Dare to Know! The Enlightenment Imaginary

The last days of Jenny and Karl Marx were marked by sickness and enfeeblement. On December 2, 1881 Jenny died, breaking Marx’s already creaking heart. Too sick to attend the funeral himself, his life-long buddy Frederick Engels gave the eulogy, a kind of faith confession: “The place where we stand is the best proof that she lived and died in the full conviction of atheist Materialism. Death had no terrors for her. She knew that one day she would have to return, body and mind, to the bosom of that nature from which she had sprung. And we, who have now laid her in her last resting-place, let us cherish her memory and try to be like her.”

Old battle and body weary Karl of revolutionary intractability struggled on until his passing on March 14, 1883. Wilhelm Liebknecht, who cherished Marx dearly to the bitter end, turned his eulogy into proclamation by asserting that only a humanity liberated from God could defeat capitalism.

“Natural science was the first step in this liberation, but the science of society Marx had created and made available to the people would ultimately destroy capitalism, ‘and with it the idols and lords of the earth, who, as long as they live, will not let God die’” (as cited, J. Sperber, Karl Marx: a nineteenth-century life [2013], pp. 541, 547).

The Enlightenment humanist imaginary

Liebknecht and Engels wished to place God in the cold, dark tombs along with Marx and his beloved Jenny. Marx and his comrades were children of the Enlightenment Project; so are the Frankfurt School intellectuals and Jurgen Habermas. For most of Western history human beings have been commanded by a source of value outside themselves, by “divine command” is the way A.F. Grayling (What is Good? The search for the best way to live [2003]) puts it. In the pre-modern world God was the Chief Commander, his priests and tutelary agents our Pedagogues.

In Kant’s famous essay, “What is enlightenment?, written in 1784, he makes it clear that the immaturity of our intellects is intimately bound to taking guidance from authoritative others. The officer declares to the solider, “Do not argue, drill! The priest declares, “Do not argue, believe!” The taxman shouts, “Do not dispute fairness, pay!” Kant attacks the “various hegemonies” (Grayling, 2003, p. 115) which forge the manacles of our minds.

Kant is a great enlightenment thinker. He reflects the progress of the intellectual and emergent consciousness that had been growing intensely and exponentially since the “lunar men” participated in our species’ great revolutionary learning moment.

They gazed into the heavens and did not simply praise God. They overturned a way of seeing the skies and earth that had held sway over humankind’s minds and eyes for millennia. But this discovery opened up a Pandora’s box of our species deepest fears. Ordinary Christian believers had to come to grips with the reality that we are, in some sense, on our own, can stand upright and have the capacities to make our own rules, create order and find happiness and pleasure, here, now.

The enlightenment humanist-imaginary—nature no longer requires the golden key of sacred, revealed text to interpret its meanings—was countered fiercely from the time of Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo to Isaac Newton and forward into our own dazzling period of DNA, the human genome project and eerie Black Holes.

Once the veil was stripped from Nature (perceived by medieval Christians as a vast and intricate enchanted sign system pointing in thousands of ways to God’s purposes and presence), monotheistic religion lost its monopoly on knowledge and control of people’s spirits. It now had to face off with a competing source of knowledge, a scientific authority able to stand upright and think about natural world processes on its own.

Even though the Age of Enlightenment is filled with ingenious attempts to marry faith and reason—were human beings capable of living their lives without reference to the Divine source of Light?—there is little doubt that this age ushered in one of the great themes of modernity–the loss of metaphysical certainty.

Western humans had, indeed, crossed a learning divide. Now they had to face their most precipitous learning challenge. With the idea of God no longer necessary to account for the workings of the natural world (Deists only needed God for a fleeting moment to wind up the clock), could they learn to be alone in a cosmos, vast, dark, endless, with the little earth spinning without inherent purpose round and round the sun?

The other closely related issue that those in the service of the divine command had to face was an equally powerful acid corroding the idea that earthly kings ruled by divine ordering. If we as humans wonder, and actually use our minds to invent the cognitive forms (like calculus, quantum physics or evolution) to comprehend how nature works, what laws govern its processes and transformations), why couldn’t our reason discover what laws govern our motivations, interactions and thought processes?

The Enlightenment Imaginary affirms that humankind does not have to fear divine retribution. Nor do we have to fear kings and queens and political rulers. Through reason, the exercise of rational powers and capacities, human beings can break out from their subjugation to the three codes adumbrated by Diderot: nature, society and religion.

For much of human history, human beings have been at the mercy of a fickle nature, full of dread, malice and disease. Although humankind did manage to gain some knowledge and mastery of natural processes, particularly through trial and error learning to find the right herb for some ailment, until the scientific revolution opened up the floodgates of investigation, we have imagined, for example, that evil spirits were the cause of mental illness.

The Enlightenment era banished this form of explanation and its attendant, often cruel, treatment of the mentally sick. This is a central dimension of the Enlightenment Project: scientific knowledge of the world can enable us to know its mysterious workings. Reason can be brought to bear on social ordering and disordering. It can make us freer and healthier.

