John Alan Turner

Speaker, Author, Mentor, Coach, Facilitator

Big Words and Bigger Ideas From the Enlightenment

Today we're going to talk about four big categories of ideas and see what thinkers from the Enlightenment put in each category that might still be rattling around our cupboards today. The four categories are: theology (thoughts about God), anthropology (thoughts about human beings), epistemology (thoughts about how we come to know things) and eschatology (thoughts about how things are going to end up). Theologically speaking, most Enlightenment thinkers were deists. They believed there was a God who created the universe, set it all in motion and retired to the beach so he could see how it all played out. This was largely a matter of convenience for them. There was no theory of evolution yet, so they had to have some way of explaining how we all got here. They allowed God to do that and then dismissed him to some distant place (way out there beyond the azure blue). This kind of God is nice to have around because you can trot him out to explain difficult things, but he lives so far away and is so disinterested in us that he'll never make any demands of us.

Of course, once Darwin came along and offered an alternative to a Creator, God could be removed from the conversation altogether.

Anthropology is the study of people, how they function and (to some extent) why. The Enlightenment was very optimistic in regards to humans -- specifically to men -- more specifically to white men who owned property. Racism and sexism are another story that we'll need to talk about more later lest we get too far off-track here.

The Enlightenment believed that people were basically good -- at their core -- fundamentally good with some bad stuff thrown on top. Rousseau, for example, argued that man was a "noble savage". The idea of each person having a sinful nature was considered a myth propagated by religious types who just wanted to keep us all chained in darkness. Whatever bad stuff we might do did not come as a result of our true nature but in spite of our true nature. This allowed them to explain the existence of evil culturally. Good children learn bad habits from the bad influence of society (especially church). If we could eliminate these corrupting influences and get man back into his natural state, things would be perfect.

Of course, Rousseau never could explain how noble savages who are basically good managed to create these corrupt institutions in the first place.

Christianity believes that when Adam and Eve sinned, every part of our existence was forever tainted -- including our minds. This belief requires us to be intellectually humble. Sin hinders my ability to think with absolute clarity, it clouds my judgment and prejudices me to certain presuppositions. I can never claim to absolutely know the absolute truth about anything because I am not absolute. I am imperfect and fallen.

But the Enlightenment thinkers didn't buy into that. There was no Fall. We are basically good, so we have the capacity to discover all the truth that exists, understand it completely and act on it perfectly. Unaided, unhindered reason needs no outside help from any transcendent source.

If people are good and getting better all the time, then the longer people exist, the better things will be. Eventually, we'll arrive at paradise on earth -- perfection -- utopia. With the right educational methods, the right social structures, the right political system, the right technology -- if we could just find the "silver bullet" -- we could create heaven on earth.

Anyone see anything wrong with this line of thought?

Does it sound familiar at all?