In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Jared Byas explores the impact of reason and rationalism as he continues his deep dive into the origins of the modern mindset. Join Jared as he explores the following questions:
- Why is it important to understand our modern context?
- What led to this monumental shift away from the Middle Age mindset to the modern mindset?
- What is the importance of reason for the modern mindset?
- When the political and religious hierarchies of the Middle Ages broke down, what replaced them as a clear line of authority?
- What were the four steps of the experiment Descartes used to try to find certainty?
- According to Descartes, how do we use Reason and what grounds us in our knowledge?
- What are some flaws of the modern mindset?
- What are the two foundations of modernity?
Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Jared Byas you can share.
- “When we can understand how our context is different than the context in which the Bible was written, we can stop trying to shove a square peg into a round hole and learn a new way to integrate what the Bible is with what we can do with it today.” @jaredbyas
- “I’m foreshadowing the challenges of the modern mindset, where postmodern thinkers begin to question how universal reason is, especially when it comes to areas of morality, politics, and religion. It just so happened that this so-called universal reason, always looked white, male, and affluent.” @jaredbyas
- “The Enlightenment is about growing up, learning to lean on your own understanding (sorry Proverbs) through freedom and reason and away from the Bible, away from superstition, away from church tradition.” @jaredbyas
- “Reason democratizes our thinking. It’s no longer just the elite with special divine knowledge that can hold the truth, but most human minds are capable of reasoning if done the right way. That’s what we’re trying to figure out, what’s the right way?” @jaredbyas
- “Newton uses reason to further science, Locke uses reason to further democracy or political reform, Immanuel Kant is going to use it to further religion and morality, to rip it from superstition and unwarranted church authority.” @jaredbyas
Mentioned in This Episode
- Website: thebiblefornormalpeople.com
- Podcast Episode: The Making of the Modern Mindset, Part 1
- Support: patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople
Pete: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People, the only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.
Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.[Jaunty intro music]
Jared: Hey, everyone, welcome to the podcast. Before we get started for today’s episode, there’s just something important we want to talk to you about. If you’ve been following us on social media the last few weeks, you might have noticed we’ve been just regaling you. Regaling you?
Pete: I think that’s an English word.
Jared: With the past.
Jared: We’ve been down memory lane. Talking about how we got started, even before the podcast.
Pete: That’s right. Yeah.
Jared: Our beginning of our relationship. We’ve been talking about what we’re doing. But we’re gonna recap that here, because we have something really important going on this week.
Jared: But before we get to that, why don’t we just talk a little bit in case people missed that. How did we get started with this podcast?
Pete: Yeah, with the podcast. I mean, actually, we started before the podcast.
Pete: And to basically create structures that didn’t exist. And-
Jared: We were wrestling with things like higher education.
Pete: Right. Yeah.
Jared: And the Bible and having access to scholarship and how is all that going to work in the future?
Pete: And also to push issues, you know, to move outside of certain boundaries, which is easier to do in some institutions than others. And we just felt that there were some conversations that people want to have and that we were having anyway. And we knew there were more people like us out there and of course, there are zillions of you. So yeah, so that’s how we started but then, you know, the big jump was getting to the podcast, which you know, at first, I was like, I don’t know, I just, I don’t want to think about one more thing. I’m busy. I don’t want to do a podcast.
Jared: Which I think first came from your agent.
Pete: Right. Well, the impetus first came from both, you know, my literary agent, but also the my speaking agent Jim Chafee and Kathy Homers. Anyway, shout out to you guys. You owe me one. Actually, you don’t owe me anything. I owe you everything. Okay, anyway. But you know, I was asked, you know, Pete, you should probably have a podcast. And I said, Okay, I’ll think about it and then I didn’t.
But then you Jared, like, at some point, it wasn’t long after that, where I think you had it in your head, we have to do a podcast. And you asked me and I’m thinking I’m quoting you, “Pete, on a scale of one to five, how much would you hate doing a podcast?” And I said, “Actually, I’ve been thinking about it.” And I said, “Yeah, you know, I, I’m fine with that. As long as I don’t have to do anything.” Like-
Pete: Like I don’t want to, I don’t want to deal with the technology of it. Not that I can’t, people. I’m not stupid.
