Considering The Enlightenment
Updated: Feb 13, 2019
It’s tempting to look at this world with all its complications, confusion, unreasonableness, and suffering and conclude that Age of Enlightenment has done little to cure society’s soul. It’s alluring to accept the argument that the Enlightenment has actually produced much of what ails our age- materialism, consumerism, inequality, wars, and a lack of morality. Add to the mix that the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on reason, was rather cold toward religious belief, and we as Orthodox have cause to be cold in kind.
As Orthodox Christians, we often balk at Enlightenment principles. Principles such as reason, the scientific method, progress, liberty, and the elevation of the individual. If you read, however, Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case For Reason, Science, Humanism, And Progress it would appear those tenets are some of the best things to have happened to this world. Pinker is no big fan of religion, but you can ignore the occasional snarky comment you'll get his point. His thesis is that the way of the Enlightenment is responsible for eradicating deadly diseases, increasing food production and distribution, lifting countless people out of poverty, overcoming tyrannical governments, insisting on the dignity of individuals, raising life expectancy, drastically reducing the infant mortality rate, saving mother’s from dying in childbirth, reducing famine, staving off wars, and so much more. He provides significant data and makes a compelling argument you’d expect from a seasoned Harvard professor at the top of his game. It is worth considering.
Let’s remember, however, that reason alone does not bring us to God, nor does it cure the soul. In Orthodoxy, nevertheless, we do not outright reject reason. Reason has a venerable place in our Tradition even if it not responsible for the stillness and union with God that is salvation. By the same token, we mustn’t forget the seedy underbelly of the Age of Reason- an egotistical humanism, the horrors of the French Revolution, the Jefferson Bible, or the freedom of the individual at the expense of truth, righteousness and piety.
Not everything of the Enlightenment sits well with our faith, but there is much that does. Let us not make an unfair caricature of the Age of Reason as it perhaps may have done with Christianity. Instead let us see where it has value, utility, and commonality with our Tradition. Not so we can compromise and water ourselves down into an ecumenical kumbaya, but so that we can strip Egypt of her wealth for the glory of God.
Soon it will be the Sunday of the Last Judgment. We will hear Christ’s words,
“Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’”
If Pinker is correct in regards to the benefits of Enlightenment thinking, then is it possible that by championing some of its principles we can better feed, give drink, take in strangers, clothe, heal the sick, and give dignity and hope to those in prison? Could we not support and encourage technology, human rights, democracies, economic development, health care, and areas of progress responsible for doing the things Christ’s sheep are called to do? We can and we should.
We will not become a Christianity reduced to a social Gospel, or merely throw money into faceless programs. We will continue to meet Christ in the face of others, reflect that image ourselves, and take direct responsibility. We will practice pure and undefiled religion, not saying “depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but giving the things which are needed for the body.
Let’s close with these words from Fr. Gregory Hallam:
“In the highest work of Man…having met Christ in the heart and having battled against all the demons that would seek to dethrone His just and gentle rule, the mind resurfaces to the active realm to understand the blessing it has received. This understanding combines all that is good and noble in the human and natural sciences, not in an 'easy' humanism that would sell its Christianity for acceptance by the world, but in a new synthesis, the transfiguration of all that is human by the Word and Power of God.
In this synthesis of Holy Orthodoxy there are no battles between Faith and Reason, between Heart and Mind, between Religion and Science, between the individual and the community. All are one in God and this unity extends from humanity to the whole Cosmos.”