A PLAIN GUIDE TO ...
The Great Divide
This is an overview of a large subject area - from a
perspective. I'll attempt to describe what I call the Great
Divide between pre-modern and modern. I'll deal briefly
with its symptoms, glance at what lies either side of the
Divide, and try to make a little sense of it.
When we don't or can't see the bigger picture, it's easy to
perceive the Great Divide in terms of its symptoms. One such is ongoing conflict between so-called traditional and liberal
Christians, between those who operate from a supernatural
world-view and those who think in scientific terms, between
the official church and a secular outlook.
The conflict isn't
confined to Christians. It rages throughout the world in many
aspects of our lives, and is seldom remarked upon except in
terms of its particulars. An author in the field of religious studies, Lloyd
Geering puts it like this:
... a new world-view is taking shape, which is undermining
all of the traditional world-views and which does have the power to win
universal conviction. This has been transported all over the globe in the past
200 years ..
The common foe of all the world's religions is this so-called secular
world-view - yet they continue to dispute with each other. Strife within each
religion also continues. Unfortunately, in the process of conflicting, we attach labels to
others, formulate stereotypes, and test whether others conform
to our ideologies. What we don't often do is wonder if the conflict
has underlying, unseen origins. These ideological battles are seldom
won or lost. Why is there no resolution? Is it not possible that the
two sides can't meet because neither really comprehends what's
being argued about?
Before the Great Divide
What is the Great Divide? One way of describing it is to explore
what people once thought about discovering truth. What is the
best way to plough? Is the earth round or flat? Should a king
be obeyed? Is usury right?
How did they settle such questions?
We know that until the late 1400s in Western Europe, and
probably throughout the world, the source of truth lay primarily
with "authority". In the intensely hierarchical society of the age,
authority was rated according to a person's place in the social
pecking order. The higher the status, the greater the authority.
A philosopher might have great authority; the Pope had greater.
The words of an Apostle were true but the words of Jesus, Son
of God, were supremely true.
Because the essentials of society were thought to be essentially unchanging,
everyone looked to the golden past for the best sources of authority.
As one author puts it:
… Christians … required the past to justify an institution
which could control and help fulfill the Christian Mission,
namely, an organised Church with a hierarchy of bishops,
priests and deacons capable of interpreting the present
condition of men in the light of the past.
Lest this seem somewhat outrageous, it should be noted that the medieval
respect for, and dependence on, the past was itself of revision of a much more
ancient standpoint. The intellectuals and rulers of the Roman Empire thought
that their society was definitely inferior to that which had gone before.
Looking back into the past they saw their ancestors performing deeds far greater
than anything they knew. We now know that these were more mythical than
historical. But that didn't diminish the power of the past.
Writing about the Jewish historian Josephus, Steve Mason describes this view
of the past:
In the earliest known Greek texts we already see an image of the world in
decline ... Among the Roman elite this basic worldview became ever more concrete
in the face of a perceived rise in corruption, crime, social dislocation,
violence and political upheaval ... Many Roman authors saw their generation as
vastly inferior to the glorious men of old ... character was dependent on
bloodlines and the illustrious deeds of one's ancestors ... Progress, by
contrast, was not an established good. "Innovation" was often a
synonym for revolution ...
This way of thinking may seem strange to us today. What if, for
example, a President of the United States told us that he could make
gold out of lead? Would we believe him because he was President?
Or the Pope if he said he could personally cure cancer by touching the sick?
What Prime Minister of Britain would get votes by claiming that things were
better in King Henry the 8th's time?
If people once looked to authority for truth, that's not to say they didn't
use their powers of reason. But the point is that reasoned answers were regarded as
less weighty than those derived from authority - preferably past authority. Ultimate truth was
derived from the past. One Bible scholar has described such
truths as "doctrines felt as facts"
. That is, the
authority of the
past was so much a part of people, so deeply embedded in their
nature and culture, that it was largely beyond their awareness.
