St Stephen's 24 January 1993
Year A, 3rd Sunday
The people that walked in darkness has seen a great light: on those who live in a land of deep shadow a light has shone.
You will often have hear people talk about something they call The Enlightenment; not least you will have heard it from people who have preached the word to you from this pulpit at St Stephen's.
Now it came to my mind as I looked at today's readings in which the idea of people being given a light to see by is mentioned several times, that I might talk about Enlightenment. And then I thought that there might be some people who don't know very much about the so called Enlightenment.
Thinking further, I realised that although I thought I knew something about it myself, that was an assumption on my part about which I might be quite wrong.
So at the risk of telling you about something you all know about already, let me tell you briefly what I have discovered about The Enlightenment.
A quick way of finding out a little about something is to look it up in a dictionary or encyclopaedia. So here is what the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church says:
The ENLIGHTENMENT: [the name] is applied ... to the movement
of ideas which characterised much of 18th Century Europe. Its followers
distrusted all authority and tradition in matters of intellectual enquiry, and
believed that truth could be obtained only through reason, observation and
experiment. They sought to spread knowledge as much as to create it and where
possible to further tolerance, justice, and the moral and material welfare of
mankind. The movement, however, embraced a vast [range] of views and aims and
many of its leaders came into conflict with the Church, especially in Catholic
Doesn't that sound all rather familiar? We're talking, remember, about something which began about 1690 (though its roots go back long before that) and which reached its climax in the French Revolution of 1789, thought its effects went on being felt for many years afterwards.
And here are we in 1993 in a world whose ideas are largely driven by the same forces which were behind those of the Enlightenment. As one wise Frenchman said at the time "The more things change, the more they stay the same".
Listen again to those features of the Enlightenment mentioned by the article.
Its followers distrusted authority and tradition in matters of intellectual enquiry.
They believed the truth could be obtained only by reason, observation and experiment
They sought where possible to further tolerance, justice and the moral and material welfare of mankind.
They embraced a vast range of views [which] were often in
conflict with the Church.
Hearing that list, all of us I think would agree that some of the things in it are aims that we would wholeheartedly support.
Tolerance, justice and the moral and material welfare of mankind are all things that no right-minded person, least of all a Christian could say that he was against.
And insofar as reason, observation and experiment have given rise to the enormous developments in the fields of medicine, communications,, education, transport and hygiene which make life on this earth so much longer and less painful for many people than used to be the case then we are quite justified in raising one cheer for the Enlightenment.
But now (as they say) "read on ..." For the strange thing is that these selfsame Enlightenment ideas led in the end to the bloodiest revolutions the world has ever known, especially in France in 1789 and Russia in 1917, where anyone whose ideas differed from the official line was certain to find themselves up for the chop.
Again think of the developments of science. In the years since 1689 these have been used quite deliberately towards the development of weaponry and the means of mass destruction, making the sort of wars now being fought in Europe and Africa more destructive and bloody than ever before.
Again, think of those ideas of tolerance and justice. they have become so distorted today that in the name of justice and self-fulfilment something like one baby in three conceived in America is killed before birth by abortion for no other reason than that its being born would interfere with someone's lifestyle. A curious use of the word justice I think you will agree. And what did I read in the paper the other day but a serious suggestion that delicate premature babies should be "allowed to die" (which is another way of saying "starved to death") because they are more costly to look after.
And as for the moral welfare of mankind which the Enlightenment sought to bring about: well, I leave it to you to decide whether that has been the great success its followers hoped it would be. We may indeed not have boy chimney sweeps or typhoid epidemics any longer, but from what I hear most people say they don't exactly think that "every day and in every way people are getting better and better" which one follower of the Enlightenment proudly claimed to be the case.
So what went wrong? Well, for my money the problem lies in the matter of authority. You remember the description of the Enlightenment which I read out said very early on that "its followers distrusted all authority and tradition" Now it's one thing to distrust something. It's quite another to imagine that you can do without it altogether. All that happens if you try and get rid of authority is that people put a different one in its place, which in turn becomes just as corrupt as the one it has replaced.
And as for trying to get rid of tradition, that is to say the things that have been handed down to us over the years by our parents and teachers, we all know, don't we, that to do that sort of thing would mean each of us going back to square one and having to re-invent the wheel for ourselves.
But there is worse to come. If people try to do without the knowledge and worship of almighty God experience proves that they will quickly make other gods for themselves from the things of earth and start worshipping them instead. Money, power, fulfilment, pleasure, success, satisfaction all become substitutes for God, not to mention the whole galaxy of pop- stage- and screen-idols which a godless world makes for itself and replaces when they start to wear out. These gods have a very short shelf-life! And now perhaps we can see more clearly why there is bound to be a conflict between the disciples of the Enlightenment and those like us who strive to be disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ and follow the teachings of his church.
for we believe that in the course of history God, in various different ways and times revealed to us the truth about himself; but finally, in the person of his eternal Son, Jesus Christ, her revealed himself perfectly; for he was and is God made man, born into this world which he created at a particular time and place in order to bring about the reconciliation of God and man which man, however enlightened, could never achieve for himself.
"That was the true light", says St John, "and he was coming into the world ... and yet the world, though made by him did not recognize him". Except of course the few people like Peter, James and John and you and me who become, however hesitantly, however imperfectly, his disciples.
It's no part of the business of Christians to rubbish the achievements of mankind, providing we realise that much of the driving force behind their discovery and development is due to people like the Earl of Shaftesbury and Mother Teresa who shared a deep faith in and love for God, to say nothing of the millions upon millions of lesser known people who are moved by their love of Jesus Christ to try and love their neighbours as themselves.
But where it all goes wrong is when people start supposing that you can have the things the Enlightenment stood for, prosperity, peace, justice, tolerance, health and the like, and at the same time ignore their true author, God "from whom all good things come" and the authority he has given us to lead us into all truth, namely his Church, the body of Christ on Earth Yes, it's right to distrust authority if by "distrust" you mean that we should be constantly checking to see if that authority is being true to itself. There have been times, as I'm sure you know, when individual Christians, not least those in positions of authority within the Church, have gone terribly wrong and off the rails. That is why everything which is said and done, even by Bishops and Synods (one might say especially by bishops and synods) needs to be tested for the ring of truth to see whether it is genuine or counterfeit.
But in the end there is only one way to get at the Truth: and that is to do what Peter and James and John did ... to follow him.
Follow him; not just follow it. For God's final revelation of the truth is not a set of ideas; it isn't a book or a series of books; it isn't an institution; it isn't a particular system of political or economic principles however wise and humane.
No. God's light to the world is the man Jesus Christ. those who follow him will have the light of life, he said.
Those who turn away from him will always stumble, however enlightened they may think themselves to be.
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