Blinded by the Light?
A Light Too Bright: The Enlightenment Today: An Assessment of the Values
of the European Enlightenment and a Search for New Foundations
reviewed by Brian McDonald
Any reader of this fascinating work will, at some point, lay down the book, shake his head and ask aloud, “How does this man know so much?” Paulos Mar Gregorios, former president of the World Council of Churches and current Bishop of Delhi in the Syrian Orthodox Church of India, seems equally at home in the worlds of ancient Indian philosophy, Orphic religion, modern quantum physics, nineteenth-century German metaphysics or twentieth-century logical positivism. Though he is particularly attracted to certain schools of German philosophy, no thick Germanic denseness fogs his work. His analyses are both profound and as lucid as the daylight which provides this book with its central metaphor.
It is Gregorios’ thesis that the European Enlightenment, still the most dominant intellectual and cultural force in the world, is a “light too bright.” In the author’s words:
The “light too bright” of the autonomous, critical reason, which was liberated in the eighteenth century, has led to dazzling feats of technical prowess and social organization in the modern world. It has, however, blinded us to other ways of knowing reality, which may ultimately be more important (for what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?).
In the early part of this work, Gregorios seeks the essence of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. He finds it in the “repudiation of all external authority and of any debt to tradition.” Reason sought to exist without presuppositions and install itself as the sole means of understanding reality. The Enlightenment’s chief legacy to the modern Western world, he finds, is its hostility to tradition and authority.
To a great extent, this hostility was motivated by a hunger for human liberation since religion and tradition were often allied to oppressive social orders. However, in freeing reason from domination by tradition or any influence of Europe’s religious heritage, the Enlightenment thinkers and their modern heirs lost the ability (or even the inclination) to ground their ideas in any transcendent purpose. The Enlightenment has created a civilization that has produced vastly improved means for living even as it has lost the reason for living.
How did we get this way? Gregorios answers by giving a mini-course on the history of European and American philosophy and scientific thought for the last two centuries. At the beginning of this mini-course stands an entire chapter on Hegel, who, “ . . . more than any other thinker provided the vision that is at the basis of modernity.” Gregorios has a great affinity for Hegel and holds that he (far more than many Western Christians, in the bishop’s view) understands the central issues of “classical Christianity,” i.e., the Triune nature of God, the Incarnation of the Word in fallen history and the continuing work of the Spirit to bring peace, unity and love to the world through the historical process. Of course, the fact that Hegel understands these affirmations does not mean he embraces them in a full–blooded Christian manner. His Absolute Spirit who “realizes” himself in the dialectical process of history is only the metaphysical ghost of an expired Christianity. However, Gregorios rejoices that Hegel emphasizes both the freedom of reason and the transcendent grounding of all human activity and progress in history.
What Hegel kept together, however, his successors have torn asunder. Thinkers since his time have kept this doctrine of progress and some sense of the dialectical movement of history, but the Spirit (Absolute or otherwise) has receded further and further from view. Thus we have Marx, rejecting Hegel’s metaphysics and positing a totally materialistic vision of history. It is certainly true that Marxist millennialism has a quasi-religious feel to it. Anyone who has ever been devoutly devoted to the Socialist dream can attest to that. Transcendent purpose, however, is explicitly rejected as the “opiate of the people.”
Even Marx contains too much of a sense of “ultimacy” for the thinkers of the twentieth century. Ours is not an age of grand visions, secular or otherwise. The thinkers Gregorios examines are essentially technological and instrumental in their use of reason. Not even a shadow of transcendent purpose haunts their views. Germany’s Heidegger, the last philosopher with whom the author deals, is the great exception to this; but Gregorios pointedly notes that he has left many admirers but few disciples.
The major failure of the European Enlightenment, as Gregorios perceives it, is that in its failure to ground knowledge in some transcendent purpose, and in its constant putting of “practice ahead of theory,” it has reduced knowledge to power, “power to manipulate, control and dominate” the material world. And that material world is rapidly becoming the only world we are capable of seeing. He points out that we have lost the ability to recognize that “some of the things that matter are not made of matter.”
The answer to this dilemma as Gregorios sees it is to look beyond the comfortable prison of our current American-European world and seek the wisdom offered by what he calls “the other Enlightenment.” This “other Enlightenment” as he outlines it is not a unified vision of thought and life located at a definite historic and geographic place (he passes up the obvious opportunity to identify his Eastern “classical” Christianity as the other Enlightenment). Rather it has existed in many traditions and cultures—and is even at the basis of Europe’s own life. Many cultures, both in the past and in many current “undeveloped” areas are poorer but wiser than our own. And this wisdom is based on an entirely different view of knowledge:
He first turns to his own Indian background and shows how to many sophisticated Buddhist and Hindu thinkers, many of the Enlightenment’s ideas lack the sense of invincible self-evidence. These sages are not looking for an “about” kind of knowledge that will help them dominate their world. Rather they seek an encounter with a Being that is so authentic that all illusions fall away and one is set free from fear, passions, lust, hatred and dominance by the brute conditions of life. Naturally such a search cannot take place without some confidence that one’s community and traditions have found a wisdom that one could not discover on one’s own. In this light the critical and autonomous reason of the European Enlightenment is a guarantee of nonknowledge rather than true wisdom.
