The Enlightenment and Christianity

Christianity grew out and spread from the Holy Land 2,000 years ago. It was based on the teachings of Jesus Christ and his disciples. Inspired by him they wrote the Bible which is still with us today, translated into virtually all known languages. There are many copies going back to the fourth Century and the reliability and consistency of the text is remarkable.

The new faith spread throughout the Eastern Mediterranean which was part of the Roman Empire. Although there was occasional persecution, 10% of the Empire professed themselves to be Christian after 300 years. After the Battle of Milvian Bridge, Constantine declared the Empire Christian and the Roman Catholic Church was born. It may be that the church was designed in a style that reflected the pagan majority as the Christians wished to be welcoming to their new brothers and sisters.

By 1500 in Europe, the Catholic Church was the major political force and was corrupted by the likes of the Borgia’s who managed to inveigle their way to becoming the Pontiff. Martin Luther reacted with his 95 theses in 1517 and declared that everybody should have the Bible in their own language, as well as Latin, and should be free to interpret it for themselves and live by a personal faith. There followed a glorious anarchy in Holland and Northern Germany where all manner of new ideas developed. Some were not healthy and by mid-century the Catholic authorities were stamping down on what they saw as a heresy. As the Catholic Church was political, so the Protestants were as well. Wars raged in the 16th and 17th Century as people and the countryside was devastated as armies fought for principles that they clearly betrayed. Many emigrated to the New American World to seek religious freedom.

In England by 1715, the people led by the new more powerful Prime Minister, Robert Walpole, sort trade, commerce and colonisation instead. The new religion was the Enlightenment philosophies. European and American philosophes had established the objective principles of science and were taking a look at the Universe to understand how it worked. They used reason, evidence and belief that if something worked in a particular way then it probably always would. They freed themselves from religious tutelage and superstition and sought objective truth for themselves and those that studied their work.

One of their main interests was whether they could prove that God exists. Some would announce that they had by some deduction only for the method used to be undermined by someone else. The more they looked the less they knew. One of the founders of science, Isaac Newton regarded himself as a boy playing on the seashore of a great ocean. That was his relationship to the truth. They all started with a belief in God and through much study, generally they could neither prove nor disprove his existence. Some were deists, others reasoned on atheism and some accepted spirituality. But the essential message was there was no conclusive evidence either for or against the existence of God. It was a matter for the individual, it was a matter of faith.

Many could accept the basic principles of the Bible as good. Love, wisdom, truth, forgiveness, charity, community, equality, healing, personal development and human development as they are difficult to argue with. But it appeared that the teaching was monopolised by a church that had inherited political power. Church leaders have been trained in their chosen strand of faith and are useful for instructing those who choose to adhere to it. They can also help people to choose a moral code for the individual, a relationship, an organisation, a sub-culture or a country. But their power should be restricted to that which they are trained in. Although it is understandably tempting to try to control the moral agenda, a Priest or Minister is in charge of a church. There is nothing wrong with teaching, influencing, advising and supporting others who have to make moral codes in their lives, but they should not control any other organisation than the church itself. It should be a supportive organisation not one of power. By the church advising rather than controlling, the individual is empowered. This is one of the central points of Luther’s teaching.

There are those that lead and those that follow. When we are born we are taught a code by our families. We may choose to continue to follow that code when older, choose another or go our own way as an individual. This is the choice that is inherent in the human condition, freewill. What we choose to believe and the code we live by is always our decision. We may be in a family or organisation that promotes a different one and we can either bend to it or react, but essentially our spiritual choices our always our own.

The would-be Americans who crossed the Atlantic to start a new life of religious freedom started colonies based on their differing Christian strands of faith. Massachusetts was Puritan, Rhode Island Free, Pennsylvania Quaker, Maryland Catholic and Virginia Anglican. While they were all basically Christian, they learnt from the religious wars that they had fled from and established a Constitution based on the Enlightenment teachings that were prevalent of the time. Religion was to be separate from both Government and later education.

I do not believe in one fighting the other, but I do believe that there should be a proper order of things. A hierarchy of control and influence, while not seeking to exclude different belief structures. Those that can coexist can, those that can’t should seek separate living space. The Enlightenment teaching has become the basis for most Western civilisations and I believe that is correct. It caters for almost all members of society and promotes equality and free choice. And it guarantees religious freedom to all in America within the law of the land. People still have the right to choose their belief structure and worship how they please in freedom.

My old Vicar used to say “If you find a perfect church, leave it as you will only spoil it.” Evangelicalism has a well-meaning desire to seek the truth, but for the individual that truth will be different to others. There is no one true church, no one true faith, no one true code, there is no one true lifestyle, it is the condition of life that we should work that out for ourselves. Either within a supportive spiritual environment or on our own.

Luther set us free to be ourselves. But too much freedom impinges on the freedom of others. Too few leaders leads to anarchy. One true faith leads to tyranny. We need to find a balance where those that lead and those that follow can be acknowledged and work together in coexistence.

There should be opportunity for those who seek their personal truth. Surely the Church is a place that can help people find that truth in loving acceptance of us all as individuals.

Conway-Laird (2017)

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