In “The Book of Urizen,” William Blake personifies reason as a sinister character he named “Urizen” (your-reason). Blake was a romantic and his art and philosophy reflects a reaction to the excesses of the age of reason.
Many people in Blake’s era saw the age of reason as a threat to spiritual wholeness. I wrote this article to encourage Christians to “make peace” with the empiricists and acknowledge that, in some ways, they advanced the mission of the Church and were good for society in general.
It is certainly true that many people have put far too much emphasis on reason, and perhaps, for those people, Blake’s image of an oppressive tyrant over the souls of men is appropriate. But there is a more positive side to the empiricists.
The image of the empiricists as Godless cynics has been a little exaggerated. While I do not recommend them for theological insight, they are a worthwhile study for Christians as their influence on western culture should not be ignored.
Modern secularists generally credit the death of superstition to these philosophers, But the empiricists were, in some respects, the residual embers of that large wildfire called the Reformation. Superstition is a common complaint in Protestant theological literature of that era and it is equated with false religion.
Witherspoon, that forgotten American founding father who was also a Presbyterian minister, believed that all men have an inward sense of justice regardless of personal belief. The British jurist, Blackstone, called this natural law which is consistent with a basically Christian Cosmology. Witherspoon and Blackstone represented a pervasive worldview that was a product of the Reformation. Thomas Paine grew up with it.
Thomas Paine has been lionized by American secularists that want to believe that America was born of secular reasoning as a move away from religion. However, there are things that Paine wrote that might horrify secularists in this regard.
Paine clearly concurred with Witherspoon’s idea of a Christian cosmology as the critical foundation of a free republic. Paine loved some aspects of Christianity and believed Jesus Christ was the greatest philosopher that ever lived.
Although Paine was not a Christian, he recognized that the Bible contained some essential principles that could be reframed and argued in the name of reason and common sense. This secularization of theological ideals helped to unify the colonies because Anti-royalist rhetoric was largely associated with black-robed Congregationalist and Presbyterian preachers that the Tories denounced as the “Black Regiment.”
Some colonists, no doubt, saw the groundswell of revolutionary fervor as a move to those particular denominations. But Thomas Paine was not a Christian and his “Common Sense” advocacy of the revolution had the effect of disassociating anti-royalist doctrine from its Congregationalist/Presbyterian roots and shoring up support among those outside of that community.
In his book, “Common Sense,” Paine suggested that lawmakers should have a Bible displayed in the chamber with a crown on top of it to remind lawmakers that in America, God’s law is king — not the law of man.
This calls to mind the thesis of Samuel Rutherford’s seminal classic, Lex Rex (The Law and the Prince) which was a work of theology published over a hundred years earlier in 1644 to debunk the doctrine of the divine right of kings. Rutherford’s theology can be summarized in the ancient maxim NON SUB HOMINE SED SUB DEO ET LEGE meaning “Not under man but under God and Law.”
These words, now inscribed over the entrance to Langdell Hall at Harvard, are traceable to the English jurist Henry of Bracton, circa 1240 who also wrote that “the King has a Superior, namely God” and that “there is no rex where will rules rather than lex.”
This reflects the spirit of the Magna Carta of 1215 which was a treaty drafted by Archbishop Stephen Langton to reign in the tyranny of King John 1.
These are the historical roots of that idea expressed by the Declaration of Independence in the words, “Endowed BY GOD with certain unalienable rights.”
Voltaire is an enlightenment Philosopher that history remembers as godless and acerbic. Voltaire was certainly no model of piety, but he was not so broadly anti-religious as to admit no role of faith in his life at all. He advocated religious liberty, and this made him a friend to Protestants living in Catholic France. Voltaire was a Huguenot sympathizer who, at the end of his days, claimed to be “at peace with both God and man.” His barbs were generally aimed at corrupt Church officials and nobility that richly deserved criticism.
John Locke put a lot of faith-based ideas in his Two Treatises on Government. He touted tolerance as the greatest of Christian virtues and thought that belief in God was an essential element of good government, going so far as to say that atheists should not be entrusted with political power.
The empiricists did a great service to humanity by converting the practical aspects of the Biblical wisdom into universal principles of government that people of almost all faiths could embrace.
Christians should not hesitate to read and study the empiricists critically. They complete our knowledge of this critical time in history. They were God’s instruments for advancing important Christian ideals that would shape the cosmology of the entire free world.