The Book of God
Secularization and Design in the Romantic Era
2006 | 288 pages | Cloth $69.95
View main book page
Table of Contents
Introduction. Nature is the Book of God
Chapter 1. The Argument Against Design from Deism to Blake
Chapter Two. Arbitrary Acts of Mind: Natural Theology in Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion
Chapter Three. Theory, Practice, and Anna Barbauld
Chapter Four. Natural Designs: William Paley, Immanuel Kant, and the Power of Analogy
Chapter Five. Mansfield Park and the End of Natural Theology
Chapter Six. Wordsworth: The Shape of Analogy
Chapter Seven. Reading With a Worthy Eye: Secularization and Evil
Chapter Eight. Religion Three Ways
Afterword. Intelligent Design and Religious Ignoramuses; or, the Difference between Theory and Literature
Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]
The intimation that the starry heavens and the fertile earth are the very Book of God, "wherein to read his wond'rous Works," as Milton put, is an old, old, idea; old as the Protestant Reformation, old as medieval cosmology, old as the Christian Scriptures and the classical orators, old as the ancient Psalmist avowing that "the heavens declare the glory of God." For even a vaguely religious sensibility the bookish metaphor is inescapable.
What to make of this Book of God? How to read it, interpret it, or translate it? It is both legible and inscrutable. Saints and sages and scholars have pondered it through the ages, artists and poets have meditated on its mysteries; but none has resolved it, or wholly evaded it, or given the book its definitive reading.
Secularization is a process that ultimately blurs the very words of the Book of God. It muddies syntax, creates ambiguity, makes vague or uncertain declarations formerly clear and distinct. In other words, secularization makes reading itself a problem—which is why, though it manifests itself in a thousand ways, its relationship to literary culture is especially rich.
This book is about secularization—as a general concept and in relation to certain literary texts from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Secularization has often been coordinated with the social and cultural movements of this period; for some readers, romantic literature has seemed a secular scripture, preserving or humanizing a spiritual sensibility while abandoning religious belief and institutional affiliation; for others, romanticism has seemed to offer a prescient critique of that same spiritualizing tendency. The truth is more complicated than either of these.
Secularization itself remains, within literary study, an analytically fuzzy category that usually tells us as much about the self-understanding of modern-day interpreters as it does about the historical period under consideration. I deal with this phenomenon throughout the book and address it directly in the introduction and in the final chapters. Another part of my argument, and the chief subject of chapters 1 through 6, focuses the question of secularization in England during the period from David Hume to Jane Austen by examining what is often termed "the argument from design." According to that argument, the miraculous adjustment of means to ends evident in the natural world must be intentional, not random. Any designer capable of imagining and constructing such a world must be divine, and so only God is the sort of being who could make a world so marvelously fitted together. Nature, according to one common metaphor, is "the Book of God"—a series of revelations that parallel and complement the revelations of scripture. Implicitly or explicitly, this sensibility dominated mainstream theology in England from 1675 to 1850. As recent debates about "intelligent design" indicate, it has never really gone away.
To argue for the importance of design during the romantic period seems, on the face of it, to suggest two possibilities. The first would argue that design's persistence means that secularization did not happen— or did not happen, at any rate, during the romantic era. Alternatively, one could argue that because design depends upon a scientific worldview, its persistence during the romantic period is in fact further demonstration that secularization did happen. It would be well, however, to insist that before we decide whether secularization happened, we need to understand the term, how and by whom and under what conditions it is invoked, and what it purports to explain. The right way to do this is to proceed both conceptually and historically—that is, to consider secularization as an analytic concept and to consider how that concept is cashed out at a specific historical moment. In bringing the historical discourse of design together with certain texts of the romantic period, then, my goal is not to offer a study of influence but rather a study of secularization's explanatory power.
The texts I consider here include representatives of the old canon (William Wordsworth), the newer canon (Jane Austen), and the not-quite-yet canon (Anna Barbauld). I grant equal time to the philosophical and theological arguments of David Hume and William Paley. The book is positioned with one eye on romantic studies; therefore, I cannot claim to have offered a comprehensive account (were such possible) of the relationship between romanticism and religion. That relationship would have to take in more than the argument from design, which is why Wordsworth, whose poetry can be very well read through the lens of design, gets more attention here than other more obvious candidates, such as Coleridge or Shelley, whose more capacious religious interests render design a less pressing matter.
My interest is in isolating aspects of the design argument that cut across canons as well as genres, and I have no particular stake in defining certain texts as "romantic." It might nonetheless be observed that despite the various revisions of romanticism accomplished over the past decades, the narrative of secularization has provided substantial continuity in scholarly thinking about the period. Romantic exceptionalism has been under revision for some time, but we are only now beginning to challenge an interpretation of the period in which religion gives way to a secularized modernity posited as inevitable. This book contributes to that project.