In 1637 Rene Descartes set out to reinvent philosophy with his Discourse on Method. His method was to doubt everything until he could find something that was absolutely certain. He realized many people had held mistaken ideas in the past; he realized that sense perception can be unreliable; he realized that at times we go to sleep and have dreams and the dreams seem real at the time. What was there that could not be doubted? Then he realized even if he was doubting, whether he was asleep or awake or deluded about everything else the fact remained that he was doubting. Doubting is a form of consciousness or thinking. As long as I am thinking, he reasoned, there is an “I” that is thinking. I think, therefore I exist. Cogito ergo sum, in Latin, or Je pense donc je suis in French. (Descartes wrote editions in Latin and in French.)
The external world could be doubted, but the mind is real. He reasoned from his mind to the Great Mind, God. He had an intuitive, inescapable belief in the reality of God. And God by definition is good, so he would not deceive me, Descartes reasoned. Now he was sure of two things: his own mind or his own existence as consciousness, and the eternal supreme Mind, God. He knew perceptions from the external world could be fallible, but two facts gave him hope: first, sense perceptions came to his mind unwilled, uncreated by himself. Second, God is good and would not deceive him: there is a world out there, in fact the world created by God. To put it another way: if God created my mind and God created the physical world, there is some correspondence and my mind may use my perceptions to form reliable judgments about the world and to correct false impressions caused by the imperfect nature of my senses.
Descartes represents the great turn toward the subject in philosophy, and in so doing he created the modern world. Of course, he didn’t actually create it on his own. Galileo had been condemned by the church in 1633 (three years before the Discourse—and Descartes canceled plans to publish a book on the physical world). Science and mathematics were advancing. One mark of the modern world is rejection of traditional authority. This actually began with the Reformation. It was in the name of Christ and on the authority of the word of God that the authority of the Church (the Roman Catholic Church) was first challenged.
The philosophical movement that made independence from authority, that is autonomy its hallmark is called the enlightenment. The renaissance looked back to the classical world for a superior culture and the reformers looked back to the Scriptures and the church fathers for a truer faith—the enlightenment philosophers completely rejected the past and looked forward to a brave new world unimpeded by any traditional authority.
Descartes himself was apparently a devout catholic all his life. The subtitle of his MEDITATIONES De Prima PHILOSOPHIA, is “In qua Dei existentia, & animæ humanæ à corpore distinctio, demonstratur” (in which the existence of God and the physical distinction of humans from animals is demonstrated). But he started with himself. God exists because I have a clear and distinct idea of God.
Religious Wars and Corruption
Descartes wrote his meditations during the Thirty-Years’ War (1618-1648) which devastated Europe. The war followed a hundred years of intermittent wars, at least originally based on religious divisions, and the end result was the loss of almost half the population of Europe. Further, throughout the middle ages the church had accumulated large amounts of property in many lands, and corruption among the church hierarchy was legendary.
One goal of the Enlightenment was to reduce the secular power of religion by relegating it to the private realm. Descartes showed that an individual could discover his own proof of the existence of God and create his own theology. Pascal criticized the effect of Descartes method on religion:
“I cannot forgive Descartes; in all his philosophy he did his best to dispense with God. But he could not avoid making Him set the world in motion with a flip of His thumb; after that he had no more use for God.”
This is more a critique of the implications of his philosophy, than an attack on his personal piety.
The critical study of history and the critical analysis of historical documents is another hallmark of the Enlightenment. Some documents were found to be fraudulent, others were found to be in error. Further, the philosophers of the Enlightenment tended to look down on past ages as ignorant and superstitious. The Bible came to be studied like any other ancient document. People were free to find private devotional insight in the Bible, but it could not be used as a document to control other people.
Biblical theology began with a recognition of the historical character of the Bible. Biblical theology was an attempt to make two distinctions: the original theology of the authors of the Bible was distinguished from dogmatic theology as expressed in the creeds of the church. Second the “timeless truths” of the biblical faith were to be extracted from the historical setting. Biblical theology was to be a historical discipline that could lead to a purified theology for the church.
Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) was a Jew living in Christian Europe. He believed the ancient practices of Judaism were irrelevant and eventually adopted a Christian name Benedict (basically a translation into Latin of his Hebrew name). He developed his own philosophy in which God was the soul of the universe. He was one of the first modern scholars to treat the Bible as a merely human document. He did allow the claim that God appeared to Moses and spoke to him “face to face,” and he believed that God revealed himself to Jesus “mind to mind,” but he did not believe Moses was the actual author of the Pentateuch. He was one of the first to promote the idea of different sources that could be recognized by the names for God.
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781 )was a philosopher who spoke of the “big ugly ditch” between the necessary truths of reason and the accidental facts of history. In effect, he was saying history is always uncertain, never final, and therefore cannot be the basis of faith.
David Hume denied it is possible to establish a miracle through history. He didn’t claim miracles were impossible, he simply claimed the proof of a miracle was impossible, since once could always find another explanation for a claimed miracle.
During the Enlightenment, belief in the verbal inspiration of the Bible was abandoned, not only by skeptics but also by religious scholars, in particular professors in the theology faculties. The Bible might be inspiring, or might contain the word of God, but the books themselves were human products. The Bible was therefore studied historically and critically, like any other ancient book.
Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) represents the culmination (and in some ways the end) of the Enlightenment. He promoted the value of autonomy or independence. He believed it was a moral obligation to use one’s reason, quoting the old Roman poet Horace, “sapere aude”—dare to be wise, dare to think!” His definition of enlightenment is “Man’s emancipation from a self-imposed immaturity.”
The thinkers and political actors of the Enlightenment placed great confidence in reason. Kant valued reason too, but he also turned critical reason against itself in his Critique of Pure Reason. This book showed the limitations of reason—in particular the fact that reason can’t justify itself; in a sense reason had to be taken on faith. Kant also believed that there are important commitments or convictions that cannot be proven by reason but that are nevertheless necessary. Belief in God and morality are two of these. Kant said, “I have destroyed reason to make room for faith.”
Kant influenced the world, but live his whole life in his native city of Königsberg. He was a champion of freedom, but his hometown was eventually annexed by Russia and fell to Soviet tyranny. The monument on his tomb has this quotation in Russian and German:
Two things ever feel me with wonder and awe: the starry heaven above me and the moral law within me.
In his ethics Kant spoke of one’s duties two God, which he said were essentially two: to avoid blasphemy and heresy. It is easy to avoid blasphemy, just keep your mouth shut. It is also easy to avoid heresy: just avoid speculative theology. He distinguished between moral people who lack faith, whom he called “merely godless,” and true atheists who live immoral lives and deny God in their behavior. Religion for Kant is a purely private and personal matter.
Two political movements came out of the Enlightenment: the American Revolution and the French Revolution. The American revolution had other influences, Calvinism in particular, but Jefferson corresponded with his contemporaries in Europe. John Locke was a Christian Enlightenment philosopher whose attitude toward faith was not so radical as his French counterparts.
The French revolution was more atheistic and more bloody than the American revolution. That type of reasoning continued in the communist revolutions of the twentieth century. Through communism and other forms of fascism, organized atheism was responsible for over 100 million deaths in the twentieth century.
Those who value the great American experiment in democracy should be grateful for the political achievements of the enlightenment. The philosophers of the movement believed people could govern themselves—if they had adequate information and the education to process it. The French Enlightenment philosophes invented the encyclopedia. The founders of American democracy promoted the postal service as a way of disseminating information. Thomas Jefferson pursued personal scientific interests and founded the university of Virginia. Public libraries and public schools were considered essential. Religious institutions, free from Government control, and other private associations were also considered vital to the health of democracy. People trained to reason and given adequate information could be trusted to know what was in their best interest.
In this atmosphere, people could be free to study the Bible, along with other subjects, free from censorship and interference. The scientific study of the Bible was born out of the Enlightenment.