The clash between modernist thought and Judeo-Christianity has produced more than a century of accusation, rebuttal and counter-accusation, with religion forced into a mostly defensive position. Modernity has asserted that religious belief is irrelevant because it is based on an outmoded and unscientific worldview. Rudolph Bultmann (1884-1976) the famed critic and de-mythologizer of the Bible put it this way, “It is impossible to use electric (devices) and take advantage of modern medical discoveries, and at the same time believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles.” This modern worldview spoken of by Bultmann and others has been responsible for a significant decline in religious belief in Western culture. Modernity’s claim that religious faith (specifically Judeo-Christianity) is no longer relevant is based on the following arguments:
1. Religion is invalid because of the vastness of the Cosmos. In other words, if a Creator exists, why would he be concerned about such an insignificant place such as earth? It is unrealistic to think that a Being of such immensity would pour so much of himself into this tiny speck in the hugeness of the universe. Modernity would say that if religion has any value, it is in its expression of the human aspiration for meaning and belonging in the larger scheme of Cosmic reality.
2. Science has demonstrated that religion is an inadequate explanation for the reality of nature. Natural phenomena, which less advanced people explained in a religious way are now known to be caused by natural forces. For example, thunder was seen by primitive people as God expressing his displeasure or showing his power, but the scientific method shows that it is caused by complex electrical processes in the atmosphere. So science and technology have replaced the need for supernatural explanations, making religion a much less necessary part of human life.
3. Human beings ought to be allowed the freedom to search for whatever personal fulfillment each may find to his or her sensibility. Religion has often been a hindrance to the quest for personal fulfillment, and should be abolished or modified so that it no longer obstructs that freedom. Karl Marx (1818-1883) believed that religion was simply a tool of oppression used by the upper classes to maintain their control. He once called religion “the opiate of the people.”
4. Religion is simply a protective framework constructed to deal with the fear and uncertainty which naturally result from an unpredictable and dangerous universe. In his book, The Future of an Illusion, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) argued that religion could be explained as a psychological response to the human inability to control nature. Because they feel helpless and frustrated, people need a sense of security provided by a theoretical Protector. In other words, Freud saw religion as a form of neurosis. Freud did see belief in God as providing some social and psychological benefits, but he felt that the downside of religion was to leave people in an infantile state. Mature people, freed from neurosis, would have no need for God.
5. The best that can be said for religion is that it is a useful social “glue”. Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) saw religion as a necessary institution which enabled society to function harmoniously. In the West, Judeo-Christianity has provided a certain stability by teaching and enforcing a definite moral code, which, over time, became formalized into law. It has also validated authority structures and discouraged anti-social behavior.
Let us think through each of these main objections to religious belief posed by Modernity. Do modernistic explanations really disprove religious belief?
Response 1: If a Creator exists, it would seem rather rash for human beings to attempt to predict what the Supreme Being would be likely to do. As a part of God’s creation ourselves, it would be foolish to say dogmatically that he would have little or no interest in one particular planet in his universe or about human life on that planet. So, simply because the universe is a very large place, doesn’t disprove the Judeo-Christian assertion that the Creator is profoundly interested in us.
Response 2: It is the function of science to provide technically correct explanations for natural phenomena. What may seem like mythological views of God’s activities and character in the Bible may be understood as complementary to science rather than in contradiction of it. A careful study of the Bible as ancient literature shows that biblical descriptions of God are not so much mythological as they are poetic. When God is spoken of as riding on thunder clouds, it is a picture of God’s majesty and power, rather than a technical description of the hydrological cycle. In other words, religion offers valid explanations of realities which lie beyond the physical properties of natural phenomena. Science can describe and (sometimes) predict the way in which nature is structured. It cannot evaluate the origins of nature, nor is it always in a position to answer questions about why it functions as it does. Furthermore, science cannot predict whether the laws of nature may be temporarily set aside should the Creator think fit to do so.
Response 3: Probably no informed person would want to argue the point that religion has often been used to prevent people from pursuing certain avenues of self-expression. Certainly people have used the Bible and religious tradition to deter people from all sorts of activities. Most people who have been involved in a religious community have either personally experienced or at least witnessed the harmful and manipulative use of power by religiously motivated people. For many, one such experience is more than enough to convince them that all religious warnings and moral statements are simply a type of power-play.
