Christianity’s purpose: the re-enchantment of life

Christianity’s purpose: the re-enchantment of life. By Greg Sheridan.

After the Enlightenment, the righteous exuberance that celebrated reason and rationality as the heart of civic life, our culture took a bad wrong turn, based on two dreadfully mistaken propositions.

The first is that God is dead, that science has pronounced against God, that God never existed. The second is that the Bible is full of lies, and the New Testament is folklore and oral tradition at best, and does not describe historical reality. Neither of these propositions is true, or necessary to the Enlightenment.

Max Weber called this disenchantment. It has been the project of modernist ideology for the past 200 years, to rob the culture, and human beings, of the enchantment of life.

The intellectual object is to erase from life the element of mystery. The consequence emotionally is that it also strips life of its poetry. It strips the normal quotidian rank-and-file human being of the sense of magnificence and renders life tawdry and tedious. To escape that tedium, people seek intensity for its own sake, often courting oblivion and creating false transcendence through ever more neurotic politics. …

Science has nothing to say on whether “God is dead” (Nietzsche, 1882):

Science has certainly taken no stand against God at all. It’s not qualified to do so, even if it wanted to. In reality good science has no such ambition.

Writing this book involved systematically reading the New Atheists — Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens etc. I was astonished at how lame and antique, how frowsty and loose and simultaneously logic-chopping and ramshackle, their arguments were. The Christianity they mock was a farcical caricature. The success of their books relied in part on the reading audience having no real knowledge in substance of Christianity.

Much of their effort sought a false glamour by association with real science. So an unprovable or even ridiculous argument would be sat next to a lot of irrelevant science. Dawkins argued, for example, that because the universe is 14 billion years old there can be no God, because God wouldn’t waste 14 billion years constructing a whole universe just for humanity to enjoy one planet in one tiny corner. To which one thinks: how would Dawkins know what God might do? God’s generosity and grandeur might be beyond Dawkins. …

Modern archaeology supports the biblical story — what can be verified appears to be authentic:

Many of the objections to the idea that the New Testament involves witness testimony to real events comes from good-hearted folks whose knowledge of biblical scholarship doesn’t only incline them to an ultraliberal version of Christianity, with Jesus stripped of divinity, but whose sense of biblical scholarship is out of date.

Up until the 1960s or ’70s, it was fairly common to hear a popularised version of an ultraliberal interpretation of the New Testament that held it was the end point of a long process of oral tradition that changed radically over the years with the telling, and that much of the miraculous and divine stuff had been inserted, perhaps centuries later, by church authorities to suit their own agendas, sometimes moral agendas, more often power agendas. This interpretation was always wrong, but it was once semi-respectable in scholarly circles and widely and mistakenly held in popular culture. …

At the wider social level, books and films such as The Da Vinci Code have popularised all manner of crazy conspiracy theories, based on the bedrock of the old modernist contention that the New Testament is all fiction, folklore or falsehood.

But high-quality modern scholarship is moving strongly to the view that the New Testament involves authentic testimony. This is a complex process and any generalisation about biblical scholarship has a thousand contrary examples. …

Archaeology … yields real, hard, new facts. It is less a process of inference. If archaeology discovers an object from the ancient world, all subsequent scholarship has to take it into account. …

Two important caveats. Many biblical scholars who accept now that the New Testament involves important testimony, including witness testimony, do not embrace belief in Christianity. They still might hold that the resurrection did not happen, could not happen, was a mistaken account or a dishonest account. No one any longer seriously holds it was inserted a hundred years later by scheming church authorities.

Second, Christians themselves should not have their beliefs determined by biblical scholarship. … Modern people, indoctrinated from birth with the hard disenchantment doctrine that the New Testament is all lies, should be aware of just how profound a revolution has taken place in biblical scholarship.