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Colin Jager. The Book of God: Secularization and Design in the Romantic Era. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006. ISBN: 978-0812239799. Price: $59.95

  • Thomas Pfau

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  • Thomas Pfau
    Duke University

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Since the beginning of the twentieth century, the disciplinary and institutional landscape of the humanities and social sciences has been enduringly concerned with notions of the secular and secularization. Indeed, some disciplines (e.g., sociology, higher biblical criticism) or subfields (the post-Wittgensteinian critique of modern moral philosophy) largely acquired their object and overall purpose through a sustained reflection on modernity’s self-legitimation as a teleological movement towards the state as a liberal, secular, and rational “enterprise-association” (Oakeshott). Wherever one may choose to locate the “beginnings” of that process—say, in early 14th century Nominalism, the Reformation, or in the scientific revolutions of the seventeenth century—it appears to be at the end of the eighteenth century that quintessentially modern critiques of religion and metaphysics of a Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, and Locke are being scrutinized for hidden and troubling presuppositions of their own. As the quintessentially modern, Cartesian stance of methodical doubt becomes itself the target of a reflexive critique (Hegel’s “self-perfecting skepticism”), secularization ceases to operate as putatively self-evident and incontestable project. Rather, by 1800 it begins to disclose the as yet unexamined grounds of modern Wissenschaft and, hence, the potential causes for a crisis of legitimacy that threatens the “logical optimism” (Nietzsche’s phrase) so defining of the liberal nation-state’s economic, institutional, and geo-political pursuits. As Hegel insists, no society will be properly secular or enlightened unless it has achieved an adequate self-description. The result is a major change in the conception and production of knowledge itself—associated above all with Romanticism and Idealism—such that modern, institutionally embedded, academic inquiry (hermeneutics, sociology, philosophy of history, utilitarian philosophy, art history) are now enjoined to produce both, positive knowledge and a sustained reflection on their own conceptual and methodological limits.

This shift can be observed in Hegel, Saint-Simon, and Comte, yet also in Marx’s retention of Idealism’s stadial philosophy of history—an eschatological matrix that endures well into the twentieth century (e.g., in the work of Karl Löwith). Comte offers a particularly striking example of how a particular secularization narrative begets a distinctively modern discipline; for it is in the Positive Philosophy that we find the sources of Durkheim’s and Weber’s finely grained empirical (and scrupulously detached) sociological accounts of religious culture and its alleged transposition into the secular, industrial and bureaucratic spheres of the Western-European nation state. On the other hand, wary of the mutual reinforcement of secularization and the genesis of modern “expert languages” (A. Giddens), G. E. Anscombe, C. Taylor, and A. MacIntyre in the second half of the twentieth century revived an incisive critique—first launched by Coleridge, the Oxford Movement, and by writers such as G. M. Hopkins and G. K. Chesterton in England, or Eichendorff and Droste-Hülshoff in Germany—of the intellectual complacency and fallaciousness said to characterize notions moral and religious life in a liberal nation state that has peremptorily quarantined religion as a merely subjective “feeling,” and as irrational, incommunicable “belief.” Thus for Gadamer, MacIntyre, Nicholas Lash (to name but a few), the task at hand was to rehabilitate the Aristotelian or Thomistic idea of “tradition” as an alternative to the hectoring, strictly self-certifying atheism from which Nietzsche, L. Stephen, Zola, Russell, Wittgenstein, and the Bloomsbury group had launched their critique of late Wilhelminian, Victorian, and Edwardian religious and moral culture. More recent projects—such as those by Talal Asad, Hans Blumenberg, David Martin, Peter Berger, Michael Buckley, Louis Dupré, and Charles Taylor—have variously stressed the continued, robust hold that questions of secularization have on advanced inquiry in the humanities and social sciences while also proving alert to the ambivalence of a secularism all but axiomatic within the modern, specialized and institutionally embedded idea of knowledge.

