Global consciousness was, like so many aspects of our contemporary culture, originally an 18th-century concept. The Age of Exploration opened the rest of the world to Europeans in the 16th and 17th centuries, but it wasn't till the 18th century that the West began to realize what that meant. Partly this was because technological conditions were vastly improved between the era of Drake and the era of Cook, but more importantly, the 18th century Enlightenment gave an ideological impetus to discovering and claiming the rest of the world.
If man was going to progress to a state of perfection and salvation in an age without God, he would do so through the acquisition of knowledge and the improvement of his material existence. How better to achieve both ends than by spreading the tentacles of Western influence into Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Australia? By learning what the rest of the world was like, Europeans would be able to evaluate the available resources, take and use those resources, and leave in their place native populations more enlightened for their contact with the cosmopolitan Westerners.
And the 18th century was an age without God. Philosophers, artists, and theologians had learned one lesson from the Renaissance, and that was that mankind was truly great and capable of great things. Some of the leaders of the movement had called themselves Christian humanists, but most were simply Humanists who had abandoned divine revelation as a source of knowledge, truth, and meaning, and had turned to the human capacity for rational thought to make sense of things; the Enlightenment rationalists of the 18th century were the direct heirs of the Renaissance thinkers.
Not only could man fend for himself, he had to. If there was a God, he was far too busy or tired or careless to have anything to do with his creation, and it was man's lot to contend with Nature both for sustenance and moral and intellectual improvement. It's not surprising that this conception of God developed, given the idolatry with which both Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers regarded the Classical Period of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome, with their humans-writ-large gods who had little real power or divine essence.
So, dutifully and consistent with their own views, the rationalist rulers of Europe sent soldiers and explorers to the ends of the earth to claim a kind of unholy dominion over it. They did so often in the name of God, but it was a mere formality, a hold-over from Medieval times when the Church and the State were two sides of the same political coin. People were concerned with the here and now, with science, with things that could be proved or seen, with whatever made life better and more comfortable.
The colonists finding their way to the edges of the globe brought this insatiable desire for material wealth with them. They also brought the idea that their culture was superior to all others, and whenever there was dangerous work or heavy lifting to be done they liked to "employ" the natives to do it for them, or to kill the natives so they could get their work done in peace. In the 19th century, this became what Kipling would call "the white man's burden," but even in the 18th century moral arguments were used to justify this unjust behavior.
All any of this really means is that humans in the 18th century were just as rebellious and confused as the humans in any other century, from the 21st to the 11th to the 143rd (should the earth last that long). Men like Voltaire and Rousseau were no more ungodly than men like Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great, they simply had different ways of philosophically explaining God out of the picture and man into His place. They spoke of reason and nature, and they organized their lives accordingly, that is, in complete moral anarchy and disarray.
We tend to see only the good from any era besides our own, and to only see the evil around us. The fact is that our time was not born in a vacuum, and that the pagan ideas surrounding us now had their origin in thought hundreds and thousands of years old. We see people now living for themselves and seeking material comfort and gain, but people in the 18th century were doing the exact same thing. As St. Paul said, all have gone astray, and that has always and will always be true.
Yet, there have always been those whom God appoints to bring His people back to holiness and understanding. In America, Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield fought the 18th century rationalism with the true Gospel; in England, John and Charles Wesley did the same thing; and worldwide missions began in earnest in the 18th century, with men like William Carey committed to taking God's Word to places it had not yet gone (in his case, India) with varying degrees of success.
We must dispel the notion that any past era was better than our own. To us living in troubled times it often seems so, especially when our reading of history is selective or from only one perspective. But the Enlightenment rationalism of the 18th century that led men to seek world domination for their own ends was just another manifestation of the old disease of spiritual blindness and rebellion. If we understand this, and understand the ideas developed in the past, we can better present the Gospel in our own milieu, preaching the coming Judgment of God and the salvation of His Son.
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