Jared: You want to be the Prima Donna who just sits down chair –
Pete: Yeah! Yeah!
Jared: And just talks about whatever he wants.
Pete: Yeah, just comes in and blows off some steam and leaves again, and let you guys, you know, clean up the dust after I leave.
Pete: No, I didn’t want it, like, get another skill set. You know, I mean, I’m not totally incompetent. I can use a VCR. But, you know, I didn’t want to do that but we started it. And that was in in March of 2017.
Jared: I think that’s right, yeah.
Pete: So, we are now-
Jared: Season Five.
Pete: Season Five. At the end of Season Five.
Jared: And what that what does that mean for kind of where we are? That’s 184 episodes in. We have over 9 million downloads.
Pete: We almost have 10. You’re being too shy.
Jared: Almost. Almost.
Pete: Yeah, we’re getting there.
Jared: One of the things I think I’m most proud of that we have right now is there’s over 1500 people in our community group on Slack talking every day about the Bible. And the main, the thing that I love about that is it’s a group that people can feel not alone in. Because a lot of these conversations are things that they can’t say in their congregation or in their family systems or amongst their current friend group.
Pete: And that really highlights probably the core reason why we wanted to start The Bible for Normal People is to foster community. Because people feel alone.
Pete: No, but I mean, Jared and I, we both lost our religious communities at points in our life. And it’s,
Jared: It’s hard. Why do you think we were friends? We would never have been friends if it wasn’t for the fact that we were so lonely.
Just so lonely!
Jared: Just that low hanging fruit. You have a heartbeat, you kind of know what I’m talking about?
Jared: Let’s be friends. Geez.
Pete: Yeah, right.
Jared: Okay, so let’s talk about the future. Because again, as a team, we mentioned this on the podcast a week or two ago. As a team, we’ve been kind of dreaming of what does the next step look like for us and it really is built around this accessibility. We want people to have access to the best in biblical scholarship for their, you know, for the everyday person. That’s the mission of The Bible for Normal People. So, we’ve been thinking about accessibility and we have a few initiatives that we’re thinking that we want to build into the future.
Pete: So one of those is what we’re calling “Nerds in Residence.” We are bringing people in, slowly but surely, who are scholars in their own right and who have things to add, you know, to our community, perspectives to add, and who, you know, are teaching someplace or in some cases, maybe not, because it’s the whole structure thing we mentioned before, structures don’t exist for people doing some of the things that we want to do on the podcast and plus teaching positions are shrinking anyway across the country in a lot of disciplines.
Pete: So, we want to bring people on who are talented into our little world here, and you’re going to hear from some of them, you know, not just from me and Jared.
And that’s sort of a dream of ours as much as we both like the sound of our own voices, not each other’s voices, but just the sound of our own voices. You know, it’s really important to have a team, we never wanted it to be something that was just us. And that’s one thing we’re doing.
Jared: Yeah, and just to be clear, Pete and I will continue to host the podcast.
Pete: Of course, yeah.
Jared: We’re thinking of expanding these guests that we’ve had on the podcast to other avenues and platforms, like blogs, courses, videos on YouTube-
Jared: Videos through Patreon or other platforms-
Pete: We’ve done a little of that, but this is more on a regular basis, like, people actually being part of the team.
Jared: Right. Yeah, so we have the Nerds in Residence, we also have a new platform that we would like to bring all the things that we have, because we have Slack and we have Patreon and we have our website, and so we’re going to be dreaming about what would it look like to bring all that under one umbrella and have it a new Bible for Normal People platform.
Pete: Just easier to use.
Jared: Easier to use. More accessible for people. We get complaints a lot and Patreon is not super user-friendly. Slack is a little clunky when you’re trying to, you know, manage multiple things. So, we want to try to bring all that under one roof. The third thing, in terms of accessibility, is we just want to be able to give away more free content.
Jared: More videos, more courses, more classes, more things that we can do. And then the last thing is Pastors for Normal People.