This thumbnail sketch (crude as it is) should remind us of how crowded and contested the topic of “secularization” has become. In joining this busy debate, Colin Jager’s thoughtful and at times compelling study of secularization and natural theology focuses on that most precarious transition of the Romantic era when the variously meliorist or utopian projects of a wholly secular modernity came to reveal their hidden premises and potentially disastrous entailments. Jager’s concern lies principally with how “discussions or acknowledgments of design verge upon the larger matter of secularization” (17). Exploring in his opening chapter the marked affinities between Deism and natural theology, Jager specifically probes why, in light of its obvious circularity, the argument from design should have had such “staying power” (11). Making for a fine complement to Charles Taylor’s account of “providential Deism” in A Secular Age (also 2007), Jager’s first chapter shows in rich and compelling detail Deism’s marked aversion to ecclesiological structures of any kind (“a sensibility hostile to … doctrines, rules, and temporal authorities” [43]). At times verging on “an explicit denial of revelation” (44), both Deism and natural religion are joined less conceptually than that they share an implicit, rationalist pathos. As “characteristically modern” phenomena” valued less for their intrinsic cogency than for their socially integrative potential as an “intellectual consensus” (4), both Deism and natural theology are fueled by a belief “in the capacity of human intellect to read the Book of God through a cognitive movement from the known to the unknown” (45-6). Jager also makes an intriguing case for intellectual affinities between Deism’s and design’s strictly inferential conception of God and the principled skepticism of modern deconstruction. In radicalizing the Romantics’ skeptical attitude towards both, traditional revelation-based theology and its rationalist circumvention by natural religion and Deism, modern deconstruction’s hermeneutic pathos of “endless reading” leaves mind “no place to escape to, no secular beyond against which the mystified present can be measured. There is only the endless process of reading” (55).

Sensibly enough, Jager’s opening two chapters are less concerned with natural theology’s rather obvious circularity of argument—i.e., the petitio principi of God as both the premise of reasoning to design and, simultaneously, an inference drawn from design—than with the rich metastases of natural theology in literary and philosophical culture between 1770 and 1830. Yet here the book’s tight conceptual focus on theories of design also proves something of a constraint. For while it ensures that a coherent argument will link Jager’s individual chapters on Hume, Paley, Barbauld, Kant, Austen, and Wordsworth, his stress on natural theology effectively prevents his study from shedding significant new light on the broader secularization-debate; doing that would, at the very least, have required a far more capacious archeology of the theological origins of modern rationalism (of which natural theology is one particular variant), a project that has admittedly proven a challenge even to very seasoned scholars (e.g., Charles Taylor, Michael Gillespie, or Louis Dupré). Still, Jager is very lucid when tracing natural theology’s implicit reliance on a basic model of analogy—e.g., Paley’s watch is to watchmaker as the world (the Book of God) is to God. His reading of Hume, too, is crisp and lucid as far as it goes, though in primarily focusing on “a certain rhetorical power” intrinsic to the design-hypothesis, while declaring its conceptual poverty to be obvious and (to modern readers anyway) a distraction, Jager also foregoes a fuller discussion of Philo’s proto-Darwinian counter-proposal of “an orderly system … spun from the belly” rather than the brain.” Ultimately, what the Dialogues showcase is less the triumph of eighteenth-century rhetorical and theological commonplaces as they are offered up by Cleanthes or, for that matter, Philo’s shrewd analytic exposure of natural theology’s conceptual feebleness. Rather, it is Hume’s staging knowledge and rationality as contingent on the willingness of all members of an enlightened civitas to offer arguments rather than beliefs, that is, verifiable evidence marshaled on behalf of contestable propositions. Philo’s proto-evolutionary hypothesis certainly doesn’t win the argument, but its central suggestion that we consider reading nature as a process of self-organization unfolding over long spans of time crucially insists that rational argument must always permit an alternative (falsifiable) way of reading empirical evidence.

