Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Modernity and Christianity - Problems Inherited from the Enlightenment (Part 2)

My apologies for taking so long to post the second part of this series. I also changed the titled from "Enlightenment and Christianity" to "Modernity and Christianity", it seemed more fitting. You can read the first part here

What the Renaissance did in paving the way for the Age of Reason, the Reformation did for modern Christianity. Often we take the status quo for granted: things have always been this way, my conception of God is the same as the medievals. This is not always the case. Beliefs, ideologies, worldviews all change. We are at an advantage, we're able to look back on millennia of progress, the ebb and flow of ideas throughout the steady flow of history. We can say that the return to classicism in the late Middle Ages led to the humanism of the Renaissance, which led to the scientific revolution. Going further back we can say the influx of Islamic culture in Europe, especially in Spain, brought Aristotle and mathematics, which in turn sparked interest in classicism, which led to observation of the external world, etc. Even though this is simplified for didactic purposes, one can not deny the slow changes through history.

History is diachronic. It is dynamic, in perpetual motion.

For Christianity the roots of the modern variation date back to the Reformation. As I mentioned in the first part of this series, one can go back even further to the Fourth Lateran Council which dogmatized the Sacraments and (re)defined the Eucharist with Aristotelian terminology--the doctrine of transubstantiation. I will go into this more in depth when I get to sacramental theology, but for now I will say that the promulgation of this doctrine marked a change in the way the Church talked about sacrament and symbol. The patristic notion of matter communicating and sharing in the divine and  becoming a way to reveal knowledge of God, for the person to come into commune with Him and receive grace, was no longer possible. The bestowing of grace was still there for the Latin Church but "nature" was lost. What the great Fathers fought for so vehemently--that creation/nature/matter was good, was adequate--was gone. Great theologians like St Maximus the Confessor who taught that in Christ all creation has been deified--the cosmic sacrament, creation as icon--is reversed. To sum this up so we can get to the Reformation, transubstantiation essentially says, the substance of matter (of created things) is not adequate in revealing the divine, it has to be supplanted by the divine substance.  Transubstantiation is the battering ram to the bulwark of the Chalcedonian definition, on the rubble a dualism is constructed and we are left with the dichotomy: natural-supernatural, sacred-profane, spiritual-secular. It wasn't much of a stretch for Descartes to introduce his dualism (see first part of this series).


In 1517, Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, unintentionally catapulting the West into reformation. Luther was a monk turned theologian, he was not a revolutionary; initially, his intentions were to shed some light on, what he saw, was the abuse of indulgences, relics, and ecclesial wealth.

As many of you probably know, Luther's reforming did not stop here; after backlash from Rome and gaining followers in Germany, what started as "magisterial reforming" accelerated into a complete separation from Rome, then spread throughout Europe.

I have great admiration for Martin Luther, I've always favored the underdog, the one who put his or her neck in the guillotine for the sake of others and/or for what they were passionate for. I believe a reformation was needed but the outcome was disastrous.

Europe's religious foundation was already shaken by the Black Death. Many people began to question their faith in the clergy and institutional church and, in some cases, God. So it was only natural when Luther expatiated sola fide, sola scriptura, and the priesthood of all believes, Christians saw an opportunity to get out from under the oppressive reign of the Roman Church. It was a breath of fresh air.

If all you needed was faith to be saved.

And each Christian could read and interpret Scripture for themselves.

And if each believer was a priest.

Then why did they need the Church? Clergy? Tradition? Creeds?

Martin Luther's famous words:

 Since, then, your serene majesty and your lordships seek a simple answer, I will give it in this     manner, neither horned nor toothed. Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen

Luther defying Rome was inspirational and empowering. He gave people the weapons to fight against the imperial church, to go forth and proclaim the Gospel, untainted by the Papacy and councils.

In The Freedom of a Christian, Luther lays out two propositions: "A Christian is perfectly free lord of all, subject to none" and "A Christian is perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all." The former, I believe, has to do with faith, the latter practice. We are not subject to Popes or councils but to reason and Scripture. We are subject to all insofar as being servants to all. Human nature dictates our inclination for adhering to the first of these propositions, while ignoring the second.

We like not being subject to anyone. We are our own captains. We bow to no man. And with the changing culture, the shift to the rational individual over and above religion, we become like Greeks battling the gods. The import of The Fall is not so much that it happened but that it happens. The tools modern man acquired from the Reformation and Enlightenment enabled us to brazenly eat the forbidden fruit.

Continuing on in Luther's famous work, he tells his readers that man is twofold. He is the inner, spiritual nature, which he refers to as the new man, and the flesh, outward and carnal. The inchoate dichotomy that I mentioned earlier (the spiritual-secular, natural-supernatural) is starting to come to fruition. Protestantism focused very much so on the inner man, the spiritual life, the heart of man, while the body was equal to the carnal nature. One surprise for me studying Orthodoxy was that the whole person was and is being sanctified, not just the "heart". In Orthodoxy, through theosis, the body and soul are both saved and healed.


