By Bart D. Ehrman, The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
How does an obscure religion of some 20 illiterate nobodies, convert 30 million people, and take over the Western world in under 400 years? It’s hard to imagine, but it happened. Today, there are some 2.5 billion Christians in the world. One out of every three people on our planet worships Jesus and believes He is the way to have eternal life.
Radical Shifts in Religion
We cannot look at the significance of the rise of Christianity just in terms of demographics. It was a movement of massive cultural importance. Although one can study it sociologically, and of course make predictions of where it will be in say 200 years or more, it’s equally important to think of it on the individual, personal level as well.
Parts of the United States and large swaths of Western Europe today are witnessing radical shifts in religious understanding and sentiment. In some areas, religion is still thriving. In others, it’s barely holding its own against cultural assaults, and in yet others, it’s being completely abandoned.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Triumph of Christianity. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Matthew Arnold and Challenges of Modernisation
The emotional toil that a radical shift of religious perspective can have can be immense, especially if one starts to have religious doubts. The doubts appear to be a part of a much broader cultural phenomenon, with roots in the Enlightenment, but with growing intensity among Western thinkers through the 19th century.
Matthew Arnold was one of those Victorians who felt the implacable challenge of modernity on the traditional claims of the Christian faith. Nowhere are Arnold’s own struggles expressed more movingly and succinctly than in his most famous poem, Dover Beach. The poem recalls a brief moment from Arnold’s honeymoon in 1851.
As he stands by an open window overlooking the cliffs of Dover, Arnold takes in the shoreline below, mesmerized by the sights and sounds of the sea as the tide goes out and so his poem begins:
The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Arnold asks his bride to join him at the window to enjoy the sweet night air, and to look down where the waves break upon the beach:
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
Metaphor for the Christian Faith
For Arnold, the retreating sea is a sad metaphor for the Christian faith ebbing from his world and leaving a naked shoreline in its wake.
There was a time he wistfully recalls when the world was comfortably filled to the full with faith:
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright gridle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges, drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Comforts of Religion
For Arnold, the modern educated person no longer had the comforts of religion; the presence of an all-powerful and loving divinity, or the redemption provided by a son of God. All that remained was a confusing and chaotic emptiness, filled only in part by the presence of others; the people we love and cherish who can join us through the uncertainties, pains, and anxieties of life. And so, he concludes his poem:
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
Here is a world of profound and disastrous mayhem and confusion, a struggle of armies fighting to the death in the dark, with no joy, peace, or certainty. In this void, we have only our friends, companions, and loves.
A Different Perspective
Dover Beach and other poems of its era have resonated with people in modern era as well. Often times, while learning about the geological and biological sciences, philosophy, critical thinking, and intellectual history, problems are posed for our faith, much as they had for the intellectuals of Arnold’s era.
However, rather than experiencing them personally as a Christian, one can look at them through the eyes of a historian specializing in the study of religion.
Even though we personally may not be at sea when it comes to our religious faith, poems such as Dover Beach encourage us to empathize with those who are or have been wrecked with doubt and uncertainty, forced to reconsider and even abandon their faith, not simply since the rise of modernity, but throughout history.
Common Questions about the Ebbing Christian Faith
Matthew Arnold was one of those Victorians who felt the implacable challenge of modernity on the traditional claims of the Christian faith.
Parts of the United States and large swaths of western Europe today are witnessing radical shifts in religious understanding and sentiment. In some areas, religion is still thriving. In others, it’s barely holding its own against cultural assaults, and in yet others, it’s being completely abandoned.
For Matthew Arnold, the retreating sea is a sad metaphor for the Christian faith ebbing from his world and leaving a naked shoreline in its wake.