How the Great Divide began
In the late 1400s and on into the 16th and 17th centuries (the period from the
Renaissance and on into the Enlightenment) an increasingly large number of
people in Western Europe began to do something very different.
Lawyers began to interpret the contemporary meaning of legal
language, rather than deriving rulings from past authority. This new
investigative mode quickly took root in other disciplines. If one
could investigate the contemporary meaning of language, then why
not also chemistry, astronomy and even theology? Truth gradually began to change
its shape. It began to involve attempting to describe things as they actually
are, rather than as an authority says they are. One aspect of working out how
things are was to analyse them, to take them apart and describe them.
This new way of thinking took centuries to develop and involved
many aspects of life. Before the end of the 17th century the Great
Divide of the present from the past had become more apparent. In Western Europe, a significant
number of people had begun thinking in an entirely new way never
before known to mankind. This is a vital point to appreciate. It was not a
revision or reformation of older thought modes. It was radically unlike anything
before. That is, it differed not in the branch but at the very roots.
In passing, it's worth noting that Socrates did think logically and
analytically, as we attempt to do nowadays. But note that his analysis was of language,
not of the physical world. Note also that his death sentence was imposed
not for thinking like this, but for
"corrupting the youth" by challenging the authority of the gods.
Herodotus and then Thucydides evolved something very close to the analytical, evidence-based methods of modern history, but
the latter couldn't
quite carry it through in his History of the Peloponnesian War.
Muslim mathematicians preserved and developed algebra while the
West lost it. That and other glimmerings of what gave birth to our modern culture have no doubt arisen and been extinguished many times.
The Great Divide grew at a particular point in history, it seems,
because a large enough group of people and cultures was able to
nurture what we now call modern analytical thought long and pervasively
enough to reach critical mass. Changes in perception took place, of course,
within the context of larger cultural movements.
Karen Armstrong describes how modern Europe evolved its questioning, probing,
sceptical outlook. It is
... the child of logos, which is always looking forward, seeking to
know more and to extend [its] areas of competence and control of the
In contrast, the conservative cultures of Islam
Instead of expecting continuous improvement ... assumed
that the next generation could easily regress ... it was by approximating to
this [golden] past that a society would fulfill its potential ... It would
be difficult to imagine an attitude more at odds with the thrusting,
iconoclastic spirit of the modern West.
And so the fate of the Ottoman, Safavid (Iran) and Moghul
(India) empires was sealed. By the mid-twentieth century, all three would have
been largely conquered by Western culture, despite rearguard actions by
The Great Divide grows
Between the 17th and 21st centuries the Great Divide had
and wider. It has now spread from the West to every part of the globe.
If one were to contrast the pre-modern way of deriving truth with
the modern, some of the main features would be:
Before our age the unquestioned source of truth was authority.
Ultimate authority lay in the past. On the other side of the
Great Divide, truth is determined by reason. It's possible to think one's way towards truth.
The "scientific method" is a way
of investigating phenomena. The results, though always open to
revision, can be counted as "true" by all who accept the method.
Variants of the method are used in almost every modern discipline.
The pre-modern world was regarded as existing on unchanging foundations.
We now think of the universe as in continual flux.
Humans and society change constantly. Truth itself is provisional upon
discovery and the formulation of new paradigms .
Pre-modern authority derived its credibility from God. In other words,
reality was perceived as a continuum stretching from the
supernatural world into the natural. Now many think that the
universe is the only reality accessible to us.
Our ancestors valued tradition because it reflected their concept
of a stable order. Now, as the way we think changes, tradition
as an image of truth begins increasingly to take a back seat. It is
replaced by the notion of development.
A penetrating but little-known scholar put it this way at the beginning
of the 20th century. Whereas in previous ages
… all the foundations of
culture were complete, we are essentially future-orientated; the world is to be changed, truth is to be
guaranteed only by the inner necessity of the human
spirit, not by deference to past authorities.
