After the earth-shattering political events of the American and French Revolutions to close out the 18th century, along with the philosophical shift that took place during the so-called Enlightenment, 19th century Europe and America found that there was a whole new world to navigate. Despite the cataclysmic failure of the French Revolution, the Enlightenment philosophers had succeeded in making a radical shift in philosophy, which in turn proceeded to shape the course of the next two hundred years.
The result of all that was that throughout the 19th century, the influence that Christianity had in both Europe and America slowly began to crumble. And then, early on in the 20th century, there came the all-out assault on Christianity, primarily in the form of the rise of Communism. In addition to that, secular propaganda continued its Enlightenment-influenced attempt to portray Christianity as “hostile” to science, progress, and morality.
Who or What are the Nephilim?
But we are getting slightly ahead of ourselves. I have labeled the 19th century as The Age of the Modern Nephilim. The Nephilim are mentioned in the very odd passage Genesis 6:1-4. They are the offspring of the union between the “sons of god” and the “daughters of men.” What that passage means can be an entire post in and of itself. To be brief, I believe it is illustrating the corruption and abuse of rulers (i.e. the sons of god) who use their power to abuse God’s creation and take advantage of the poor and weak (i.e. they just take whatever women they want).
In any case, the result of those mythic unions is the birth of the Nephilim. The name actually means “fallen ones,” and they were understood to be violent and dangerous giant-like people. Now the purpose of Genesis 6:1-4 was to show how corrupt and evil the world had become, and thus provided the reason for the flood in Genesis 6-8.
In addition, there are passing references to these Nephilim in various places in Scripture: the Anakim, mentioned in Deuteronomy and Joshua were giants who possessed the Promised Land, and were the reason why the Israelites originally failed to take the land initially, and thus had to spend 40 years in the wilderness because of their lack of faith. In addition, Goliath (another giant) has a connection to them, and do the other four giants mentioned in II Samuel. The point is this: the Nephilim, the later Anakim, and the “giants in the land” are representative of the corruption, violence, and danger that is a result of people in power trying to play God.
This is what I see happening in 19th and later 20th centuries. Perhaps that is overstated a bit, but I certainly like the imagery of the Nephilim to describe the 19th century.
The 19th Century in a Nutshell
The Age of the Modern Nephilim can be summed up with three general categories. Religiously, social-minded, etiquette, and proper Victorian manners ruled the day. In this respect, the religion of 19th century society was similar to “the gilded age” that described the Industrial Revolution that was also happening in the 19th century: all bright and shiny on the outside, but a whole lot of problems underneath. It was the time of the rise of liberal theology—the attempt to retain a “kinder, gentler” form of Christianity that focused on “being good and moral,” and put on the back shelf all those problematic truth claims about things like resurrection, miracles, and the historical reliability of the Bible.
Philosophically, it saw the rise of philosophical materialism, which essentially is the belief that the material universe consists of all reality—i.e. if it ain’t material, it ain’t real. This, obviously began to undermine the Christian underpinnings of Western society. Now, given the rise of liberal theology, many people didn’t want to admit this. They essentially wanted to retain that sense of “Christian morality,” without really accepting historical Christianity. That mentality, though, would be mercilessly attacked by Friedrich Nietzsche. Simply put, he was the only philosopher really “man enough” to see the consequences of ridding society of God and the Christian faith.
Politically, it witnessed the beginning of the death throes of various empires and kingdoms. The British Empire might have been at its height, but as George Orwell would write about in his 20th century short story, “The Elephant,” it was already beginning to die. Like the elephant in the story, empires like Britain were “rising up on their hind legs,” bolstered by the economic boon of the industrial revolution, yet at the same time were suffering from many self-inflicted wounds.
The 19th Century Fall Out
The 19th century was not so much of an age of revolution as it was the fall-out of the revolutions that preceded it, both religious (aka: the Protestant “Reformation”) and secular (aka: the “Enlightenment”). It was a century that brought us the industrial revolution, the theory of evolution, Marxism, and further advances in science. It was a century that ushered in archaeology and the discovery of the ancient past. And with technological and industrial advances, it was the century that boasted of colonialism and emerging global capitalism. It was the century that first started to wrestle with how modern advances in science, archaeology etc. might affect religious belief, namely Christianity.
But given the fall-out of the so-called “Enlightenment” propaganda, and the failure of a fractured institutional Church to incorporate these advances within a Christian worldview, the modernist pride of the 19th century declared that all the Christian faith was good for was moral sentimentality, and that it was historically and scientifically irrelevant—science and reason as supposedly proved it. Little did these modernist thinkers of the 19th Century know that their faith in science and autonomous (and decidedly irreligious) reason was setting Western society up for a tremendous and bloody fall—for this reason, I call this age The Age of the Modern Nephilim.
What we need to realize is that the disaster of the French Revolution had not been able to sway the intellectual elites of the time from their newly-established philosophical faith commitments. The fundamental “utopian dream” that Enlightenment thinkers trumpeted was still embraced and promoted by the intellectual elites of the 19th century.
The only difference was that, since the French Revolution showed that one couldn’t completely get rid of Christianity without things devolving into bloody chaos, there was a concerted attempt by many in the 19th century to essentially “save” religion, and make it a useful tool for achieving the “utopian dream” of the Enlightenment. That being said, numerous voices continued to call for the complete annihilation of religion. The gauntlet had been lowered against “organized religion” in 18th century Enlightenment circles, and the war over religion as society lurched forward into the Industrial Age continued to be fought throughout the 19th century.
What the Change of Worldviews Began to Look Like
In his book, Revolutions in Worldviews, Andrew Hoffecker crystalized the change that happened in the 19th century. Like I said above, after the French Revolution, the general view at the beginning of the 19th century was that “faith” and “reason” didn’t have to be an either/or proposition. As Hoffecker notes, “Scholars routinely interpreted the rise of early modern science as grounded in Christian claims about the orderliness of the created order” (281).
By the end of the 19th century, though, after trying to retain the compatibility of faith and reason, yet working from the newly accepted Enlightenment worldview and presuppositions, thinkers eventually came back to the doorstep of what led to the French Revolution: the conviction that faith was irrational, and that there was a real conflict between “science and reason” on one side, and “religion and superstition” on the other. Hoffecker puts it this way: “By the end of the century, faith and reason were more generally perceived as enemies, forever locked in violent conflict” (281).
Hoffecker further explains that at the heart of this revolution in worldview was a conflict over the foundational claims of Christianity itself: i.e. there is a Creator God who orders history, is bringing all things to their consummation, and in whose image human beings are made. The thinkers of the 19th century came to argue that the God of Christianity looked a bit too like an ideal human being, and therefore was really nothing more than a projection of what human beings aspire to be: kind, merciful, just, forgiving, etc.
Therefore, let faith and religion deal with those unquantifiable things, but let science and reason deal with the reality of the world that can be observed, measured, and tested. Split the two spheres of science and reason and faith and religion, and we can let “God” fill in the gaps of whatever science can’t explain.
And so, in the next few posts, I’m going to look at a number of philosophers that impacted the 19th century, the 20th century, and still impact us today. In the next post, I’m going to touch upon Immanuel Kant again, as well as discuss George W.F. Hegel and Ludwig Feuerbach. After that, we’ll take a look at Karl Marx; then later, we’ll meet Charles Darwin, Friedrich Nietzsche, Soren Kierkegaard, and maybe a few others.