Catholic Apologetics at the Threshold of Modernity

Of late I’ve suffered a posting hiatus on account of summer class-work and conference projects. I hope to put up some material on medieval theology next weekend. In the meantime, however, I can hardly over-recommend Fr. Michael J. Buckley’s The Origins of Modern Atheism to anyone seeking to understand historical theology and modern thought in general. The research is deep, the conclusions profound. Like the more insightful historians of modernity, such as Stephen Toulmin and Jean-Luc Marion, Buckley is most striking when he explores the religious and cultural context which preceded and situated Descartes. Chapter 1, “Religion as Bankrupt: Catholic Theologians and the Origins of Modern Atheism,” examines the rhetorical and dialectical postures that two influential but neglected Jesuit theologians assumed in response to what they saw as the swelling atheism of sixteenth century Europe. In other words, what were the theological decisions that set Catholic apologetics on the trajectory it would maintain for the next three hundred years, facilitating the modern project? This chapter is worth the price of the book (or, if you’re a $-strapped grad student, at least the $2 copy price).

Leonard Leys (Lessius, 1554-1623), who studied under both Suarez and Bellarmine, held the chair of theology at the Jesuit College in the Catholic University of Louvain for most of his life. Lessius was a prolific, pugnacious author, contributing to almost every major theological debate of his time: against the Dominicans on soteriology, the Protestants on the nature of faith, against Anglicans on the supremacy of the pope. He wrote on law, economics and health; he was on the cutting edge of every major branch of knowledge in his day.

But if Lessius was Renaissance man in the fully eclectic sense of the word, he had two consuming passions: ethics and atheism. The Jesuit polemicist identified the proliferation of atheism (the logical outcome or bottom-of-the-slope of all heresy) as the cause of the greed-driven turmoil of early 17th century politics and commerce. Strangely enough, Lessius never identifies any contemporary atheists, presumably because “although at this day there be many who deny in their secret judgements all divine power and Deity, yet are they not much knowne to the world; since the feare of the lawes doth impose silence to these kind of men, and only secretly among their familiars do they vomit out their Atheisme.” Who, then, were the culprits identified by Lessius, and what were their doctrines? Here, Buckley argues, Lessius committed a massive blunder with ramifications far beyond himself; for “the athiesm against which Lessius wrote was not identified in 1613 with seminal thinkers or critically current philosophies. It was a revival; its names were standard names of antiquity . . . Atheism was in an early renaissance” (pp. 46-47). Because Lessius misidentified the disease, he gave the wrong prescription:

Atheism is taken as if it were simply a matter of retrieving the philosophical positions of the the past, rather than a profound and current rejection of the meaning and reality of Jesus Christ. Christology has become irrelevant in establishing the reality of god. This shift of the question from religion to philosophy was dictated not merely by the adversaries enumerated and by whatever revived presence they commanded through the European Renaissance. The wars of religion and the wrangling of theologians had discredited religion” (47).

In other words, the “deity” which (the Catholic theologian!) Lessius summons to combat atheism is not the God of historic, biblical Christianity, but rather a philosophical construct, supported not by Revelation but by exclusively rationes philosophicae deduced from “the fabrick of the world.” Positioning himself essentially as a stoic against epicureans and atomists, Lessius argues from natural order to divine providence, and from (fear of) divine providence to moral order. He does not argue that religion is ‘true,’ only that is necessary to sanction human ethics. Lessius’ identifies his stoic god with the machine of the universe: deus ex machina, a clockwork god for clockwork morality.

Lessius’ neglect of christology in answering atheism set (non)Christian apologetics on a trajectory from which it could not swerve throughout the enlightenment.

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3 Responses to Catholic Apologetics at the Threshold of Modernity

  1. Hey Bret, I need some latin help. See my blog.

  2. This seems correct but of course this also tags Protestant Scholasticism which pretty much followed the god of natural theology handed on to them via scholsticism.

  3. bret saunders says:

    Perry, who are the folks you have in mind here?

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