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Colin Jager, The Book of God: Secularization and Design in the Romantic Era

Friday, October 1, 2010 - 10:34
Colin Jager, The Book of God: Secularization and Design in the Romantic Era (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007). xiv + 274 pp (Hdbk., $59.95; ISBN 978-0-8122-3979-9).

Reviewed by
Tristanne Connolly
St. Jerome's University in the University of Waterloo

The prospect of reading Nature as the Book of God in and around the Romantic period immediately calls up both the precise, “rational religion” of the eighteenth century (how much can be known of the true God without Revelation?) and the vague, evocative pantheism that has traditionally defined high Romanticism. Colin Jager navigates a way between the two, and the topic of design, seemingly only one small detail in the larger relations of theology, philosophy and literature, reveals itself as influentially everywhere, much like the hand of God. Design becomes a deft little needle to embroider the broad fabric to which Jager sets himself, a repatterning of the relation between Romanticism and modern secularism. The project points suggestively toward multiple significances of the concept of design, and ways to rethink Nature and Reason in early and late Romanticism, and in modernity. More explicitly, the book considers how to read religion in Romantic literature where it might seem most elusive, critiques Romantic criticism through its own investments in a certain narrative of modernity, and extrapolates that critique into a revisionary theory of secularization that accounts for the persistence of divine design and human faith.

A strength of the book is its combination of expected and unexpected texts for its subject matter. Its revivification of William Paley as a worthy object of scholarship is exciting, and the book's standout chapter on Mansfield Park builds insightful and thorough arguments about design on a brief conversation about chapel fittings, moving out more broadly to a religious triangulation of Edmund, Fanny and Mary perceptively informed by British religious history.

Jager begins by taking on the secularization thesis as endorsed, for instance, in M.H. Abrams' Natural Supernaturalism, and suggests instead a process of differentiation in which religion becomes one sphere among many rather than infused in all aspects of life. He argues for adoption of Charles Taylor's concept of multiple modernities to enrich the idea that differentiation may mean a shift but need not imply a decline in the public role of religion. However, Jager seems to assert at once that there has not been a decline in religion, and that there is a current resurgence. He considers Western Europe to be the world exception in actually having "experienced secularization as both differentiation and religious decline and transformation", and considers the objection, "why would it matter for interpreting British romanticism that secularization as commonly understood is not universally applicable, and that the global South, for instance, is currently experiencing a massive surge in religious activity?" (32-3). In answer, Jager emphasizes the interests of later interpreters who appeal to secularization, which is fair enough, but still the question remains open, as earlier he had argued "the most reliable data show that religious participation in England rose between 1800 and 1850 (the period of most intense modernization and industrialization) and then held steady or rose gradually until 1900; the period between 1890 and 1914 was probably the key turning point" (27). Was there or wasn't there religious decline in Britain in the Romantic period? The amorphousness of the figures adds further uncertainty: religious participation is a lump undifferentiated by sect. The understanding of "religion" is problematic in the book, as overall it clearly concentrates on Christianity, yet appeals to wider examples to demonstrate resurgence—for instance, Saba Mahmood's study of the Egyptian mosque movement—though surely a modern and feminine desire to uphold religious norms will be interestingly different between Christian and Muslim, English and Egyptian experience. (The "bodily postures" involved are treated in a broad, abstract, barely physical mode by Jager, one hint of how the transfer is inadequate.) The introduction is most solid and interesting in its initial explanations of points that will be crucial throughout, such as the rhetorical nature of design arguments, compactly demonstrated in Raphael's advice to Adam that he must "reck'n right": "we try to figure out something about God based on what we can see around us ... But ... we need to be reminded ... to begin not with what we can observe but with what we know about God" (9). Design arguments, Jager insists, convince those already inclined to believe them. Also insightful is the understanding of analogy (on which design arguments rest) as "itself... a figure for secularization as differentiation" (31) because of its paradoxical ability at once to distinguish and hold together two different realms, such as nature and divinity, or science and religion.

Chapter One, "The Argument Against Design from Deism to Blake", is somewhat confusingly titled, as deism is concluded not to be really "against" design; it is just like design without the orthodoxy. Jager turns to Godwin, using Caleb Williams’ relationship to Falkland, initially seen as a "benevolent divinity" (53), as a "rereading of the optimism of the deists ... The subject can no longer believe, but that loss entails paranoia and a crippling reflexivity rather than a compensatory liberation" (54). Again this is conceived more as an extension than an opposition (almost like the relationship between modernism and postmodernism). Indeed, Jager draws an affinity between Caleb and Paul de Man, for whom, he argues, "secularization is melancholy, obsessive, and secretive" (54); both realize knowledge does not set them free. One might ask whether this is the inevitable result, though: in Caleb's case, remembering that this reading is metaphorical, figuring his relation to God on his belief in a fellow human as divine (which is idolatry, of a kind very convenient to arbitrary earthly power), it may be that he is too socially brainwashed to get over the revelation that a (mere) class superior is not so superior.

