Friday, February 26, 2016

The Enlightenment & How We Westerners Interpret (part 1)

     In his book, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity, Mark Noll examines twelve critical turning points in the story of Christianity.[1] He sees considerable merit in providing a framework for understanding the story of Christianity built around key historical events. Taking a cue from Noll, I will examine, not a definitive number of critical events in the history of hermeneutical bias, but rather survey one particularly influential turning point, a turning point that took up more than a century of western history’s time and continues to this day to have enormous tacit influence on how the western world interprets everything.[2]
     “The Enlightenment” is a metaphor. Defenders of this historical phenomenon used “the metaphor of spreading the light to refer to the kind of intellectual and cultural progress...but the phrase ‘the Enlightenment’ itself was not adopted until the nineteenth century, when it began to be used in retrospect of a period as a whole” (Brown, Routledge History of Philosophy, British Philosophy and the Age of Enlightenment, Kindle Edition, 2003).
     The Enlightenment is sometimes referred to as “the long century,” and long it was; it ran from the mid 1600’s to the late 1700’s[3]. Concerning these one-hundred-plus-years, Pagden (2013) tells us, There are many ideological divisions within the modern world. One of the most persistent, most troubling, and increasingly most divisive, however, is the struggle over the legacy of the Enlightenment” (p, ix). It is my contention (and therefore my goal to demonstrate) that one of the Enlightenment’s most prominent and lasting legacies has been its effect on how we, in the Western world, interpret reality.
            In order to discover this hermeneutical heritage, we will take a brief survey of the Enlightenment era. Our purpose here is not to rehearse in detail the entire history of all those hundred-plus years; others have done that adequately.[4] Rather, the goal is to garner a “bird’s eye view” (get a big picture) of the Enlightenment – to be able to have in mind a clear and memorable map of this critical time period. To accomplish this we will examine major events that led up to the Enlightenment, examine principle actors and concepts within this time period, and finally land on the hermeneutical legacy of the Enlightenment. 
            To help us grasp this bird’s eye view of the Enlightenment, we will progressively build a chart to succinctly depict major aspects of this time period. Here is figure 1 of that chart.

                                            (A BIRD’S EYE VIEW)

Leading Up to the Enlightenment

Within the Enlightenment

Emerging Out of the Enlightenment

Figure 1  – A Bird’s Eye View of the Enlightenment

[1] Noll purposefully uses the terminology the history of Christianity as opposed to Church history because he believes the latter “entails a stronger commitment to a particular expression of faith.” Mark A. Noll, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2000) 20.

[2] While some view this whole time period (mid 1600’s to late 1700’s) as the Enlightenment period, others see the 1600’s as the Age of Reason and the 1700’s as the Enlightenment.

[3] For examples of Enlightenment history see, Roy Porter, The Enlightenment: Studies in European History (Houndmills: Palgrave, 2001) and Dorinda Outram, The Enlightenment: New Approaches to European History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

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