Enlightenment and the Christian worldview: One’s perspective makes all the difference
Many theological pitfalls in the Christian community might be avoided if we understood the worldview in which they are rooted.
Everyone has a worldview. Be it a philosopher or a scientist, a preacher or a teacher, a politician or a bureaucrat, each of us works in a certain frame of mind, defined by whatever preoccupation we may have with worldviews that vary according to differing perceptions. While one may consider a worldview that appeals to him or her, one cannot choose conflicting worldviews as a basis of thought and operation without experiencing confusion and chaos.
The world today has multiple worldviews competing for the attention of people everywhere – religious ones appealing to people of numerous persuasions; agnostic or atheistic ones having nothing to do with religion; a scientific worldview rooted in matter and how that matter functions; political worldviews that cunningly devise ways to control the life and economy of society; and philosophic worldviews, from Socrates’ “Know yourself,” to Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am,” to Marx’s “Workers of the world, unite.”
In spite of these multiple systems of worldviews, this article will attempt to look at two views that have dominated human civilization for centuries: one is about three to four centuries old, and the other traces its origin from Genesis itself. By studying and comparing the two, it is expected that readers will find a firm ground to stand on that will provide intellectual ability, spiritual authenticity, and social veracity.
This paper1 will deal with three parts. The first part will look at the rationalistic and humanistic worldview, as reflected in Enlightenment.2 The second part will review the oldest worldview available to humans, governing life and history from biblical creation. The third part will draw some conclusions.
The worldview of Enlightenment
Enlightenment is a powerful intellectual, philosophic movement of the 17th and 18th centuries, emphasizing reason and individualism and rejecting religion and tradition. Among the thought leaders who influenced the movement were Descartes (1596-1650), Voltaire (1689-1777), Rousseau (1712-1778), Paine (1737-1809), and others of great stature.
Enlightenment resulted in several distinctive intellectual and sociological features, one of which was rationalism, which was responsible for making reason the basic tool of scientific investigation of nature and human striving for truth. This critical evaluation of all claims by standards of rationality replaced the authoritative promulgations of the ancien régime in the realms of science, social organization, and the Catholic church’s doctrine
During the French revolt of 1793, the Goddess of Reason was crowned, with a new religion that proclaimed freedom from institutionalized religion. Around the same time (1794), the American philosopher Thomas Paine (1737-1809) wrote The Age of Reason. The book became “the Bible” of the new religion and the Enlightenment movement, which called for the removal of all supernatural elements from Scripture and promulgated the new era of reason, reflecting Paine’s cry: “My own mind is my own church.”3
This attitude also informed deism, which became the dominant philosophical-religious worldview. Paine explains:“The only religion that has not been invented, and that has in it every evidence of divine originality, is pure and simple deism. It must have been the first and will probably be the last that man believes.”4 Deistic philosophy describes God as the grand architect of the universe, but one who is not involved in history. Thus supernatural, revealed religion was pushed aside, making room for the religion of reason and humanism, already in vogue since the time of Voltaire, who died some 20 years before the French Revolution. When Voltaire left the European scene, already his major ideas of tolerance – based on egalitarian feelings (égalité) and total freedom (liberté) from the established forms of religion and social structures – had taken root. The idea of tolerance, consequently, paved the way for the development of diverse ideological constructs founded on the freedom of rational thinking.
Voltaire was persecuted by the French royal authorities for his insistence on tolerance and freedom of speech.5 He boldly stated: “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”6 This motto of Enlightenment has become the foundational principle of liberal democracy today. Voltaire’s standard of tolerance was based on the recognition of the frailty of human nature.7 Speaking about Christian faith, Voltaire contends: “Of all religions, the Christian is without doubt the one which should inspire tolerance most, although up to now the Christians have been the most intolerant of all men.”8 Historical Christianity badly failed to exercise the value of tolerance.
Paine believed likewise.9 In the spirit of Voltaire, he claimed: “I have always strenuously supported the right of every man to his own opinion, however different that opinion might be to mine. He who denies to another this right, makes a slave of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of changing it.”10 Ultimately, the French notion of tolerance was redefined and transformed into the American idea of religious tolerance (the right to believe something and the right to change one’s beliefs).
The practical outcome of these egalitarian and libertine views of Enlightenment were liberty, equality, and fraternity – concepts that formed the core of the French Revolution (1789-99) and transformed the history of human thought. These and other emerging political, ideological, and sociological movements and cultural developments gave birth to a new worldview that has affected human history and thought ever since. One concept of that worldview is brotherhood (fraternité), an initiative that later played a pivotal role in the abolitionist movement led by deists in the United States. This thesis of brotherhood, buttressed by social calls such as Paine’s (“Give to every other human being every right that you claim for yourself”),11 turned into a cry for freedom and deliverance from the hierarchical social structures of the ancien régime (France’s old order).
