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Enlightenment emphasised at Christianity's cost

Centre for Public Christianity’s Richard Johnson Lecture for 2018 focuses on reaffirming Christianity's roots

By Mark Brolly

April 17 2018 

The belief that the Enlightenment is the source of all that is good is “a creation of the divinity of human reason” in which the only threat comes from the irrationality of religion, a British Christian advocate said in Melbourne last month.

The Director of Research at UK Christian think tank Theos, Mr Nick Spencer, expressed concern that much of the West was busily sawing through its Christian roots. “I would fiercely argue that the foundations of our foundations do matter,” he said.

“Virtually every community founded in the West for well over 1500 years had at its centre a building of common usage and at the centre of that common usage building was the image of a man who was to be worshipped – the man rather than the image – despite the fact that he was poor and lonely and broken. That image was the beating heart of our common life and… it still is.”

Mr Spencer was delivering the Centre for Public Christianity’s Richard Johnson Lecture, entitled Where did I come from? Christianity, secularism and the individual, at the State Library on 15 March, the first time the lecture had been delivered in Melbourne, as part of an Australian tour that also included Sydney and Brisbane. The lecture honours the Church of England chaplain on the First Fleet, the Revd Richard Johnson.

He responded to the new book by Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.

Mr Spencer said the idea that all was good and that schools, hospitals, charities and international organisations were “institutions of modernity” was not tenable. The 18th century did not represent a new and unprecedented start in human history but one in which philosophers, politicians, investors and inventors “picked up and built on the existing institutions of European order which had been crafted over centuries”.

“Just as Steven Pinker is determined to trace every good thing there is to the Enlightenment, so there are some Christians who want to do the same with Christianity,” Mr Spencer warned.

“You have to distinguish between those institutions that emerged from Christian culture and those that emerged for a Christian reason.

“Nevertheless, it is highly instructive that a significant number of... institutions that transformed Europe and then the world not only had their roots in Christian culture but in Christian reasons.”

Mr Spencer said Christians contributed to the development of political toleration, natural rights, civil society and the scientific revolution.

While care was needed not to lay too much claim for Christianity in some of these developments – “To claim Christian support for democracy through the modern period would be a woeful misreading of Christian history” – Mr Spencer said: “… It is the case that the building blocks of the modern world – of secularism, of the individual, of thoughtfulness, of representation and so forth – were cut and crafted not only in Christian cultures but often according to Christian designs.”

Answering questions after his lecture, Mr Spencer said Christians should not allow the term “humanist” to be appropriated only in the past three generations to refer only to those who were non- or anti-religious. Historically, it referred to the value of the human, one which Christians held.

“The term ‘humanist’ must not be allowed to be hijacked, effectively, to mean something different from what it has historically meant.”

Mr Spencer said the Christian story had been “a firmly closed book” for the first 20 years of his life and when he opened it, he did so hesitantly and reluctantly, inspired by a university friend. “But I’m glad I did.”