I’m just beginning to think about a reference article on deism that I’m writing for the Ian Ramsey Centre’s Special Divine Action Project and it has me thinking about a rather curious phenomenon in early modern philosophy and religion: the complex interplay between deism and theological anthropomorphism.
Presently, the term ‘deism’ is associated with the ‘absent watchmaker’ picture of God: a highly anthropomorphic conception of a divine engineer whose prime concern is the elegant mechanical design of the universe rather than moral qualities. This is a conception shaped by 18th century Anglophone deists. However, in his large and extremely carefully researched study Radical Enlightenment, Jonathan Israel makes a compelling case for the very significant influence of Spinoza on early modern radical thought. Along the way, he shows that in the late 17th and early 18th centuries Spinoza was frequently taken as the paradigm deist. This led to the frequent allegation that all deists were really atheists (as Spinoza was alleged to be), or at least well on their way to atheism. Now one of the most prominent features of Spinoza’s thought is his opposition to any degree of theological anthropomorphism. For instance, in the appendix to Part I of the Ethics, Spinoza famously argues that any attempt to see teleology in nature involves an objectionable form of anthropomorphism.
Here’s a curious thing about this situation: classical philosophical theology – especially as found in the Thomistic tradition – is also staunchly opposed to theological anthropomorphism, a fact which Spinoza often exploits rhetorically. Indeed (as Lewis Powell emphasized to me in a long ago conversation), it turns out that Spinoza’s ‘God or Nature’ satisfies nearly all of the nominal definitions of ‘God’ given by classical theologians before him! ‘God or Nature’ is pure act, a being with infinite perfections, a being than which none greater can be conceived, etc.
What Spinoza has in common with later anthropomorphic deists is the denial of all forms of special divine action, including special revelation, and the advocacy of a religion based purely on reason. (Some deists were somewhat more moderate.) For Spinoza, because notions like choice cannot be applied to God or Nature in any sense traditional religious affirmations are not analogical truths but rather sheer nonsense. Spinoza argues that this is a natural consequence of taking seriously the classical notion of God as infinite being.
For those who regard themselves as defenders of traditional religion, this leads to a serious tension: the affirmations of classical philosophical theology have been set in opposition to central religious affirmations. Pay attention to the anti-Scholastic remarks of very religious early modern philosophers like Malebranche and Berkeley and you’ll notice that they are at least as much theological as philosophical: classical philosophical theology becomes dangerous because of the suspicion that it ultimately collapses into Spinozism. (Leibniz is a special case whom I will not try to discuss here.)
This tension is at work in a big way in the dispute between William King and Anthony Collins. In the Sermon on Predestination (1709) King thinks that he is defending traditional religion by advocating a version of the doctrine of analogy. Collins’ official position in his response (A Vindication of the Divine Attributes, 1710) is anthropomorphic deism. From this perspective – a perspective that maintains that God is wise in the same sense as Socrates only more so, and that God chooses for reasons just like we do – Collins alleges that King (NB: Archbishop King) is really an atheist, or at best an agnostic, since King is not in any position to affirm “the Being of God, or which is all one, the Existence of any Being that is really conformable to our Conceptions of God” (p. 17), since King holds that the divine attributes are in themselves unknown and unknowable to us being grasped merely by analogy.
At the same time, the anthropomorphism of Collins’ reply leaves him likewise open to the charge of atheism not only because some might think (as Berkeley did think) that he is insincere, but also because Collins’ God is not wholly transcendent and wholly other as the God of classical philosophical theology. Accordingly, a Thomist (for instance) would be likely to think that Collins’ God is much more like a pagan deity than a monotheistic God.
In the early modern period, it was widely held that Hobbes, Spinoza, and their ilk were a threat to religion and therefore a threat to social stability. But what is religion, and what constitutes a threat to it? Setting up Spinozism, on the one hand, and anthropomorphic deism, on the other, as the alleged threats to religion helps to put this question in a clearer light and to show just how varied were the answers to it. (Also, if we could figure out what religion is then maybe we could figure out why religion – and religious uniformity – was supposed to be so important to social stability.) Is the anthropomorphic deist preferable to the Spinozist? Or is the difference between them really even important? Collins, like Spinoza, denies the existence of human free will. (So does Hobbes.) Is that the real threat to religion?
Berkeley defends a frankly anthropomorphic conception of God and gives this conception a central place in his system. (For defense of this claim and examination of its connection to the King-Collins dispute, see this paper.) Malebranche has a much more Neoplatonic conception of God, which leaves him open to charges of Spinozism. (He sometimes seems to identify God with that infinite intelligible extension.) Scholars have noted (indeed, in the texts it is almost impossible not to notice) the openly religious aims of Berkeley, Malebranche, and other early modern philosophers. But I am increasingly convinced that not enough attention has been paid to the question of what precisely ‘religion’ amounts to for these philosophers. What are they trying to defend, what sorts of views are seen as threats, and why? The answers are not simple, but fortunately these philosophers have left us a lot of text on the subject. The details of Malebranche’s Augustinian spirituality and Berkeley’s populist latitudinarian Anglicanism merit further exploration (and they’re not the only ones).
(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net)