A defense of Enlightenment Religion–and a plea for its recovery in the present

The Enlightenment comes in for a good bit of criticism these days from religious circles, both left and right, from fundamentalists and postmodernists. Susan Nieman mounts a robust defense of Enlightenment religion:

The Enlightenment denied piety to make room for reverence. If piety is a matter of fear and trembling, reverence is a matter of awe and wonder. There is very little written on the concept of reverence, and no wonder: reverence itself is virtually ineffable. It’s what gives rise to the feeling expressed by Wittgenstein: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Reverence is what you feel when you feel overpowered, struck dumb by the realization that some things are beyond human grasp. Why should human language be able to contain it?


I’ve been arguing for a worldview in which reason and reverence are not at odds but in tandem. They work together like Kant’s moral law and starry heavens – in order to be decent, we must keep one eye on each. In order to be decent: not because religion is the foundation of morality, though it can be a way of expressing it, but because reverence involves gratitude for Creation and awareness of our dependence on it.

There are obvious reasons why we need reverence for Creation. One of the few hopeful things coming out of red state – that is, Republican-leaning – America is a movement of alliances between environmentalist groups and those Christian churches that regard human beings as nature’s stewards. I could list some other things that reverence would be good for, but the very making of such a list would be paradoxical and self-defeating. Reverence cannot be defended on instrumental grounds. Even though it’s good for us, that can’t be the reason to feel it.

It’s long, but deserves a careful read.

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