World history is replete with religious syncretism, the mixing of religions. Israelites were tempted to include worship of Canaanite gods such as Baal. New Christians in Latin America or Africa often folded previous deities into their new religion. Hindus in India adapted some teachings of Buddha and later of Christ in order to keep their own hegemony intact. Some Buddhists in Japan mimicked appealing parts of Christian doctrine such as salvation by faith.
Over 50 years ago, theologian Robert Brow succinctly outlined the various non-theistic religions in a little book called Religion: Origins and Ideas, published by Inter-Varsity Press. Brow benefited from living in India for 20 years as an army officer, student, and teacher, giving him the opportunity to study Hinduism and other Eastern religions firsthand. Non-theistic religions are monistic in denying a Creator God separate from nature. For example, Vedanta (Hindu) monism posits a personal "World Soul" in nature and hence can seem “spiritual.” On the other hand, a monism that Brow calls “modified pantheism” posits evolutionary progress and even a kind of love for one’s neighbor as principles behind Nature. God is then identified with such principles.
We need to make sense of our culture in order to know how to address it. In that regard, it is helpful to identify modernism as an expression of pantheism and postmodernism as an expression of Vedanta monism.
The pantheism behind modernism originated with 17th-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza, whose influence can be traced through the Enlightenment to secular humanism. Humanists like to claim they are not religious, but their views are truly pantheistic. They generally don’t claim to be spiritual, so we could call their pantheism a "materialist monism." For example, astrophysicist Stephen Hawking wrote, “I use the word ‘God’ in an impersonal sense, like Einstein did, so knowing the mind of God is knowing the laws of nature.”
In his 2015 book called The Other Worldview: Exposing Christianity's Greatest Threat, theologian Peter Jones shows how New Age ideas developed into postmodernism. He also shows how psychologist Carl Jung greatly influenced those ideas. Jung couched his theories in scientific terms, but later it was discovered that he was heavily into shamanism, paganism, and the occult in general. The group around Jung remained married also for the sake of appearances, but they began to live out their belief that sexual and spiritual “liberation” go together.
New Age folk and postmodernists like to claim they are “spiritual but not religious.” One reason they are “spiritual” is that they generally believe in a personal World Soul (or the “ground of all being,” or “mother earth” or “Mother Nature”). Hence their religion is a kind of Vedanta monism, a “spiritual monism.” To encounter the spirit world, they may use techniques such as yoga meditation, breath control and psychedelic stimulation (drugs).
Modernists following Spinoza claim that truth is determined through science and philosophy, apart from the Scriptures. Postmodernists claim that truth is subjective. Ironically, both of those claims are themselves unprovable truth claims. Jesus Christ claimed that He Himself is the truth. His resurrection gives us assurance that He indeed is true.
It is natural to think that postmodernism has replaced modernism. However, materialism among humanists and mainstream physical scientists remains strong. Postmodernists are trying to eliminate distinctions and unite not only Creator and creation, but also good and evil, male and female, life and death. One can hardly advance science consistently with such a view, since science requires distinctions.
Currently very influential, cultural Marxism also emphasizes distinctions. In its case, the distinctions are between the “oppressed” and the “oppressors.” The “oppressed” could be certain “races” or those with a certain sexual “identity.” Like all Marxism it is pantheistic in assuming that something like a class struggle is a principle behind nature. Biblical morality may be opposed since it is perceived as something imposed by an oppressive majority, not simply because (as in postmodernism) sexual “liberation” is linked with spiritual “liberation.”
In any case, both pantheists and Vedanta monists deny a supernatural Creator, so they come up with other ideas about how the present world came into existence. In particular, evolution becomes a kind of sacred myth that undergirds thoughts by monists about origins. As Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin once wrote, “We cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.”
In misguided attempts to remain popular in today’s culture, Christendom has adopted some of the features of both modernism and postmodernism, of both pantheism and Vedanta monism. Popular Christianity is syncretistic. In particular, while mainstream speculations about biological, geological and cosmological evolution are all based on anti-theistic presuppositions, many Christian intellectuals have been trying to accommodate the myths of evolution and the Big Bang into understandings of Genesis. Such attempts undermine the perceived authority of the Word of God. They tear down our defenses against the pressures of modernism and postmodernism and they also weaken the offense that we should take against the strongholds of this present age.
1. See, for example, Jonathan Israel, Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650–1750, and Steven Nadler, A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age.
2. For example, the book by Greg Epstein, humanist chaplain at Harvard and MIT, Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe.
3. Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time.
4 For example, astrophysicists such as Hawking and Hubble admitted that the presupposition behind the “Big Bang” is an unproven admixture of ideology. On the other hand, presuppositions consistent with a Biblical worldview lead to conclusions that fit better with the scientific evidence left over from the past. See, for example, articles by many PhD scientists at answersingenesis.org, icr.org, creation.com.
John Doane was a Hertz Fellow at MIT, where he obtained a PhD in electrical engineering. He has worked in microwave technology at Bell Laboratories, the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, and General Atomics. He presently works as a principal in the company his wife founded for making plasma-based equipment for electronics manufacturing. For many years he was on the Board of Directors of Jesus to the Communist World (which later became Voice of the Martyrs). His recently published article "Spinoza's Ghost in the Evangelical Closet" documents how the idea of separating truth (and science) from Scripture has influenced modern intellectuals.