Perhaps as a side effect of the attraction to intricacies of correspondence belonging to design arguments, through much of the book Jager's carefully constructed layers of interpretation tend to get caught up in their own posited systems. The discussion of Blake is the clearest example of this. Very much following Northrop Frye (the only Blake critic to whom he refers), Jager takes the statements in There Is No Natural Religion which associate "ratio" with repetition of "the same dull round", and a "mill with complicated / wheels" (47) as a blanket position against "sameness" which applies to all theology. "When [Blake] rejects deism he thereby also rejects the entire tradition of eighteenth-century natural theology by refusing to see any difference that matters between the Blackmores and Tolands of the world" (47-8). Dipping into more recent criticism (especially Matt Green's Visionary Materialism) would be beneficial in showing that Blake's relationship to "eighteenth-century natural theology" is not as simple as rejection; the nuances of Blake's relationship to Deism and to nature could contribute much to the book as a whole, as well as to this specific discussion. Further, Jager lines up Blake on rational sameness with Abrams and Wasserman on analogy as "a kind of regression" which "seems to lack both rigor and originality; it makes nothing happen" (50-1). This parallel begs reference to "Divine Analogy" in Jerusalem, which would complicate the issue: there it can be read as a place identified with Canaan where falsehoods are redeemed, wanderers are protected and seeds are planted (84:28-85:9). The reading of Visions of the Daughters of Albion, though it avoids complexities by, for instance, pinning down Bromion as representing Deism, is nonetheless original and convincing, particularly on the point that if Bromion has power and the other characters do not, it is "because his opponents accept his claim that arguments—defined inductively—are what matter"; Oothoon proceeds equally empirically in her arguments, "which is why the text insists that only Bromion can hear Oothoon's voice" (52). If she stepped out of this assumption (and perhaps she does if she becomes irrational toward the poem's inconclusive ending) she might be able to extricate herself from a losing system, just as Caleb and de Man conceivably could escape secular melancholy.

Chapter Two presents a close reading of Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, using the final judgment by Pamphilius that though the arguments of Philo (who demonstrated that natural theology can only reach conclusions about the material world from evidence in the material world) were "probable", the arguments of Cleanthes (the advocate of design here) "approach still nearer to the truth", despite their seeming self-evidently weaker (70). Jager interprets this not so much by trying to decide what side Hume is on (though he does see Hume delivering a message through Pamphilius), but rather by seeing it as a "joke" on all the characters and on the "philosophical reader, who wades through 'abstruse arguments' only to discover, in the end, that what mattered was the dialogue itself, not its conclusions" (71). This expands the idea that design arguments have their strength much more in rhetoric than in reason, and adds that "natural theology depends upon a series of affective social bonds in order to hold its world together" and therefore has value as sociability, whether or not it holds up as logic (59). Dogmatism, whether fideist or sceptic, is antisocial: it stops the conversation (68). This reading becomes sympathetically touching through biographical reference to Hume: he kept these Dialogues unpublished till after his death on the advice of his friends. "'Scotland is too narrow a place for me,' he wrote to Adam Smith in 1759, 'and it mortifies me that I sometimes hurt my friends'" (65). Hume's avoidance of an extreme position in this conciliatory ending had its own sociable motivations.

Chapter Three then applies these ideas to Anna Barbauld: she "employs the kind of skeptical strategies" seen in Hume to put forth her "dissenting perspective: design may lose the battle of ideas, but not the battle of practice" (74). Particularly in "A Summer Evening's Meditation", "for every acknowledgement of rhetorical inadequacy, it seems, the poem produces an organic assurance of connection", bringing philosophy and theology likewise back to the body and the world (81). Jager sees the position Barbauld creates as able to endorse differentiation without a concomitant decline in religion. The chapter promises to consider the significance of gender for these issues, but this isn't thoroughly pursued, apart from Barbauld's being a woman, and her apparent use of a "poetics of fancy" (relying on Coleridge's distinction between imagination and fancy, and fancy's alignment with the feminine, both contestable). The connection to Coleridge, if not the applicability of his particular definition of Fancy, might have been clinched by reference to Barbauld's poem "To Mr. S. T. Coleridge" which supports the chapter's argument well in its coaxing Coleridge away from a delusory landscape of metaphysics to sociability and Heaven's protection, dispelling the "spleen-fed fog / That blots the wide creation", making the book of God seem too obscure to be readable.

