Over the last few weeks I’ve had the privilege of meeting with some of the Evangelicals in our town about some shared concerns. These were not planned ecumenical ventures in any formal way. Instead we were working together on some shared ideals and ideals. One was a meeting with a local group who have traditionally been stand offish with Catholics. The second and third were with a couple of fine arts initiatives in which all of us share an enthusiasm.
What struck me in talking with these good folks was the real divide within Western society. The divide is not between Protestant and Catholic or between Christian and non-Christian. The divide is not between conservatives or liberals. It is not even between the religious and the non-religious.
The divide is between those whose world view is founded on materialism and those whose worldview is founded on supernaturalism. Put simply, the divide is between those who have the supernatural at the foundation of their belief system and those who do not.
It would be easy to say, “Well, that is the divide between the religious and the non-religious.”
Not so fast! It’s not as neat as that.
It’s not as neat because there are plenty of religious people whose worldview is actually founded on materialism. For the last 500 years–starting with Nominalism and moving through the Protestant Revolution to Rationalism the “Enlightenment” then Liberalism and Modernism, the move has been away from the supernatural to a materialist understanding of the universe. For these last five hundred years there have therefore been plenty of people who have called themselves Christian who have followed a philosophy and theology founded not on supernatural realities, but on a materialist understanding of the world.
This denial of the supernatural has not always been clear or absolute. Many Protestants, for example, continued to believe in the miracles of the Bible while they were vigorously denying the miracles of the church. They believed in the manna from heaven, but not transubstantiation. The believed in the parting of the Red Sea, but denied that anything happened at baptism.
There are plenty of Protestants who are not quite so anti-supernaturalist as all that. They may not believe in the efficacy of the Catholic sacraments, but they do (along a spectrum of belief) believe in angels and demons, heaven and hell and answers to prayer. Others at the Pentecostal end of the spectrum are full blown supernaturalists with belief in miracles of healing, gifts of the Holy Spirit, exorcisms and even raising the dead.
When it comes to religion without the supernatural however, the Rationalist, Liberal and Modernist Christians are more consistent and honest. They have no time for the supernatural and are eager to turn the Christian faith into Moralistic, Therapeutic, Deism. They want a religion without miracles, without demons, heaven, hell, purgatory and all that superstitious malarkey. But a religion without the supernatural is not a religion at all. It’s the Rotary Club.
When the belief system of the thoroughgoing materialists is pushed to its logical end point they must, of course, declare themselves to be at least agnostics if not atheists.
One has to have a certain admiration for these atheistic Christians. They were very entertaining.
I knew some at Cambridge in my time. They were an urbane lot of theologians and churchmen who used to write books about “The Darkness of God” and preach sermons about how they were facing the “Dark Night of the Soul” and the via negativa when the fact of the matter was they were atheists but too cowardly to resign their plum job.
At least they were somewhat honest. They understood that they were materialists and modernists and were sincere in their via negativa.
The ones who are the most deceptive are the religious people who wear all the costumes and use all the words of religion while not believing in the supernatural aspect at all. St Paul, writing to Timothy had the words for them. “They have the form of godliness but deny the power thereof.”
I am sad to admit that the Christian Church in the West is worm eaten with this rot. It is staffed right to the top levels with these shysters, and my word aren’t they good at it! They use all the liturgical and ecclesiastical language. They form their committees and discussion groups. They get involved in social activism and all sorts of worthy causes, but they never really preach the old, old story of a sinful humanity in need of a savior. They will process on Palm Sunday and read the passion in the liturgy by they never preach Christ and him crucified.
So there are plenty of very religious people who are, at foundation level, materialists.
What interests me is that there are also plenty of non-religious people who are very supernaturally minded. Yes, I’m referring to the “I’m spiritual but not religious” gang.
To be honest, if they really are “spiritual” and believe in the supernatural then, even if they are superstitious, ignorant and vague I have more in common with them than the suave cardinal who is a thoroughgoing materialist underneath his soutane, mozzetta and zucchetto.
Likewise, my meeting with some Evangelical Christians over these last few weeks reminded me that I have more in common with them than I do with all the materialist religious people in my own church. They may not believe in the sacraments, but they believe in the Virgin Birth, the incarnation and the bodily resurrection.
I have more in common with them than I do with the modernist Catholics who re- interpret the faith and in their smug attempt to explain the faith explain it away.
These people are my true brothers and sisters in the faith, and I find it easier to stomach their denial of specifically Catholic doctrines than I can stomach the denial of the entire Christian faith by . the materialist modernists.
I’ll conclude this rant by remembering a conversation I once had with a modernist Anglican clergyman when I was still in that church. We were at some mandatory priest’s meeting and after the sessions we retired to the bar and had a few drinks. I suppose the alcohol gave me courage so I asked him, “Raymond, tell me now. What is it that you actually believe?”
He was somewhat taken aback because I had violated an unspoken rule of good manners. You see it really is a faux pas to embarrass an Englishman. Furthermore, you must never talk about religion to an Englishman–not even if he is a clergyman.
So Raymond replied, “Well, God…if he (or she)…” he chuckled at his little joke “…exists then he is up there and sort of IS…if you know what I mean.”
“I see. And miracles? The Bible? the Virgin Birth? Heaven? Demons?”
Another embarrassed chuckle. “They’re ancient stories aren’t they? They were used to teach people religious truths.”
“Sort of like Aesop’s Fables?”
“That’s right.” Sip of beer.
“And your role as a priest?”
“I see myself as a sort of shaman of the tribe…assisting my people through their rites of passage.”
I leaned forward with a conspiratorial whisper and said, “Do you know what Raymond?”
” I believe it all. The shepherds and the angels, the Wise Men and the star. The Blessed Virgin Mary and Jesus casting demons into pigs and the resurrection and the Shroud of Turin and the Garden of Eden. The fear of hell and the hope of heaven….I believe it all.”
He was shocked. “You don’t!”
What a delight it was to see the face of a man who realized he was looking at dinosaur.
“There’s more. I think plastic statues of Mary are just fine. So are blessed candles and rosary beads and scapulas and all the rest of the Catholic junk. I’m not afraid of being superstitious because I’d rather be guilty of believing too much than too little.”