The Enlightenment was actually the “Endarkenment” right? The supernatural faith was undermined by reliance on human reason. Science supplanted sacraments and “I think therefore I am” replaced the great “I AM”. The dogma of positivism replaced religious dogma and the authority of the church was stripped bare. All this led to the French Revolution, the Reign of Terror, Napoleon and after him one after another of godless, atheistic totalitarian regimes…
That’s the typical conservative Catholic take on the enlightenment, but University of Mary history professor Joseph T. Stuart has written a terrific book that doesn’t exactly turn that narrative upside down, but it does turn it inside out. In Re-Thinking the Enlightenment Stuart puts the other side, and he does so by setting up three different historical reactions to the Enlightenment. The first is confrontation and conflict. The second is accommodation. The third is ignoring it.
He lays out his case not with abstract argument, socio-political theorizing and academic jargon, but with the fascinating and infuriating individuals who shone radiantly in the eighteenth century. He sets up the Carmelite martyrs of Compeigne as a foil to the charming romantic rationalist Rousseau and the witty, acerbic and amazing Voltaire. The conflict between them (and their comrades Diderot and Robespierre) is highlighted by a Catholic reaction that is often glossed over–the revocation of the Edict of Nantes by King Louis XIV which yanked all religious and civil liberties from the Protestants in France.
The reaction of conflict, Stuart maintains, was not only pointless, it brought the persecution and bloodshed which only added fuel to the flames of anti-Catholic, anti-establishment feeling that erupted in the Revolution, the Reign of Terror and Napoleon’s disastrous dictatorship.
The second section of the book becomes even more interesting. Stuart discusses in detail the attempts by many Catholics in the eighteenth century at accomodation and learning from the best of the enlightenment’s discoveries and movements of thought. Maria Gaetana Agnesi (d.1799) was a remarkable Italian woman. In an age when women were regarded as slightly demented ornamentation, Agnesi was an accomplished linguist, philosopher and world class mathematician. Famous across Europe for her manners, her conversation, writing and brilliance, she was also a devout Catholic. Stuart also discusses the “Enlightenment pope” Benedict XIV–known for his patronage of the arts and sciences, his moderation, intellect and open ness to the trends and positive influences of his times. The Benedictines in Germany also pioneered an open-ness to the Spirit of the Age rather than a superstitious and critical spirit.
Each section of Stuart’s book builds interest, and it is in the third response to the Enlightenment that Stuart’s book connected with Rod Dreher’s new book Live Not By Lies. Dreher’s book outlines the response of Christians being persecuted under the totalitarian regimes of Stalinist communism. The response of Christians to the Enlightenment was not always from outright persecution, but more often a clash of worldviews and philosophies. In the third section Stuart discusses in detail the response of the Wesleys, the growth of Methodism and the Great Awakening. Put simply, the Wesleys and George Whitfield did not confront the Enlightenment thinkers, nor did they accommodate them or pander to them.
They just went around them. They lived the Christian gospel and proclaimed the good news of Jesus Christ. Their movement was deliberately towards the ordinary people who needed good news and not toward the elite, the intellectuals, the people of power and influence. The success of their work and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit through them, it can be argued, changed the world far more than all the elite and effete philosophers and dilettantes of the enlightenment. The Great Awakening established a virtuous and moral religious foundation in the United States and laid the foundation for the abolition of slavery, human rights and freedoms from a religious standpoint (rather than merely humanistic) and laid a foundation for the further religious renewal and revival of the nineteenth century in both England and the United States.
Stuart’s book should be read by all those who ponder the way forward for Christians in an increasingly anti-Christian world. Now is the time to re-examine the Christian response to rising socialism, atheism and anarchy.
Open conflict will fail. Accomodation will lead to surrender.
But living and preaching the timeless gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ can be the spark that ignites a fire that changes the world.
In fact, not only can it be that spark. It is the only thing that can bring about both temporal and everlasting abundant life.