Enlightenment about the Enlightenment

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

  1. Donny

    "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."I’m interested in learning to what extent this was actually true. "Christians in general" is a dangerous phrase to use. Who opposed slavery? Who supported it?Also, depending on the situation, it may be iffy to identify "Christians in general" with European powers at the time. It may be that it wasn’t until the Enlightenment that European Christian empires finally gave up slavery, which is a completely different thing altogether. Did they give it up, or just slowly replace it? Why did they give it up? Had the Church, in any sense, given it up a long time ago? And then you have to define "Church," which is yet another confusing element.Really, it’s a pretty nasty tangle of semantics, and I’m really wary of giving "the Enlightenment" credit for getting ride of slavery, given our modern situation. Maybe getting rid of the Middle Passage, but slavery and oppression? I’m sure they caused just as much as they removed.Anyway, it’s a fine point, I’m sure, but it doesn’t impact me nearly as strongly. I don’t really have a problem giving qualified credit to unitarians and enlightenment thinkers anymore than I have no problem giving qualified credit to other heretics or pagans. They do some great things sometimes.


  2. Kent Will

    Nah, the Enlightenment is a piece of junk. I don’t know about all your examples, but I am convinced the abolition of black slavery in the United States was pursued by Enlightenment types because it was a vulnerable spot in the armor of Christendom, the destruction of which was the real goal all the time. And they certainly exploited the freed slaves far more viciously than former slaveholders ever did. These circumstances incline me to the belief that, while the Enlightenment may have cast out a demon here and there, it was only to sweep and garnish in preparation for seven more.The abolition of the slave trade is another matter. In both England and America (I have no idea about on the continent) it was halted through the work of Christians, whose principles are more easily attributable to Protestant ethics than enlightened thought.


  3. Brad Littlejohn

    Donny, Sure, "Christians in general" is a dangerous and broad phrase. Certainly, the Catholic Church had opposed slavery in the Americas since the 16th-century, but unfortunately, this had little effect on the attitudes or actions of the bulk of people in Catholic countries. In Protestant areas like England and North America, I am sure that there were plenty of Christians who personally opposed slavery and the slave trade, and even ministers who preached against it. However, there was no widespread organized anti-slavery sentiment; on the whole, most citizens of these Christian countries, including the Christian citizens, accepted the practice. John Newton, famous for his later anti-slavery crusade, was captain of a slave ship for years while an evangelical Christian, and in this was typical of many contemporaries. I don't think that simply pinning slavery on "European Christian empires" so easily absolves the Church, at least not the Protestant Church. These empires were ruled by professing and practicing Christians, their laws were enforced by professing and practicing Christians, and the slave trade was generally carried out by professing and practicing Christians. For this the Church certainly bears some responsibility, especially in Protestant countries where the national churches were more or less inseparable from the various empires. To be sure, the Enlightenment brought in plenty more evils and oppressions, and I'm certainly not denying that. But I am pointing out that it wasn't until the time of the Enlightenment that European Christian society as a whole began to become aware that the inequalities it was promoting were a serious problem that had to be done away with. There are injustices now as a result of the Enlightenment, but the interesting thing is that, with regard to many of them, we seem to be aware that they are injustices and distressed bout the fact. "Political correctness" is something we understandably have begun to react against, but when you recognize how pervasive casual racist (particularly anti-Semitic) slurs used to be, then you realize that perhaps it is a good thing that our societies have begun to become more self-aware about these problems. At the end, you seem to say that it's not a particularly significant point anyway–sure, maybe heretics got a thing or two right. But it's a bit more than that, I think. It's about one's narrative. In our circles, there is a common narrative that says "Everything was getting better and better until around the mid-1700s, and now it's alll screwed up because of the evil Enlightenment." I think it's important to recognize that it's a lot more ambiguous than that; there are good and bad trajectories that were established then, and we have to engage in the complex task of sifting through them. No doubt you agree, when I put it this way, but it's still an important reminder.


