Helmut Thielicke (1908-86), a German pastor and educator who remained faithful even under Hitler’s regime in WWII, wrote that the real competition in theology is not between modernists (or “liberals”) and conservatives but consists in a more basic—and unnoticed—conflict between Cartesians and non-Cartesians. As I’ll share below, I agree with him, but first let me unpack in very basic terms what he meant; then I’ll offer a corollary to his axiom.
Cartesianism, a label for the approach to God and knowing inaugurated by René Descartes (1596-1650), has been treated by many academics as the point where the Enlightenment was launched and where our current versions of secular modernity took root.
Descartes was a Roman Catholic yet his religious views were complex, shaped in part by his appreciation for mathematics and for the insights of the Copernican revolution. Additionally he had some acquaintances who were weary of the religious battles of the day and had turned to radical skepticism as a way to dismiss religion. Descartes, in response, applied his mathematical skills to matters of faith. His goal was to achieve certainty in the face of doubts. How? By showing how the rational certainty of solving a geometry or algebra problem can also be applied to a Christian problem—the need for certainty in matters of faith—in the face of challenges brought by the skeptics.
The unusual step he took was to adopt a weapon used against faith—skepticism—in order to defend faith. In this scheme he needed an insurmountable axiom or doubt-proof starting point to begin building a faith that has full certainty. By having a point beyond doubt—indubitable truth—he was confident that all other truth could be constructed around such a certainty. Doubt would be the instrument for finding such a starting point. Another way to say this is that he decided to doubt everything in order to discover what was left after his doubting.
So he sat down by his fireplace and began doubting. In time it dawned on him that his doubting could be treated as an axiomatic certainty. Thinking (the exercise of the mind in doubting) certifies existence. So that became his starting point: “I think, therefore I am” (or, in Latin, cogito ergo sum). Then he moved on to another step—in a logical pathway from an effect (his act of thinking) to a cause (something that must account for his act of thinking) and he concluded that this necessary cause is God. But what is this God like? Additional stages of reasoning achieved a portrayal of God very close to the Roman Catholic portrayal of God.
What happened with this little exercise? It was revolutionary in that it relocated the question of “how-we-know-what-we-know” (epistemology) away from the Christian tradition that God is the ultimate reference point of knowing—as in “In the beginning was the Word”—to a human starting point. And it also relocated the notion of being—God’s being and our own—away from God’s personal self-disclosure. The basis for knowing who God is and who we are is no longer his word but our rationality so that the new starting point became the act of human rationality. In philosophical terms, reason had trumped revelation and epistemology had leapfrogged ontology. In more practical terms humanity moved ahead of deity in the process of explaining reality. Rational certainty also became a new ambition in religion in place of relational encounter with God.
With this is an all too brief introduction let me return to Thielicke’s axiom. What he noted is a pattern: that Christian academic institutions, in particular, tend to depart from a living faith as soon as reason begins to trump revelation in a given setting. This movement from a pre-Cartesian confidence in God’s existence (and in his capacity to communicate effectively) to a Cartesian confidence in the human ability to determine God’s nature through intellect and logic, has often reshaped Christianity to something more satisfying to human reason—with human reason still subject to the Fall of Adam. Simply put, the Cartesian shift relocates the Scriptures to a place “below” reason instead of “above” reason.
To a non-Cartesian Bible reader it seems that all hell (to note the underlying spiritual impulse) is set loose in the shift: it features a new devotion to accommodating faith to current trends that are to be found among intellectuals yet not found in the Bible. The non-Cartesian, however, prefers the Bible to the ever-changing “certainties” of a given era.
On the other hand a bright young college student who has never heard of Descartes but who knows that a brilliantly logical professor is teaching things that the Bible clearly resists or denies—even when that teacher is a professing Christian—faces a dilemma. Who is right? Given the social and academic leverage the professor has, after a semester or two the student will often be a convert. How so? By coming to share the professor’s Cartesianism that seeks rational and logical certainty in place of a Word-based confidence. When viewed collectively the trajectory away from biblical Christianity will follow the direction of travel seen among any number of once-Christian institutions: Cartesianism becomes increasingly indifferent to Christ and even overtly hostile to any notice of the biblical God. The change is never intended at the start, but the outcome is inevitable.
Thielicke’s insights are useful but fail to solve the problem—he only sheds some light on why so many Christian academic centers move away from faith as they gain greater intellectual standing. He knew that any given non-Cartesian—Thielicke is a recent example, with a host of precursors such as Augustine, Luther, Calvin and others—can be as intellectually able, or more so, than a given Cartesian scholar. So his point was not to condemn learning but to show where it goes astray spiritually.
This is a crucial point: the problem is not in having and using one’s intelligence! The fundamentalists who rejected formal education made that mistake: by failing to distinguish Cartesian from non-Cartesian learning they linked a conspicuous erosion of faith among students to any form of higher education. Yet the real difference is not in learning but in the starting point of learning: do we begin by presuming the primacy of God or of man? Do we start with “In the beginning God” or “In the beginning cogito“?
So now my corollary: the matter actually begins in the heart. Only when sin is resolved by the coming of Christ’s Spirit who pours out his love in the hearts of new believers will a non-Cartesian trajectory be formed. What Thielicke merely describes must be interpreted by an affective corollary, that the heart always follows its greatest desire. The love of self is the ultimate desire for a non-believer. Only when God captures the heart by revealing the loveliness of the Son through the wooing work of the Spirit will the intellect begin to think properly: as God made us to think. Only when God is the heart’s highest desire will honesty prevail in academic settings. Only when Christ is exalted will a proper bias be in play—the bias of the creation in showing off the brilliance of the creator.
Some readers may be skeptical of my skepticism towards Descartes’ axiomatic use of doubt. What can be done to overcome such doubts? Jesus offered an answer to some of the Bible scholars of his own day who were, it seems, proto-Cartesians. In John 5 Jesus was challenged for claiming his equality with the Father. Jesus answered with all the rational logic and evidence one could hope for—citing the witnesses of God, of Moses, and of the Scriptures in his favor—yet his bottom line issue is found in verse 42: “But I know that you do not have the love of God within you.” They rejected his logic because, without a love for God, they were blind to the Truth. They loved, instead, the glory of mutual approval—a human and Cartesian focus.
So the cure to Cartesianism is a discovery of God’s love, a love freely offered in Christ and unfolded throughout the Bible. Don’t go to school, read a book, or watch a movie without it!