A Spiritual History of the World

imagesIn Peter Kreeft’s excellent little book Back to Virtue, he attempts to delineate the spiritual history of the (Western) world in 10 steps. I think the picture Kreeft develops is insightful and provides a helpful perspective in which to understand our present times. In this post, I’ll briefly sketch Kreeft’s history and offer a few thoughts of my own at the end.

The overall structure of this history looks like a lazy H:

Kreeft Image3.JPG

 The Ten key periods of this spiritual history are as follows:

1. Myth – The age of story. Myths are are moving pictures that arise from the imagination and point us to beauty. Myths, like good stories, are meant to awaken awe and wonder. As Tolkien puts it in his Essay on Fairy Stories, myths are not so concerned with possibility as with desirability. This was an age of wonder and awe at the mystery and majesty of the world.

 2. Axial period – (6th century BC).  This period is called the axial period because during this age human consciousness all over the world began turning to face itself. Humans became self-conscious; thus we find a flowering of religions as well as the birth of philosophy during this time period. Emerging religions of this period include Confucianism, Buddhism, and Zoroastrianism (Judaism was founded earlier). According to Kreeft,  “In a sense modern man was born twenty-six centuries ago” (p. 51).

3. Hellenism – This era is characterized by the dominance of the Greeks and the Greek philosopher. The most important word in the Greek language was logos—word, language, discourse, thought reason, or intelligible truth. The ancients were primarily concerned about the truth related to virtue. Their primary question (witness Socrates (d. 399 BC) in Plato’s Republic) was “What kind of person ought I be?”

 4. Hebraism – Two crucial categories missing from the Greek scheme are sin and faith—two categories of our relationship with God. So, the religious Jew and Christian are to be ethically virtuous but also religiously faithful.

 5. The medieval Christian synthesis (3rd through 13th century) – Christianity, unlike Judaism, is a proselytizing religion. It sent missionaries out into the Greco-Roman world to convert it and great Christian thinkers such as Augustine and Aquinas reinterpreted /baptized/synthesized Greek philosophy and Greek morality.

6. The Renaissance (14th-16th century)– man tried to return to the Greco-Roman classicism and humanism minus the medieval additions of scholastic philosophy and theology. The Renaissance witnessed a rebirth in the idea of man. Man is now conceived as autonomous.

7. The Reformation – (15th and 16th century) tried to return to a simpler, pre-medieval, New Testament Christianity, a Christianity minus the additions of Greek rationalism and Roman legalism and institutionalism.

8. The Enlightenment – (17th and 18th century) the term is ironic, for spiritually the 18th century was the darkest ever. Scientism and rationalism replaced faith; naturalism eventually became the dominant worldview. Darwin’s Origin of Species made it possible to be an intellectually respectable atheist (or so says Richard Dawkins).

9. Romanticism– (18th and 19th century) the reaction against Enlightenment rationalism, the reaction of heart against head. But it was a trimmed-down and secularized heart. It was sentiment instead of will, and it was in relationship to nature instead of to God.

10. The present – Kreeft asks, “Where do we go from here?” In 1986, when he wrote this book, his answer was that we are post-modern. But today, things are different. We are post-post-modern. We’ve seen through the silliness of the extreme versions of postmodernism that were popular in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

So, where are we now spiritually? When Kreeft wrote his spiritual history, he suggested that we were (then) at the edge, perhaps even standing at the end of an age, perhaps at a new axial period. I think he was right. We were (and still are) standing on the edge. Where we go from here, no one knows.

What is clear is that we will not be returning to secularism. We live in a post-secular age. (See my post on Why Religion Won’t Go Away). Religion is poised to play a major role in the 21st century world. We have returned, by and large, to a kind of spirituality. Sure there are “new” atheists and “new”-new atheists even. But, by and large, most of the world is deeply religious.

Here is the rub: not all roads lead to God. As Kreeft puts it, only two roads lie open: return or destruction. Return to the God that is or find only misery.

How can we return home? Kreeft’s answer is instructive. Civilization can begin on on the road home as we corporately become virtuous, developing the so-called cardinal (hinge) virtues of courage, wisdom, moderation, and justice. But becoming virtuous will not save. Individuals won’t find their way home by merely developing the cardinal virtues. We are in need of divine assistance. We are in need of divine grace. We are in need of faith, hope and love (the so-called theological virtues). This is exactly what the God of Christianity offers—a pursuing God who bids us to come home. Where we will go as a culture only God knows.

This I do know. There is only one way home and it passes by the cross.















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