Who Strangled God?
This essay first appeared in the “Contours of Culture” column (Touchstone, January/February 2011)
In conversations among Christians about the shape of our cultural lives, it is common to hear references to St. Paul’s “all things to all men” declaration. That oft-cited phrase appears in the middle of his first letter to the Corinthians (in chapter 9), in a passage in which he is addressing questions that had been raised about the legitimacy of his apostolic office. This defense is part of a larger argument in the letter about how Christians should always use their freedom for the sake of others, not for their own gain. St. Paul insists that his becoming “like one not having the law” or “like a Jew” was done “for the sake of the gospel, that I may share [with them] in its blessings.”
Later in the letter, continuing his discussion of the shape of Christian freedom, St. Paul insists that freedom must always be exercised with wisdom. In chapter 10:23ff., he cites a slogan apparently in vogue in Corinth among believers eager to assert their freedom in Christ: “Everything is permissible.” But this wise (and inspired) shepherd amends the slogan: “but not everything is beneficial.” Again, he writes: “‘Everything is permissible’—but not everything is constructive.”
Every effort by Christians to adapt the shape of the Church’s life to accommodate contemporary cultural conventions must be guided by a concern for what is constructive and beneficial as well as what is superficially winsome. St. Paul’s “all things to all men” formula must always be applied in light of other inspired guidance. For example, in his letter to the Ephesians, he writes: “I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking” (4:17). This warning introduces a long passage about how the lives of believers must be remarkably different from those of their unbelieving neighbors. In the middle of this sequence of exhortation, St. Paul urges the same attitude of discernment and prudence displayed in the Corinthian epistle: “Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.”
These complementary Pauline passages came to mind as I was re-reading sections of James Turner’s remarkable book, Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America. This detailed and wide-ranging exercise in intellectual history is concerned with a single question regarding Western cultural life. “How did the practically universal assumption of God disappear?” How—within a very short period of time in the mid-nineteenth century—did atheism become plausible in Western culture?
In Turner’s study, the answer is that many well-intentioned Christians—motivated by a version of the “all things to all men” strategy—embraced a modern “cast of mind,” thereby enabling Christians and their message to seem more “relevant.” The mental sensibility Turner has in view is the habit of mind that gave rise to modern science and technology, a mentality “more insistent on the regularity and orderliness of phenomena; more comfortable with tangible, measurable realities than with the unseen and mysterious; more dubious about traditional explanations and more inclined to experiment with new ones.”
As various Church leaders and theologians tried to repackage Christian thought in a form than was more resonant with this new mental world, they thus signed their own death warrant—and God’s. “In trying to adapt their religious beliefs to socioeconomic change, to new moral challenges, to novel problems of knowledge, to the tightening standards of science, the defenders of God slowly strangled Him. If anyone is to be arraigned for deicide, it is not Charles Darwin but his adversary Samuel Wilberforce, not the godless Robert Ingersoll but the godly Beecher family.”
Motivated by the best intentions, the Church nonetheless “played a major role in softening up belief.” Turner concludes that atheism became plausible because of “the decisions that influential church leaders—lay writers, theologians, ministers—made about how to confront the modern pressures upon religious belief. . . . And the choices, taken together, boiled down to a decision to deal with modernity by embracing it—to defuse modern threats to the traditional bases of belief by bringing God into line with modernity.”
Turner’s compilation of evidence for these charges is thorough, compelling, and sobering. Like all the books I’ve discussed in this column, this one should be required reading by every pastor and seminary student. Without God, Without Creed presents a valuable case study of how forms of cultural adaptation that are well-intentioned and within the bounds of bare moral permissibility nonetheless can fall short of being constructive or beneficial. The destructive effects may not be immediately obvious, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t foreseeable. The story Turner tells here should be read as a paradigmatic warning to all efforts of Christians who are eager to address their cultural situation with wisdom and compassion, who want to know when to be like the Gentiles and when not to, who are willing to be against the world for the world.