God in the Enlightenment

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
William J. Bulman, Robert G. Ingram
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , May
     336 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


God in the Enlightenment offers a stimulating collection of essays by distinguished scholars who present often radically revised evaluations of the Enlightenment and the place of religion within it. Over the past decades, the notions that the Enlightenment was anti-religious, secular, liberal, and tolerant have come into question. We now have multiple Enlightenments in which religion is thought to have played a key factor. In the words of William Bulman in his very fine introduction to the volume, “[a]lternatives to secular, liberal, and philosophical readings of the Enlightenment have come in four basic forms, which we might call the religious, absolutist, social, and erudite Enlightenments” (8). Instead of viewing the Enlightenment as a break with the past, modern scholars see it as a continuation and transformation of that past in ways that were profoundly shaped by Renaissance humanist scholarship, and the religious conflicts fomented by the Reformation’s wars of religion. Martin Luther’s doctrine of sola scriptura brought to the fore the issue of authority and whose interpretation of scripture should be accepted. This led Protestants to study what they considered to be the long history of religious error and the corruption of religious institutions. Such historical analysis would not have occurred, however, had it not been for the discovery and examination of ancient texts by Renaissance humanists and the antiquarian scholarship that blossomed in the 16th and 17th centuries. As a number of the authors in this volume point out, this historical spadework has been overlooked by traditional Enlightenment scholars who tended to focus on metaphysics, formal theology, and philosophy while ignoring the ironic role that pious religious scholars played in undermining the religious authority they held most dear.

In the face of the devastating religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, it became crucial to restore civil and ecclesiastical order. This led to the subsequent emergence of divergent Enlightenments. Unbelief and atheism were not the origin and trigger for the Enlightenment, but part of a broader process of change. Secularization did not emerge because of a decline in religious commitment, or a separation of the religious and political spheres, but because of the realization by elites that their own religious commitment—or lack thereof—was only one of many possible choices. This realization was a product of both Europe’s global expansion, and the religious wars that tore nations, communities, and families apart. What can be said after reading this fine collection of essays is that a key component of each of the various Enlightenments proposed and described was a growing pragmatism that stressed what was useful, natural, reasonable, and necessary in order to get people of different opinions to agree. Gone was the strident tone of much of the Reformation argumentation that focused on “the theological, demonological, the providential, and the revealed” (19).

Editor William Bulman concludes his informative introduction by suggesting that the rancorous debates over the place of religion in the contemporary world could be avoided if the conclusions reached by the essayists in this volume were taken seriously. God, and especially the Christian God, survived the Enlightenment in many familiar as well as novel forms. Our contemporary discourse, which pits secularists against anti-secularists and liberals against conservatives, stems from a misunderstanding of what the Enlightenment actually was: it misses the point that what united Enlightenment thinkers, however different their solutions, was the burning question of how people can get along in the face of diversity, and an increasingly globalized world.

The role that pious theologians played in destabilizing religion is the subject of several essays. Anton Matytsin discusses the ways in which Protestant and Catholic apologists adopted Enlightenment arguments based on utility and natural religion rather than scripture. Jetze Touber concludes that disagreements among mainstream Calvinist exegetes contributed as much as Spinozism to the shrunken scope of biblical authority in the Netherlands. According to Jonathan Sheehan, the fact that the Book of Job figured prominently in Enlightenment discourse demonstrates that God was hardly out of the picture. In fact, theodicy ceased to be a purely theological issue, and entered the public sphere—where it remains today. H. C. Erik Midelfort documents the same blurring of boundaries between philosophy/science and religion in the reaction of theologians and physicians to ecstatic German Pietists.

Two essays highlight the effect that European colonization had in raising doubts about Christianity and its institutions. Claudia Brosseder documents the existence of elements of Enlightenment thinking before the eighteenth century in the work of the Jesuit Bernabé Cobo (1580-1657), who lived in Peru and had a very favorable view of the religions and cultures of indigenous peoples. Joan-Pau Rubiés provides further support for a non-European source of Enlightenment ideas in the work of the European scholars who employed humanist literary tools to study Hinduism. Rubiés contends that the discovery of diverse religious traditions such as Hinduism brought into question the validity of Christian ideas about the afterlife, hell, miracles, prophecy, and the authority of scripture.

A number of the essays provide support for the argument that the Enlightenment represented a continuation of the past, and not a break with it. Justin Champion claims that secularism was not a product of godless atheism, but an attempt to restore political stability and a viable civic religion. Inasmuch as this was Thomas Hobbes’s goal, Champion claims he deserves a place in enlightenment historiography, thus pushing the Enlightenment back in time. Paul Lim emphasizes the primitivist impulse in the Enlightenment discourse on religion that originated in the Reformation, which led to a rigorous form of historical criticism. Although pious in intent, such criticism was a major force in desacralizing scripture. Brad Gregory’s essay also provides evidence that questions raised in the late medieval and Reformation periods became important topics of the Enlightenment. Sarah Ellenzweig offers further proof of the continuity of the Enlightenment with earlier thought by demonstrating that Spinoza’s monistic materialism drew on Renaissance Hermeticism and vitalist theories of matter. J. C. D. Clark claims that the very idea of “The Enlightenment” is a fictional construct of the late 17th and 18th centuries since the various options about the character of God that surfaced then had been thoroughly rehearsed by the ancients.

The inclusion of Hobbes and Christian apologists in the pantheon of Enlightenment figures provides clear evidence that the Enlightenment was not necessarily radical, liberal, or tolerant, but neither was it anti-religious. In the final essay, Dale Van Kley asks how and why the Enlightenment became associated with liberalism and atheism. Like Clark, Van Kley concludes that this was essentially an accident of history and of self-definition. By the time of the Terror, none of the protagonists of the Revolution wanted any other designation than “enlightened,” while the Catholics promoted this view “because they were reluctant to recognize responsibility for [the] Revolution that had turned against their Church.” This perpetuated itself in the formation of liberal and conservative political ideologies that ignored the much more complex history of the Church’s involvement in, and reaction to, the Revolution.

God in the Enlightenment provides an exceptionally useful and illuminating investigation of new directions in Enlightenment scholarship. The book should be of interest to anyone interested in the historical roots of the contemporary world, and the place of religion in it.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Allison P. Coudert is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of California, Davis.

Date of Review: 
September 29, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

William J. Bulman is Assistant Professor of History at Lehigh University. He previously held postdoctoral fellowships at Vanderbilt and Yale.

Robert G. Ingram is Associate Professor of History at Ohio University and Director of the George Washington Forum on American Ideas, Politics, and Institutions.



Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.