Subscribe to Christianity Today
Thomas Albert Howard
The Religious Origins of the Modern State
While rumors of God's death have been greatly exaggerated in modern times, few deny that Western history has witnessed epochal changes in the social locus and function of religion. Today these changes are reflexively understood as a passage from "Christendom" to "modernity." The latter generally distresses Christians and other religious folk, even as they recognize that "Christendom," with its capacity for crusades and witch trials, fell deplorably short of the kingdom of God.
Since no shortage of commentary has accompanied this momentous passage, I was skeptical that Gauchet's volume would state something not already found in the voluminous literature on "secularization" or in the writings of classic secularization theorists like Comte, Durkheim, or Weber. As the title indicates, the book is certainly indebted to such predecessors, but it transcends them in significant ways; for while Gauchet, an avowed atheist, is convinced that "the religious" has reached the end of its line, he also wants to persuade his readers that religion is the heart and soul of Western culture, even in our religiously deracinated (post) modern age. In particular, he argues that one must recognize the "unusual dynamic potentialities" of Western monotheism, and especially the Christian idea of Incarnation, in order to comprehend the genesis and character of modern secular political culture.
A welcome peculiarity in an age of specialization, the book can only be described as intellectual history of the most speculative, Hegelian sort. Generalizations, profunditites, and obfuscations lie together, embedded in prose as formidable as that of The Phenomenology of Spirit.
Gauchet's book is divided into two parts. In part 1, "The Metamorphoses of the Divine: The Origin, Meaning, and Development of the Religious," he attempts a general definition of religion and proceeds to trace the emergence of the distinctive features of Western monotheism from a primordial religious past. Throughout, he argues against ...