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Thoughts on the Enlightenment


My most recent doctoral seminar has been a study of the Enlightenment and its impact on the church. Its been fascinating. The Enlightenment is that period of history, especially in Western Europe and her related colonies, from about 1620-1800, in which fundamentally new ways of thought and life came about, resulting in the shift from what is commonly called “premodernism” to what is commonly called “modernism.” It was a multifaceted change, at once intellectual, cultural, technological, etc.—and one of the abiding lessons I take away from the seminar is how complex and multiform the Enlightenment was. Nevertheless, I think one way of conceiving the Enlightenment is as a transition towards human reason becoming the key to understanding the world, rather than revelation, tradition, or experience.

The Enlightenment is interesting to me for two reasons. First, I would say that the fundamental cultural issues we deal with in 21st century America are reverberations of patterns of thought generated by the Enlightenment. When we talk about living in a “postmodern/post-Christian” culture, we are really talking about issues of modernism repackaged and/or slightly chastened. The mood has changed, but not the fundamental questions. We are the offspring of this historical trajectory. That is why I think the label “late modernism” is generally more accurate than “postmodernism” (though I wonder if some fields [like art?] might be an exception to this).

As a Christian and minister in this setting, I’m very interested in understanding the Enlightenment so that I can better serve the cause of Christ in this culture. I think that if we want to thoroughly understand why people in our setting feel the way they do about, say, gay marriage, we need to have a basic grasp of what people like Descartes, Locke, Hume, and Kant were on about. Otherwise we will just be bumping about on the surface, not really getting to the root of the issues. In To Kill A Mockingbird Atticus Finch commends understanding how an opposing worldview makes sense to the person who holds it, genuinely trying to walk into their skin and see the world through their eyes. To do this well with a secular worldview will mean, I think, engaging in intellectual history.

The second reason I’m interested in the Enlightenment, and more generally the transition from premodernism to where we are today, is that it is one of the most fundamental changes in human history. In some ways there is nothing like it. Before the Enlightenment there were certain assumptions that premodern cultures, amidst all their diversity, were completely agreed upon—but now they are called into question. There were certain similarities of thought and life that were shared by Aristotle, Attila the Hun, and Augustine that now characterize very few people in the world. For instance, we know that the earth is very small, and rotates around the sun. We know what an atom is, or a germ. We can communicate with others all around the world very quickly. Most people live in pluralistic cultures. The public and private are divided spheres. The Enlightenment has radically changed our world, and that means that new questions come up that other Christians have never had to deal with. And all of this has happened in a few hundred years, an extremely short amount of time in the larger span of things.

I’m interested in the Enlightenment because its a massive, sudden change. It is to human cultural and intellectual history what the Cambrian explosion is in fossil history, or what a sudden mutation is in the evolution of a species. Things go on and on basically the same for vast stretches of time: then when change comes, it comes radically and abruptly. This means that the significance of the Enlightenment (and modernity more generally) is that human history does not develop at even pace, but has periods of rapid change, kind of like adolescence; its the hare, not the tortoise. And now we live on the far side of that change, that sudden adolescence—what people call postmodernism or late modernism. I think that is pretty fascinating.

The most fascinating part to me, as a Christian and pastor, is that the Enlightenment has produced a very eccentric reality that has only a few isolated precedents: religious skepticism. In premodern eras, basically every human civilization was thoroughly religious. Religion was institutionalized everywhere, and assumed to be a worthy part of society. The differences concerned which religion it was, or which sect, and where the dogmas and practices clashed with other sects and religions. But now there is a new possibility: the idea of getting rid of religion altogether. There are scattered examples of religious skepticism in premodern times, but it is strikingly rare. For every one Lucretius or Democritus you can find entire centuries and nations that know only of priests, monks, imams, lamas, shamans, sages, and sorcerers. C.S. Lewis put it well in Mere Christianity:

The first big division of humanity is into the majority, who believe in some kind of God or gods, and the minority who do not. On this point, Christianity lines up with the majority lines up with ancient Greeks and Romans, modern savages, Stoics, Platonists, Hindus, Mohammedans, etc., against the modern Western European materialist.

I’m interested in the Enlightenment in order to try to understand modern Western ways of thinking, with all their eccentricity and starkness (as measured against the majority of human ways of thinking). And I’m interested in seeing how the Christian faith must respond to them, which is a task that most Christians throughout church history have never really had to consider. Augustine fought the Pelagians; Aquinas pontificated about angels; Luther strove with his conscience; Zwingli wielded an axe; but probably none of them ever dreamed of a world in which they would have to defend the thesis that gay marriage is bad for society. We live in a strange, new world.

As I’ve wrestled with the Enlightenment so far in my seminar, a couple of key insights have developed along the way. In no particular order:

 23993701) The Big, Bad Secular Enlightenment?

Is the Enlightenment a fundamentally secular reality? Is it at its core opposed to the church? Many people assume this because of its eventual impact. But overall, I have been surprised to discover how much the majority of Enlightenment thinkers, and especially the early ones, were overtly religious, and even carried on their work in the name of religion. Henry May divides the Enlightenment into four periods: The Moderate Enlightenment, 1688-1787; The Skeptical Enlightenment, 1750-1789; The Revolutionary Enlightenment, 1776-1800; and The Didactic Enlightenment, 1800-1815.

