I don’t mean skepticism of God per se as much as skepticism of the idea that we can in fact know things spiritually about God and what is true and right through the Bible and the practices of the spiritual life. Doubts can creep in about the spiritual life because modern Western society concludes that we (unlike our biblical heroes) can’t know truth or God spiritually. This is important because whether we take our spiritual journey wide-eyed and full of wonder or squinty-eyed and skeptical will clearly impact on its fruitfulness in helping us truly find God.
Now just because a journalist, politician or society concludes spiritual knowledge doesn’t exist doesn’t make it so. And if we understand how Western society came to its conclusion about spiritual knowledge (and the insights I present on this are taken from Dallas Willard’s book Knowing Christ Today, HarperCollins 2009, 68-83) it will help us to see that it is a very wobbly conclusion, and my hope is that you will find yourself even more wide-eyed and full of wonder about the spiritual life.
To unhinge the conclusion, we must go back to the Industrial Revolution and the appalling living and working conditions it thrust upon people in the 1700s and 1800s.
Living and working conditions were harsh for the poor and working classes. Many struggled to meet their basic needs for food. Families were crammed into small homes with other families because many were too poor to purchase their own. With a lack of hygiene, little knowledge of sanitary precautions, and no knowledge of what causes diseases, they spread too rapidly to cure and people were dying left and right.
When the Christian church at the time failed to apply the principles of Jesus to these appalling conditions, what it had to say seemed wrong—particularly when it sided with the ruling classes in horrible abuses of power. This formed the impetus for human society in Europe to squeeze all religious knowledge out over a period of about a century in favor of modern knowledge represented by science. The core teachings of Christianity represented “beliefs” about God but were no longer accepted as “knowledge” about him or what is right as the basis for ordering society.
Remember that from the beginning, Christianity transformed the world because its core teachings were presented and accepted as knowledge about what is real and right.
The shift was accentuated by advances in science that called the Bible into question; an appreciation from anthropology of the moral practices of other cultures which suggested that what Europe considered moral knowledge was really just the product of one more historically conditioned culture; the emergence of psychology and the idea that the human self is governed by unconscious forces like the ego, disqualifying it as a subject of moral knowledge; and others.
The point is that spiritual knowledge didn’t disappear because it doesn’t exist anymore, but rather as the by-product of an inconclusive historical struggle between human points of view about knowledge. In other words, the conclusion of Western society that we can’t know things spiritually is unstable, and we should allow this to help us rise above modern skepticism of the spiritual life and to learn how to engage it wide-eyed and full of wonder.
Can you identify ways that the conclusion of Western society about spiritual knowledge might have shaped your expectations of the spiritual life? In what ways does this historical snapshot help to change your expectations?