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The De-Conversion of the Christian Synthesis

The De-Conversion of the Christian Synthesis

The shift away from ontology. This conversion process of developing a Christian worldview took time to effect, but no sooner had it seemingly been accomplished than a de-conversion process began in the sixteenth century. Here we enter the modern period with its secularization process. The focus of attention is no longer on the objective meaning of the world, but on its subjectivizing interpretation. Not God, but Man!

For most philosophers, this subjectivizing of truth resulted in a general consensus of opinion that has been dominant over the last two centuries—that ontology (the idea of a universal and normative truth binding for all people) is not a possibility.

With the rise of modern philosophy and the emergence of Enlightenment thinking, the subjective emphasis on autonomous, critical reasoning replaced the more objective focus of the ontological thinking of the premodern world. Not a synthetic worldview, but an exact analysis of things based on a critical evaluation of the facts of human experience became the focus of philosophy. This humanistic narrowing down of the criterion of truth pushed the question of ontology into the background.

In the natural sciences, A. N. Whitehead sought to reinstate the ontological question. He charged that the scientific movement, which began in 1600 has been anti-intellectual because it assumed that knowledge was simply restricted to an interpretation of brute facts, and it too quickly rejected the need to gain a larger perspective of the whole picture of reality. He believed this anti-intellectualism was an overreaction to the ontological/speculative systems of medieval thought.

Whitehead said that modern science “has never cared to justify its faith or to explain its meaning.” This elimination of the ontological question from science resulted in “scientific materialism,” and this view assumes that there is an irreducible brute fact that can be known independently of any value, meaning, or purpose. Whitehead called this fact/value dichotomy naïve because it fails to see that its own assumption of a value-free fact is a value itself imposed on the fact.A. N. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York: Macmillan, 1954), 12, 23-24. Yet this fact/value dichotomy is the most prominent feature of the post-Enlightenment era. It is called “positivism” because it presupposes that “facts” are simply posited (or given) in a literal and straightforward way without the need for interpretation. Facts allegedly can be known independently of any presuppositions.

The beginning of the fact/value split in Descartes. Since the beginning of philosophical reflection with the ancient Greeks, there has always been an awareness of the distinction between sensibility and intellect, between experience and thought, between the rational and the empirical, between appearance (facts) and reality (what something is in its very essence). But at the beginning of modern philosophy (1600 a.d.), Descartes radicalized the distinction between appearance and reality into a dualism.

In the early part of his educational training under Jesuit teachers, Descartes complained in his Discourse on Method of an overwhelming sense of personal doubt about religious beliefs. He felt the need to develop a system of reason that would lead to absolute certainty about ultimate truth independent of the Bible and church authority. This absolute certainty was based on the autonomous, subjective thinking of the individual alone. This shift toward subjectivity accelerated the move toward the de-conversion of the Christian synthesis.

Descartes' basic principle for developing this system of reason was the method of doubt. Never accept anything as true that is not self-evident to the subjective, autonomous thinking of the individual. What is accepted as true must present itself to the mind clearly and distinctly. Out of this method of suspicion and distrust one supposedly would be led to the discovery of truth.

An obvious implication of this rationalism is its antihistorical attitude. More specifically, if the criterion of truth is absolute clarity and absolute precision, then history is downgraded to nothing more than varying degrees of unreliable reports. This of course had negative implications for acceptance of the history of the Bible.