In the two centuries between 1600 and 1800, the Church across Europe, America and indeed across the Western world suffered two direct and brutal blows, which shattered its confidence and left it in a crisis of irrelevance. The movement known as ‘The Enlightenment’ (also known as ‘The Age of Reason’) decimated the rational foundation of Christian faith and set forward an alternative vision of God, of the universe and of human existence and life within it. This new vision captured the imagination of the masses and led them as a pied piper into a brave new world that did not need the Christian gospel and certainly not the Church. The Church has yet to recover.
Such a secular movement did not develop in a vacuum; it was over one thousand years in the making, and as strange as it might sound has part of its root system in the Church itself and particularly in the great St. Augustine (354-430). The secular Enlightenment is, in my view, Augustine's stepchild, born of his unholy marriage between Greek philosophy and the definitive revelation of God in Jesus Christ..
In their combination of a sophisticated philosophy with religious aspiration, the pagan Neoplatonists had only one serious rival—Christianity, and, anti-Christian though they were, it was the incorporation of their ideas into Christian theology that ensured their permanent influence on European culture (John Gregory, The Neoplatonists, preface, viii).
The principal figure in the transmission of Neoplatonist thought into Christian theology is St. Augustine (John Gregory, The Neoplatonists, p.177)
It was a long time in coming, but the unconverted reasoning that Augustine allowed into the holy of holies of Christian thought finally came of age in the Enlightenment and broke free from the shackles of Christian authority altogether. Like a child who grew up to abuse his parents, pagan reasoning rose with such considerable force that the Christian vision of God and the cosmos was overthrown and a pagan vision of God and a radically secular world-view took its place.
There and then, the Western Church lost is position, its standing and prestige in the culture around it. We have yet to recover. Since that moment in history, the Western Church has been in survival mode, fighting tooth and nail to get back on its feet and find a place, a legitimate hearing in the larger secular culture. The last 200 years of Western Church history represents a long and frantic attempt to find an acceptable basis for Christian faith, and to establish the relevance of Christianity for human life, in a society that believes it is of little value. At the same time, the Church retreated into itself and its private Sunday spirituality, in a desperate attempt to protect its own turf, hoping that the storm would blow over and go away.
Today as the unwitting heirs of the Enlightenment's revolution, and as the sons and daughters of a saddened and beleaguered Christianity we are spiritually depressed, and light years away from the New Testament's vision of Jesus Christ as the true light of the entire cosmos and of the early Church’s magnificent vision of the Triune God. And we are a long way from the sheer passion and the unbridled confidence and the dreams that such vision stirs within the human soul. And we are a long way from moving out in that passion and confidence to explore the universe, to rethink human existence and relationships, to develop political, economic and scientific, medical, psychological and legal theories in the light of the fact that Jesus Christ, the Father’s eternal Son is the One in and through and by and for whom all things were created and are constantly sustained.
We have lost the fearless, confident boldness, the parrhesia, of the apostolic mind. We have lost, what my friend David Upshaw calls, “the apostolic swagger.” The apostles believed that they had seen the mystery behind all things—past, present and future. They believed that they had come to the heart of the universe itself, to the very secret of creation and of human history. In such knowledge, they set out to inform the whole world, and indeed the principalities and powers throughout the cosmos. They gave their lives in the service of the revelation of Jesus Christ because they knew that the cosmos was bound up in Him, and thus that coming to believe in Him inevitably meant the release of the kingdom of the Triune God throughout the earth and the cosmos.
Jesus performed miracles not merely to prove that he was God, but as the expression of the fact that as the Father’s Son, in and through and by whom all things were created and are sustained, the cosmos was already wired for him, already set up to respond to his every thought and bidding. What would happen, then, if the human race came to know Jesus, and believed in him, and brought its fallen and confused mind to his feet for conversion? What would happen if people threw their hearts and souls and minds into participating in Jesus’ world, and in His life with his Father, and in His anointing with the Spirit? Would it mean disaster for the creation? Would it mean great darkness and chaos? Would it mean evil? It would mean the personal, the corporate, the global, the cosmological manifestation of the kingdom of the Triune God. It would mean that the fullness of the Trinitarian life of God would flower in our humanity and express its goodness across the earth, releasing the great dance of life shared by the Father, Son and Spirit throughout the cosmos. For it is our darkness and terrible confusion that stifles the emergence of the present kingdom.
This is what the apostles knew intuitively in their encounter with Christ. This was the Jesus they encountered and worshipped and served with their lives. This was the Jesus Christ who blew their minds, thrilled their hearts and filled them with hope—and stunning confidence. But compared to the great apostles, compared to the martyrs and the fathers such as St. Irenaeus and St. Athanasius, the modern Western Church has retreated to playing shuffle board in a nursing home—when we have been given the secret of the universe, and the keys of the kingdom of the Triune God. It is time for us see again what the apostles saw, to encounter the real Jesus Christ, the Father’s Son, the anointed One, the Lord and light of the cosmos.
Come, Holy Spirit.