Pulling at the Threads of the Christian Paradigm that Uniquely Influenced the Western World

Down at the bedrock of modern, western values remains a Christian foundation.

Galleries under the central arena of the Colosseum in Rome, Italy

I read Tom Holland’s new book, Dominion, about a year ago, and I have written about it a few times. Many Christians would not think to read a history about Western Civilization by a self-described secular humanist (once atheist, perhaps now agnostic) historian.

Most non-Christians are likely to be uncomfortable with the chronicle Holland describes of the radically influential role that Christianity played in the development of Western Civilization, providing the foundation, in fact, for secular humanist ideals. When Holland dug down to the bedrock of modern, western values, he was surprised himself to find them anchored on a Christian foundation.

Holland did not set out to write a Christian apologetic, and he seems to remain somewhat uncertain how to process what he “discovered”. What he found, though, changed his mind about Christianity. He gives a brief explanation in the following clip:

Though Holland has had a turnabout on his view of Christianity, he finds himself caught in an odd position wrought by the unexpected discovery that his lifelong, secular humanist values flow from the radical catalyst of Christian influence and remain embedded ubiquitously in its very fabric. The awkwardness of his current position is evident in his interviews and discussions about the book.

Christians and secular thinkers, alike, wrestle with his book. Holland doesn’t hide any warts, and he doesn’t pull any punches. Neither does he obfuscate the thoroughly paradigmatic shift in Western thinking that Christianity worked into a society that once proudly and unashamedly championed strength and privilege over the poor, the weak, and the lowly.

Holland exposes the metanarrative developed during the Enlightenment and thereafter that belies the foundation on which the Enlightenment structure was built. Far from advancing the progression of human values, the Enlightenment threatened to undo the distinctly Christian concern for the poor, weak, and lowly while attempting to wrest western civilization from the hold of the Divine. Humanism saved the Christian ethic, albeit divorced from Christ.

Consider the full title of Darwin’s great tome which staked out the ground of a scientific (and social) revolution free from God’s interference:

“The Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life”

The title of Darwin’s book championing the evolutionary paradigm, harkens back to the Greco-Roman value system that despised the poor, the weak and the lowly. That value system did not just turn a callous eye at wanton and discriminate cruelty, it cheered on the strong while they snuffed out the weak. It was national sport!

The very reason the full title never “stuck” (I now believe) is due to a fundamental, pervasive, and thoroughly entrenched counter-value of the intrinsic worth of human life that is uniquely Christian in its source.

The intrinsic value of all human life, from the greatest to the least, from the wisest and strongest to the weakest and most imbecilic, from the fittest to the most infirm, is traceable to the Christian belief that all human beings are made in the image of God. That the survival of the fittest did not take hold as a western social or ethical value is attributable to the deeply ingrained Christian ethic that survived yet, despite the efforts to eradicate its God from modern equations.

Modern humanists may attempt to recast Darwin into a humanistic mold, but the idea of “social Darwinism” bears his name through no model of random, unguided selection. According to John G. West, Charles Darwin, himself, set in motion the inertia for eugenics, among other things, that were associated with social Darwinism:

Darwin himself in The Descent of Man provided the rationale for what became the eugenics movement, and how the vast majority of evolutionary biologists early in the twentieth century were right to see negative eugenics as a logical application of Darwin’s theory.

While the defense of Darwin against the charge of social Darwinism has largely succeeded in popular and polite company, the very title of the Origin of Species (by means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life) belies the success of that effort. The fact that the full title is merely a parenthetical today is evidence only of a concerted rescue campaign.

Christian values survived despite the Enlightenment coupe, not because of it. Humanism today assumes the evolutionary paradigm for its science alongside the uniquely Christian paradigm of intrinsic human value. That the two assumptions do not fit well together seems to be lost on modern minds.

Continue reading “Pulling at the Threads of the Christian Paradigm that Uniquely Influenced the Western World”

Some Thoughts on Miracles and God’s Presence in the World

Reasonable, intelligent people with impressive degrees, credentials and accomplishments exist on both sides of the God equation

NT Wright commented recently on the modern, western notion that God is largely absent and distant from the world He created. Every once in a while He “reaches in” and does something extraordinary, and we call that a miracle.

There are people in the west who still believe that God is active in the world, but western society is more characterized by a view that is God aloof, if He exists (and the western world is more or less aloof toward God). We tend to forget that much of the rest of the world does not share our view.

I believe this view of God and of miracles goes back to the Enlightenment and Deism that gained popularity in the last three centuries or so. Deism is the theology that grew out of the Enlightenment, applying Enlightenment ideals of rationalism, order and a reliance on scientific method. Deists believed that God exists, but He does not intervene and is not active or present in the world.

