Reflections on the Enlightenment

>> Monday, January 9, 2012

So I just finished my first semester of Graduate studies at Hartford Seminary. This was the first paper I wrote. I received an 8.5/10 on this paper. I have added the Professor's comments to show how true professors teach and how academic theological writing should be instead of being extreme polemics. (I am grateful for this grade because it helped me see where I needed to improve.) This paper was a simple reflection paper on one of the readings.


I knew I would disagree with the philosophers and theologians that were going to be mentioned before reading chapter nine. I was pleasantly surprised how Karkkainen approached the subject, not portraying the Enlightenment as a majestic age of reason. After reading this chapter I am surprised that Enlightenment theologians, at least the ones mentioned, were not writing about rejecting religion instead they were trying to prove Christianity was superior to other religions. The reading upheld my firm belief that Enlightenment thinkers were not practicing reason but rather practicing blind dogma and acting like children[MCL1] . They closed their eyes and covered their ears, refusing to listen to the proof of any religion.

Karkkainen dispels the idea of it being an age of reason by mentioning that periods before the Enlightenment, such as the Middle Ages, were also called the “Age of Reason” and great scholastic theologians such as Thomas Aquinas came before the Enlightenment. By doing so, he does not discredit the advances and ideas of past generations rather, he correctly writes that it was the first time reason was exercised independent of church authority and supervision. However, it was not the first time a period was recognized as an age of reason. (p90)

Having properly explained the Enlightenment period and not portraying it as majestic, he goes on to explain the ideas of theologians and philosophers of the period. Personally I would have taken a more hostile approach because of my exclusivist leanings. I commend Karkkainen for only presenting the ideas of the Enlightenment thinkers and not let his own opinions seep [MCL2] through which I would have done.

There was a time that I avoided reading Enlightenment era works with the impression they were exclusively about disproving the idea of God and I only used to read works that were polemics against the thinking of the Enlightenment because of this misconception. Having avoided Enlightenment era writing, it certainly was eye opening to read a presentation about the it. [MCL3] Before I was under the impression the Enlightenment was fully secular, however it seems like it was only a move towards secularism and a different flavor of religious superiority thinking. The different flavor of religious superiority was a move towards inclusivist thinking, such as Schleiermarcher, not believing the Christianity was the only way but the best way (Karkkainen, p93) or Troeltsch view that all religions share the divine presence or revelation but other religions cannot be brought closer to Christianity.(Karkkainen, p97) The tools this new process used to look down on other religions were “history”, “common sense” and “reason” instead of using doctrine. By doing so they effectively neutered all religions of any supernatural elements making debates of what is right and what is wrong divorced of any divine guidance and subjugate them to logic, reason[MCL4] , and worst of all human temptation.

Reading about their denial of the supernatural elements in religion and the use of the new tools such as “reason” upheld my firm belief that Enlightenment thinkers were practicing blind dogma and not using reason at all. If they are truly reasonable and open to ideas, why do they ignore the proof[MCL5] that religions bring as if they were children. Denis Diderot’s claim that even if the entire population of Paris told him a dead man had just been resurrected he would not believe it (Karkkainen pg91), shows that Enlightenment thinkers were not trying to be “open minded” or anything of the sorts rather they had their beliefs and would ignore any evidence that ran the contrary. If we were to use reason and history, the fact that we have multiple sources from the earliest periods giving accounts of supernatural happenings, would that not be enough proof? Maybe not enough proof to know exactly which miracle happened or didn’t happen, but enough to know something did happen. But the Enlightenment thinkers stick to the “see it to believe” mentality. If we use this reasoning then we should just ignore all of history. If we have a large number of people giving the same account[MCL6] , all of who were eye witnesses, and have not had enough time to cooperate and make a story up[MCL7] , reason would dictate that there is some truth in what they say. Now if we live many years after the event, we should investigate the claims and see where each claimant’s source is coming from. Meaning we should trace back their claims to the eye witnesses of the event. If we find all the claims are coming from the same eye witness there may be room to be skeptical, but if all the claims trace back to many different eye witnesses then reason would lead us to two options: either there was a global conspiracy going on amongst the people who lived in the past and wanted to fool future generations by claiming they were eye witnesses to supernatural events, or miracles had actually occurred. [MCL8] Which is more likely, a grand hoax that requires impossible logistics or the event actually occurring?

Furthermore ignoring miracles and following people based on them being “ethical teachers” is a step towards relativism [MCL9] which people see as chaos and the absence of divine guidance. Who is to decide what one teaches is ethical? Many practices are considered ethical in one culture’s reasoning and completely abhorrent in another. The only way to know what is truly ethical and truly abhorrent is by divine guidance. To know the source of the divine guidance is through the miracles.

The reading has encouraged me to delve deeper in Enlightenment thinking which is surprising to me because it only upheld long standing beliefs. At the end of the day I am an exclusivist and to disagree with something without fully knowing it, is arrogant[MCL10] . Instead of avoiding it I should learn about it to see why people think in this manner and why it is so attractive if I wish to effectively articulate my objections to this type of thinking.

8.5/10 – This chapter obviously was thought-provoking for you. You do a good job of articulating some of the issues at play in the chapter and are ready to apply them to your own thinking. Be sure to push your own assumptions; hold them up to the same critique you’d want applied to Enlightenment thinking.

[MCL1]Those are strong words.

[MCL2]Objectivity is important in academic research.

[MCL4]Are logic and reason such bad things? Don’t we want our traditions to be logical and reasonable?

[MCL5]What is the proof? How are some of the claims of our traditions “provable”?

[MCL6]But where is this recorded? In a time when there were no newspapers or reporters? If there is only one text that records an event (e.g. the Bible) how do we really know that a large number of people offered the same account?

[MCL7]And, how do we know that this was not the case with texts that were written down hundreds of years ago? Or with texts that were written down decades after the events in question?

[MCL8]I’m not sure these are the only two options.

[MCL9]How so?

[MCL10]Absolutely. It’s important to be able to articulate clearly why you disagree with something and to propose a better scenario.