Protestantism's focus on the spiritual alongside later developments, namely Descartes' philosophy concerning mind-body dualism, mathematical certainty, rationalism, and the individual, the modern Christian's spiritual growth became a strictly private matter--a matter of belief, either embracing the cultural changes (liberal Christianity and deism) or in stark opposition to the spirit of the times. As I mentioned in the first part of this series, the person as autonomous, rational individual--the res cogitans--re-centered knowledge on man divorced from any community and tradition (so they thought).

And Christianity followed suit...shaped by the culture...

But Luther despised and denigrated reason, referring to it as "the bitch goddess"...?!

One would be correct. As a Reformer, like Calvin and many others, Luther rejected the rationalism of Scholasticism and attempted to return the Church to an earlier time. He was greatly influenced by St Augustine and held to many catholic teachings, but he rejected later developments in doctrine and practice. Even though Luther hated "reason", he believed in a common sense reason. At the Diet of Worms, he said unless he was convinced by the Scriptures or by clear reason....Luther simply rejected medieval hermeneutics (Four Meanings of Scripture) and the excessive use of philosophy (he was like a more modern Tertullian), he saw these as ways the Roman Catholic Church justified it's man-made doctrines. Using Scripture as his guide, via literal interpretation, Luther constructed a new theology for a new age. And by the time of the Enlightenment, Christendom had already been rent asunder several times: Lutherans, Calvinists, Anglicans, Anabaptists.

Whether one followed the path of rational Christianity or spurned the new "enlightened" religion, both put the individual at center. Each individual could read the Bible for themselves and, because of plain sense reason, discover biblical truths, arriving at "orthodoxy." God now speaks to each person directly, not through clergy.

One of the major problems inherited from the Enlightenment was individualism. Authority shifted from the clergy and the papacy to the individual and the Bible became the authoritative text, if you will.  Each and every person was endowed with reason, Descartes in the opening of Discourse on Method states, "...good sense or reason, is by nature equal in all men." Redefining the human person as autonomous individual leads to the question, how does one know? Knowledge before came from an authoritative source, the Church, received in faith. Since, knowledge was not strictly of a religious nature and can be learned from scientific inquiry, investigations, reason, and common sense, how does the individual know?

During the period known as the Enlightenment, there arose two dominant schools of thought: rationalism and empiricism. The former stressed the use of reason to comprehend universal principles and ideas/concepts, an early example would be Descartes, also Spinoza. The latter turned its focus to empirical evidence, sense perception; we investigate reality and by the experience of each individual gain knowledge and truth.  John Locke, who we will cover more of soon, was of this school of thought. Knowledge became something objective and grasped by the human mind. The Reformation, in essence, handed each person the Bible with the imperative: Read the Word of God! And it wasn't so much that each person had the Bible as it was that the technology to mass produce books, i.e. the Gutenberg press, that had an irrevocable effect. According to Marshall McLuhan, the medium is the message. What shapes our minds, the way we think is often the technology not only content. McLuhan tells us that what came with Gutenberg was the ability to repeatedly print books (I would like to add is the commoditization of knowledge, information), and what started with the phonetic alphabet came to fruition with the press, the further separation of sight and sound and the movable letters of the press reconditioned our minds to think in more specialized and fragmented ways. In the modern age, knowledge became separated into disparate, specialized disciplines. 

One of the commonalities between the different schools of thoughts and areas of study became the search for self-evident, absolute truths, this became known as foundationalism and dates back to Descartes. This leads to the second major problem, the "emphasis on the foundational nature of Scripture" (Robbert Webber). During the Enlightenment, what was foundational for Christians shifted from Christ to the Bible. Known as the Book-oriented approach, Robert Webber tells us that the centrality of the Bible makes three presuppositions:

               1) The Bible is the mind of God written
               2) The mind is the highest faculty of our creation in the image of God
               3) Truth is known as the human mind meets the mind of God in the study of Scripture

With the focus on science and fact, the Bible naturally became observable data that leads to rational answers. This is why literalism and the doctrine of infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture became so important to conservative Christians as they fought against liberalism. As liberal Christianity and deism demythologize the text--not only that but reality, as well--traditional/conservative Christians needed a solid foundation for truth that they could build upon, the Bible became this. They needed certainty in an age where the rational and empirical thinkers were on a quest for the factual over and above religious belief. The only way to build on that solid foundation conservative thinkers needed a "no nonsense" theory of reality, a what-you-see-is-what-you-get. What one perceives is actually there. Words have meaning because they refer to an exact reality outside the text, this became known as the representational model, or correspondent theory of truth. Our minds come into direct contact with the objects of reality. And there's a plain sense, practical meaning to the words we read (an angogical reading like the Orthodox and Catholics stress is non-existent in the modern context). In the next blog post, I'll cover the representational model more from a postmodern perspective.

 There are many philosophers and theologians that we can study but, before wrapping up this post, there are two I want to discuss that, I believe, had an enormous impact on modern Christianity, especially the Anglo-American tradition.

