Religion in the Age of Enlightenment


Religion in the Age of Enlightenment, Christianity, supernaturalization


Abrief survey of the eighteenth-century debates regarding the compatibility of reason and religion reveals the development of two powerful-and polarized-theological trends. The first is what I refer to as the "de-supernaturalization" of Christianity. This movement was evinced among rationalists who desired to remain connected to England's religious past and to retain the unifying influence of their society's most vital "myth" (i.e., Christianity) but who also felt a strong impetus to rid the faith of its "irrational" supernatural elements (e.g., belief in miracles, the soul, and the inspiration of Scripture). The second trend, what I call "re-supernaturalization;' occurred later in the century and was, at least in part, a reaction to the rationalism that had become so popular in many intellectual circles. This trend is demonstrated in movements like the rise of Methodism, where soulful preaching and hymnody were employed to foster an emotional and experiential approach to Christianity. Re-supernaturalization also occurred in other Christian traditions in England, especially during the final decade of the century. At this time, numerous congregations began to report charismatic revivals-congregants speaking in tongues, the sick being miraculously healed, and apocalyptic fervor flaring up in anticipation of the imminent return of Christ. Even outside of the church, re-supernaturalization was evident. Beginning as early as the 1760s, authors like Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe, and Matthew Lewis thrilled their readership with tales that suggested the possibility (as in Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho) and even the actuality (as in Lewis's The Monk) of supernatural happenings breaking into the mundane physical world. A glut of gothic tales followed, with images of charnel houses and the walking dead soon becoming common fare in popular literature.