An Entangled History: Christianity Faces Off With The Enlightenment

The churches relationship to the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment is an entangled history. Margaret Jacobs (“The Enlightenment critique of Christianity,” in The Cambridge History of Christianity: vol. VII: Enlightenment, Reawakening and Revolution 1660-1815) states provocatively that: “The period after 1660 saw the emergence of the first sustained attack on Christianity from within Europe since the triumph of the Christian Church under Constantine in the fourth century. To be sure the critics were few and the dangers great. But once unleashed, they became a radical force, never again to be silenced. A specific set of circumstances caused the anti-Christian genie to spring from a dark and angry place within a mind angered by fear and persecution” (p. 265).

As the doyen of historians of the Enlightenment, Peter Gay (The Party of Humanity: essays in the French revolution [1964]), reminds us: “The stakes in the attack on Christian theology were higher than the fate of theology itself: to discredit Christianity was to take a decisive step in the direction of a secular, modern civilization” (p. 46). But during the time of this great shaking—from the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to the Enlightenment era of the eighteenth—Christian churches, both Catholic and Protestant, did not simply wake up one morning and crown Reason as their new Lord and Redeemer. Nor did Christian thinkers simply reject the Enlightenment teachings and new rational sensibilities.

In France, for instance, a virulent anti-philosophe movement—a kind of counter-enlightenment—was spearheaded by the Roman Catholic Church (McMahon, Enemies of the Enlightenment: the French Counter-Enlightenment and the Making of Modernity [2001]). McMahon tells us a story seldom told by Enlightenment scholars. “There is no more religion in France. All is lost!” cried out Joseph-Laurent Gilbert at one of Voltaire’s plays. This cry of fear from the anguished heart captures something of the rage militant clergy, enlightened aristocrats, Sorbonne censors and ordinary others watched in horror during the Reign of Terror of 1793-1794 when blood-soaked revolutionaries sought to sweep away all traces of royalist, Christian France. They destroyed churches and desecrated sanctuaries, plundered altars, forced priests and nuns to marry.

McMahon (2001) states: “By the end of 1793, the public worship of Christianity had ceased in all but the most remote regions, replaced by profane festivals that blended pagan forms and revolutionary rhetoric in a ‘transfer of sacrality’ from the values of the Old Regime to those of the new” (p. 91). For Catholics, the last straw was christening Notre Dame Cathedral as the Temple of Reason. For conservative critics, the Reign of Terror was a bitter vindication of their warnings that abandoning God as moral foundation of a stable social and political order would lead to anarchy and blood and regicide, fanaticism and intolerance.

In fact, most ordinary French persons continued to try to live with divine guidance. Without it, life was “terrifying, directionless, and confused” (p. 115). Tragically, the dynamics of the Revolution was fuelled by a “process of spiralling radicalization that consumed both sides of the political divide, polarizing of opinions, and sundering France with terrible results” (p. 57). Thus, for the anti-philosophes, religion, public morality and political order were inseparable. Nonetheless, once the smoke cleared on the battlefields (and the war was also waged pedagogically with both sides pouring out pamphlets and propaganda to support conflicting ideals), McMahon (2001) observes that “European governments were slowly shedding their religious and confessional skins, and in the quest for greater administrative efficiency and utility, political power was becoming increasingly secular. What is more, it was becoming stronger, often at the expense of religious institutions” (p. 49).

Hobbes “sledgehammer demolition of the sacred authority of clergy in the interests of civil power, and by the boldness of his theological revisions:…” (MacCulloch, Christianity: the First Three Thousand Years [2009], p. 782) was driven and propelled by a self-confident doubt about the claims of the Bible (critical reading methods emerge in the seventeenth century), religious intolerance and corrupt religious practice. Demolition crews may be the right metaphor: Spinoza’s Ethics (1677) saw “God as undifferentiated from the force of nature or the state of the universe” (p. 781). Calvin’s magisterial Creator who was aloof from his creation had been dissolved; God had vanished into the natural order. Then there was Hume, who in his On miracles (1748) and Natural history of religion (1757) turned his sceptical gaze against the “self-satisfied platitudes of the Deists, reasoning that their much-vaunted pristine monotheism or natural religion was but wish fulfilment. In reality all religion had its origins in fear and ignorance, and the first faiths had been crude and polytheistic” (Porter, Enlightenment: Britain and the creation of the modern world [2001], p. 119). For Spinoza, Hobbes and Hume, religious faith was hardly reasonable. But theological thinkers during this watershed time in Western culture and history did not fold up their tents and retire to country homes.

Essentially, Christian thinkers had to face up to the new scientific ethos pervading the intellectual and cultural worlds. They had to carve out a reasonable religion for enlightened times. Jacobs (2006) points out (as have many others) that the “new science from Galileo onward gave a profoundly new definition of matter as atomic, moved by contact action between bodies, as measurable, as knowable through its velocity and weight” (p. 271). But Newtonian physics inspired a new theology, given the clumsy name of physico-theology. Long forgotten theologians—Pluche, Bentley and Nieuwentyt—imagined that Newton’s vision of vast space between heavenly bodies created a barrier so that atoms could not group under their own power. Only God had the power to accomplish this heavenly task. Pluche was more popular in his day than Voltaire.