Jared: We had a course this past spring for pastors to help them rethink about the Bible, kind of think of it as like a retraining because a lot of them, their seminaries taught them to read the Bible in a way that they no longer find helpful. And they’re also feeling kind of alone, because they can’t really talk about these things. We had over 200 pastors join us for that course.
Pete: Right. That’s amazing.
Jared: We’ve been thinking, we’ve been meeting with these pastors this summer and this fall, thinking about ways that we can continue to support and resource pastors in their transition and in their journey.
Pete: And the pastors are actually working with the normal people.
Pete: Right, that we are founded to do.
Pete: Was that English? I don’t know, close enough, but The Bible for Normal People, for people who don’t themselves necessarily have training, but want to learn and want to think and want to change their ways of thinking and pastors can be a crucial element in that or something of a detriment sometimes. So, we want to sort of help pastors help you, I guess, help each other and help you.
Jared: Yeah, absolutely. So again, this accessibility, which is you know, for us, specifically – Nerds in Residence, new platform, more free content, a Pastors for Normal People program – we don’t have all this, all the details nailed down. This is just what we’re dreaming about, what we’re going to be pursuing. This is where you can come in, if you want to help, we just need to we need to raise some funds for this. This stuff is not free. And so, here’s our ask. We’re trying to raise $40,000 to put into these programs, and we actually have some people, who, we are blown away by their support. They believe in what we’re doing. They’ve already matched $12,000 of that. And so, for the first 12,000, they’re going to be putting their money up for that. So, it’s just this week only, we don’t want to have long campaigns-
Pete: We’re not gonna NPR you to death.
Jared: Not going to NPR you. Not going to health and wealth mega church you-
Pete: No, not that either.
Jared: But if you do give, I think Pete has a handkerchief he has at the podcast that he sweats on-
Pete: Yeah, I can sweat on it for you.
Jared: And he he’ll send it to you.
Pete: I do sweat a lot.
Jared: That’s not a true thing. So don’t, please, no one think that we’re actually going to send it to you.
I don’t believe you guys have gone down the toilet so quickly, now with this sweat hanky.
Or to be expecting a sweat hanky? Yeah, that would be that would be even worse. So, it’s just this week. If you want to give, you can go to thebiblefornormalpeople.com/worlddomination.
Pete: That’s catchy.
Jared: I mean, our expectations are low here.
Pete: It’s low.
Jared: We keep it low. You can help us thebiblefornormalpeople.com/worlddomination. Find more, help us out, we look forward to serving you into the future, looking forward to season six of the podcast. We have no interest in slowing down.
Pete: Right. Thanks, folks.[Music begins]
Jared: It’s important to understand our current context when we read the Bible. We can no longer trust the church to provide us with certainty, but if we have the right method, we can get there with our own minds. I love that because what it really says is the Enlightenment is about growing up. Learning to lean on your own understanding, sorry Proverbs, through freedom and reason and away from the Bible, away from superstition, away from church tradition.[Music ends]
Jared: Today is just me, part two of “The Making of the Modern Mindset.” If you haven’t already, you can go back and listen to part one from July. But I’ll give a review here, so you don’t need to do that. Last time we talked about three reasons why it’s important to understand our current context when we read the Bible. We are often taught to understand the Bible’s context. What were people like? What did people believe back then? That’ll help us understand the Bible. But growing up, I wasn’t really ever taught to pay attention to our modern context. What are people like and what do people believe today? And where did that come from? And I gave three reasons for why this is important.
One, it helps us to see that we aren’t the center of the universe, that people didn’t always think like we did about some important things. And people will likely think differently than us well after we’re gone. When I say we, I mean you.
I mean, let’s be real here, Pete and I, we have the only God-ordained podcast on the internet. Our words will stand forever, unchanged by the seasons that plague mere mortals. But for you, you’re in a context.
That’s a joke, by the way. Give me a break.
Two, it helps us be aware of our influences. Sometimes, we can think that our beliefs and practices are in a vacuum, that they aren’t influenced by our culture or that somehow we’re immune to being a part of the world that we live in. I hate to break it to you, we are not immune. We are swimming in a particular body of water called the modern mindset that we might not have ever noticed, precisely because we swim in that water and haven’t really ever experienced anything else.
