Religion in the Age of Enlightenment.
Religion in the Age of Enlightenment is the first volume in what hopes to be an annual collection of essays devoted to the scholarly examination of "religion and religious attitudes and practices during the age of Enlightenment" (from the volume's "submissions" page). To that end, the journal aims to publish studies of the "long" eighteenth century ("long" here meaning a stretching backwards to the late seventeenth century and forward to the early nineteenth) that deal with ways in which religion informed the Enlightenment ethos from a number of disciplinary perspectives.
This is an admirable aim, since for too long in both the popular mind and scholarly circles religious belief and the Enlightenment have been viewed as exclusionary. The editor and authors of this volume wish to argue that the anti-religious strain usually associated with the Enlightenment period may perhaps be the dominant one but is by no means the only one.
Although Religion in the Age of Enlightenment hopes to examine the sadly neglected presence of religious themes in the Enlightenment from a number of perspectives, this inaugural volume's disciplinary breadth is limited. A good half of the twelve articles are written by members of English departments (perhaps predictably, since the journal editor is also an English literature specialist). Two others are historians, one is a philosopher, and one specializes in women's studies. Most are young scholars. The volume also contains four book reviews.
The essays are uneven in quality and interest. Some of them are so specialized that their audience will doubtlessly be quite small. The best of the lot is the lead article, Kevin L. Cope's "The Holy Surprise Party: Glimpses of Divinity in Suddenly Emerging Literary, Artistic, and Geographical Settings, 1660-1785." Although not (despite its title) dealing with overtly religious themes to the extent that the other contributors do, Cope nicely sets the stage for exploring religion in the Enlightenment by arguing that the period displays an avid interest in the vast, mysterious, and unpredictable, evidenced in its attention to subterranean geology, humor, and travel memoirs. Cope concludes that this interest in collecting unexpected experiences created an atmosphere of a "holy surprise party" which infused a sense of wonderment into the rational analysis of experience and accommodated belief in and discourse about the divine.
Other worthy pieces include Scott Breuninger's "Irish Clergy and the Deist Controversy: Two Episodes in the Early British Enlightenment," interesting for its account (among other things) of the way in which Anglican Bishop and philosopher George Berkeley responded to the deism of John Toland and Anthony Collins; and Eric Sean Nelson's "Leibnitz and China: Religion, Hermeneutics, and Enlightenment," which explores how Leibnitz juggled his deep Christian commitment with the curious openness, so frequently associated with the Enlightenment, to other cultures (in Leibnitz's case, Chinese). Less successful pieces include "The Primitive Church, the Primitive Mind, and Methodism in the Eighteenth Century," in which evolutionary psychology is rather mechanically invoked to explain the popularity of Methodism in the eighteenth century (emotionality or enthusiasm appealed to the "primitive brain"); Laura Arnold Leibman's "Early American Mikvaot: Ritual Baths as the Hope of Israel," a comparative study of mikvaot in the Old and New World that seems better suited for an archaeology journal; and Elizabeth J. Thompson's "This Interesting Female Shone as the Morning Star," an exploration of how Christian missionaries to American Indian schoolgirls inadvertently strengthened racial stereotypes in their faith-based struggle against them. While Thompson's essay is well written and interesting, its central point is well-trodden ground.
There are a few annoying editorial features to Religion in the Age of Enlightenment that hopefully will be addressed in future issues. No biographies or institutional affiliations of authors are provided, forcing the interested reader to waste time googling them (and even then, I was unable to track down two of the contributors). The book review format is wildly eccentric: each review launches straight into an analysis without giving the reader the slightest idea of what book is actually under discussion. Author and title of reviewed books are only printed at the end of each review. Finally, the absence of abstracts for the articles is an especial handicap. In a journal like this which publishes essays on the long eighteenth century from a wide variety of perspectives, it's unlikely that many readers will have enough breadth of expertise to suss out the general topic of each article from its title. Short abstracts would enable readers to go straight to the essays that especially interest them as well as provoke interest in more arcane ones.
It takes time to get the kinks out of a newly launched scholarly series, and despite its inaugural annoyances in content and format, Religion in the Age of Enlightenment has the potential to fill an important niche for students of the long eighteenth century. Future volumes will give a better idea of how well it actualizes that potential.
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2011|
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