Chapter Four reasserts the importance of William Paley—his books were required texts at Cambridge, so "a good portion of the British clergy cut their theological teeth on Paley's works" (105)—and reconsiders his reputation, insisting that he was not simply "the spokesperson for a staid orthodoxy and an apologist for a repressive state apparatus", the picture we receive of him from Hazlitt and Coleridge. The man who responded to Paine with "Reasons for Contentment", seen in his Cambridge context of association with the Hyson Club, members of which were involved in efforts to repeal the Thirty-Nine Articles, appears "part of a middle-class Whig environment ... plainspoken in manner, latitudinarian in theology, and committed to limiting the role of the Crown in public affairs". Jager's measured and salutary point is that the relations between faith, theology and politics here are not static, and cannot be adequately mapped on to a conservative versus progressive distinction (104). Jager's reading is wonderfully responsive to the idiosyncrasies of Paley's prose, seeing the "exhaustive cataloguing" in Natural Theology as a kind of fertile plenitude which combines uneasily, but fascinatingly, with the book's mechanical emphasis, culminating in the strange twist found in Paley's seventeen-page disquisition on the watchmaker analogy, where he gets carried away enough to imagine a watch that could reproduce other watches as offspring ("the thing is conceivable", says Paley [107]). Jager makes a counterintuitive comparison between Paley and Kant, and finds that both are in "basic agreement over analogy's slipperiness", with Kant finding analogy a limited figure which he nonetheless cannot abandon, while for Paley, "the rhetoric of analogy itself confers designedness upon the objects of the world" (121). Both pursue differentiation, but of different kinds: religion is a separate mode of perception, but for Kant one aligned with the heart, and for Paley, one aligned with reason.

Mansfield Park is the focus of Chapter Five. Mary and Fanny each depart from natural theology obliquely in different ways, one through insensibility and the other through sensibility. Edmund's rational arguments do not work on either of them. Each is an example of religion surrendering "its claim as a discourse that shapes desire, becoming henceforth a discourse shaped by desire" (153). Jager impressively historicizes the religious arguments of this chapter: "The tradition of natural theology in England is partially designed to stabilize the meanings of 1688", but Mansfield Park engages debates engendered by 1688 "in a spirit of criticism rather than consolidation" (127). Particular attention is given to "the Seven Bishops" who resisted James I's extension of tolerance to those whom they would consider "heretics”—this "Anglican Revolution" being a curious instance of conservatism as rebellion (138), contrasting "Edmund's propensity to accommodate against the kind of principled resistance practiced by his forbears" (140). Jager finds in Austen's juvenile History of England, and in Fanny's quotation of The Lay of the Last Minstrel, an astute eye for the "contingency" of "progressive secularization narratives", seeing that "history that is not part of official history becomes fantasy" (138, 141). In this chapter, the piling up of parallel analogies and interpretive systems is masterful and convincing: the exquisite interpretations of landscape improvement, clock or watch time, and the lurking presence of slavery are subtly interconnected and spider out to an impressive range of loci in the text. All of this and the historical arguments harmonize and are given a further dimension by relation to the more obvious overarching concerns of the novel: performance, artifice, authenticity, conversation.

Two chapters on Wordsworth follow, linking "his sense of the poet's complex professional status" to the differentiation of literature "as an entity set apart, something that carries its own special form of knowledge" (160). Wordsworth's form of literature offers a way to pursue the modernity of differentiation and secularization without sacrificing intentionality. In this light, the ascent of Snowdon in The Prelude shows for Jager a resolution of Wordsworth's struggles between tradition and modernity, religion and poetry: it "is not a denial of or a retreat from modernity but rather an embrace of its multiple forms" (161), one that is structured by the design analogy. A reading of Peter Bell makes use of the four levels of biblical exegesis to demonstrate that Peter is "a modern problem dressed up in primitive garb" (163) and his story an allegory that shows the shift in the ground of interpretation from "literal truth" to "individual psychology" (165). Jager sees individuality and secularization as both problem and solution: "Peter is a modern subject. He must reform himself" (166). In the following chapter, Jager reads the incorporation of "The Ruined Cottage" into The Excursion in light of the problem of evil. He argues that "theodicy registers the presence of differentiation", where the purpose of suffering actually has to be explained: that is, where "we separate ourselves from Job's world sufficiently to feel that God must be called to account when things go wrong" (190). For Wordsworth, literature becomes the authoritative mode for understanding such questions. Jager considers "the great weight that belief, now unsupported by the evidence of the world, must bear". Belief gains greater autonomy at the price of narrower range. "'Religion' comes to mean the cultivation of an interior space distinct from other domains of knowledge—in particular, from the literary 'knowledge' into whose world it can come only as an uninvited, and sometimes rude, guest" (200). This conclusion sounds resonant and makes sense in light of the "abrupt Christology" of The Excursion, but does not seem at all accurate outside that scheme, or indeed that small though important poetic passage. Does religion barge rudely into the literary world of Christina Rossetti?

