After Enlightenment

This wonderful little book, drawn from Louis Dupré’s 2005–06 Erasmus Lectures at the University of Notre Dame, narrates the development of modern culture from its roots in early Christian encounters with Aristotelianism, through the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the rise of modern atheism, and on to the poetry, philosophy, and theology of the German Romantics. It closes with a brief discussion of contemporary scientism, religious symbolism, and theological renewal. Dupré argues that the weakening of the “Christian synthesis”—and the subsequent decline of religion into subsidiary roles in public and academic life—began with a series of intellectual shifts that can be traced to Christianity’s earliest days.

A word of warning: Religion and the Rise of Modern Culture covers a tremendous amount of ground at a level of abstraction that very often leaves the reader frantically struggling to fill in the gaps. In one passage, which is by no means uncharacteristic, Dupré moves within a single paragraph from the Islamic theologians al-Kindi, al-Farabi, and Ibn Sina, to Thomas Aquinas, Nicholas of Cusa, Marsilio Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, Jean Bodin, and the Cambridge Platonists. Analytic philosophers have a name for this: we call it driving a MacIntyre (in honor of Alasdair MacIntyre’s famously wide and eclectic range of reference). This is a book that all but demands re-reading, but that’s hardly much of a defect given the force of the book’s argument and the importance of the questions it raises.

Dupré centers his account of the decline of Christianity and the rise of modern thought on a pair of related intellectual innovations. The first was the dismantling of what he calls the “form principle”: the idea, which finds its most famous formulation in the thought of Plato, that “it belongs to the nature of the real to appear and to do so in an orderly, intelligible way.” Dupré argues that the rejection of this principle was rooted not just in the nominalism of John Duns Scotus and William of Ockham but also in the theology, art, and poetry of Franciscan religious humanism, which, in emphasizing the concreteness of Christ’s humanity, placed the “highest spiritual meaning” in the individual rather than the universal. Intelligible order was no longer something to be discovered in nature; instead, it had to be constructed: “Rationality,” Dupré writes, “which formerly had constituted the essence of the real, now became the exclusive attribute of the mind.”

It is important to make this point with great care. Plato and the Aristotelians, Augustinians, and Thomists who followed him clearly thought that language and critical reasoning play essential roles in the attainment of scientific knowledge (think of Plato’s dialectic and Aristotle’s logos). But with the rise of what has been called the “mathematical philosophy” of Galileo, Descartes, and other foundational figures of the modern period, the idea that external reality itself—as opposed to our abstract and theoretical “models” of it—could ground the knowledge of universal principles was questioned in ways it had not been in the centuries before. No longer was there the assumption of a natural correspondence between human understanding and mind-independent objects; instead it was believed, as Kant puts it, that “reason has insight only into that which it produces after a plan of its own.” Nature does not present us with its own forms; it has to be formalized by the mind so that it can become an intelligible object.

Such an approach to scientific knowledge proved to be immensely fruitful in countless ways. But Dupré argues that it had catastrophic consequences in the second intellectual transformation he discusses. Drawing on the Platonic and Neoplatonic tradition, early Christian thinkers had spoken of the “participation” of created reality in divine Being to explain the connection between God and nature. But the rise of this new “disenchanted” conception of nature—now understood as autonomous, without intrinsic relation to the divine—posed serious problems for the traditional view of the relationship between created nature and divine grace.

In Dupré’s view, these difficulties had already started to take shape before the rise of modern science. He points to the thought of Thomas Aquinas as a place where things came to a head. Although Thomas rejected the notion of a self-contained natural realm onto which a distinct “order of grace” had to be superimposed, his attempt to explain the Creation in Aristotelian causal terms, together with his conception of human nature as distorted by the Fall, led to a complex doctrine that would, in less subtle hands, easily become “a dualism of a [natural] base and a [supernatural] superstructure.” That kind of dualism led easily to the theories of redemption proposed in Reformed and Jansenist theologies, and from there to the “gradual evanescence of the very idea of transcendence” in deism and modern atheism.

At this point Dupré moves on to describe, in much greater detail, the transformations of religion in German Romanticism: the poetry of Goethe, Schiller, and Hölderlin; the treatment of mythology in Schelling’s philosophy; and the theology of Schleiermacher and Kierkegaard. The discussion here is far less wide-ranging but also, because of its depth, harder to encapsulate. One recurring theme is the importance of recovering transcendence and overcoming the spiritual desolation—the “despotism of material interests,” in Friedrich Schlegel’s words—that followed the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. Such attempts at retrieval drew extensively from pagan traditions and differed quite starkly from Christian orthodoxy. And yet they took a form that was possible only in a distinctively post-Christian culture.

Schleiermacher, for example, was deeply concerned with the nature of religious experience, and with the possibility of reconceiving the relationship between God and the universe in something more like the “participatory” terms of early Christianity. In opposition to the subjectivism of the German idealist Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Schelling’s approach to mythology centers on the claim that an understanding of revelation needs to be part of any transcendental idealist “system” worth the effort. In Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre, Goethe treats Christianity as, in Dupré’s words, a religion that “surpasses and includes the other forms of reverence.” And Kierkegaard reflected as deeply as any Christian thinker on the nature and demands of religious faith.

But in most if not all of these cases, the more fundamental epistemological and metaphysical issues raised in the first half of Dupré’s book go essentially unaddressed. The one exception to this may be Kierkegaard, whose “theology of freedom” rejects subjectivism and strives for a certain kind of Christian orthodoxy by treating divine revelation as something that is fundamentally given, with the demand that the Christian conform himself or herself to it. But Kierkegaard also opposed grace to nature, and wasn’t very interested in the project of a rational Christian metaphysics. Goethe, meanwhile, made it clear that he had no need for Christian dogma (his Faust puts the Deed, rather than the given Word, at the Beginning). For Schelling, Christian revelation was on a continuum with other forms of mythology. And Schleiermacher favored a theology that Dupré describes as “a Christian Platonic panentheism, according to which God included the world, while at the same time transcending it.” Such views may avoid the worst excesses of the scientism and rationalism of the Enlightenment, but only by going overboard in their own ways. This is still a very long way from de Lubac and von Balthasar, whom Dupré invokes at the end of the book as models of the attempt to reintegrate the natural and the supernatural.

It is, in other words, precisely the post-Christian character of Romanticism that makes it seem insufficient as a response to the challenges of modernity. Dupré claims that the Enlightenment “has made us what we are today” and challenges us to find a way to “profit from its lessons while avoiding its excesses.” While the specifically materialistic excesses of Enlightenment thought were indeed rejected by the Romantics Dupré surveys, they did not succeed in showing us how to mend the early modern rupture between nature and grace. This question is revisited in the final chapter of the book, where Dupré criticizes scientism, nominalism, and the straightforward narrative of modern progress, while arguing that real theological renewal requires a disposition to recognize the sacred. The discussion here is, alas, very brief—and oddly unconnected to what precedes it.

Religion and the Rise of Modern Culture offers more diagnosis than cure. The Romantics remind us that despite the bold predictions of the prophets of Enlightenment, both past and present, our sense of the transcendent is unlikely to go away. But the task of recognizing, and accounting for, God’s grandeur in a “bent world” remains, and this task is not the same after the Enlightenment as it was before. Obviously it is too much to demand of such a short book that it resolve the greatest intellectual and spiritual challenges of Christian history. We are left wanting more. Then again, there is no state of mind more Christian than that.

Published in the 2009-01-30 issue: 

John Schwenkler is a PhD candidate in philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley.

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