The Making of the Christian Mind in the 21st Century

The Christian Religion is inescapably ritualistic… uncompromisingly moral… and unapologetically intellectual.
Robert Louis Wilkin

The Edinburgh Connection

Darwin Day has recently been celebrated by Humanists and Secularists across the globe and acknowledged no doubt, by some Christians too! Darwin came to Edinburgh in 1825 to study medicine, following in the footsteps of his Father and Grandfather. The capitol of Scotland was at that time a bustling and flourishing place receiving the accolade of the “Athens of the North.” By all accounts Darwin was awed and fascinated by his first encounter in the city with its gothic Old Town and classical New Town. He soon discovered it was also an intensely interesting and challenging place to study. Underneath the hustle and bustle of this cosmopolitan city there was the clashing of great cultural tectonic plates.

On one hand there was the symbol of the Establishment, the Church of Scotland: “wealthy, dogmatic, and self-assured” (Desmond and Moore). How the mighty have fallen! On the other hand, Darwin encountered fiery radical students with strong anti-clerical views who were intent on reforming a Church-dominated society. He was also exposed to the lectures and radical thought of men like Robert Knox (the scourge of the Kirk) and Robert Grant (who was to be influential in awakening young Charles’ interest in biology). These men were atheists and freethinkers who believed science held the answers to the great questions of life and who were scornful of theological discourse and clerical privilege. There is no doubt that this early experience was to shape Darwin’s life and career in both positive and negative ways.

A Tale of Two Cities

Today, Edinburgh is still a vibrant and wonderful city with an amazing and deeply symbolic skyline. From Calton Hill, whilst standing among the many monuments and tributes to the Enlightenment, one can still see a city dominated with Church spires and steeples indicating a continuing Christian presence: although in reality, a diminished and pale shadow of Darwin’s day. It is a contrast that evokes the metaphorical distinction of the early Church Father Tertullian between “Athens” and “Jerusalem”: the symbols of the Academy and the Church respectively. Tertullian had a negative view on that relationship. It is, in many respects, a perennial issue.

It is often claimed that the Church has been on the defensive since the Enlightenment and no more so than today. We were totally unprepared for the explosive phenomenon of the New Atheism which, for a while, threatened to carry the day both intellectually and practically. Now that the storm has receded, “we are still standing” (to quote Elton John) but a little bruised and battered. Despite this we face huge challenges in today’s culture. The animosity and evangelical belligerence of the New Atheists may be receding but I get the feeling they have left an indelible mark. This takes the form of an attitude towards faith and religion which although not aggressive or combative is still dismissive. Many people I encounter believe that the Church has nothing worthwhile to contribute to the contemporary intellectual landscape, even those who think Richard Dawkins is now passé! For them, science and humanism are the future. That they are in no way dogmatic about this; simply matter of fact; only makes it more worrying.

Remembering our History

The quote at the beginning of this post is taken from Robert Louis Wilken’s “The Spirit of Early Christian Thought”. It is a superb book: one that should be compulsory reading for all clergy and informed lay people. It is a terrific reminder of our Christian intellectual heritage. It refutes the Roman philosopher Galen’s charge that it was pointless to debate Christians as they had no arguments to give. It also demolishes Gibbon’s assertion that an age of darkness was ushered in when classical Reason was smothered by Christian Revelation. Wilken’s study reveals the breadth and depth of early Christian reflection on faith, truth and knowledge. At its best, “Jerusalem” is a match for “Athens”! Now of course at one level, there should not be rivalry between these great “cities” as a corollary of Monotheism is the dictum that “All truth is God’s truth.” However, in reality there will inevitably be challenges and differences as not everyone can, or will, share in the Christian worldview. So whilst a synthesis between Christian and secular thought may at times be desirable, it may also be the case that we need to challenge other paradigms and presuppositions.

The Task Ahead

It is not an easy one! Matthew Arnold’s vivid and evocative metaphor of the retreating Sea of Faith seems more apt in the 21st century than it did in the 19th. But there is hope. When the tide ebbs, life goes on in the security of the many rock-pools which are found on the shore. They not only provide sanctuary for marine life until the tide turns, but in evolutionary terms, they were the places where mutations took place that enabled life-forms to eventually conquer the land. Don’t misunderstand the metaphor. I am not advocating a brand new Christianity but rather a renewed and reformed one fed by the richness of our shared Christian heritage. It will require the resources and cooperation of Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. It will require our time, talents, money and faith. So whilst we are in the rock-pool waiting for the tide to turn, which by God’s grace it surely will, let’s get busy! Involvement with “Grasping The Nettle” is a good place to start.

