The British historian A. J. P. Taylor said the Enlightenment is still interesting only to those who are still worried about Christianity. The Enlightenment philosopher Denis Diderot turned 300 on Saturday, October 5th. But only Worry Worts found this interesting since they worry about how the Enlightenment is deforming today’s church.
Most Americans are unfamiliar with Diderot. A Frenchman, he was born 1713 and died in 1784. Diderot preached the right of the individual to determine the course of his or her life apart from received authorities – be they religious, political or societal. His suspicion of institutional authority infected a group of 19th century disciples. Diderot’s writing inspired the likes of Hegel, Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud. Hegel read Diderot and developed what is called “Hegelian idealism,” the assumption that ideas, in and of themselves, have legs and move history. If people get the right ideas in their head, they’ll act the right way. As Thomas Jefferson put it, “Enlighten the people, generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like spirits at the dawn of day.”
Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche read Diderot. They became what Pope John Paul II called the “masters of suspicion,” an expression he borrowed from Paul Ricoeur. These men fostered an age of doubt and suspicion, rendering Westerners suspicious of any sort of religion. They didn’t disavow the existence of faith – they simply relegated it to the private life, or what Nietzsche dismissed as “values.”
Worry Warts share a concern about all this. J. R. Williams introduced the original Worry Wart in 1956 in his comic strip “Out Our Way.” Worry Wart wasn’t concerned for himself. In fact, it was just the opposite. Worry Wart tried to get others to be concerned about a way of life that was slipping away. In the comic strip, Worry Wart was concerned about the erosion of family life, industriousness, and the Old West.
In religious circles, Worry Warts are concerned about the health of the church. They include Lesslie Newbigin, who noted how “Christian missions were, in fact, among the main carriers of the ideas of the Enlightenment.” He said American churches have “come to a kind of comfortable cohabitation with the Enlightenment.”1 They share the Enlightenment assumption that the core of a person’s being is their cranium. If we cram enough doctrine into a believer’s head, they’ll act the right way. Behavioral studies indicate otherwise. This is probably why the rates at which Christians watch porn, commit illicit affairs, or get divorced are roughly equivalent to those who claim no faith.
This inconvenient truth is why another Worry Wart, Dallas Willard, wrote that the “Western” segment of the church “lives in a bubble of historical illusion about the meaning of discipleship.”2 Hegelian idealism has turned the ancient art of hands-on mentoring into theorists expounding on abstractions. They teach principles and concepts while students dutifully take notes. Willard said this accounts for “the practical irrelevance of actual obedience to Christ” and “the weakened effect of Christianity in the world today.”3 It’s weakened because, in and of themselves, ideas don’t move the world.
“The Protestant tradition has taken on board a picture of the human person that owes more to the Enlightenment than it does to a holistic, biblical vision of human persons,” writes James K. A. Smith, another Worry Wart.4 Smith says that the church’s approach to formation is nothing more than information, an approach that “basically runs along Platonic lines.” When cultures prove to be antagonistic, the church responds by teaching “worldviews” and “trying to fill our heads with ideas and beliefs.”
Idealism, individualism, and suspicion of institutional authority are three reasons why Philip Jenkins, another Worry Wart, believes that churches in the West “are not necessarily the norm within the Christian tradition, still less the authentic core; nor, perhaps, have they ever been.”5 The Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University, Jenkins writes, “the particular shape of Christianity with which we are familiar is a radical departure from what was for well over a millennium the historical norm.”6 A faith tradition that departs from the historical norm should be worrisome to all Christians, not just Worry Warts.
Lesslie Newbigin noted that for more than two centuries, the Enlightenment “provided the framework in which Western churches have understood their missionary task.” He warned, “to continue to think in the familiar terms is now folly.”7 The same year Worry Wart was introduced – 1956 – Alfred E. Neuman debuted on the cover of Mad magazine. His signature phrase – “What, me worry?” – made fun of human folly. Too often, Western churches continue to think in Enlightenment terms that are sheer folly. It’s nothing to laugh about. If the church paid attention to Worry Warts, it too would be interested in Diderot and how the Enlightenment relegated the faith to the sidelines.
1 Lesslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), p. 33.
2 Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1998), p. 214.
3 Willard, Conspiracy, p. xv.
4 James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), p. 31.
5 Philip Jenkins, “Companions of Life: What Must We learn, and Unlearn?” Books and Culture, March/April 2007, Volume 13, No. 2, pp. 18-20.
6 Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia – and How It Died (New York: HarperOne, 2008), p. 3.
7 Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), p. 5.