The Enlightenment Needs Religion like Fish Needs a Bicycle

Enlightenment rationalism has failed as a worldview. There’s just something missing. And some of the Enlightenment’s most redoubtable defenders are willing to admit it. Sort of.

That’s the theme of Stanley Fish’s latest blog-column. He tells the sad story of Jürgen Habermas, a German philosopher who has admitted that the “humanist self-confidence of a philosophical reason which thinks that it is capable of determining what is true and false” has been “shaken” by “the catastrophes of the twentieth century.” In the wake of two world wars and many other secular atrocities Habermas has decided that reason needs religion. Again, sort of. (Read the whole piece to see for yourself.)

Fish sees even more clearly than Habermas, as his piece will demonstrate. I always crow about Fish’s New York Times blog-columns because God’s common grace has given him an uncommon measure of insight. I literally gasped with pleasure as I read paragraphs like this:

A political structure that welcomes all worldviews into the marketplace of ideas, but holds itself aloof from any and all of them, will have no basis for judging the outcomes its procedures yield. Worldviews bring with them substantive long-term goals that serve as a check against local desires. Worldviews furnish those who live within them with reasons that are more than merely prudential or strategic for acting in one way rather than another.

Fish relates a story Habermas tells about his own life. Habermas had a Swiss friend who, though never a religious believer during his life, elected to have a church funeral. Habermas says his friend “had sensed the awkwardness of non-religious burial practices and, by his choice of place, publicly declared that the enlightened modern age has failed to find a suitable replacement for a religious way of coping with the final rite de passage.” Fish sharpens Habermas’ point: “In the context of full-bodied secularism, there would seem to be nothing to pass on to, and therefore no reason for anything like a funeral.”

Fish is one of America’s premier academics writing in America’s “newspaper of record” (my and—I just found out, my pastor’s—favorite newspaper). This is about as high as the “popular level” goes. And here is Fish taking dynamite to the foundation of sand upon which much of our nation is built.

Praise the Lord and pass the demolition.

I’m no anarchist. I like the peace afforded me by the Empire’s New Clothes. But I’m thinking of the precious souls who live and die assuming that the foundation of reason standeth sure. Many of them can be seen making negative comments on Fish’s posts. They can’t fathom that science could be anything but the way, the truth, and the life. I pray that Fish, though a non-Christian, can cause some of these people I will never meet to realize that there is only one reliable Rock upon which to build their lives.

I also pray that Fish himself would follow his God-given reason to its intended telos. It is remarkable to me that he never does so. He is a dwarf for the dwarfs, shooting at both sides in the last battle of our times. (I admit that I speak with considerable ignorance on this point, having picked up only one of his books, but I am a religious reader of his columns.) The secular left has picked up on this failure as well, as his Wikipedia page shows.

May God give more light to our nation—and please do read Fish’s entire piece.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

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