Enlightenment, with its principles of reason, tolerance, and brotherhood, initiated the process by which the spirit/reason “achieves clarity and depth in its understanding of its own nature and destiny, and of its own fundamental character and mission.”12 Every democratic society today, in one way or another, tends to incorporate this lofty ideal into its social or ideological structure. However, by exalting human reason and minimizing the role of faith and God, Enlightenment tends to diminish the theocentric dimension of human life.
No one can deny that Enlightenment introduced certain positive values: the emphasis on tolerance (including religious tolerance), respect for varying opinions through freedom of speech and open-mindedness, an egalitarian vision of society, etc. The church ought to be a proponent of these ideals. Indeed, some serious and constructive efforts were made at finding ways to reconcile the thoughts of Enlightenment with Christian revelation.13 However, early in its life, this rational movement came to clash with the basic axiom of understanding revelation as the ground of Christian understanding of reality. Therefore, it becomes necessary that whatever assessment we make of the Enlightenment worldview ought to be guided by a biblical worldview.
The biblical worldview: Priorities
First, Scripture does not prioritize human reason / human wisdom apart from God’s revelation (1 Corinthians 2). Reason (Romans 12:2) is one of the basic tools for understanding God and His creation. However, it is a tool that is marred by sin and cannot therefore fully or comprehensively grasp the reality of God’s revelation, particularly the “foolishness of the Cross” with all its implications (1 Corinthians 1:18-25). The God of Scripture is the God of the supernatural: of creation, providence, and redemption.14 If interventions by God (mystery, miracles, and prophecy)15 are dismissed, then Christian theology becomes humanism. Salvific faith prevents reason from being employed without restrictions and limitations, as is the case in naturalistic deism.
Second, tolerance as a modern Enlightenment ideal has undergone some transformations in the postmodern world.16 In ancient biblical times, tolerance in this sense was unknown. There was only one God, one faith, one baptism, one church. Tolerance, for that reason, always included the way of the cross. What does this mean? After all, isn’t it possible to believe in the absolute revealed truth of the gospel and still remain tolerant and open-minded?
Christ has demonstrated this. In front of Pilate, confessing His identity as the embodiment of absolute truth (John 18:37, 38), He still respected the authority of an “intolerant” Roman system. Through suffering on the cross, He became Man par excellence. He proved it is possible to affirm the unconditional truth and accept the consequences for that avowal from an intolerant environment.
Eventually, of course, God is the absolute Judge, and there is no ultimate universal tolerance. But for the church as His body today, Christ’s sacrifice at the cross shows the way of accepting moral absolutes while permitting people to opt for their own cherished values and views. The biblical view of tolerance and love does not preclude us from believing in absolute truth revealed in Christ. Therefore, we need not and should not sacrifice our faith in the ultimate truthfulness of God’s revelation, without of course yielding to modern (Enlightenment) or postmodern notions of tolerance that anything goes.
Finally, the biblical idea of brotherhood differs substantially from that of secular, humanistic, and Enlightenment concepts of brotherhood, rooted in deism. While deism presents an optimistic view of human nature, capable in itself of transcending any limitations described by biblical anthropology, the Word of God insists that human nature is hopelessly bent toward itself and that self-interest is at the core of its being and relationships. Therefore, human beings by themselves cannot practice genuine brotherhood (openness in love toward another) without the transforming connection with God the Father and our elder Brother, Lord Jesus (John 20:17; Hebrews 2:10, 11).
Thus, interpretations of religion and religious experience from the standpoint of rationalism/deism differ from that of Christian revelation. But the question is: what does this mean to us as Christians in our everyday personal and communal Christian commitments?
Practical implications for the life of the church
The Enlightenment worldview cannot grasp the idea of living faith in Scripture and religious experience, because that faith claims to transcend human sense and reason. That faith is a requisite for our understanding of God, His creation, and His redemption and righteousness. Consequently, theology is not a scientific/rational endeavor but a divine art and a result of faith understanding itself. In the church, it seems commonsense theology,17 constructed under the influence of Enlightenment, has become knowledge of doctrines. In fact, theology is a creative, artistic, and spiritual type of knowledge of the revealed mystery of God that can never be fully grasped by reason. In the church today, there is a desperate need for faith in the transcendent God based on the ancient Word of God, but speaking in time, including ours. Already-existing reasonable concepts of divine person and activity, allegedly grasped by our theological reason or tradition, are inadequate and incomplete. We should call for the Spirit’s mystery, miracles, and prophecy in order to combat both humanistic/rationalistic and spiritualistic trends in the contemporary community of faith.
Regarding tolerance, at the crossroads of the 150th anniversary of the Advent movement, we are faced with various alternatives: fundamentalist ultra-conservative, conservative, legalistic, mainstream, liberal, cultural, progressive, or unnamed Christians. The sheer diversity of these interpretative theologies and practices creates confusion, disillusionment, and spiritual apathy among the members of the church. Which way is best? Enlightenment’s concept of falsely-grounded tolerance and the postmodern ideal of tolerance are unhelpful because they work without the foundational, normative, and historical revelation of God. This type of revelation is derived from the scriptural reality of the mystery of Christ (Romans 16:25; Ephesians 1:9; 3:4; Colossians 1:27; 2:2; 4:3) and everything that leads to Christ (the Word of the Old Testament) or is a reflection of the reality of Christ (the Word of the New Testament). False or unhinged teachings contrary to this open revelation in Scripture eventually cannot be affirmed, since they are destructive to the unity of the people of God and love in Christ, as the Bible clearly teaches (2 Peter 2:1-2; 1 Timothy 1:3-4; 2 Timothy 2:15-19; 3:6-8; Jude 3).
