Radical Critique Of Christian Religious Experience

At the heart, then, of the religious attitudes of what may be collectively called 'the Enlightenment' lay a scepticism about the value of the dogmatic systems of Roman Catholicism and Protestantism together with the world-views which these theologies supported, and the religious experience which they engendered. Nothing was more characteristic than Goethe's decision, when he arrived in Assisi in 1786, to go and look at the almost unaltered portico of the surviving Roman temple which was now a Catholic church, but to ignore the medieval Franciscan basilica and the myths which had created it. This, however, was the late sophistication of the self-assured intellectual: English Deists such as Collins, John Toland, Thomas Chubb, and Matthew Tindal, were less confident. Nevertheless, they already felt the same intolerance of what seemed to them, as to Goethe, a wilful theological obfuscation of the relations between God and humanity. Toland, for example, whose philosophical materialism was to appeal to Diderot, editor of the great Encyclopaedia, struck the common note when he published Christianity not Mysterious in 1696, and his Letters to Serena (1704) were an anticlerical attack on the Church for having brought mystery back. For the early Deists the Christian Churches seemed monstrous survivors from a wrongheaded past in which people had been misled into making insufficient use of their own reason: the weakness of early Deist writing was this impatience with the very existence of both Catholicism and Protestantism.

Another example of the changing mood was the ironic work of Shaftesbury, another of Locke's friends, whose 'Letter Concerning Enthusiasm' (1707) was an attempt to rescue the word 'enthusiasm' from its associations with the achievement of ecstatic states of the religious consciousness. He wrote, 'Inspiration is a real feeling of the Divine Presence, and enthusiasm a false one-but the passion they raise is much alike' (Shaftesbury, 1900:37). Shaftesbury and Locke were living at a time when Protestant and Catholic theologians had elaborated, on the basis of a close examination of individual Christian experience, whole vocabularies, often Augustinian in ethos, intended to describe intuitive, non-intellectual, but allegedly religious sensations in terms of 'taste' and 'relish', 'illumination' and 'heart', 'holy affections' and 'gracious dispositions'.

The conviction that one had been personally illuminated by the Holy Spirit had been reduced to farce for Shaftesbury by the refugee French Protestant 'prophets' whose ecstasies bewildered London in 1707 and whose tradition still affected John Wesley in the 1730s (Shaftesbury 1900:20-2). Locke's successors, including Hume, who in the chapter on miracles in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding used the 'miracles' worked at the tomb of a Jansenist Abbé in Paris in 1731 as a basis for his criticism, did not deny that people often honestly reported subjective experiences, but they did not accept such statements as self-authenticating 'encounters with God'.

What have we to oppose to such a cloud of witnesses, but the absolute impossibility or miraculous nature of the events, which they relate? And this surely, in the eyes of all reasonable people, will alone be regarded as a sufficient refutation.

(Hume 1936:125)

This critical philosophical reaction against the claims to religious experience helps to explain why many people in England, including, significantly, Bishop Butler, dismissed as 'enthusiasm' John Wesley's assertion that some of his followers had received through 'faith' the gift of perfect holiness. Wesley claimed that they had as clear an inward witness that they were fully renewed as they had formerly had of their justification by faith. In the Dialogues Hume specifically said that even though superstition or enthusiasm should not put itself in direct opposition to morality, the very diverting of the attention, the raising up a new and frivolous species of merit, the preposterous distribution which it makes of praise and blame, must have the most pernicious consequences, and weaken extremely men's attachment to the natural motives of justice and humanity.

(Hume 1963:198)

The struggle between the two attitudes went unresolved, and in the 1790s Kant, for example, wrote that 'whenever, over and above good life-conduct, man fancies that he can do to become well-pleasing to God is mere religious illusion and pseudo-service of God' (Kant 1934:158).

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