The Demise of Christendom, 6

The Demise of Christendom, 6

“The utopian dream of the Enlightenment can be summed up by five words: reason, nature, happiness, progress, and liberty.  It was thoroughly secular in its thinking…. Here was man starting from himself absolutely.  And if the humanistic elements of the Renaissance stand in sharp contrast to the Reformation [which started from the Bible], the Enlightenment was in total antithesis to it.  The two stood for and were based on absolutely different things in an absolute way, and they produced absolutely different results.

“To the Enlightenment thinkers, man and society were perfectible…. If these men had a religion, it was deism.  The deists believed in a God who had created the world but who had no contact with it now, and who had not revealed truth to men.  If there was a God, He was silent.”

Francis A. Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live, The Complete Works, Volume 5, A Christian View of the West. (Crossway Books, 1982) p. 148.

“What is enlightenment?  In a 1784 essay with that question as its title, Immanuel Kant [one of the pre-eminent German and Enlightenment philosophers] answered that it consists of “humankind’s emergence from its self-incurred immaturity,” its “lazy and cowardly” submission to the “dogmas and formulas” of religious or political authority.  Enlightenment’s motto, he proclaimed, is “Dare to understand!” and its foundational demand is freedom of thought and speech.”

Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: the Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. (Viking, 2018), p.7.

As we have seen in previous instalments, the old paradigm of ‘Christendom’, a pan-European and, indeed, a united, world-wide society founded on and unified by the teaching of and allegiance to Jesus Christ, had been splintered by the Reformation, then shredded even further by over a hundred years of religious wars and millions of dead among the competing European kingdoms and empires.  With the discoveries of whole new continents, these divisions had been exported to wherever rival colonies had been established, often nominally in the name of Christ “to civilize and Christianize the heathen”.

It was a sorry dénouement to what was once a noble ideal based largely on fulfilling Christ’s ‘Great Commission’.  It might have been, perhaps should have been, foreseen.  Christ’s example and teaching that the power-politics of this world could not bring about the coming of His Kingdom on earth had been rationalized away by the fourth century.  The operative concept of ‘Christendom’ that then took hold had been founded on mixing and taming old-style imperial and temporal power, politics, and ambition with the saving and redeeming work of the Body of Christ on earth, His Church.  Jesus had said to Pilate, “My Kingdom is not of this world.”  (Kosmos in Greek – this world-order, this age, the age of power and coercion by fear and force as kings and emperors do).  Constantine had been Satan to the Church, tempting the emerging prelates to bow and receive all the kingdoms now as a reward.  Unlike Jesus, her Master, the Church had put the Emperor’s seal-ring on and been bewitched by it ever since.

At its highest echelons, the Church of the Middle Ages had succumbed almost completely to the delusion of using secular and material power and means to assert the Dominion of the King of kings.  Instead of acting like counter-culture yeast working from within to transform society to become Christ-like, Popes, Patriarchs, Cardinals, Abbots, and Bishops had turned to the allure of wielding power and gaining influence in the present age ‘in the name of Christ’. 

Lest we call anathemas down on their heads too quickly, let us remember that power, wealth, position, and prestige are highly addictive and few can give them up willingly, even if ‘serving the Lord’.  This pattern was not broken by the Reformation ‘Masters’ either.  Lutheranism replaced Catholicism in northern and central Germany and Scandinavia.  Reformed Churches replaced the Catholic Church in much of Switzerland and the Netherlands.  The Dominies of these new churches held onto the secular-spiritual stick and carrot methodology of control over their flocks, persecuting the non-conformists (especially the Anabaptists) as hotly as the Roman Curia had done.  Let us remember that our present society is not immune to this pattern either – even those claiming to be ‘the children of the Enlightenment’.

