Joseph T. Stuart. Rethinking the Enlightenment: Faith in the Age of Reason. Sophia Institute Press, 2020.
Rethinking the Enlightenment: Faith in the Age of Reason examines the Enlightenment movement of the eighteenth century and its effect on religious life. While the story of the Enlightenment and its interaction with religious thought is well documented, much scholarship focuses on the conflictual nature of the relationship and the challenges the Enlightenment posed for religious faith. Joseph Stuart’s book does not deny this important aspect of the Enlightenment, but broadens the contextual arena to include other, more positive, interactions between the Enlightenment and religious faith. The book proceeds in three parts and succeeds in bringing forth in a nuanced way the diverse forms of the interaction between faith and reason during the age of Enlightenment.
Stuart begins in Part I by bringing to the fore the conflictual aspect of the interaction between Christianity and Enlightenment as it played out France. In a vivid and engaging manner, Stuart contrasts what he terms the “conflictual enlighteners”—philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire—for whom autonomy (albeit in different ways) served “as the foundation of moral decisions,” with the Carmelite Sisters of Compiegne, who lived in accord with their rule of life derived from St. Teresa of Avila. In a particularly poignant ending to Part I, Stuart juxtaposes the death of Voltaire, who even at the end of his life while his health was failing him continued his dramatic confrontation with the Church, with the execution of the Carmelite Sisters at the hands of the French Revolutionaries. Each nun, recounts Stuart, approached the guillotine quietly and piously, knelt before their superior, and asked for permission to die. Stuart admirably attempts to show, however, that even in its most antagonistic instantiations—in Revolutionary France—the interaction between the Enlightenment and Catholicism “sometimes benefited the Church” by serving as “an engine of doctrinal development and Church reform.”
The second part of the book is, I think, Stuart’s central contribution. Moving on from the antagonism that characterized the relationship between the Enlightenment and Catholicism in France, Stuart describes the positive form that this relationship assumed in Milan, Bologna, and Germany. This story too often takes a backseat to the dramatic conflict between Enlightenment thought in France, and Stuart nicely provides some balance to the equation in this section. Stuart makes the case that Catholic writers and intellectuals in these parts of Europe engaged with Enlightenment thought in various positive and productive ways to such an extent that it is possible to speak of a “Catholic Enlightenment.” According to Stuart, the Catholic Enlightenment developed a cultural strategy by which Catholic intellectuals sought to engage “with the emerging modern world on its own terms,” and attempted to integrate faith and reason by eliminating superstition and promoting a “sober, rational and internal piety.”
Stuart brings the strategy of the Catholic Enlightenment during this period to life through a vivid portrayal of the life and studies of the Catholic mathematician Maria Agnesi, the first woman to publish a book of mathematics in her own name. Agnesi was able to successfully integrate Enlightenment thought with her Catholic faith both by what Stuart terms her “Metaphysical Modesty” and by her use of “Catholic rationalism.” According to Stuart, Agnesi and the Catholic Enlightenment more generally de-emphasized “controversial theology and higher truths” and “minimized metaphysics” in order to obtain agreement on lower truths. Stuart presents this approach as a positive development and, while he recognizes that this “metaphysical modesty” could “contribute to a false modesty toward truth,” one might wish that he would have spent a bit more time discussing the dangers involved in this respect given the ubiquity of what then-Cardinal Ratzinger has described as the “dictatorship of relativism” in the present age.
Stuart ably continues his analysis of the Catholic Enlightenment by way of an account of the papacy of Benedict XIV. Through vivid prose, he brings to the fore Pope Benedict XIV’s affability and his commitment to Enlightenment discussion. Stuart highlights Benedict’s ability to maintain a delicate balance between the Church’s commitment to Scholasticism and the empiricism and mechanical philosophy of Enlightenment thought. Stuart nicely connects this section of the book with the previous section by recounting a witty exchange between the philosopher Voltaire and the “Enlightenment Pope.” This portion of the book ends with an account of the way in which the mechanistic materialism of the age eventually triumphed over the delicate balance achieved by the Catholic Enlightenment with the French invasion of the Italian city states in the 1790s.
The final section of Rethinking the Enlightenment is entitled “Practical Enlightenment” and it looks at the English-speaking world and describes the strategy of the “practical people” of modern history. In some way, the third part of the book stands out for its inclusion of and focus on various Protestant thinkers such as the John and Charles Wesley, Benjamin Franklin and George Whitefield, with only minimal attention focused on Catholic thinkers such as Francis de Sales and Thomas a Kempis. As a result, one is left wondering somewhat about the strategies that North American Catholics such as John and Charles Carroll of Maryland or Bishop Briand of Quebec adopted in reconciling their faith with Enlightenment thought. That being said, Stuart argues convincingly that Christians in the English-speaking world neither directly conflicted with, nor directly engaged with the Enlightenment, but instead sought to use various practical advancements of the Enlightenment such as publishing and increased mobility to minister to people on a wide scale. All in all, Stuart has provided a balanced perspective on the way in which the Enlightenment transformed Christian society.
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