As Christian belief continues to fade across Europe and America, many leading thinkers in the West are still dreaming Christian dreams. Why?
French philosopher Luc Ferry wrote an excellent book in 2011 called A Brief History of Thought. He divides the history of thought into three stages: Greek philosophy, Christianity, and secular humanism. Even though Ferry is an atheist and ends his book with a tepid endorsement of secular humanism, he’s clearly in awe of Christianity and its promises. He wishes Christianity were true:
If the promises made to me by Christ are genuine; and if divine providence takes me in hand as an individual, however humble, then my immortality will also, in turn, be personal. In which case, death itself is finally overcome, and not merely the fears it arouses in me. . . . I find the Christian proposition infinitely more tempting—except for the fact that I do not believe in it. But were it to be true I would certainly be a taker.
Ferry is an intellectual heir of the Enlightenment. Like a cut flower, French and European culture in general has been severed from its Christian roots for centuries. Ferry engaged with the glorious claims of Christ and the great thinkers of the Christian tradition—from Augustine to Aquinas to Roger Scruton—not in church, but in his specialized university studies. He discusses Christianity in A Brief History of Thought as if he’s rediscovered something long lost, a treasure hidden deep in the soil of Europe, and unimaginable promises that seem simply too good to be true. Ferry isn’t alone.
A rediscovery of the Christian roots of the West has, since 9/11, led numerous intellectuals from a wide range of disciplines to turn to Christianity for the fulfillment of their hopes and dreams. In most cases, their return to Christianity was not during Sunday school or inside a church; it was the result of rigorous research and immersion in the art, music, literature, and history of Western culture.
A rediscovery of the Christian roots of the West has, since 9/11, led numerous intellectuals from a wide range of disciplines to turn to Christianity for the fulfillment of their hopes and dreams.
To give a few examples:
- Canadian author Malcolm Gladwell, while researching his book David and Goliath, recommitted to his Christian faith when he realized that “something incredibly powerful and beautiful in the faith he grew up in was missing.”
- American scientist Francis Collins, who led the Human Genome Project and is currently the NIH director, converted to Christianity out of atheism due to the arguments in C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity.
- For sociologist Rodney Stark, it was his rigorous study of early Christian history.
- Andrew Klavan, a secular Jew who converted at 49, attributes his turn to Christianity to his reading of the classics of Western literature.
- Author A. N. Wilson said it was a renewed belief in “the resurrection . . . which is the ultimate key to who we are.”
Even more recently, this rediscovery of the good, the true, and the beautiful in Christianity has led still more intellectuals, while not professing to be Christians themselves, to defend the West’s Christian foundations. For instance, British historian Tom Holland boldly argues to this end in his outstanding book Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World [listen to this Gospelbound interview]. Holland has said recently concerning his own journey of faith, “I suppose, at the moment, I am in a process of wanting to take the leap into believing, but a bit like someone on top of the diving board ready to take that jump . . . but I am on the top of the diving board.”
British journalist Douglas Murray writes in The Madness of Crowds:
Whatever else they lacked, the grand narratives of the past at least gave life meaning. The question of what exactly we are meant to do now—other than get rich where we can and have whatever fun is on offer—was going to have to be answered by something.
Murray diagnoses this crisis of meaning in the West better than anyone. He likens modern Western man to Icarus fallen. In Greek mythology, Icarus was given wings of feathers and wax by his father Daedalus to escape from the island of Crete. Daedalus warned his son not to fly too close to the sun, but Icarus ignored him; sure enough, his wings melted and he drowned in the sea. Murray argues that, like Icarus, Western man has abandoned the teachings and warnings of his father (Christianity), pursued all kinds of false ideologies (Nazism, fascism, communism), and fallen. Only in this re-imagination, although he is bruised, beaten, his wings burned off . . . modern man is still alive.
What is Icarus to do now?
Murray sees a new religion filling the void across Europe and America in identity politics and tribal nationalism, full of its own dogmas, blasphemies, and commandments.