The true question is whether religion is serving its proper function when it attempts to use various forms of persuasion to affect people’s thinking and behavior. To answer this, we must discuss the issue of assumptions. Either God exists as Judeo-Christianity depicts him or he does not. If the Judeo-Christian view of God is not accurate, then the argument might be made that religious moralizing is an improper hindrance to human self-expression. However, even assuming that God does not exist, religion might still serve a useful function in deterring people from behaviors and activities which generations of human experience have shown to be either harmful or unproductive. On the other hand, if Judeo-Christianity gives an essentially accurate picture of God’s character and will, then a major task of religion would be to help people understand and conform to those ideals.
Response 4: It is undeniable that religion meets some very basic psychological needs. Like most other religions, Judeo-Christianity deals with fear of the future and offers a sense of peace amid life’s calamities. The fact that it does so is no argument against its validity. The truth is that if Judeo-Christianity did nothing to address those very common human experiences, it would argue strongly against its validity. Simply because religion effectively addresses deep-seated human fears and insecurities, does not mean that this is its sole function. Nor does it mean that religion is somehow false because fearful people find refuge it its assurances.
Response 5: It is also true that religion performs the function of binding people together in community. Communities teach social values, enforce a minimum standard of adherence to those values and demand respect for approved leadership. The result is a fairly stable social structure. In doing all of these things, religion plays a crucial role in society. Perhaps in non-Western cultures religion plays such a dominating role in people’s lives that its value as a social glue is outweighed by its oppressive effects. For the most part, Western societies are in no imminent danger of that scenario. Given the fragmentation of Western culture, religion’s stabilizing effects may prove of even greater value in the future (provided we don’t fall into religious conflict). Once again, the fact that religion plays such a role, is no argument against its validity.
Conclusion: While making major inroads into the influence of religion in society, Modernity has failed to convince a significant portion of Westerners to abandon religious belief and practice and its arguments have fallen short of proving religion to be either false or unnecessary. To the contrary, Judeo-Christianity has benefited from the modernist critique in that it has been forced to re-evaluate its premises and function, resulting in a renewed confidence and in a needed overhaul of its approach to society.
Background of and Reaction to Higher Criticism.
The philosophical movements of the Enlightenment (roughly the 1700s) focused on a fundamental questioning of the certainties of the Middle Ages and a reaction to the clashes over truth during the Protestant Reformation. Traditional views of religion and culture came under severe inquiry and even open attack.
For example, Rene Descartes began his philosophic inquiry by questioning everything, except his own existence. He then built the philosophy of Rationalism from one presupposition. “Cogito ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am).
Enlightenment thinkers reasoned that unless something made rational sense (Rationalism) or could be tested and proved to the senses (Empiricism), it should not be accepted. The Cosmos was seen as merely “the product of cause and effect in a closed system.” Enlightenment thinking obviously had a dramatic impact on religion, excluding the supernatural as a factor in real human experience. Religious dogma and doctrine were questioned and discarded, not only by those of marginal religious commitment, but by some within Judeo-Christianity.
In the early 1800s the philosophy of George Hegel took the next logical step. Hegel began by asking certain basic questions: If the supernatural is not a factor in the routine workings of the Cosmos, how did things arrive at their present state? Are things moving in the direction of progress? If so, what mechanism causes things to progress?
Hegel’s answer was his Dialectic Process, which stated that the Cosmos is a closed system of cause and effect, driven by the conflict of the principles of thesis with its opposite, antithesis. In other words, the Universe is propelled in the direction of progress by a clash of opposing forces or ideas. The interaction of these opposite forces produces a blending of the two, which Hegel called synthesis. Hegel saw this process as a manifestation of Absolute Mind, which was the term he used for the source of reality (similar to the concept of Brahman in Hinduism).
This dialectical philosophy quickly became the dominant theory in Western intellectual and academic circles. Variations of the Hegelian dialectic were quickly adapted to other disciplines by those eager for an explanation of reality which did not need a Creator. For example:
Biological diversity and environmental suitability were explained by Charles Darwin as the survival of the fittest. The clash of species and the resulting adaptations and genetic mutations used Hegel’s dialectic in the Theory of Evolution (Origin of Species, 1858).
Politics was seen by Karl Marx as a violent conflict between social classes, ultimately resulting in a redistribution of wealth and a communist utopia (The Communist Manifesto, 1848).
Bible scholarship also took a page from Hegel in the Higher Critical Movement, which began in the late 1700s, and became academically dominant in the second half of the 1800s. The Bible was seen as merely a collection of folklore, religious codes of behavior, political propaganda and even downright forgery edited late in biblical history.
Higher Criticism. The Higher Critics were led by German scholars such as K.H. Graf and Julius Wellhausen, who studied the Pentateuch (Genesis through Deuteronomy) using a theory called the Documentary Hypothesis. The premise of the Documentary Hypothesis was that the Pentateuch couldn’t possibly have been written in the form in which we now know it. Therefore, the documents must have “evolved” over time through a process similar to Hegel’s dialectic, from primitive religious ideas and practices, ancient oral stories, legends and early written fragments of questionable historical value.
