By Ian Huyett and Carmen Schober
At Staseos, we often critiqued modern Christians for operating within the philosophical framework created by Enlightenment thinkers rather than the writers of the Bible and church history. Some of our readers might not grasp what we mean by “the Enlightenment” or understand how to question its influence on the modern Western church, so we’ve created a short introduction to the topic.
The “Enlightenment” is technically a historical period—usually dated from roughly 1685 to 1800. We use the term to refer to the major philosophical, religious, and cultural trends that emerged in continental Europe during this period.
The philosopher Rousseau, perhaps the most significant figure of the French Enlightenment, was born in 1712. While he is best known among laypeople for the statement that “Man is born free and is everywhere in chains,” Rousseau was no hippie. An explicitly anti-Christian thinker, Rousseau called for the creation of a powerful authoritarian state that would eliminate Christianity and its influence from the West. The so-called French Revolution—the Enlightenment’s first great crowning achievement on the world stage—began 1787 under Rousseau’s influence.
At the zenith of the French Revolution, a totalitarian party remembered as the “Jacobins” forged a powerful centralized state, launched the Reign of Terror, implemented a “Cult of Reason” as the official state religion, publicly beheaded and drowned countless Christians as part of a national program of “dechristianization,” and committed the first modern genocide—targeting the intransigent Catholic population of the Vendee.
Despite its anti-Christian character, the Enlightenment has been so influential that present-day Christians often operate within an unconscious framework of Enlightenment assumptions. We’ve provided a few examples.
A fundamental axiom of the Enlightenment is an association between religion and “backwardness” or an aversion to progress. According to Enlightenment figures like Rousseau and his contemporaries, , to be forward-thinking is, necessarily, to liberate ourselves from the supposed oppression of religion. In this area, the Enlightenment’s influence on Christianity is especially apparent when American Christians critique Islam. Western evangelicals often attack Islam as “backwards” and “medieval”—a line of attack that obviously would never have occurred to any pre-Enlightenment Christian.
Medieval Christians criticized Islamic theology for rejecting the divinity of Christ and for rejecting the triune God. In contrast, modern Christians often sound as if they are attacking Islam for being too religious. Rather than giving secularists the moral high ground, Christians should question and reject secularism’s unspoken premises.
The Enlightenment also introduced an emphasis on uniformity—now called “egalitarianism,” from the French “égalité,” into the well of Western thought. Jacobin leader Robespierre, for example, attacked gender roles as a manifestation of “prejudice.” Jacobins sought to cultivate a mechanical, proto-Marxist monotony in French society, replacing the words “monsieur” and “madame” with the address “citoyen,” or “citizen.” When uniformity is idealized, variety becomes inherently suspect.
Returning to Christian criticisms of Islam, consider that Christians often insist that Muslim women are oppressed because they wear a hijab. The assumption underlying this criticism is that uniformity between the sexes is the default, while variety between the sexes must be reduced or eliminated.
Perhaps you think this characterization is unfair. The hijab might strike you as “obviously” repressive. But stop and consider, why is this?
Sikhism requires its male adherents to wear turbans, but nobody—including Christians—claims that this means Sikh men are oppressed. On the contrary, as modern Sikh women have started to don turbans in recent years, the Western media has celebrated this trend as an example of feminist empowerment. If the Sikh turban is unobjectionable and even empowering when men are commanded to wear it, it follows that a hijab is only inherently “oppressive” because women wear it and men do not.
Again, rather than unconsciously plagiarizing atheist criticisms of Islam, Christians should interrogate our own egalitarian assumptions. What exactly is preferable about uniformity? Do we want our friends or family to be uniform? If not, why should we be egalitarians today when Christians for two thousand years were not?
Finally, consider the Enlightenment’s preference for the state over other spheres of society. Rousseau rightly understood the institutional Christian church as a powerful force that could thwart a government if it was not destroyed. Yet Jacobin France not only dismantled the church as an institution—it also centralized all regional power in Paris. Simone Weil wrote that the post-Enlightenment State “is a cold concern, which cannot inspire love, but itself kills, suppresses everything that might be loved; so one is forced to love it, because there is nothing else.”
Christians today have absorbed this Enlightenment preference and relegated the church to a Sunday-only institution. Even well-meaning Christians can sometimes be suspicious if the church gets involved in business or other areas of our lives and of society.
When we rethink the Enlightenment, however, Christians should find that we should return to a classical and medieval conception of the church’s role. We should want a church that is a more robust, comprehensive polity. This premodern view of the church, while of course imperfect in practice, successfully created a far more just and beautiful world than either the pagan society that preceded it or the bloodthirsty totalitarianism that followed it.