Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Modernity and Christianity - Sapere aude! (Part 1)


Sapere aude!

"Dare to be wise!" declared Kant.

In the opening of "What is Enlightenment?" Immanuel Kant answers the question: “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity.” 

Kant who, for many, marks the beginning of what became known as German Idealism, can, in my opinion, be seen as a midpoint between Descartes and those philosophers, such as Nietzsche and Husserl, who turned their backs on the Enlightenment project.

How did we go from cogito ergo sum to the madman's prophetic, Gott ist tot?

Starting with Kant gives us insight to what became known as the Age of Reason: the enlightenment of those who laud and employ reason over belief and superstition. Kant's philosophy is centered on the autonomous individual: the person divorced from tradition and community. By reason the individual can obtain truth and live a moral life. This notion of daring to be wise, man in an act of cognitive intrepidation, fights his way from out of the tomb of medieval thought and superstition. The enlightened man is one who puts stock in science and reason, in the factual. Desacralizing one’s life removes the miraculous, the supernatural--which the separation of the natural and supernatural, the sacred and profane, becomes important, which we will get into later--we all become Jeffersons to our own environs.

Cartesian dualism became the catalyst to the Enlightenment Project's agenda to devoid the world of the supernatural. One can argue that the seed of this dualism was planted when the medieval church adopted Aristotelian terminology when speaking of sacramental theology, namely transubstantiation (this was argued by Fr Alexander Schmemann). I'll get into this later when I write about coming to terms with the sacraments.

Often Rene Descartes gets demonized by religious folk for being the father of modernity. Historically speaking, Descartes did push philosophic thought towards modernism. I believe his intentions were admirable...albeit somewhat flawed. 

It was the early 17th century, it seemed as though everyone was killing each other in the name of God. Europe is centuries deep in religious bloodshed. Crusades. Inquisition. The Protestant and Catholic bloody strife in England.

 Enter Descartes. 

He was trained in scholastic thought, so, his philosophy wasn't too far removed from his teachers. But he wanted a fresh start. He hoped that he could find some common ground for all these divergent religious groups, namely a philosophy that spoke of God apart from theology, the Church. But, unlike our time, science, philosophy, and theology were not as easily separated. Many scholastics, like Aquinas, were well versed in all disciplines. The Roman Catholic Church could, and would, make pronouncements regarding all areas of study, dogmatically, often with severe consequences for those who veered from church teaching (example of this is Galileo). In order to speak of God apart from dogma, one would have to wrest philosophic thought from the Church's grip.

Descartes professed to be a devout Roman Catholic, I don't believe that he had any malevolent intentions, but ultimately his philosophical method led to a monumental shift from the Church controlled/defined society to the modern era where science and reason reigned supreme and the Church was relegated to private belief and devotion. 

For medievals, the body was in the mind, the reverse of what we believe today. The scholastics adapted Aristotle's hylomorphism to Christianity. To fully understand this one needs to be acquainted with Platonic forms (or Ideas), so if you are unfamiliar with this a quick search on the interwebs will prove useful. Aristotle was the first to distinguish between matter and form (hyle and morphe, respectively). Matter is the thing from which things develop, form, well simply put gives "form" to the matter, it's what makes a cow and cow, it's cowness. So, applied to man, the soul is a form, or put another way, it's related to the body as form is to matter. The scholastics adapted this and it became known as the doctrine of substantial forms. The substance, or essence of man, what man truly is, what makes him what he is, is his soul, which is created imago Dei. The body was in the soul. Personhood was much different for them then it was for us. The person was a union of soul and body in relation to the Trinity. Not autonomous individuals. 

Descartes went into isolation. His method was to doubt everything. After staring at some wax for a while, he came to the conclusion that he could not trust his senses. He literally began to doubt everything. Why? He wanted an irrefutable starting point, something which was certain and self-evident that could provide the foundation for his philosophy. He even began to doubt his very existence, when he came to the realization that he was doubting...and doubting was if he was thinking he had to exist: hence the famous, oft parodied, dictum cogito ergo sum, I think, therefore I am. Certainty was most important. And man was the center of this certainty. Man was now a subject in relation to objects, the "I", the res cogitans. One can see how this propelled science forward, the subject studying it's environment. So man became the standard for what is true, what is fact, and what is not. And what is not is called belief. 

Because Descartes distrusted his senses, the rational mind became of utmost importance. Descartes took substantial forms and decided there was not a single substance, but two: mind and body, separate entities. This freed the body from the realm of thought, also freeing science from the realm of religion. Science could investigate the external world and religion could stick with the spiritual. By the dawning of the Enlightenment, science and reason ruled; what could not pass the verification principle or meet the criterion of reason would be pushed aside as belief, and because of thinkers like John Locke, whole societies were built on the virtue of reason. As science was explaining more and more how the world works (Newtonian physics for example), one began to see a materialistic, mechanistic world, one where God was relegated to prima causa. This philosophy of God, of course, created a host of problems, one being miracles and the supernatural, which for time reasons I won't get into for right now. There was an attempt at desacralizing and demythologizing the world; everything would be explained and unified by universal principles. Man was to leave his immature, superstitious ways behind. Sapere aude!

How does this all play into my journey to Orthodoxy you ask...

This is primarily a blog about Orthodoxy, not philosophy, so I'll try to stay away from too much philosophy. Christianity continued through the modern era; how the Church was affected became a major area of study for me. Fundamentalism reacting to science and liberal Christianity, the domestication of the Gospel, a hyper-individualized spirituality that ran amok, religion reduced to moralism, were all concerns. Was the modern, American church just a product of its culture? It seems as though that's what it was, since it didn't speak, or even at times seemed irrelevant, in a postmodern context. How does one translate to a different context?

My next blog will be the second part of this series. I'll get into more specifics on how Christianity was directly affected by the changing culture.

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