The Great Divide

Michael Metzger

When the first Europeans crested America’s Continental Divide, they discovered two things – what we also discover in cresting what C. S. Lewis called “the Great Divide.”

The Continental Divide is a spine of mountains running from Alaska to the Andes. When the first Europeans crested it, they discovered there were more ranges on the western side of the divide than the eastern. As they crossed the ranges, they made a second discovery. A great many people had been living on the far side of the divide for a very long time.

We discover the same things in cresting what C. S. Lewis called “the Great Divide.” He described it in his inaugural lecture at Cambridge in 1954. Lewis said this divide began forming between 1816 and his day, forming a yawning chasm between the old western world and the new.

Thomas Jefferson gave voice to the new western world. “Enlighten the people generally,” he wrote in 1816, “and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day.”[1] Jefferson embodied the Didactic (i.e. teaching) Enlightenment (1800-1815).

And what did this Enlightenment teach? Individuals do the right thing if taught the right things. This is the American Enlightenment. It fed on American “isolation and anti-intellectualism.”[2] Isolation is suspicion of old European traditions. Anti-intellectualism disdains elites. “Practical” people change the world. Just teach ‘em enough of the right things and they’ll do the right thing.

This became the basis for a new Christian tradition – evangelicalism. Evangelical clergy were not educated in old European traditions. They were “practical,” selected for their fervor rather than their learning. They focused on personal conversion rather than social reform.[3]

In the first half of the 1800s, evangelicalism was the fastest-growing faith tradition in America. But it ignored how the Didactic Enlightenment began to decline after 1816. Research began to emerge indicating that individuals, even when properly taught, don’t often behave properly.

Small wonder that by the 1850s America’s culture-shapers were post-Enlightenment. A century later, most were post-Christian. They saw evangelicalism as backward, recognizing it had hitched its wagon to the Enlightenment – what church historian Lesslie Newbigin also noted. “The one thing that can be certainly said about this chapter of human history is that it is over.”[4]

C. S. Lewis recognized this. In the radio adaptation of his 1954 Cambridge lecture, Lewis for the first time used the term “post-Christian” publicly. His 1964 book, The Discarded Image, describes how Christians on this side of the divide discarded the ancient image for the faith.

Ok, Mike, nice little history lesson. So what?

When we crest the Great Divide, we discover there are more Christian traditions on the far side of the divide than this side. And range after range of rich church history, theology, and anthropology. And we discover many of these traditions flourished for a very long time.

Few evangelicals have made these discoveries. They’ve been formed by a faith formed on this side of the Great Divide. So they mostly see just this side of the divide, assuming their faith is just like the faith on the other side of the divide. Cultural analysts say it’s not.

Many do say the faith on this side of the divide explains some instances of systemic racism. It explains the rise of religious “nones.” It explains how American Christianity is undermining itself. In the coming weeks we’ll return to the far side of the divide to see why. But first things first.

One way to crest the divide is to follow the daily lectionary that the majority of Christians worldwide follow. I enjoy this version. It curbs the American penchant to be individualist, contemporary, and original. And it includes biographies from the far side of the divide.

Like St. Alban. He was a pagan and a Roman soldier during the time when the Roman army was persecuting Christianity in the British Isles (Christianity in Britain dates from the first century). Alban chose to harbor a fugitive priest. The Roman army caught him. Alban was martyred in the priest’s place, probably c. 304. He became Britain’s first martyr.

But his story is just the beginning of all we’ll discover in crossing the Great Divide.


[1] As cited in Alf J. Mapp, Jr., Thomas Jefferson: Passionate Pilgrim (Madison Books, 1991), 266.

[2] Henry F. May, The Enlightenment in America (Oxford University Press, 1976), 325.

[3] May, Enlightenment in America, 328.

[4] Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission (Eerdmans, 1978), 5.


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