The Enlightenment as parasitic on Christianity

17 Jan

I’ve lectured on American politics for several  years now.  It is always a delight to expose students to an understanding of Western civilization that they are utterly ignorant of, probably won’t hear even in many political science classes, and yet one that is utterly historical (for a taste, see my blog posts here, here, here , here, here and here).  The usual narrative is that liberal democracy, modern science, human rights, universal education, treatment of women, disestablishment of religion, are all byproducts of an enormous rescue mission spearheaded by brave secular intellectuals working and writing during a period collectively known as the Enlightenment.  Until that time, the mythology goes, the world was thrown into a religious dark age… and then there was light, and the light was the light of Reason and Reason was the light to men and Reason dwelt among us and so on.  But historians of  the history ideas know better.  From modern science to liberal democracy to separation of church and state, the values that Westerners cherish find their root firmly in Christian soil.  Brian Mattson has a blog post about this here:

I’ve been known to ascribe the supremacy of the Western world in just about every disciplinary metric to the Judeo-Christian worldview, or “Christendom,” for short. Whether it is law and justice, human dignity and value, science and technology, I maintain that the astonishing success of the Western experiment is due to distinctively Christian values.

I do not intend to prove this assertion in a blog post. Volumes would be required and, thankfully, volumes have been written. Well, that’s a link to at least one, anyway. There are many others.

But I do want to address a common objection to this point of view. Any time I’ve writtenan article along these lines, I hear this objection. I notice that Carl Trueman met this objection in a recent debate with an atheist.

It is this: Isn’t the success of Western values, science, and technology due to the philosophical movement known as the Enlightenment, rather than Christendom?

It is a powerful objection on the surface. I don’t think there is any real question that, for example, the Founding Fathers of the United States were to a significant degree influenced by the Enlightenment. It is John Locke, after all, to whom we owe our allegiance to the specific language of “the laws of nature and nature’s God.” The rise of rationalism and empiricism would seem on its face a serious “fly in the ointment” to my point of view.

So what about that? Is Western supremacy due to Enlightenment rationalism?

Only if you’re content to read things off the surface and assume the conventional myth of the so-called “Dark Ages” instead of digging deeper. The “rather than” assumes a radical ideological disjunction between Christendom and the Enlightenment, the former representing darkness, the latter representing light. I do, actually, think there is an antithesis between the two; but there are some important commonalities often overlooked. Here are some questions leading to my answer.

Why is it that when I read Rene Descartes, the father of Enlightenment philosophy, his first item of business after establishing his methodological skepticism is to prove rationally the existence of God? Why did he think that was important?

Why is it that when I read Immanuel Kant’s Religion Within the Bounds of Mere Reasonhe is so intent on retaining beliefs like human immortality and “God” as an ethical limiting concept? Why was it important for Kant to retain these Christian beliefs and incorporate them, albeit on purely rational grounds, into his philosophy?

Why is it that John Locke sought to establish on purely rational bases, time and again, distinctively Judeo-Christian ideas? It is silly to think his views on, say, private property, sprang fully formed ex nihilo  from his brain. There was already some conviction, born of the Western Legal Tradition and the 6th Commandment, inscribed on his “tabula rasa.

Why did Hegel build his Idealism around an aberrant doctrine of the Trinity? Why Christian categories at all?

My simple answer to these questions, and surely much more remains to be explored, is that these Enlightenment philosophers did not want to jettison wholesale what Christendom bequeathed to them. They loved the rule of law, human dignity and freedom (leaving aside the significant asterisk of *slavery), and scientific dominion over creation. There is no question that they wanted to jack up Christendom’s house and pour a new foundation. “Reason” would be the concrete rather than revelation, of course.

But regardless of whether their new foundation was sound in the end (still today a matter of great debate), to me the significant observation is that, in the main, they wanted very much to retain the house.

The Enlightenment is thus a parasitic movement. On many important philosophical questions it pursues the exact same ends as the worldview it allegedly rejects (how else do you explain Descartes’ arguments for the existence of God or Kant’s arguments for immortality?). But it tries to get there by another route.

This means the house, as it exists, belongs to Christendom. The Enlightenment is a movement of squatters. And the efforts of the squatters to dig a new foundation are irrelevant, at the end of the day, because on so many of the important topics people care about (natural law, scientific discovery, individual freedom and dignity) they were still trying to reproduce Christendom’s house. They wanted all the benefits of the Judeo-Christian legacy without all the “revelation” stuff. But that fact alone is more telling than any arguments I could actually produce for all the “revelation” stuff.

The success of the Western experiment is due to Christendom, and to those seeking to reproduce, in many ways, Christendom in the laboratory called “Pure Reason.” It is not a “rather than” sort of question, after all. Maybe they wanted a Christendom without Christ. No doubt many of them did.

But imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

%d bloggers like this: