Last year the retiring Bishop of Durham, N.T. Wright pronounced the failure of the Enlightenment Experiment. He stands in a line of folks who, since the Enlightenment itself, have formed a Counter-Enlightenment out of the offense they took at Reason's elevation and a heightened appreciation of human capacity to make progress and reduce suffering.
The Enlightenment tooled along its motto was "Every day, in every way, things are getting better and better." The optimism produced by scientific achievement invigorated the western world until it was interrupted by the first world war. In the midst of its horrendous destruction Karl Barth wrote his magisterial work on Paul's letter to the Romans. His powerful tome galvanized the Counter Enlightenment into a movement called Neo-Orthodoxy whose reply to the Enlightenment was "Oops, you forgot sin. We can't get better every day in every way because we are too depraved to succeed." Among those who fell under was Reinhold Niebuhr who moved from Christian Socialism to Christian Realism. Ethicists like Paul Ramsey fell under this sway as well.
N.T. Wright is but the latest of the intellects to take on the Enlightenment, using his weight to press back against people trusting too much in reason, progress, or the capacity of people to choose the good and reject the bad.
Just as Barth's "Epistle to the Romans" created nearly 100 years of dreary theology that undercut optimism about the human condition a new book has burst upon the scene that puts fresh light into the Enlightenment optimism. Steven Pinker's "The Better Angels of our Nature" is a long and detailed look at the progressive and consistent reduction of violence among human beings.
In short, despite the eruption of the "Hemoclysm" of two World Wars, everything HAS gotten better in every way at least within societies that have benefited from the "better angels". He lists six trends that form our better angels: a Pacification Process that spanned millennia, The Civilizing Process that spanned centuries, The Humanitarian Revolution, The Long Peace (after WWII), the New Peace of decreasing violence in all arenas since then and finally the "Rights Revolution".
The Angels that support it are empathy, self control, moral sense and reason. In combination with historical forces of a centralized state, commerce, feminization, cosmopolitanism and, he writes, "Finally, an intesifying application of knowledge and rationality to human affairs - the escalator of reason -- can force people to recognize the futility of cycles of violence, to ramp down the privileging of their own interests over others', and to reframe violence as a problem to be solved rather than a contest to be won." (Kindle location 242)
Pinker investigates all of these with a very intense application of knowledge and reason, including the use of very contemporary data mining techniques to produce a readable and exciting exploration of the themes listed above. While I am only about a third of the way into the book, I am predicting that this work could well transform the conversation N.T. Wright and others are now generating to undercut Enlightenment sensibilities.
Those of us who are tired of the neo-orthodox constant humanity bashing and sin wallowing will find this a heartening work, not because it denies sinfulness and evil, but because it discusses how humanity has used what God planted in us to move from violent anarchy to a world where both Reason and Love can work in concert with Revelation.
Buy the book and read it.