Even if I defend to the death someone’s right to say what he/she wants to say, I have no right, on the basis of the humanistic idea of tolerance, to consider every possible theological construct as free-speech expression of so-called Christian faith – unless, by creating false optimism for an open-minded church, I wish to avoid the “foolishness of the cross.”
In the end, brotherhood in the church should be lived in a Christ-like context, rather than in social, cultural, ideological/theological, or egalitarian ones. Social units in this world have no spiritual underpinning. They are based only on mutual agreement of their constituents to live/survive together. Members should know that the biblical concept of brotherhood, however, is based on the revealed and revealing mystery of Christ as the Head/Brother of all. Many pitfalls in the Christian community might be avoided if we took hold of this mystery of the counter-humanistic brotherhood in the Spirit.
To sum up: the ancien régime of “deistic Christianity,” prejudiced by the false conceptualization of reason, tolerance, and brotherhood, will soon be replaced by a new regime of the Lordship of Christ and the genuine latter rain of the Spirit of God, who will bring a renewed understanding of the role of holy rationality, forbearance of the cross, and brotherly love to all.
Alexandar S. Santrac, D.Phil. (University of Belgrade, Serbia), Ph.D. (North-West University, South Africa) is professor of religion, ethics, and philosophy in the School of Religion and Theology at the University of the Southern Caribbean, Trinidad, and extraordinary [adjunct research] professor of dogmatics, North-West University, South Africa. E-mail: email@example.com.
- In the preparation of this article, I am thankful to John Fowler from the Dialogue editorial board for his valuable assistance in the editing process; Denis Fortin, professor of theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, for his helpful comments; and Zane Yi, assistant professor of philosophy at Loma Linda School of Religion, Loma Linda, California, for his reading and editing assistance.
- In this article, the term Enlightenment will be used exclusively as a time period or a worldview with specific characteristics, even though the term is used in different contexts today, such as religious awareness, intellectual awareness, awakening to our true inner self, etc.
- Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason (Charlottesville, Virginia: World Union of Deists, 1794), 3. (E-edition: http://www.deism.com/images/theageofreason1794.pdf). The quote in its entirety reads: “I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church” (Ibid. 3).
- Ibid. 141.
- Ian Davidson, Voltaire (London: Profile Books Ltd., 2010), xvi-xvii.
- A later author invented the phrase as an epitome of his attitude. It appeared in Evelyn Beatrice Hall, The Friends of Voltaire (United Kingdom: Ulan Press, 2012 ) written under a pseudonym.
- “What is tolerance? It is the consequence of humanity. We are all formed of frailty and error; let us pardon reciprocally each other’s folly – that is the first law of nature” (Voltaire, “Tolerance,” The Philosophical Dictionary, Translated by H.I. Woolf [New York: Knopf, 1924], 1).
- Ibid. 1.
- “The only sect that has not persecuted are the Quakers; and the only reason that can be given for it is, that they are rather Deists than Christians. They do not believe much about Jesus Christ, and they call the scriptures a dead letter. Had they called them by a worse name, they had been nearer the truth” (Paine, 138).
- Ibid. 1-2.
- Ernst Cassirer, The Philosophy of the Enlightenment (Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 1951), vi. This follows Kant’s definition of Enlightenment as: “Mankind’s final coming of age, the emancipation of the human consciousness from an immature state of ignorance and error” (Immanuel Kant, What is Enlightenment? [Was ist Aufklärung?], translated by Mary C. Smith, E-edition http://www.columbia.edu/acis/ets/CCREAD/etscc/kant.html#note1).
- E-edition: (http://livedtheology.wordpress.com/2010/05/07/the-enlightenment-attack-on-christianity/).
- A good example of this relationship is Isaiah 43.
- Paine believed that these three should be totally suspended from true religion: “Those three means are Mystery, Miracle, and Prophecy. The two first are incompatible with true religion, and the third ought always to be suspected” (Paine, 45).
- Aleksandar S. Santrac, “Influence of Postmodernism/Postmodernity on the Development of Adventist Theology, Education and Mission,” paper presented at the 1st Symposium on Postmodern Studies, Revisiting Postmodernism: The Relevance of Adventist Mission in the 21st century, October 18-20, 2012, Andrews University, Michigan. Published as a chapter in the book on the proceedings of the conference by the Center for Secular and Postmodern Studies, General Conference, 2013.
- This is Scottish philosophical commonsense realism, which became the foundation for the Department of Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary in the USA. See Mark C. Noll, ed. The Princeton Theology 1812-1921: Scripture, Science, and Theological Method from Archibald Alexander to Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academics, 2001).