Friday, December 18, 2009

Christianity and the Enlightenment


Evangelical Christianity and modern enlightenment ideals are often thought to be in direct contradiction. But I’ve come to think the opposite is true.

Perhaps the most eloquent statement of enlightenment ideology comes from our own declaration of independence when Thomas Jefferson wrote “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Let’s consider Jefferson’s claim of equality. If you notice that closely matches ideology that emerged from the protestant reformation in Europe. A person didn’t need a priest or bishop to reach out to God for him. He could read and interpret the Bible himself. He needed to develop his own personal relationship with Jesus Christ. He had the same intrinsic worth as a bishop or cardinal.

That commitment to fundamental equality helped inspire many evangelicals to fight for the abolition of slavery, and the black church to play a leading role in the civil rights movement. To be sure, Christianity was invoked to support slavery, but then many secular reasons were given in defense of the system as well.

Commitment to rational inquiry is another distinguishing feature of modern thought. That has led to the development of science and capitalism among other things. But I think rationalism can be at least partially attributed to the development of protestant Christianity. Instead of simply accepting Rome’s teachings on scripture, Protestants were supposed to analyze scripture for themselves. The habit of continually questioning and interpreting the Bible for oneself surely carried over into other parts of life.

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