Recently I came across an editorial celebrating the extent to which progress has flourished in the world over the past two centuries. Supported by impressive statistical research its author cites the extraordinary advances the world has experienced in numerous ways. These include the lengthening of our life span, the spread of literacy, the reduction of poverty, the near elimination of hunger and international wars, the control of infectious diseases, and an almost world-wide embrace of democracy and human rights. The article identifies the Enlightenment as the point in civilization’s history when this unprecedented rise in universal prosperity began.
It is, to be sure, an encouraging and promising essay. It is also provocative.
The writer’s explanation for the success of the Enlightenment is: “our ancestors replaced dogma, tradition and authority with reason, debate and institutions of truth-seeking” and “they replaced superstition and magic with science.” Clearly in his mind Providence – if it exists at all – has nothing to do with our progress.
No one would dispute the role science has played in our well-being. Some will take issue, however, at the implication that faith is an irrelevant hindrance. With astounding success technology continues to enlighten us on the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of reality. But it is useless when we find ourselves faced with the ‘why.’
Who would deny the importance of reason? Reasoned debate is ‘truth seeking’ and can lead to ‘truth finding’. But, the fact that all of us can participate in reasoned debate suggests that reason is a shared source that exists outside of ourselves. Where does it come from? For that matter, where does the truth to which it leads us come from?
And, were the centuries before the Enlightenment so dark as implied? What about all those ‘reasoners’ who lived before then? Let’s start just with the ‘As’: Aristotle, Augustine, Avicenna, Aquinas…
Where would we be without tradition? Is not tradition that collection of practices and beliefs each generation receives from its predecessors and then tests and refines as it passes it on to its successors? Doesn’t tradition underscore and enhance community among ourselves and with those who have gone before us and those who will follow us? Isn’t tradition what children first learn from their fathers and mothers? Doesn’t tradition sustain families and communities?
If progress as envisioned by the editorial were indeed to advance one wonders if the prosperity of our posterity, so imbued with pseudo aseity, will be as void of purpose as it will be as free of trouble.
Secular democracies, the writer goes on to say, are the happiest place on earth. As people conquer disease, famine and ignorance he asks if it is necessary for them to believe in magic or in “a father in the sky.”
I, for one, am grateful that secular does not mean fatherless.
Dana Robinson is chair of the board of trustees of the National Catholic Community Foundation.