by Emily Rutherford
Two weeks ago, I attended a concert of seventeenth-century German music. The theme was the liturgical season of Lent, with a number of pieces meditating somberly on death. They meant Jesus’s crucifixion, of course, but I found myself thinking of the death, destruction, and political upheaval that characterized the period in which most of the program’s composers were active. Was the emotional pain evident in vocal pieces like Samuel Capricornus’s setting of “O Traurigkeit” related to Capricornus’s experience of fleeing Bohemia at the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War? Or do such secular explanations indicate an unwillingness really to explore the content of religious belief and practice, figuring religion as significant only when resulting in sectarian political violence and not as something that might inform affect, action, and art in its own right?
This is easy to do, when European politics seems to have been so shaped by the considerable violence and instability of the seventeenth century: monarchs deposed and killed, new systems of international order formed. It’s easy to see how it is that so many historians of modern political thought are drawn to the Thirty Years War and the transition it marks (or so the traditional story goes) from sectarian religious divides to a pragmatic, “Enlightened” politics of European balance of power. In Steve Pincus’s highly successful retelling of Britain’s 1688 (the so-called “Glorious”) revolution, the choice of the Dutch prince William of Orange as monarch in preference to the Stuart king James II involved two competing visions of the modern British state and its relationship to its empire. In his discussions of James’s Catholicism versus William’s Protestantism, Pincus shows Catholic-Protestant, High Church-Low Church distinctions largely to be political labels; they map—perhaps a little too neatly—onto the Whig-Tory divide. Like the modernizing story about Westphalia, Pincus’s account of 1688 has more to do with polities—the alternative constitutions and philosophies of empire modeled by the Netherlands and France—than with cultural divides suggested by the differences in Catholic and Protestant belief and practice that had previously shaped England. It’s a compelling story, but it might miss out too much. It’s true that politics were entwined with the church: bishops could be elevated to positions of political authority, deviance from the established church had long been associated with political radicalism (Pincus pays little attention to the fact that republican Dissenters had, all too recently, actually killed a king), the head of the state and the head of the church were (and are still, in Britain) formally the same person. Taking religion seriously on its own terms doesn’t mean ignoring the Realpolitik ways in which the powerful maneuvered around it in order to stake their claims to governance. But it does mean, perhaps, moving away from a way of understanding European history in which the “modern,” pivoting on a series of crucial moments in the seventeenth century, can best be apprehended as a body of secularized political thought. Perhaps it also means apprehending that when James II proposed to re-Catholicize Britain, this was something that would have consequences for belief and practice (re-emphasizing the Mass, returning to non-vernacular worship) that were central to many people’s lives, powerful/educated and not.
In nineteenth-century Britain, it is more possible to speak of a politics not fundamentally intertwined with theology. But as biology, geology, and archaeology changed how people understood the Biblical past, debate raged about how to understand Darwin’s theory of evolution or whether the Bible could be read metaphorically and allegorically. On June 30, 1860, huge crowds turned out to watch “Darwin’s bulldog” T.H. Huxley debate evolution with the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, at the Natural History Museum. One member of the crowd may have been the undergraduate John Addington Symonds, whose letters are filled with commentary on how theological controversies of the period raged within Oxford. As he recalled in his autobiography, “Theology penetrated our intellectual and social atmosphere. We talked theology… wherever young men and their elders met together” (244). Years later, on holiday in France with his young family, Symonds experienced a nervous breakdown—what his friend and early biographer Horatio Brown termed “the crisis at Cannes,” and attributed to the catastrophic implications of Symonds’ loss of faith.
From the 1960s on, as Symonds has become recognized as a pioneer of homosexuality, scholars have taken a different tack: a man as ahead of his time as Symonds is not so likely to have been deeply shaken by loss of faith; the breakdown must have been a result of his struggle to repress his true sexual orientation. But is it so impossible to believe that a man who evidently thought deeply about theology, who wrote about the relationship between religion and science throughout his life, might have been paralyzed by the thought of a world without God? Is it so difficult for the historian to imagine how a change in formal patterns of worship (whether their sudden absence in Symonds’ life, or a shift from Protestantism to Catholicism brought on by a regime change) might have affected someone’s life as much, or more than, sex? Is it so strange that thinkers of the age of science and industry, grappling with radical new ideas, might also have asked questions that had troubled others for many centuries?
Belief is a tricky thing to grasp—it’s not always as well-documented on paper as the decisions of statecraft—but it’s important to try. For me, apprehending the complex relation of theology to more earthly matters, and the ways in which the formal rituals of religious observance can structure societies very differently to my own pluralist society of twenty-first-century Manhattan, flexes my muscles of historical empathy. But more importantly, it troubles the connection many of us instinctively draw between secularism and the modern west, and challenges us to think critically about the intersections of religion, politics, thought, and art in both the past and the present.