Monday, October 13, 2008

Religion and the Enlightenment?

Here is a review of The Religious Enlightenment Protestants, Jews, and Catholics from London to Vienna by David Sorkin. The book argues that the Enlightenment was not just a secular phenomenon, but it also shaped religion of the 18th century (and from the title it appears that it did so in a very multiculti way):

But contrary to this “secular master narrative,” he argues, “the Enlightenment was not only compatible with religious belief,” it actually generated new formulations of that belief.

Such theological formulations were no less an essential part of Enlightenment thought, he insists, than the deist, materialist or antireligious ideas often identified with it and regularly wheeled into the front lines of today’s cultural and political wars.

In “The Religious Enlightenment,” a book published in August by Princeton University Press, Dr. Sorkin aims at nothing less than “to revise our understanding of the Enlightenment.”

Building on recent scholarship highlighting the ideological and geographical diversity of 18th century thought, Dr. Sorkin posits a specifically religious Enlightenment that not only shared characteristics across confessional lines as well as national borders — hence his book’s subtitle, “Protestants, Jews, and Catholics from London to Vienna”— but also “may have had more influential adherents and exerted more power in its day than either the moderate or the radical version of the Enlightenment.”

Leading thinkers of this religious Enlightenment, he explains, sought a “reasonable” faith that was answerable to contemporary science and philosophy, and not grounded merely on dogmatic authority, pure emotion or fascination with the miraculous.

And to achieve this, it relied on the principle of "accommodation":

These thinkers agreed with deists that there was a kind of “natural religion,” basic truths about God and morality accessible to reasoning people. Natural religion was not a rival or alternative, however, to revealed religion. It was a prelude, a necessary but insufficient foundation for belief. Without a further belief resting on revelation, reason was likely to end in skepticism and immorality.

To interpret this revelation, a.k.a., the Bible, leaders of the religious Enlightenment generally employed the principle of “accommodation”: the conviction that God had “accommodated” humanity’s limited understanding by using language, imagery and stories suited to particular ages and cultures. The transcendent truths of sacred texts had to be extracted from what was historically conditioned.

It seems that it lies closer to deism in the spectrum of beliefs (or unbeliefs..).

The French Revolution and its Napoleonic aftermath not only destroyed the religious Enlightenment in practice; it also created, as Dr. Sorkin notes, a “religious-secular dichotomy” that condemned this side of the Enlightenment to historical obscurity.

Rescuing it from that obscurity, he insists, is of much more than academic interest.

“The twenty-first century has begun with seemingly unbridgeable chasms between secularism and believers,” Dr. Sorkin writes. “One step in averting such a parlous situation is to recover the notion of an Enlightenment spectrum that, by including the religious Enlightenment, complicates our understanding of belief’s critical and abiding role in modern culture.”

Some interesting points - but I don't think it really compels me to pick up the book. Read the full review here.


Unknown said...

“The twenty-first century has begun with seemingly unbridgeable chasms between secularism and believers,”

Many believers are secularists. It's just that many of us don't feel a need to believe in things for which there is no evidence.
I don't think I'll be rushing out to buy this myself. I suspect it will just be another attempt to assert the need of some superstition. I can happily do without.

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