And three, it helps us reimagine the Bible for our own lives. When we can understand how our context is different than the context in which the Bible was written, we can stop trying to shove a square peg into a round hole and learn a new way to integrate what the Bible is with what we can do with it today.
We ended part one with a quick look at the Middle Ages, where we had these four categories – knowledge, authority, identity, ethics – and how those came to us mediated through these two bureaucratic systems, the Church and the State, which were both divinely ordained as “the authority” over the known world. Of course, we’re talking about the West. But this is very common in the West, we just assume that that’s everything, that’s the world. So, they were the authority or divinely ordained to translate God’s will to the people. So that was that was the Middle Ages. And if you want a little more on that, you can go check that first part back there.
But over the next 500 years, from about 1300 to 1800, the authority of how the Church and the State operated in the Middle Ages begins to break down and starts to be replaced by new systems of authority. And by authority, I just mean people with power telling other people what to do, right? I mean, that’s not the technical definition. I just came up with it off the top of my head, but pretty good, I think. The Roman Empire, as a unifying force, broke down in the fifth century, we talked about that last time, and was replaced by Christendom. This at easy, you know, at times uneasy alliance between the political power of the God-ordained state and the religious power of the God-ordained Catholic Church. And it was still very hierarchical and formal and it reigned as the unifying political force, the Christendom did, from about 400 until 1300. However, in about 1250, so scholars often call 1250 to 1500 the late-Middle Ages or the early modern, right? There’s this overlap, we’ll keep talking about that, because it’s important to remember these aren’t black and white dates. This version of Christendom began to be replaced with what’s called modernity, thus, the modern mindset. These cultural shifts don’t usually, again, have hard dates. So, I’m rounding these numbers to make it easy to remember and there’s overlap anyway.
What happened in the 1300s and 1400s, that led to this monumental shift away from the middle age mindset to the modern mindset? Well, we’re going to skip over all the nuance and we’re going to land on three important events that we’re going to boil this all down to, though, of course, we could have picked others. I’m itching to make sure we get to Descartes and understanding the impact that he and some of his colleagues around the same time had on this modern mindset. But three things just to give us a little context here. We have Florence, the rise of the republic and thus the rise of the middle class. We have a guy named Petrarch and the resurgence of classical literature. And then we have a guy named Erasmus and the rumblings of religious reform. So, Florence, Petrarch, Erasmus, and they symbolize three important shifts. And before we begin, we have to recognize Italy here, I mean, props to the Italians, they really know how to Renaissance. And by Renaissance, I mean the cultural movement that ushers modernity in.
So first up, Florence, which is a region in Italy and represents the rise of the Republic. So, for about 200-300 years before this modern shift, Florence was already planting the seeds of it by operating outside the political bounds of the common way Christendom operated in some important ways around 1138. Right remember this timeframe of 1250 to 1500, so before that, about 100 years, Florence becomes one of the first Republic’s to operate in around a thousand years. Republics didn’t operate, right? We had these fiefdoms. We had these kingdoms. Very hierarchical, think King Arthur’s Court. We had kings of regions and they had their court and they had their knights. Sometimes they had round tables, sometimes they had otherly-shaped tables, but this republic allowed for the rise of the merchant class and extensive trade with other countries.
It was less hierarchical, and therefore there was a lot of financial flourishing, which allowed for things like the Medici family to give lots of money to the arts and to literature and so culture started to flourish as well. So, by the time we get to the heart of the Renaissance, there are more Republics cropping up. And this, of course, politically, eventually leads to two monumental revolutions: the American Revolution in 1776 and the French Revolution 1789, thus kind of solidifying the modern era of government and this dissolution of kind of divine right to rule for individuals through bloodlines that had tied Church and State together for centuries.
