An odd parallel between Uniformitarianism and Evangelicalism

By , 6 February 2009 9:18 pm

Well it’s been an interesting and rather frustrating week. As many of you may be aware we have had an unusually cold winter in the UK and this week it really hit us. The problem was that the weather was rather unpredictable and, in fact, unsporting. So we had snow when we weren’t supposed to have it, and didn’t have it when we were. Because my college has a very large catchment area extending into the foothills of what we call mountains but Americans would probably dismiss as ‘lumps’, we have to be very careful about weather alerts. No one wants several hundred students camped overnight in a freezing college. The upshot was that the teaching week essentially fell into times when the students were either absent (or distracted) because of the expectation of snow, absent because of snow, or disinclined to work because other people were absent because of snow or the fear of it. Out of five working days, I feel I taught only about two properly. As a geography teacher remarked somewhat sourly ‘this would happen the very year they have put global warming on the syllabus’.

Anyway this week I thought I would share with you a curious coming together of something in geology and preaching. In Geology I was discussing the fundamental principle of uniformitarianism; the great rule that we interpret the past according to present-day processes. A key point of uniformitarianism is that it majors on steady and predominantly gentle processes. As an aside I made the point that this idea had really come to prominence in 19th-century Britain and that our society then had welcomed a concept that elevated slow steady change over drastic, traumatic upheaval. The memory of the French Revolution just across the water haunted 19th-century British culture, particularly the aristocracy. (Incidentally to spare some of you writing to me; I have no doubt that most of the time uniformitarianism is the correct view and no doubt whatsoever that the Earth is very old indeed.)

On the Sunday evening following I was preaching on Jesus as Prophet and in passing touching on the extent to which we were to be prophetic within the church. Now my understanding of prophecy is that it is primarily forth-telling more than fore-telling; speaking God’s Word to a particular situation in the present is probably more important than some word about the future. I then made the point that evangelicalism tends to be rather cosy and well mannered, an attitude which often prevents us from being as blunt and open about such matters as social wrongs as perhaps we ought to be. And feeling a vague sense of déjà vu, I realised that the formative years of British evangelicalism were exactly those of geological uniformitarianism. In other words, it was probably not just geologists who had decided to be nice and cuddle up to society but also evangelicals. What we have assumed to be an evangelical standard is probably not that at all, but a two-hundred-year-old cultural one.

It is probably a minor insight but it is possibly a helpful reminder that we need to be very careful to examine what we stand for. Perhaps more often than we realise, our values may be culturally rather than biblically determined.

Have a good week.

3 Responses to “An odd parallel between Uniformitarianism and Evangelicalism”

  1. Catherine Brislee says:

    Hi Chris,

    Thank you for a most interesting post. Two thoughts:

    1. I rather thought the 19th century evangelical movement was a strong force for positive social change, at least in Britain. Was it really cosy?

    2. Re your last paragraph – “values culturally rather than biblically determined” – isn’t our interpretation of the Bible to a great extent culturally determined?

    Not disagreeing, just wondering,

    Catherine

  2. Chris says:

    Catherine,

    Thanks for this. I am no church historian but I think it is accepted that the evangelicals went from being social radicals in the early decades of the 19th cent to being part of the establishment in the 1830s onwards. There are exceptions like William Booth of the Salvation Army but they are rare beasts.

    Re your second part. You raise an interesting point. We would all claim that we stand on Scripture alone but I think we often adopt culturally biased glasses when we do so. So, for instance, I’m not sure Jesus was in favour of ‘family values’ as some often assume. This is why it is good to mix beyond our own culture and also to read historical theology. But to be aware of the problem is half the battle!
    Blessings

    Chris

  3. Terry says:

    The cultural gospel – there’s a book title for you!

    Funny how things go. I was doing some study just this week on just this topic. My son and I are going to Rwanda this Nov. on short-term missions, and there’s a fairly involved study process required beforehand. The whole idea of sharing the gospel on the terms of the people you are seeking to reach takes a lot of recalibration. I was surprised by how many of my interpretations of scripture have a cultural slant.

    I think (at least for me) that a large part of the problem is that I tend to adopt the biblical views of my teachers (parents, preachers, etc.) rather than soaking in the presence of God to be taught by the Holy Spirit. I know we need both, but I think the norm is to treat scripture as more academic than alive. When I view the Bible as God’s conduit for breathing life into me, much less cultural bias sneaks in.

    At least then it’s only my own bias, not so much that of others!

    Take care,

    Terry

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