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The God Revolution

How Ideas About God Radically Changed During The Modern Era

Keith Hill

Until 1800 all European nations shared a certainty about religion. They all believed in the God of Abraham and Moses, who had sent his son to Earth as humanity's saviour, that an apocalypse was coming, after which Jesus would return and rule the Earth. They also shared a belief that humanity was progressing upwards, morally, intellectually and technologically. And they believed that European culture was the pinnacle of all that had gone before. Europeans were superior because the were rational and thus civilized, whereas the lesser races were governed by their senses, and thus were irrational and inferior.

Then in 1800's all this certainty received a series of shocks. Two thousand years of Christian culture, and several centuries of European smugness, was suddenly challenged. A succession of ground-breaking discoveries questioned everything.

Middle Ages idea of knowledge dominated by ideas of Thomas Aquinas:

1. The natural world was created perfect bc God was perfect.
2. God gave man reason so he could discern God's perfection
3. Revelation, as provided by the Bible, was the guide to God's intentions. No matter what man figured out using his reason, it was only true if agreed with the Bible.

The Renaissance got artists and thinkers looking back to Ancient Greece, and Aristotle in particular. He based everything on observation. Francis Bacon (1620) laid down rules of scientific deduction - start from observed facts and work out general principles from there. Bacon established the idea that science made measurable and repeatable experiments, then construct mathematical formulae to connect the concepts revealed. But still assumed that the purpose of science was to better understand God and His creation.

Break came with Galileo. Catholic Church regarded the Ptolemaic view that the sun, moon and stars circled the Earth as being the Truth, because that was what the Bible said. (Psalms 93, 96, 104 stated that the Earth had been firmly set on its foundations by God and cd never be moved). Galileo had been preceded by Copernicus, who showed mathematically that solar system made a lot more sense if you assumed that the sun was at center, and the planets orbited that. But that was just an interesting theory. What Galileo and his telescope did was show moons orbiting Jupiter, Venus showing phases like the Moon (so it was turning) and sunspots on the Sun (so it wasn't perfect). All these implied an imperfect universe, and that was not acceptable to Catholic dogma - God cd not have created an imperfect system, so therefore Galileo must be wrong.

A century later, Isaac Newton took the methodology a step further. With his explanations of gravity and optics, he established that the natural world functioned according to rules which could be mathematically described. But he still believed in God: "Gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who set the planets in motion. God governs all things and knows all that is done or can be done." But Galileo and Newton took some of the magical thinking away - no matter what the Bible said, a rainbow wasn't God promising not to flood the world again, it was simple optics, and here's the maths.

The next puncture to God's perfect creation was the cascade of fossil finds across Europe and America in late 1700's early 1800's. That species cd become extinct did not fit in with the idea of a perfect creation. Darwin took the existing ideas abt evolution and came up with a mechanism: natural selection.

Underpinning Darwin's idea was recognition that nature was brutal struggle for existence. Christianity had assumed a benevolent God who cared for individuals. But the real world isn't regular or orderly or benevolent - it is mindlessly cruel.

Deist idea that God had set the universe in motion then stood back and took no further part. So God was the creator and he set up the natural laws which run things today. So it allowed a rational view of God without having to sign up for all the religious traditions. Rejected the Scriptures as human inventions, and disbelieved miracles bc contravened natural laws.

Then at same time as the idea of God was under attack from scientific ideas, the Bible itself was being reevaluated.

Ernest Renan 1863 Life of Jesus argued that the New Testament was all mythology - that Jesus was a human man who's followers had invented and embellished stories to make him into something else.

Up until 19th C Europeans had accepted that whole Bible was literally true. But big problem with this was that only have to show that one bit is wrong to call the whole thing into question. First chink came when scholars took a serious look at the first 5 books of the Bible, called the Pentateuch. Big problem was that both Jews and Christians believed that had been written by Moses - except that Deuteronomy describes Moses death and that nobody had been able to find his grave .....

From mid-1700's onwards scholars began to recognize that Genesis had been assembled from multiple texts - at first just 2 obvious ones, then later realized that the books of the Pentateuch. had not only multiple sources, but had been edited over several centuries. The J source (Jahwest or Yahweh) dated from southern Judah around 950 BCE; the Elohim source, from northern Israel around 850 BCE; the D source (Deuteronomist) around 620 BCE, and P (priestly) source, written around 450 BCE. A series of editors, or redactors, compiled these resources over a period of time. J and E were pulled together around 750 BCE, then D was added later, and the final form incorporated P around 400 BCE.

Scholars also "looked behind" the Gospels. Suggest that the miracles didn't happen, but were myths added later to boost J's rep. And other stories added to fit J with ancient Hebrew prophecy. For example, no contemporary records of Herod or anyone else slaughtering young boys - the story of the "Massacre of the Innocents" appears only in Mathew, where it is used as a reason to get Joseph and Mary to Egypt.