That’s no coincidence that the Renaissance and the birth of modernity really starts in Italy. How societies organize themselves matter, and the Republic allowed, again, for more free trade and more free thinking. And with the rise of the Republic and the middle class, represented by Florence, there was this foundation for modernity. So that’s Florence. That’s the first big thing that we have to talk about, as we set up this shift from the Middle Ages.
The second event for this shift into modernity is represented by a guy named Petrarch. Petrarch lived in the 1300s and is often credited with being the spark of the Renaissance, kind of proper. He’s also called the Father of Humanism. He’s a traveler, a collector, and when he traveled, he began to find and collect these ancient Greek, Roman and Latin manuscripts, works of forgotten writers like Homer, Cicero, Virgil, Seneca. And as he got acquainted with these ancient works, he began to believe the world he lived in was ignorant. And so, he’s often the one that’s credited with creating the concept of the Dark Ages, those ignorant fools in the past. But with his help, there was an explosion of interest and accessibility of what we think of today as the foundation of modern Western thinking – Plato, Aristotle, again, Homer, Cicero, Virgil, Seneca – these writers that began to be seen as the foundation of Western thought, were really only accessible because of people like Petrarch who began to find these manuscripts and begin to really be interested in them.
Though the intellectuals of the day no longer relied on this multi-layered Christianized interpretation, of say, Plato and Aristotle, of these thinkers that we find, say, in like Thomas Aquinas or Duns Scotus, famous intellectuals from the Middle Ages, if you’ve heard of them, but they could actually now go back to the original sources and see for themselves what Plato and Aristotle were all about. So, a common rallying cry over these several hundred years was ad fontes, back to the sources. Let’s get back to the sources of our thinking. Petrarch, of course, was a leader in this resurgence of classical literature. And it led to people thinking outside the box about these categories – identity, ethics, knowledge, authority. It started to allow people to think outside the bounds of Christendom. Okay, so that’s Florence, that’s Petrarch.
Thirdly, by the time we get to the 1400s, the late-1400s, we have to mention Erasmus. So, while Petrarch brought the classics back into discussion, which started to loosen up the foundations of Christendom, in that sense, in the way that it was practiced in the Middle Ages. Erasmus began seeing the implications for church doctrine and tradition. He advocated for returning to original source documents like the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts, so that they could revise Bible translations, doctrines, church practices. So just like Luther, less than a generation later, he was hoping to reform the Catholic Church from within. He wasn’t trying to start anything new. He was simply asking that church authority recognize the literature and scholarly practices that began to proliferate during his lifetime and his writings were incredibly influential during this time.
In fact, a few writers – Mark Ali and Ted Olson – remarked that at one point between 10 – 20% of all book sales in Europe, were Erasmus’s books, he’s like the J.K. Rowling of his day.
So, two of his most influential books are Handbook of the Christian Soldier, which is written in 1503, where he argues against the empty formalism of church tradition that’s no longer rooted in the in the teachings or the tradition of Christ. And then also The Practice of Folly, which is written in 1509, which is a satire, actually, that attacks the abuse of superstitions of the Catholic Church of his day. Of course, less than a decade later, Martin Luther is going to post his 95 Theses in 1517, which sparks the Protestant Reformation and the splintering of the West’s religious identity away from the one universal Catholic church into Lutheranism, Calvinism, and the thousands of isms that we have today in the church. That is all what is called, again, the late Middle Ages from 1250 to 1500. The return to Greek and Roman literature, scholars having direct access to the writings of folks like Plato and Aristotle, the explosion of the arts, that’s where the foundations of modernity begin from.
Florence, again, the rise of Republic and the middle class, Petrarch and the resurgence of classical literature, Erasmus and the rumblings of religious reform. It’s important again to say that Florence, Petrarch, Erasmus are representative of what’s going on in the larger culture, we could have picked any number of other Republics or thinkers. It’s not that they’re out on an island. That’s not how cultural shifts happen. It’s about the interplay of thinking. In fact, Erasmus was said to have been in communication with over five hundred other thinkers about his ideas. Writing letters, receiving letters, you know, if you don’t know what letters are, or writing letters for the younger audience, let me translate: Erasmus had probably over around 500 Twitter followers that he tweeted with regularly, so change was in the air.