Enlightenment critics of religion believed that religion propped up oppressive social and economic systems. Once religion’s hold on society was loosened, the veil over society was lifted. Human beings learned that they were the makers of laws and inventors of norms, that they have the responsibility to find a non-transcendental ground for their societies.

The Enlightenment Imaginary provides, controversially enough, both an ontological critique (religion is an irrational expression of being) and political one (religion upholds structures of oppression and domination, and is a form of domination itself, because it prevents free thinking). Liebknecht and Engels were enlightenment radicals par excellence.

By the late nineteenth century, their secular faith had congealed into a dogmatic form of a science of society that believed that history would move inexorably towards the surpassing of the capitalist form of exploitative society. They had cast their understanding of historical unfolding in natural science terms; they were positivists and militant atheists.

Religion was not a living flower; it only adorned the chains binding human beings. “The criticism of religion disillusions man,” asserted the young Marx (as cited, D. McLellan (Ed.), Karl Marx: selected writings [1977]), “so that he will think, act and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and regained his senses, so that he will move around himself as his true sun” (p. 64).

he churches’ entangled history with the Enlightenment

The churches relationship to the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment is an entangled history. Margaret Jacobs (“The Enlightenment critique of Christianity,” in S.J. Brown and T. Tackett (Eds.), The Cambridge History of Christianity. Vol. VII: Enlightenment, reawakening and revolution 1660-1850 [2006]) states provocatively that: “The period after 1660 saw the emergence of the first sustained attack on Christianity from within Europe since the triumph of the Christian Church under Constantine in the fourth century. To be sure the critics were few and the dangers great. But once unleashed, they became a radical force, never again to be silenced. A specific set of circumstances caused the anti-Christian genie to spring from a dark and angry place within a mind angered by fear and persecution” (p. 265).

As the doyen of historians of the Enlightenment, Peter Gay (The Party of Humanity: essays in the French Enlightenment [1964]), reminds us: “The stakes in the attack on Christian theology were higher than the fate of theology itself: to discredit Christianity was to take a decisive step in the direction of a secular, modern civilization” (p. 46).

But during the time of this great shaking—from the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to the Enlightenment era of the eighteenth—Christian churches, both Catholic and Protestant, did not simply wake up one morning and crown Reason as their new Lord and Redeemer. Nor did Christian thinkers simply reject the Enlightenment teachings and new rational sensibilities.

In France, for instance, a virulent anti-philosophe movement—a kind of counter-enlightenment—was spearheaded by the Roman Catholic Church (D. McMahon, Enemies of the Enlightenment: the French counter-Enlightenment and the making of modernity [2001]). McMahon tells us a story seldom told by Enlightenment scholars.

“There is no more religion in France. All is lost!” cried out Joseph-Laurent Gilbert at one of Voltaire’s plays.

This cry of fear from the anguished heart captures something of the rage militant clergy, enlightened aristocrats, Sorbonne censors and ordinary others felt as they watched in horror during the Reign of Terror of 1793-1794 when blood-soaked revolutionaries sought to sweep away all traces of royalist, Christian France.

They destroyed churches and desecrated sanctuaries, plundered altars, forced priests and nuns to marry. McMahon (2001) states: “By the end of 1793, the public worship of Christianity had ceased in all but the most remote regions, replaced by profane festivals that blended pagan forms and revolutionary rhetoric in a ‘transfer of sacrality’ from the values of the Old Regime to those of the new” (p. 91).

For Catholics, the last straw was christening Notre Dame Cathedral as the Temple of Reason. For conservative critics, the Reign of Terror was a bitter vindication of their warnings that abandoning God as moral foundation of a stable social and political order would lead to anarchy, blood and regicide, fanaticism and intolerance.

In fact, most ordinary French persons continued to try to live with divine guidance. Without it, life was “terrifying, directionless, and confused” (p. 115). Tragically, the dynamics of the Revolution was fuelled by a “process of spiralling radicalization that consumed both sides of the political divide, polarizing of opinions, and sundering France with terrible results” (p. 57). Thus, for the anti-philosophes religion, public morality and political order were inseparable.

Carving out a reasonable religion

Hobbes “sledgehammer demolition of the sacred authority of clergy in the interests of civil power, and by the boldness of his theological revisions…” (D. MacCulloch, Christianity: the first three thousand years [2009], p. 782) was driven and propelled by a self-confident doubt about the claims of the Bible (critical reading methods emerge in the seventeenth century), religious intolerance and corrupt religious practice.

Demolition crews may be the right metaphor: Spinoza’s Ethics (1677) saw “God as undifferentiated from the force of nature or the state of the universe” (p. 781). Calvin’s magisterial Creator who was aloof from his creation had been dissolved; God had vanished into the natural order.

