Teach me your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name. --Psalm 86:11

Sunday, June 24, 2012

John Oswalt on the legacy of the Enlightenment

My mother-in-law just picked up John Oswalt’s The Bible Among the Myths. Since it dovetails with my current study in worldviews, and since she urged me to have a look, I’ve started reading it while we vacation at her home. The first chapter is a densely-packed overview of the Greek and Hebrew worldviews and how they intersected with both the dominant worldview of the surrounding culture and with each other. Oswalt concludes the chapter with this insightful gem:
The unique linkage of Greek and Israelite thought led to several characteristic features of Western Civilization. Included among these are: the validity of reason, the importance of history, the worth of the individual, and the reality of nature. But in the revolt of the Enlightenment against what it saw as the stultifying strictures of Christian dogma, these and other results were made ultimate values.
What has happened? Rationality has become rationalism. We have made the human mind the measure of all things and the result was a century in which two of the chief accomplishments were Buchenwald and Hiroshima. Rationalism has taught us that there is nothing worth thinking about. History has become historicism, in which we assert that finally we can know nothing about the past except what we make up to serve our own historical fictions. Individuality has become individualism, in which we assert that individual rights come before everything else, with the result that we are each locked in lonely isolation. Nature has become naturalism, in which the cosmos becomes and end in itself serving its own implacable, mindless, and deterministic ends. . . . We can no longer answer the “so what” questions. Reason for what? History for what? Individuality for what? Nature for what? In the absence of these answers we fall back into the pursuit of survival, dominance, comfort, and pleasure.

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