The 'two source' theory of the Gospels. Mathew Mark and Luke share a lot of material, so obvious Q is, how did they come to be so similar? Today accepted that Mark, the shortest and narratively simplest, is the original. It presents J's miracles, teachings and parables, and ends with the crucifixion and empty tomb (nothing about resurrection). Mathew and Luke used Mark as basis for their narrative, to which each added separate material. For example, each adds a geneology for Joseph, (who either was or wasn't J's father depending on how you view the Virgin Mary thing) but each has different ancestors. Mathew traces J back to David and Abraham, whereas Luke goes all the way back to Adam. They both share sayings attributed to J that do not appear in Mark, which suggests that they had access to another manuscript which consisted of his sayings.

Historical records show that the census of Quirnus, if it did take place, occurred ten years after J's supposed birth. But Mathew needed J to be born in Bethlehem bc he wanted to fulfil an OT prophecy that the Messiah wd be born there, as a descendant of David.

The Age of Exploration. Explorers opened up access to new lands and were followed by academics who studied the new societies.

Comparative linguistics. Using Genesis, scholars had human races descending from Noah's 3 sons. Shem fathered the Semetic races of Jews and Arabs, Ham the Hamite races of Egyptians and Cushites, and so everybody else must have descended from the last son, Japhet. But in early 1800's scholars realized that all the European languages had evolved from Indo-European, so the centre of linguistic dispersal was not Israel, but India. Language and archeology showed that biblical history was not the story of mankind, but the story of one small group of people.

Comparative religion and comparative mythology. Soon realized that all societies had creation myth, and that were some interesting similarities, which suggested that cultures have common ways of developing beliefs in gods. For example the Greek god Dionysus was killed then resurrected as a saviour for humans. His mother was the agriculture goddess Persephone, his father Zeus, who lived where humans cd not access him.

Comparative religion showed that there were multiple ways of conceiving of God. Some were obviously primitive, involving crop rituals and sacrifices, but others such as Confuscianism and some Indian religions had concepts easily as sophisticated as Christian ones.

Lifestyle influenced the God a culture developed. Hunter-gatherer societies had a sacred animal spirit, agricultural societies a fertility goddess, a thunder god for early Indo-European warriors, a King of Kings in Bronze Age city states, and a saviour god in the Mediterranean states oppressed by Roman conquerers.

Christianity was not unique. Other religions (Zoroastrians, Taoists, Brahmins) had same idea of a single god in charge. Many cultures had collections of sacred writings, with as much historical validity as Christian ones. And crucially, Christian morality was not unique. Europeans had long assumed that Christian morality was superior to all others, but most cultures had moral injunctions that showed them aspiring to the highest standards.

The philosophers. The Enlightenment had shown that much traditional 'knowledge' was wrong. Men like Immanuel Kant applied this to philosophy - challenged the churchmen who said "Don't question, just believe!" because that limited freedom - "man's reason must always be free, and it alone can bring about enlightenment." Kant argued that it was pointless trying to understand God because we cannot perceive anything about God with our senses.

So by the time Nietzsche wrote his famous "God is dead" in 1882, there was no longer one God, but many in different cultures; the creation story had become a myth amongst other myths, and the saviour was now seen as a man who after his death was raised up to divine status by his enthusiastic followers. The world was no longer seen as a perfect creation of a perfect God. People did not live in a magical world in which God could set aside the laws of nature. Revelation was no longer needed to understand the natural world. Reason did the job.

The traditional churches responded by putting their heads in the sand. The Catholic Church promulgated a list of books the faithful weren't allowed to read, and papal infallibility was introduced (1869). As parishioners were pressured to conform to the mainstream dogma, there were mass defections.

But while the intellectuals and academics abandoned God, many still clung to their beliefs.

And in the 20th Century Christian thinkers suggested new ways of looking at the concept of 'God'.

Paul Tillich said that the big problem was that people were seeing God as a person - but a supernatural one who was all knowing and all powerful - and were unhappy because that left little room for free will. God was Being - an essence - rather than a being. Jesus was a man until he was filled the holy spirit and became Christ.

Lloyd Geering said that humans are endlessly creative in making up stories about meaning, and religion is the highest form of that. But these meanings change over time. He said that religions go through stages, from infancy to state acceptance to peak maturity. Then comes reformation, when religious beliefs are adjusted to changing times. Finally, they become private worship, "when the great religion is no longer overtly observed in the official organs of society, is no longer dominant in the intellectual leadership and is no longer the chief motivation of the culture."

He pointed out that Christianity a Dualist religion - the material world of Earth, filled with suffering, and the spiritual world of Heaven, offering happiness and truth. This is both a strength and a weakness. Heaven gave this world meaning and purpose. But with the rise of scientific materialism, the idea of Heaven first questioned then rejected. And so the religious meaning lost. From this Geering accepted that God is a human construct, and that it was now time to create a new religion based on our present human values of tolerance and acceptance of diversity.

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