These sources were then woven together over time by various editors, who blended and changed them into distinct religious documentary traditions within Israelite tribal groups (Jahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomist and Priestly). Finally, these four documents were further edited and combined into their current form in the Pentateuch. The Documentary Hypothesis opened the door to other critical approaches to studying and understanding the biblical documents of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries.
The basic flaw of the Critical Approach is in making certain arbitrary assumptions:
1. History and religion should be understood as fundamentally naturalistic. True to its Enlightenment roots the Critical View explains reality in purely naturalistic terms, dismissing the possibility of the supernatural. Miraculous accounts in the Bible are seen as embellishments made to gain credibility by certain groups and individuals, or merely as legends perpetuated by simple tribal people.
2. Critical methodology is always assumed to be superior to other approaches. Wellhausen and other early critics took almost no notice of archeological discoveries in their day, which sometimes disproved their assertions. Since then, the basic gist of Higher Criticism has never been revised despite a wealth of new information and findings, many of which have tended to support the accuracy of the biblical accounts.
3. The ancient Israelite peoples were ignorant nomads. For instance, the early Critics asserted that writing was extremely rare in ancient times and unknown to ancient Israelites. Yet ancient writing and documents are routinely uncovered by archeologists. Egypt, Sumer, Indus Valley, Mesopotamia and Meso-America all had writing early in their histories. It was expedient for the Critics, however, to take the position that ancient Hebrews had little or no access to writing so that they could argue that, if figures like Moses and the other greats of the scriptures existed at all, they couldn’t possibly have written a document of the stature of the Pentateuch.
4. The Patriarchs are essentially legendary figures. Critics see Abraham, Jacob, Moses and the others as Paul Bunyan-like heroes developed by people who needed to see their founding fathers as larger-than-life. Critics believe that the biblical stories of the Patriarchs actually tell us nothing about the Patriarchs themselves. All that can be learned from the biblical accounts is what the times may have been like when the stories were first told, and what the composers of those stories thought life may have been like in earlier times.
Traditionalist Reactions to Higher Criticism. Traditionalists were initially caught unprepared by the critical onslaught of the late 1800s. At first, those loyal to the inspiration of scripture simply responded with vehement opposition to Higher Critical views and with indignant denouncements of these new theories. This initial emotional reaction was followed in the mid and late Twentieth Century by more thoughtful scholarship, factual defense of the Bible and interaction with the views of critically-oriented academia.
Jewish Reaction. The more conservative groups within Judaism either defended the divine origins of scripture or took the approach that the origins of Scripture were irrelevant because the traditions have become a time-tested glue holding Jews together. The more liberal elements of Judaism have been influenced to large degree by Critical thought. Hence, they are freer to redefine traditional observance of the Torah (Moses’ Law) and blend with the society around them.
Roman Catholic / Eastern Orthodox Reactions. The Vatican and the various Eastern Orthodox bodies have maintained their longstanding positions on the divine inspiration of scripture, though there is much internal debate on unofficial levels. The issue has not been quite as major among Roman Catholics or Orthodox as for Protestants, because both of these groups have other sources of divine authority besides the Bible. For example, both groups also accept the decisions of various ecumenical church councils on a par with the teachings of the Bible. Roman Catholics further accept the pronouncements of popes as binding.
Protestant Reactions. Protestant Christianity has been deeply divided on the issues raised by Higher Criticism and related movements of modernist theology. Fundamentalist groups have flatly denied the arguments of the Critics, refusing to become involved in academic debate and increasingly retreating into cultural isolation. Evangelicals have been more willing to dialog with the larger culture. They have attempted to defend scriptural inspiration and reliability based on the disciplines of textual criticism and manuscript study. Since the mid Twentieth Century, Evangelicals have entered the debate over the reliability of scripture with growing confidence. However, the ascendancy of Post-modern thought in the years just prior to the dawn of the Twenty-first Century has changed the focus of the debate away from the factually-based defense Evangelicals have labored so hard to assemble, toward a larger debate over the nature and meaning of reality itself.
Modernist Protestants have attempted to accommodate Christian faith and doctrine to the viewpoints of academia and of the larger society. In doing so, they have become culturally mainstream, but have arguably tended to lose much of their Christian distinctiveness. This trend is attested to by their dramatic losses in church membership, as people have either ceased to think of themselves are particularly Christian, or have migrated to churches which emphasize distinctive Christian teachings.