Believing in an age of Enlightenment

Over the past few decades historians have justly complicated the narrative of the Enlightenment’s essentially secular nature. The once normative tale of philosophes heroically sparring against religious belief to plant the seed of modern secularism has given way to a landscape that is far more complex and nuanced, challenging the stark difference between the religious and the secular. Whether it be the story of religious reformers seeking to find a via media between traditional articulations of belief and the opinions of radical critics or the investigation of how philosophical perspectives had their genesis in mysticism and theology, scholarship on the Enlightenment has affirmed the important role that religion played in the era’s intellectual and cultural transformations. In so far as the eighteenth century was an age of secularization, it was so partly as a result of the ideas and actions of those who self-identified as proponents of religious traditions, and not just their vocal opponents. [1]

However, scholars have only scratched the surface of religious belief in the Enlightenment. In Belief and Politics in Enlightenment France: Essays in Honor of Dale K. Van Kley, we dig deeper into the manifestations and impact of belief in France and its empire during the long eighteenth century. In their various ways, the contributors demonstrate how belief continued to show up in conversations, representations, and institutions, sometimes in unpredictable ways. They find the persistence of religious belief at the heart of social, cultural, and political life well into the nineteenth century.

Belief and Politics in Enlightenment France: Essays in Honor of Dale K. Van Kley, edited by Mita Choudhury and Daniel J. Watkins, is the latest volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.

At the center of our investigation is the Catholic reform movement known as Jansenism. Active throughout Catholic Europe, Jansenism found a home in France and impacted ecclesiastical and political life in dramatic ways. At first glance, the penitent and rigorist sensibilities of Jansenists seem far from the progressive and worldly predilections of enlightened philosophes. A deeper look, however, reveals how Jansenist belief contributed to a host of social and political reforms including the critique of absolute monarchy, the promotion of religious toleration, and the articulation of the rights of the citizen and the rule of law. Jansenists present historians with examples of intensely devoted Catholics whose religious beliefs contributed to their engagement with the political public sphere.

Jansenism, however, did not exist in a vacuum. Throughout the long eighteenth century it competed with other voices in the Church over what it meant to believe in an enlightened age. The conflicts wrought by Jansenists and their internecine nemeses, the Jesuits, dominated political conversations in France certainly until the latter’s expulsion and suppression in the 1760s and even after. The tensions between these groups involved disparate ways of reconciling traditional religious beliefs with new epistemologies. In their disagreements about such matters as human nature, society, and politics, they both articulated forms of enlightened Catholicism that competed with one another throughout the eighteenth century.

An anti-Jesuit polemical image showing members of the Jesuits falling through a sieve held by God and shaken by a member of the French parlements, judicial bodies in the Old Regime.

The centrality of this conflict in the conversation about belief and its manifestations during the Enlightenment owes much to the work of Dale K. Van Kley, whose scholarship this volume honors. His work over the past four decades has provided the foundation for all of our contributors’ investigations into French religious life. Van Kley has shown that the competition between Jansenists and the partisans of the Jesuits defined religious culture in France and consequently played a formative role in shaping how belief impacted political and social institutions during the Enlightenment and well into the revolutionary era.

The persistence of the Jansenist–Jesuit struggle complicates the long-standing narrative of France’s progressive secularization beginning in the eighteenth century. It sheds new light on the way that we frame the Enlightenment’s connection with secularization and, therefore, modernity. Amidst increasing voices calling for the separation of social and cultural life from the auspices of the Church, many continued to see religious belief as not only a part of their identities but also an important tool for navigating the social and political spheres of the modern world.

– Mita Choudhury and Daniel J. Watkins (Vassar College and Baylor University)

[1] For an example, see the work that Alan C. Kors has done on the history of atheism in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe: Alan C. Kors, Atheism in France, 1650–1729, vol. 1: The Orthodox Sources of Disbelief (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990); Naturalism and Unbelief in France, 1650–1729 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016); Epicureans and Atheists, 1650–1729 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016).

The above post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press.

Belief and Politics in Enlightenment France is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.

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