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
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