Most scholars agree that the Enlightenment or “Age of Reason,” which began in the early seventeenth century, set up a great dichotomy that persists in modern time.(1) The great “dichotomy” of the Enlightenment entailed the separation of the public and private realms. The public realm was the world of ascertained by reason alone. Missiologist Lesslie Newbigin explains, “The thinkers of the Enlightenment spoke of their age as the age of reason…by which human beings could attain (at least in principle) to a complete understanding of, and thus a full mastery of, nature—of reality in all its forms. Reason, so understood, is sovereign in this enterprise.”(2) In the realm of reason, therefore, revelation from a divine realm was not needed. Human reason could search out and know all the facts about reality, and “no alleged divine revelation, no tradition however ancient, and no dogma however hallowed has the right to veto its exercise.”(3)
The realm of religious belief was now relegated to the realm of private value and private purpose. It wasn’t that the Enlightenment dichotomy cut out God. Rather, it created a distinction between “natural” religion—God’s existence and the moral laws known by all and demonstrable by reason—and “revealed” religion—doctrines as taught by the Bible and the church. The latter realm, dominant in the Middle Ages and the Reformation, came under increasing attack and was eventually relegated to private expression and personal feelings.
Fueled by scientific and philosophical discoveries, the view of the world as the venue of God’s providence and rule, shifted to the view that sovereign reason could discover all that was necessary to advance humanity toward its highest destiny. All of Christianity’s supernatural claims and all of its revelatory content were unnecessary in a world where the Creator had endowed human beings with enough reason to discern what was important simply through the study of the natural world. As such, the autonomous, rational human became the center of truth and knowledge.
What emerged from this dichotomy was the belief that the real world was a world of cause and effect, of material bodies guided solely by mathematically stable laws. Discovering the cause of something was to have explained it in its totality. There was no need to invoke any supernatural “purpose” or “design” as an explanation any longer.
And yet, purpose remains an inescapable element in human life. Newbigin argues: “Human beings do entertain purposes and set out to achieve them. The immense achievements of modern science themselves are, very obviously, the outcome of the purposeful efforts of hundreds of thousands of men and women dedicated to the achievement of something that is valuable—a true understanding of how things are.”(4) Hence, persisting in the belief that science, for example, is value and purpose-free belies an intentional rejection of reality. The pursuit of science to find causes for effects devoid of any larger purpose seems self-defeating. Why study at all if there is no purpose for study?
Proclaiming that purpose infuses human endeavor, and as such, that purposeful human endeavor can point to purposeful design, and design gives rise to a Designer behind it all will not necessarily convince those who see a world only of mechanical cause and effect. Yet, scratch the below the surface of the most strident materialists, and one uncovers a yearning for something more than what can be understood by reason alone. As atheist Sam Harris wrote: “This universe is shot through with mystery. The very fact of its being, and of our own, is a mystery absolute….The consciousness that animates us is itself central to this mystery and the ground for any experience we might wish to call ‘spiritual.’”(5)
The Gospel of John suggests that reason and revelation need not be dichotomized. In this explanation of the significance of Jesus Christ, the objective and the subjective aspects of truth are revealed in a person: “The Word (logos) became flesh and dwelt among us.” The rational principle that undergirds all things, as the Greeks understood the Logos, is embodied in the human person, Jesus, according to John’s Gospel. And in the proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus we have a new starting point for reason. The resurrection is indeed the very basis “for the perpetual praise of God who not only creates order out of chaos, but also breaks through fixed orders to create ever-new situations of surprise and joy.”(6) Ever-new situations of surprise and joy might involve breaking a false dichotomy between public and private faith and the objective and subjective aspects of reality, even between reason and revelation. This one who brings new life and new ways of knowing invites us to wholeness, and not dichotomy.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) Stanley Grenz and Roger Olsen, 20th Century Theology (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 16-17.
(2) Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 25.
(3) Ibid., 25.
(4) Ibid., 35.
(5) Sam Harris, The End of Faith (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2004), 227.
(6) Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks, 150.