by Rev Dr Russel Moffat

9 Responses

  1. /February 27, 2018/ by Iain Morris /

    Russel. Thank you for this most thoughtful blog in which you take stock of the church’s declining impact in society. I wholeheartedly agree that the general secularist conception is that the church has no intellectual fuel to contribute to stoking the intellectual fires of contemporary understanding. The regular silence of the church on rationale for belief in a transcendent creator gives the impression of tacit agreement with the common consensus that society has outgrown such belief. Science is the new altar at which society aspires to find truth. Indeed there is evidence that some sectors of the church have given up completely on defending the faith.
    On a recent Sunday, a BBC 1 programme featured clergy life in Hereford. One of their number unambiguously stated that ‘with people no longer attending church, it required to find its meaning and role in supporting social services’. Goodbye to Jerusalem and leave Athens to the secularists!
    As you suggest at the end of your blog, GTN is attempting to develop a more reasoned alternative but for it to be successful the Church needs to commit to restoring Jerusalem and to opening its embassy in Athens!
    How can GTN encourage a change of gaze from ecclesiastical navel contemplation to rebuilding the temple of a rich ‘apologetic’ ?  GTN offers some signposts along the way but the church has to shed its defeatist spirit and build on the rich intellectual landscape on which it can construct a new reputation for rigorous thinking- not a characteristic that can always be observed in those who wish to see the Church in ruins.

  2. /March 1, 2018/ by Russel Moffat /

    Hi Ian
    Thanks for your response.  I like your statement that “the Church needs to commit to restoring Jerusalem and to opening its embassy in Athens!”  Amen!
    The Roman Catholic Philosopher John Haldane once said that the “Contemporary church has lost its faith.  It no longer believes its own narrative.”  He could well be right.  Many churches seem to be desperately trying to find relevance and do so with continued reference to their work with the poor of our society. Who can quibble with that work!  But what of other big issues in our world and society?  When, Church leaders can write articles or give statements to the press where the name of Jesus isn’t even mentioned once i wonder if we have lost our nerve as well as our faith. It is as though we are embarrassed in the face of secular criticism and hostility and we seek to justify our existence with reference to the good social work we do. It is great and necessary that we do this work but the Christian worldview relates to the WHOLE of reality and that is what is consistently missing. Restoring Jerusalem is a huge task and we need to pay more attention to the theological education of the next generation of Clergy so that they not only feel supported during the struggles of faith and doubt which can often present themselves during this time but try to find ways we can encourage and empower them with an expansive and all-embracing Christian vision.  Not an easy task!

  3. /March 4, 2018/ by Russel Moffat /

    Hi Iain
    Just a wee follow up to your response. I was thinking about your evocative phrase “rebuilding the temple of a rich apologetic”.  Of course in Biblical terms the allusion is to the return of God’s people from exile in Babylon and the rebuilding of Jerusalem and its Temple as well as the renewal of the faithful community.  The metaphor of a “Babylonian Exile” is perhaps appropriate for the contemporary church. The problem is that not too many people seem to see it that way! Are we “sleepwalking” or just complacent? We also have to be realistic in that it is clear from Ezra and Nehemiah that those who caught the vision and who returned to do the work of rebuilding and renewal were very much in the minority. The majority of the exilic community seem to have accommodated themselves very well to their “exile”! Does that sound familiar?  In ancient times the post-exilic work of restoration was not easy and certainly not quick.  There were many pitfalls and hurdles along the way. The same applies to our contemporary situation. We will require not just vision but patience and grace.

  4. /March 7, 2018/ by Tony Foreman /

    I love Matthew Arnold’s poem and wonder just how much wistfulness there is in it. Thomas Hardy’s poetry, from roughly the same era, is even darker and sadder. ‘How arrives it joy lies slain, and why unblooms the best hope ever sown?’ Maybe the Church could demonstrate joy and hope to a greater degree than it does and attract folk that way. But then, society provides plenty of make-do happiness that appears to satisfy most people. Will a sea-change come that takes our prosperity away and makes room for the kind of dissatisfaction that might lead back to God? At the moment secular thinking, no matter how inadequate we might find it, dominates the establishment, the media, the universities and the minds of the majority. The theist, Christian, and ‘uncompromisingly moral’ is simply not heard or known. Sorry no solutions!

