question almost requires one to resort to generalizations. It is also made easier by a bit of anachronism, i.e., by using some later ways of speaking to articulate perspectives in a way that they would not have been articulated in the Middle Ages.
One of the most important categories for understanding premodern thought is the distinction between fact and truth. Facts, i.e., particular events and objects, have no meaning in themselves. They gain their meaning from their location in a context, whether that context is real (as it was thought to be in the Middle Ages) or imposed (as it is thought to be in postmodernism).
The notion of context assumes that the facts—the particulars—are somehow related to one another in a grand order or design. This overall order or pattern is what might be called “the Truth.” Medieval people saw this order through the lens of theocentrism. They believed in God as the Creator of the universe. Consequently, they thought that the order of the world reflected a preexisting order in the mind of the Creator.
This perspective lent a privileged position to revelation and to faith. Whatever other faculties might be used in the acquisition of knowledge, revelation was always the most direct and sure route (and, in the earlier Middle Ages, perhaps the only route) to knowing the context of particulars in the order of the world. Rather than being contrasted with knowledge, faith was considered to be a way of knowing. Indeed, it was a fundamental way. To put it anachronistically, to the medieval mind “the Truth is up there,” or transcendent. Individual facts had to be interpreted in view of the Truth. This is the thrust of Anselm’s famous credo ut intelligam.
This medieval perspective began to break apart with the maturing of nominalism during the later Middle Ages. Nominalism denied the existence of universals and redirected attention to the particulars. This inevitably shifted the emphasis from the transcendent to the immanent, and subsequently from a theocentric universe toward an anthropocentric one. As Western thought moved from nominalism through Baconianism and into the Enlightenment, the implications of this anthropocentric universe became increasingly clear.
While people did not immediately cease to believe in the existence of God or the reality of revelation, they did begin to demand evidence for those beliefs. Simultaneously, they began to revise their notion of God: where they once thought of Him in terms of His enduring nature, they now thought of God in terms of His acts or even His will (which was no longer fettered by a nature). Eventually this shift led them to define God as absent, or impersonal, or even non-existent.
Even when God was recognized as Creator, He was relegated to a smaller and smaller role in the government of the universe. Where the medieval mind saw God working in all sorts of events, the modern mind came to believe that the universe was ruled by scientific laws. God’s influence was relegated to the “gaps” for which no laws had been discovered. As these gaps grew narrower and narrower, the God of modernity continued to shrink.
Not only did secularization remove God’s involvement from the natural world, it also attacked God’s sovereignty in the moral and social spheres. Morality and politics were reduced to naturalistic phenomena, usually explainable through some version of convention or contract theory. As Harvey Cox observed in The Secular City, secularization consisted of three elements: the disenchantment of nature, the desacralization of politics, and the deconsecration of values. These elements were not characteristic of the medieval consensus, but they became major themes of the Enlightenment.
The Enlightenment also altered Western anthropology. During the Middle Ages, humans were viewed as finite, contingent, and sinful beings. With the advent of modernity, however, came an emphasis upon human autonomy, rationality, sufficiency, and virtue. Sin was dismissed as mere ignorance, or else viewed as a temporary inadequacy that would be overcome in the face of the inevitable march of human progress. Given equality and freedom, humans were in the position to make the world into a utopia.
Naturally, such humans required no savior. Therefore, Jesus Christ had to be reinvented. Under the barrage of critical theory, the human Jesus was distinguished from the (mythological) divine Christ. At best, Jesus was viewed as a good man or a big brother whose example would enrich human progress. At worst He was viewed as a pious fraud, completely dispensable.
The optimistic anthropology of the age led to demands for a political order that would take account of human rationality, goodness, and brotherhood. If humans were as decent as moderns thought, then the oppressive mechanisms of authority were unnecessary. The vast majority of people was virtuous enough and wise enough to govern, and each was bound to the others by the ties of brotherhood. The ideal political order would therefore be one of liberty, equality, and fraternity.
The most significant difference between the medieval mind and the modern mind concerns the role of faith and reason. Medievals were far from devaluing reason, but they understood its inadequacies and willingly subjected it to faith. With modernity, however, the final appeal was always to Reason (now with a capital R), which was regarded as sufficient. Since nothing could be affirmed without adequate reason, doubt displaced faith as the starting point for knowledge, with the consequence that moderns became biased toward unbelief. Mystery, majesty, miracle, tradition, and authority were called into question or else rejected outright.
To the modern, truth was equated with fact, and facts were transparent. Supposedly, if one could gather a sufficient number of facts and observe them long enough, the order of reality would become apparent. No outside source of information was needed. In consequence of this supposition, the element of transcendence was surrendered. The Truth (the overarching order that subsumes all facts and renders them in their proper relation to one another) was no longer “up there,” it was “out there.”
This shift began with the philosophers, but it gradually captured all of Western high culture. Eventually literature, art, music, political theory, and jurisprudence all came under the domination of the Enlightenment. So did theology. People like Ritschl and Schleiermacher consciously adapted Christian categories to fit the spirit of their age.
The intellectual transition from the medieval to the modern world was profound, but few understood or cared what had been lost. One who did was the British poet, Matthew Arnold. A child of the Enlightenment, Arnold was a true modern. He objected to Christianity and even regarded Spurgeon as something of a nemesis. But he also understood where modernity would lead. He viewed the future with foreboding. The closing lines of his poem “Dover Beach” are worth pondering.
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
The point of this discussion is not to suggest that the premodern culture of the West was strictly and unexceptionally Christian. It is simply to note that Western culture was at one time heavily Christianized, and to argue that something was lost when Christian categories lost their grip upon the Western mind and sensibilities. Mere nostalgia, of course, regains nothing, but searching for a right road often begins by recognizing where one took the wrong road.
Western culture was affected by the same four theological factors that come to bear upon all cultures: Providence, human sin and depravity, divine judgment, and common grace. During the Middle Ages, however, Western culture was also strongly influenced by a fifth theological factor: special grace. While the overall response to special grace was never more than partial and selective, it nevertheless left the tradition of the West in a unique position to grasp and transmit Christian categories.
Prayer for Guidance
The Book of Common Prayer
O God, by whom the meek are guided in judgment, and light riseth up in darkness for the godly; grant us, in all our doubts and uncertainties, the grace to ask what thou wouldst have us to do, that the spirit of wisdom may save us from all false choices, and that in thy light we may see light, and in thy straight path may not stumble; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.