The masses ascribed to the big vision of “God’s mastery over creation, his power and majesty affirmed by the order and design displayed by creation” (p. 273). They wanted to cling to a world of mystery and wonder and magic. Helen Rosenblatt (“The Christian Enlightenment,” in The Cambridge history [2006]) observes that we can speak of a “Christian Enlightenment.” She identifies a “vibrant network of enlightened Protestants who subscribed to similar beliefs and employed a similar language. Moreover, they were joined by many Catholics who also felt that they could be religious and enlightened at the same time” (p. 284). They sought to reconcile their faith with the new sciences, and found some ways to do this. They advocated “reasonableness” in all things. They were progressive-minded; they wanted to trim Christianity down and fashion it into a “simpler, clearer, more tolerant and morally efficacious religion” (ibid.). English Protestants—the Cambridge Platonists and Latitudinarians–considered that reasonable religion was a needed ally in the fight against fanaticism and sectarianism.

Jean-Alphonse Turrettini (1671-1737) and Jacob Vernet (1698-1789), both of whom were Genevan theologians, conceived of themselves as fighting four enemies: religious pietists, deists, materialists and scholastic dogmatism. Their disdain for the pessimism and formality of Calvinism was accompanied by the fashioning of “new and reasonable view of Jesus….Increasingly, he was portrayed less as a supernatural redeemer, and more as a teacher and moral guide. Man, it was suggested, would be reconciled with God not so much through Jesus’ sacrifice, but through his precepts. And these precepts, it was often repeated, were eminently reasonable and practical” (p. 287). Their Jesus was politically passive and sociable. Today we might say he was a good guy to hang with; no threat to the political order at all.

Porter (2001) says that: “As religion became subjected to reason, Christianity ceased to be a ‘given’ and became a matter of analysis and choice. And, for some, that meant scepticism or rejection” (p. 99). But for those who tried to pull reason and faith together, like John Locke, the high priest of toleration, reason was the “candle of the Lord” (Proverbs 20: 27). God had given us faculties and reason was certainly the supreme capacity of our species. For Locke, Porter (2001) claims, “Reason for its part could validate the existence of the Father of Light, verify the Bible as revelation and back the basics: Christ was the messiah, the sole tenet upon which the disciples had insisted—not for them any Thirty-nine Articles, Westminster Confession or even Athanasian Creed” (p. 100). In his The reasonableness of Christianity, as delivered in the scriptures (1695), Locke did not deny that Jesus was the Messiah who proclaimed the coming of the kingdom (though it needed clarification), but he favoured accenting Christ’s moral mission. Religion was primarily a “school of virtue” (p. 102).

Locke had subtly shifted from the Calvinist dogmas of his youth to a commitment to use reason to inquire into our duties. Still, the corrosive acid of paring things down to a “natural religion” led numerous thinkers to question the Christian doctrine of exclusive salvation. Even Deists often pointed to the Old Testament texts portraying Yahweh as behaving contemptibly. Indeed, the Bible did not seem to be, under the penetrating gaze of historical-critical methods, exactly a text of sound ethical injunction. Thus, it is not surprising that John Toland’s masterpiece, Christianity not mysterious (1696), would advocate a mystery-free view of what counted as knowledge. Toland was rather despised by Christian thinkers; he was a sassy and saucy guy.

These comments are just a taste of a vast banquet of delicacies from scholarly kitchens. Porter, MacCulloch and Jacobs argue that by the end of the seventeenth century virtually all the elements of the Enlightenment were in place. By the end of the seventeenth century, England and the Netherlands had begun a “long process of moving Christian doctrine and practice from the central place in European everyday life which it had enjoyed for more than a millennium, and placing it among a range of personal choices” (MacCulloch, 2009, p. 788). MacCulloch (2009) makes this astute observation: “While Western Europe’s spirituality was showing signs of becoming detached from its liturgy, divinity parted company with revelation, and patterns of society were being shaped by other sources besides Christianity’s sacred book, Western discourse on philosophy came to be dominated by a philosopher whose assumptions radically detached from the spiritual from the material” (p. 790).

Tellingly, MacCulloch informs us that Handel’s Messiah was first performed in a Dublin concert hall. Descartes’ dualistic philosophy fit this historical development beautifully. Descartes remained a believer in God, but his solipsistic philosophy certainly encouraged questioning whether there could be “definite truths in specially privileged writings exempt from detached analysis, or whether any one religion has the last word against any other;…” (p. 794). Indeed, by the end of the eighteenth century, MacCulloch says portentously, “Alongside the gleeful and publicity-seeking assaults on the Church and Christianity from philosophy came a more profound challenge from an academic from the north in the University of Konigsburg, Immanuel Kant” (p. 802). And: “Kant’s removal of knowledge in the interests of faith is a solvent of Christian dogma, though it would present no problem for many Christian mystics” (p. 804).

Dr. Michael Welton is a professor at the University of Athabasca. He is the author of Designing the Just Learning Society: a Critical Inquiry.