Since the Enlightenment, we require that truth be based on a critical evaluation of the facts of experience. The motto of the Enlightenment was: “Dare to think for oneself!” This meant a rejection of blind submission to tradition and authority. This new demand for individual freedom to think critically for oneself without coercion and interference revolutionized the face of Western society. It particularly called into question the uncritical, believing attitude of traditional Christians that the Bible is the ultimate written revelation of God.
This does not mean that critical thinking is hostile toward Christian belief. In fact, scholars of the Enlightenment era have shown that critical thinking emerged out of the concerns of Christian theology with its commitment to the nature of truth. The rise of modern philosophy and the development of the natural sciences, sociology, psychology, and historical criticism are rooted in the concerns of Christian theology.Ernst Cassirer, The Philosophy of the Enlightenment, trans. Fritz C. A. Koelln and James P. Pettegrove (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1951), 182-96.
An internationally known theologian/philosopher insists that the demand of the Enlightenment for individual freedom to think critically for oneself is the mature result of Christian faith itself. The truth concerning the revelation of God is not best preserved through suppressing critical questions. He concludes that there is no need to protect the Bible from critical examination because the divine revelation is capable of meeting the test of a matured and thoughtful mind. Otherwise, if belief is compelled by mere authoritarian claims, faith easily degenerates into blind gullibility and self-delusion, as Feuerbach and Freud have charged.Wolfhart Pannenberg, “Response to the Discussion,” in Theology as History, eds. James Robinson and John B. Cobb, Jr. (New York: Harper and Row, 1967), 229.
The question that Enlightenment thinking reformulated in particular was epistemological. Epistemology is a branch of philosophy that seeks to determine the nature and limits of knowledge. Of course, the question “What can we know?” has been a central issue since the earliest days of ancient Greek philosophy. But in the modern world this question took precedence over the question “What is reality?”
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