Later on, Jager persuasively reads Wordsworth’s struggle with the so-called “analogy passage,” and he views Wordsworth’s eventual decision to drop these vexing lines from The Prelude as evidence of a fundamental shift in Romanticism’s move beyond intentionality and towards a supra-individual hermeneutics. For “only when analogy is no longer understood as a vehicle of intentionality will poetry arise naturally—that is, on analogy with nature” (181). In so doing, Jager also achieves a nuanced perspective on the standard reading of Romanticism as both, a secularizing and spiritualizing movement. Recalling C. P. Snow’s “two-cultures” hypothesis and M. H. Abrams’ 1971 Natural Supernaturalism, Jager’s study early on reexamines the long dominant view of Romanticism as transposing religious into aesthetic meanings and thus “enable[ing] human beings to hold on to a spiritual sensibility without having to commit themselves to a particular metaphysic” (19). From Abrams to Hartman, de Man and the latter’s orthodox disciples (Jager’s apt illustration here is Warminski), the basic premise remains that it was “romanticism’s distinct achievement to initiate a break with religion. Though [these critics] construe that break in different ways, they concur about what romanticism is breaking from: what eighteenth-century writers called ‘natural religion’” (21).

Jager’s own view is that, in fact, the hold of the Book-of-God model and of the cultural framework of natural theology drawing on that master-trope for its principal evidence is far more enduring, and Romanticism’s gradual disengagement from design far more complicated and nuanced than has previously been supposed. Even so, Jager’s later chapters on Wordsworth also reaffirm, albeit in a more nuanced and sophisticated idiom, Abrams’ implicit claim that literature and aesthetics underwent a profound redefinition and revitalization inasmuch as they absorbed spiritual meanings that had previously been the exclusive domain of organized religion. In a concise and particularly lucid passage, Jager thus sketches the Wordsworthian project as follows:

The primitive world is completely saturated with meaning, with the pure religion of polytheism. That meaning-rich world is attractive in part because it moves according to mythic time rather than historical time. But that is also its limitation, for it is a static world, predicated upon changelessness. Growth becomes possible only with monotheism, with the idea of a future. To engage in forward movement, however, means losing the richly meaning-saturated world, purchasing knowledge with loss of power. If history is the history of breakdowns, poetry must redeem history by transforming it into progress. Thus the narrative of growth that structures so much of Wordsworth’s early poetry is in fact an attempt to overwrite an alternative narrative predicated on the loss of meaning.


Jager persuasively maps that gradual shift from the eighteenth century’s complex but still distinct spiritual culture to a Romantic aesthetic in which newly conceived literary genres (the novel, the loco-descriptive poem) ventriloquize meanings formerly controlled by religious practice and doctrine. Thus he notes how the Romantic construction of literature as a sui generis project entails major hermeneutic challenges and, just as inevitably, new methodological paradoxes. For “one cannot discuss secularization simply as an empirical matter … for it is always also bound up in the values, desires, and self-understandings of those who wield it as a concept—and who wield it most powerfully when they assume a certain definition of secularization itself” (33).

Yet that poignant observation also reveals the limitations of José Casanova’s claim that modernity and secularization converge around the concept of “differentiation, that is, the emancipation of a variety of forms of cultural authority from religious control” (28). There is something banal about this idea of “differentiation,” since it basically assumes an already intact understanding of “secular spheres [and] religious institutions and norms” (Casanova, quoted on p. 29). Indeed, the sociologist’s characteristically descriptive, rather than analytic, approach only reminds us that the very discipline of sociology constitutes as much a historical effect of an undeniably amorphous historical development that, beginning with Comte’s Positive Philosophy, this particular science has sought to capture by its ambitious accounts of secularization as progressive social and institutional differentiation. Simply put, a sociological account of secularization is by nature self-confirming—that is, will lead up to and (in crudely teleological fashion) legitimate sociology as a discipline. Its outlook on notions of the sacred will therefore always be counter-factual. The sociologist stands to God as Keats knew himself to stand vis-à-vis Milton: “Life to him would be death to me.”

