The Great Divide (Pt.4)

Michael Metzger

The American Continental Divide reminds us that our understanding of history largely depends on which side of C. S. Lewis’ Great Divide we live on.

The Continental Divide in America is the line dividing the flow of water between the Pacific and the Atlantic Ocean. On the western side, the water flows west to the Pacific. On the eastern side, it flows east to the Atlantic – which raises a question: so what?

We live on the western side of Lewis’ 1816 “Great Divide.” Our understanding of history flows from the Didactic Enlightenment (1800-1815), which historians define as a “belief in the power of right thinking to change rapidly and completely the conduct of large numbers of men.”[1]

Hardly anyone believed this on the eastern side. But those of us on the western side of the divide don’t know this because our history flows from 1816. This includes American evangelicalism, which historian Henry May says enjoyed “popular success” after 1816.

Evangelical success should not be ignored. It included large numbers of conversions, incredible humanitarian work, extraordinary mission work, and extensive church planting. But May adds that these successes were often “purchased by surrender of meaning.”[2]

What does that mean?

Meaning is making sense of things. On the European side of the divide, religion provided “shared public meanings.”[3] It made sense of everything for everyone. On the American side, evangelicalism surrendered most of this, mainly making sense of sin, salvation, and sanctification.

If we want to change the world, these are necessary but insufficient. Churches on the European side recognize this. They know the gospel makes sense of travel, technology, education, entertainment, eating, drinking, vacation, trades, sleep, singleness, shopping, consuming. The public learns the mystical purpose of work, worship, wealth, business, professions, guilds.

On the European side, the gospel makes sense of poverty, pollution, politics, pets, race, racism, responsibility, reading, rewards. The public learns the mystical purpose of marriage, sex, music, hobbies, festivals. The gospel makes sense of sports, society, sleep, sickness, recreation.

On the European side of the divide, the gospel makes sense of aging, advertising, ambition, art. The public learns the spiritual purpose of beauty, our bodies, cities, citizenship, civil disobedience, comedy, commuting, competency, conscience, craftsmanship, competition.

We don’t hear much about this wide range of subjects on the American side of the divide. That’s why I think we’re seeing the dramatic rise of religious “nones” and exiles in America.

I know a few religious “nones.” They’re spiritual but not religious. They tell me they find American evangelicalism to be religious but not spiritual. They hear it address sin, salvation, and sanctification but not much else. It doesn’t make sense of most of our world.

Exiles feel much the same way. The difference is exiles have had a conversion experience. But as cultural analysts note, they’re not “able to keep taking it seriously; to retain a sense of its plausibility.”[4] The faith doesn’t make sense of much beyond sin, salvation, and sanctification.

It does on the eastern side of the divide. One example is Philip Doddridge, a highly successful educator consulted by such leading Americans as President Aaron Burr of Princeton. He also wrote The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul. It was a book for everyone, evident in the sub-title: Illustrated in a Course of Serious and Practical Addresses, Suited to Persons of Every Character and Circumstance: with a devout meditation, or prayer, subjoined to each chapter.

That’s a mouthful. But the faith suited to “every character and circumstance” impacted William Wilberforce as he was considering Christianity. He read Doddridge’s book alongside an open Bible, converting to a European version of evangelicalism (Anglicanism) in 1785. His new faith addressed slavery, economics, systems, racism, politics, public policy, and so on.

In 1787, Wilberforce came in contact with Thomas Clarkson. Clarkson introduced him to many abolitionists. A network formed – the Clapham Sect. Cultural analysts say it is the last movement in the conservative Christian tradition that achieved systemic change in society.

That’s a bold statement. Discovering whether it’s true requires crossing to the eastern side of the divide. We’ll do that next week.


[1] Crane Brinton, A History of Western Morals (Paragon House; Reissue edition, 1998), 17.

[2] Henry F. May, “The Problem of American Enlightenment,” New Literary History, Vol.1, No.2, A Symposium on Periods (Winter, 1970), 214.

[3] Peter L. Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (Doubleday, 1967)

[4] Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality (First Anchor, 1967), 158.


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  1. A spot on analysis of the conceptual divide that continues to plague the American church. You are to be commended for bringing this cognitive shift in our moral imagination forward.

  2. Comments aren’t on for part 5, so I’ll post here. Loved the linked article as well. I think that one is going to be shared quite a bit. We always tell our kids that Facebook isn’t the place for arguments because you’re never going to win them over outside of love and friendship. This puts it so much more eloquently though. Looking forward to sharing it and seeing what dialog comes out of it. Thanks, Mike.

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