Then there was Hume, who in his On miracles (1748) and Natural history of religion (1757) turned his sceptical gaze against the “self-satisfied platitudes of the Deists, reasoning that their much-vaunted pristine monotheism or natural religion was but wish fulfilment. In reality all religion had its origins in fear and ignorance, and the first faiths had been crude and polytheistic” (R. Porter, Enlightenment: Britain and the creation of the modern world [2001], p. 119).

For Spinoza, Hobbes and Hume religious faith was hardly reasonable. But theological thinkers during this watershed time in Western culture and history did not fold up their tents and retire to country homes.

Essentially, Christian thinkers had to carve out a reasonable religion for enlightened times. Jacobs (2006) points out that the “new science from Galileo onward gave a profoundly new definition of matter as atomic, moved by contact action between bodies, as measurable, as knowable through its velocity and weight” (p. 271). Incredibly, Newtonian physics inspired a new theology–given the clumsy name of physico-theology.

Long forgotten theologians—Pluche, Bentley and Nieuwentyt—imagined that Newton’s vision of vast space between heavenly bodies created a barrier so that atoms could not group under their own power. Only God had the power to accomplish this heavenly task. Pluche was more popular in his day than Voltaire.

The masses ascribed to the big vision of “God’s mastery over creation, his power and majesty affirmed by the order and design displayed by creation” (p. 273). They wanted to cling to a world of mystery and wonder and magic. Helen Rosenblatt (“The Christian Enlightenment,” in S.J. Brown and T. Tackett, op. cit. [2006]) observes that we can speak of a “Christian Enlightenment.” Christians sought to reconcile their faith with the new sciences, and found some ways to do this. They advocated “reasonableness” in all things. They were progressive-minded; they wanted to trim Christianity down and fashion it into a “simpler, clearer, more tolerant and morally efficacious religion” (ibid.).

They fashioned a “new and reasonable view of Jesus….Increasingly, he was portrayed less as a supernatural redeemer, and more as a teacher and moral guide. Man, it was suggested, would be reconciled with God not so much through Jesus’ sacrifice, but through his precepts. And these precepts, it was often repeated, were eminently reasonable and practical” (p. 287).

Their Jesus was politically passive and sociable. Today we might say he was a good guy to hang with; no threat to the political order at all.

Porter (2001) says that: “As religion became subjected to reason, Christianity ceased to be a ‘given’ and became a matter of analysis and choice. And, for some, that meant scepticism or rejection” (p. 99). But for those who tried to pull reason and faith together, like John Locke, the high priest of toleration, reason was the “candle of the Lord” (Proverbs 20: 27). God had given us faculties and reason was certainly the supreme capacity of our species.

For Locke, as Porter (2001) claims, “Reason for its part could validate the existence of the Father of Light, verify the Bible as revelation and back the basics: Christ was the messiah, the sole tenet upon which the disciples had insisted—not for them any Thirty-nine Articles, Westminster Confession or even Athanasian Creed” (p. 100).

In The reasonableness of Christianity, as delivered in the scriptures (1695), Locke did not deny that Jesus was the Messiah who proclaimed the coming of the kingdom (though it needed clarification), but he favoured accenting Christ’s moral mission. Religion was primarily a “school of virtue” (p. 102). Locke had subtly shifted from the Calvinist dogmas of his youth to a commitment to use reason to inquire into our duties.

Still, the corrosive acid of paring things down to a “natural religion” led numerous thinkers to question the Christian doctrine of exclusive salvation. Even Deists often pointed to the Old Testament texts portraying Yahweh as behaving contemptibly. Indeed, the Bible did not seem to be under the penetrating gaze of historical-critical methods exactly a text of sound ethical injunction.

Thus, it is not surprising that John Toland’s masterpiece, Christianity Not Mysterious (1696), would advocate a mystery-free view of what counted as knowledge. Toland was rather despised by Christian thinkers; he was a sassy and saucy guy.

These comments are just a taste of a vast banquet of delicacies from scholarly kitchens. Porter, MacCulloch and Jacobs argue that by the end of the seventeenth century virtually all the elements of the Enlightenment were in place.

By the end of the seventeenth century, England and the Netherlands had begun a “long process of moving Christian doctrine and practice from the central place in European everyday life which it had enjoyed for more than a millennium, and placing it among a range of personal choices” (MacCulloch, 2009, p. 788).

MacCulloch (2009) makes this astute observation: “While Western Europe’s spirituality was showing signs of becoming detached from its liturgy, divinity parted company with revelation, and patterns of society were being shaped by other sources besides Christianity’s sacred book, Western discourse on philosophy came to be dominated by a philosopher whose assumptions radically detached from the spiritual from the material” (p. 790).

Indeed, by the end of the eighteenth century, MacCulloch says portentously, “Alongside the gleeful and publicity-seeking assaults on the Church and Christianity from philosophy came a more profound challenge from an academic from the north in the University of Konigsburg, Immanuel Kant” (p. 802).

Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.