“What good is it for a man to gain the whole world and to forfeit his soul?” – Jesus
Thanks to the “Enlightenment,” the world is far better for us than it was for our ancestors in medieval times. That is the view of Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker in his new book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.
On that point, he’s right. Despite the obvious problems in our times, Pinker gives credit to humanism, science, and reason for all the ways that life has improved since the 1700s. Specifics can be read in Pinker’s book, or in the February 10 issue of the Wall Street Journal (click on this link here).
However, Pinker insinuates that science and reason freed humankind from the chains of religion. “Our [Enlightened] ancestors replaced dogma, tradition and authority with reason, debate and institutions of truth-seeking,” Pinker writes.
This perspective is full of unfounded stereotypes. Progress in the quality of life had started long before the Enlightenment, and even before the “Renaissance.” As many historians have documented, it is a persistent misconception to assume that the Enlightenment “rescued” us from the so-called “Dark Ages.”
The "Dark Ages" were not dark. There is no doubt that the material quality of life today (statistically speaking, at least) is better than it was in medieval times. But the foundations of Enlightenment advances were largely built during Europe’s medieval era.
For example, let's look at what Pinker calls "institutions of truth-seeking." The West’s first universities were founded centuries before the Enlightenment. Oxford University was founded in 1096, about 600 years before the Enlightenment. Cambridge University was founded in 1209, and many more were founded all over Europe by the 1400s. Moreover, scholastics at these early universities formalized and institutionalized the scientific method (by its true definition). Some of the greatest scientists in history—most of whom believed in God—worked during the medieval period.
(For a list of scholarly books that document medieval science and universities, click here.)
Had all this not happened, would there have been an "Enlightenment"? And why did so much progress occur in Europe and not in other, more ancient parts of the world?
One necessary factor was Europe's predominant worldview: theism, belief in God. That filled the soul of medieval progress in the West. Scriptural monotheism, says historian Rodney Stark, inspired many prominent medieval scholars, educators, and scientific leaders to discover the world scientifically. Others, motivated by the biblical call to “love your neighbor,” sought to innovate new technologies and services that could reduce hardship and improve life. These people embraced reason and pursued truth as an expression of their devout belief in God. Faith and reason went hand-in-hand.
The medieval period was a vibrant time, full of learning, scientific advances, new technologies. It cannot rightly be called the “Dark Ages.” The “Renaissance” was not a “new birth,” and the “Enlightenment” did not free us from chains and a dungeon. The material improvements in life that emerged during the Enlightenment are more accurately seen as an ongoing extension of what started in Europe during the medieval era.
Pinker also overlooks a deeper, theological and philosophical question. He frames “progress” within the scope of material well-being—reduced wars, increased wealth, longer life-spans, etc. These are good measures for life, but they are perhaps too narrow.
Let’s say that we continue to reduce crime, heal illnesses, increase prosperity, and advance peace. We all want that. The Scriptures say that God loves the world and wants to restore what is broken. So, from a Scriptural point of view, these pursuits are spiritual and eternally meaningful.
But Jesus asks one simple question that compels us to think about our well-being in far broader terms than Pinker’s.
“What good is it to gain the whole world if we lose our souls?” he asked.
In other words, can a real “Enlightenment” be soulless?