The Enlightenment understanding of reason and how reason becomes the basis for secular society

The Enlightenment represented a shift is man’s understanding of the purpose of life. The Enlightenment is a period between the rule of Christianity over Europe and the emergence of Modernism. It is usually excepted as the years 1680 to 1789.[1] Prior to the Enlightenment, the idea that there was something beyond death, something metaphysical, and something that was important to understand was, for the most part, commonly accepted. The Enlightenment shift came in what man found important to know. Rather than needing to know about the afterlife, man’s focus shifted to “… happiness and fulfillment in this world.”[2] The rejection of an eternal purpose and relocation of societies focus to temporal happiness was a natural evolution from the Renaissance exultation of the qualities of man. A very important factor in this shift was the “appalling religious conflicts”[3] that were in the wake of the Reformation. The Enlightenment represented a shift in societies focus from eternal to temporal and it was driven by Renaissance humanism reacting to the failure of religious systems to live up to the idea of man’s goodness.

The age of reason was a time when its contemporaries believed “… reason at long last had gotten the upper hand on Christian revelation, judged it, and found it wanting.”[4] In order for reason to take such a role in society the intent of the average man had to change. Prior to the Enlightenment, the primary focus of people, especially scholastics, was understanding the ultimate purpose of existence in the light of eternity.  Bruce L. Shelley puts it this way, “[t]he spirit of the Age of Reason was nothing less than an intellectual revolution, a whole new way of looking at God, the world, and one’s self. It was the birth of secularism.”[5] Shelley goes on to explain that it was the Renaissance “confidence in man and his powers flowered and filled the air with fragrance during the Enlightenment.”[6] The agnostics to Christianity that dominated the high intellectual culture of the day[7] developed a formula that put simply said, if man is good then all the evil in the world must be the fault of religion suppressing man’s ability to think for himself. Contemporary writers like “Voltaire … refer to Christianity as the “infamous thing””[8] that had prevented harmony, peace and progress on earth.[9] The Enlightenment thinkers had plenty of evil to point to, despot kings in France that ruled by “divine right,”[10] 30 years of war between Protestants and Roman Catholics in Germany,[11] civil war in England between protestants commoners and Roman Catholic monarchy and the conflict finally ending with Christianity split into many denominations. This was not the golden age that the Renaissance had promised and the answer was clear; man must reason himself to freedom from the chains of dogma. The Christian response to this shift was mixed. Clergy in England were outspoken in blaming the evils of the world on “atheism and deism”[12] that had arisen in this new climate. Other Christians like John Locke (1632–1704) tried to harmonize the new orthodoxy of reason with Christianity. Locke postulated that god is “the most obvious truth that reason discovers.”[13] However, Locke and others met with dismissal of any authority claims towards revelation. The inevitable outcome of this capitulation to the spirit of the age would be in the next generation of Christian scholastics like Friedrich Schleiermacher who postulated a total removal of religion from the realm of reason and based the truth of religion purely on personal religious experience.[14]

The Enlightenment represents a shift at a societal level away from the eternal and towards an attempt to create a man-centered explanation of reality. Freedom is the word, freedom from despot rules, freedom from the shackles of religious oppression, and freedom to self-reason. This freedom however came at a high price. In gaining freedom man lost the ability to explain his personhood. The basic acceptance of the need for a force outside the universe to provide a cogent explanation of personhood and the universe, that had been commonly accepted for millennia, was sacrificed to man’s veracious desire for autonomy. The shift away from the authority of God was a natural outcome of Renaissance humanism seeking a scapegoat for the atrocities man perpetrates on each other; mankind no longer cared about what was behind the world, rather he sought to fulfill himself in the now.

 

 

 

[1]. John Woodbridge, and James A. Frank III. 2013. Church History, Volume Two: From Pre-Reformation to the Present Day: The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 356.

[2]. Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, Updated 2nd ed. (Dallas, TX: Word Pub., 1995), 312.

[3]. Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, Updated 2nd ed. (Dallas, TX: Word Pub., 1995), 313.

[4]. John Woodbridge, and James A. Frank III. 2013. Church History, Volume Two: From Pre-Reformation to the Present Day: The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 356.

[5]. Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, Updated 2nd ed. (Dallas, TX: Word Pub., 1995), 312.

[6]. Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, Updated 2nd ed. (Dallas, TX: Word Pub., 1995), 313.

[7]. John Woodbridge, and James A. Frank III. 2013. Church History, Volume Two: From Pre-Reformation to the Present Day: The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 356.

[8]. Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, Updated 2nd ed. (Dallas, TX: Word Pub., 1995), 317.

[9]. Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, Updated 2nd ed. (Dallas, TX: Word Pub., 1995), 317.

[10]. John Woodbridge, and James A. Frank III. 2013. Church History, Volume Two: From Pre-Reformation to the Present Day: The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 433.

[11]. Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, Updated 2nd ed. (Dallas, TX: Word Pub., 1995), 302.

 

[12]. John Woodbridge, and James A. Frank III. 2013. Church History, Volume Two: From Pre-Reformation to the Present Day: The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 398.

[13]. Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, Updated 2nd ed. (Dallas, TX: Word Pub., 1995), 315.

[14]. John Woodbridge, and James A. Frank III. 2013. Church History, Volume Two: From Pre-Reformation to the Present Day: The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 541.

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