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Home » Church History » “Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years” by Diarmaid MacCulloch » Chapter 21: Enlightenment: Ally or Enemy? (1492 – 1815) – Part I (1492 – 1700) » Chapter 21: Enlightenment: Ally or Enemy? (1492 – 1815) – Part II – Homosexuality during the Enlightenment, role of women, Descartes, Hobbes, economics, and Kant

Chapter 21: Enlightenment: Ally or Enemy? (1492 – 1815) – Part II – Homosexuality during the Enlightenment, role of women, Descartes, Hobbes, economics, and Kant








How was human sexuality portrayed during the Enlightenment?  What were gender roles like, especially the role of women during this period?  What were attitudes about homosexuality and lesbianism like?  Describe the reasons why women outnumbered men in Protestant church congregations during the 17th century.    How did the phenomenon of gender-skewed congregations contribute to new Christian reflections on gender – especially the thoughts of English ministers like Richard Allestree and Cotton Mather? Who was Mary Astell and how did she contribute to feminist attitudes during this period and beyond?

Ideas about masculinity and femininity started to change and the roles started to become more sharpened without any clear reason as to why.  For example the homosexual subculture started to develop, but the male version caused more of a moral panic than the female.


It’s not really well understood why women outnumbered men in Protestant church congregations.  One reason may be that there more opportunities for women in Protestant churches, but the phenomenon of more women in churches continues to this day (except for a certain book club).  In the modern church this seems to extend also to the heavy lifting of volunteering.  Are women more spiritual than men? As an oppressed gender do they gravitate to Jesus as the great liberator?


One benefit of more women was the distaste of witch hunting.  Allestree and Mahter began to rethink of the traditional ideas of women being weaker or more emotional and thus susceptible  to evil.  Perhaps being faced with death in childbirth made them mature in matters of life and death.  Mary Astel was a high Church Anglican Tory against discrimination against women as being more prone to vice.  She was outraged that girls were not being provided an education over boys.  Her views were absorbed in Evangelical movements affecting up to the 20th century.











French philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650) is often called the Father of Modern Philosophy.  He started out his career as a mathematician and is credited with discovering the concept of Analytic Geometry.  He also was a physicist of great repute.  Descartes was a faithful Catholic, but he privately knew the church was wrong in its resistance to and persecution of men of science.  He knew that these men and their philosophies were the way of the future, and if the Church did not adapt, it would suffer as a result.


Descartes sought nothing less than the formidable task of a radically revisionist look at knowledge.  He started with the premise of doubt and as a result he doubted everything.  He believed that everything that he knew, or believed he knew, came from his senses, and sensory experience is inherently suspect.  This is the classic Skeptic starting point.


Descartes quickly discovered that to doubt absolutely everything is to be poised on the precipice of madness.  Is it real, or is it a dream?  Descartes came to believe that he could not even know if he was awake or if he was dreaming things.  There is no absolute certainty, not even in the realm of mathematics.  This was called the Dream Hypothesis and is radical skepticism taken to the max.


Descartes went on to speculate that there might not be an all-loving God orchestrating things from a celestial perch.  Perhaps there was an Evil Demon who had brainwashed us into believing that all we see and sense is reality, but is really an illusion devised by this diabolical entity.  This is called the Demon Hypothesis.


You have heard the Latin phrase “Cogito, ergo sum” in its English translation.  It is perhaps the most famous sentence in the history of philosophy.  “I think, therefore I am,” became the rallying cry of the modern philosophical age.  Everything could be questioned, but one thing remained a fact: the thinking of the thinker.  Self-awareness.  You can count on at least one thing in this wild world, according to Descartes: Wherever you go, there you are. Descartes then tried to use this newfound certainty to prove the existence of God.  It is an ontological argument similar to the one employed by St. Anselm a few centuries earlier.  Descartes used the following arguments to “prove” the existence of God:


  • “’I think, therefore I am’ proves that I exist, but I am an imperfect, flawed mortal man. If I were my own creator, naturally I would have made myself perfect.  This proves that I did not create myself, and if I did not, then who did? The answer is God.”


  • “I have a conception of what perfection is, though I am not perfect. Okay, so where does this idea of perfection come from?  Not from me, of course.  After all, I am imperfect, and perfection cannot come from something as so patently imperfect as I.  So there must be a perfect being, and that is God”


Having proved that he existed and having “proved” the existence of God, at least to his satisfaction, Descartes turned his sights on the nature of reality.  According to him, two elements compose reality, as we know it.   He called them substances.  Thinking substances are our minds, and extended substances are our physical bodies.  He adds that not all ideas come from sensory experience, but other ideas dwell within the mind, ready for the accessing.  Descartes calls these ideas innate.  Notions of morality, mathematics, logic, and the idea of God are all innate ideas.  They are similar to the Platonic theory of Forms.  There are also, according to Descartes, two other types of ideas: adventitious, which come from what we experience through our senses, and fictitious, which are what the name implies.


