I’m just reading through “The Twilight of Atheism” by Alister McGrath. It’s a very good book – I’m only 3/4 of the way through it, but I would definitely recommend it! One thing which he said that I found very interesting is that protestantism indirectly created circumstances in which atheism was able to thrive. I thought this was strange at first, but it actually makes a lot of sense:
One of the things which early protestantism did was to remove the focus on images and so on (not without reason – images can lead to idolatry, i.e. the focus being on the created rather than the creator). What became the focus instead was the pulpit – people would learn about God through the word. Churches became places where you would go to hear the word, and there would be nothing there to distract you from that (no statues, paintings, etc – the walls would be whitewashed). In doing so, protestantism inadvertantly turned Christianity into a dry set of doctrines which people would accept cerebrally – but take the “experience” of God out of the equation. McGrath calls this the “imaginative failure of protestantism”. Before, in the medieval ages, God was just an ordinary part of everyone’s lives – people would see the divine in everything. Not without reason the protestant movement sought to reduce that to what we could know about God through the Bible, what was taught at Church…. it just seemed that in doing so this contributed to taking the experience of God out of people’s every day lives.
In other words, it turned people into pragmatic atheists – living as though God did not exist. From this, it was a short step to actually becoming ‘proper’ atheists – people not believing in God at all.
At this point McGrath mentioned the global pentecostal movement: this movement focuses a lot on the experience of God, rather than dry preaching. It’s gained enormous popularity over the world, partially because of its ability to mould itself to fit in with cultural circumstances.
Now, I don’t know whether protestantism in general has made our experience too ‘dry’, or whether we’ve taken the experience of God out of the equation. I suspect my answer to those questions would be “maybe” and “I don’t think so”, but it’s difficult to tell. What may be one person’s experience of God may not be the same as another’s.
However I think it’s definitely worth thinking about… I can’t pretend to know what the right answer to this is at the moment, but I do believe that this is a serious issue and one which is worth thinking about at length. If we’re doing something wrong, surely we should do something about it!
Note: I don’t think that the protestant church of the present necessarily is repeating the same mistakes as the protestant church of the past. But a lot of what McGrath said seemed to ring true for me, to a certain degree. I think it’s still an issue, even if it’s not as big an issue as it was…