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September 1, 2012


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I still recall my surprise upon entering a room of Flemish and Dutch painters of the 16th and 17th centuries after visiting Sainsbury’s Wing of Religious Art in The British National Art Gallery. The Sainsbury wing featured Christian art from the 13th through the early 15th centuries. The paintings were highly idealized, and the subjects were depicted as the artist visualized them with the eyes of faith. They were beautiful—but at the same time gaudy and imaginary. On the other hand the paintings, of Jan Steen, a Dutch painter of the 17th century, were secular, realistic, and some of them a bit rakish. They reflected no piety or idealism; people were realistically portrayed—real human beings caught in surprisingly common situations.

     It is no accident that the 17th century brought a sea-change in artistic expression. The Western world was making a dramatic shift from a naive preoccupation with religion, and embarking upon a discovery of the human being in the natural world. The fledging physical sciences, philosophy, and commerce were in process of rendering the idea of life controlled by God and church dogma obsolete. Wealth was shifting from the church into the hands of a merchant class and there was revival of interest in the classical” pagan” learning of Greece and Rome.

     By contrast the Holy Roman Empire had viewed the earth as the center of our solar system, and taught that human beings were created in the image of God—their chief purpose being to serve God. With the Enlightenment of the 18th century, however, the Christian hegemony that had existed since the 4th century was shattered and human beings turned to other interests—to study the natural world and the solar system, seen not as the handiwork of God but as natural phenomena whose operation and powers could be understood, and to some extent even harnessed. Medical science was discovering that disease was due to natural causes rather than to demon possession and the wrath of God. For good or ill, God, religion, the spiritual world, and afterlife were no longer the exclusive preoccupation of human interest; people were becoming intellectually awake to their animal nature and the vast reaches of space. Reason and the scientific method rather than prayer and sacrifice to God were becoming the model for solving problems and getting on in the world.

     So here we are today at the beginning of the 21st century, nursing along a Christian faith that no longer fits what we know of the universe. We know, for example, that the world was not created in seven days, and that Adam and Eve were not the first human beings; and that sacred religious texts are human products reflecting a quest after divinity. Viewed objectively, the world’s sacred Scriptures do not provide answers as much as they raise some of life’s enduring questions. Reason tells us that our traditional Christian view of God is not only out of place in the 21st century, but it can even be dangerous. God is neither a creature in a physical location somewhere out there in the universe, nor a super-supernatural spirit in an invisible world inhabited by angels, demons, and spirits, paralleling our own physical universe.

     Christian people, schooled in the scientific advances of the last 200 years, desperately hope to find an understanding of God to fit what science and reason have taught them about the universe. The ancient myths of 4th century orthodoxy are no longer helpful for making religious sense of our place in the world today, although they served pre-Enlightenment human beings well. Many find it difficult to admit even to themselves that the traditional view of God is out of step with 21st century knowledge of the universe. At some level even true believers suspect that God does not control the world, and realize that epidemics, destructive weather cycles, and natural disasters are not stopped or avoided by prayer and seasons of repentance, but they go through the religious exercises any way. In our post-Enlightenment world the weather, disease, and natural disasters have become God’s Achilles heel.

     The clash between reason and faith, the battle over the Bible, the liberal/conservative divide, and our culture wars over abortion, homosexuality, and women’s reproductive health care are some of the driving forces shaking the foundations of traditional Christianity in the 21st century. Will traditional Christianity eventually adapt to a new understanding of the world, as the church did in the early 19th century when it accepted the sun as the center of the solar system, or will it decline and eventually disappear, as the religions of Greece and Rome did in the 4th and early 5th centuries? It is the way of religions to become obsolete.

Charles W. Hedrick

Posted by Charles Hedrick at 6:00am

Dr. Parrott: One survey that measured many views, including belief in heaven (70% believe) and hell (59% believe), was done by Pew Research. It is found at

(I reckon it’s easier to believe in streets of gold than the fires of gehenna?)
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Posted by Dennis Dean Carpenter on 9/7/2012 at 4:03pm

Charlie: I like the way you have laid out how the traditional Christian beliefs about God have slowly eroded as a result of the rise and diffusion of scientific thinking from the 16th century to the present, and I certainly agree with you that traditional Christianity is in danger of becoming obsolete. You list a number of specifics about the natural world that raise serious questions for thinking Christians. But there is one other science issue worth mentioning, I believe, that has contributed to the erosion of faith. Belief in an immortal soul and, hence, the possibility of immortality is in some ways at the heart of Christianity (and Islam as well). But that belief has been seriously challenged by two conclusions of science: first, the Darwinian insight, supported by mountains of evidence, that humans are not a special creation, as the Bible (and the Qur’an iv.1f) has it, but part of the continuum of animal life that evolved over eons of time; and, second, the lack of any role for a non-material soul in view of our increasing knowledge of brain function.

I don’t know any polls that measure belief in the soul and immortality. But I think one can get an idea of what is happening by the number of funerals or memorial services now that are primarily celebrations of the deceased’s life, rather than, as in an earlier time, reminders to the mourners that they too will die one day and will have to face their Maker.
Doug Parrott, Professor emeritus of Religious Studies, UC Riverside
Posted by Doug Parrott on 9/7/2012 at 12:59am

Yours are powerful and timely thoughts. You clarify some of our own concerns about how we bring our 20th century “raising” to deal with the realities of our 21st century. Thank you for sharing.
Harrylyn and Charles
Posted by Charles and Harrylyn Sallis on 9/1/2012 at 9:16pm

Thank you for writing such a reasonable blog. We live in such religiously hysterical times, it is a relief to hear from a voice of tolerance and sensitivity.
Gloria Doan
Posted by Gloria Doan on 9/1/2012 at 7:37am