In Appreciation of the Enlightenment, and Talk

Brad Littlejohn makes the point that the European Enlightenment’s push for the ideals of liberty and equality improved the status of Jews and led to the abolition of slavery:

Of course, it is true that Christian opposition to discrimination and slavery did not need to borrow from the Enlightenment; there was a thoroughly Christian basis for such opposition, and Christians could draw on the teaching of Jesus, without needing that of Voltaire, to critique oppression. Nevertheless, it remains the case that, for whatever reason, Christians in general did not become aware of these fundamental obligations of their faith, and of the disconnect between their Christian profession and their exploitation and oppression of other races, until the Enlightenment began pushing the ideals of liberty and equality.

While the Enlightenment gave us better ways to kill one another, it also gave us that human authority is not to be preferred over human experience, and ancient privilege not to be preferred over the dignity of all men; it gave us coffee house culture in London, as well as lending libraries and the venerable British Museum; though at the cost of clarity about the Two Kingdoms (which now were identified with Church and State), it also gave us the doubt to make religious tolerance a basic feature of the commonwealth. Thus it exposed hierarchy’s claim to truth as often a claim to power, furthered the Reformation’s ideal of an educated citizenry and advanced the idea of freedom of conscience in the aftermath of ‘whose the realm, his the religion’. These are developments that I think most of us would like to maintain in the world.

Now I do still think my cousin’s ‘equality for all?’ as a political view is immature, not least because equality is often such a meaningless or obscurantist buzzword, and I do also fear that the increased availability of education has made an overconfident populace, but the answer to these problems will not be complaints about the (il)logical conclusion of the Enlightenment, but rather improved classical education. It’s true as well that since the Enlightenment there has been no new Augustine, Aquinas, Dante, Calvin or Hooker, that since Hobbes and Locke there has perhaps been no serious articulation of Christian political theory on the same order: the challenge is to acknowledge the insights the Enlightenment has offered and to take a hard look without negating this newer part of our tradition.

What we should avoid in a pluralistic world, as I’ve said before, is inability to really talk publicly:

When the criteria for judgement become slaves of personal taste, the impervious judgement of one person, by not operating on a level that allows real critical engagement in society, establishes itself tyrannically over all other dissenting judgements. From that point on, it’s ego versus ego, power play versus power play. This lack of conversation – lack of the very possibility of dialogue – is unacceptable.

If we can keep talking seriously, unlike fundamentalists of every stripe, we as a society will also be able to listen to the voice of God.

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