In the last article, we saw how the Protestant Reformation challenged the premodern conception of reality, and began to put in place some of the elements we can recognize today in modern, Western-style secularism. In particular, there was a “flattening effect” when it came to time, space, and devotion. More and more, secular, ordinary time came to the forefront. The sacred character of relics, shrines, and religious professionals was called into question. There weren’t going to be different kinds of obligations to God, based on a person’s standing in society. In short, every time, place, and person was going to subject to the same uniform principles.
In this article, I’d like to move on to Taylor’s discussion of Providential Deism (around the eighteenth century), which, he argues, built atop the groundwork laid by the Protestant Reformation to create a new religion, in which we can recognize even more of the key features of secularism. Providential Deism, according to Taylor, was characterized by at least three components: an anthropocentric shift, the primacy of the impersonal order, and belief in an original, true natural religion.
Taylor describes the anthropocentric shift as involving four elements. First, there is what Taylor calls an “eclipse of the transcendent good.” This perhaps bears a bit of explanation. Abrahamic theology recognizes in God both transcendent and immanent qualities. Transcendent qualities are those having to do with God’s otherness, beyond-ness, or distance from us. That God cannot be understood by human intellect, or is prior to and independent of the universe, or that there will be an afterlife, are theological ideas that have to do with God’s transcendence. On the other hand, God’s immanent qualities are those that have to do with God’s accessibility, or present-ness. That God is omnipresent, for instance, has given people moral commands to follow, or can bless people in this life. So, with this distinction in mind, we can see the difference between “the transcendent good” and the “immanent good.” The transcendent good would be things that are good in an ultimate sense, but are not necessarily associated with any kind of this-worldly flourishing. Martyrdom or asceticism, for instance, would be ways of pursuing the transcendent good. The immanent good, on the other hand, are ordinary goods: a nice house, good food, stable income, etc.
Providential Deists held that God wills the good for us, but not in any transcendent or other-worldly way. God wills ordinary human flourishing. Trying to go beyond or outside of this somehow, as ascetics or martyrs do, is not just extraneous, it can actually be threatening to the accomplishment of that good, because it distracts from or denigrates that goal of this-worldly flourishing. So Enlightenment Deists are building here on a pre-existing, Protestant critique of the Catholic religious orders. They’re saying that no special merit accrues to people who pray for many hours per day, or deny themselves ordinary comforts like hot food or clean clothes, or who put themselves through other hardships for God’s sake. What God wills is just for us to be happy, here in this life. His purposes are exhausted by the achievement of our temporal well-being. We can see more of the modern, secular viewpoint starting to fit into place, though we’re not there yet.
Another aspect of this anthropocentric shift is what Taylor calls the eclipse of grace. Protestant and Catholic theology agreed that people were powerless to achieve the good on their own. God’s help, or grace, was necessary. In Providential Deism, people don’t need God’s help to achieve the good; there is no supernatural source of assistance or mercy, no special divine act, that we need to rely on. Rather, God has already given us the tools we need to achieve our own good. We only need to make use of them. So where Paul says, “I can do all things through Christ which strengthen me,” the point of view of Providential Deism is that one can do all things that are good and necessary, period.
A third aspect of this anthropocentric shift is the eclipse of mystery, the sense that there is something foundational to life that our intellect cannot grasp. Everything is rationally explicable, so mystery becomes just a cloak for our ignorance or, worse, an attempt to perpetuate it for advantage (i.e., “obscurantism”). Mystery is construed as something opposed to reason. This idea became especially important with respect to miracles, because Deists held that God’s purposes are just the ordinary, lawful functioning of the world around us, and that we know them through reason. In order for this to work, the object that reason studies has to be relatively static. There has to be a uniform cause and effect relationship. Outcomes can’t change based on the arbitrary will of the deity, else how could we ever figure it out? And if we can’t figure it out, how can we use our knowledge and reason to achieve our good? So God can’t be intervening on behalf of some people and not others, acting one way in one place and another way in someplace else. We can see here a further development of the impulse we first encountered in the Protestant Reformation, to try and “flatten out” or “homogenize” our conception of time and space. The more uniform they are, the more likely we are to be able to understand them. Miracles and mystery both imply some sort of break in our understanding, so for Providential Deists both had to be discarded, as contrary to reason.
