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The Great Divide

November 19, 2012

For generations, western literature has been allusive to Scripture. The Enlightenment people thought that science and reason would ultimately end strife and war, and that the human race has been moving forward since the Reformation. Indeed, Scripture has played an important part in this the Enlightenment, and it has opened our minds to new concepts and effectively brought us out of the dark ages. “Neither Greek nor Jew, slave nor free, is apart from the love of God” surely has similar connotations to “All men are created equal.” Obviously, John Locke and Thomas Jefferson had some thought, be it in the back of their mind, of the Bible and its principles. First there was the Bible, which molded western thought on so many levels, then there was literature, and then the societal reformation, moving out of monarchy and to democracy, a revolution that is every bit new for the old world. Perhaps this is a shoddy timeline at best, but it is not the point here. The point is that somewhere down the line, or perhaps always in some way, religion has implemented backward thinking in a way that in some sort of way leads to forward thinking by some sort of unconscious nuance. Think of the Julian of Norwich or Saint Augustine: They drew from Scripture to be sure, but they’re treatises were scripture nuanced. How unusual is that.

Religion nowadays implements this backward thinking, especially in American culture. This sign exemplifies that perfectly. This “them and us,” this group think mentality is surely reverting to ideologies older than even the darkest of dark ages. This mentality allows for nothing quite as special as Saint Augustine, or other older thinkers. It seems that God really does not work directly through religion, or at least mainstream religion. I can say of my own spiritual journey that it is always through the aforementioned Joy or something of that sort, which is discovered in Scripture reading or song, and hardly able to be expressed directly through language. I would say religion is an necessary evil for the reconciliation of other people and for conversion to love. It is more guidelines than rules, in my opinion.

There seems to be, then, in our culture, a great divide of sorts. There are the Neo-Enlightenment people, popularly called the New Atheists, who think that science will be the cure for evil and bring about truth and restoration. Knowledge is the ultimate trump over evil (did not World War II and postmodern thought debunk this popular axiom?). Then, on the other side of the spectrum, are the reactionaries, the conservative Christians, who want to “conserve” the ways of old. C.S. Lewis has been on the mind of late, and his treatise on the New Atheists thinking (though they were not alive in his day, but nonetheless resemble his Innovators) is troubling but als0 – in a way – true. If we eschew Value from our societal functions, what room is there for Grace? For if someone deserves something in spite of not earning it, and we just say that objectively, then there cannot be grace given. There cannot be reconciliation if there is no room for sinning in the first place: if everything is relative, then nothing therefore is evil or good, only shades of gray. The Christian Conservatives, on some level, argue alongside Lewis.

And are they right? It seems that there is a grand delusion concerning this Great Divide. There is one, and there are two groups of people who take helm at their positions, but both are deluded in some sense. Frank Schaeffer (son of Francis Shaeffer) argues this way in his book Patience with God. There must be an in-between, right? There have to be gray areas. But this, in turn, brings us back to religion being ‘guidelines.’ Religion and the Bible are what we make of them. I believe, it is the person, and the person who indelibly shapes the world around her, which counts. The true war is not between these two forces, becoming more polarized as the years go on, but between rational thinkers, who subscribe to the Enlightenment mode of thinking. The corrupt priests and the televangelists and the pastors with a million dollar houses and the New Atheists may as well be on the same side. They are the Pharisees and the Sadducees of the age, if that can be allowed. The Bible stresses “neither to go to the right or the left.” The narrow way is not an easy way to tread. Most people miss it. I know that I miss it every day.

Jesus did not come to establish a religion. A religion sprang haphazardly out of his teachings. The real good works that are worthy of praise, whether part of the religion that came out of his teachings (or really a myriad of religions, really) happen in secret, behind closed doors. “When your Father in Heaven sees what you have done in secret, he will reward you.” That verse has stuck close to my heart for many years now. I am reading a book by Michael Catt called Courageous Living, who at the end of the chapter asks us who will come to our funeral when we die. We will wonder if we can say at the end of our lives “what a life!” or “what a waste!” He asks us, “how will you be remembered?” Really, I don’t want to be remembered in the sense that he seems to term it. Jesus was remembered for not wanting to be remembered: “Tell no one what has happened today.” He was remembered because he was the humblest man ever to live. I don’t care quite as much about fame or glory, cleverly masked behind works of evangelicalism and marriage in Catt’s book, but I care about what God sees me do in secret. I think having a quiet funeral with three people whose lives you saved from a gunshot in some one-horse town – after having lived thirty years – is much more rewarding, say, than living for eighty years with your friends all around you. Ask Jesus. That was how he died. All his close friends abandoned him, ashamed.

It is this fame and glory mentality that is the engine for people like Catt and the conservative-evangelical circle. In the extreme sense, there are fundamentalists, caricatured as the Pharisees here, and of course the New Atheists on the other end. At the end of the day, humans are incomplete without religion and ritual. The conservative Christian representatives need it to go about their everyday lives, the Atheists need scientism to shape the lives they live, and give reason to it, and even people in between need it. To abolish it would be the abolition of all things past and precious, and in some way the principles we take from Scripture are important for a healthy, vibrant society. In that way, Christian conservatives and the like are right in their attack on atheists. And the atheists are right in saying that you cannot take your religion too far – and they do not say this explicitly as far as I know, but in so doing people think they can become or speak for God. There is a great divide, but the canyons below, which no one sees, are where the true healing and restoration take place.  It is from the depths of the canyon that we get great thinkers like Augustine and Schaeffer, who are unafraid to wrestle with hard topics, and are unafraid to walk – for the purposes of this essay – the narrow way.

And for everyone else? Surely people who lead others to commit suicide, the Westboro Baptist Church and people like that, have no place in Heaven. At least not the kind of Heaven I would envision. I am not saying I think they should go to Hell, but I still do not like that dichotomy quite as much as I need to in order to be a “normal” Christian. I am in no sense saying these people are directly tantamount to the Pharisees or Sadducees, but what I am saying is that many of them are acting like herd and not heroes. True, Richard Dawkins is a great thinker and I have heard he  is a great writer, as well as many Christian conservatives (Billy Graham comes to mind), and again I am not stressing they off to hell in a handbasket, but they are the loudest voices in the discourse, and the champions on either side of the Divide. What I do stress is that neither side will win. To say there is no room for religion is to say there is no room for humanity. On the other side, to say that there is no room for anything but is to deny other basic human needs and forward thinking. To allow for this forward thinking we must be open to speculation, thought, and critical thinking. But religion, I will argue, is always at the center, and is the focal point; and for western thought, it is the Christian religion.

I keep reading textbooks written by people of the Christian persuasion. How strange it would be if all textbooks omitted God. So much of our literature would be censored or butchered. So many poets wrestle with God. So many authors reference him and the Bible. So many critics draw on Christian principles. So many cultures have benefited from Christ’s teaching to love our neighbors and pray for our enemies. Yes, to get rid of God is to get rid of hope. The world needs religion, let’s be frank. It needs God. The atheists reply, “He is nothing more than an imaginary friend. God did not create man. Man created god.”

Let’s assume that is correct. Where do we go from there? Into nothingness, as well as the universe, for eternity, who knows if there will be another big bang. So I will end with this paradoxical or dare I say improbable maxim: “If God is not real, then God help us.”

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