The book's conclusion proper, "Religion Three Ways", considers religion as belief, ideology and discipline. While non-literary examples might seem suited to Jager's arguments about practice and rhetoric, his choices seem ill-advised. Religion for Dummies is analyzed to demonstrate "the continued relevance of Edmund's attitude", the latitudinarian lowest common denominator of religion; however, concluding that book presents a "'dumbed-down' definition of religion" is somewhat tautological (203-4). Similarly, in the Ideology section, actor Ewan McGregor's youthful religious crisis upon realizing the individual who was sermonizing in church was a known child-beater is analyzed as an example of religious hypocrisy being a modern problem, where religion is embodied more in supposedly representative individuals than in institutions. The arguments Jager makes along these lines with reference to Marx and C. John Sommerville are intriguing and convincing, but undermined by the celebrity example; if popular culture references are wanted, the significance of Obi-Wan Kenobi for faith in a secular world would have more weight and interest here than the actor's personal experience. The Discipline section concentrates on a close reading of "Nuns fret not" to show modernity's dependence on, and wilful redescription of, previous forms. An intriguing discussion of the freedom that can come from discipline falters somewhat, however, as religion as an object of knowledge (rather than a disciplinary life practice) becomes paralleled to religion as a "pleasant respite from the business of wrestling with modern freedom" (213). This idea follows clearly enough from the idea of differentiation—religion as compartmentalized rather than pervasive—but the devaluation involved causes problems for Jager's move to an argument for multiple vocations in a multiple modernity. Mahmood's argument about gaining mastery through discipline seems doubly inapplicable here because the difference between not only Muslim and Christian but also devoted rigour and interchangeable hobby are not accounted for. Consideration of a further meaning of religion as discipline in a modern context, the scholarly discipline of Religious Studies, would have offered a fine opportunity to resolve these problems.

The final section seems unnecessarily tacked on, as if it were an obligation to address American fundamentalists in a book about design. The study wraps up neatly before this Afterword which only emphasizes a major oversight: there is very little reference to Charles Darwin (the index shows he is mentioned on two pages and in one note) and none at all to his pioneering grandfather Erasmus, an ideal figure for this study as a Romantic writer who very intelligently navigated the not-yet-separate claims of science and religion on the world's wondrous patterns. It is a shame that these intellectual figures do not get attention here, while the "religious ignoramuses" of the Afterword's title do. The phrase is lifted from Richard Dawkins marvelling at how creationists got political power in the United States. This suggests conflict between religion and evolution is an American problem inapplicable to British Romanticism, and I'm afraid I agree. Jager claims, "If something like 50 percent of Americans have hesitations about evolution, that is not because they are stupid" (221). For Jager they are no more stupid than Hume's Pamphilus; however, Pamphilius attended to opposing arguments on their own terms and considered them carefully. This, along with the obvious historical and cultural gaps, is an important difference. Since the book insists that "the tendency to portray the issue as a conflict between science and religion obscures the historical dimensions of the current debate over design" (218), and the rest of the volume has taken pains to trace that debate in the Romantic period, it doesn't make sense to dwell finally in the American context where much of the problem is detachment from the history of the debate; in fact, Jager unfortunately replicates the problem since evolution is discussed without reference to Charles Darwin's own writing.

The Afterword contributes to the book's main arguments by bringing forward the idea that science is similar to rhetoric in that scientific proof works on shared assumptions of what proof is (a repeatable experiment). Jager says that a problem with the "intelligent design movement" (a definition would have been helpful for non-American readers) is taking this to mean that evolution is "just a theory" and one can "teach the controversy", as if there is a controversy: "the assumption behind this strategy is that there is a real scientific debate" (220). (Noting "President George W. Bush has even endorsed this approach" (220) does not make it seem any more reasonable.) After recognizing this misunderstanding, though, Jager steps back from the nuanced possibilities of comparing the rhetoric of science to the rhetoric of design and instead succumbs to vague relativism, undermining his previous arguments via Hume with fairly thin statements like "in the real world, people sign up for ideas for a whole host of reasons" (221). Rhetoric seems reduced to believing despite evidence to the contrary. Jager further, and admittedly, takes up less than "urgent" (226) debates by connecting intentionality to the intentional fallacy, and considering design in terms of Knapp and Michaels' unmotivated "wave poem" in "Against Theory": "A slumber did my spirit seal" appearing miraculously inscribed in the sand of a beach. Wordsworth to some extent redeems the Afterword as Jager uses the poem's own terms to envision a "natural world full of intentionality without an intender" (226). In fact, though this may be an improvement on "defenders" of "Darwinian evolution" for whom a "series of accidents... produce the appearance of intention where there is none at all" (223), it sounds a lot like Darwin himself.