One of the common complaints against traditional evangelicalism is that it has been held captive by a distinctly Western approach to rationality that eschews mystery and narrative. The central target of this complaint is the “Enlightenment,” with its emphasis on reason to the detriment of revelation. Shane Hipps’ first book seems to walk down this road, though there are countless others.
As the emerging church conversation has focused on the nature and role of truth, the epistemological effects and aspects of the Enlightenment have been pretty well worn over (though I see John Franke’s latest will probably restart that conversation for a while). But as I have continued to read about the period, I have become convinced that it’s deepest impact was not on our theory of truth and its relationship to rationality, but rather on our concept of our relationship to nature. And unlike the Enlightenment’s focus on rationality, that aspect of the enlightenment has largely been ignored by evangelicals.
But consider the words of Joseph Priestley, an 18th century chemist:
Nature, including both its materials and its laws, will be more at our command; men will make their situation in this world abundantly more easy and comfortable, they will prolong their existence in it and grow daily more happy. . . the end will be glorious and paradisiacal beyond that our imaginations can now conceive.
Or Descartes in his Discourse on Method:
For by them [notions respecting physics] I perceived it to be possible to arrive at knowledge highly useful in life; and in place of the speculative philosophy usually taught in the schools, to discover a practical philosophy, by means of which, knowing the force and action of fire, water, air the stars, the heavens, and all the other bodies that surround us, as distinctly as we know the various crafts of our artisans, we might also apply them in the same way to all the uses to which they are adapted, and thus render ourselves the lords and possessors of nature.
The rationality of the enlightenment might have been propositional, and it might fail to be incorrigible and its foundations indubitable. But that wasn’t what was most problematic about it: for Descartes, the goal of rationality is subordinated to the end of mastering and possessing nature. It is a “practical philosophy” that Descartes is after, not a speculative one. The French philosopher (don’t hold it against him) Jacques Ellul calls this, I believe, “technical rationality”—it is rationality toward the truth, but only for the sake of the pragmatic results that the truth brings about.
For Descartes, truth was a means and not an end. But for his heirs, the truth was dropped and a principle of “good enough” was adopted in its stead. And it’s easy to see how that would happen, if the goal is in fact the mastery of nature and not the knowledge of it.
I suspect that only a robust concept of ‘nature’ as having some sort of internal organizing principle, and consequently some sort of intrinsic ends (i.e. teleology), could prevent this sort of rationality from devolving into a strictly utilitarian posture toward the world. And if Darwinism has had any impact, it seems to have destroyed the possibility of natural kinds existing in nature that might limit our technological mastery of it. These two ideologies have combined and created the crises in bioethics on the one hand, and the crises in sexual ethics on the other. And meanwhile, post-modernism has sought to undercut the abstract notions of ‘truth’ and ‘rationality,’ leaving us only with pragmatism. If it works, do it. And as Ellul points out, the rule of technical rationality is that if it can be done, it must be.
If this is correct, then it simply means that the transition away from a linear, linguistic notion of rationality toward images and mystery that Hipps describes isn’t a revolution, but rather the inevitable outgrowth of the particular understanding of the relationship between rationality and nature at the Enlightenment. The problem with Enlightenment thinking, on this count, isn’t that it’s too rational—it’s that it’s not rational at all, as it is divorced from the natural laws which are tied to the structure of the created order and which ought guide thought. Once nature is mastered and possessed, there is no natural kind there to prevent it from being altered according to our whims. Rationality is, on this score, unbounded by anything except our wills.
This story about the Enlightenment opens up, I think, the possibility of reflecting about new ways in which we might be captive to the Enlightenment. Specifically, I wonder whether we have adopted of a pragmatic notion of rationality where what we think is subordinated to the ends it produces. To use a popular example, we tend to think that the missionary impulse is enough justification to engage in something like online church. But our imperatives—our missional impulse—must be chastened and directed by the very real indicatives of theology. If they are not, then we render ourselves lords and possessors of the nature of the church, a problematic result indeed.
One more potential implication: evangelicals, in our adoption of technology, need to recognize that we are taking the fruit of a sickly tree. The ideology that undergirds technological production in our era is not neutral, but is grounded in an impulse to subordinate the whole world to our whims and wills. Churches should think seriously about being technological refuges, places where we can escape the principality and power that is technocentricism and adopt—if only for a few hours—a different way of being human. That younger evangelicals continue to be drawn toward Rome, Canterbury, and Constantinople is indicative of the fact that we want an alternative to this paradigm, while many churches are unwittingly perpetuating it.
For individuals, it means technological asceticism is perhaps the most important discipline for our day. I say “perhaps” if only because I continue to think that no discipline helps us see our need for new life more than fasting does (when accompanied by meditation on Scripture). But the technological paradigm is the ruling paradigm, and it is the paradigm that we as Christians have been least attuned to. Unplugging, turning off, and sitting in our rooms in silence will free us to use technology, but to use it well. For as Calvin puts it, all things are ours, but to serve us and not to lord over us.