 Most Americans are unaware of the influence John Locke had on our society. Anglo-American philosophy was highly "common-sense" and pragmatic.  Locke applied his pragmatic, empirical approach to political philosophy, he is often considered the father of classic liberalism, which was the underlying philosophy that shaped American society. Carl Raschke says, "The singularity of personal belief and the sovereignty of individual conscience were construed almost exclusively as religious considerations during the sixteenth century. Yet by the early-seventeenth century they had been rationalized as well as secularized. The Reformation principle of Christian liberty gradually morphed into the modern idea of political liberty and what Thomas Jefferson dubbed the right to the "pursuit of happiness."" So, as society became more shaped by Reformation principles, liberty no longer was a Christian ideal, it became a political mandate, a civil right. Locke writes: The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions... If Christian principles (morality) were to be politicized, and this is even more true if the role of revelation was either demoted or discarded entirely, it would have to somehow be equivalent to natural knowledge. The Reformation drew a line between natural and supernatural knowledge of God, and with the further polarization of scientific fact and religious belief the line became even wider and more distinct.

 The pragmatism of Locke et al when applied to ecclesiology created the church into, to use Robert Webber's words, a "political power base." It was imperative that Christians vote other Christians into office, support national religious groups/agencies, to legislate morality, etc. Beginning with Charlamagne, the Western Church has always seemed to vie for worldly political power, and here, in my opinion, with the birth of America it reached a very dangerous place. The pragmatic and ethical purposes of Christianity, for Locke, was the only guarantor of democratic politics. Because Locke wrote about religion quite often, even though he advocated the dichotomy of fact and belief and the implications thereof, he is often praised as the father of modern theology, as well. A thinker who at best boarderlined deism became one of the biggest influences of modern theology...I'll let that sink in.

According to Raschke, it was Thomas Reid who had "the most forceful and long-standing impact on the theory of knowledge in both a philosophical and theological context." Reid is known for Scottish common-sense philosophy, aka commonsense realism. He rejected all forms of rationalism and idealism. According to Reid, the objects we experience through sense perception are actually objects themselves, not ideas or representations. All humans are capable of knowing objects in themselves, which he applied the term "fact." One comes into contact directly with objects, facts. To the average English speaking reader this may seem like a no-brainer, but if one is familiar with Hellenic philosophies and the semantic triangle of the middle-ages, then you'll understand the audacity of Reid's commonsense school. The observing subject can directly experience objects, the mind can fully grasp these "facts." If we follow this thought process to it's inevitable conclusion and apply Reid's realism to God, then we get something similar to the fourth century Eunomian heresy, albeit not exactly the same, but the human person can know God in His very essence. God is reduced to object. We will get into this more in the next post.

Reid's Presbyterian background made him sympathize with the Reformers. He wanted a level playing field for all believers and theologians. Everyone is endowed with reason, or commonsense; for Reid this commonsense was all you needed, this would deny the special place of ecclesial authority and revelation.

The natural light of reason, which Reid identified with the evidence of the senses, is sufficient.   Indeed, commonsense itself is the foundation of our knowledge of God. Common sense is the "inspiration of the Almighty." Reid argued, not inconsistently, that if God had wanted us to know him in any way other than through commonsense, he would have endowed all human beings at birth with different habits of cognition. (Carl Raschke)

The Scottish school of common sense realism is the high point of modernity. What before was divinely revealed through Scripture and Tradition and safeguarded by the Church, has now been replaced by the "natural light of reason." And the plain sense of Scripture was equal to common sense. Every person has the ability to receive directly from God through the natural light, this comes dangerously close to the apotheosis of reason, of human thought. One can see now why Reid had such an appeal to evangelicalism and fundamentalism (which often are the same thing, but not always).

By the dawning of the 19th century, Christianity no longer had any semblance to the Church launched at Pentecost. Christianity now was simply atomized persons, each a priest, all saved by faith, that through their individual readings of Scripture could arrive at divine truths, the reason this is even possible is because the plain sense of the text is equal to common sense, which is equal to the natural light of reason. Because the human mind can grasp external objects through sense perception one can comprehend reality, possibly God Himself. Whole societies were built upon the ethical truths of the Bible because they're natural and self-evident. The more science advanced the more we could explain the universe, the more God got pushed further and further out of the picture.

He became nothing more than the First Cause.

Distant from the mechanistic world.

Modernism was not through with Christianity. We've only had a cursory glance at the problems inherited from the Enlightenment, we still have another century till we reach the first glimpses of postmodernity, and even then postmodernism as a "coherent philosophy" (and I use that loosely) didn't come into its own until the 1960s.

I mentioned in an earlier post that I always went back to the early church to see what they taught. Once I began to see some disturbing similarities between the evangelical systematic theologies and the eighteenth century deististic philosophies, I became increasingly concerned that I was deeply rooted in a tradition that had more in common with secularism than it did with the Church that Christ founded. Naturally, as many in my predicament, I looked to postmodernism, which lead me even more so to classic Christianity. The next post I will take you through Kant to Nietzsche. The one after that, hopefully, will be on the concerns of postmodern thinkers and how their criticisms were helpful for me in understanding what happened to the modern church.

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