The modern world of science and technology is the product of a philosophy known as the Enlightenment. Enlightenment philosophy makes reason all important, and thus bans superstition and tradition. Nothing is true unless it stands up to the ultimate test of truth: human reason.
And this attitude led to the scientific method, science, and the computer I’m typing on. The successes of Enlightenment thought are immeasurably great. All of us who have lived a life free of polio and small pox can thank the Enlightenment philosophers for starting all that.
Not surprisingly, Enlightenment thought has found its way into Christianity, sometimes for good, sometimes for not so good. Separation of church and state, a reasonable response to the European religious wars that followed the Reformation, has been a great blessing. And I’m glad we’re no longer burning witches and heretics.
But Enlightenment thought is incomplete and sometimes does great harm to Christianity. Not all Christian teachings may be derived purely logically and empirically. Much of what we believe is based on personal experience with God, mediated by the Holy Spirit. Indeed, Paul taught,
(1 Cor. 2:12-16) We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. 13 This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words.
14 The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. 15 The spiritual man makes judgments about all things, but he himself is not subject to any man’s judgment: 16 “For who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.
Paul actually says that there are some things that only Christians can understand, and then only with the help of the Spirit. Similarly, Paul says in Ephesians,
(Eph 3:16-21) I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge–that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
20 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.
Notice that Paul refers to a “love that surpasses knowledge” and power “within us” though the Spirit that does “more than all we ask or imagine.” Plainly, these are things beyond human reason.
The Enlightenment has hurt the cause of Christ in subtle ways. We often think that the way to convert the lost is to persuade logically. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with logical persuasion, it’s just that it’s rarely sufficient. Most of us make decisions about the life we choose to live at multiple levels–emotional, social, spiritual, as well as logical. If we only appeal to the logical side of people, we’ll be very ineffective.
We sometimes turn the church into a debating society, taking more pleasure in discussing the fine points of eschatology or soterology than in actually helping those in need.
Worse yet, we turn the Bible into a book of rules and laws, rather like Newton’s laws of motion or even the Law of Moses. We feel more comfortable with logical propositions than spiritual truths. We see God as lawgiver and truth speaker rather than also a Creator who loves and forgives–who urgently wishes to forgive and who blesses lavishly.
In the Gospel According to Starbucks, Leonard Sweet writes,
The church has taught evangelism as a meeting of two antagonists—one righteous and right, the other dead wrong. The point of evangelism, according to this school of thought, is to win an argument. Evangelism also has been taught as a spiritual sales pitch, more nuanced perhaps than a religious argument but still relying on high pressure and ultimately committed to closing the deal. And if not an argument or a sales pitch, the gospel is neutered and reduced to an objective, nonrelational exercise in logic. The strategy is to convince others, not to appeal to them.
When God saw a sick and dying world, he didn’t send us a book of rules. He sent his Son.
Of course, Jesus taught, but he also lived among us as an example. He lived a simple life committed to caring for those in need. He healed indiscriminately–lavishing God’s power on thousands, many of whom had no faith and many of whom were ungrateful. And yet he healed and helped. He touched and enjoyed the people he encountered, eating and drinking and sharing.
The Enlightenment is good and has helped society, but it also over-emphasizes the intellectual side of life, often causing churches to value doctrine over people, pure ritual over pure love. And the result has been to marginalize the church in American society.
Rather than being a shining city on a hill, drawing people by its holy example, the church has become sadly irrelevant to most people.
The church Jesus died for makes a difference in ways that really matter to people. Here’s a test: if your church were to go out of business, would anyone in your city outside your congregation care?