Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Enlightenment Part 5

           The idiom “living in the shadow of” has a number of connotations. If it is living in the shadow of some body, the implication is generally not positive. In this context it usually carries the idea of receiving little attention because someone else is better, prettier, handsomer, stronger, smarter, etc. As in, “I had to live in the shadow of my older brother all the way through high school.” However, if this idiom is used in reference to living in the shadow of some thing, it is a different story. The nuance is generally more positive and palatable. In this context the idiom generally communicates the notion of simply being influenced by something that has happened in the past. As in, “My grandchild is growing up living in the shadow of September 11th, 2001.” It is in this latter connotative framework that we now consider the “long shadow” of the prominent individuals and isms of the Enlightenment. As Westerners, and this includes Christians of the western world, we are living in that long shadow of the Enlightenment.
            So far in our cliff-notes look at the Enlightenment, we have seen that it was the beginning of the modern age, the age when belief in reason and the scientific method came to hold sway over the western world. We noted there were three historical contexts leading up to the Enlightenment, three monumental characters within that time period, and three principle concepts arising out of this long century. Those last three concepts that arose during this period of philosophic upheaval were rationalism, empiricism, and deism. From this triad of enlightened soil mixture grew our modern day proclivity to three fundamental approaches to interpretation. These approaches form a significant portion of our current hermeneutical bias. Each approach is a formative piece of the overall interpretive grid through which the culture interacts with and interprets reality. The three hermeneutical constructs are a segmented focus, a scientific focus, and a secular focused interpretation. Drum roll fades. As the action begins.

                                            (A BIRD’S EYE VIEW)

Leading Up to the Enlightenment

Within the Enlightenment

Emerging Out of the Enlightenment







Scientific Revolution

Rene Descartes

David Hume

Immanuel Kant




Segmented Interpretation

Scientific Interpretation

Secular Interpretation

Figure 2.4 – Three Hermeneutical Constructs

Segmented Interpretation – From University to Diversity
            The first universities opened their doors in Europe around the twelfth century. For the first few centuries they were, indeed, real universities; that is, they operated with the presupposition there was one universal that acted as the umbrella for all academic subjects. That universal was the fact that the natural and social universe was created and sustained by God. Those early universities held that “any study of physics or history or political science or psychology that omits all reference to God will be importantly incomplete (MacIntyre, God, Philosophy, Universities: A Selective  p. 15). Such a presupposition concerning education is no longer the case. Not by a long shot. Not in Europe. Not in North America. Even the sacred cow, theology, has become “almost exclusively a specialized and professionalized discipline” (MacIntyre, p. 16). The very thought that there needs be/must be some unifying universal concept or motif is irrelevant, not even given a passing thought. And that appears to be as true of sacred universities as it is of those secular. Subjects, holy or profane, stand on their own. Or, at best, they can gather in small similarly minded clusters. Our universities are, heart and soul, diversities. I attended Montana State University on paper, but I attended Montana State Diversity in principle.
            And for that we can thank, in large part, the Enlightenment. For it was her combined isms that contributed heavily to the resulting humanism that changed the ensuing hermeneutical landscape of the Western world. Thanks to the likes of Descartes and crew, the one unifying umbrella of God was gone with the wind (in perception only). Segmentation and compartmentalization began their sway. Every subject became its own little autonomous empire. The Enlightenment played a significant part in fashioning the way we, in the West, tend to see things, hear things, and interpret things in segments, bytes, compartments, and detached pieces. Physics has nothing to do with forestry; geometry has nothing to do with grammar; biology does not cross over into bibliology, and what do Gideon and Goliath have to do with Galatians. In the post-Enlightenment world (let alone the postmodern one[1]), one lone overarching universal story is not allowed[2] (except the overarching story that there is no overarching story). Faith and reason began to part company.
            Attesting to the western world’s present proclivity to interpreting the world through glasses tinted with the bias of compartmentalization is our tendency to remove religion and religious activity from public domain, not make connections between various disciplines of study, emphasize ethnic diversity over national or regional unity, emphasize personal rights over communal cohesion, and interpret written and spoken words with insufficient attention to the overall story/context in which the words occur.
            Concerning this last tendency, Hans W. Frei (1974) argues that the Enlightenment period was liable for a significant portion of the eclipse of the biblical narratives In place of the biblical narrative as the hermeneutical source and target came “the single meaning of a grammatically and logically sound propositional statement” (p. 9). The road from university to diversity traded story for proposition, mystery for the exactness of rules, and a deductive slant for one that was largely inductive. Thus, western biblical hermeneutics followed the Enlightenment-influenced trail that saw hermeneutics as ‘the study of right principles’ or as the laying out of rules governing the discipline of interpretation. Its purpose was predominately normative, even technical.”[3]
Scientific Interpretation – Prove It, in the Lab
            Just as we can lay substantial blame on Descartes and his rationalist friends for being prime instigators in putting God out to pasture and thereby crumbling the unifying foundation of European education, we can likewise credit Hume and his empiricist crew for setting science firmly on the pedestal of Western interpretation. Whereas Descartes opened the door for an emphasis on science, he still held that the “knowledge of God serves as the necessary foundation for all human knowledge.” Hume and his empiricist friends broke that door down. In his Treatise, Hume argues that the science of man is the foundation for all the sciences. Faith and reason became, not only more separated because of the empiricists, but rivals. Science now trumped religion. 
            Along with science replacing God as the basis for all knowledge, came the shift from story to proposition. With the one unifying overarching story erased from the books, propositions took over – propositions, that in order to be valid, had to be proven and propped up by science. Science, by nature, is a propositional thing not a story thing. Science deals with the likes of hypothesis, which is a testable proposition and with theory, which is a set of propositions that explain something and is supported by factual data. Science and proposition replaced religion and story. Reason subject to the empirical data of science took over for reason subject to the faith act of religion.[4]
            Attesting to the West’s inclination to interpret life via science, notice how something unproven scientifically is generally suspect as to its credibility. Take, for example, the subject of homeopathy. “The American Council on Science and Health has repeatedly opposed homeopathy as unprovenblack magic’ in no way stacks up when compared to evidence-based medicine”[5] (emphasis added). Did you catch the camp in which homeopathy resides? If this were a true play and not merely text, those words black magic would have been rehearsed over and over in order to capture the right subtly sarcastic tone. If something does not measure up scientifically, it is deemed either voodoo, children’s fairy tale material, or pure hocus-pocus nonsense. Mind you, sometimes it is (of course). But, all the time?
            For further evidence of the pervasiveness of the scientific basis for knowledge and interpretation, notice also how a Westerner thinks of a tree, rocks, the Milky Way, germs, wind, lightning, a water-witching stick, and fungus. If you are a true Westerner you likely have a difficult time thinking of those things outside a predominately scientific mindset.
            For testimony of the tentacles of science in religious circles, take note of the in-house debate between differing theologians as well as the debate between some conservative and emergent evangelicals concerning propositional truth. In the former debate the focus appears to center on whether truth is only propositional; in the latter debate the question is more whether truth is propositional or personal.[6] My focus is in neither of these evangelical sparring arenas. In this discussion the point is that truth can be found in forms other than proposition. For a dyed-in-the-wool Westerner with science-enlightened glasses on that can be hard to fathom. Vanhoozer (2005) tells us:
The Bible is more than a system of philosophy or moral truths. It is good news. The instinct of cognitive-propositional theology is sound. The gospel is informative: “he is risen.” Without some propositional core, the church would lose its raison d’être, leaving only programs and potlucks. At the same time, to reduce the truth of Scripture to a set of propositions is unnecessarily reductionist. What the Bible as a whole is literally about is theodrama—the words and deeds of God on the stage of world history that climax in Jesus Christ…It is Scripture that reveals God, not a set of detached propositions... Revealed truths are not abstract but canonically concrete. This is our evangelical birthright—truth in all its canonical radiance, not a diluted mess of propositionalist pottage (p. 100, 108).