  4. Brad Littlejohn

    Kent, That seems to me like the kind of one-sided narrative that I'm uncomfortable with now. First of all, while it may be true that many Enlightenment-minded abolitiionists wanted to destroy Christendom, I don't think it's fair to attribute a kind of conspiracy mentality in which the only reason they were outraged about slavery was as a ploy to destroy Christendom. As for the second half of your comment, I think you're missing part of my point. You speak in terms of a simple duality between Enlightenment and Christianity. Clearly it wasn't that simple. Yes, evangelical Christians pushed for the end of the slave trade, but, for whatever reason, they hadn't seen any real need to do so until the Enlightenment was well underway, and they hadn't gotten a widespread response until then. The mindset of concern for equality that the Enlightenment pushed was a mindset that also affected how evangelical Christians viewed things. I'm not saying that only atheists were pushing for justice, and Christians were just dragging their heels. I'm saying that for centuries, Christendom had felt reasonably comfortable with all sorts of oppression that appears self-evidently un-Christian to us now. Around the same point in history (late 1700s), many anti-Christian Enlightenment figures, Christian Enlightenment figures, and Christian non-Enlightenment figures all began to start insisting on ethical ideals of liberty and equality, many of which have subsequently become the norm. However you spell out this narrative then, it can't be a simple bad guy Enlightenment vs. good guy Christendom narrative.


  5. Matthew N. Petersen

    We should also remember that Aparthied was a Reformed practice. And it was enlightened countries, not the Church, that ended it.


  6. Donny

    In our circles, there is a common narrative that says "Everything was getting better and better until around the mid-1700s, and now it's alll screwed up because of the evil Enlightenment."

    I think it's just this point I'm confused about. I see an antagonism toward the enlightenment, but I don't see it as an unqualified antagonism, and I definitely don't see the "getting better and better" before then part. But that's a different point, and we can shelve it.Also, I agree that it's significant that the equality language is assumed by pretty much everyone. But we have to respond in two ways to that. First, everyone agrees that the slave traders were wicked. That's great. And it also means that it's not a simple enlightenment is bad and Christianity is good narrative. The third party, the oppressive slave-traders, everyone thinks they were bad. Second, I think the important part of pointing out the failings of the enlightenment is not simply to write it all off as wicked. Everyone agrees that some sort of equality language is good. That's great. But by affirming the equality language and at the same time criticizing the enlightenment, we're saying that not all equality language is equal. Some is weak egalitarianism, and some flows from the gospel.So yes, I think the historical ambiguities are interesting, and I would love to hear a detailed account of abolitionist literature prior to, during, and after widespread abolition and how that connects to Christianity and the enlightenment. Like your saying, I'm sure it's complicated, and usually in cases like this, you end up coming out praising a collection of individuals rather than big groups.Anyway, I'm sure you agree. My posts haven't been so much a direct argument as just some qualifications and questions.


  7. Kent Will

    Brad,No conspiracy theories intended. It's simply the way politics works. The situation of the abolitionists is really no different than that of today's Republicans opposing Obama. Their ultimate goal is to bring him down, but they pursue this by pouncing on his PR mistakes, not by reasoned critiques of his larger principles. The abolitionists were, by and large, radical egalitarians who opposed the traditional, hierarchical, Christian societies. That slavery, as the least defensible aspect of such a society, became the center of the maelstrom, is no reason to doubt the frictive currents that first occasioned the maelstrom.As to your second paragraph, I agree, mostly. Protestant and Enlightenment thinkers worked in the same categories and institutions for centuries, partly because history had not yet played out far enough to make the fundamental antagonism as clear as it is today. I suppose it comes down to a question of the source of the sudden common concern for equality. Was the Enlightenment the fount from which the waters of equality flowed in ever greater depths, laving both Christian and rationalist thinkers? Or were there two connected, but separable streams, one Christian and one secular, one of which brought a real, the other a false, charity? Or is the true source the ocean of Reformation biblical teaching, through which some currents flowed with pure water, and others with bracken, both bringing water to make the shores of the continent flower, but whose differing qualities were not apparent until several generations had played out?In other words, I don't see why "Enlightenment was the font" has to be the only interpretation for a common concern for equality among Christians and Enlighteners.


  8. Brad Littlejohn

    Donny, yes, all fair qualifications and questions. When I decide this blog needs more comments, I post something that is very broad-brush, relatively short, and imprecisely stated. Then people pile on with qualifications and questions, and liven this place up. ;-)Kent, sure, but I never said "Enlightenment as font" was the only narrative that could be offered. Another one is "Enlightenment as gadfly"–the Enlightenment started pushing equality in ways that forced Christianity to reckon with its failures on that front and cultivate its own resources of charity and Biblical equality.Matt, yes, good (if depressing) example.


  9. Kent Will

    Brad,If "Enlightenment is gadfly" is your interpretation, then I don't see the need for your potential change of opinion about it, and "that's just an Enlightenment form of thinking" remains a good refutation.


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