As I have written previously at the Anxious Bench, I am skeptical about “The Enlightenment.” This ideologically-freighted term implies the inexorable progress of scientific humanist thought. Beginning in the eighteenth century, the theory goes, such enlightened thinking triumphed over “dark” religious views. Among the Enlightenment’s many problems today is that classic secularization theory lies in shambles in a contemporary world where religion is growing in importance.
Nevertheless, it is true that many young men in the eighteenth century did begin to question church authority, and especially the reliability of biblical revelation. Ben Franklin, the son of Puritan parents, certainly did so, after getting his hands on deist writings as a teenager. Typical of eighteenth-century skeptics, Franklin never questioned the existence of God, but posited that God could only be known through reason and nature, not (claims of) revelation.
I am continuing to investigate how Franklin’s journey played out in the religious biography I am writing about him. At one stage in the 1720s, Franklin proposed that we could not know or approach the one Supreme God. Thus that God had created multiple smaller gods, who were still enormously powerful, good, and wise. One of these was the god who ruled over our solar system, and toward whom Franklin directed his worship.
Most traditional believers as well as skeptics today would find this position deficient, if not laughable. Examples like this call into question reason’s power to lead us to Truth. That problem was obvious in the eighteenth century as well.
I have been reading Robert Zaretsky’s compelling Boswell’s Enlightenment, about the celebrated Scottish writer James Boswell. Boswell and Franklin took a similar path to skepticism: both came out of Calvinist backgrounds, and both became convinced, through exposure to deistic writings, that biblical revelation was not trustworthy.
Boswell was temperamentally more of a worrier than Franklin, and he struggled mightily with doubts and fear of death. At times he wondered, as did radical skeptics like David Hume and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whether we could really trust our reason as an adequate guide to Truth. Boswell found comfort in the “common sense” arguments of his fellow Scot, Thomas Reid, who insisted that our perception of the external world is reliable because God wired us with reliable senses which are common to mankind.
Internal, individual guides to Truth – such as reason or our perception of Nature – have not panned out as Franklin and other skeptics had hoped. They understandably wished to move beyond the violence that had marked religious conflicts since the Reformation. But turning within one’s self for the Truth turned out to be as problematic as depending revelation. The rationalists and philosophes those who supposedly could operate with an uncorrupted reason – could not agree among themselves on answers to basic questions. Boswell and Voltaire argued interminably, for instance, about whether the soul existed, and whether it was immortal.
One can certainly understand why skeptics today would pooh-pooh the idea that there is one authoritative revelation in the Bible. But what are the other options? Rousseau and others advanced devastating critiques of reason, even as Franklin and others tried to lift it up as the new standard. Conceding, as the postmodernists do, that we simply have no access to Truth, is a grim alternative. Even if they deny the existence of Truth, people have an extremely difficult time living as if they really know nothing for certain.
Although revelation hardly solves all disagreements between sincere believers, either, the philosophical appeal of revelation remains. If looking inward for Truth only brings more doubt and confusion, it sure would be helpful if God stepped into the chaos and gave us authoritative revelation in the forms of a Book and a Person. It would be even better if God helped us to understand revelation by a divine Counselor, and in the church. Among the many happy aspects of the Christian faith is the confidence that God, in fact, has made the Truth known in these ways.
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