Today’s conservative-thinking adherents of the Enlightenment’s emphasis on human autonomy and the sufficiency of human wisdom are trying to figure out how to reverse what they perceive to be America’s slow march toward death, at least as the nation we have known. I’ve suggested that we give up Enlightenment thinking and return to a belief in the sovereignty of God. Here’s what that means and why it’s not ‘stupid’ to return to it.
Enlightenment Principles Are a Dead End
What conservative Enlightenment thinkers have failed to recognize is that political liberals hold to the same fundamental principles as they.
The only difference between the two groups is that conservative Enlightenment thinkers like those applications of human autonomy and reason that lead to outcomes they prefer, while liberal Enlightenment thinkers like the applications that lead to the outcomes they prefer. But they have no reason to think that their outcomes are actually better than those of liberals. The whole point of human autonomy is that each person gets to pick the interpretation of human autonomy that leads to the outcome (values) he or she likes best.
Thus, it’s ironic that humanistic thinkers have a hard time finding common ground, because they stand on the same fundamental ground! But absent an absolute to which all should adhere, social order collapses into millions of “sovereign” selves. Human autonomy is a social-order dead end.
The Only Alternative
The only alternative to human autonomy is the autonomy of God, or what Christians would call the sovereignty of God. But probably most Enlightenment thinkers would think this is simply a call to the kind of Christianity with which they (and many Christians) are most familiar.
However, the Christianity of which I speak was born of the Reformation, which preceded the Enlightenment. It helped produce the core values upon which Enlightenment thinking feasted. At the core of the Reformation was the sovereignty of God.
At that time, the sovereignty of God was asserted in connection with the issue of justification—how one is put back in good standing with God—and it was the line of demarcation in the Christendom of Europe between Catholic and Protestant theology.
Both Catholics and Protestants believed that, as a consequence of Adam and Eve’s rejection of God, their descendants were born with a disposition by which they would exercise their free will only in a manner that was hostile to God. That is what Luther called the bondage of the will. This is the “muck” about which I spoke last week.
The question was how to get out of the muck, be free of that bondage. Luther and then Calvin and the Protestants who followed in their train said there was nothing we could do to “save” ourselves and that God alone could set our wills free so that we would actually desire and choose the things of God.
That God would actually choose to provide a means of salvation even though such was not incumbent on Him or deserved by us was the gospel, the “evangelon” from which we get our word “evangelical.” As I’ll explain next week, these twin pillars of Protestantism also constitute the most democratizing idea in the history of the world.
Unfortunately, many modern evangelical churches don’t seem to say much anymore about these Reformation-articulated doctrines of God’s sovereignty and man’s “depravity.” It makes too much of God and not enough of man for people steeped in Enlightenment thinking, and when that happens, the gospel’s good news succumbs to the humanistic thinking of the Enlightenment.
One evidence of this is that many church leaders, if they are honest, are concerned that someone might not get “saved” if the quality or style of the music isn’t in keeping with what people want to hear or the experience they want to have. Preachers’ sermons need to have a sufficient amount of charisma or polish if they are going to “work.” While those things aren’t bad, per se, it’s humanistic to the core if it creeps into our minds that salvation depends on something other than God—the right “environment.”
One popular mega-church preacher was pretty straightforward about it: “When they come to my church, or our meetings, I want them to be lifted up. I want them to know that God’s good, that they can move forward, that they can break an addiction, that they can become who God’s created them to be.”1 Perhaps his words were just poorly chosen, but it sure sounds like what God wants and lifting up Christ is secondary. It sure sounds like, to be changed, you just have to get “pumped up” on Sunday.
But such deviations from the Christianity of the Reformation explain why it’s not “stupid” to return to Christianity, because, I’m not talking about a Christianity that’s just humanism wrapped in Bible words and that I think is seen for what it is by both conservative and liberal Enlightenment thinkers.
Don’t Christianity’s ‘Warts’ Militate Against it?
The answer to that question is no.
Christianity, like all other belief systems, had to mature and develop as Christians came to better understand the Scriptures on which they rely for their understanding of the world and the human condition. Then they had to mature in their understanding of the implications of that worldview and how it applies to the constantly changing world in which we live. I, for one, still have a long way to go in this department.
No doubt, Christians have zigged and zagged during this process of maturation, as I believe we’ve now done with our modern versions of the “Christian” humanism with which the Church has always struggled. We’ve even made some horrible mistakes.
However, in this regard, we are no different from Enlightenment thinkers as they have tried to work out and apply their belief system. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that belief in human autonomy and human reason has a history, too. Enlightenment principles produced Stalin and Mao Zedong, both of whom did some pretty awful things working out and applying their god-less philosophies.
So, Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it’s been found difficult and often corrupted. So many just gave up on it. And many Christians, not seeing the results they envisioned in a timeframe suitable to them, like the Israelites waiting on Moses to come down from the mountain, tried to help God along a bit, this time by trying to tone down the sovereignty of God and the depravity of man to appeal to “enlightened” thinker. But that doesn’t mean that those doctrines—that understanding of Christianity—isn’t the answer. Next week I’ll speak to how that is so.
Read the series of commentaries responding to Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West:
David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. Read David’s complete bio.
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