The Great Divide (Pt.2)

Michael Metzger

The British historian A. J. P. Taylor quipped that the Enlightenment is still interesting only to those who are still worried about Christianity. I’m certainly one of them.

So was C. S. Lewis. In his 1954 lecture he described “the Great Divide.” It began forming in 1816. The Enlightenment caused the rift, resulting in a chasm between the old western world and the new. Lewis worried that those living on this side of the divide didn’t know what they had discarded.

We live on this side of the divide, hardly aware of the other side where an ordered spherical model depicted God, the universe, spiritual beings – everything. It predated Christianity but after 355 AD the Christian faith began to dominate this model. Enlightenment thinkers discarded it.[1]

So did American Christians. That ought to worry us. Henry F. May tells us why.

May was a professor of American History at Cal Berkeley. His book, “The Enlightenment in America,” persuaded scholars that the American version of the Enlightenment was strikingly different from its European equivalents. The American version is the Didactic Enlightenment, 1800-1815. The result, according to Lewis, was the Great Divide that occurred in 1816.

May says the Didactic Enlightenment created an American version of evangelicalism strikingly different from European evangelicalism. A little history tells us why. Evangelical comes from euangelion, meaning good news. But we don’t see an evangelical tradition until the 16th century.

Luther’s followers were called evangelical. This became European evangelicalism, expanding to Britain in the 18th century. The American version of evangelicalism begins in the 19th century. It is strikingly different from European evangelicalism in terms of the gospel and discipleship.

Luther held that the main theme of the gospel is God marrying us. Faith “unites the soul with Christ as a bride is united with her bridegroom.”[2] He echoes the ancients in this spousal reading of salvation. The cross is of course payment for sin, but its central theme is betrothal to Christ, what the ancients described as the “mad eros”[3] revealed in the “marriage bed of the cross.”[4]

In the American version of evangelicalism, the main theme of the gospel is God saves us, a sin reading of salvation. The cross is payment for sin. The result, Dallas Willard writes, is Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead to give us a program of “sin management.”[5]

Discipleship is also viewed differently in the two versions of evangelicalism. In the European version, it is preparation for the wedding banquet. This is why we make disciples – to be a prepared bride (II Cor.11:2). This requires ordering our loves, which requires training our physical bodies, creating new habits and cultures that can – hopefully – bring flourishing to all.

The American version views discipleship as becoming a Christ-follower, but mainly following Jesus as our savior, not our husband. The emphasis is on teaching, the natural result of the Didactic – teaching – Enlightenment. Discipleship also involves outreach to the community, but it’s mostly relational.

This is why the Enlightenment interested Lewis and Willard. They worried about the American version of Christianity. Willard wrote that “the ‘Western’ segment of the church today lives in a bubble of historical illusion about the meaning of discipleship and the gospel. We are dominated by the essentially Enlightenment values that rule American culture.”[6]

I resonate with this, so I close on a personal note. I too worry about the American version of Christianity. But the older I get, the more I recognize I’m a dinosaur.

That’s not original. In his 1954 lecture, Lewis called himself a “dinosaur.” He told listeners to pay attention, as there were not many left. Lewis felt this way because, while living on this side of the Great Divide, his faith was formed by the other side, by European evangelicalism.

I’m no Lewis, but I feel what Lewis felt. I was born in 1954, the year of Lewis’ Great Divide lecture. I suspect Lewis was speaking to future generations. Like Lewis, I often feel like I’m speaking more to future generations – like my kids and their kids (and their kids).

And a 32-year-old Christian I’ve known for years. He recently asked me to mentor him. I asked why, what are his pain points? Like so many, his first is the church. When he goes, he and his wife mostly daydream. He no longer knows why he goes. He feels bad about this.

I feel bad about it as well. The solution is sojourning to the other side of the divide. That’s a trek we resume next week.


[1] C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature (Cambridge University Press, 1964)

[2] John Dillenberger, ed., Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings (Anchor, 1962,), 60.

[3] Nicholas Cabasilas, La vie en Jesus Christ [Life in Jesus Christ], 2nd ed. (Chevotogne, 1960), 153.

[4] Augustine of Hippo, Sermo Suppositus 120:3

[5] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (HarperOne, 1998), 34.

[6] Willard, Divine Conspiracy, 214.


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  1. Wow, Mike. This is so on target. Just yesterday I was discussing with my wife my disillusionment with church. I’m a convinced evangelical if that means the Bible is the trustworthy revelation of God’s story and intentions for how we are to live, our salvation is by faith in the work of Jesus, and our primary task is to make disciples. But I feel increasingly estranged from the evangelicalism I experience today. You have partially reflected why. Example: It seems sermons are mostly about salvation and the exegesis of a biblical passage with an attempt to make it relevant. I long for messages that take a key issue in our culture and being challenged with what the whole of God’s counsel says about being the good news in the midst of that cultural issue. It is easier and safer to do it that way contemporary evangelicalism does it but, for me, it lacks the power of focused relevance. My understanding of discipleship’s goal is that it should be the preparation of the saints to not only know God’s Word, but to be the good news – the key element in the preparation for the wedding.

  2. Here lies the nub of the problem of American evangelicalism, it’s uncritical accommodation to the spirit and framing of the Enlightenment. Well done, Mike. We need to return to a pre-Enlightenment faith, if we are to successfully engage a future postmodern post-Christian world. And it should be noted that the Reformation is the direct stepchild of the Enlightenment. This is not about embracing liberalism, but returning to an ancient Orthodoxy. Dallas Willard observes in his forward to Dave Tomlinson’s “The Post-Evangelical,” “While our secular culture may have some influence on the move toward a post-evangelical posture, most of the motivation in that direction, as i have observed through the years, is from within the evangelical teaching and experience.” The internal tensions of American evangelicalism no longer fit in a post-Enlightment, post-secular cultural context.

  3. The distinction between American Evangelicalism and European is interesting.
    Can you recommend any good books on this topic?

  4. LS:

    I’d recommend Dave Tomlinson’s “The Post-Evangelical,” Nancy Pearcey’s “Total Truth: Liberating Christianity From Its Cultural Captivity,” Lesslie Newbigin’s “Proper Confidence” and – if you like to read really big books – Iain McGilchrist’s “The Master and His Emissary.”

  5. Mike, I like the direction of your analysis. The “solution of sojourning to the other side of the divide” may be a further journey than many of us suspect. The early Church Father, Gregory of Nazianzus tells us that the “unassumed is the unhealed”. Bruce Wauchope, M.D. says in Baxter Kruger’s little book, Across All Worlds, that Gregory was making clear that if any of the darkness or pain of our fallen human existence was not entered by Christ, then it would not participate in the great healing exchange, where Christ gave us his life and his relationship with his Father and took our darkness into himself. Our healing took place in Jesus’ own experience. He is our healing and he is our salvation. Healing and salvation are one.” The other side of the divide finds the faith and faithfulness of Jesus that encompasses the entire human race and all of creation in union with the Trinity.

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