  5. /March 7, 2018/ by John Spence /

    Russel, thank you for a most interesting and thought-provoking blog.  There are a couple of areas I would like to comment on.  The perennial problem of a conflict model of Science (the Academy) v religion (Jerusalem) has been well exploited by secularists.  In 2016 Professor Elaine Ecland et al of Rice University published an international survey of 9422 university scientists in Academia (biologists and physicists) “Religion among Scientists in International Context: A New Study of Scientists in Eight Regions”.  It can be easily accessed on her web site.  Her first conclusion is interesting, “First, we show that the perception of intrinsic conflict between science and religion, which is conveyed publicly in most of these regional contexts, is only minimally reflective of the perceptions that scientists themselves-often thought to be leading the charge of secularization-have of the science-faith inter- face”.  Indeed, only about 20% overall subscribed to the idea of a conflict model.  My own experience at university was that most of the staff who identified as Christian were found in the hard sciences while those who spoke about science displacing faith were located elsewhere.  Of course, some proponents of science and some proponents of faith have been (and are) in conflict but sometimes I suspect science is used as an excuse rather than as evidence, aided and abetted by various vested interests including sections of the media.  Eland’s survey showed that the lowest percentages of scientists identifying as religious was in France, 16% (645) in UK 27% (1531) and USA 30% (1779) - the numbers in brackets being totals surveyed but the numbers are not insignificant.  All other regions were higher but these included many non-Christian religions.
    I was also interested in your plea to re-examine the richness of our shared Christian heritage including the resources of Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.  How we love to emphasise our differences.  If only we could look at the primary beliefs and be more tolerant about differences in secondary things perhaps the picture of religion would be more attractive.  The Eastern Church officially departed from the Western Church in 1054 over, it seems, three words added to the creed (The Filioque) although undoubtedly politics and personalities were involved; the reformation split the Western Church for what were good reasons at the time.  I am no theologian but the Christology of the above three seem remarkably consistent even today which surely is primary.  All three, I think, subscribe to the Apostle’s Creed and also the Nicene Creed - more or less.  I am sure you are correct that we have much to learn from each other.  We don’t seem to make much use of the Creeds although last month at a Church of Scotland induction service I attended the congregation were invited to recite the Apostle’s Creed. 
    Grasping the Nettle has made a start in the Scottish context in that it is interdenominational and ecumenical and concentrates on one crucial aspect of truth namely, the existence of one transcendent God (and the importance of telling the public that science has not made belief in that God redundant).  We cannot be side-lined by secondary issues.  We have ignored for too long the injunction to unity, albeit no one is advocating uniformity, and underestimated the powerful witness in the public square of a common stance on primary things.  We have not yet reached out to the Orthodox community.  Perhaps you could help with that?

  6. /March 14, 2018/ by Fergus Macdonald /

    Thank you Russel for your insightful analysis.  As you point out, the dominant secular culture of our time is marginalising the presence of a vibrant Christian worldview in the public square, and, as Iain’s reference to Hereford illustrates, it is also robbing the church of its nerve. Therefore, it is critical that we develop key strategies for recovering a Christian worldview which will both strengthen Christians’ nerve and renew respect for Christianity in the prevailing western cultural milieu. 
    One such strategy is to promote and foster within and beyond the church a science-scripture partnership.  If we believe that science is God-informing and scripture is God-speaking, surely science and scripture when rightly used will complement each other.  St Paul reminds us that the invisible attributes of God are discernible and, indeed, commonly seen and known, through what God has made (Rom 1:20).  This being is so, then the sciences, as they unlock the marvels of nature, are telling us about God.  This is acknowledged by Francis Collins, former leader of the Human Genome Project: ‘For me as a believer, this all makes perfect sense, this is basically science teaching us something about what was really happening with God’s creative plan’ (The God Question, Programme 2).  It seems that over one quarter of British scientists – referenced in the Ecland survey, and quoted in John’s post – would affirm with Collins’ that scientific research can be meaningfully pursued with integrity by Christians. 
    After all Christians affirm that Scripture provides us with ‘spectacles’ (Calvin) which enable us to view the world from the standpoint of its creator.  This biblical ‘big picture’ of creation is sustained by the repeated affirmation in the Hebrew Bible of God as ‘the maker of heaven and earth’ (e.g. Pss 115:15; 121:2; 124:8; 134:3; 146:6), and also of humanity (Pss 8:5; 103:3), a dual theme which is reinforced in the New Testament (e.g. Acts 4:24; 14:15; 17:28) and further developed there to anticipate the rule of God finding its ultimate future fulfilment in a new creation (Rev 21:1-4).  This biblical perspective provides theological boundaries within which we may with a measure of confidence attempt to join the dots of multiple scientific findings. 
    However, for a science-scripture partnership to work will require more than a return to a perfunctory reading of the Bible.  It will involve a readiness to engage the text.  Engaging scripture goes beyond Bible study, important as that is.  It consists of more than standing over the text as an object to be interpreted by us.  Engagement also requires us to be open to the scriptures interpreting us!  Of course, discovering and grappling with the meaning of a text in its original context remains important.  But unless we then go on to wrestle with what the text is saying to us today we will fall short of a transformative encounter.  Allowing the Spirit of the Scripture to speak into our lives and into our cultural context is critical.
    Long before the rise of modern science such a science-scripture partnership was in a sense anticipated by Tertullian (c. 155-c. 240), the early Christian apologist from Roman North Africa, when he wrote: “We conclude that God is known first through Nature, and then again, more particularly, by doctrine; by Nature in his works, and by doctrine in his revealed word” (Adversus Marcionem, I, 18).  Theologians ignore this dual revelation to their detriment according to Sir John Polkinghorne: ‘The dialogue between science and religion can rightly seek to contribute to creative theological thinking’ (Context of Science, p 13).
    In pursuing a partnership between science and scripture, humility is called for on the part of both parties.  Scientific knowledge being progressive is recurrently revised in the light of new discoveries.  Similarly, biblical scholars regularly modify earlier interpretations of scripture texts in the light of new linguistic knowledge and updated understandings of a text’s original culture.  Therefore, dogmatism on either side is unhelpful.  What is called for is partnership, not conflict.  Differences of opinion will inevitably emerge, but they can be creative, especially when expressed in respectful dialogue beginning and ending with scientists and Christians confessing together: ‘LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!’ (Psalm 8:1).

