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Response to Review of The Soul of Doubt: the Religious Roots of Unbelief from Luther to Marx

I am very grateful to Charlotte Methuen for her generous and sophisticated review. A broader engagement with the historiography would have benefitted this study, not least in the area of the theological origins of science. I don’t think, however, that I am divorcing science and conscience in quite the way she suggests. In the chapters on Spinoza, Voltaire and Darwin, I am proposing that scientific reasoning blends with ethical and spiritual revolt, and that the Enlightenment unites ‘courage’, intellect and method. But I am suggesting that, within such a confluence, we can distinguish currents of moral and theological dissent and it is these that fall most destructively upon some central Christian doctrines. When Spinoza and Voltaire rage against the injustice of predestination, for example, their court of appeal is what they consider the essence of authentic religion: justice, mercy, love. Spinoza’s metaphysics are so dependent upon his theology of divine equity, his irrefragable criterion of mercy, that he is almost cavalier about the science. Contrary to the view that science and theology cannot be distinguished in the seventeenth century, Spinoza’s letters to Henry Oldenburg show a clear distinction between discussions of ‘optics’ or Robert Boyle’s book, Certain Physiological Essays (1661), on the one hand, and his spiritualist Christology, on the other. Clearly, the two interests are linked, but it is the theological architecture of justice and mercy that bears the weight of Spinoza’s religious criticism, including his infamous discussion of miracle in the Theological-Political Treatise. To picture an arbitrary God parceling out special favors to a narrow elect is, for Spinoza, blasphemy. And that is the argument he throws at his (mostly Calvinist) opponents. As he writes in the Metaphysical Thoughts, his concern is not whether a just God is capable of acts of ‘extraordinary’ power but whether such events are consistent with the divine character. If the theology were merely a ‘cover’ for the naturalism that scholars such as Jonathan Israel and Steven Nadler anachronistically attribute to Spinoza, his personal correspondence offers little sustenance. Spinoza’s interests were unapologetically spiritual. 

I agree that doubt does not begin with Luther, not least because the ancient world – including the Bible – is full of it. As I tried to emphasise in the introduction, mine is a study of the active, aggressive unbelief that rattled the structures of Christendom in the modern period, not the broader ecology of doubt explored by scholars such as Charles Taylor. As I argued in relation to Voltaire in particular, this kind of crusading unbelief is qualitatively different from the kind of detached, philosophical doubt we might associate with the Stoics or Epicureans, and it revolves around a Christian esteem for conscience. Far from failing to define the critical ‘conscience’, I tried to show how this biblical and medieval concept of ‘synteresis’ traveled – with a durable set of assumptions and proof texts – from the late-medieval period to the 19th century. The Reformation is a turning point, because it introduced tools of criticism and an energy of dissent that was scarce in the medieval period, but I make no attempt to separate it from what came before. This is why I spend so much time with Luther and the tension between the ethical impulses of conscience and the ‘supra-ethical’ demands of nominalist theology – what so many of my sources regarded as a theology of terror. It is hard to see that I downplay Luther’s continuity with the medieval theological milieu. What I am suggesting is that his resolution of tensions between the ethical conscience and the unethical God are original and explosive for modern thought. Luther – as Marx so brilliantly perceived – was both a revolutionary and a new master of control, and the unhappiness of his formula was inflammatory in European culture. I agree with Dr. Methuen that Luther’s conscience is simul iustus et peccator – a disturbed and unsettled phenomenon – and it is the awkwardness of this compromise that enraged his critics. Luther expands the claims of conscience before placing it in a box marked ‘doctrine’. For someone like Sebastian Franck, Luther is a dangerously incomplete liberator, and the only way forward is to annihilate much of his positive theology.

So while I am conscious of medieval origins, I do emphasise the novelty of the Reformation in terms of both ideas and that surging, irrepressible selfhood that Thomas Carlyle identified in a figure such as George Fox. And as someone like Carlyle perhaps illustrated himself, such ‘sacred selfhood’ could outgrow its theological clothing without losing the glint in its eye. The relationship with science does become more complicated in the 19th century, when naturalism seems less an idea than a fact, but I would again stand by the distinction.

What I find so interesting in a figure such as Ludwig Feuerbach is the degree to which a defiant Protestant selfhood, and a Christian ethical framework, could animate a self-proclaimed atheist – emboldening him to appraise the ‘egoism’ of supernaturalist religion by a biblical standard of ‘love’. For Feuerbach, the distinction between scientific and moral rationality is explicit, as for example when he declares that, ‘I do not ask whether this or that, or any miracle can happen or not; I only show what miracle is’. It is enough for Feuerbach to sense the ‘odour’ of egoism in providentialist theology to reject it out of hand. I agree with Dr. Methuen that I could have done more to connect this kind of logic to the wider firmament of thought. How dependent, for example, are these righteous ethical critiques on implicit, unacknowledged scientific assumptions? It is easier to declare a doctrine ‘damnable’ if you are confident on other grounds that it cannot be true. This is surely the case with Darwin. For others, the chain of causation is the other way round, and it is not a ‘sense of natural justice’ that is offended by theologies of arbitrary judgement but a set of religious values. Part of my challenge is that ‘natural law’ in the modern period is seldom very natural. I am hugely indebted to scholars like Charles Taylor, Christopher Hill, Carl Becker and RenĂ© Pomeau, who have traced similar links between the religious and the modern. I just happen to see more continuity in those religious ideas than such writers have tended to, so I dispense with the editorializing concept of secularization altogether. But I accept that there is a danger of overcorrection and, perhaps, overstatement here. I’m enormously grateful to Dr. Methuen for her thoughtful and stimulating review.