Religion and the Enlightenment

This blog has been on hiatus the last few months as I have been busy writing two papers for two conferences in July. I made the mistake of wanting to say something unique for each conference, and that has led me into the depths of archival research and the ever expanding secondary literature. The first paper will look more closely at the “origins” of the conflict narrative in the nineteenth century. The second will examine ideas of progress, from Comte to Draper. I am particularly excited about the second paper as I have to deliver it at Oxford, at St Anne’s College. I will also have the opportunity to do some archival research at the British Library afterwards. I have never been to England, and I can already feel the tension between wanting to do research and wanting to explore historical sites.

So I am returnSheehan - The Enlightenment Bibleing to blogging, albeit part time. I do have PhD candidature confirmations in October, so at most I might post a book review here and there. With that said, here are a few books I have been reading that are worth checking out. The first is Jonathan Sheehan’s The Enlightenment Bible (2005). Sheehan traces how the Bible fared in eighteenth-century Protestant Europe. I first heard of Sheehan in his survey article in the American Historical Review, which examined the relation between religion and the enlightenment. There he argued that “secularization” actually mars our understanding of the eighteenth century, for it rests on an impoverished conception of religion. Rather than vanishing over the horizon, Sheehan argues, religion “has been continually remade and given new forms and meanings over time.” In his The Enlightenment Bible, Sheehan makes a strong case for seeing the enlightenment as reshaping rather than attacking religion. When the philosophes attacked the church, they attacked it for its dogma, its theology, and its uncritical reading of the Bible. It was an effort, Sheehan writes, “not to discard, but to remake religion.”

Howard - Religion and the Rise of HistoricismSheehan’s thesis relies on the work the revisionist work of Thomas Albert Howard’s Religion and the Rise of Historicism (2000), the second book I have been closely reading. It is a remarkable book. In this book Howard brings to light the much neglected figure of W.M.L. de Wette (1780-1849), a German theologian and biblical scholar who had a tremendous influenced the work of much better known Swiss-German historian Jacob Burckhardt (1818-97), most known for his provocative The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860). Howard cogently and forcefully argues that Burckhardt, despite renouncing religion as superstitious and background, retained a profoundly deep religious pathos from his early training under de Wette. In particular, Burckhardt remained a strong adherent to a “secularized” version of the doctrine of Original Sin.

Howard’sLowith - Meaning in History thesis, in turn, relies on the earlier and prescient work of Karl Löwith’s Meaning in History: The Theological Implications of the Philosophy of History (1949), which is the last book I will mention here. Löwith argues, in brief, that the philosophy of history, and particular the idea of progress inherent in early modern period histories of philosophy, emerged out Christian eschatological thought patterns. Western historical consciousness, in other words, was—and is—determined by an eschatological motivation.

All three are excellent for a better understanding of the recent “religious turn” in Enlightenment studies.

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