Sunday, 7 August 2011

Protestantism and Atheism

One of the things that struck me in Alister McGrath's The Twilight of Atheism was the link he makes between the Reformation and the rise of atheism.  He says

A distinctive feature of the Reformation, particularly associated with the leading reformers Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin, is the "desacralisation" of nature....The declaration that the natural world was not in any way sacred opened the way to its scientific investigation.  There could be no religious obstacles to the analysis of the world.  The world increasingly became seen as a machine or an instrument - of divine origins, of course, but increasingly distant from God.  The material world might have been created by God; it could not, however, convey the divine presence....

....in popular Catholicism sacred and secular times, events and places were so closely associated that they were often indistinguishable....The individual had a strong sense of place within the cosmos that radiated the glory of God and displayed a divine structure.  The sacred was present within the world's events, rhythms and patterns.  One expected to encounter and experience the divine in everyday life.

The Protestant reformers were strongly critical of any such suggestions.  Not entirely without reason, they suspected that medieval Catholicism occasionally degenerated into a folk religion of nature.  An immediate encounter with God through nature was excluded, almost as a matter of principle.  God had chosen to reveal himself through the Bible, and the authorised mode of knowing God was therefore through reading that Bible, and hearing sermons based upon its contents....Whereas medieval Catholicism saw the focus of worship as the altar of the church, the pulpit now became the focal point of Protestant worship....

The rise of Protestantism thus gave rise to an absent God who was known only indirectly - and then through the mind rather than the imagination.

This is why McGrath stresses the importance of Pentecostalism in the growth of the church and the diminution of the influence of atheism.  Pentecostalism represents a revival of total involvement, of direct experiential contact with God.  It takes the theism/atheism debate out of the realm of dry intellectual argument and into lived experience.  However, for us Protestants who are not Pentecostal, what is our answer to this problem?

This is something I've been thinking about a lot lately.  I mostly sit in church and feel uninspired.  We sing some songs together.  We listen to the Bible, then we listen while someone talks to us about it.  Sometimes this is inspiring and thought provoking, sometimes it's not.  Then we listen to someone pray.  Then we listen to someone read the notices.  Then we have a cuppa and chat and go home.  Often the cuppa is the best bit.

It's not that people aren't trying, or that they don't work hard at what they do.  But 90% of the activity is based around listening.  We have a small amount of visual stumulation.  Sometimes the preacher uses visuals, and of course we read the words of the songs.  We have no tactile involvement, nothing "hands on".  We have no olfactory stimulation.  We have a tiny taste of communion bread and wine once a month.  Of all the myriad human arts we only use music, and that only in a limited way.  We have a group of children who occasionally dance.  No drama, no poetry, no painting, no sculpture, no construction, no culinary art.  God is supposed to consume and direct my whole being, but most of my being is left to its own devices.

This is not why Dawkins et al are atheists.  In fact, despite reading their works I'm still not sure why they are.  But it's why so many people don't bother with church.  Surely we can do better.

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