As our culture unwinds, some thoughtful conservatives are calling for a return to the Enlightenment’s principles of human autonomy (often couched as “liberty”). Others say those very principles will bring us to a societal dead-end if we don’t redevelop other conditions that undergirded the success of Enlightenment thinking, such as a shared sense of morality, strong familial support, and vibrant private associations. So, what is my response to those who think I’m either a nut or a Neanderthal for suggesting last week that the only alternative to cultural death is to again acknowledge the sovereignty of God?
To respond to that accusation, it is first necessary that I dispense with the most likely reason for such a criticism, which I’m sure would be mine, too, if I shared the worldview of my critics.
Returning to Christianity Is Going Backward
My critics would most likely accuse me of discounting, if not outright rejecting, the many positive advances made since the Enlightenment and wanting to return to the past. They would assume I must be for going back to the “Christian” days when a woman lost her identity and right to own property upon marriage, poverty was perpetual for those not born into privilege, or an ecclesiastical hierarchy or its designated representative dictated the actions of government officials.
I would deny all of that. I agree that much good has come over the last 300 years, as Jonah Goldberg rightly notes in his book Suicide of the West.
How Can One Be Against Both Going Back and the Enlightenment?
The reason I can be against returning to the way things used to be and yet not embrace the principles of the Enlightenment is because I have a fundamental disagreement with Goldberg (and all Enlightenment thinkers), namely, what caused the positive “effects” we’ve experienced over the last three hundred years.
In this regard, the senior editor of National Review in the opening paragraph of Goldberg’s book says, “There is no God in this book. The humans in this story are animals who evolved . . . We pulled ourselves out of the muck, not some Garden of Eden.” I, on the other hand, believe that God created this world and all that is in it, and He is, therefore, sovereign over it.
These two fundamentally different belief systems produce different answers to the cause of the muck Goldberg references, which, in turn, affects the way we evaluate the cause of progress that’s been made over the last three hundred years.
If muck is our natural state, as Goldberg assumes and holds in faith,1 then the extent to which we’re not in as much muck as we once were would have to be due to our efforts. I grant him that.
What’s the Cause of the ‘Muck’?
Of course, Christians do not think muck is our natural state, nor do they attribute the muck to God. Rather, Christians believe we were made for something more than muck, and the muck is due to our rebellion against God. Muck is what Christians call the condition natural only to the apostate condition of humanity, from which muck God alone can draw us. Psalm 40:2 says, “He brought me up also out of an horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings” (KJV).
But even if I grant Goldberg’s assumption that muck is our natural state and grant that we’ve seen much progress since the Enlightenment, I do not grant him the proposition that the correlation of Enlightenment ideals and certain phenomenon—material progress, abolition of coverture, etc.—proves causation. Those who suggest there were other factors at play obviously agree.
The Cause of Past and Future Progress
But for me, if there is a sovereign God, then that necessarily means that what comes to pass is from His ordering of things to His purposes, even if He does so through the secondary causes of human actions. (Aristotle and Aquinas address types of causation, and Luther and Calvin speak to what influences the human will by which we make choices that bring about various effects, but I won’t put you through that discussion.)
It’s because of my belief in the sovereignty of God that I can think much good has come since the period described as the Enlightenment and not be a humanist. It’s also why I do not share Goldberg’s fear over the abandonment of Enlightenment principles.
But it’s also why I don’t look back nostalgically and wish everything is as it once was. Instead, I look to the future with excitement because my expectation for the future rests not in human autonomy and human reason, but in the sovereignty of a God who I have good reason2 to believe is good and is moving things forward to a glorious end that He has appointed.
Having dispensed with this reason for not acknowledging the sovereignty of God, I will speak next week to another such reason. Then we’ll cap things off with an explanation for how the sovereignty of God speaks to the issues that are killing us.
- No, science has not proven there is no God nor can it. “[W]hether there is anything behind the things science observes . . . this is not a scientific question. . . . The statement that there is any such thing, and the statement that there is no such thing, are neither of them statements that science can make. And real scientists do not usually make them” (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Book 1, Chapter 4).
- I think Him good because He could have left all of us in the muck, since it was our doing, not His, and none of us had a way out on our own. I think the end glorious because any final end that is not glorious would be “out of character” for God since God, by definition, is the summation and personification of that which is most glorious.
Read the series of commentaries responding to Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West:
- Is Anyone Willing to Say What the Cure Is for a Dying America?
- If America Is Dying, Why Is That?
- Are We Watching an America in the Throes of Death?
David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. Read David’s complete bio.
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