On the origins of the Enlightenment – Against the myth of the Christian Church
„Clash of civilizations“ – in various appearances does Samuel Huntington’s23 years old simplistic formula currently lives through a revival in the many commentaries on the latest frictions between the Western and Islamic (and sometimes Far Eastern) world. Specifically since the Near Easternrefugee crisis has made its arrival in Central and Western Europe, every province journalist seems to feel entitled to comment on the fundamental differences between our (superior) Western civilization and the (backward) Islamic one. And thereby a specific historical epoch plays a very special role serving as a historical crossroad between pre-civilized societies that still find their core principles in the value system of the Medieval Ages and the modern, constitutional and liberal Western cultures. It is the 18th century era of the „Enlightenment“ which Immanuel Kant described as „man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity“. Not without reason do we Europeans take pride in the civilizatoryachievements associated with it, and many consider it the most significant historical reference in today’s demarcation of the West against the Islamic world.
This characterization is anything but new, but despite its reductionist simplicity it still bears a strong argumentative force. However, what is new and shines forth in many of today’s discussions on the value differences between our Western societies and the Islamic one, especially in light of the politically sensitive issue of Near Eastern refugees, and what is especially fostered by those who do not know better, is that now the commitment to Christianity is declared as an essential or even a constituent part of the Enlightenment era. It is amazing how easily e.g. representatives of the Catholic Church twist their own history and then shamelessly present their misrepresentation to an audience, that is being exposed to the horrors of Islamic terror or the dismay at the behavior of Muslim refugees against women, but fail to mention that over long historic periods their own institution did not fall short of today’s actions of Arab fundamentalists and the treatment of women in contemporary Islam societies. Although the traditional teaching of Jesus of Nazareth encompasses „nonviolence and love of enemies“ these very values have largely been perverted in the history of the Church. It was in the end a movement of secularization, i.e. the explicit rejection of the religious fundamentalism of Christianity that has enabled the rise of the Enlightenment era and with it our modern civil society, and not an orientation towards Christian values. The mention of the medieval universities as a possible early intellectual source of Enlightenment is equally misplaced – there were far more important and older teaching and research facilities in Islamic dominions.
If we want to monocausally name the first and foremost driving force of the Enlightenment, we would have to call on the scientific revolution of the early 17th century, which for obvious reasons are barely ever mentioned by church leaders. They thereby forget that the „hero of the Enlightenment era“ was not Jesus Christ, but Isaac Newton. God stands on shaky grounds, so the widespread view held by the 18th century intellectual protagonists. Thus, the Enlightenment was characterized by the view that the phenomena and developments in nature – and even man himself –require no supernatural explanations and can be completely described(and even calculated) empirically and rationally guided by the methods of science and reason. As formulated by the French physicist and mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace, God therein has increasingly become a „hypothesis, no longer needed“. And if God plays no longer the all-important role in nature, the step to demand that the same should hold true in questions of social power relations was not far, which diametrically opposed the Church’smillennia-old social struggle for political power. We must clearly state: the representatives of the Christian faith were in no sense a driving force, but rather the first opponent of the Enlightenment!
But the situation is not quite as straight forward, those may argue that take a closer historical look. Indeed, the Christian faith and the European culture of knowledge embossed by it played no insignificant role in the emergence of modern scientific thought, and thus at least indirectly for the framework of the Enlightenment era. However, the structure of this relationship is far more complex than the apologists of the church want to make us believe. A more nuanced view on the triangular relationship Christianity – Science – Enlightenment provides a much more interesting perspective than the black and white phrases of today’s Christian representatives, as well as those by the their no more colorful antipodes of a self-declared secular age. And this also allows us to take a more nuanced view on the Islamic culture.
We thereby have to face thatin the span of half a millennium from 750 to 1250 European intellectual life had been hopelessly inferior tothe Islamic culture of knowledge and science. For many centuries, the medieval Arabian science culture outshone its European counterpart on scientific and technological (and thus civil) progress. But it thereby did not give birth to the methodology of modern science. This did not happen before the year 1600 in the formerly so backward Europe. And the further this process developed the more the Arab societies fell back, first in knowledge and then, increasingly in socio-cultural aspects. We see ourselves thus confronted with a prominent question: Why did the scientific revolution emerge in Europe, and not in theIslamic culture which during the medieval era had been so much more highly developed? And exactly here we stumble over a specific aspect of Christian thought, as an answer to this question can be found in the Islamic culture – in contrast to the European-Christian thinking –having developedonly a comparatively weak integrative approach inits philosophical thinking onnature. The Arab-Islamic thought had never settled on a convincing synthesis between (Greek embossed)philosophical rationality and a (Christian embossed) ideology of religious revelation, as the West had in late antiquity and the early Medieval Ages. Thus the Middle Eastern researchers lacked a clear-cut holistic concept of nature as Christian Middle Ages possessed one in the stronghold of the Athenian-Platonic philosophy. In form of a firm belief in a Creator God the latter wouldeventually become the essential intellectual power of the scientific revolution in the early 17th century (which inturnenabled the rise of the Enlightenment). In other words, the big idea of the West was the idea of an imminent order in nature, whose structure can be detected by the conceptual and rational means available to man- even though their justifying principles were based in the transcendence.
This does not lack irony which continues to shape today’s public debate: It is precisely the – compared to Islamic philosophy – significantly less developed separation of thought and religion and the spiritual proximity of the immanent and the transcendent world in Western thought which were the key drivers which eventually enabled the European-Christian-Jewish intellectual tradition to shape the development of modern scientific methodology in the early 17th century. Part of this irony is that in this Christian Europeduring the previous 1200 years any scientific thinking in the modern sense had been largely suppressed by the Catholic Christian church with its orthodox belief system and its persisting skepticism and resistance against empirical research. By prohibiting any skeptical and materialist thinking already in the early medieval Ages(best expressed in the dissolution of the Athenian Philosophical Academy in 529 C.E.), the church abandoned any form of a naturalistic theory of the world, as they had already been developed in differentiated forms in antiquity for almost a millennium. Even the religious and intellectual passion of scholasticism in the 13th century was rigidly connected to the logical deductive method of Aristotle and a worldview that sufficiently followed corresponding theological principles. This is despite that the philosophical basis for the development of scientific methods with the combination of the idea of an immanence of natural processes and the simultaneous belief in underlying transcendent principles of the natural order had already been created. And it was this combination, which was finally to establish the appropriate intellectual and motivational framework for rationally describing the world on the basis of an empirical method, to describe it with one word, to „scientifically“ assess the world.
Thus, about 350 years after scholasticism,driven by a comparable religious passion men like Johannes Kepler (who spoke of his own „holy rage“) were to search for the underlying laws of bodily motions and the „beauty of God’s creation”expressedtherein. So we see here, at the beginning of modern thought on the nature, that the conditions of the possibility of a scientific thinking about nature was the Aristotelian-Christian separation of the spheres between earthly natural causality and transcendent divinity, that successful scientific research initially was not to be separated from the belief in the transcendence anchored in Christian theology. The consideration of this dependence in the thinking of Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton from the Christian faith is ultimately much more useful than the clumsy historical populism we hear all too often from representatives of the Church. The subject deserves more.