  7. /March 14, 2018/ by Angus Morrison /

    Can I just say how much I too appreciate Russel’s excellent piece, together with the subsequent responses. As we seek to develop a Christian mind in the 21st century, many valuable resources lie to our hand. As someone whose specialization was in patristics (Augustine in particular, whose work on Genesis remains of great relevance as I’m hoping to show in a forthcoming paper ) I was so glad that Russel (and Fergus) called attention to the rich resources of the early church period for this urgent endeavour. I entirely agree with what you say about Wilken’s superb book. I too would make it compulsory reading, were that within my power! As you know, he had originally intended to write a history of Christian apologetics but while greatly valuing that kind of project and the need to listen to the voices of critics of Christianity, he came to appreciate that ‘the energy, the vitality, the imaginative power of Christian thought stems from within, from the person of Christ, the Bible, Christian worship, the life of the church.’  He was particularly impressed by the omnipresence of the Bible in early Christian writings’ and the ‘indispensability of love to Christian thinking’ as reflected in them. We need, as you say, to regain confidence in our own narrative (there has been serious erosion here), and to draw on the riches of our biblical and theological heritage in developing an epistemology of love that provides access to reality in a way others simply cannot do. Tom Wright gave us a wonderful taste of how that may be accomplished in his Grasping the Nettle after-dinner lecture (viewable on the GTN website) and now, in expanded form,  in his immensely stimulating and insightful Aberdeen Gifford Lectures, ‘Discerning the Dawn: History, Eschatology, and New Creation’ in which he works out an approach to natural theology grounded in an epistemology of love.  They’re all online. They represent in my view an important contribution to the task before us. What Fergus says about engaging Scripture is so important. And yes, by God’s grace, the tide will most certainly turn!

  8. /March 16, 2018/ by Russel Moffat /

    Tony  -  I think you are absolutely right about Christians demonstrating more “love and joy” in their lives. After all we may be the only Bible some people may read! To use a classic three point sermon - we are called to make the Gospel Visible, Intelligible and Desirable! I would love to know how you find the situation in East Africa regarding these things.
    John  -  Thanks so much for these interesting and encouraging statistics. I had already written the second post before I read your response so I hope your references to Christian Unity and the use of the Creed find resonances there. I’m afraid I don’t have any contacts within the Eastern Orthodox Church in Scotland but then I’m only a lowly foot-soldier! I’m sure one of our former Moderators of the General Assembly will be able to help there lol!
    Fergus  -  I love your idea of “developing strategies” in this area and for that fascinating phrase “science-scripture partnership”. When you reminded us of Calvin and “spectacles” of faith I immediately thought of the adverts on TV with the punchline “should have gone to Specsavers”.  Maybe in years to come we will be able to say “should have gone to GTN”! The task before us is immense but I’m beginning to sense a real excitement about this.
    Angus  -  A Patristics specialist no less! Fantastic news and great to know that….we must make productive use of that my friend! Perhaps we have more resources in our midst that we realise.  Yes, the early church did a marvellous work but can we not match that today with God’s grace and the pulling of our energies and talents? We live in interesting times! Thanks for drawing our attention to the Gifford lectures and the work of Tom Wright.

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