In order to further situate the conversation of Absolute/Objective truth, it is helpful to review a little bit of the Enlightenment attack on Christianity. While both of the previous posts (here and here) have alluded to this attack, this post hopes to offer a little more specific background information in the form of a narrative. It is important to note that there have been entire books and series of books written on this topic (see here, here, here, & here). The Enlightenment was truly a revolutionary time in the history of the West. Thus, my post won’t do it justice. But, for the sake of this little project, it will hopefully provide a little more information for curious readers and establish our starting point before we move on further into the outlined conversation.
It should be noted, as has been done by many scholars, that the Enlightenment was not explicitly a focused attack on Christianity, nor a necessarily intentional attack. At times, through various thinkers, it was both of these things. However, at other times, thinkers and writers were making very serious and engaging efforts at finding ways to reconcile the thought of the Enlightenment with Christian revelation. They meant to find a way to show that what was coming to be understood through Enlightenment rationality and science was indeed a deeper and further understanding of God’s created world. So, note well that the word “attack” is used with some trepidation, especially regarding the earliest stages of the Enlightenment. As enlightened thinking became more encased in the imaginary of the Western world, the idea of an attack is more justifiable from certain angles. Nevertheless, throughout the Enlightenment up to its birth of modernity and even within our current postmodern (late modern, late capitalist, hypermodern) mood, there continue to be significant efforts to justify Christianity. You can consider this series of posts and effort at severely critiquing one of those methods of justifying Christianity–one which plays by the Enlightenment’s rules and adopts modernity’s grammar. My argument is essentially that Christianity need not justify itself in this way–it has its own rules and its own grammar.
The Enlightenment was a time in which men thought they were no longer in need of a religious perspective to explain the world. Through the power of their own reason, men believed that they could understand and explain the world better than religious and/or superstitious ideas. This kind of thinking arose probably for numerous reasons, but two come to mind.
First, as man’s abilities in scientific discovery grew, even though science as a discipline was at first meant to be a study of God’s Creation and therefore God Himself (according to Romans 1.20), eventually man’s confidence began to overtake his need for reflection upon God or even the need for God to answer what questions man was unable to answer. Man found himself eminently more able than ever before to answer questions about the nature of reality through his scientific endeavors that even for the questions that remained unanswered, man lived in hope that his abilities or other advances would eventually allow for the discovery of answers by means of his own efforts.
Second, because of the presence of many conflicts based on religion, religion itself came to be questioned. For, in general, Christianity, the religion that dominated the region from which the Enlightenment emerged, taught peace instead of conflict. Yet many of the conflicts were themselves religious disputes, or worse, Christianity was used to endorse certain other disputes. Thus the contradiction between the call for peace by Christianity and the use of Christianity in perpetuating conflict caused some to question religion altogether, in an effort to understand it better (not necessarily attack it, at least at first, although that is eventually what happened) and possibly correct it. However, such investigations into Christianity resulted in a culture of perpetual questioning of religion, to the extent that Christianity itself would eventually be challenged at the most fundamental level—its entire validity as a worldview would be undermined.
Thus science and criticism emerged as the dominant forces uprooting the hold the Christianity had upon the culture at large. Some of the challenges of science came at the level of history, archaeology, literary criticism, and naturalism. Efforts were made at disproving the story of the Scripture one event at a time by claiming that the biblical narrative was untrue, that it was not real history. These challenges took the manifestation of archaeological investigations which sought to prove certain people and places did not actually exist, or that events recorded as miracles did not actually happen or could be explained otherwise. The Bible itself was challenged in terms of authorship, internal contradiction, textual critical problems, and interpretive discontinuities. Naturalism questioned supernaturalism by offering natural explanations for what were once taken to be supernatural events (or by dismissing supernatural events altogether as impossible or mythological). Naturalism took the form of biological arguments in competition with the biblical narrative like evolution and natural selection, or as geological and astronomical/astrophysical arguments that gave alternative accounts of the age of the earth and universe. All of these efforts were thought to be validated by some sort of empirical measure, through the use of the unbiased, disinterested scientific method that, as noted above, had no need of supernatural explanation or a “God of the gaps,” and was therefore significantly more powerful in a simple manner for explaining all that is.
The challenges of various kinds of criticism came at the level of philosophy, like in ethics where the God of the Old Testament is challenged as being different from the God of the New Testament because He is wrathful rather than graceful—this was important because of the religious disputes noted above (such views of a wrathful God perpetuated them because of God’s endorsement of the sword) but also for the simple sake of interpersonal relations and the implications which could be drawn from Scripture on how to live ethically and peacefully as compared to the emerging ethical philosophies that posited man’s ability to live in a peaceful social contract with one another. Moral philosophy altogether was redirected away from the teachings of Christian theology through thinkers like Kant who posited man to be an autonomous moral subject who could know (and do) right and wrong according to his own reason.
The Enlightenment was a time when man believed himself to be illuminated/enlightened in his own reasoning abilities beyond the need for religious revelation. Its influence is still present today in modernism and its flavors—it continues to challenge religion in a general, but Christianity most explicitly.