A.C Grayling, founder of The New College of the Humanities, says the enlightenment is the conviction that "the unfettered exercise of reason can save humanity by ending the ignorance and superstition that impedes progress and keeps tyrants in power" (The Mystery of Things A.C Grayling p. 91). Immanuel Kant's short essay, "What is the Enlightenment?" gives a good synopsis of the impulse that remains the driving force to much of our culture, including, perhaps, Professor Grayling's new school. Kant tells us that being grown up, mature people means we are free to abandon external authority and think for ourselves, be truly autonomous.
But how do we know when we are free?
Kant writes that freedom is the pre-condition for enlightenment, "man's emergence from his self-imposed immaturity." How do we know when we are mature? Kant writes that we are mature when we use our understanding without guidance from another. What do we need to achieve this freedom? Kant writes that we need courage. The motto of enlightenment, he says, is: "Have courage to use your own understanding!" We might say, "Don't take Kant's word for it, take your own word for it." Truth must be set free from all authority apart from man himself, or as Sam Harris put it in a recent discussion at the Sheldonian Theatre: "The truth has to float free."
Accordingly, with truth floating free of authority, man is free. But what is it to be mature? What is freedom? I need to know what mature is before I can know whether or not I am mature. Wine can be mature; trees can be mature. Perhaps trees are merely old; wine, on the other hand, is old and has improved flavor. Some wine can be mature taste awful. Am I mature, but taste awful? How would I know unless someone--an authority on the subject--told me that I have matured well? I can't be certain that I have stumbled on the right maturity. The very notion of maturity presupposes the right kind of mature. One cannot be sure of maturity unless there is somebody (a person) who is mature enough to judge.
The same is true of freedom. Is anyone truly free? Aren't we all bound by our finitude at least? Let me suggest that to be free depends not on the presence of a master, but on the master one has. If the master is autonomy itself it is the enslavement to an anti-authority, one must always be setting oneself free. This is a relentless pursuit and an endless task, ultimately futile since man is finite and God is not.
Christians see maturity in terms of Christ, our authority. To be like Christ is the pursuit of the spiritual life. Not only that, but we are dependent on the leadings of others--Paul, James, Peter and the rest--to lead us in the path of maturity. But we have an even more weird conception of freedom. We actually believe that to be free is to be a slave! Freedom, for us, is to be utterly yielded to God in Christ. It is to call Jesus "Lord" and to be under his dominion. This is true freedom. Our conception of maturity, therefore, is not designed by us, but by God. And it is not a joint project. We believe that God knows what maturity is and that we could never come up with the idea alone. We are utterly dependent on his revelation to us to understand who we are. We reject the premise of human autonomy and yield to the authority of God in is Word to us. Ironically, we also think that no one can escape God's authority. We don't think that there is any place to go where God is not in complete control. Not even deep in the academy, deep in the city.