2.1.2 From Christian division to a new search for knowledge

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Unit 2 Contents

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The Christian faith is nearly 2000 years old, and Christianity has been in Britain for about three quarters of that time.  However something we take for granted now in Britain is newer – the fact that in every city and town there are local Christian churches representing a number of different denominations, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal, etc.  It is only in the last 500 years that there has been this division into the different Christian denominations with which we are now familiar.  Roughly the same can be said for Christianity in Western Europe as a whole: until the sixteenth century there was, institutionally, only one Church, the Catholic Church.  But in that century, through the events called the Reformation, it became divided between the Catholic and the various Protestant denominations.

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Reflection

What do you already know about the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century?  What do you know about the Catholic Church’s reaction to it – which is known as the Counter-Reformation or the Catholic Reformation?

You don’t need to know more about these major events for the purpose of this module.  But if you have time – maybe when you have finished this unit – you could take a look at articles about them online, e.g. at the History Learning Site.

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Not only did the Catholic/Protestant division that is still with us begin in the sixteenth century, but for much of the time between about 1550 and 1650, there was real conflict, bloody war, between Catholic and Protestant provinces and countries.  The label ‘The Thirty Years War’ is used to refer to some of these conflicts (although some historians say that there was no neatly defined period of just 30 years of such war).  These were finally brought to an end, more or less, by a hugely significant peace treaty in 1648, known as the Peace of Westphalia.  The outcome of this treaty was basically a Western Europe of separate nation-states, rather like we still have today.

I have begun this outline of the background to the emergence of Catholic Social Teaching with the tragic division of Western Christianity 500 years ago because of the long-term effects of this.  During the period of religious war, some intellectuals in Europe became very sceptical about Christian faith – it is easy to understand why.  Such people included Michel de Montaigne, a famous essayist, René Descartes, the father of modern Western philosophy, and Thomas Hobbes, an English political philosopher.

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Reflection

Do you know what Descartes is most famous for?

It is a saying in Latin in three words, Cogito ergo sum.  Do you know what this means in English?  What do you think the significance of this was?  To find out, read on.

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Such thinkers were not always hostile to the Christian religion in theory, but they became very doubtful about its then current manifestations, Catholic and Protestant, and especially its claims to authority.  In particular they distrusted the inherited teaching and traditions of Catholicism and they doubted the Protestant emphasis on the Bible.  Instead of looking to these sources for what is true and for how people should live, they began an entirely new search for knowledge.  They thought that use of human reason alone, without any dependence on Scripture or on what the Catholic Church taught, was the way to gain firm and secure knowledge.

It’s incidental to the main story we need to follow, but this explains the significance of Descartes’ saying, Cogito ergo sum, ‘I think therefore I am’.  He argued that the only way to certain knowledge was to doubt everything he thought he knew until he found a secure foundation.  If you or I do this, he held, we can be certain only of our own individual existence, because we are thinking.  If you are thinking, you must exist.  This conclusion was the foundation on which he thought he could then build.  This unit is not the place to look into this subject, but many others have argued that there are other ways of gaining trustworthy information and reliable knowledge.

That new search for knowledge became allied with a new way of seeing the world around us.  It became viewed as a big mechanism, like a huge clock, which it is possible to investigate by experimentation in order to discover how it works.  (This way of seeing the world doesn’t seem new now – on the contrary, it’s the ‘default setting’ in how most modern Western people think of it.  But this didn’t used to be the case.)  Out of this combination of factors came what historians call the ‘seventeenth century scientific revolution’. These developments then inspired what became an immense movement known then and now as ‘the Enlightenment’.  This term refers to the heyday in the eighteenth century of the new search for knowledge on the basis of human reason alone.  It led, by about 1750, to self-conscious rejection of Christian faith by many leading thinkers, even if they retained a bare belief in the existence of God as the ‘first cause’.  (Very few people actually became atheists until much later.)

This dependence on human reason alone had immense impact on how people thought about society, economic issues and politics.  It led to a new optimism, that people could reconstruct societies and overcome all sorts of inherited injustices and other problems.  In political life, this found expression above all in the earth-shaking event of the French Revolution of 1789, with its slogan, ‘Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité’. This in turn provoked many and various reactions and developments over the following century, in both political thinking and practice.  However we shall not consider the sphere of political life here, because this can be studied in Unit 2 of the twin CST module on ‘Living in a Just and Free Society’.  Rather, we continue the historical outline here by focusing on the areas of technology and economics.

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End of 2.1.2

Go to 2.1.3 The emergence of industrial capitalism

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