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‘No Spirit, No God’: From the Light of Christ to the Age of Enlightenment

  • Jonathan C. P. BirchEmail author
Chapter
Part of the Christianities in the Trans-Atlantic World book series (CTAW)

Abstract

In this chapter I shine a light on early modern theologies of spirit, philosophical dualisms, and their battles against materialism. We examine the ‘performance theology’ of the Quaker preacher James Nayler and some of his co-religionists. Nayler, George Fox, and other early Quakers were embroiled in the ‘dangerous’ theological movements that Thomas Hobbes sought to check with his materialist political theology. These movements prefigured the freedom of conscience and expression, the flouting of social proprieties, and the levelling of social hierarchies that would eventually be taken up in the more storied discourses of radical thought in the Enlightenment. Attention will be drawn to the contribution of female writers to emancipatory discourses which drew on the theological resources of their respective Christian traditions: the Quakerism of Margaret Fell and the Anglicanism of Mary Astell. We will also encounter some of Hobbes’s most persistent critics. One of these critics, the Cambridge Platonist Henry More, wrote sympathetically on the Enlightenment virtue of freedom of conscience, while his vision of divine goodness as transcending unfettered divine power, and his view that Christ embodied those theological priorities, would find favour with many who are routinely associated with the age of Enlightenment. One of the most important eighteenth-century sources of resistance to materialism among continental European figures was Hermann Samuel Reimarus. I show that Reimarus shared the dualist metaphysics of many of Hobbes’s Anglophone critics; he also shared their belief in a benevolent God and the immortality of the soul. And yet Reimarus engaged in a form of biblical criticism more radical and impious than anything Hobbes would have entertained. Reimarus combines a dualist metaphysic with anti-clericalism, a commitment to religious freedom, and a vision of Jesus so profane that he declined to publish it in his lifetime. Even here though, Jesus emerges as a moral light in the darkness cast by religious dogma, ancient and modern.

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Critical StudiesUniversity of GlasgowGlasgowUK

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