But what was the result of all this? The result was the modern period, which extends from 1500 to sometime in the 20th century. That’s a long time. The Second World War is often a convenient line to draw of maybe where that blurring between modernism and what we might call post-modernism starts to take shape. But this is the water that many of us grew up in, the modern mindset. And it had been solidified and concretized for centuries by the time we are born.
But it gets complicated because, again, we are, by most scholarly accounts, at the end of that modern period. We’re in a period of transition like Petrarch and Erasmus and Luther, we’re in this period of transition from the Middle Ages mindset to the modern mindset, we’re kind of in that same transition.
There are two important movements within modernity that I’ll mention. And I’ll mention them because you’ve probably heard of them. But the 1600s- so at the beginning of this modern age, the 17th Century, is often called the Age of Reason. And then the 1700s, the 18th century, is the Age of Enlightenment. Clearly, neither one of them was the age of humility, right? Age of Reason and the Age of Enlightenment. But I tell you this because it does tell you a lot about the modern period, it was a time for reason to take the throne from the church, as the foundation of knowledge and this newfound emphasis on reason, led to immense scientific discoveries, right? We have the scientific revolution, political revolutions, and a general feeling of superiority and enlightenment, which lasted until the middle of the 20th century. There’s lots of talk of progress and utopia, enlightenment.
So, let’s talk a little more about the importance of reason for this modern mindset. And to do that, we need to talk about my guy, René Descartes. He was a mathematician who also dabbled in philosophy. Dabbled, of course, is an immense understatement. He’s called the Father of Modern Philosophy. He’s clearly a genius who made significant contributions to our understanding of math, science, philosophy. Remember that the Middle Ages were marked by a clear chain of being, with hierarchies and monarchies, well-established structure given to them by God. While there was plenty wrong with that system, it did provide a certain level of safety and stability. However, as the Renaissance sweeps Europe and thinkers are going back and revisiting ancient Greek and Roman thinkers, the political, the religious landscape gets unsettled with the rise of these Republics. Things are feeling a little unsettled.
Of course, we have a huge religious revolution happening in 1517 and the decades to follow with Martin Luther beginning the Protestant Reformation, even though that’s not what he was trying to do. So, from our perspective, we might see the political and religious hierarchies breaking down as like liberation, this is good news. This is something that we should be celebrating, which in many ways it was. But it’s also a very volatile and scary time. There was a lot of violence and casualties happening during this time. Without the hierarchical authority and the clarity of the chain of being where there’s a place for everything and everything in its place, things can feel really confusing and unnerving. During Luther’s time we had the Peasants Revolt, where people are dying and there’s just a lot of chaos, you know?
What will replace these clear lines of authority if it’s not this top-down Christendom of the fiefdoms of the State, with clear hierarchies and the one universal Catholic Church with all its structure and bureaucracy? What’s going to replace that? What was going to unify us so that we aren’t talking past one another, ending up in in chaos and anarchy? What grounds our ability to communicate and talk with one another if it’s not these God-ordained governments and church structures? The modern answer became very clear over a few hundred years: Reason.
Reason takes the place of the church as the primary authority in the West in an uneasy way. The church is still there. The church is still in charge. But Reason, slowly over these decades, begins to take over as the primary authority.
Enter Descartes. Descartes was born in 1596, died in 1650. So, that kind of places us in, this is, you know, eighty years after 1517 and Luther beginning the Protestant Reformation, so 1596 to 1650. With Descartes’s thinking, we really begin to see this human-centered reason take over, specifically let’s look at Descartes famous experiment from his second discourse. This comes from his aptly named book Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason where he says, “I’m going to doubt everything I can possibly doubt.” He actually has four steps that he’s looking for the foundation of certainty, using reason, using logic, using our ability to think in logical steps. So, his experiment had four steps. And I’m going to quote Descartes here so you can hear it from his own mouth, “The first was never to accept anything for true, which I did not clearly know to be such; that is to say, carefully to avoid precipitancy and prejudice, and to comprise nothing more in my judgment than what was presented to my mind so clearly and distinctly as to exclude all ground of doubt.”