Though a scientist and mathematician, Descartes sounds like the Apostle Paul when he speaks of the body-mind disconnection, or dualism.  He had a mechanistic view of the physical world and viewed the mind as being imbued with spirit.  Descartes believed that a body without spirit could still be a walking, talking, animated entity, like an android.  Feelings, or passions as he called them, are generated by the body.  They are not to be trusted, and they are best kept under control.  This is philosophical spin on the New Testament’s “spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” belief.  That the mind can know things without actually experiencing them is called rationalism.


Descartes was initially hesitant to publish his theories because they strongly resembled those of Galileo and did not want the Grand Inquisitor from the Catholic Church come knocking on his door.  Ultimately, Descartes did proceed to publish his work and further shook the foundations of the Church, which was already reeling from the one-two punch of the Protestant Reformation and the Scientific Revolution.





Thomas Hobbes (1588 – 1679)



The material covered begs me to raise my consistent cry: Is this the history of the TRUE Church? Comments exemplified by MacCulloch’s quip encapsulating Hobbes “… take no Christian doctrine on trust” (P.782) need to be addressed not for their obvious truth but for what it says about their (the Enlightenment’s) understanding of what (or better who) the Church is and its history.


Juxtapose this attitude with what is said in the New Testament as summed up in Paul’s applauding and exhorting the Bereans who checked his teachings daily. Here is the Enlightenment’s skepticism ala Descartes seemingly demanded in the NT. Is Paul an original skeptic in the full Enlightenment term? Throughout the NT the writers are saying don’t take our word, check it for yourself.


I claim this is germane for our study of Church History because obviously what was meant by Church (Authority) in Hobbes’ time is radically different than Paul’s time. Which is ‘TRUER’ to its founder Jesus Christ’s teachings, doctrines and practices?


Christianity has been molded by many forces but none greater than affluence and prosperity. After all, when you live in a purely survival (subsistence) world, there is precious little time to study and discuss philosophy and theology, let alone math, biology and other disciplines. With the increase of prosperity to the lower classes as in the Netherlands and England, common people were now able to pursue study and development as only the wealthy were able to do before.


The accomplishments of Descartes, Kant, Hume, etc. were more reliant on the time and place of their birth ( i.e. factors outside their control as exemplified today by Warren Buffets ‘Lucky Sperm Theory’) than the brain power any of them brought to the table.








Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) was arguably the pre-eminent philosopher of the Enlightenment who laid the foundations for most of modern Western thought since then.  His philosophy is marked by an overwhelming demolition of traditional beliefs.  Furthermore, his philosophy affirms the limits of human knowledge and the creative possibilities resulting from an acknowledgement of these limits.  In place of superstition and dogma, Kant embraces change and human fallibility.



He was born in 1724 in the East Prussian city of Konigsberg which was intensely Lutheran Pietist.  Pietism was founded in Germany by Philipp Jakob Spener (1635 – 1705); Pietists regarded the Christian faith as a living personal relationship with Christ rather than a set of doctrinal propositions and emphasized the necessity of a “born-again” experience.  They emphasized more on being part of the “invisible church” rather than being a member of the Lutheran church.  The schools that Kant attended at an early age stressed Pietism heavily whereby Kant had nothing but scorn and contempt for.  Later, after studying rational philosophy, he later became opposed in principle to religious ceremonies and wrote to a friend that “No confession of faith, no appeal to holy names nor any observance of religious ceremonies can help gain salvation.”



Kant was determined to apply Newton’s methods of rigorously and systematically analyzing observed phenomena in order to rebuild philosophy.  He wanted clarity of definition and reason.  He argued, like Descartes, from the existence of individual consciousness rather than from the divine revelation from God.  (loc. 15540)  Kant argued that the human mind actively orders everything which it experiences, and that somehow it has a set of rules by which it can judge those experiences.



MacCulloch writes:


These rules enable the mind to order the information which it receives about space and time within the universe.  Yet the rules themselves come before any experience of space and time, and it is impossible to prove that these rules are true.  All that can be said is that they are absolutely necessary to ordering what we perceive and giving it a quality we can label objectively.  (loc. 15544)




This revolutionized how philosophy had been done in the past.  Previously,


philosophy had worked on the premise that each individual mind gives a picture of structures in a real world which lies outside the mind.  Now Kant maintained that the mind orders the world by the way in which it interprets experience.  (loc. 15548)



In other words, Kant argues that our minds are confined within the world of our perceptions, with the realities that generate our perceptions forever beyond our grasp.  We understand our world only by imposing on it our own broad conceptual categories like time, space, and causality.  Before, philosophers had assumed that objects in the world order our perceptions of them.  For instance, if I see a tree, it is the tree that somehow forms a series of concepts in my mind, of shape, color, distance, duration of time, and so on.  But the fact is that it is the other way around.  The reality is not what the tree supplies but what our mind supplies.  Things like space, time and causality have no objective reality in and of themselves, but are rather things in our minds.  The human mind has been placed at the center of the universe by Kant.



