The Enlightenment, beginning in the seventeenth century, set off shockwaves that are reverberating down to this day. It altered our ideas of knowledge, authority and human existence. I have discussed the impacts of the Enlightenment throughout this series of posts so I will not give a lengthy review of the Enlightenment and its impact here. Instead I want to focus on two aspects of the Enlightenment as they have affected the Church: The concept of the autonomous objective individual and the supremacy of scientific rationalism.
De Cartes’ famous “I think, therefore I am” construction placed human experience and mental faculties as supreme source of knowledge, displacing tradition and revelation as the ultimate authorities. The application of rationalism to the study physical world unleashed an explosion in knowledge and mastery of the natural order unparalleled in human history. This set the authority of the Church back on its heels as science quickly came to be seen as the arbiter of truth throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The success of science and the Enlightenment gave rise to several issues that have directly impacted the church over the past couple of centuries and especially in the twentieth century.
- Reason, especially as related to science, was elevated to the supreme arbiter of truth. Demythologizing has been a major project of intellectuals for the past couple of centuries.
- Part of the demythologizing has been the reduction of human beings to elements of the natural order from beings “created in the image of God.” Humans are merely complex material beings.
- As reason is the highest expression of human existence, each individual is to be valued to the degree they have actualized the human potential. Those who do not or can not actualize the human potential are less than fully human if they are indeed human at all.
- There was the rise of what I call the “expertocracy.” If scientific reason is the highest form of knowledge, then it stands that those with the highest degree of scientific knowledge or expertise (i.e., “objective” knowledge untainted by dogma) should be in charge of social institutions.
The rise of these themes set the stage for both radical individualism and totalitarianism in the twentieth century. The Social Darwinists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, grounded in the work of Herbert Spencer, applied Darwin’s survival of the fittest to the human economic and social order. The icon of the “self-made man” emerged and all that was needed to lead humanity on to new heights was the removal of restraints from these “self-made men.” The removal of restraints would allow the best and brightest of the human race to evolve to yet higher states of existence. This was clearly the mentality of the Robber Baron class.
Of course, the corollary of the “self-made man” is the “self-unmade man.” These people would be ground under by the wheels of progress. Some callously looked at this as a small price to pay for human progress. In fact, some endorsed genocide of inferior peoples as a way to keep lesser humans from dragging down the rest of humanity. This would allow for greater actualization of human potential among a broader part of the population. Others felt that the wretched losers in society should be treated more humanely but this should be done without placing limits on “self-made men.”
In contrast to the Social Darwinists came the totalitarians, dominated by intellectuals, who believed the path to human advancement lay in the application of rationalism to human systems and organizations. The evolution of humanity should not be trusted to an elite group of economic opportunists. It should be done by a group of elite experts who would have the broadest interests of society at heart. However, just like with the Social Darwinists, the plight of any given individual is inconsequential to the overall goal of evolving humanity to a higher state of being. All institutions from national government down to the institution of the family must be dissolved and reconstituted in a ways that give primacy to the state’s higher call.
Author Dick Keyes once wrote “The terible irony of the fall is that we expect more than Eden and yet can only realize far less.” (1) Being an image bearer means we are subservient to some higher authority. The demythologizing Enlightenment sought to create autonomous individuals apart from the idea of being God’s image bearers. The irony in this grasp for supremacy is that individual human beings have lost there dignity and have been reduced to complex material beings desperately seeking actualization of their potential. Intended for dominion, we have devolved into complex matter.
Much of the Twentieth Century became a battle over how best to evolve humanity toward a higher state of being: Survival of the fittest competition where only the brightest and most cunning survive or an expertocarcy where the state is controlled by experts that reason their way to a better world through social engineering. Both perspectives had the underlying assumption of progress deeply engrained. The late nineteenth century and early twentieth century witnessed the height of the Social Darwinist school of thought and the Russian Revolution of 1917 touched off a seventy year period of devastating totalitarian experiments. Since the early twentieth century, the battle in the West has largely been about finding a balance between some modified form of Social Darwinism and expertocracies. Both are grounded in the concept of the autonomous objective individual and the supremacy of scientific rationalism. Both have led to an increasingly materialistic perspective on human existence. Neither truly respects the idea of human beings created for community in God as God’s image bearers, exercising dominion over the earth.
The rise of postmodernism at the end of the Twentieth Century appears to be a reaction to the impasse form the Enlightenment and modernist eras. The shift is away from macro stories of evolving humanity but it is still in opposition to human beings as “image bearers of God” and transcendent revelation. Instead, truth is found by belonging to a localized community that creates its own reality. How human autonomy (or lack thereof) is handled is determined by the community with which one affiliates. What is sacrosanct is the individual’s choice of community and their “truths.” In a spirit of complete diversity and inclusion, no group or individual can be critical of another individual’s community and truths. Human autonomy still reigns even to the point of disintegrating social structures through lack of consensus.
What has the Church's response been in the middle of this firestorm?
(1) Dick Keyes. Beyond Identity: Finding your way in the image and Character of God. United Kingdom: Paternoster Press, 1998. 40.