Gregorios then turns to the European tradition itself to show that it also was based upon a search for “the truth that shall set you free” rather than “knowledge about.” Plato and Socrates, for instance, were not Enlightenment rationalists born out of time. They also believed that true knowledge was an “existential” participation in the eternal realm of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. That was the true goal of philosophy and could not be acquired apart from ascetic preparation:
Space does not permit me to do any more than note how he follows out this “other Enlightenment” in its subsequent European incarnations. He gives brief resumes of Neoplatonism, the Byzantine tradition, and notes the influence of Wycliffe, followed by some description of the Anabaptist and Quaker traditions.
The problem with this section of the book is that the author offers too many brief samples of too many disparate traditions of “enlightenment.” He therefore can go into little depth on any of them—and this is disappointing. More disturbing than disappointing (at least to this Orthodox reviewer) is the astonishingly brief treatment given by this Eastern Christian bishop to his own faith—and even then he stresses less what is unique in the faith than the Neoplatonic influences within it.
I know that this is not a book of apologetics, but one wonders how an erudite Christian bishop, especially one standing within the Orthodox tradition (albeit not in communion with the ecumenical patriarch), can avoid focusing on the Incarnation as the solution to the problems of a Western Enlightenment that loses the spiritual in the material world and an Eastern Gnosis that tends to lose the physical world in the spiritual. Of course holding correct dogma is not the same thing as really participating in God-given wisdom. This is one of the points of this work. On the other hand, is there not a rich Christian tradition of wisdom that stresses a disciplined intimacy with God and a care and love for the world? And is not the dogma of the Incarnation at the basis of this? Why then is it so pointedly ignored by Bishop Gregorios?
The answer would seem to be that the author (in spite of the fact he calls his book a “modest work”) is out to lay the groundwork of “new civilizations.” Since these new civilizations are to be part of a global order (which is one of the good things the Enlightenment helped bring about) it will not do to lay an exclusive or even prominent emphasis on the Christian faith:
While we are waiting for these new civilizations to be generated I find myself continuing to be disturbed by this thought. What differentiates the views of this Christian bishop from a Hindu (or modern religious liberal), who believes in many different roads to the One? Didn’t the bishop’s own Lord say, “I am the way and the truth and the life”? If this isn’t a claim to absolute universality, which displaces all other claims, then what is it? And if Gregorios thinks of the European Enlightenment as a light too bright, what must he think of Christ who said, “I am the light of the world”? Not one of the lights but the Light. And yet in this long and profound treatment of enlightenment, Eastern and Western, there is almost no mention of the Lord who said that he alone could lead us to the Father of lights.
The failure of Bishop Gregorios to present his Lord as the Light Universal for those walking in darkness is more than a deficiency in this book. It is almost an intellectual tragedy. What our world cries out for today is the kind of mind that can do in our era what the patristic thinkers did in theirs. There can be few individuals better placed by education, ability and historical position than Gregorios to address modern-day seekers in the idiom of their various traditions. But it is a task that the bishop has apparently declined to do. Do not look to find a new Gregory of Nyssa here. Rather look to find beneath the mitre and robes of the Christian bishop the heart and soul of a World Council of Churches ecclesiastic, dedicated rather to “pluralism” and “inclusivism.”
It could be argued that I have misunderstood the purpose of the book. Why expect every work of a Christian writer to be an apologetic? Perhaps it is very worthwhile to place side by side the alternative ways of understanding what it means to “have knowledge.” Does this not free Western secularists to recognize that their earthbound knowledge may not be altogether true? Could not such an effort be seen as a type of praeparatio evangelica?
Perhaps this is so. Again, however, I find myself asking how a Christian bishop could have any other desire in writing a book about the Enlightenment than to draw people into communion with the One who said that he was “the Light of men.” This book is about light, but it is not about Christ. And that may leave its Christian reader feeling that they have been left sitting in the dark.
Brian McDonald is a former Presbyterian pastor who is now a member of Sts. Constantine and Helena Romanian Orthodox Church (OCA) in Indianapolis, Indiana.
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“Blinded by the Light?” first appeared in the Fall 1993 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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