A Vision Grown Old
The Enlightenment was born a full three centuries ago and has not grown old gracefully. The attack on aristocratic privilege was a main part of it in the early days. This battle was pretty much over in about a hundred years. Quakers started early: refusing to address aristocrats as “you” instead of the commoners “thou” and refusing to take off their hats to anyone but God. But success poses the inevitable challenge: “what’s next?” What was next was the expansion of the goal, what in our tradition is called the testimony of equality, to include women, people of color and all those who are denied power and respect. These battles are far from won. Yet where is the inspiration?
The problem lies in another side of the Enlightenment: its distrust of religion. The original religious target of the Enlightenment was the Catholic Church. Its close connection with and imitation of the aristocratic classes made it a natural enemy. Moreover, the Church itself sought to combat democracy, free inquiry and science. Nor was Rome the only problem. Protestant churches became closely tied to civil authorities and when they got in power they were no less repressive and authoritarian. Under relentless pressure from the Enlightenment the power of religious authorities to suppress free thought and free inquiry slowly drained away. As was the case with the attack on aristocratic privilege early success was followed by an expansion of the original idea. But in this case it has been a disaster. “If some is good, then more is better” doesn’t always work.
Right and proper resistance to the efforts of religious authorities to impose uniformity of thought on the people by force gradually morphed into the idea that religion itself, that is any genuine spiritual orientation, was the natural enemy of reason, equality and progress. Complete contempt for spirituality became seen, in some quarters, as essential to the progressive mind. This is the tragic mistake. Not only is the rejection of spiritual truth not essential to progress; it is antithetical to it. The false and bleak worldview of materialism sucks the life and hope and energy out of the human mind. This fact explains much about the state of the world today.
(Note to the reader. This is part three of a series of postings.)