Bitter disillusionment with (Christian) religion (whether Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox) and its abuses of power, including persecution and slaughter in the name of the Prince of Peace and Lord of love since the time of Constantine, had left most of Europe’s educated class with little use for Christianity and its claims by the time the 18th Century rolled around.  It has remained to the present, and this ethos has traveled around the world wherever Europe’s intellectual heritage has taken root.

The newly ‘enlightened’ intellectuals of the 18th and 19th Centuries determined to set themselves and Western society free from the shackles of superstition, dogma, and persecution.  Their tools would be the liberating powers of reason and science that would set aside Christianity, superstition, dogma, and absolutist ideology – as they saw it, all pieces of the same cloth.

The new prophets of science and reason, the Enlightenment philosophes, would show the way forward.  Steven Pinker (an influential and enthusiastic modern advocate for the legacy of the Enlightenment and the continued relevance of its core values) explains the Enlightenment mentality thus.  “If there’s anything the Enlightenment thinkers had in common, it was an insistence that we energetically apply the standard of reason to understanding our world, and not fall back on generations of delusion like faith, dogma, revelation, authority, charisma, mysticism, divination, visions, gut feelings, or the hermeneutic parsing of sacred texts.”  (Pinker, p. 8)

A brief look at three of these new prophets will help us understand the roots of the Enlightenment ethos which dominates the West today.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) studied at Oxford University in the Humanities but became fascinated by science.  He reached the conclusion that only material things exist and that everything can be explained by physical properties, particularly by laws of motion.  He did original work in optics and attempted to synthesize everything into a single system.  In England’s civil strife between the King (Charles 1) and Parliament, he was a Royalist because of his lifelong connection to the Duke of Devonshire (Cavendish) and his family.  Rather than having to take an active part, he fled to France from 1640-1651, by which time England had become a (short-lived) republic under Oliver Cromwell.

Hobbes is most famous for his political treatise, Leviathan.  In this book, he was the first to articulate the principle of the modern liberal doctrine of the ‘social contract’ between a people and a sovereign or a set of rulers.  His ideas were completely secular; religion was a human invention based on ignorance and superstition.  All can be explained by laws of nature that can be discovered, even laws governing human behaviour.  We would now classify this as psychology and sociology, although those terms did not then exist.

David Hume (1711-1776) was also a convinced materialist and sceptic.  His most famous work is An Essay on Human Understanding, which one might call the first modern textbook on psychology, although it was categorized as philosophy.  Hume built on Hobbes’ and Locke’s work, and was close to and probably influenced Adam Smith, the ‘Father of Modern Economics’.  Hume was also an atheist, although he skirted the issue in most of his writings, choosing to imply there is no God rather than say so.  He worked closely with the French encyclopédistes, Diderot and D’Alembert, and knew Voltaire and Rousseau.  He was influential in launching the Enlightenment in France, and his ideas penetrated Germany as well.

John Locke (1632-1704) was the most ‘practical’ and important of the ‘British Trinity’ we are discussing.  Locke knew Hobbes and inspired Hume, but his writings had enormous impact far and wide.  Locke was not an atheist, always considering himself a Christian.  But, in practice, he was a materialist, and is considered the founder of the modern philosophy of ‘Empiricism’. 

Locke wrote voluminously.  His two most important works were An Essay on Human Understanding and Two Treatises on Government.  Both were ‘tours de force’ and are still considered foundational to the modern West.  Locke argued that human nature does not come pre-imprinted with certain ideas about truth and morality, but that experience and abstraction teach us what truth is.  There are no ‘eternal categories’ (such as Plato argued) guiding our perceptions, although there is a Creator who has sent the Messiah to guide us to salvation.  Later Enlightenment thinkers, such as Hume and Voltaire, rejected Locke’s ‘religious perspective’ as a strange anomaly in an otherwise brilliant thinker’s work .  They were happy to endorse and use Locke’s brilliant analysis but dispense with his theology. 

In Part 7 of ‘The Demise of Christendom’, we will examine some of Christendom’s vestiges in the last two centuries.

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