All Saints Benhilton

8th July 2007


Faulty ideas and beliefs are like the proverbial bad penny. They turn up over and over again!

One such faulty idea doing the rounds today can be traced back to what’s called ‘The Enlightenment’. The Enlightenment was a way-of-looking-at-things. It swept through England and elsewhere in the eighteenth century. In the previous century the Age of Reason, with an equally earth-shaking effect, scientists like Sir Isaac Newton used reasoning as their chief way of discovering things. In the Age of Enlightenment, the thinkers of the eighteenth century went much further by applying those principles to every area of human life and thought including religious, political and moral attitudes.

Something very similar is going on today in both secular and religious thought. There’s a whole raft of ideas, some quite sound; but many of which were discredited two hundred years ago! They are having a new lease of life today and many people imagine that they’re completely new! So this sermon will look at the mistakes – and the successes – of the Enlightenment, and if it sounds like a history lesson, that’s because it is!

The Enlightenment made an enormous wave of excitement and optimism sweep through educated people’s minds. We benefit so much Today from their discoveries and inventions that we mustn’t be dismissive about them. The Reasoners and Enlighteners (as we might describe them) gave us sanitation, anćsthetics, safe transport, material plenty, law and order and government by an elected parliament, to name but five of their achievements. Life today is incomparably healthier, more civilized and long-lasting.

Where the Enlighteners went wrong was their belief that by simply applying human reason into every area of human life, an irresistible and permanent ‘progress’ in human welfare and happiness would result – sweeping away the irrationality, superstition and tyranny of all the past ages. Furthermore they supposed that no intelligent, reasonable person could possibly think otherwise. Given time and education they saw themselves as being bound to carry all before them, and be gratefully embraced by one and all.

The Enlighteners also believed dogmatically that ‘Sweet Reason’ could, and would, make human nature perfect.. Their goal was ‘Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness’ (to quote the American Declaration of Independence) and their motto might be summed up as ‘Every way, every day, the human race is getting better and better’. Why is that so? Because it must be, they declared! It just ‘stood to reason’.

As we now know, things didn’t work out that way. Instead of wars (as they predicted), becoming a thing of the past, the nineteenth and twentieth century witnessed at least four of the most bloody, costly and misery-producing conflicts ever fought – to say nothing of the dozens of smaller conflicts which have always been raging. So far from ‘making poverty history’, the gap between rich and poor nations has continued to increase remorselessly. Prisons are full to capacity with law-breakers. Emotional instability, often leading to suicide, has reached epidemic proportions amongst the young to the point where many intelligent young people see life on earth is purposeless – a ‘vanity of vanities’. Enlightenment ideas, so far from generating the Light which they promised, have produced an ever-deepening pool of darkness!

So what else did the Enlighteners get wrong, besides their belief in the perfectibility of human nature and in the self-evident truth of those beliefs?

Even if everyone agreed with them about their agenda, it wouldn’t guarantee that everyone would put those principles into practice. Why should they? To be universally held and practised beliefs must look to some authority other than themselves. Otherwise people will ask ‘Why should I love my neighbour? Why should I care about others? Why shouldn’t I sail close to the moral wind providing I am careful? Why shouldn’t I eat, drink and be merry if tomorrow I may die? Why shouldn’t I exterminate my rivals?’ The Enlightenment has no answer to these questions other than to say ‘but suppose everyone did that?’ to which the reply is, ‘So what?’.

Even if parents embrace such beliefs there is no guarantee that their children will follow suit.. The most ‘enlightened’ parents often have an uphill struggle to inculcate their enlightened principles into their offspring. How many of the Great and the Good have produced one, if not several, rogue brats who have refused to conform to what their parents so painstakingly tried to teach them?

Pursuing happiness is a deeply-flawed concept. That word ‘happy’ is related to such words as ‘perhaps’, ‘happenstance’, ‘happy-go-lucky’ and ‘happening’, all of which mean that happiness is only ever going to be temporary and its achievement involves a significant element of chance. The very fact that all life on this earth ends in death is proof that ‘happiness’, by itself, is not a goal worth pursuing. Like chasing one’s own shadow or the rainbow’s end, it will always elude us and bring us nothing but disappointment and frustration.

Do you see where all this is leading us?. The Enlighteners ignored everything that God has revealed and Christians have believed. As a result they now find themselves up the creek without a paddle!

For God has revealed Himself as the source of all authority. In Jesus God reveals that He so loves the world that He sent Him to redeem the world; through baptism God’s reveals that Original Sin is a deadly reality; by Jesus’s Resurrection, God reveals that we need not die eternally; and to those who listen to Him He reveals His Church to be the hospital where mankind is healed of its infirmities and the play-school where we learn the truth about God and ourselves.

Of course it will take time to persuade any wholehearted Enlightener to abandon his or her beliefs. The faulty parts of the Enlightenment structure have to be demolished before we can even start laying a new foundation. We need to learn both from both their mistakes and achievements. Otherwise we shall find ourselves making the same mistakes ourselves and at the same time ‘re-inventing the wheel’ that they so competently designed. We may admire and learn from them, but not use their foundations as our own..

There’s no alternative to starting the demolition-work straight away. The Enlighteners’ foundations were flawed. As St Paul said, ‘no foundation can be laid other than Jesus Christ’. Any building on such rickety foundations as the Enlighteners are trying to build on should have a notice stuck on it reading ‘Dangerous structure, Keep well clear!’.

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