The fourth element of the anthropocentric shift was the eclipse of eschatology—the idea that history is moving toward a grand cataclysm in which justice, which is so evidently in short supply in our ordinary lives, will finally be done. Eschatology usually also includes the idea of the transformation of our ordinary condition—to immortality, to perfect righteousness, to peace, or what have you. Human beings are going to become something radically different. All of this recedes for Providential Deism, which is very much interested in our this-worldly well-being.
So, it seems that God is taking a big hit in Providential Deism. God is still there, but in a much more distant, cool, detached sort of way. But God is not absent. God remains as the designer of the impersonal order, as well as an object of praise and worship. However, insomuch as God’s purposes are fully realized in ordinary human flourishing, praise and worship start to fall by the wayside as well. Participation in civil society, building a better community for yourself and for others, would presumably be more pleasing to God than singing hymns or attending rituals. So we’re finally left with the notion that righteousness and godliness are just improving one’s condition in life, and that of other people, by being industrious and virtuous. This is all God asks of us, from a Providential Deist point of view.
In the last article, we talked about the rise of the disciplinary society, the one that tries to set and enforce standards that everyone has to live by, the one that is constantly trying to “reform” people’s ideas about right and wrong. There is a crusading spirit to secularism that is also inherited from the Protestant Reformation, and, further back, from the reforms of Hildebrand. There is a sense that the individual’s relationship to God, or to the highest good (however conceived) is not to be left to the individual’s whims and initiatives, that it is incumbent on everyone to hold and act on certain ideas. We’re not supposed to have a “to each their own” point of view about these things. Instead, there is an activist, interventionist stance. Originally we find this in a religious context, but it doesn’t stay there. In our own time, the persistent efforts to stamp out racism, sexism, and other forms of prejudice or exclusivity, is the most obvious example.
With the rise of Providential Deism, “polite society” is thrown into the mix as well. The polite society is the one that values civility, refinement, and the peaceful arts, as distinct from the emphasis on martial virtues that one associates with the warrior aristocracy. The rise of salon culture in eighteenth-century Paris, where grace, wit, and charm were the most important virtues, was a part of this. Originally, polite society was a subset of elite society, but its ethos gradually expanded beyond this. There was a general sense that commerce was conducive to the polite society as war was to that which had preceded it. So it carries with it a sense of historical embedding, as having overcome a previous "stage of development." As Taylor explains,
The polite style or manner was to approach the other as an independent agent, with his (and now also her) own legitimate views and interests, and enter into courteous exchange for mutual benefit; be it on one level economic exchange for mutual enrichment; or conversational exchange for mutual enlightenment or amusement. Thus a paradigm locus for this kind of sociability, apart from the market, was the salon or coffeehouse, in which enlightened conversation took place, extended through the growing range of publications which were meant to aliment these exchanges. Polite society showed itself above all in the refinement of this kind of meeting and exchange, in which of course a new kind of disrespect and agonism could emerge, but one situated within the forms and goals of polite repartee.
An important component of the polite society was its independence. It was not constrained by the state or the church or by any institution external to itself. It derives its values from its own autonomous sense of itself. There was a potential here for conflict with both political and ecclesiastical authorities, which is later realized, but was not immediate or automatic. Taylor uses Louis XIV’s revocation of the Edict of Nantes as a case in point. The Edict of Nantes was part of the settlement of the Protestant-Catholic wars in France, at the end of the sixteenth century. When both sides had fought themselves out, a compromise solution to the conflict was reached. The leader of the Protestant faction, Henry IV, would be made king on condition that he convert to Catholicism, Catholicism would remain the official religion of France, and Protestantism would be tolerated in certain, specially protected areas. Henry IV is the king who is supposed to have said, “Paris is worth a mass,” i.e., that it was worth converting to Catholicism in order to become king. The part of the arrangement that protected the Protestants was called the Edict of Nantes. Although it served in Henry IV’s lifetime, his grandson, Louis XIV, had been brought up as a Catholic and didn’t see why he ought to tolerate heretics within his kingdom. So he revoked the edict, and the royal and ecclesiastical authorities got to work stamping Protestantism out. The Protestants, of course, were determined to defend their freedom of worship, so the revocation of the edict was guaranteed to result in bloodshed.
In the medieval times this would not have been thought improper. Heretics were not to be tolerated, obviously. However, with the emergence of polite society there came into being a standpoint from which such criticisms could be voiced—one not beholden to the power of either the state or the church. Polite society possessed its own normative authority. Modern, secular appeals to “public opinion” as an arbiter of right and wrong, good policy or bad, are very much an extension of this frame of mind. Saying that someone is a fanatic is really saying that they treat their understanding of God’s will as normative, as against the normative authority of secular, polite society.
