This is Enlightenment
It’s about a not-so-future society where a genetically enhanced human population is slowly taking over the nation, whilst the ‘Unimproved’ are slowly marginalized and vilified. Oh, and because of the growth of Islamic terrorism, religion has been outlawed. It’s not a great book to be honest: it is essentially a postmodernist comment on the emptiness of modern society…I think. But what I found interesting was this theme of progress/modernism/the future being synonymous with the rejection of religion. For many people, there appears to be a linear and inevitable ‘progression’ from the dawn of rationalism that emerged during the Enlightenment, that demands the triumph of secularism, atheism and the exposure of religion as, at best, the ‘opium of the masses’, at worse a sinister, destructive force bent on breeding hate, division and thwarting progress and civility.
I have always found it interesting that the term ‘Enlightenment’ denotes not just the 18th century movement that promoted human reason as the ultimate means to a better society (and essentially in direct opposition to established religion), but also refers to the acquisition of spiritual knowledge. Two ideas that are in essence at odds with each other labeled with the same word. Christians don’t tend to like the term ‘Enlightenment’ because of its anti-religious connotations, or because of its association with Buddhism or other new-agey mystical religions (shudder). But the more I think about it, the more I feel that we, as Christians, should reclaim the word ‘enlightened’, if we take it to mean understanding things more clearly, of receiving knowledge of truth, and of being truly free.
In his essay, Was Ist Aufklärung, Immanuel Kant described Enlightenment thusly:
Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Self-incurred is this tutelage when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! “Have courage to use your own reason!”- that is the motto of enlightenment.1
Massively simplified, the indication here is that to be enlightened, one must think for oneself in order to acquire knowledge and truth. It is in this process that true freedom is found. Now it’s not my intention to get into an in depth critique of Kant or his fellow ‘Enlighteners’. I for one agree wholeheartedly with the concept of thinking for oneself. It certainly separates the wheat from the chaff. However, one can read here an implicit criticism of a) submission to anyone other than oneself – MY mind and MY opinion become the ultimate authority - and b) a suspicion of anyone who claims to have all the answers. Kant’s Enlightenment thinking by definition demands a rejection of ultimate truths fed to us by any authority other than ourselves.
And this thinking has definitely saturated into our culture and society today. This is why we don’t like the government telling us what to do. This is why we want the choice to do what we want and no-one can tell us we’re wrong. This is why religion should be private and not be imposed on other people. Again, this is a massive oversimplification of some very complex issues, but my point in writing this blog is to state why, as someone who is a Christian and submits to an institution and accepts the teaching of it (the Church) and believes I have one ultimate authority in my life, external to what I think and what I want (God), I still consider myself to be ‘enlightened’.
Being a Christian flies in the face of ‘modern’ concepts of freedom. The Bible says “You are not your own; you were bought at a price.” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20) Paul refers to himself as “a slave (servant) of Christ Jesus” (Romans 1:1). And when Jesus calls us to himself he says “My yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:30). An easy burden, but a burden nonetheless: a burden of submission to God, of accepting his will, his discipline and his guidance. Yet at the same time, being under the authority and hand of Christ is exactly what sets us free and ‘enlightens’ us. Jesus said he is “the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6). He is the only, ultimate, objective truth: the truth is not something we come to ourselves – it is only Jesus, in any time, any circumstance, any experience. The Bible says “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).
There are countless references to freedom in scripture – but one way in which we are free is that we KNOW the truth, we KNOW the answer. The message of the Gospel is not incompatible with modernity/progress/the future. As the truth it is universal. There is a massive freedom in knowing we have had a revelation of truth. This is one thing we never have to doubt, and it is the truth we can build all other things upon. Unlike those who are forever wondering and questioning, we have reached the end of searching. And to me, this seems like a pretty good definition of ‘enlightenment’.
So thank you Enlightenment philosophers for encouraging us to think for ourselves and seek truth. Turns out Jesus is the answer after all…