Secular Interpretation – The Tyranny of the Immediate
            In writing of the rebirth of secular philosophy, Frame (2015) reminds us that

the Reformation marked a rebirth of biblical Christian thought...But in the seventeenth century there was a similar rebirth in non-Christian thought, in which secular thinkers renewed and pressed the claim of autonomous knowledge more consistently than anyone since the Greeks...[It was a time of] convulsion in the intellectual world...the rebirth of a pure form of secular thought...It began in Descartes’ determination to doubt everything that he had thought he knew. That included Scripture and church tradition (p. 177, 215).

            The other enlightened philosophers of that era followed suit in seizing the moment (or, millennium) for the secularization of a society.
            With God being so transcendental that he is out of the picture (even if he shows occasionally for ultra-special functions) and human reasoning and science being viewed as the basis for knowledge, it would qualify as a no-brainer that general interpretation would take on a decidedly secular perspective. I cannot argue with that. I will not argue with that. As a general rule, when we hear/use the word secular it is used to mean non-religious or of-this-world. Worldly, irreligious, and materialistic are apt synonyms. To be secular in the Western world generally means one holds to a naturalistic or humanistic worldview that is propped up with science evidence. In this sense, secular interpretation is very much the same as that of a segmented or a scientific slant. The commonality is that God is gone and man is left on his own to reason or empirically test his way to truth.
            However, I would like to define (or, rather, redefine) the word secular. I do so in order to focus on a nuance from this word’s roots that captures an additional noteworthy aspect of how Westerners, thanks to the Enlightenment, do their secularized interpreting. Most any good dictionary notes that secular stems from the Latin word saecula, which means ‘age’ or ‘relating to an age.’ It originally referred to the period of life on earth as opposed to life in the hereafter. It did not mean the opposite of religion or being religious; rather, it referred to life in the here and now (temporal space and time as opposed to the eternal). It is this nuance I want to underline. Yes, a secular mindset focuses on the worldly and the material, but it does so because it has, at its very foundation, eyes on this age in terms of the immediacy of time and space. Such a mindset interprets everything in light of the here and now. And generally for good reason – this age is all that is perceived. The past is irrelevant and the future (especially in terms of the hereafter) simply does not exist.

[1]  M. A. Girma, in his PhD dissertation, The Interplay between Religion and Society in Ethiopia: Towards a Hermeneutic of Covenant, discusses the overlapping issues between postmodern thinking and the paradigm of compartmentalization. He notes, for example, that both are suspicious toward the idea of metanarrative.

[2] This was the main point of Lyotard in his description of postmodernism as “as incredulity toward metanarratives.” Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 7.
[3] Grondin, 1.
[4] I should note here that I am using the term religion in complete agreement with John M. Frame. He writes, “I do not follow theologians such as Barth and Bonhoeffer, and many preachers, who use religion to refer to self-righteousness, man’s attempt to justify himself before God by his works, Dictionaries never define it that way. More commonly, dictionaries equate the term with faith, belief, or creed...Religion is a perfectly good word, and there is not justification for redefining it in order to make a theological or rhetorical point.” John M. Frame, A History of Western Philosophy and Theology (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2015), p. 5.

[6] See a debate on this issue in Christianity Today, where one side says, "Propositional truth is not the highest truth. Indeed, the highest truth is personal." And from the opposing corner we hear, “Scripture is never less than revealed propositional truth” (Colson, 2006).

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