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The Religious Revolution:
The Birth of Modern Spirituality, 1848–98

by dominic green
farrar, straus and giroux, 
464 pages, $35

The nineteenth century, for all but the most literal-minded, begins with the French Revolution and ends with the First World War. Or in the words of one influential overview of nineteenth-century Germany: “In the beginning was Napoleon.” At the end were trenches, tanks mired in mud, mustard gas, and a futility so profound that it laid the groundwork for an even more grotesque war just one generation later. No wonder, given all the dashed promises made in the name of progress, technology, transportation, and nation-building, that most of us would rather contemplate the beginning of the century. It was then that, despite the excesses of the French Revolution and certain enlightened philosophes, one could imagine somehow fusing the best of the old and the new: a project German idealists like Schelling and Hegel, in their best moments, gestured toward with youthful enthusiasm.

Given how many historians have looked back on the long nineteenth century and seen the slow, inevitable death of the naive belief in progress, it is not unreasonable to examine the same century and assume the gradual but inevitable demise of religion. Yet the crude version of the secularization thesis, according to which the world will become steadily less religious as scientific discovery and Enlightenment rationalism slowly advance, has been largely discredited by serious scholars of secularization such as Hans Joas. As Joas has argued, secularization and modernization do not always correspond, and the emergence of secularization has been not linear, but jagged and unpredictable, like the price of a stock. A bit to the side of this debate, the German historian Olaf Blaschke has spoken of the nineteenth century as the “second confessional era.” Due to the influence of both pietism and the Enlightenment, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries witnessed a decrease in confessional identity, but in this respect the nineteenth century (think of the triumphant celebration of the Reformation in 1817 and Bismarck’s Kulturkampf) looked more like the sixteenth than the seventeenth or eighteenth. Science and religion, or secularization and religious identity, need not follow the principle of John the Baptist: He must increase, but I must decrease (John 3:30). One finds similar patterns at the outset of the current century, when the emergence of evangelicalism and Islamism caught unawares those stuck in a 1960s tale of secularization.

The steam engine and the newspaper, in short, did not extinguish the spiritual flame. Instead, an autonomous religious sphere emerged, marked by an interest in palm reading and spiritual mediums, the invention of the Ouija board, and the establishment of Theosophy. As Dominic Green’s The Religious Revolution demonstrates, the new spiritualists showed a mixed attitude toward science. Sometimes new discoveries prompted religious reconsiderations, but more often the spiritualists picked at the science and mostly left it on the plate, like children faced with vegetables.

Green aims to tell the story of modern spirituality’s birth in the second half of the nineteenth century. He covers Theosophy and the occult, as well as what might be understood as non-institution-bound spirituality, whose ties to organized religion became slowly unloosed in the nineteenth century. His focus is on North America rather than Europe, and the Far East rather than the Middle East. The connections between the earlier romantic individualists—Emerson, Ruskin, Whitman, and Thoreau—and the later charlatans and occultists who founded modern Theosophy and brought together East and West certainly make for interesting reading. In Green’s fascinating and at times spellbinding narrative, seemingly unconnected strands come together and point toward something like a global history of spirituality. But his collection of names never really coalesces into an identifiable movement. The fact, say, that Theosophy’s founding document was composed on the same day as Wagner’s greatest opera does not necessarily amount to more than a coincidence. Green hints at a few ways to weave a narrative thread through the book, but without a stronger hand it comes across as a set of loosely connected retellings of oft (Emerson, Thoreau, Darwin) or rarely (Colonel Olcott, Madame Blavatsky, Swami Vivekananda) tilled ground.

Nietzsche is central to Green’s book, a Virgil-like figure accompanying Darwin, Wagner, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (a founder of Islamic modernism), and even Theodor Herzl. Yet here Green misses an opportunity. He attempts to untangle Nietzsche’s uneasy relationships with Judaism, nationalism, Wagner, and Nietzsche’s sexuality. All of these relationships, which Green deftly and carefully treats, give further insight into a character so singular that one can almost forgive many interpreters for treating Nietzsche like he dropped straight out of the sky. Green avoids this temptation and applies some of the more interesting recent commentary on Nietzsche.

Green gives comparatively little attention, however, to Nietzsche’s fascination with the God of the Bible. Yet as Christian readers such as René Girard and David Bentley Hart have persuasively argued, Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity understood something essential about the Christian revolution. In a late notebook written around the same time as his book The Antichrist (better translated “Anti-Christian”), Nietzsche offers perhaps his deepest insight into what vexed him: “Dionysus versus the ‘Crucified’: there you have the antithesis. It is not a difference in regard to their martyrdom—it is a difference in the meaning of it. . . . The ‘god on the cross’ is a curse on life, a signal to seek redemption of life; Dionysus cut to pieces is a promise of life.”

