Tuesday, May 1, 2018

1648: Why Western Intellectuals Abandoned Theology for Technology

In our fabled land of Olympia, the great Age of Christianity began in AD 1, with the birth of Jesus Christ; and ended in 1648, with the collapse of the Latin Christian civil war into the Peace of Westphalia. After 1648, the best and brightest Western Christian intellectuals abandoned theology for technology.

Thomas Sprat (1635-1713) was both a bishop in the Church of England and a founding member and secretary of the Royal Society. In his book, The History of the Royal Society for the Improving of Natural Knowledge (1667), he explains why he and other Christian intellectuals made the switch.

1. Violence Ended but Credibility Lost

The fierceness of violent inspirations is in good measure departed: the remains of it will be soon chac’d out of the World by the remembrance of the terrible footsteps it has everywhere left behind it. And, though the Church of Rome still preserves its pomp, yet the real authority of that too is apparently decaying….This is the present state of Christendom (quoted in An Historian’s Approach to Religion [1956] by Arnold Toynbee, 155).

Sprat was born in 1635. He was 13 years old when peace broke out at Westphalia. He was 16 when the English Civil War of Religion ended. He was old enough both to remember the wanton destruction, injury, and death caused by war and to enjoy the tremendous sense of relief following its end.

Roman Catholic leaders encouraged the Baroque style in painting, sculpture, architecture, and music, following the Council of Trent (1545-1563), as one creative response to the Protestant Reformation. This style was intentionally extravagant, even pompous. It was exemplified by St. Peter’s Basilica, opened in 1626, which remains centuries later the largest church building in the world.

Because of the Latin Christian civil war, popes permanently lost control of churches in Germania, Britannia, and Scandinavia. Still, they managed to save Gallia from the Huguenots and to rid Czechia of the Hussites and other Protestants. There was never a question of Iberia or Latium abandoning Rome.

By 1648, Rome had managed, oddly enough, to maintain control of all churches in lands which had once been part of the Roman Empire. The price in violence, however, had been too great. Its moral authority, dependent, as it was, on its imitation of Christ, suffered irreparably. So too did that of Protestant churches.

When Sprat speaks of the large geographical area once encompassed by the Latin Church and, in his day, divided into Catholic and Protestant regions, he refers to it as Christendom. Not Europe. Europe was the name given to this area by Western Christian intellectuals after 1648 when they no longer desired to identify their land in Christian terms.

2. Hatred of Violence Leads to Rejection of Church

Let it be a true observation that many modern naturalists have bin negligent in the worship of God; yet perhaps they have bin driven on this profaneness by the late extravagant excesses of enthusiasm. The infinit pretences to inspiration, and immediate communion with God, that have abounded in this age, have carry’d several men of wit so far as to reject the whole matter—who would not have bin so exorbitant if the others had kept within more moderate bounds (155).

In Sprat’s day, gentlemen like his colleagues in the Royal Society, in effect early scientists seeking experimental knowledge of nature, were known as natural philosophers or naturalists. Sprat, bishop in the established Church of England, admitted that many of his colleagues had abandoned Sunday worship. For them, the fierceness of violent inspirations, the extravagant excesses of enthusiasm, had failed miserably to witness to all the freedom for truth, love, and life that were theirs, and remain ours, in Jesus Christ.

3. Christianity Knowingly Lost and Olympianity Unknowingly Found

It is apparent to all that the influence which Christianity once obtain’d on mens minds is prodigiously decay’d. The generality of Christendom is now well-nigh arriv’d at that fatal condition which did immediately precede the destruction of the worships of the Ancient World, when the face of Religion in their public assemblies was quite different from that apprehension which men had concerning it in privat: in public they observ’d its rules with much solemnity, but in privat regarded it not at all. It is difficult to declare by what means and degrees we are come to this dangerous point; but it is certain, that the spiritual vices of this age have well-nigh contributed as much towards it as the carnal; and, for these, the most efficacious remedy that Man of himself can use is not so much the sublime part of divinity as its intelligible and natural and practical doctrines (156).

As long ago as 1667, Sprat informs us, people were attending Sunday worship simply because it was useful and not because it was meaningful. Their bodies were present, but their minds and hearts were elsewhere. The significance of the Bible and theology, even among churchgoers, had prodigiously decayed.

Sprat wonders what caused this dramatic decline. He readily acknowledges that the carnal vices of lust and gluttony caused some of it. He places the greater blame, however, on Christians themselves betraying their infinite pretenses to divine inspiration through the spiritual vices of laziness, rage, envy, greed, and, worst of all, arrogance.

The remedy proposed by the good bishop? Switching from divinity (theology) to intelligible and natural and practical doctrines (technology). In this way the sheepfold was opened to the wolves, unwittingly enough, by the shepherds themselves.

Copyright © 2018 by Steven Farsaci.
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