Kant’s philosophy has often been referred to as “transcendental idealism” whereby it centers on our ideas, whether experiences or judgments, rather than on the external world.  “Transcendental” means beyond (“transcending”) sense experience.  All we experience are representations or appearances, not things as they are in themselves.  In the sphere of “pure reason”, of things that can establish with rational certainty, we cannot know anything beyond our ideas.



He divided the world into two spheres: noumena are things as they actually are (things-in-themselves) which are beyond the reach of the kind of reason used in science and ordinary life.  Here, we cannot have any “scientific” knowledge of what lies behind our perception of a table, or our experience of other people, or our concept of God for that matter.  Then there is phenomena, where we are totally limited to “appearances” (or phenomena), our experiences, and perceptions.  Our ordinary reason works in the ordinary world (phenomena).  But when we try to reach out for the realities beyond the ordinary phenomenal world, we have a wholly different way of operating (noumena).



These concepts provide an essential element for our understanding of the physical world.  They are not derived from sense-experience or observation but are, in Kant’s terminology, a priori – a truth known “prior” to experience.  It is the opposite of a posteriori, which we know “post”, or after, experience.  A posteriori thus means the same as empirical- based on our experience through our senses.




To Kant, there were certain “ideas” or concepts that the mind could not experience, and therefore are beyond any traditional proof derived by reasoning.  This places concepts like God, Freedom, and Immortality beyond the accessibility of reason.  However, they can be reached by the conscience within the individual.  Therefore, to Kant, God is equated to the “ultimate goal to which (rather than to whom) the individual turns, hoping to meet this goal in an immortality which stretches out beyond our imperfect world.”  (loc. 15552)  But Kant maintains that God’s existence cannot be proved- philosophical reason could never establish the existence of any supernatural reality.  But he did say that this did not imply God’s non-existence, but more so that assertions about his existence or non-existence were beyond the realm or reach of rational knowledge.  For Kant, faith takes over where reason fails.  In his groundbreaking work Critique of Pure Reason (1781) he writes, “I have found it necessary to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith.”



In terms of ethics and morality, Kant argued that morality must be grounded in a priori reasoning and not in any appeal to authority or religion; morality was not rooted in God since pure or scientific reason cannot establish the existence of God.  In principle, a person was to do a “duty for duty’s sake”.  This was to reverse how philosophy had approached morality in the past two thousand years: the ancient Greeks had identified virtue with happiness, but now Kant was insisting that these two ideas were, and should be kept separate and distinct.  Happiness belongs in the empirical realm and to the sciences of human nature such as psychology and anthropology for example; on the other hand, moral thinking involves only human reason, not human nature.  Or in another example, courage is usually regarded as a virtue, but not if it is used as being a suicide bomber.  For Kant, there is only one thing that can be said to be good without any qualification at all – that is, doing something solely based on the desire to do right just because it is right (and not because you believe a higher power will reward you in the present life or the afterlife).  This approach stands in stark contrast to Aristotle’s ethics who said that the truly virtuous person should enjoy the practice of virtue; but for Kant, in order for a moral duty to be true, we should be devoid of any self-happiness, joy, or self-fulfillment when performing a moral task.



It should be noted that Kant did not want to completely abandon Christianity altogether.  He wanted to recast Christianity into a form that was acceptable to a pure rationalist.  He wanted to affirm and establish the key truths of Christianity but without any need or reference to a special divine revelation; there are some essential truths within Christianity that are accessible to unaided reason, but there are also additional truths that only come through revelation.  However, on occasion he did draw some revealed truths of Christianity into his philosophy such as original sin and the Lutheran concept of the bondage of the will.  Furthermore, he accepted our need of God’s grace to enable to do what the moral law requires.  Overall, Kant’s philosophy on the limitations of reason and the human mind makes one think about how much we can really know about God.  Christians use words or terminologies to describe God all the time such as “infinite”, “eternal”, and “holy”, but do we really know rationally what these terms really mean or if they comprise any sort of reality altogether?  For instance, can the human mind fully grasp a concept like infinity?  If we can’t, then how can we apply such terms to God when we have no clue as to what infinity really is?  Then again, one wonders how it can still be called Christianity by stripping away key “revealed” (or “supernatural” for that matter) truths such as the Incarnation, the divinity of Christ, the Trinity, his miracles, the Resurrection, and the Cross; if all that you’re left with are just Jesus’ moral teachings it just becomes another ancient form of ethics or morality to follow or emulate for the most part.  Much of today’s world has been impacted by Kant’s views of religion and God, keeping faith as a matter of one’s private beliefs and leaving it at that, or you can believe, follow, or see Jesus as a great moral/ethical teacher but not believe him as the Son of God and still call yourself a Christian in some shape or form.*  You might just see religion as a means of becoming a more moral or ethical person.  There’s a great disconnect there and I’m not sure when this modern mindset might subside or go in the other direction any time soon.




*Ron pointed out that we should “be aware that well before Kant, it was evident that all doctrines are post-Jesus in the sense that they were adopted as teachings after Jesus died and so cannot be considered necessary for followers of Christ, only for membership to denominations.”






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