Rethinking the Enlightenment: Faith in the Age of Reason
by Joseph T. Stuart, Sophia Institute Press (2020), 387 pp

The “portrait” began to establish itself as a literary genre, especially in French literature, from about 1650 onwards. French writers of the 17th century — “le Grand Siècle” — such as Molière and La Bruyère excelled in this form of a painting-in-words of a person. In the eighteenth century the portrait contained more of the psychology of the individual, while in the 19th century it found its place in the novel, especially in the works of Balzac.

Joseph T. Stuart’s Rethinking the Enlightenment is a refreshing read for a number of reasons. Not least among these is that this analysis of “faith in the Age of Reason” (as its subtitle reads) contains a series of “portraits” of very different personalities who reflect varying attitudes or positions taken to the Enlightenment and to the Christian faith and to the relationship between them.

We find ourselves in the company of the Carmelite nuns of Compiègne, martyred in the context of the French Revolution on 17 July 1794. We meet, among others, Rousseau, Voltaire, Maria Gaetana Agnesi, Prospero Lambertini (Pope Benedict XIV), Isaac Newton, Jean Mabillon, Benjamin Franklin, Susanna Wesley and her son John, founder of Methodism, Edmund Burke and William Wilberforce, campaigner for the abolition of slavery. The fact that Stuart’s book is peopled with such a variety of interesting characters makes the narrative engaging and ensures that this reflection on the Enlightenment is not an abstract discourse.

The essential thesis of the work is that the commonly perceived notion of Christianity and the Enlightenment as totally and mutually opposed is not true. Stuart shows that “since the early 2000s historians have created an entirely new interpretation of the Enlightenment and the eighteenth century. Looking both more widely and more deeply for evidence, they have found many examples of Catholics who contributed much to the Enlightenment”. Clearly this is significant for the present time, since contemporary secularism hails its origins from the Enlightenment. The supposed incompatibility between faith and reason, and between science and religion, tends to be presented as a fruit of a “maturing” of the human spirit brought about by the Enlightenment.

Stuart successfully demonstrates that things are not as simple as this. An “either-or” or “them-and-us” dichotomy is not consistent with the historical evidence of the eighteenth century. “The Enlightenment was a powerful and diverse cultural movement” which involved many-layered responses from people of faith. Stuart analyses this complex period by distinguishing three attitudes or “strategies” of Christians to the Enlightenment: conflict, engagement and retreat.

The “conflictual enlightenment” brought about the alienation of enlighteners from faith, partly because of their convictions that science had explained away religion, that reason is autonomous and that progress is limitless. Stuart also points out that enlighteners were at times alienated from the Church because of authoritarianism and clericalism.

A case in point was the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 which had up to then allowed Huguenots to practise their faith in France. The resentment caused by the Revocation fed into the strains of anti-Catholicism in the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. (In this context it is interesting to note how Stuart contrasts the differing interpretations of the compelle intrare (“compel them to come in”) of Luke 14:23 of Jacques Bénigne Bossuet (1607-1704), bishop and court preacher to Louis XIV and supporter of the Revocation, and of the Founder of Opus Dei, Saint Josemaría Escrivá.

Part 2 of the book, “Engagement and the Catholic Enlightenment”, presents several examples of Catholics who lived their faith fully and faithfully while being very much part of the culture. Here two portraits in particular stand out. Maria Gaetana Agnesi (1718-1799) was born to a very culturally engaged Milanese family which, in an “enlightened” way, gave great importance to the education of their daughters. Maria became something of a celebrity in Italy and beyond for her intellectual brilliance. She was the first woman in history to publish a book of mathematics in her own name (in 1748). She was invited to become a member of the Bologna Academy of Sciences and was offered a university professorship. She could communicate in French, German, Italian and Greek. She took part in cultural soirées in the salons — gatherings in private houses for intellectual discussion, typical of Enlightenment times and beyond. She helped in the education of her siblings and taught catechism to poor people. She saw and lived out the connection between “mathematics and holiness”.

Another “engaged” and Catholic enlightener was Prospero Lambertini (1675-1758) who became Pope Benedict XIV in 1740. Born in Bologna, Lambertini inherited the cultural and empirical approach prevalent in the culture of that city. He was influenced by the ideas of Isaac Newton and owned all his books. He assembled a vast medical library, was very well versed in medicine himself, and promoted the study of anatomy. As Archbishop of Bologna he supported the Academy of Sciences of that city. He founded the first public museum in the world, the Capitoline Museum in Rome. He knew Maria Agnesi and encouraged her intellectual work.

His four volumes On the Beatification and Canonisation of Saints (1734-1738) is his magnum opus and is still an obligatory reference point today for processes of canonisation. In it he applies a scientific and empirical approach along with the perspective of faith. It may be added that, like many enlighteners, Benedict XIV enjoyed coffee (imported into Europe through expanding global trading in the sixteenth century) and the culture of conversation that went with it. He built a “coffee house” in the garden of the Quirinale Palace, the papal residence in Rome, in 1744.

As Stuart puts it, Agnesi and Lambertini, among others, “demonstrated faith both during the Age of Reason and faith in the Age of Reason itself, in many of its methods and goals”.

The third “strategy” Stuart identifies is that of “Retreat” (Part 3). By “house-holding” or building up their families and communities “ad intra” as well as their personal spiritual lives, Christians then set out to engage with and evangelise the culture. Thus the Wesley brothers emerged from the “sanctuary” of their household to initiate a vast movement of evangelical renewal within Anglicanism, known as Methodism. William Wilberforce regularly “retreated” with family and friends at his house in Clapham, then a village outside London, in order to be able to continue an active and hectic political life which included his arduous struggle for the abolition of slavery.

Stuart’s analysis is not just refreshing. It is also thought-provoking and inspirational. Behind his analysis of the Enlightenment, the question of how Christians form part of and engage with contemporary culture is constantly present. Not surprisingly, from time to time the teaching of Benedict XVI is cited about the relationship between faith and reason, and also the ways in which they can and do purify one another.

As Stuart points out, the three “strategies” of conflict, engagement and retreat are not watertight compartments, but frequently overlap. He concludes:

“There is a need for all three strategies. There was in the eighteenth century, and there is today. Conflict without engagement is senseless. Engagement without conflict is weak. Either strategy without retreat lacks wisdom. Retreat without conflict or engagement is stultifying.” 

Personally speaking, the issue at the heart of this book brought to my mind St Josemaría’s reminder to Christians of their vocation to be contemplatives in the middle of the world, finding the quid divinum (“something holy”), namely the presence of Christ, in and through daily reality, and bringing the spirit of Christ to bear on their environment.

Living out this vocation implies that there is no separation between faith and reason, that Christians are naturally part of their culture and form it by their very lives, and that “retreat” does not necessarily mean a physical distancing from society but a commitment to growth in the spiritual life in the midst of one’s family, work and social life. Some aspects of how this spirit plays out in society have been discussed in the interesting book by Martin Rhonheimer, Changing the World. The Timeliness of Opus Dei.

Donncha ÓhAodha

Rev. Donncha Ó hAodha is the Regional Vicar of the Opus Dei Prelature in Ireland, author of several CTS booklets and a regular contributor to Position Papers.