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.)

The Grass is Always Greener

It’s very easy for Christians today, appalled at the rampant economic injustice and violence that is being perpetrated, and appalled above all at the indifference of most Christians to it, to get themselves worked up into a rage of righteous indignation.  How could we get into such a mess?  How could Christians let such horrible things happen?  There must be some profound heresy at work here, or some deep structural sin; it’s all the fault of capitalist ideology, perhaps.  I speak, of course, of myself as much as of anyone.  And of course, I don’t want to retract one word of it–we are surrounded by appalling injustice, appalling injustice that Christians should be addressing rather than abetting, and it is important that we analyze the underlying causes, historical and ideological, and repent of them.  Nevertheless, it is helpful to keep a bit of historical perspective, perspective that might lead us to give up in despair because we are such a wicked people, but which may have the more salutary effect of helping us see hope and even progress amidst our current wickedness. 

Some of our current problems have been recurrent features of every age, and so there is no need for apocalyptic gloom at the singular depravity of our age; rather, a call to ordinary (though still radical) repentance, sanctification, and waiting upon the Lord.  Some of our past injustices, including some very profound ones indeed, we have since overcome, so much so that it now seems self-evident to us that they are unacceptable, just as self-evident as it seemed to our ancestors that they were perfectly acceptable.  This spiritual progress can give us great encouragement when faced by our current besetting sins, because we can recognize that they are not insurmountable–Christ is sanctifying history, and will sanctify it.

I’ve had all this brought home to me in a bit of “light reading” I’ve been doing lately: The House of Rothschild, by Niall Ferguson–an exhaustive history of the family-run banking behemoth that dominated European finance–indeed, world finance–for nearly a century.  Ferguson is a maddeningly amoral historian, seeming to admire anyone who contributes to the cause of progress, and caring very little for the means by which they did it (see my review of his book Empire for more on this).  He clearly admires the Rothschilds a great deal, as financial geniuses, and is untroubled by the fact that most of their activities would’ve made Goldman Sachs look like Saint Francis.  Indeed, it is somewhat amusing–he at times goes to considerable lengths to exonerate them from various fictitious accusations against them that were popularized in their time, but in the course of doing so, manages to unearth a seedy underbelly of bribery, manipulation, and trickery that was simply the norm for their activities.  These folks thought nothing of bribing public officials to gain lucrative financial contracts, and then turning around and using their position of strength in the market to make huge additional under-the-table profits off the participating governments.  They thought nothing of using their inside political information to outmaneuver all their competitors and establish an unbeatable monopoly position, or of encouraging misinformation to create panics or buying frenzies in the market off of which they could profit.  War profiteering was their specialty, and they sometimes helped encourage the continuation of wars to ensure a continuation of profits.  In other words, all the charges that books like Confessions of an Economic Hit-Man or The Shock Doctrine level against modern multinationals, these guys were guilty of thrice over.  These guys were the quintessential disaster capitalists, economic hit men, Wall Street fat cats. 

Of course, I wouldn’t quite take this as a parable of “there’s nothing new under the sun” because the Rothschilds were, in many ways, a novelty, the first of these financial mighty men to walk the earth.  They were the originals of the decadent species that has now proliferated around the earth.  But, we can learn from them that things now are perhaps not quite so bad as they seem.  At worst, corruption now is comparable to the corruption that characterized European courts in the 19th century.  At best, we have actually improved a bit.  Like I said, these guys make Goldman Sachs look like Saint Francis, and although you can be sure that the seediest of Goldman’s dealings are buried deep beyond the reach of any Congressional Investigation, I think it would be fair that N.M. Rothschild and Sons would never be able to do now, with the laws and accountability structures we have now (deeply flawed as they are) what they could do then. 

There is a second lesson also from the story of the Rothschilds.  As I said above, there are two ways in which we may take encouragement from the past–there are injustices we see around us now that we can discern as age-old enemies, and there are injustices from the past that we have now overcome.  What I just mentioned was an example of the first, but I was struck by an example of the second when reading about the Rothschilds.  

It is, of course, silly to have to mention it, absurd that it should even have been striking to me; after all, it is cliched by now to say it: Christians were terrible to Jews.  But I don’t know how many of us really want to own up to the fact.  We’re so tired of liberals using the Holocaust as a weapon against Christianity that we barricade ourselves against the charges altogether, we sweep all that injustice under the rug.  The Holocaust, we say, was an aberration–it can’t be chalked up to the legacy of Christianity, but to a bunch of mad Darwinian Germans.  Very well, but the longer legacy remains.

The Rothschilds, unsurprisingly, were Jews, and grew up in the Frankfurt Jewish ghetto.  Ferguson’s point is not to dwell on this background, but bits of it couldn’t help emerging from the narrative, and it was shocking to confront the fact of just how discriminated against and repressed the Jews in 17th and 18th-century Germany were.  And of course, the reason Ferguson doesn’t dwell on it was because there was nothing unusual about the Frankfurt situation–this was simply how Jews had to live in most Christian countries–cramped into tiny houses, with their movements restricted, mocked by passersby, without citizenship rights.  And what’s striking about all this from my perspective is that this was not happening in modernity like the Holocaust–when we can chalk it all up to loss of faith, but in a deeply pious age in Lutheran Germany.  There were godly Christian ministers preaching faith and love from their pulpits, even while endorsing (or at the very least turning a blind eye to) the cruel repression of the Jews, and this went on for centuries.  

By comparison, the astonishing ability of modern Christians to blind themselves to the oppression they are supporting in the Third World no longer appears so astonishing.  After all, most of our victims are out of sight, out of mind, but the harsh treatment of the Jews was going on in every city in Christendom, right outside the churches.  So perhaps when we are tempted to extol the virtues of our medieval and Reformation past, and lament our modern apostasy, we should remember that there are a few moral advances to be thankful for the in the modern age.