When we think of the Enlightenment, we often think of the second of these four, the so-called “skeptical Enlightenment,” and people like Voltaire. But this strand of the Enlightenment was relatively small—focused primarily in France, and largely discredited by the wreckage of the French Revelolution. May shows, for instance, that in America in the 18th century people the ideas of the skeptical Enlightenment did not penetrate very deeply—most people who were sympathetic to Enlightenment ideals were still overtly religious. And even in Europe, for every Voltaire or Hume, there are a dozen Enlightenment thinkers that are orthodox Trinitarians, making contributions to social theory or science or technology or whatever.

Early in the seminar we read John Locke’s treatise The Reasonableness of Christianity, and I felt like I was reading something in the Puritan paperback series. Its basically an extended piece of biblical exposition. This was surprising to me because I remember studying John Locke in a college philosophy class as an empiricist, and I had no idea he wrote so much theology, and considered it connected with his other work. And he is not the only one. For instance, the Boyle Lectures, initiated in England in the 1690’s to further scientific knowledge about the word, were often given by clergymen. Their explicit purpose was, in fact, to prove the truth of the Christian religion against infidels. Although their field was science, the Bible featured prominently in their investigations of science, and especially their optimistic millennial views.

The real change did not come until the 19th century with positivism, Darwinism, the rise of historical criticism of the Bible, and the methodological priority of the natural sciences in human thought. This is when Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx all lived and wrote. Back in the 18th century, Protestantism still had hegemonic status in America and much of Europe, and so there was much less religious tumult, and most Enlightenment ideas were seen as compatible with religion, sometimes even supporting it. It was in the 19th century that the sense of threat to the church grew more prominent.

The interesting question that arises is, to what extent did the advances of the 18th century logically pave the way to the clashes of the 19th? To what extent was the “skeptical Enlightenment” an anticipation of the real trajectory of the Enlightenment as a whole? This is a teleological interpretation—the ultimate goal of a historical phenomenon shows its true nature. I think a teleological interpretation of the Enlightenment has much merit insofar as early Enlightenment tendencies to raise reason up to the level of revelation paved the way for later Enlightenment thinkers to pit reason against revelation. In other words, reason above revelation (19th century) followed logically from reason alongside revelation (18th century). But this assessment is very broad and requires much caution—we must recognize the diversity and complexity of early Enlightenment thinkers, for example. Doing so enables us to appreciate the good of the Enlightenment along with the bad—instead of pitting science and religion against one another, for example, it enables to recognize that modern science was birthed by religion (Newton, Kepler, Boyle, etc.).

This whole issue matters because it affects evangelical identity today. The tension in the fundamentalist-modernist controversy that emerged in the late 19th century is the dominant impetus that led to evangelicalism as we know it, and was in its own turn birthed out of the Enlightenment trajectory. The great issues that continue to plague evangelical identity today often boil down to questions of when we should accommodate modernist ideas and tendencies, and when we should reject them.

Has this always been the case? Have there always been temptations to soften to the “spirit of the age,” or is this particular manifestation of fallen human thought specifically the result of modernism? Are the terms of “liberal” and “conservative” intelligible in a premodern context? Could you be a conservative in the 7th century in Turkey, or a liberal in the 11th century in England? My answer: perhaps the words “conservative” and “liberal” can refer to general instinctive intellectual postures that are trans-cultural, but it seems to me that, overall, a conservative-liberal spectrum is really only intelligible once modernism dawns. The reason is that liberalism, generally speaking, refers historically to trends of thought that tend to accommodate the advances of reason; and reason as the ultimate thing-to-be-accommodated-to really only comes into existence with modernism. Before that, tradition and/or authority (in one form or another) could almost always trump reason. And again, that shows just how significant the change from premodern to modern is. It marks a fundamental change in human history: intellectually, perhaps the most important.

2) “Postmodernism” or “Late Modernism?”

Another interesting question that comes up concerns continuity versus discontinuity in the transition from modernism to postmodernism. Are there fundamentally three periods of human cultural and intellectual history, or two?

I would say two. This three-fold premodern/modern/postmodern schema is, I think, a bit misleading. It suggests that postmodernism is as significant a change from modernism as modernism was from premodernism. But in most disciplines, postmodernism seems to me like more of a change of “mood” than substance. It is a shaving back of modernist confidence, a cynical uncertainty about absolutes, but not really a fundamentally new set of questions. If you read through the top questions that postmodern people are struggling with in a book like Tim Keller’s The Reason for God, for instance, you find that they are all issues basically introduced by modernity.

If I could give a metaphor: if premodernism is a peaceful morning at home; and modernism is a fire breaking out in your neighborhood at 4:00 PM; then postmodernism is when you are tired of fighting the flames and you realize you might not succeed, but keep fighting anyway in a chastened mood. Or another: if premodernism is a happy marriage; and modernism is crisis of the discovery of an affair 20 years in; then postmodernism is the settled difficulty of dealing with living on after the affair into old age. In both these scenarios, there is one decisive change (a fire, or an affair). So with Western history.

