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RELIGION AND CULTURE
By Christopher Dawson
The Catholic University of America PressCopyright © 1948 Julian Scott
All rights reserved.
Natural Theology and the Scientific Study of Religion
The terms of the Gifford foundation presuppose the existence of a science of Natural Theology which is competent to study the nature of the Divine Being and the relations of man and the universe to Him—the greatest of all possible sciences, but nevertheless a strictly natural science and one which is of the highest importance to human culture.
This is a tremendous claim and one which would be denied to-day by most modern philosophers and many modern theologians. The historian, however, cannot fail to recognize what a great tradition this claim has behind it—a tradition which is closely related to the main stream of Western thought. For Natural Theology is the theology that was natural to Humanism, and its rise and decline follow that of the humanist culture itself. From the Renaissance to the eighteenth century and even later the development of Natural Theology went hand in hand with that of Humanism. And if to-day Natural Theology is hard-pressed by the convergent attacks of Dialectical Theology and Dialectical Materialism, humanist culture has also lost its prestige and the whole structure of the rational cosmos of Western man has been shaken to its foundations.
The humanist culture was essentially the culture of an intellectual elite. It was never a complete self-sufficient organism like the great religious cultures of earlier times. It was rather an artificial structure superimposed on the existing body of Christian society. Yet in spite of this artificial secondary character, it was an active and creative power which made its influence felt in every aspect of Western life. In fact, during the centuries when Western Christendom was so profoundly divided by controversy and sectarianism, by religious wars and religious persecutions, it was Humanism which was the chief unifying element in European culture, since it provided the only ground on which the members of the different nations and the different churches could meet on equal terms. In other words a common education and a common literary culture took the place of a common faith and a communio sacrorum as the chief remaining bond of European unity.
But although Humanism was thus closely associated with the secularization of European culture, it was by no means altogether irreligious. In this respect I think the Humanists have been ill served by their modern apologists and admirers, with the result that the current popular conception of the Renaissance and the humanist culture is erroneous and one-sided. It is not in Poggio or Machiavelli or Vanini that we find the typical representatives of the humanist attitude to religion, but in Erasmus and More and the Christian Platonists. The new appreciation of the good of nature and the dignity of man and the rational optimism of the humanist ethos demanded a natural theology to justify them. The humanists saw the world as a rational order which could be explained only as the work of divine Reason, as a work of divine art which shows forth the mind of the divine Artist.
This humanist view was summed up by Campanella in the famous sonnet in which he speaks of the visible world of nature as the book in which God has revealed His power, His wisdom and His goodness. It is man's vocation to be the interpreter of this divine hieroglyphic, since by reason and by his spiritual nature he has an innate kinship with the divine author.
Il mondo è il libro dove il Senno eterno scrisse i propri concetti, e vivo tempio dove, pingendo i gesti e'l proprio esempio, di statue vive ornò l'imo e'l superno; perch'ogni spirto qui l'arte e'l governo leggere e contemplar, per non farsi empio, debba, e dir possa: Io l'universo adempio, Dio contemplando a tutte cose interno. Ma noi, strette alme a'libri e tempii morti, copiati dal vivo con più errori, gli anteponghiamo a magistero tale. O pene, del fallir fatene accorti, liti, ignoranze, fatiche e dolori: deh torniamo, per Dio, all'originale!
The world is the book where the eternal Wisdom wrote its own concepts, and the living temple where, depicting its deeds and own example, it adorned the depth and the height with statues;
that every spirit here, lest it become impious, may learn and contemplate art and law, and can say: I fulfil the universe, by contemplating God within all things.
But we, souls fettered to books and dead temples, copied from the truth with many errors, place them above such teaching.
O suffering, discord, ignorance, labour, grief, make us aware of our mistake. Ah, by God, let us return to the original.
This, I take it, is the classical experience of the humanist Natural Theology which was already proclaimed in the book of Raymond Sebunde, was fully developed in the following centuries by the Christian Platonists and the humanist theologians and philosophers from Marsilio Ficino to Yves de Paris and the Cambridge Platonists, and still lived on in a somewhat impoverished and arid form in the Natural Religion of the Enlightenment, the apologetic Natural Theology of Paley and the Bridgewater Treatises.
There was nothing new or of startling originality in this doctrine: it consisted to a great extent of the commonplaces of the doctrine of the schools and the Fathers and the philosophers of antiquity. It was by definition a rudimentary theology or as Bacon put it, "that knowledge or rudiment of knowledge concerning God which may be obtained by the light of nature and the contemplation of his creatures." The difference lay not in the novelty of the doctrine, but in the new value that was attached to it and the new importance it assumed in a society that no longer possessed religious unity.
