Science is not religion’s natural enemy, but scientific thought is clearly the chief enemy to any religious faith that rejects the moderating role of human reason in every area of life—including religion. In long term if Christianity is to survive in the modern world it must begin its many confessions with the dictum: “Faith may not require me to believe what I find to be patently false.” The struggle in the first century between competing factions tracing their origins in various ways to Jesus of Nazareth has remained typical of Christian faith through the intervening centuries: each first-century group was searching for what made sense from their inherited traditions.
In spite of the orthodox creeds that have largely typified modern Christianity since the fourth and fifth centuries of the Common Era, that situation has not changed. In every generation it has been necessary for people of faith to search for new ways to make sense of their faith. The standard creeds of the church are not a once and for all time statement of faith, but merely one ancient attempt to clarify faith at a particular point in time. The problem has always been how to keep faith with the ancient traditions while keeping pace with the acquisition of human knowledge.
Today the Bible is a major obstacle to resolving the tensions between faith and reason. In American religion the Bible has become for many a religious icon—a sacred object of veneration. Icons are not considered a fit subject for criticism, although up to a point they may be gently analyzed. In the popular conservative mind the Bible constitutes the ultimate revelation of God to humankind: that is to say, it is meant to be studied and its moral teaching and religious principles implemented in life throughout society. Reason on the other hand is naturally curious about all things. In the spirit of the Renaissance, reason’s scientific spirit considers everything subject to criticism, analysis, and challenge; nothing is exempt—and particularly not the Bible.
Since the Enlightenment (seventeenth and eighteenth centuries) human reason has applied itself to the Bible. This period began the modern critical study of the Bible, and the results of more than three hundred years of biblical criticism have demonstrated beyond question that the Bible is a human product with a past. The Bible’s rediscovery as a text subject to the vicissitudes of human history has clearly undermined faith in the Bible as an iconic object.
The Bible was the one anchor of certainty left to the church after the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. No longer did the protesting churches have a Pope speaking truth from God in the areas of faith and morals. The watchword of the Protestant Reformation was sola scriptura. “Scripture alone” was the guide for religious faith and practice among the reformers. The Roman Catholic Church subordinated the Bible to the church, noting that the church had produced the Bible, and thus the church has sole authority to interpret it. The protestant reformers, on the other hand, subordinated the church to the Bible and made “Scripture alone” the authority for the church. The spirit of the Enlightenment, however, subordinated the church, the Bible, and religion in general to human reason and in so doing discredited both church and Bible as the authoritative source of the voice of God in the modern world. Human beings were left to face God and the world alone without the security net of either church or Bible. Since the enlightenment, reason has increasingly trumped revelation.
With only human reason and ancient tradition as general guides, followers of Jesus today are left to work out their salvation “with fear and trembling” (as Paul put it in Phil 2:12). At some point those who think for themselves will be confronted by the clash between reason and traditional Christian faith. At that point will begin the restructuring of their faith, because reason is a bully and will not allow a rational person mindlessly to repeat ancient confessions that make little sense in the modern world.
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
Revised from the final “Postscript” in Charles W. Hedrick, House of Faith or Enchanted Forest? American Popular Belief in an Age of Reason (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2009), 80-81. This book is a compilation of Hedrick’s revised newspaper articles that were published 1986-2006. For more information and to read an excerpt from the book, go to: http://wipfandstock.com/house-of-faith-or-enchanted-forest.html.