A Return to the Irrational, Superstitious and Mystical
Jack D. Zwemer, D.D.S., Ph.D.*
Much of the thinking of the Dark Ages was irrational, superstitious and mystical. The normal functions of the body were thought to be accomplished by the direct mediation of supernatural powers. Illness was generally attributed to the influence of heavenly bodies or to demon possession. If a man had a severe headache, it was not uncommon to pierce his skull to release the spirits.
The earth — and man along with it — was regarded as the center of the universe. This was closely paralleled by the religious thinking of the age. The church's doctrine of justification by gratia infusa turned man inward to look for salvation in his own mystical experience. Civilization was drowned in religious subjectivism. "The noontide of the Papacy was the midnight of the world." — Wylie.
The Reformation was a mighty deliverance from groveling, religious subjectivism. By a clear emphasis "original sin," the Reformers showed that it was futile to look for inner fulfillment within the historical process. And by proclaiming the long-lost Pauline teaching of justification through an imputed righteousness, they turned the focus away from man and his religious experience to Christ and His objective, redemptive acts.
The Reformation, however, was not the only movement which turned the
world from thinking that this earth was the center of the universe.
The argument of Copernicus for a more enlightened view of the motion
of heavenly bodies, shook the most basic theological and philosophical
canons of the day. Indeed, he "reinstated the older intellectual
claims of scientific inquiry." — Stephen E. Toulmin. Instead
of being shackled to a blind and superstitious dogmatism, men's
eyes were opened to investigate, to observe and to make conclusions
on the basis of empirical evidence. With the new scientific method,
stressing objective evidence, reason and logic were reborn. The
spark then it by the Renaissance launched the world into the scientific
age with its tremendous acceleration of knowledge.
As nature began to yield its secrets before the objective, scientific
method, man found that he could rationally comprehend things like
the circulation of the blood, digestion, genetics and illness. He
had no more need to suspect the activity of witches, spooks and
hobgoblins. Indeed, scientific breakthroughs became so stunning
that modern man began to think that soon there would be no secrets,
no mysteries—that all things could be dissected and understood by
man's cool rationality.
For sheer impact on modern man, the Renaissance, with all its dazzling
humanistic achievements, has completely overshadowed the Reformation.
In fact, there is good reason to believe that the great Reformation
understandings have virtually been lost even in the most Protestant
societies. The sons of the Reformation went to schools where they
were regaled by the wonders and possibilities of science. Science
became the great new religion—along with liberalism and rationalism.
There was the heady feeling that science could solve all problems.
Whereas the medieval mystics searched for inner fulfillment in spiritual
experience, this age has assiduously sought for human fulfillment
in material and scientific achievement.
Turning of the Tide
A man would have to be blind not to notice the turning of the tide which has taken place in the last five years. In one last, dazzling display of scientific glory, man has reached the moon. Just as suddenly he has found all this material idealism to be as dead as the lunar crust. Now there is a growing disenchantment with science. There is an awakening to the fact that rational humanism has not, after all, brought us any nearer to solving our basic problems—much less has it brought us inner fulfillment. In fact, the genius of science unleashed the horrors of nuclear war, choked magnificent freeways with polluting automobiles, engineered greater machines to despoil the environment and developed communications to destroy the last sanctuaries of human privacy. Beside this insufferable cost of progress, there is the growing consciousness that science has definite limits. As biologist Gunther Stent says, there are mysteries which remain "hidden in an endless and tiresome succession of Chinese boxes."
Realizing that there is no inner fulfillment in material idealism,
western man is being caught up in the trend to find his long-sought
satisfaction in spiritualism and religious experience. This is what
lies behind the new popularity of western Pentecostalism and eastern
mysticism. It is a return, in principle, to the religious philosophy
of the medieval church—with all that this will mean to civilization
and to religion.
With this retreat from scientific objectivism, there is a pronounced
return to the irrational, the nonobjective, the mystical and the
superstitious. This development is most pronounced in America—the
world's most developed and enlightened nation. The extent of witchcraft,
superstition and bizarre religious mysticism now being practiced
across the nation, is amazing.
This phenomenon is displayed to a striking degree in some of the
strange healing arts that are attracting widespread attention. Pendulum-swinging
practitioners, spiritualistic mediums and healers no better or more
enlightened than evil-smelling witch doctors, are growing in popularity
day by day.
Religion has been so permeated by existential philosophy that, rather
than being a bulwark to superstition, it has provided a firm basis
for it. People are ready to try anything that "works"
— attempted communication with the dead, ESP, tongues, magical incantations,
astrology — and to pursue every miracle and wonder. A civilization
that scorned all mysteries and, in cold rationalism, discounted
the supernatural, is now ready to rush headlong after the most fantastic
superstitions, guided by nothing better than the subjective motto,
"If it works, it must be right," or, "The proof of
the pudding is in the eating of it."
And there is no reason to rejoice because we see what many are now
calling the greatest revival of religion the world has ever seen.
The Bible speaks very explicitly that this condition will exist
in the world immediately preceding the second coming of Christ—and
that it will be Satanically inspired in an attempt, to destroy true
faith and obedience among God's people in the final remnant of time
(see 2 Thess. 2; Rev. 13:13,14; 14:12; 16:13-15; 18:1-5).
Thus the pendulum has swung from side to side in man's desperate
search for inner fulfillment. In the Europe of medieval times, man
tried to find an inner fulfillment in religious experience. The
material, the real and the body were little regarded. Then, in the
Renaissance, man tried to find his fulfillment iii the material,
the real and the body. The spiritual, the religious and the supernatural
were little regarded. Now the swing is back to the medieval philosophy
with all which that implies.
As man continues to oscillate under the domination and influence
of Platonic dualism, we must ask, Is there a third alternative?
We answer, Yes! It is the great Reformation grasp of the Christian
message — a grasp that has the most profound consequences for the
church and for society.
Restoration of the great truth of justification by faith — upon which the church stands or falls — depends, therefore, upon the recovery of history. The truth once so fearlessly and nobly exalted must again be unfurled for a new and final Reformation. Thus alone can the church go forth "fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners" (Song of Sol. 6:10).
Unfortunately, we look in vain upon the American scene for any significant institutional perception or support of the great Reformation insights. Even conservative evangelical Protestantism has so far lost contact with its own heritage that it scarcely differs from Roman Catholicism in its most fundamental religious emphasis.
*Dr. Jack Zwemer is a Iay Christian scholar whose profession is an American educational consultant to a number of academic institutions.—Ed.