In the ages of faith, Natural Theology had no separate existence. It was a part of the common Christian theology and had no independent significance except to professional theologians. But in the age of religious division when Europe was rent asunder by rival theological systems, Natural Theology acquired a new value as the one certain and universal foundation of religious truth in a world where everything was disputed. It was for this reason no doubt that the humanist Pierre Bunel recommended Raymond Sebunde's Natural Theology or Book of Creatures to Montaigne's father as a work most profitable and fitting to times when the unquestioned reign of a universal authority had been broken and the most sacred articles of faith had become the subject of popular debate.
It is perhaps as difficult for the present generation to understand the attraction of this simple theology of reason as it is for us to understand the revolutionary appeal of the idea of the Law of Nature which was developed during the same period from the same premises. Nevertheless it is impossible to ignore their historic importance or their influence on the development of modern thought. For the men of the New Learning could no more dispense with the idea of God than the men of the Old Learning. The more completely the new philosophy and the new science realized their ideal of a rational universe, the more they needed the idea of God as the source and principle of intelligibility. As Descartes wrote, "the certitude and truth of all science depend on knowledge of God and on that alone" for "the certitude of all other truths is so dependent on this one that without the knowledge of God it would be impossible ever to know anything else."
This conception of God as the sole principle of intelligibility is characteristic of the new philosophy no less in its orthodox Christian representatives like Malebranche and Berkeley than in the totalitarian Natural Theology of a Spinoza. But in so far as it made God not only the author of Nature but the medium of our understanding and the guarantee of our empirical knowledge, it profoundly changed the traditional character of Natural Theology and exposed it to a twofold attack: first of all from devout Christians like Pascal who felt that this god of mathematical truth was a God of the Epicureans and not the God of the Christians "who fills the soul and heart of those whom he possesses"; and secondly from the sceptics who realized that the Cartesian divorce of matter and spirit was a two-edged weapon which could be used to undermine and destroy the whole intellectual edifice which had been constructed so laboriously by the age-long efforts of Christian philosophers and theologians.
In this double offensive the Christian critics of Descartes played into the hands of their opponents, who were indebted to them not for their arguments but for the technique of their offensive. For it became a commonplace with the enemies of religion to cover their main attack on the credibility of Theism by an insincere tribute to "the truths of our most holy religion." "A person seasoned with a just sense of the imperfections of our natural reason," writes David Hume, "will fly to revealed truth with the greatest avidity while the haughty dogmatist persuaded that he can erect a complete system of theology by the mere help of philosophy, disdains any further aid and rejects this adventitious instructor. To be a philosophical sceptic is, in a man of letters, the first and most essential step towards being a sound believing Christian."
At first sight it seems anomalous and paradoxical that the humanist Natural Theology should have received its most dangerous criticisms not from the theological reactionaries but from men like Bayle and Hume and Voltaire who were themselves nominally Deists. For when the cause of Humanism seemed at last triumphant and the whole culture of the age was dominated by the spirit of rational optimism, which had its metaphysical roots in the Cartesian Natural Theology, the foundations of the ideological structure were undermined by the leaders of the Enlightenment themselves.
The causes of this breakdown were religious rather than philosophical. The humanist Natural Theology had flourished as long as it was in contact with the living tradition of Christian culture. But as soon as Deism broke the vital contact and attempted to make Natural Theology the autonomous principle of a purely rational religion, it was powerless to withstand the disintegrating criticisms of the sceptics. From the beginning Deism had no religious life of its own. It was created artificially to serve the controversial purposes of the Enlightenment, and when these aims were secured, it was discarded by its creators.
It is true that at a relatively late stage in its history, it received a temporary infusion of life from the influence of Rousseau. But Rousseau's appeal to the irrational forces of sentiment and emotion was a dubious boon. For it not only taught philosophers like Kant to value the spiritual intuitions of the Common Man above the metaphysical proofs of the Natural Theologians, it also taught the Common Man to regard his emotional convictions as infallible truths. However lukewarm and superficial was the natural religion of the Enlightenment, it was at least sincere in its devotion to the virtue of tolerance. But in its new form the later Deism became an intolerant and sanguinary cult. It was in the name of the religion of natural virtue that Robespierre destroyed his enemies, and the Festival of the Supreme Being, of June 1794, when the new religion was solemnly inaugurated, marked at the same time the climax of the Terror.
These catastrophic years saw a profound change in the current of European thought. They saw the end of the Enlightenment and the passing of the aristocratic society which had produced the humanist culture. The political revolution coincided in time with a spiritual and emotional revolt against the rationalism of the Enlightenment and the whole tradition of eighteenth century culture. The century which had begun with the religious rationalism of Locke and Christian Wolff ended with the apocalyptic irrationalism of Blake's prophetic books. And in these shapeless outpourings of religious genius, it is Natural Religion and the God of Natural Religion which are the great objects of Blake's denunciations. "Man must and will have some religion," he writes, "if he has not the religion of Jesus, he will have the religion of Satan, and will erect the synagogue of Satan, calling the Prince of this World 'God' and destroying all who do not worship Satan under the name of God.... Deism is the worship of the God of this World by the means of what you call Natural Religion and Natural Philosophy, and of Natural Morality or Self-Righteousness, the selfish virtues of the Natural Heart. This was the religion of the Pharisees who murdered Jesus. Deism is the same, and ends in the same."
But the Spectre, like a hoar-frost and a Mildew, rose over Albion, Saying: "I am God, O Sons of Men! I am your Rational Power! Am I not Bacon and Newton and Locke, who teach Humility to Man, Who teach Doubt and Experiment? and my two Wings, Voltaire, Rousseau? Where is that Friend of Sinners, that Rebel against my Laws, Who teaches Belief to the Nations and an unknown Eternal Life? Come hither into the desert and turn these stones to bread! Vain, foolish Man! wilt thou believe without Experiment, And build a World of Phantasy upon my Great Abyss, A World of Shapes in craving lust and devouring appetite?"
This revolt against the Natural Theology of the Enlightenment which finds its purest and most direct expression in Blake's prophetic utterances, pervades the thought of the age and appears in a more rationalized and diluted form in the system-building of the idealist philosophers and the apologetics of the romantic theologians.
Everywhere we find, on the one hand, a new appreciation of the positive religious values revealed in history and in the religious experience of the individual, and on the other an attitude of criticism and often of contempt towards the traditional doctrine of the rational demonstrability of the existence of God. Religion is feeling and imagination: not reasoning and demonstration. And the more immediate and incommunicable the feeling, the higher the religion. No doubt there was no lack of reasoning about religion, but it was a reasoning that was more akin to that of the Gnostics and the theosophists than to that of the Natural Theologians. In spite of the honour that was paid to Spinoza by Schelling and his contemporaries, it was not Spinoza but Boehme the mystical theosophist who had the deepest influence on the philosophical theism of that age.
This influence of Boehme was not simply due to the attraction that any kind of speculative mysticism had for the romantics. It was much more specific than that. Boehme himself was a Natural Theologian, of a sort—at least, he would certainly have claimed that title. But he stands at the opposite pole from the Natural Theology of the Enlightenment, and this most of all at the point on which the romantic idealists attacked their eighteenth century predecessors most sharply. For it was not merely the rationalism of the Enlightenment that disgusted the new age. It was above all its optimism: that naive and insensitive optimism which declares with Pope that "Whatever is, is right" and justifies the ways of God to Man in the style of Bernardin de St. Pierre who demonstrated that God made fleas black so that it should be easier for us to catch them, and had divided melons into sections, so that it would be easier to cut them up in equal portions for the sake of domestic harmony. Against all this childishness the new generation insisted on the reality of the problem of evil and the tragic sense of life, which was not accidental or avoidable, but rooted in the very nature of things. And they found in Boehme a natural theologian who was so far from ignoring these things that he brought them back to their roots in Eternity, so that the "bitterness" which is at the root of nature has its ground in the Dark Side of the Divine Nature itself.
It is remarkable that the same line of thought is to be found in a more orthodox form in the work of the great Catholic writer of an older generation who was the most implacable enemy of the Enlightenment and the intellectual leader of the religious reaction. Joseph de Maistre was not a philosopher but a man of the world—a most unworldly man of the world it is true, a diplomat who was more concerned with the divine meaning of history than with his career or his political future. No one was more determined than de Maistre to justify the ways of God to man, but in order to do so he reversed the traditional theology of the Enlightenment and based his apologetic on that dark side of reality to which his predecessors had closed their eyes. To him the abyss of human suffering and crime was a more effective witness to the existence and majesty of God than all the facile arguments of current apologetics. His philosophy of history was not the theory of human progress and enlightenment but the revelation of divine justice and divine judgment. He humbled man in the dust of history in order to exalt the majesty of God.
This reaction against the Enlightenment led de Maistre to view with greater sympathy all those elements in ancient and oriental religion which had hitherto been regarded by philosophers and historians as irrational and barbarous. Sacrifice, Karma, asceticism, tabu, all became comprehensible and religiously valid in de Maistre's philosophy of history. It is significant that in the Evenings at St. Petersburg the discussion centres on a long quotation from the Laws of Manu which cannot have been very familiar reading to the literary public of that date, and throughout the dialogues he calls in the wisdom of the East to answer the reasoning of the West.
Excerpted from RELIGION AND CULTURE by Christopher Dawson. Copyright © 1948 Julian Scott. Excerpted by permission of The Catholic University of America Press.
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