Deist thinkers conceived of the world like a watch that is wound up and left to run on its own. This thinking harmonized well with trends in scientific thought at the time. Darwin and others before him began to see no need of God to explain the laws of nature because scientific inquiry revealed those laws of nature to be true, dependable, and capable of explanation without reference to supernatural agency. Deism kept God in the picture, but relegated Him to bystander status.

Many Enlightenment thinkers worked consciously and intentionally to shrug off any implication of the supernatural in the study of the natural world. Science, after all, is the study of the natural world. With the discovery of laws like the law of gravity, there was plenty for scientists to do without contemplating a Law Giver.

The definition of science now excludes inquiry of or appeal to anything other than “natural” explanations. Though “science” once meant knowledge, generally, it now means only knowledge of natural things and natural processes (which by definition excludes consideration of supernatural things).

Many modern scientists are materialists, meaning that they believe that nothing exists but the natural world – space/time, matter and energy (whatever that is). They believe nothing exists beyond the natural world, and, therefore, they say that science is the study of all reality. They assume, therefore, that nothing exists that cannot be explained by science.

In this worldview, they conflate the facts that science reveals with reality. On the Deist and Enlightenment view, miracles are an aberration. Indeed, the very definition of a miracle is something that is highly improbable or extraordinary, something unexpected and inexplicable on the basis of natural or scientific laws.

Deism is largely a theology of the past, but the Enlightenment lives on in the modern, materialist who makes no room whatsoever for a transcendent God or anything supernatural (beyond nature). God is excluded from the materialist worldview by definition. Any apparent aberration to natural laws and material things is an unknown merely awaiting a natural explanation.

Miracles in a Deistic world are so rare as to be highly unlikely. Miracles in a modern, materialist worldview are impossible. They simply don’t happen.

This is the faith of the modern materialist – that every phenomenon known to human experience has a natural explanation. We stopped looking for God because we saw order in nature and that God is of no consequence to the study of natural laws. from a determination that God is aloof it’s a short walk to the conclusion that God does not exist.

Wright makes the observation that the Bible has no word like miracle. The closest we get to it might be the phrase, “signs and wonders”. People in the Ancient Near East saw God (or gods) in everything. The Enlightenment posited that this was due to a lack of explanation for most things that we now observe in natural laws, which we now view as random colocations of molecules.

Scripture reveals a God who is far from aloof, and that is increasingly a foreign concept in the modern, western world. The God revealed in the Bible is known both by His “faithfulness” and His presence, investment and activity in the world.

The idea that God is faithful has been replaced with the understanding of natural laws. We believe our understanding of the way natural laws work has supplanted God. God was a construct we invented when we didn’t have explanations for natural phenomena, but now that we understand natural phenomena we have no need for the concept of God.

Even as a Christian, a person who believes in God, I have been influenced by the western world in which I grew up. NT Wright’s observation that the concept of a miracle is a western concept, not a biblical one, leads me to put my thoughts into print as I work out the tension between biblical revelation and my western mindset.

Continue reading “Some Thoughts on Miracles and God’s Presence in the World”

The Danger of Getting What We Want

We often choose earthly treasures that we can’t keep over eternal treasures that we can’t lose.


Tim Keller paraphrased and quoted a columnist back in the 1980’s who knew quite a few celebrities personally. According to Keller, the columnist said:

“I knew them when they were working behind the counter the cosmetic counter at Macy’s, and I knew them when they were bouncers at the village clubs, and all that, and then they became famous, and they became movie stars, and then they became more unhappy then they were before.

“That giant thing they were striving for, that ‘fame thing’ that was going to make everything OK, that was going to make their lives bearable, that was going to provide them personal fulfillment and with ‘ha ha happiness’, it had happened and nothing changed. They were still them. The disillusionment turned them howling and insufferable.

“If God really wants to play a rotten practical joke on us, He grants your deepest wish and then giggles merrily as you suddenly realize you want to kill yourself.”

This is quite the candid, though skeptical, observation. It’s as if the columnist wanted the celebrities to find a slice of heaven in their stars because that would mean the same heaven was possible for the columnist.

But, alas, no. It is a cruel joke. The thing we want to be our nirvana turns out to lack the substance we want it to have. If the celebrities that everyone yearns to be have been “there” and found it wanting, what hope is there for the rest of us?!

What, then is the answer? We yearn for Eden, but the things we desperately believe will take us there leave us disappointed and wanting. We believe in the pursuit of happiness, but the happiness we seek alludes us – even as we reach to close our hands around it.

The columnist impliedly blamed God for the joke, but Scripture tells us the human condition is no joke. The real problem with the human condition is that God made us for Himself. Thus, nothing else will satisfy us.

