Conclusion An Unbridged

Not everyone reacted in this way. The early Wesleyan holiness movement, for example, which lasted from about 1740 to about 1760, reverted to a more rigorous, inward-looking holiness technique, so that some Protestants thought of it as a regression to Catholicism. But in the perspective of the period one sees that there was a relationship between Wesley's idea of holiness and the subjectivism of the nascent Romantic movement. Wesleyan women, for example, benefited as much in terms of personal freedom as of religious development. There is also a parallel with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, because although he encouraged his readers to withdraw into themselves and discover, not a fallen nature which had to be 'regenerated', but an essential being which was in harmony with a rational, spiritual universe, Rousseau was also celebrating ecstatic states of consciousness which were not so different in kind, whatever the myths employed for description, from those described by Wesley's itinerants when they gave an account of their, usually brief, experiences of holiness. Humanity's natural goodness was sufficient (as Rousseau saw it) for salvation, which could be achieved by freeing oneself from the ideology of a corrupt contemporary 'civilization'. Modern Christian theologians tend to interpret the apparent disorder of human existence as evidence of the truth of the Christian understanding of human nature in terms of sin, and so convict such eighteenth-century thinking of naive optimism, of an 'Enlightenment-project' which has failed utterly. Eighteenth-century critics of Christianity, on the other hand, started from the view that the Christian-project had failed, accepted visible disorder as the price of existence, and did not think that Christianity was the only possible religious option. Some human experience of the divine might conceivably be possible, but at the end of the century Kant, well aware of the nature of German Pietism, set intellectual limits to any appeal to religious experience:

we cannot, by any token, recognise a supersensible object in experience, still less can we exercise an influence upon it to draw it down to us; though to be sure, at times there do arise stirrings of the heart making for morality, movements which we cannot explain and regarding which we must confess our ignorance...to wish to observe such heavenly influences in ourselves is a kind of madness, in which there can, no doubt, be method (since those supposed inner revelations must always be attached to moral, and hence to rational, ideas), but which nonetheless remains a self-deception prejudicial to religion. To believe that there may be works of grace and that perhaps these may even be necessary to supplement the incompleteness of our struggle towards virtue, that is all we can say on this subject; beyond this we are incapable of determining anything concerning their distinctive marks and still less are we able to do anything to produce them.

(Kant 1934:162)

Kant's strictures on religious experience never carried much weight outside a narrow philosophical field, and had no effect on Protestant theology. Some scholars date 'modern theology', by which they mean the liberal Protestant theology which was a characteristic element of the period 1789-1914, from Schleiermacher (1768-1834), on the ground that his use of the concept of the 'religious consciousness', in which the human and the divine could encounter one another, marked a fundamental breach with Christian orthodoxy, but it is equally arguable that Schleiermacher was simply finding a way to set orthodoxy itself free from 'enlightenment' control, and that what he found in his consciousness was good Lutheran teaching. Central to the experience of 'enlightenment' had been a different subjectivity which did not necessarily interpret human emotions, including both sexual and religious emotions, in terms of a traditional Christian supernaturalism. The element in Rousseau's religiosity which struck the deepest chord with his contemporaries was his description of his own subjective response to natural phenomena as mediating an experience of the divine.

Theologically speaking, therefore, eighteenth-century 'enlightened' thinkers expressed, rather than created, a growing dissatisfaction with the social, spiritual and intellectual authority of the Christian Churches. This reaction could take forms as distinct from one another as Diderot's materialism and Robespierre's cult of the Supreme Being, but had at its centre a developing historical perspective which relativized what humanity had so far experienced, and helped to clear a path for twentieth-century religious pluralism, as opposed to religious fundamentalism.

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