In other words, is the world one great sacrificial system, or is there a deeper order, a more primordial beauty, whose throughline is not necessary violence but love? Even without the Resurrection, Nietzsche finds something in Christianity that, in contrast to his beloved ancient Greece and Rome, forever proclaims the victim’s innocence, and thus finds the violence unnecessary. This insight shines through already in Genesis when Abel’s blood cries out to God from the ground.

Nietzsche complained that biblical religion promoted an ethic by and for losers. What perplexed and unsteadied him was Christianity’s continual triumph—two thousand years and no new gods. Why would human culture side with a loser’s creed? Even as Europe turned toward a post-Christian future, it was still all too Christian. Marxists might call themselves atheists, but they nevertheless wanted to be on the side of the poor and the weak, and so they were ethically Christian. Nietzsche would have thought the same of today’s left, with its valorization of the marginalized. Even the right has discovered the victim card (and perhaps played it better). As the first great modern critic of Christianity from the right, Nietzsche would have been disgusted now, as he was then, by the white Christian riffraff blaming immigrants and minorities for their sad lot.

Hence Nietzsche’s enduring insight, which Green does not discuss: Despite the endless appeal made by critics to Christianity’s hypocrisy, one cannot eliminate the Christian religion and expect to maintain the slave revolt in morality that hatched the concern for victims. Nietzsche feared that Christianity might continue winning even after it had been eclipsed. An examination of this insight seems likely to have borne more fruit than, say, a focus on Nietzsche’s apparent paralysis over his sexual preference.

If Nietzsche’s complaint about the inability of a post-Christian consensus to rid itself of the Christianity it purportedly rejected still has appeal, so too does the attempt to explain modernity as a deviation from Christianity, a deviation with roots going back almost to Christianity’s origins. On this point, it is worth revisiting a heuristic that predates Green’s time frame. It comes from the great Protestant church historian Ferdinand Christian Baur in his 1835 book, Christian Gnosis. Like the later Theosophists, whose origins Green traces with great verve, Baur’s ancient Gnostics wanted to expose a universal something (gnosis) that produces religious knowledge. For Baur, what mattered was the approach. Gnostics bypassed a revelation for which one had to wait in favor of a speculation that one could achieve. Humans, not God, were the authors of history—but only those humans who looked up to the heavens and brought their deepest and most timeless insights down to earth. The point for Baur was not the variations among the different Gnostic systems, but what they had in common—with one another and with Baur’s contemporaries.

After being substantially shaped by two of Germany’s great religious thinkers in the generation before him—Friedrich Schelling and Friedrich Schleiermacher—Baur turned somewhat belatedly to Hegel, specifically to a posthumous edition of Hegel’s Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, published in 1832. These lectures represented the height of religious speculation, and Baur saw a commonality among Schelling, Schleiermacher, and Hegel, who had spent so many decades outlining their differences. Ancient gnosis, he believed, was simply modern philosophy of religion. Both disciplines sought to understand the deepest mysteries of the world through speculative grasping.

No figure embodies the project of liberal Protestant “scientific” theology better than Baur, and for almost a century his project has taken on water from many sides. Most of Baur’s groundbreaking theories about the composition of the New Testament and the development of the early Church have been left behind by scholarly fashion. His Christian Gnosis, however, has shown surprising staying power. Cyril O’Regan, one of the leading anglophone Catholic theologians, put it to use in Gnostic Return in Modernity (2001). Much earlier, Eric Voegelin employed it both to explain the fundamental principle of his monumental Order and History and to frame his perspective on what he called “political religions.” Voegelin looked at Marxism with horror and disdain; it sought to transform the here and now through a timeless knowledge that it held with no less zeal than a Puritan. Yet when Voegelin’s Vienna was overrun by National Socialists, he saw the same ferocious zeal from a different direction.

Make no mistake, Voegelin was a conservative in politics and temper. He respected Christianity, but was as leery as Leo Strauss concerning its appeal to the masses. Twentieth-century politics, Voegelin surmised, had taken on a religious shape, due to the fervor not so much of its adherents as of its leaders, ever eager to “immanentize the eschaton.” Like the ancient Gnostics and the modern philosophers of religion, politicians sought to bring the kingdom about rather than wait for it. One could follow a red thread from Cromwell to Robespierre, Hitler, and Mao. As a political theorist, Voegelin has been eclipsed by Carl Schmitt, but I would venture that Voegelin is the deeper, more enduring (and also more conservative) thinker.

Voegelin’s intuition has grown only more obvious in the twenty-first century. As religious affiliation wanes, political affiliation takes on more of the characteristics of religion. Green comes to the same insight in his chapters on Gobineau, Gandhi, and Herzl. All three figures, who could not be more different, move from insights about self and society that could be called religious into the expressly political realm. Baur’s most famous and laconic statement about history runs: “Without philosophy, history is always for me deaf and dumb.” Green’s The Religious Revolution makes remarkable connections among a range of fascinating religious and quasi-religious thinkers, but a bit more philosophy would have rendered it easier to bear. 

Grant Kaplan is a professor of theology at Saint Louis University.

Image by Munchmuseet on Picryl, licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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