False Idols and Utopian Dreams
Other intellectuals like Steven Pinker, Sam Harris, and Yuval Noah Harari point to scientific and technological advancement as the best hope for the future. They see religion as a relic of the past, with little or no use in the 21st century. The hope is that AI will usher the world into a scientific utopia where almost all disease and suffering are eradicated, happiness is finally achieved, and humans are amortal (Harari’s term), living indefinitely.
Both Ray Kurzweil and Bill Maris of Google believe that we will soon “solve death.” Maris said in a 2015 interview: “If you ask me today, is it possible to live to be 500, the answer is yes.” And Harari writes in Homo Deus: “Given our past record and our current values, humanity’s next targets are likely to be immortality, happiness, and divinity. . . . We will now aim to upgrade humans into gods.”
Western man has abandoned the teachings and warnings of his father (Christianity), pursued all kinds of false ideologies (Nazism, fascism, communism), and fallen.
We’ve heard similar promises before: “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5), and “Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name” (Gen. 11:4).
Like Icarus, these false utopian dreams always end with a fall.
The insatiable hunger in the West for meaning, purpose, and hope can be further seen in the Jordan Peterson phenomenon. Peterson, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, has 16 YouTube lectures on Genesis, each about two-and-a-half hours long, each with millions of views. Peterson opens the first lecture: “The Bible has outlasted kingdoms, many, many kingdoms. This book is more durable than stone, than castles, more durable than an empire.” In an interview with Joe Rogan, Peterson says the best answer he has found to the sufferings of life is: “Pick up your d— cross and walk up the hill!” He regularly refers to Jesus as the archetypal redeemer, culture-bearer, and divine hero.
Peterson points the culture back to the biblical stories and to Jesus’s example and suffering. On Justin Brierley’s Unbelievable?, Dave Rubin recently said he moved from atheism to theism as a result of Peterson’s influence. Peterson’s message, however, is incomplete. He’s pointing to the Bible only for metaphorical and psychological truth. He points to Christ and the cross, but only as an archetypal hero and mythological redeemer. Peterson himself admits he is still on a spiritual journey with God and truth. When asked if Jesus literally rose from the dead, Peterson replied, “I need to think about that for about three more years before I would even venture an answer beyond what I’ve already given.”
Who knows? Soon he may have that long night talk with Dyson and Tolkien, and, like Lewis, discover Christianity as the “True Myth”—the one myth rooted in historical events.
Divine Embodiment of Our Dreams
For the Christian story to be psychologically true, it must first be historically true. For Christ to be our archetypal redeemer and hero, he needs to have really shed his blood on that Roman cross and have risen from the dead that Easter morning. As the British intellectual G. K. Chesterton wrote, “Christianity met the mythological search for romance by being a story, and the philosophical search for truth by being a true story. . . . [He is] the divine embodiment of our dreams.”
For Christ to be our archetypal redeemer and hero, he needs to have really shed his blood on that Roman cross and have risen from the dead that Easter morning.
All that Ferry wishes was true, is true—if Jesus rose from the dead and is Lord of the world. The church has the something Murray knows the fallen Icarus needs in order to reawaken meaning, forgiveness, and hope in this world. That something is Christ.
In him, we find life—the abundant life where every moment is filled with meaning and purpose. Christ offers infinite forgiveness through his substitutionary death. All our guilt, all our shame, is washed away by his blood.
No wonder Ferry’s intellectual ancestor, Blaise Pascal, challenged Christians to “make good men [and women] wish Christianity were true; and then prove that it is true” (Pensées 12). For those rediscovering the treasure of Christianity long hidden in Western soil, they already wish it were true. They aren’t dreaming Hindu or Islamic dreams and especially not Mormon or Scientology dreams. They’re dreaming Christian dreams.
Christ followers must humbly engage this conversation. Let us go to the fallen Icarus with love and compassion, armed with the truth and power of the risen Christ.
“Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you” (Eph. 5:14).
Let them know the dreams are true.