“A Child of the Enlightenment”


by John Drury


            I am a child of the Enlightment.  I wish I could deny it, but I cannot.  David Bosch’s description of the Enlightment paradigm accurately describes my greatest influences.[i]  Bosch lists seven elements of the Enlightment paradigm and explains their impact on the theology of mission.[ii]  I will use his rubric to reflect on the influence of the Enlightment in my own development.

1. Reason.  The Enlightenment was the age of reason.  Beginning with Descartes, with the help of Locke and Kant, the West has viewed reason as natural and universal.  My own educational experience has perpetuated this view.  I was always told to “think for myself.”  At higher educational levels, the pressure to have an “original idea” is overwhelming.  I have been conditioned to look down on those who do not have the courage to doubt.

            The enlightened love of reason has received a mixed response in religious circles.  Bosch outlines five typical responses of Christians to the rationalism of the Enlightenment.[iii]  In my own spiritual pilgrimage, I have turned to each of them for answers to the questions posed by modern experience.  My early years were dominated by personalized devotional religion.[iv]  In high school I turned from this personal faith toward the values of secular society.[v]  During my first years in college I returned to Christian faith, but this time I took an interest in apologetics and the forming of a Christian society.[vi]  Though my own self-identity was in constant flux, I was merely shifting within the Enlightenment plausibility structure.

By the end of college, I became thoroughly interested in my own Wesleyan-Holiness-Revival tradition.  This tradition carried with it the reaction of locating religion in human feeling and experience.  With all the weaknesses of this position, it nevertheless provided material for a vibrant spiritual life and an evangelical zeal for mission.  Furthermore, it provided the tools for critiquing Western Christendom hegemony, for the world is my parish.[vii]

2. Subject-Object Scheme.  Bosch contends that the Enlightenment infused Western culture with a subject-object scheme for human understanding.  I am the subject who is studying the objects of the world around me.[viii]  I have tended to accept this scheme under the auspices of “realism.”  In college I took an interest in critical-realism, which aims to take into account the difficulties of certainty.  Bosch notes how this subject-object scheme serves as the basis for modern biblical criticism.[ix]  If such a connection were legitimate, it would explain why I so easily embraced biblical criticism when I encountered it in college.  The subject-object scheme also lends itself to a theology of mission where the “mission field” is the receiving object of the missionary subject.

3. Elimination of Purpose.  The Enlightenment rid science of any interest in teleology.  The question of why the world is here became irrelevant.[x]  Only during my early periods of rebellion and more recent periods of doubt has this aspect of the Enlightenment held sway for me.  Nevertheless, the implied loss of mystery always carries an influence on my world-view.  It is difficult to stand in awe and wonder at the stars once I was exposed to the natural processes at work behind them.

4. Progress.  This element of the Enlightenment paradigm has played a dominant role in my development.  Even using the term “development” carries with it a belief in progress.  My Wesleyan heritage is inherently optimistic, since it believes that human sin can be overcome in this life.  Many in our tradition—including my own father—are post-millenialists.[xi]  My national heritage as an American also stresses progress, including with it the belief that America itself embodies the progress of the world.  We are the “great experiment.”  In my motivation for mission, I have been guilty of America’s “patronizing charity.”[xii]

5. Knowledge as Factual, Value-Free and Neutral.  Especially in reaction to the 17th century European religious wars, the Enlightenment aimed to separate values from facts.  Religious difference could be disregarded as mere opinion, whereas science could offer cold, objective facts.[xiii]  Although I have long regarded the sharp fact-value distinction as fallacious, I nevertheless behave as though it were true.  It is so easy to study (even theology!) without practical matters and convictions in mind.  I often set aside my own assumptions and beliefs when conversing with others, because the modern world has encouraged me to not let “mere opinion” get in the way of truth.  This habit makes the encounter with those of other religions confusing and difficult.

6. Problems are in Principle Solvable.  The hope of the Enlightenment was to solve the world’s problems hung over from the so-called “Dark Ages.”  All problems of knowledge and life may and must be solved.  I have been given over to this sort of thinking time and time again.  For instance, I approach a problem in a personal relationship as a sort-of puzzle to be fixed.  In the public realm, I vote by determining which candidate will best solve the problems of society.  With regard to the church’s mission, I have succumbed to the simplistic logic that since there are unconverted people, we should cause their conversion.  My missionary zeal is based on achievability, rather than faithfulness.

7. Individual Autonomy.  The final element of the Enlightenment according to Bosch is the autonomy of the individual.[xiv]  Each individual is responsible to make his or her own decisions and is free to do so.  This element runs deep in my veins.  I have a close affinity to American “Rugged Individualism.”  My literary heroes have always been individualists like Blake, Thoreau, Keats, and Keirkegaard.  Even in these later days as I have rediscovered the importance of community, I have done so by choice as an autonomous person.  Even the act of reflecting on the Enlightenment’s effect on me is an individualistic exercise.  The implication for the theology of mission is obvious: a stress on individual salvation,[xv] which I continually affirm even when I call it into question. 


            I truly am a child of the Enlightenment.  Although I have engaged in a mixture of reactions to this experience, I nevertheless remain under its influence.  Although there is much good that has come of it, I hope to be released from the grip of its plausibility structure.  These modes of thinking are not universally accepted, nor can they claim universal validity.  One of my personal goals is to rethink the church’s mission in a way that is informed but not controlled by the received patterns of the West.

[i] All citations are made to David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1991).

[ii] These seven elements are describes in Bosch, Transforming Mission 264-267.

[iii] 269-70.

[iv] Cf. Bosch, Transforming Mission 269.

[v] Cf. Bosch, Transforming Mission 270.

[vi] Bosch, Transforming Mission 268; 270;

[vii] Cf. Bosch, Transforming Mission 277-78.

[viii] Bosch, Transforming Mission 264.

[ix] Bosch, Transforming Mission 270.

[x] Bosch, Transforming Mission 265.

[xi] Bosch, Transforming Mission 282.

[xii] Bosch, Transforming Mission 290.

[xiii] Bosch, Transforming Mission 266.

[xiv] Bosch, Transforming Mission 267, 273.

[xv] Bosch, Transforming Mission 289.