“Were it not for divine revelation, I am persuaded that there is no one doctrine of that which we call natural religion [but] would, notwithstanding all philosophy and learning, forever be involved in darkness, doubts, endless disputes and dreadful confusion…It is one thing to see that a truth is exceeding agreeable to reason, after we have been told it and have had it explained to us, and another to find it out and prove it of ourselves.” (Jonathan Edwards, Miscellany #350)
“He that thinks to prove that the world ever did, in fact, by wisdom know God, that any nation upon earth or any set of men ever did, from the principles of reason only without assistance from divine revelation, find out the true nature and true worship of the deity, must find out some history of the world entirely different from all the accounts which the present sacred and profane writers do give us, or his opinion must appear to be a mere guess and conjecture of what is barely possible, but what all history assures us never was really done in the world.” (Miscellany #986)
Edwards, in spite of some particularly unfortunate and widespread caricatures, was no naive rationalist who was tragically suckered and ruined by the novel sway of early Enlightenment ambitions. He knew that the powers of human logic could not prove God or demonstrate His existence, if such reasoning started from the ground and worked upwards. The decentralization of God from every field of enquiry meant long-term skepticism across the board. He recognized intellectual autonomy and spiritual idolatry as partners in crime, kissing cousins that always make their appearances hand in hand. And therefore he understood that God tends to respond to both postures in eerily similar fashion. Namely, by giving us over to the deep shrouds of personal and social darkness that are the only possible outcome of such strident refusals of the moral fabric of the universe. Edwards, for all of his (Christian!) confidence in the potential and reliability of human knowing, nonetheless grasped that sin had highjacked not only our hearts but also our minds. And not so much in the sense that human beings presently have lower IQ’s than we otherwise would have possessed apart from our fallenness. Rather, this side of Eden our subjective motivations and objective goals in knowing are so treasonous and delusional in orientation that they necessarily doom us to the most trivial sorts of mediocrity, or to profound self-deception, or even perhaps to nihilistic skepticism.
Knowing God is as much a moral matter as it is an evidential one. More so, in fact. He actively hides Himself from those who thrust Him into the dock and who fancy that they sit in judgment upon Him, righteously awaiting the humble apologies of the Creator for His manifold blunders and foolish designs in their existence. If Christianity is true, we should expect that reason alone–blindly cut off from what God has graciously chosen to reveal about Himself, about us, and about the moral makeup of the world we live in–would be a futile approach to ascertaining the meaning of our lives. As Dante observed long ago: “Reason, even when supported by the senses, has short wings.” (Paradiso, 2.56-57)
David Bentley Hart says somewhere that modernity is the age in which we finally come to realize that we cannot reach agreement, through the schemes of reason, about even the most basic matters of thought and value. Knowledge is indelibly fractured. Coherence is an absurd fairy tale that ‘adults’ must learn to grow out of. Carver Yu, a Chinese intellectual who also happens to be a Christian, once memorably summarized his perception of the modern West as “technological optimism and literary despair.” With respect to our unlimited, reckless ambitions to control nature and to gain dominance over every aspect of created reality, our energy is boundless and relentlessy driven by hopeful expectation. In our collective imagination as a society, we cannot conceive of any possible empirical quest or physical endeavor for which our native abilities would prove to be insufficient.
Yet concerning the attainment of any sort of meaningful consensus as to what the meaning of life might be, or what the proper structures and methods of human knowing consist of, or where the steady foundations of values and ethics lay, the general mood is considerably diminished. Here we have descended into the bleakest pessimism imaginable. Arguably, this postmodern gloom is entirely logical and far more consistent than modernity’s initial wave of optimism, given the shared adherence to human experience as the starting point of all legitimate enquiry. Apart from the God who speaks to tell us who we are, what we are for, and where we are going, we walk in unimaginable darkness. Nicholas Wolterstorff, the gifted Christian philosopher at Yale, was completely sane in recommending (in conscious opposition to John Locke) that reason must be kept within the bounds of religion alone. For it turns out to be the case that reliance upon reason alone is, in the end, the most utterly irrational committment a human being can make. As Barth never tired of pointing out:
“God is always the One who has made Himself known to man in His own revelation, and not the one man thinks out for himself and describes as God. There is a perfectly clear division there already, epistemologically, between the true God and the false gods…Knowledge of God is a knowledge completely effected and determined from the side of its object, from the side of God.” (Dogmatics in Outline, pp. 23-24)