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The Enlightenment

The Enlightenment brought new ways of looking at knowledge, from politics and science to history and religion.

Read time: 6 minutes, 51 seconds

In the 16th century, the fabric of Christendom in the West - the way in which Christian practice and assumptions shaped the social, cultural and intellectual structures of society – was seriously disrupted. The Reformation, and consequent division of “the Church” into several “churches” is one marker of this.

During the 17th century, in various ways, this change began to become evident, as new ways of thinking, of understanding the physical world and humanity’s place within it began to emerge. However, it is in the 18th century, and particularly with the rise of a group of thinkers and their impact that we can begin to talk of the dominance of what is called the Enlightenment, or the Age of Reason.

Several streams feed into this movement; the rising conviction of the importance and trustworthiness of the individual conscience, shaped by the theology of reform; the discovery of new methods of empirical research emerging from the humanism of the 16th century that regarded investigation of the world, and of human beings rather than speculation about the nature of God as of prime significance; and the increasing reliance on the power of deductive reasoning, rather than dependence on traditional authorities.

What made this kind of new approach possible was a new way of thinking about thinking – new understandings of what it is to “know” something.

It is most common to think about the Enlightenment in terms of the scientific developments of the time; the beginnings of experimental science, for example – Galileo and his telescope, Isaac Newton working on a new kind of mathematics, and developing a theory of gravity, Robert Hooke, who investigated the world using a microscope. The desire, and more importantly, the expectation that the world could be examined and understood, that natural laws could be discovered, and that theories could be tested was central to this way of viewing reality.

What made this kind of new approach possible was a new way of thinking about thinking – new understandings of what it is to “know” something.

Central to this change was a thinker, mathematician and theorizer called Rene Descartes. He became interested in how we know what we know, and on what basis we can trust it. He developed a process based on what he called “radical doubt”. He wanted to have a foundation for his thought that he could trust was absolutely incontrovertible, and he eventually came up with it in the form of the statement “I think, therefore I am.” That is, he argued, because he could trust beyond any question that he knew he was thinking, he could trust that he was there and was thinking. From there, he went on to build a series of propositions to describe the world as he understood it, based on this foundation.

His approach is important in all sorts of ways for the development of ideas, science, history, politics -and also, from the point of view of this article, religion. At the heart of Descartes’ approach, and taken on by many other thinkers was the assumption that what is true and therefore can be known and trusted, can be approached empirically; that is, by experimentation and proof.

Enlightenment thinkers were concerned with all sorts of knowledge; there were those who wanted to explore the physical world, those whose interest was in politics and economics and how to build a good society, and those who wanted to understand history and literature.

In all of these areas, those who embraced the new thinking had to reckon with the place and power of religious faith and practice, since it was through the church’s teaching that the nature of creation had been understood, that what a good society was was developed and that history and culture had been shaped.


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Christianity The Enlightenment

For some, the new project offered the possibility of getting rid forever of what they saw as the superstition and oppression of Christian teaching. Although many were circumspect about how they spoke about faith, yet they were convinced that new knowledge and understanding meant that Christian teaching was no longer believable. Some, such as Voltaire, went as far as to denounce it as positively harmful, while others simply argued that, with the rise of a new and better understanding, God was no longer needed as an explanation. David Hume, for example, a Scottish thinker argued that since, with scientific developments much that had been inexplicable was now clear, so “miraculous” explanations were not necessary. He went further and argued that since miracles were, in their nature, unrepeatable, they were also unprovable, and so should be excluded from any rational explanation of the world.

Not all Enlightenment thinkers wanted to rule out the possibility of God entirely. For those who wanted to develop a “rational” approach to faith, there were two directions that emerged. One is the position of the “Deists”; that is, those who believed in a god who created the universe, and then stepped back to let it operate according to natural laws built into the mechanism. One image they used was God as “watchmaker”; one who created a “machine”, but was not involved in it afterwards.

The debates that still happen, for example, about the nature of the creation stories, or how the account of the flood in Genesis chapter 7 have their origins in the questions of “scientific enquiry” and the presumption that the only truth is scientific truth.

Another approach was to separate thought and feeling as ways of “knowing”. Blaise Pascal, another French philosopher, was one who voiced this particularly effectively, in his book called Pensees“The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of... We know the truth not only by the reason, but by the heart."

His argument was that there is more to being human than our minds, and more ways of knowing than the new scientific one. This way of approaching faith was to become particularly important in the next century as other theologians took it up, and developed theology more as a commentary on human responses to God, and ways of understanding the humanity of Jesus, and were less interested in the ways of talking about God that had dominated until the 17th c.

Among those who remained convinced of the historical truth of a traditional approach to Christian faith, the impact of Enlightenment ways of thinking were also felt. For example, with the development of an approach to truth as that which can be demonstrated scientifically – and therefore as being something apart from and unaffected by the thinker, there developed an approach to the Bible that sought to “prove” it as true in the same way. The debates that still happen, for example, about the nature of the creation stories, or how the account of the flood in Genesis chapter 7 have their origins in the questions of “scientific enquiry” and the presumption that the only truth is scientific truth.

The theological movement we know as “evangelicalism” also has its roots in this new approach. Evangelical theology as it developed in the 18th century shifted the attention away from some of the soul-searching that had marked 17th Puritanism, which encouraged people to ask continually whether they were saved, and instead offered what was a form of “experimentation” by which people could know; did they believe? did they live according to their faith? were they involved in the Christian community? If they could answer yes to these questions, then they could trust they were saved – regardless of how they felt at any particular time. This was effectively an experiment whose results could be trusted.

One of the most significant results of the Enlightenment approach to thinking was to separate humanity from the rest of the world; to set up a way of understanding that placed the human observer and experimenter on one side, and the world (including, in this approach, God) on the other side as an object to be examined, described, defined and understood. This was a very different way of knowing and experiencing existence, and its thought patterns and assumptions still shape much of how we function today.