A BETTER WAY (9) The history of an idea …

The roots of the idea I want us to look at today go all the way back to the Garden of Eden, back to Satan’s appeal to mother Eve.

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made.

He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:1-5).

Satan’s appeal was to pride. “You can be equal to God!” “You can know what God knows!” “You can be your own God!” “You won’t need God any more!” No, the text doesn’t actually say any of these things, but the thought is there, inherent in what is said.

“So what?” you may ask. For starters, that narrative gives us some foundation on which to understand some other passages that come a little later in Genesis and throughout both the Old and New Testaments. For example, there is the story of Nimrod in Genesis 10:6-11. When the text says that “he was the first on earth to be a mighty man. He was a mighty hunter before the Lord” That does not mean he was a big game hunter and that God complimented him for his trophies. He may have started out as a hunter of game and acquired his name as a mighty hunter, but there is much more to his story.

The name “Nimrod” means “rebel.” “Before the Lord” conveys something of the idea of Nimrod presenting himself before God in an “in your face” manner, thumbing his nose at God. Arrogant, boastful, proud, in other words. The consequences can be seen in what he did. He was the first empire builder. How could one man accomplish the building of numerous, far-flung cities? The inference it would seem is that he did it by enslaving masses of people and/or by oppressive taxation of many more. (I will deal with the place of inference in later articles).

The same can be seen in the story of the tower of Babel – proud, defiant man thumbing his nose at God resulting from their idolatry. (The “tower” was most likely a ziggurat, a stepped pyramid that served as an astronomical observatory as well as a temple for the priest-king. Ruins of many of these towers still exist in modern day Iraq where the tower of Babel was built. The remains of some ziggurats were destroyed in the recent war there).

Now, let’s bring this a little closer to our time. To get at the point we must begin with The Renaissance. This was “a cultural movement spanning the period roughly from the 14th to the 17th century, beginning in Italy in the Late Middle Ages and later spreading to the rest of Europe.”

One of the developments of the Renaissance was humanism. Humanity in Europe and beyond had been held under the strict rule of the Roman Catholic church which had suppressed thought and learning by a regime of threat and fear. Bibles had been chained to the pulpits. Dissension was ruthlessly stamped out by harsh, violent measures as seen in the Inquisition. Numerous dissenting groups (Albigenses, Waldensians, etc.) had arisen over the centuries during which the pope had held sway, but were mercilessly destroyed. The papacy had become so corrupt and the church so repressive, that, as in the fall of Communism, people who longed to be free began to break out of Catholicism’s prison of fear. The Renaissance was the first step out of the repression of the Medieval church. The Protestant Reformation coming out of this freedom realized in the Renaissance was another step.

As people began to break free, and because they had rejected the rule of Catholicism and had begun to think for themselves they moved toward more emphasis on man instead of God. Out of this new way of thinking came some of the most beautiful art that has ever been created by man, because these people still wanted to glorify God e.g., Michelangelo’s ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. But to illustrate the Renaissance focus on man one has but to look at this same artist’s sculpture “David” which strikingly emphasizes the beauty of the human form. Think also of DaVinci, Raphael, Titian and others. There also were tremendous advances in learning. Science moved from alchemy to true scientific investigation.

“In some ways Humanism was not a philosophy but a method of learning. In contrast to the medieval scholastic mode, which focused on resolving contradictions between authors, humanists would study ancient texts in the original, and appraise them through a combination of reasoning and empirical evidence.” (Wikipedia).

Little by little as humanism advanced and with increasing focus being turned on man, evidence of how this idea affected humanity becomes increasingly apparent. As culture advanced into the Age of Enlightenment (17th and 18th centuries) there was greater and greater emphasis on man and less and less on God. God is relegated to the attic by Deism and kicked out of his creation altogether through the increasing acceptance of atheism.

These “ages” are not defined by sharp boundaries, but one flows into another, sometimes defined roughly by certain events. The “Modern Age” sometimes is defined as encompassing the whole time from the end of the Medieval Age to the present. But it is also defined more narrowly as beginning with the Industrial Revolution “from about 1760 to some time between 1820 and 1840 …” (Wikipedia), which coincides with the Age of Enlightenment. As one age transitions into another, it takes with it the philosophies and cultural assumptions brought over from the preceding age where those ideas are then assimilated into the new age much like a river carries silt, sediment and detritus from further upstream to build a larger delta before finally delivering the remainder of its burden in the ocean.

There are still echoes of Enlightenment deism evident in the concepts of God held by many people today. God is seen as far away and plays little or no role in the world of the present. The Holy Spirit has no influence in the world other than through the written word given 2,000 years ago. Consequently those who believe these things do not have a sense of the nearness of God to guide and comfort theem in the present. God’s revelation to man must be deciphered on the basis of a scientific formula as though that revelation were addressed to us in a form requiring that we decipher it as we would any other written document. Society in the 21st century is still being affected by the Deistic thinking of the Age of Enlightenment and we are not better off for it.

In the Modern age man came to think that he could attain all knowledge and answer all questions and meet all his needs through science, thus making God obsolete. So again man kicked God out of his world and out of his life. But with two world wars, the Great Depression, the development of nuclear weapons and the obvious disintegration of society during the last half of the 20th century, the optimism of Modernism has begun to give way to an age skepticism regarding to the old assumptions. This is the age in which we now live, the age of Postmodernism, which, while seeking to deconstruct the old paradigms of society, has not offered any viable alternative to them.

Each of these succeeding ages has had profound effects on how people think and behave. The way we approach the Bible is likewise affected by the thinking of the age. The Enlightenment/modern era encouraged men to study the Bible from a human perspective by means of a “scientific” method. But God’s message to man is not like a message from man and can’t be deciphered by a humanist method. We are children in God’s sight and he addresses us in much the same way we would address a child in terms he can understand. (We will deal with this more fully in later articles).

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