So, he had this idea of clear and distinct ideas that can exclude all ground of doubt. The first step, doubt everything that didn’t pass that test.
“The second, to divide each of the difficulties under examination into as many parts as possible, and as might be necessary for its adequate solution.” So, analyze.
“The third, to conduct my thoughts in such order that, by commencing with objects the simplest and easiest to know, I might ascend by little and little, and, as it were, step by step, to knowledge of the more complex; assigning in thought a certain order even to those objects which in their own nature do not stand in relation of antecedence and sequence.”
And fourth, “And the last, in every case to make enumerations so complete, and reviews so general, that I might be assured nothing was omitted.”
In this Four Steps, we have Descartes’s experiment to try to find certainty. We can no longer trust the church to provide us with certainty, but if we have the right method, we can get there with our own minds. His project is to come to 100% certainty through reason. How can we come to it? We have to begin by deconstruction, in a way, we have to doubt everything. He systematically challenges everything. And once we doubt everything, whatever is left, whatever we can withstand the doubting experiment, that becomes the foundation on which we can build everything else we can know. That’s where we get this phrase, if you’ve heard it, foundationalism. That we’re building our knowledge on clear and distinct certainties from the simplest ideas to the more complex.
And much of modernity, the modern mindset, is a response to Descartes’s project, thinkers after him are going to ask did he succeed or fail, but they don’t really question the project itself. They all think it’s a great idea, that we do need to find certainty, that we do need to find the foundation of our thinking. And Reason is the tool we’re going to have to use to find it. No one questions the quest for certainty. The only question is, “What’s the proper method for getting there?”
So, many thinkers after Descartes take up this project, come to their own methods, come to their own conclusions about the foundation, about what the root is. What is the thing that we can be most certain about that we can then build other certainties upon?
What was Descartes’s conclusion? He doubts everything, but the only thing he finds that he can’t doubt is that he exists. And this is where his famous phrase comes in – cogito ergo sum. I think, therefore I am. I can’t doubt that I am. Because then who would be thinking the doubt? Who would be thinking I doubt that I am? It would have to be something. What is that thing? It’s the thing I call me. From there, Descartes begins to build his project. And this is the rise of the subjects, you know, where people start thinking of the “I” that things have to start from, I am a thing that sits around perceiving and thinking about and observing the world.
As a note on the side here, he doesn’t get very far beyond “I think, therefore I am.” He can’t make much headway of building those certainties on top of “I think, therefore I am.” So early on, he actually brings God back in almost like a deus ex machina, if you know what that is from theater or literature, where God kind of just then gives us certainty about everything else. So many would say that Descartes didn’t really succeed in creating a good foundation. But he created the project. He created the method. He created the understanding that we need a foundation. So, what replaces divine authority mediated by the Catholic Church? Reason. And how do we use that reason? What grounds us in our knowledge? Descartes, of course, the mathematician by training, asked this question takes a stab at producing an answer in this methodical way.
So, Reason now becomes the tool, the grounding by which anything can be called True or False. It’s the standard. This is the birth of, of course, another “r” word, rationalism. And rationalism is the belief that reason should be the primary source of our knowledge, how we test our knowledge. Reason takes over, again, from not just divine authority, but tradition. Reason democratizes our thinking, it’s no longer just the elite with special divine knowledge that can hold the truth, but most human minds are capable of reasoning, if done the right way. And that’s what we’re trying to figure out, what’s the right way?
However, this is important and lays the groundwork for part three of our time, Descartes, and many after him make an assumption about Reason, that it’s universal, that if we just applied the correct method, it would break through all of our cultural, linguistic, historical, cultural differences and contexts. That there is this objective, mathematically valid in all contexts, way of thinking.
