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Duped by secular rationalism

By Peter Sellick - posted Monday, 15 May 2006

It has become common for the great questions of faith to be boiled down to two questions, one objective and the other subjective. The first is the question that asks if there is a God or not. The second is whether one is religious or not. There may be a connection between believing that there is a God and being religious or there may not. One can believe that there is a God on the basis that there is something and not nothing or that the cosmos seems planned. But this does not mean that you are religious, i.e. go to church. Being religious does not always mean church attendance and is treated more like a personality trait than a conviction of belief.

It is incredible that the rich tradition that is the source of Western culture could be reduced to two rather silly questions, the one referring to the existence or non-existence of a supernatural being that could not be called Christian, and the other concerning individual spiritual proclivities.

What has happened to popular debate about the Christian faith that it can be reduced to two questions that do not lead anywhere? How did it come about that theological debate has been debarred from the public forum out of embarrassment or the fear that we might offend someone? Why is our theological language so impoverished?


Many would begin an explanation of this phenomenon by pointing to the clash between science and religion and the subsequent triumph of science. While this became prominent as a reason for the rejection of religion in the later Enlightenment, particularly on the continent after about 1750, there was a previous cause that was expressed in the Peace of Westphalia of 1648. In this peace, that ended the 30 Years War, toleration was secured for the three great religious communities of the empire - Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Calvinist. This was the first emergence of religious relativism. As Karl Barth states:

The great crisis of Christian faith, as well as of Christian theology, that arose in the 17th century did not have its primary basis in the rise of modern science, for instance, or of the absolute state which later also became religiously indifferent. According to the illuminating hypothesis of Emmanuel Hirsch, this crisis arose prior to all such shocks, simply in the painfully confusing fact of the stable juxtaposition and opposition of three different churches. Sealed officially and demonstratively in the Peace of Westphalia, these three different confessions each represented exclusive claims to revelation which relativised the claims of each. Subsequent acquaintance with the great non-Christian religions of the Near and Far East underlined this relativity still more painfully.

Although there had been theological crisis earlier in the history of the church, these were thrashed out to arrive at a theological consensus. The Peace of Westphalia, in a move towards toleration, which we moderns are bound to admire, gave secular assent to the schism in Christianity produced by the Reformation.

The strife that such schism is bound to produce was stifled for political reasons. The unity of the church, established in the unity of the person of Jesus was destroyed, leaving a heritage of relativism in religious matters. Belief was now no longer directed by extra personal truth established for all time, but was now subjective. What you believed was now determined by what brand of Christianity you gave assent to. Truth became a matter of choice or geography or social circumstance. Before this break there was no need of such a concept as “religion”, there was only “the faith”, the one story of the world which accounted for all things.

The effect of the science-religion debate was minor compared to this demotion of theological thought to the choice of the individual. This was how liberalism in theology took hold in the 19th century, by refusing to acknowledge that Christians are addressed by a single reality outside of themselves.

Instead, taking the late Enlightenment’s critique of religion to heart, that if God existed we could have no knowledge of him, we invented the category “Religion” to refer to that system of belief to which individuals gave assent. So religion became a species of private belief cut off from the real. The invention of human rights was cut from the same cloth with its emphasis on that which adhered to the individual, to the exclusion of the knowledge gained by the community over large periods of time.


How could theology be taken seriously after such a move? It could no longer point to a single reality but only deal with religious experience. It is no wonder that William James could write of the “Varieties of Religious Experience” as though this was the foundation of what had now become religion. Thus theology became the proper study of psychologists.

It is now impossible to assert the most orthodox theological opinion without hearing the rejoinder, “Well, that is just your opinion”. We live in an age in which we feel free to choose the religious options that suit us in complete isolation from the church’s long conversation with heresy. Theological relativism has subverted all theological discussion.

The antidote to this situation may be called theological realism. That is, that theological formulations do not float in midair, unconnected to the reality that exists around us, but that they describe that reality in deeper and more accurate ways than we can experience. What is revealed in revelation is the grain of the universe and our place in it and we ignore this to our peril. If an engineer gets his sums wrong the bridge will fall down, similarly if we get our theology wrong we see only a distortion of reality, the consequences of which will blight our lives.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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