Most Christians, especially in my circles, tend to be very down on the Enlightenment. We are all very well-schooled in the evils that it brought about: rationalism, individualism, pluralism, modernism, etc. Indeed, it’s one of those terms like “Gnostic”–if you can manage to establish some sort of connection and say “Well, that’s just an Enlightenment form of thinking” then it’s as good as a refutation.
But, after our trip to central Europe, I’m not so sure anymore.
Not, of course, that I’m any more in favor of rationalism, individualism, modernism, or pluralism (at least many forms of pluralism), but that last one needs more examination. The fact remains (although I welcome anyone who can provide me with a satisfactory alternative historical reconstruction) that many of the ideas we now take for granted as basic Christian teachings about equality and charity did not emerge, or become generally accepted, until after the Enlightenment. As I alluded to in a recent post, although we like to forget it, Christians really were pretty terrible to Jews (a fact that was brought home to be more and more as I toured the Jewish sights of Berlin and Prague). Not everywhere, of course; I’m sure there are plenty of exceptions you can point to. But by and large, it was acceptable to treat Jews with appalling discrimination, right up until the beginning of the 19th-century. Only then, in the wake of the Enlightenment, did Christians start thinking that maybe they had a responsibility to recognize Jews as equal human beings.
Of course, the same goes for Negro slavery. Why is it that Christian nations and Christian sailors happily loaded Africans on slave ships and transported them to plantations for Christian masters to buy them and do whatever they wanted with them, and continued doing so until the dawn of the 19th-century, when the Enlightenment began to take hold of the public consciousness?
Naturally, some will object that the impetus for remedying many of these injustices came from Christians–the evangelical Clapham Sect, for instance, is rightly credited with helping end the slave trade. And no doubt some will object that there were voices of Christian opposition to such injustices through the preceding centuries.
Of course, it is true that Christian opposition to discrimination and slavery did not need to borrow from the Enlightenment; there was a thoroughly Christian basis for such opposition, and Christians could draw on the teaching of Jesus, without needing that of Voltaire, to critique oppression. Nevertheless, it remains the case that, for whatever reason, Christians in general did not become aware of these fundamental obligations of their faith, and of the disconnect between their Christian profession and their exploitation and oppression of other races, until the Enlightenment began pushing the ideals of liberty and equality.
Does this mean that we actually needed the teachings of the Enlightenment, and that the Enlightenment was actually a positive development in itself that we should make use of? Or does it merely mean that the Enlightenment was a gadfly, spurring Christians to discover what their tradition really demanded, and to start repenting of their hypocrisy? Either way, we need to grow up and start giving credit where credit is due.
(This is, apparently, what Bruce Ward does in his new book Redeeming the Enlightenment, which I will now be ordering ASAP.)
9 thoughts on “Enlightenment about the Enlightenment”