In some ways, that assumption seemed to work well, for instance, in science. Science and mathematics. It is, after all, the scientific method that allows people like Isaac Newton to develop his Laws of Motion during this time. The world seemed to work objectively and mechanistically. So, why not apply that to things like morality and politics as well? Or religion? If we just applied our reason to every field, we’d see the same explosion of progress that we did with the natural sciences. Again, I’m foreshadowing here the challenges of the modern mindset, where postmodern thinkers begin to question exactly how universal reason is, especially when it comes to areas of morality, politics, and religion. It just so happened that this so-called universal reason, always looked white, male, and affluent. And the logical conclusion of this so-called universal reason always seem to be that it just made sense to colonize less powerful regions of the world exploiting their resources and people. But that’s for part three, next season.
But at the time, people were hopeful about this universal reason. And using reason as a foundation, again, did help. John Locke, who, like Isaac Newton, came a generation after René Descartes, used the same line of thinking to declare that all people are born free and promoted some of the earliest writings on individual liberty and notions of private property. That is to say, ethics was no longer determined by Church or State, but from Reason. And from those ideas of John Locke, we can draw direct lines to the American Revolution and the French Revolution, again of 1776 and 1789.
So, these are the two foundations of modernity really, Freedom and Reason. Or as another famous thinker from this time, Immanuel Kant said in his essay, What is Enlightenment?, he says this, “Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another.” I love that because of what it really says is the Enlightenment is about growing up, learning to lean on your own understanding, sorry Proverbs, through freedom and reason and away from the Bible, away from superstition, away from church tradition. As one essay puts it, “The spectacular achievements of Newton in particular engendered widespread confidence and optimism about the power of human reason to control nature and to improve human life. One effect of this new confidence and reason was that traditional authorities were increasingly questioned. Why should we need political or religious authorities to tell us how to live our lives or what to believe if each of us has the capacity to figure those things out for ourselves?” It’s a great summary.
All right, let’s go back for a minute though, because I mentioned briefly the last of our thinkers for today, Immanuel Kant. And Immanuel Kant comes at the tail end of the Enlightenment, he’s 1724 to 1804. So, he’s about 70 years, born 70 years after René Descartes dies. So, he’s smack right in the middle of the modern period. He is a firm believer in the ultimacy of reason. He says, in his famous Critique of Pure Reason, “Our age is the age of criticism, to which everything must submit. Religion, through its holiness, and legislation, through its majesty, commonly seek to exempt themselves from it. But in this way, they excite adjust suspicion against themselves and cannot lay claim to that unfeigned respect that reason grants only to that which has been able to withstand its free and public examination.”
So, as Newton uses reason to further science, Locke uses reason to further democracy or political reform, Immanuel Kant is going to use it to further religion and morality, to rip it from superstition and unwarranted church authority.
In fact, he even writes a book called Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone. Mystery is out. It reeked of old ways of thinking. Certainty is the new drug of choice. How logical can we be? How many layers deep can we go until we find the undoubtable foundation that we can build everything else we know from? How can science, religion, ethics, morality, politics, and government all submit to reason, in a way that yields universal knowledge that we can all agree on, so we can live happily ever after in peace and prosperity?
So, thinker after thinker, system after system cropping up between these years 1500 and 1800, and really from Descartes in 1650 to 1800, they come and try to answer these questions. And while progress was definitely made, right? Scientific revolution. There were some serious flaws in this modern mindset.
So, let’s go back real quick to the four areas that we’ve been looking at: knowledge, identity, ethics, and authority. This is real easy to see this shift because really what it comes down to is reason replaces the church as the seat of authority for these other three – for knowledge for identity, and for ethics.
Next time, we’re going to look at those four through the lens of some very clever thinkers in the 19th and 20th centuries, namely, Friedrich Nietzsche, Soren Kierkegaard, Jacques Derrida and Richard Rorty, as we march into the 21st century and consider the damage that was done by privileging the thinking of one type of person and claiming it as universally valid, claiming it as the Reason. Reason will save us. We’ll talk about some of the blind spots and some of the weaknesses of that kind of thinking as it relates to knowledge, authority, identity, ethics, and how we find ourselves caught between these two worlds, especially some of the religious thinking in the early 20th century, and how they bought into rationalism and reason and continue, even to this day, some parts of Christianity to marry Reason, rationalism to the Christian faith and how many thinkers have moved beyond that.
Thanks so much. See you next time.[Music begins]
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