The Enlightenment, or Aufklarung as it was known in Germany, signaled tremendous changes. These changes are so important than they can be called Copernican shifts because they represent complete shifts in world view. Copernicus first suggested the universe did not revolve around the earth. This discovery represented quite a shift in thinking and the church judged it heretical.
This study points out some of the drastic changes brought about during the period of Enlightenment.
I. The Copernican Revolution in Thought
During the Enlightenment, humanity began looking at things differently. Thinkers rejected the old ways just like they did during the Renaissance. Historians identify three significant shifts.
A shift occurred in the realm of authority. Prior to the Enlightenment, two traditional authority sources existed: the Bible and the classics. The Renaissance scholars did not reject Scripture but synthesized it with the classics. You can see this, for example, in the fact that the church actually canonized Aristotle. The Renaissance taught that man could reason; that reason itself had no flaws. Because of this, man could discover truth and express it in both past philosophies and God's Word.
During the Enlightenment, both authority sources came under attack. Scientific and naturalistic discoveries raised important questions not immediately dismissed by the appeal to Scripture or the philosophers. Copernican heliocentrism and Galileo's discoveries caused men of science to take another look at the universe. To these investigators, the earth became a rather insignificant speck of dust floating in the cosmos. Geological discoveries suggested a much greater age for the earth than the 5,704 years Bishop Ussher suggested. Observers failed to realize that Ussher's uninspired dates really had no authority, so they began questioning the entire Bible. Soon scholars rejected Scripture completely.
Thomas Jefferson provides a good example. He said:
Jefferson excised from his New Testament every reference to things miraculous.
Once cut adrift from Scriptural absolutes, men looked elsewhere for authority. Ultimately only one other source existed. Man's ability to reason, to think and evaluate became the only source of authority.
A shift occurred in the realm of epistemology. Epistemology is the philosophical study of "how we known what we know." Prior to the Enlightenment, the concept of innate ideas was basic. Rene Descartes tried to prove the existence of all things, including God, by beginning with himself, "Cogito ergo sum." He held that the mind held all knowledge and education succeeds in drawing it forth. Consider your mind a computer which God programs. Education simply closes the circuits allowing the stored information to come forth.
The shift excluded any concept of innate ideas and argued that men come to know only through sense perception. Sir Francis Bacon and John Locke taught that all knowledge comes from impressions brought to the mind through the five senses. Man can only know through observation, experimentation, and evaluation. That which cannot be verified by the senses is unknowable. Something might be there, it just is not knowable.
If all knowledge comes from sense perception, what happens to the concept of God? No one can scientifically verify God's existence . Scriptures do not prove God's existence since its data cannot be subjected to scientific or sensory investigation.
A shift occurred in the concept of anthropology. Man took a new view of man. Before the Enlightenment, most views were pessimistic. Scripture defines man as a sinner. The church, even the Reformers, taught that sin entirely deformed man. Because of this deformity, man could not respond to God or to the world positively. Most theologians of the day believed the world would soon end and bring all of its terrible conditions to a crashing halt.
The Enlightenment rejected such a pessimistic view. Man can reason; he can apply reason to any problem and thus change it. Enlightenment thinkers saw man, and nature, as benevolent and good. The French developed the term bienfaisance: nature is benevolent and good. The philosopher Leibniz said this world is "the best of all possible worlds." Environment shapes man, but man can change his environment and thus improve man. The Enlightenment defined sin as ignorance; ignorance can be eradicated through education. So began the "cult of progress."
II. The Copernican Revolution in Theology
All three shifts left their mark on the day's theology. Emmanuel Kant's work proves most important. He taught that man is absolutely free and is the center of all things. Religious truth rests within man. For Kant, then, man's moral sense becomes his source of religious knowledge. Since reason can't prove God, He must be removed from reason and placed into another realm--an upper story realm called "faith."
Kant proceeded to develop a dualistic approach to knowledge. He conceived the phenomenal world, the world of sense experience. You can know this world through reason. Anything which does not come through the senses is unknowable. He also conceived of the noumenal world, a world which resides beyond sense experience and can be known only by faith. No one can prove or disprove this realm. He included here the "ding an sich" (things-in-themselves) but he denied a thing's real essence. Kant does say that given certain experiences it must follow that other things are true.
Man's knowledge of God and religion rests on his moral conscience. Man's moral consciousness comes from someplace, Kant argued. This conscience prompts man to a sense of duty, a commitment to virtue, and the categorical imperative--a sense of "ought ness." God entered Kant's thinking at this point! Since man's moral sense drives him to act, there should be a resulting sense of satisfaction or happiness. Since happiness does not always follow virtue then it must follow that a soul must exist which survives death and there must be a God who assures the virtuous of happiness in another life. Remember, to Kant, God can't be known so man can have no real knowledge of God's character. You can only know God by faith. God became an inference, a postulate, a projection, an hypothesis. Kant said that even though we have no contact with God, our moral experience demands we posit God's existence. If morality means anything, then God must exist!
What did this understanding do? It produced fantastic changes. Anti-supernaturalism began its development. Nothing of God, nothing supernatural, ever enters the world of experience. This understanding eliminated most Christian essentials including miracles and revelation. Anti-intellectualism developed, too. Since nothing of God enters the world of sense perception, nothing of God enters the world of knowledge. Since we can have no cognitive knowledge of God it is impossible to "know" God. You can develop ideas about God, concepts about God, theories about God but you can never know whether or not they are true.
Friedrich D.E. Schleiermacher entered the picture theorizing that one can build religious knowledge on feelings. Schleiermacher said humanity could come to God on the basis of their feelings. In his book, The Christian Faith, written about 1821, Schleiermacher wrote that "religion is not a set of beliefs and obligations based on the authority of the church, but as the result of man's feelings of absolute dependence in a majestic universe in which he is but a small entity." He went on to say, "Our religious knowledge is neither a knowing or doing but an immediate self-consciousness." He stresses feelings--an intuitive awareness. Again though, the shift is from God, or God's communication, to man!
Schleiermacher held that humankind possesses a feeling of absolute dependence. Each human must feel absolutely dependent on some power outside themselves. Only God's existence adequately explains that feeling because He is the only adequate explanation for the origin of such feelings. We do not know God! We only know the feeling! We infer God from the feeling!
From this point, only a small step remains from a concept of religion as God's search for man to that of man's search for God. All religion becomes man's reflection upon and the verbalization of his feelings. Schleiermacher himself said, "Christian doctrines are accounts of the religious affections set forth in speech." The Bible, then, is only a collection of man's religious feelings. Some of these writers might have known Jesus personally. To Schleiermacher, Jesus epitomized dependence. Today, however, theologians have better experiences than those of the biblical writers. Thus, modern theologians might produce a superior product!
What is the result? The Enlightenment produced a revolution in the way humans thought about God, the Bible, and themselves. Since theology deals with something no one can weigh, measure, experiment upon, test, or prove, it must be thrown back into the inner self. Subjective experience becomes the source of "God thought." As one writer put it, "Man, in the condition of his soul, not God in his work becomes the center." Christian doctrine makes no statement about God; it only speaks of man's feelings about God.
Later, when we discuss Liberalism's development, we will see just where this goes. We shall also see just how this affects today's Christianity. Hopefully, you can see just how this change affects your own life.
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