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Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Exploring the cultural influence of the "Enlightenment" on the Western Church

The importance of journey.....
I hope you are on a journey. I hope that like Abraham of old you are today not where you were yesterday, and tomorrow will not be where you are today. I hope that in all spiritual virtues from love to faith, you can see advance and progress. This is what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. Disciple means 'learner' and learner means, if nothing else, I have not arrived, I am on a journey of discovery with God.

Journeying requires honest heart searching
Part of every journey involves asking ourselves where we have been shaped by the thinking of the world more than the teaching of Scripture. Ask a fish to describe water and he'll say "Water, what's water?" He can't see the stuff since he is immersed in it moment by moment. So too with the world we are born into - unless Amish-like we literally have no / minimal contact with the world. Everyone who reads a newspaper, watches TV, Googles, uses apps or works in the world, is influenced by the world. This involvement with the world is right, for we are called to be in the world, though not of it.

What we often fail to realise is how profoundly the world has shaped our thinking. Like the fish we may not even be aware of it; "Worldly thinking? What worldly thinking?" And this blindness may work not only at the level of individual falsities such as a view of sexuality, it may operate at a far deeper level of philosophy. We may in point of fact be shaped more by the philosophy of the world than by Scripture, and be completely unaware of it. Scripture calls us away from the counsel of the ungodly and to a radical renewal of our minds (Psalm 1, Romans 12). 

My own journey
Having come from a scientific background I can see more and more how "The Enlightenment" (which I prefer to call The Narrowing) has so affected western Christian thinking  - and especially middle class western Christian thinking. And part of my own journey has been asking the question: "To what degree has your theology been shaped by the enlightenment more than the Bible?" The Narrowing, in a nutshell, placed all the emphasis on human reasoning and the mind. The mind is all that matters and reason and logic is the only way to truth. I call it The Narrowing, because that is exactly what it has done to life: narrowed what is important down to logic and reason.

Another way of putting the issue is this: our culture's philosophy acts as a filter on the mind. This filter determines what can be seen and what cannot be seen, what can be discussed and what cannot be discussed, what is real and what is not real. So how has the western church (as I say, in particular the middle-class educated western church) been affected by The Narrowing? These five are explorations....

(1) Training. When we think of training someone for full-time service, we immediately think "Bible College". Why? Because they need to know stuff - and knowing stuff is the most important thing of all. See? If, on the other hand we value faith and courage and love as more important things, we would train them as Jesus did, on the job - with teaching thrown in as well.

(2) Preaching. We elevate the preaching gift to the MOST IMPORTANT GIFT because through it we are learning things. See? Preaching is vital and no church that sidelines it will flourish, but what about other gifts in the church? And what about the importance of Christ-like character as believers learning to love one another  are thrown together in a small group in a home setting?

(3) Bible Study groups. Many folk think that should small groups exist they should be heavy Bible studies, because then we are learning stuff. See? But what about carrying one another's burdens and fulfilling the law of Christ?

(4) The role of emotions. "Reason should guide us irrespective of our feelings" was the childish call of the enlightenment. Childish because it is both impossible (no scientist has ever entered a lab objectively without his feelings affecting every single part of his work) and undesirable (can you imagine paying attention only to the digital 1s and 0s streaming from a Samuel Barber CD and ignoring the way his Adagio for Strings moves your soul?) Unlike the Son of Man, who was so often moved deeply with compassion, we children of the enlightenment are plain scared of our emotions.

(5) The work of God's Spirit. Perhaps worst of all, an emphasis on the rational could filter out the work of God's Spirit, the Spirit whose movements and work is not subject to our reason or control or logic, for, like the wind, he blows wherever he pleases. He doesn't work in tidy human categories or according to well laid human plans. Perhaps that is why the people who react most against any possible work of God's Spirit always come from the rational end of the church spectrum.

I don't know where this particular part of my journey will end....all I know is that I mustn't let the world squeeze me into its mold but instead I must be transformed by the renewing of my mind - or else I shan't be able to test and approve God's good, pleasing and perfect will.

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