In the discussion between science and religion it is often assumed that religion reigned supreme until science destroyed its roots, with Darwin completing the hatchet job. However, this picture is almost entirely false. To understand that is crucial – and needs a brief diversion into theology.
In eighteenth-century Germany the study of Christianity in the universities lurched in a new direction. Scholars began to study the Bible as if it were merely literature like any other. One could then decide which parts of it were literally true, and which parts might be considered poetic or symbolic. Judgement was passed, in particular, on the accounts given in the gospels of the life of Jesus. This way of thinking carried on through the nineteenth century, and spread far beyond Germany.
During the twentieth century, ever more understanding was supposed to have been gained. It did not seem to matter that we could know little of the historical Jesus, because we could learn a lot from how the documents came to be written, the roles they played in the life of early Christianity, and how they came to be assembled into the Bible we have today.
Unfortunately, these theories are interesting but not of much practical use. If I want to, say, fix a gas boiler, I need to know that the manual I have corresponds to reality. The idea that the safety statement is well-written poetry is of little comfort as I lie in hospital recovering from the explosion.
Further, the methods employed by those liberal scholars were often dubious. C S Lewis pointed this out fifty years ago, citing examples of comment on his own works such as Narnia. Generally, he says, speculations about the origins and meanings of his work are completely wrong. People often read into the text what they want to believe. Since the early liberals were deists, believing only in a distant God who does not affect the world today, they were bound to dismiss large parts of the Bible and the whole idea of revelation.
Where the liberal theories have been applied in the churches there has been only one result: decline. There are now many disused church buildings that function as art studios, restaurants and offices. Almost all churches that are flourishing have taken a more conservative view, some (but not all) turning to fundamentalism. If one wishes to fix a life, not just a gas boiler, reliable documentation could be even more useful than for domestic repairs.
A new approach to religion is called for. We should have our eyes wide open to science, like the liberals, and like Christianity as a whole on its better days. But we should also have our eyes wide open to life as we actually experience it through a variety of channels – religious experience, moral imperatives, guilt, suffering and events that we can’t explain. This would be a new approach because it would avoid the irrationality of the fundamentalist, and the automatic scepticism of the liberal.
An afterthought: it would be helpful if our militant atheists had some understanding of the process I have described – namely, that Christianity went into decline because it shot itself in the foot. It did not go into decline because the weight of scientific discovery became too great to bear. The atheists’ tactic of trying to bury Christianity under more and more science does not, therefore, make sense from any point of view, even their own. It simply prevents reasoned discussion.