The desire for more is the thing that causes us to seek, but what we really seek is Him. When we follow after other things, instead of Him, we find them empty. Thus, when we turn to God and find that He is our fulfillment, we know that we have found what we were looking for.

I write this on the heels of an article in which I reflected on celebrity Christianity. More accurately, celebrities who have recently become Christians. In the article, I also reflected on “celebrity” Christians, people who were thrust into the Christian limelight at an early age, before a firm foundation of spiritual growth and relationship with God was established.

And I wonder how those celebrities turning to Christianity will fair in the future. They are used to the warm (and sometimes harsh) light of public celebrity. That is where they live, but what they need is the nutrient rich soil of God’s word, prayer, relationship to God, fellowship and all the things God must do in us in the dark recesses of our hearts, well out of the light of public life.

Like the rich young ruler who was searching, but found it too difficult to leave behind all his wealth to which he had become accustomed, celebrity, fame, and fortune may be difficult to give up. Even though it doesn’t satisfy the deepest longings of the soul, it is still everything most people think we want, and we can be stubborn in seeking what we want.

Riches, and celebrity, and comfort, and recognition become a trap. We are lured in. Our own desires propel us hard in the direction of the sunlight. We strain our whole lives with all our effort. All our thoughts, hopes, and dreams carry us along, and the things we gain along the way, even if they turn to dust in our hands, are difficult to give up…. If it was all we wanted.

Continue reading “The Danger of Getting What We Want”

On Faith, Doubt and Truth

If faith is not robust enough to hold up to scrutiny, it isn’t worth holding on to.


I traveled for 12 hours in a car recently and spent most of that time listening to podcasts. Among the people I listened to were interviews of Tim Keller and Os Guinness, and joint interview of Lisa Gungor and Alisa Childers. They talked about their own faith journeys, doubt and such things as truth.

As I thought back on those interviews at the end of my trip, some thoughts congealed and took shape. I will try to capture them in this short piece.

Continue reading “On Faith, Doubt and Truth”

The Eternal Significance of the Mundane

We are either moving toward God or moving away from Him. We are never standing still.


Tim Keller, in preaching on the First Temptation of Christ, observed that the first temptation of Jesus by Satan in the desert was a mundane one: “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” (Luke 4:3) Everyone needs food. In our modern day, we would say that people not only need food, they deserve it as fundamental right.

Surely, the Son of God deserves bread, and there’s no reason why he shouldn’t just make a little bread out of a stone. Right?

This is how Satan comes at us: “You need it. It’s just a small thing. C’mon, you deserve it!”

In the story, Jesus had just fasted for forty (40) days, and the forty (40) days were over. Jesus was hungry – more like starving! (Luke 4:2) He had done what he set out to do; he fulfilled the commitment he made, and he was free to eat.

This is how Satan works on us. He gets us thinking about ourselves, our needs, and (if he can push us far enough) our rights. “You have a right to that bread! Take it!” It wouldn’t have seemed “wrong” for Jesus to have turned a stone into bread.

And this is the struggle: will we live our lives serving ourselves, doing what we want, going with the flow of our natural inclinations, fulfilling every personal need and desire, the captain of our own souls? Or will we consciously live our lives for God and others, letting God direct us, yielding our selves to the One who made us?

We tend to think of the big temptations, not realizing that Satan is always there trying to get us to feed from his hand.  His hand is always out, offering morsels and tidbits. We often feed from his hand without realizing it. We may go about our days unaware of the momentum of the movement of our hearts, feeding little by little on things that are moving us away, not toward, God.

CS Lewis says we are either moving toward God or moving away from Him. This happens every day, day after day, in all the hundreds and thousands of choices we make, reactions to circumstances and thoughts that we entertain.

The momentum of our lives is something we don’t often stop to consider. It often isn’t obvious to our conscious minds. We may not even be aware of all the little things that add up and feed that momentum in the direction we are going. We are highly aware of the momentous times in our lives, but we are largely unaware of the mundane times where real direction and momentum are sustained.

I think about these things in light of two recent announcements by two prominent (at least highly visible) men who were once Christians and now have renounced their faith. Marty Sampson, the Australian songwriter for the global megachurch, Hillsong, announced this week, “I’m genuinely losing my faith….”[1]

Just days before that, well-known Christian author, Joshua Harris, who championed purity and advocated that Christians shouldn’t date before marriage in a widely popular book, announced (on the heels of his own divorce), “I have undergone a massive shift in regard to my faith in Jesus…. I am not a Christian.”[2]

According to CS Lewis and Tim Keller, we are shifting – all the time. Our momentum is taking us toward God or away from God at any given moment and at every moment in our lives. We are never merely standing still.

Continue reading “The Eternal Significance of the Mundane”