In the event, Jager’s readings tend to be at their best—and then will often acquire truly epigrammatic force and elegance—when they unfold independently of Casanova’s generic template. Indeed, in his shrewd critique of the New Historicism’s “methodological commitment to a materialism that from the outset has regarded religion as its privileged, even exemplary, object of critique” Jager comes close to recognizing the poverty of a sociological model. Thus his (entirely persuasive) critique of historicism applies just as much to the peremptory diffidence underlying virtually all modern sociological approaches to religion and religious culture. As Jager notes about the historicist project, it is not the “traditional concepts, schemes, and values of the Christian heritage’ that need salvaging,” for they “are doing pretty well on their own. What may need salvaging, rather, is a critical method that can account nonreductively for such persistence” (36; emphasis mine).

Among the most compelling sections in an overall subtle and accomplished book is the discussion of Mansfield Park in which Jager treats us to a shrewd forensic reading of the memorable discussion of religion and church architecture between Fanny Price, Mary Crawford, and Edmund Bertram in the chapel at the Sotherton estate. Jager compellingly shows how Fanny’s misgivings about the chapel’s lack of a spiritual aura and institutional authority, countered by Edmund’s resolute defense of broad-Church Anglicanism, mirror the growing divide between romance and novel while also shrewdly reappraising the meaning of 1688. What had at its time been a revolutionary moment is now transformed, in Edmund’s account, into an allegory “of 1790s conservatism. [Edmund] stands at the end of a long eighteenth-century narrative about the fate of the Wig latitudinarian consensus, which gradually remade an argument for toleration into an argument for tradition” (136). Fanny, meanwhile, seems acutely troubled by how “historical contingency gets naturalized as destiny” and, consequently, by how her own grasp of religious and social history is consequently dismissed as “fantasy” (140).

It may seem ungenerous to criticize a book for not giving us more when it offers so many cogent and persuasively argued interpretations. Indeed, there is something inherently unreasonable about the expectation, so pervasive in the current “professionalized” model that most humanities departments cultivate (perhaps at their own peril): viz., that even a first book must showcase its author’s range across disciplines, while arguing a sharp and provocative thesis. No longer, it seems, is a first book allowed to be the more specialized, cautious, and well-grounded step in a single sub-field—e.g., the study of a single author and/or carefully delimited issue—that had long been the norm. Thus there no longer appear to be any limits to the amount of secondary literature for which the writer of a monograph now bears (at least implicit) responsibility. Still, inasmuch as The Book of God is principally concerned with the how the trope of creation as a book and pre-Darwinian physico-theology impinge on the broader issue of secularization, a range of pertinent studies by Hans Blumenberg (esp. Die Lesbarkeit der Welt, 1981), David Martin (On Secularization, 2005), Keith Thomson (Before Darwin, 2005), Michael Buckley, Denying and Disclosing God (2004), and also Hans Frei (The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative, 1980), to name but a few, should probably have been consulted. Some broader frame of reference might have headed off the confusion of “suffering” with “evil” in Jager’s discussion of “The Ruined Cottage,” or indeed the altogether improbable characterization of J. H. Newman, arguably one of the leading Victorian controversialists, as belonging to a development that had “removed the religious from public conversation and located it in private and interior spaces” (153-54). A more significant problem, however, is that in eclectically drawing on various accounts of modernity and secularization (e.g., Marcel Gauchet, Hans Blumenberg, Peter Berger, Charles Taylor, José Casanova). Jager never pauses to consider whether these various models are at all commensurable (which, truth be told, they are not). Doing so would have undoubtedly made The Book of God a much bigger and more complex argument (perhaps more unwieldy, too), but it would have ensured that the peculiar confidence and persistence of natural theology as a social consensus could have been located within the rather more wide-ranging story of theological and political rationalism that had been slowly unfolding since what Louis Dupré has called the “disintegration of the medieval synthesis.”