The Reason Behind a Day of Reason
Dr. James Emery White
- 2013 May 02
Today has been traditionally set aside as the National Day of Prayer. Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx, recently named to be the next Transportation Secretary by President Obama, has instead declared today to be “A Day of Reason” for his home city.
This is not original to Foxx. The American Humanist Association , whose slogan is “Good without a God,” created the National Day of Reason to counter the emphasis of the National Day of Prayer.
Foxx argued that the day was better spent on reason than prayer because “the application of reason, more than any other means, has proven to offer hope for human survival on Earth.”
It’s not important to defend prayer against reason. I am reminded of Charles Spurgeon’s comment about defending the gospel. He said that he would sooner defend a lion; unchain it, and it will defend itself.
The larger issue is an understanding of what is going on in our culture, and the answer is simple:
There has been a second fall.
The first fall led to God’s expulsion of human beings from the Garden of Eden. The second fall was when we returned the favor. The leaders of science and commerce, education and political machination, have ceased operating with any reference to a transcendent truth, much less a deity.
This is a new and profound break with the history of Western thought and culture. Even among that which might be termed “pagan,” true secularity in this sense has been unknown. Whether the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, or the gods of Greece and Rome, generations assumed a world beyond the one in which they lived, and lived accordingly. It would have been alien to anyone’s thinking to begin, and end, with themselves alone in terms of truth and morality. The second fall changed all of that, and now shapes the world in which we live.
And while it was building long before, our current state of affairs was unleashed during the period known as the Enlightenment.
To properly understand the Enlightenment, it must be seen as more than an age – it must be understood as a spirit. While it produced the hymns of Isaac Watts, the deeply Christian music of J.S. Bach, Handel’s Messiah, the German movement known as Pietism, the ministries of John Wesley and George Whitefield, and the First Great Awakening, the dominant spirit of the age was anything but Christian. The spirit of the age instead belonged to the philosophes, those who embraced the Enlightenment culture and popularized it for all who would listen.
And many did.
Henry May captures the message of the Enlightenment as the belief in two propositions: first, that the present age is more enlightened than the past; and second, that we understand nature and man best through the use of our natural faculties. The Enlightenment “project” was the rejection of revelation, tradition or divine illumination as the surest guide for human beings. Instead, autonomous human reason reigned supreme. The motto of Immanuel Kant, one of the most significant thinkers of the time, was Sapere aude! - “Dare to use your own reason” (or simply, “Dare to know”). In fact, this was his personal definition of the Enlightenment.
There are several words worth noting in Kant’s challenge: First, the word dare, meaning that if one did use reason, they would inevitably come up against traditional authorities, namely the church. But that was the point. There could be no authority over the exercise, or conclusion, of reason. This idea of authority is critical, for the Enlightenment was a rebellion against one source of authority – that of the church and its appeal to God and His revelation – and the enthronement of another authority, that of human reason. For someone like the French philosopher Voltaire, the Enlightenment offered emancipation from “prone submission to the heavenly will.”
That the reason we use be our own also highlights the independence of human intellect, answerable to none and best able to function separate of anything thought to come from God.
And then there is Kant’s use of the word reason, which for most Enlightenment thinkers, such as the Scottish philosopher David Hume, meant some form of empiricism. Empiricism elevated sense experience above all other sources for the gaining of knowledge. Sense experience means that which could seen, tasted, touched, heard or smelled. Introduced through the scientific method of experimentation of Francis Bacon (1561-1626), what could not be observed, or at least replicated, was met with skepticism. The fundamental idea was that we could begin with ourselves and gain the means by which to judge all things.
And not only that we could, but should.
The challenge this brought to Christian faith was profound. Alister McGrath charts the development concisely, noting that it was first sympathetically argued that the beliefs of Christianity were rational, and thus able to stand up under any amount of intellectual scrutiny.
It was then argued that the basic ideas of Christianity, being rational, could be derived from reason itself, independent of divine revelation.
Then came the final step, the idea that reason was able to stand over revelation as judge. If reason was omnicompetent, as Enlightenment thinkers believed, it was supremely qualified to judge Christian beliefs and practices. If reason could not produce a particular tenet of Christian faith, then that particular tenet was suspect. Only what human reason could demonstrate became enshrined.
The speed by which Enlightenment thinking took hold was breathtaking. By the end of the era, the church had been marginalized, theology dethroned as the queen of the sciences, and the Christian worldview reduced to a fading memory. For the first time since the fourth century, the church would once again face persecution.
If the medieval outcome of an entrenched Christian worldview was Christendom, the Enlightenment outcome of the newly entrenched secular humanism was “humandom.” The most visible manifestation of this seismic shift was the French Revolution, where a religion of man was established. A process of de-Christianization began, so much so that Alexis de Tocqueville would later write that, “In France...Christianity was attacked with almost frenzied violence.”
One of the more symbolic events took place on November 10, 1793, when Notre-Dame de Paris, the great church of France - most famous of the Gothic cathedrals with a foundation stone laid by Pope Alexander III in 1163 - was formally declared and transformed into the Temple of Reason, with busts of Rousseau and Voltaire taking the place of the saints.
During the ceremony, a hymn to “Liberty” was sung with the following words:
Descend, O Liberty, daughter of Nature;
The people have recaptured their immortal power:
Over the pompous remains of age-old imposture
Their hands raise thine altar...
Thou, holy Liberty, come dwell in this temple
Be the goddess of the French.
All that leaders like Foxx are asking is that we keep singing it.
James Emery White
Elizabeth Flock, “Anthony Foxx Declares Thursday 'A Day Of Reason,' Instead of Prayer, in Charlotte,” US News & World Report, April 30, 2013, read online.
Henry F. May, The Enlightenment in America.
Gerald R. Cragg, The Church and the Age of Reason 1648-1789, The Pelican History of the Church, Vol. 4.
Immanuel Kant, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals and What is Enlightenment, trans. Lewis White Beck.
Alister E. McGrath, “Enlightenment,” The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Modern Christian Thought.
Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the French Revolution, trans. Stuart Gilbert.
Emmet Kennedy, A Cultural History of the French Revolution.
*This article was adapted from a section from James Emery White, Serious Times (InterVarsity Press).
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is The Church in an Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log-on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.