The Great Divide today
In the light of the above, the main points of dispute in Christianity
today are, I think, entirely understandable. Particularly at issue are:
- Revelation, and the Bible as a special case of revelation;
- Miracles as events which contradict what we know of
- Original sin as inherited corruption of human nature;
- Evil as a supernatural force corrupting and destroying
- Jesus Christ as both man and God;
- The resurrection as a unique historical event;
and, of course, a host of other doctrines, dogmas and religious images.
However, if one examines the situation it turns out that Christians
squabble amongst themselves within a relatively minor tributary of the
The main divide is that great river which separates the religious from the a-religious.
The Great Divide is not between believers and atheists but between
two mutually exclusive modes of perceiving reality.
The so-called atheist no longer responds with "I don't believe" but
"So what!" The reason is that not only do such people regard
Christianity as irrational but, more importantly, they cannot understand
it and its presuppositions.
Explaining traditional Christianity to a modern a-theist is like trying to
explain colour to someone blind from birth. Just as colour is essentially
unimportant to a blind person, so are supernaturally-based concepts
irrelevant to most moderns. For them the past is a source of information
and perhaps an object of nostalgia. It certainly has no intrinsic authority.
Can the Great Divide be bridged?
The brief answer is no. The terms in which those each side of the divide
perceive reality appear to be incompatible.
Nevertheless, a tiny minority in Western Christendom, who might be
termed the "new heretics", suppose that their faith can be re-framed
in terms meaningful to the modern mind. They seek to remain part of the contemporary world rather than try
in vain to drag it back into pre-modern mode.
They argue that Christians must reformulate every aspect of their
if it is to have long-term intellectual credibility. Faith, though it goes
beyond reason, must be based upon it. A majority of humanity will
one day cross the Great Divide. What then? New heretics would say that there is something about
being a Christian which should be able speak to any culture, in any age.
Meanwhile, the vast majority of Christians (and, indeed, religious
people) remain largely in pre-modern, traditional mode as far as their faith is
concerned. Some more
extreme pre-moderns have taken up cudgels against the new heretics, whose position within the official Church can be difficult or even
precarious as a result.
One writer put it well more than 30 years ago:
To express it in wholly political terminology, the
revolutionary regime has seized power but the
symbols of authority are still in the hands of the
old displaced rulers … each man is confronted
by a choice … Shall he obey the new authority …
or shall he obey the "duly constituted authorities"
who still claim the right to govern? 
Some foundations of a reformulation would, I think, be that:
- All truth is necessarily provisional. Nobody can claim access to absolute truth;
- The universe we know is all we can know;
- God-talk (theology) is inevitably in images of our
- Being Christian is about serving and healing - not
- We can learn from the past, but what matters is
"now" and what we make of the future;
- We are not here to dominate our planet but to
harmonise with it.
- Choice, not compliance with declared truth, is
the essence of being human.
To sum up: A Great Divide has opened up between two ways
of interpreting the universe.
On one side are those who, while living cheek-by-jowl with the
paradigms and technology of modern Western society, think that
the pre-modern essentials of Christianity are unchangeable.
The old, old story is sufficient.
On the other are those whose lives are no longer deeply touched
by pre-modern faith. In response, they seek to speak of God and
Jesus in terms which harmonise with their world. They seek to
write a new story.
 Christian Faith at the Crossroads, Polebridge Press,2001
 Ernst Troeltsch, Collected
Writings (Gesammelte Schriften)
 Josephus and the New Testament, Hendrickson, 2003
 Dennis Nineham, The Use and Abuse of the Bible, SPCK, 1976
 The Battle For God, HarperCollins, 2001
 Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of
Scientific Revolutions, The University of
Chicago Press, 1962
 J H Plumb, The Death of the Past, Penguin Books
 Harvey Cox, The Secular City, SCM Press Ltd, 1965