And here we find another area of conflict between the emerging secularism and the theological point of view that it was encroaching on. Public opinion is anything but a reliable guide to good conduct, according to Christian theology. It’s much more apt to be disparaged as “the world” or “sinful humanity” or the like. It’s God, not your neighbors, who sets the standard one has to live up to, and often following God’s commands means coming into conflict with one’s family, neighbors, or community. What these people think doesn’t have normative force, from the point of view of Christian theology. From the point of view of Providential Deism, this kind of stubbornness could look like reckless fanaticism. It seems arrogant somehow to say that you know what God wants, but other people don’t. That you have special access. But that is just what one has to say if one is going to go against the community in order to follow what one takes to be God’s will.
It’s also saying that someone puts more stock in hot passion than in cool reason. The Enlightenment ideal of virtue was very much tied to a notion of detachment, of unflappability. One seems to have failed somehow if one “gets emotional.” “Cooler heads should prevail,” as another expression has it. A fanatic lets their passions run away with them. But passion is not easily extricated from a Christian worldview. The whole story of the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection is a profound drama. If you participate in the drama, you’re supposed to be transformed by it. The experience of renewal, of grace, of “the Spirit,” are difficult to squeeze into the box of analytic reason. So this is another area where Providential Deism’s construal of what it means to be a good person is at loggerheads with that found in Christianity. More and more space is starting to open up between secularism, on the one hand, and the premodern mentality, which we explored several articles back, on the other. We’re starting to see the emergence of the modern mind.
Finally, we have the self-understanding of polite society. Just as Christianity saw itself as emerging out of and superseding a now-defunct past—that of Judaism and “the law” on the one hand, and Greco-Roman “paganism” on the other; and just as Protestantism saw itself as emerging out of and superseding the now-defunct past of ecclesiastical tyranny; so too, “polite society” sees itself as emerging from a now-defunct past, filled with superstition, authority, and fanaticism, one where religion held sway. Here we have Edward Gibbon’s notion of “the dark ages” or “the middle ages,” which still dominates so much of the Western historical imagination. In Gibbon’s view, there was the classical, enlightened, rational, tolerant time of the Greeks and the Romans, then an age of superstition and fanaticism called the middle ages, and now there is the modern age, which aims to undo the ignorance of the middle ages and recapture the reason and tolerance of the classical age. In this way, Christianity is cordoned off, as it were, or quarantined, defined as something intrinsically backward, anti-modern, anachronistic. Again the connections to Protestantism are lying on the surface. It was the Protestant Reformers who first denounced the Catholic Church as intrinsically backward and repressive. The Providential Deists simply broadened this line of attack to encompass all of Christianity, sometimes even all of religion. But what stays the same in each case, whether Catholic, Protestant, or Deist, is this notion of historical embeddedness, of a progressive unfolding of history toward some worthy goal. Whether it’s the final judgment, as in Christianity, or the establishment of a humane and rational society, as in Deism, there is still a sense of moving toward the end point.
This brings us to our last point of contact, and divergence, between Deism and Protestantism. The Deists held that in the beginning there had been an original, natural, true religion—the simple, pure awe felt by the “primitive” person who looked up at the stars and knew that there was a creative power behind it. Before all the dogma and the costumes and the hierarchy, there had been this simple feeling of awe and veneration, this knowledge that one should treat other people generously, and conduct one’s life with virtue. Everything that has come after this has been a useless, harmful accretion. It has to be cleared away so that we can return to the true, primitive religion, according to Providential Deism. It sounds, again, like Protestants critiquing Catholics, only transferred to a general critique of Christianity and “revealed religion.” In time this critique would expand to take up even more territory—to religion just as such, all of it, whether “natural” or “revealed.”
So, we’re on the way to modern, atheistic secularism (the “secularity 3” we discussed in the first article on Taylor), but we haven’t quite arrived. Deists are, after all, theists. But it’s starting to take shape. In the next article, we’ll explore the expanding universe of unbelief.
This essay is part of a series; the previous essay can be found here.
Daniel Halverson is a graduate student studying the History of Science and Technology. He is also a regular contributor to the PEL Facebook page.
If you’re just beginning to follow this series, or would like a handy reference, here are links to the previous articles: