Mid-century dilemmas and the turn to sentiments
By mid-century, Enlightened Christians faced an increasingly obvious problem. Deism and even atheism were growing at an alarming rate across Europe, but particularly in France. Flagrantly anti-religious writings were proliferating. It was becoming more than evident that enthusiasm of the rational kind was the major problem confronting mainstream churches. Furthermore, scandals like the affair of the abbe Prades24 deeply embarrassed the French church, seemingly suggesting that the rationalist enemy was within. Philosophe writings like Diderot's Pensees Philosophiques showed the apologetic limits and even dangers of church rationalism: if Christianity was true because it conformed so well to reason, did that not mean that reason alone was enough?
D'Alembert's article 'Geneva' for the Encyclopedie illustrates well the difficulties confronting Enlightened Christians at this sensitive point in time. In it, d'Alembert gave the Genevan church a very backhanded compliment. So enlightened had Geneva's pastoral corps become, he wrote, that they no longer believed in the divinity of Christ, they no longer subscribed to the idea of hell, nor to anything contrary to reason. In fact, very little distinguished them from deists. Embarrassed by this article, which could only have been meant as a deliberate provocation, Geneva's pastoral corps scrambled to defend their orthodoxy; but the damage had already been done.
Clearly, Enlightened Christians faced a serious dilemma. By mid-century the intellectual climate had changed, and their rationalism no longer appeared useful or even appropriate. It became imperative for them to adopt a new approach, and a new language with which to express their faith. Thus they began to use with greater frequency and urgency another vocabulary. It should be noted, however, that this relatively new vocabulary was equally integral to the Enlightenment. Having earlier embraced the language of reason and reasonableness, Enlightened Christians now increasingly turned to the discourse of sentiment and sensibility. Broadly speaking, if Enlightened Christians sounded much like Locke in the early part of the century, they sounded more like Rousseau towards the end.
Recent scholarship on the Enlightenment has shown that the eighteenth century was not just the Age of Reason; it was also the Age of Sentiment. This scholarship reminds us that the optimism about human nature so central to the Enlightenment was only in part based on a newfound confidence in the power of human reason. It was also predicated upon the discovery of certain natural sentiments with which every human being was seen to
Was this article helpful?