We come to the 15th and final shift in thinking that occurred during the Enlightenment. Some may say I have saved the best for last. Actually, I have saved the worst for last.
Before: The Problem Is “In Here”
Prior to the Enlightenment, the general consensus was that the problems we encounter in the world and in our lives are ultimately the result of our own making. In theological terms, this was understood as having a sin nature, or being affected by the Fall.
Most others outside the Judeo-Christian tradition understood this to be the case as well. Plato reflected on the theme regularly in his writings (for instance, see the Republic 546A and 613A, the Laws 903B and C, Philebus 29B, and Timaeus 41D). Aristotle focused much attention on how to develop virtue, with the assumption that we must grow into this, rather than being born virtuous.
Perhaps Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn put it best in The Gulag Archipelago:
The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either–but right through every human heart–and through all human hearts.
(Solzhenitsyn lived in the post-Enlightenment era, but, Like Lewis, he was a dinosaur who understood the world through pre-Enlightenment categories.)
From the fact that the fundamental problem we all face is inside each of us—that we are our own problem—we can conclude that the solution is a personal one too. We must change as individuals. The problem is not with others, or somehow “out there.” The problem is “in here.”
After: The Problem Is “Out There”
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), an Enlightenment philosopher, didn’t agree. He thought the problem was “out there.” He argued that we are all born pure and undefiled and are subsequently corrupted by others. As an example, he offered the idea of the “noble savage” who was supposedly pure until he came into contact with society, leading to his downfall. This theme recurs often in movies (I first remember seeing it in The Blue Lagoon, a blockbuster when I was in high school).
If this is the true problem, the solution is to change society. Many agreed with Rousseau, and the consensus shifted. As a result, we now have an emphasis on politics as the solution to all that is wrong. And from this comes identity politics (and Critical Theory, which forms its philosophical foundation). Simply stated, the problem is that certain groups of people oppress other groups. So the oppressed must overthrow the oppressors. Liberation will bring salvation, for since the problem is ultimately social, the solution is ultimately social as well.
Who Is Right?
The “before” and “after” views are diametrically opposed to one another, and so both can’t be correct. So which is it? If we have God’s mind revealed in the pages of Scripture (as I’ve argued we have here), we know the problem is “in here.” It is, as pre-Enlightenment “dinosaurs” say and as Jeremiah 17:9 summarizes so well, that “The heart is more deceitful than all else, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” Or, as Paul puts it in Romans 3:23, “All have sinned and fall short of God’s glorious standard.”
From this it follows that the solution is found in changing the heart, not re-engineering social structures. For this reason, the efforts of social engineers since the Enlightenment, most prominently Marxist regimes, have failed to produce the utopia promised. Current efforts based on identity politics will fare no better.
A Common Objection
Some may object that to go back in time to these “medieval” ideas is not progress, but a regression! This is a very “Enlightenment-esque” objection, one for which Lewis offers an insightful response:
Progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turn, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.” —C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, pp. 28-29
Concluding This Series
Much more can be said of this fifteenth shift in thinking, as of the prior fourteen. But others have addressed these issues better than I. So I’ll conclude by suggesting a few resources for further exploration of these themes.
In my opinion, the best place to start is with several of C. S. Lewis’s books on these topics. I suggest his essay “Modern Man and his Categories of Thought,” in his book Present Concerns. Excellent also is his book The Discarded Image. In both of these works, Lewis masterfully unpacks the modern outlook and serves up devastating critiques.
I also highly recommend Ken Myers’s interview with Chris Armstrong on Volume 134 of The Mars Hill Audio Journal*, “On what C. S. Lewis knew (and we need to know) about the culture and faith of medieval Christianity.”
Until next week, grace and peace.
*If you are not familiar with Mars Hill Audio, please check it out. Ken Myers, the host, worked for NPR and then, in 1992 launched the Journal, roughly following the format of “All Things Considered.” Each edition is packed full of rich conversations between Ken and his guests on a wide range of issues related to culture and faith. You will not be disappointed!