Here’s a short four page paper I was asked to write for my History of Christian Thought class. It was on how I viewed the Enlightenment’s effect on Christianity, and most particularly it’s claim for Revelation. I got a good grade on it, so I assume it’s bloggable (and I hope I don’t get into trouble for doing so). It’s very straightforward, if I were to supply it with more substantial arguments, well, it could be a doctoral dissertation. So please accept it for what it is, a declaration of belief, rather than a full defense.
An Enlightened Reflection
Whether we like it or not, Christianity has been profoundly affected by the Enlightenment. It has affected the Catholics, the Fundamentalists, the Liberals, the Neo Orthodox, the Paleo Orthodox, and especially the ones who claim they have not been affected by it at all. It has formed our minds, and everything Christianity has claimed since then has either been a reaction toward or against its ideas. In the end, I believe that Christianity struggles to assert its authority claims because of the Enlightenment, and while this means the end of Christendom, it is better for the Church; also, the effects of the Enlightenment on the world actively prove many of Christianity’s claims, making the Enlightenment ultimately beneficial for Christianity, though regrettable.
A key battleground in the post-Enlightenment world has been the Creation-Evolution debate. What it boils down to is a Christian misunderstanding of science, and science’s misunderstanding of Christianity. Science is a system of experimentation and observation by which we learn falsifiable facts about the natural cosmos. With these facts at hand scientists develop models which best explain what we have discovered, and use these models to attempt to discover more. The modern idea of science springs from Enlightenment ideals in the fundamental rationality of humanity and nature, and our curiosity in learning more about each groups. It was believed ultimate truth could be reached by these means, and Christendom originally egged them on, believing the same. What science eventually discovered was evolution, first adequately described in Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.
This seemed to directly contradict the creation account in Genesis 1-2 which many Christians believe to be literal truth to this day. These Christians do not necessarily believe that the Bible is to be taken literally at all points, but for some reason have staked Genesis 1-2 as their battleground. I believe the main reason is to maintain biblical authority in all matters, but another reason is an important contradiction made by science. This being the idea that death entered the world before the Fall, indeed, the Fall has not been discovered by science. So some groups of Christians have tried to take the facts, and reorganize them with Genesis 1-2 as their focus, to the distain of secular, and religious scientists. While these Christians believe science is distorting the evidence in an intellectual coup against God.
Is this crisis over Biblical claims good or evil? And how can we resolve science with Christian doctrine in this important area? I believe that Christianity should always be in some crisis. What occurred in Medieval times was a dangerous complacency that poisoned the Church. It was like a traveller sitting a bit too long. When that traveller was forced up and made to continue on his trek his body ached for a few miles onward. That is the situation Christianity has been placed in as we continue on in our collective journey. We sat way too long, bolstering our authority claims with circular reasoning, when secularists yelled that Christendom had no clothes, and made us move again, we walked slowly aching with every step.
But the church must keep moving, and to that end it is a good thing we were made alert. However, the Enlightenment has bred even more division than before, this is how we ache. One reaction has already been mentioned, that is to dig in our heels and claim that God literally did make the world in six days. The liberal reaction is to say that evolution is correct, and that the origin account is not meant to be taken literally, but is to be read for its metaphorical truths. There is also the Neo Orthodox reaction, which is to say that this is an account of what people believed, an account of their revelation, not the revelation itself, which is Christ.
These are the three major ways Christianity has reacted to the Enlightenment’s attack on revelation. I certainly disagree with the Fundamentalist hermeneutic, as well as the Liberal hermeneutic, finding myself closest to the Neo-Orthodox idea that the Bible is an account of Revelation, not the Revelation itself, while at the same time not denying the inerrancy of scripture when it speaks of faith (which I believe to be essential). This conflict between the groups leads to two outcomes, a leaner and more accurate understanding of Christianity and Revelation, or a hardening of hearts. I know both occur, and I pray that the former would happen more often.
As for Evolution versus Creation, I believe that to be overblown. Science can only find what Science can find, which is how God interacts with nature, and it surely cannot discover or define the supernatural. That is not part of its definition. Whether God utilized Evolution or not is of little concern to me, what is of concern is the truths that the Creation account teaches, one which the Enlightenment also did away with.
Despite Voltaire’s famous quote, “Common sense is not so common,” the Enlightenment chugged along with this belief. There was a doctrine of progress, that through our study of the cosmos, and through the study of philosophy we would be able to create a utopia of sorts. What was discarded was a Christian belief in Original Sin, instead man became the sum of all things, and it was believed humanity could accomplish peace in our time.
Instead the Enlightenment wrought World War One, a conflict which smacked the Liberal Theology right out of Karl Barth, and World War Two. Liberal Theology attempted to incorporate many of the ideals of the Enlightenment, and rode the beast’s back right to Meggido. Christianity held a healthier understanding, though admitably dismal, of human nature. War did not bring out the best in humanity, humans could not be treated like machinery, there would be no League of Nations to bring world peace. Instead World War Two became Korea, Korea became Vietnam, and it goes on.
What does this mean for Christianity? It means we can take heart that whether the Fall happened or not in history, its effects are clearly seen. It means that as we exeunt the modern age Christianity’s truth claims have made it through the fire, and if we take St. Augustine’s advice to preach the Gospel at all times, at when necessary use words, we can reach a new age. The future is ripe for Christianity if we learn our lessons, and humanity learns theirs.