We are all children, grandchildren or at least stepchildren of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, and have cause to be both grateful for the consequent privileges and anxious about some of the consequent problems.
So says N. T. Wright, in his little yet important book “The Last Word: Scripture and the Authority of God – Getting Beyond the Bible Wars“. In a brief chapter devoted to the challenges that the church has faced from the Enlightenment, Wright talks of how Modern thinkers have successfully proposed that all the Earth’s sordid history had been making its way to this pivotal point, the point where humanity had finally come of age. From that point on, through the auspices of science and philosophy, mankind would thrive as it never had before. War, suffering and disease would soon be things of the past.
This meant that the Enlightenment was offering its own rival eschatology, a secular analogue to the biblical picture of God’s kingdom, inaugurated by Jesus. Christianity had declared that God’s Kingdom had been decisively inaugurated by Jesus himself, particularly through the death and resurrection. This sense of a one-off historical moment in the first century, however, had been so muted in much Christian theology – eschatology being replaced by systems of salvation and ethics – that the Enlightenment’s cuckoo-in-the-nest move was made all the easier, and has in fact often gone unremarked. It was this eschatological takeover bid which caused Enlightenment thinkers to pour scorn on the Bible’s picture of the coming Kingdom, in a move which is still taken for granted in many circles today; first, to misrepresent it (“All the early Christians expected the world to end at once”) and then to rubbish it (“They were wild fanatics, and they were proved wrong.”) This “we-know-better-now” move, so characteristic of various strands within Enlightenment thought (and now forming part of the mental and emotional landscape of most modern Westerners), disguised the fact that the Enlightenment’s alternative was equally wild and fanatical: the belief that world history, up until now a matter of darkness and superstition, had turned the decisive corner – in western Europe and North America in the eighteenth century! – and come into the light, not least through science and technology.
The Enlightenment proposed a new perspective and a new solution to the problem of societal evil. Not to be outdone, the church caved in;
Much would-be Christian thought (including much would-be “biblical” Christian thought) in the last two hundred years has tacitly conceded these huge claims, turning “Kingdom of God” into “the hope for heaven after death” and treating Jesus’ death , at the most, as the mechanism whereby individual sinners can receive forgiveness and hope for an otherworldly future – leaving the politicians and economists of the Enlightenment to take over the running, and as it turns out the ruining, of the world. (This political agenda, by the way, was of course a vital part of the Enlightenment project: kick “God” upstairs, make religion a matter of private piety, and then you can organize the world to your own advantage. That has been the leitmotif of the Western world ever since, the new philosophy which has so far sustained several great empires, launched huge and horribly flawed totalitarian projects, and left the contemporary world thoroughly confused.) Scripture itself, meanwhile is muzzled equally by both sides. It is squelched into silence by the “secularists” who dismiss it as irrelevant, historically inaccurate and so on – as you would expect, since it might otherwise challenge their imperial dreams. Equally worrying, if not more so, it is squashed out of shape by many of the devout, who ignore its global, cosmic and justice-laden message and treat it only as the instrument of personal piety and the source of true doctrine about eternal salvation.
In an attempt to “prove” the Bible true to those “Enlightened” critics its defenders strove to demonstrate it’s historical accuracy by redefining what a “literal” interpretation meant:
There is a great gulf fixed between those who want to prove the historicity of everything reported in the Bible in order to demonstrate that the Bible is “true” after all and those who, committed to living under the authority of scripture, remain open to what scripture itself actually teaches and emphasizes. Which is the bottom line: “proving the Bible to be true” (often with effect of saying, “So we can go on thinking what we’ve always thought”), or taking it so seriously that we allow it to tell us things we’d never heard before and didn’t particularly want to hear?