3) From Confidence to Doubt

What is of the essence of Enlightenment? The turn to individual human reason as the driving force? The rise of historical consciousness (the notion that all human knowledge is historically conditioned)? I remember in college and seminary I learned about Kant’s distinction between the noumenal (the world as it is) and the phenomenal (the world as we experience it), and being told that this was at the core of the shift from premodernism to modernism. But I remember thinking, what is specifically “modern” about this construct? Couldn’t a premodern thinker just as easily emphasize that the world as we observe it is different from the world as it actually is?

Then we read a book by Charles Cashdollar about the impact of August Comte and positivism in the 19th century, and I began to see why Kant’s distinction is so significant: as popularized by people like Comte, it served to limit all human knowledge to the realm of the natural, and thus all the humanities must be pursued according to the same criteria that prevail in the natural sciences. Thus, methodologically, science and other forms of knowledge based upon empirical observations prevail, and human knowledge is cut off from anything absolute. When positivism was in the rise in the late 19th century, John Henry Newman summed up this new way of thinking well: “its fundamental dogma is, that nothing can be known for certain about the unseen world …; it goes on, or will go on, to argue that, in consequence, the immense outlay which has been made of time, anxiety, and toil, of health, bodily and mental, upon theological researches, has been simply thrown away” (quoted in Cashdollar, 241-242). In other words, the fundamental issue in the Enlightenment is epistemology, or human knowledge, and specifically a loss of confidence in the ability of human beings to know ultimate truth. This led to all human human knowledge being dramatically recast according to the criteria of the natural sciences, and question marks placed against every metaphysical claim. From this foundation has sprung everything we associate with postmodernism.

So there are two pivotal turning points: (1) Descartes locating individual human reason as the authoritative center, and (2) Kant limiting human knowledge to the phenomenal realm. The fruit of this trajectory is people like Sartre and Camus, cut off from all stability. This is the trajectory of the Enlightenment: Descartes –> Kant –> Sartre; or, more getting at the paradox of it: confident reason –> doubting reason –> existential doubt. It is a great irony of history that very same processes that produced modern medical technology also produced cultures filled with existential angst, and therefore we have both the cushiest lives as well as the highest suicide rates.

 4) Too Western?

A question that arises for me is, how much is all of this a Western reality, versus how much is it a global reality? Will these largely Western developments eventually work themselves out over the world or not? So far the Third World has to a great extent displayed what Peter Berger calls “counter-modernizing tendencies.” I have no idea whether globalization will unite historical trends and modernity will drip down everywhere else, but whether it does so or not, its healthy to reminded that Western history is not human history. So often its presented as if it were.

 5) Secularization and the Future

Will the church in the 21st or 22nd century be more like the church in the 3rd? Will the era after the conjunction of church and state be basically the same as the era before it? Is secularization basically the reverse of Constantine? Or are we heading into something altogether new, unprecedented, unpredictable? What is post/postmodernism?

Towards the end of the class we read a lot of literature on the nature and timing of secularization. There is a lot of disagreement among people as to what exactly secularization is, and (which turns out to be very much related) when it has occurred. But far more interesting to me than the mechanical questions of how secularization has occurred are the philosophical questions of why it tends to occur so regularly in modern Western democracies—and, related to that, where it is headed into the future. One of the most interesting readings for me was from Peter Berger, a Christian sociologist. Berger argues (contra Max Weber) that secularization will not steadily and inexorably increase at the expense of religious belief throughout the world, because secular culture leaves a gaping question unanswered, the question of meaning. Secularization may be increasingly removing religion from certain spheres of life, such as government, education, and (more and more) the institution of the family—but it has not replaced religion, contra the expectations of many earlier sociologists (including a younger Berger himself). The reason is that religion provided for centuries answers to basic questions of meaning and morality, and secular culture has no clear apparatus by which to do the same. Hence the anxiety and restlessness of many secular cultures, and the gaping desire for transcendence.

All of this reminds me that secular culture is such a strange creature—a contradiction, an entity not yet at peace with itself, an ambivalent phenomenon. I liken it to a teenage son who gets tired of living under the stable yet oppressive conditions of his large family and small, rural community, and therefore runs away to make his own way in the city. But in the city he discovers he feels lost, lonely, and uncertain what to live for. He is grateful to be liberated from the tyranny of his childhood, but also misses the sense of stability and purpose it provided. He is free, but also adrift with uncertainty. He discovers that to be free from others is to be alienated from others, and he longs to go back … but back to what? More and more he finds also that the city has its own forms of tyranny and oppression.

That is like secular culture at its best. When the certainties of religion go, so do its comforts. The big question is, what will happen to that teenager as he continues to grow up? Will he go back home, or find his own way? Which is like asking, what will it be like to a Christian in Amsterdam or Tokyo or Manhattan in 2150? It will be fascinating to see.

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I’m excited to be teaching an online cohort on arguments for Christianity. We will dive deep into 6 topics, with a view to real conversations and the pressing questions of our culture. Lots of time for interaction. This will be fun! You’re invited to join us!