“The Profession of Faith of a Savoyard Vicar” – Not Religion?

Illustration accompanying the “Profession of Faith of a Savoyard Vicar”
From an edition of Rousseau’s Emile (source)

Karen is, as always, pushing me to ask the right questions. Here I’m going to take up her challenge on the question of what religion is. Soon (but not too soon, alas) I’ll circle back and take up her question of whether a religious revival would be a necessary precondition of rebuilding moral consensus.

She thinks Romanticism is not a religion: “I take religion to mean not only reason and reasoning about experience, which to me seems like ideology, but also some sort of worship of a unified figure that adherents recognizes as somehow divine.”

It seems to me by this definition only the Abrahamic faiths unambiguously qualify as religions. It is unclear to me whether Hinduism passes this test, particularly as regards “unifying figure.” And if the status of Hinduism is in doubt, all the more doubtful would be the other, less developed forms of – I almost wrote “of polytheistic religion,” but then, by this definition polytheism is not necessarily a religion. And Buddhism in its more serious forms clearly does not qualify.

Consigned to the “irreligious” bin as well would be all those great deist, pantheist and generally unclassifiable thinkers who believed in the divine and organized their whole thought around it, yet did not “worship” it in any sense we would recognize. It is not clear how we could reinterpret the whole 18th century project of “natural religion” to fit this scheme – was it an ideology that falsely believed it was a religion? Nor could we make sense of the many people who have taken with utmost seriousness Socrates’ claim to be on a divine mission, and who have in general made a religion of philosophy. Here is Book III, Chapter 4 of Augustine’s Confessions:

Among such as these, in that unstable period of my life, I studied the books of eloquence, for it was in eloquence that I was eager to be eminent, though from a reprehensible and vainglorious motive, and a delight in human vanity. In the ordinary course of study I came upon a certain book of Cicero’s, whose language almost all admire, though not his heart. This particular book of his contains an exhortation to philosophy and was called Hortensius.Now it was this book which quite definitely changed my whole attitude and turned my prayers toward thee, O Lord, and gave me new hope and new desires. Suddenly every vain hope became worthless to me, and with an incredible warmth of heart I yearned for an immortality of wisdom and began now to arise that I might return to thee. It was not to sharpen my tongue further that I made use of that book. I was now nineteen; my father had been dead two years and my mother was providing the money for my study of rhetoric. What won me in it [i.e., the Hortensius] was not its style but its substance.

How ardent was I then, my God, how ardent to fly from earthly things to thee! Nor did I know how thou wast even then dealing with me. For with thee is wisdom. In Greek the love of wisdom is called “philosophy,” and it was with this love that that book inflamed me. There are some who seduce through philosophy, under a great, alluring, and honorable name, using it to color and adorn their own errors. And almost all who did this, in Cicero’s own time and earlier, are censored and pointed out in his book. In it there is also manifest that most salutary admonition of thy Spirit, spoken by thy good and pious servant: “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ: for in him all the fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily.” [Col. 2:8, 9] Since at that time, as thou knowest, O Light of my heart, the words of the apostle were unknown to me, I was delighted with Cicero’s exhortation, at least enough so that I was stimulated by it, and enkindled and inflamed to love, to seek, to obtain, to hold, and to embrace, not this or that sect, but wisdom itself, wherever it might be. Only this checked my ardor: that the name of Christ was not in it. For this name, by thy mercy, O Lord, this name of my Saviour thy Son, my tender heart had piously drunk in, deeply treasured even with my mother’s milk. And whatsoever was lacking that name, no matter how erudite, polished, and truthful, did not quite take complete hold of me.

Augustine’s response to the philosophy of Cicero is a religious experience. Admittedly he makes a connection to Christianity, but I don’t think that blunts the point. Having been trained to view Christ as the great authority of wisdom, he is not satisfied with Cicero but goes in search of wisdom from Christ. But he is not worshipping Christ, he is “worshipping” (if that’s the word) wisdom itself. This is exactly why his next stop after Cicero was to reject the Bible and fall in with the Manicheans. They were wisdom-worshippers but claimed to be offering the wisdom Christ taught.

With all this as background, I place before you the “Profession of Faith of a Savoyard Vicar,” the section of Rousseau’s Emile dealing with religion. This section was so central to the development of the Romantic movement that it was widely published and read as a stand-alone book. I believe, though I’m open to correction, that many more people read the “Profession” than read the Emile entire.

Romanticism was always a religious movement. It did not worship a divine being but it made claims about what is divine and how we know the divine, and inspired people to reorganize their lives around those claims.

The heart of Romanticism is precisely the claim that our own reason and experience put us immediately in touch with the divine, and nothing else does. For them, reason and experience are the divine.

C.S. Lewis used to quote someone who said that Romanticism is “spilled religion.” The “cup” from which it has been “spilled” is the formal elements of religion – especially the sociological ones (ritual and institutions). But spilled milk is still milk.

Speaking of sociology, here is another reason to broaden the category of religion. We come to this discussion not as detached and disinterested speculators, like Socrates and his disciples. We are socially engaged; we are interested parties who come to this question with a practical problem we are trying to solve. That has implications for how we define our terms.

If our goal is to figure out how moral consensus could be rebuilt among people of diverse religious belief and practice in our society, it seems to me we would be well advised to adopt a definition of “religion” that tracks with what our society would treat as a religion. The practical problem before us is that the nones are treated as having a right to live as nones – to live in accordance with what Karen calls their “ideology.” And I do not see how we can maintain religious freedom without granting that right. So isn’t their ideology a religion at least for our practical purposes, even if it might not be one for other purposes?

3 Thoughts.

  1. Greg, I need help on this. (Was going to include it in the post, but might be better worked out here.) When you say “If our goal is to figure out how moral consensus could be rebuilt among people of diverse religious belief and practice in our society, it seems to me we would be well advised to adopt a definition of “religion” that tracks with what our society would treat as a religion”, isn’t that question-begging? Aren’t we asking what IS religion, and therefore we can’t actually determine what it is that people treat as a religion without first defining it? Not sure if that’s what you mean here, though. Alternatively, if we’re simply asking what people treat as a religion, then it seems that when they identify themselves as “nones,” we would have to go with that definition–those who practice Romanticism or Utilitarianism are, by their own treatment of the matter, not practicing a religion.

    I suspect I didn’t understand you exactly…help!

    • Your question assumes there is one objectively right way to define what we mean by “religion.” But the meanings of words are dependent upon how they’re used in a community.

      Let’s say instead of religion we were discussing socialism. Professional economists use “socialism” to mean any system in which economic exchange is centrally controlled, but the public at large uses “socialism” only to refer to a relatively small subset of such systems; thus for example public schools are unquestionably a socialist system as economists define that term, yet none but the most militant Tea Partiers actually use that term to describe that system. Which definition of “socialism” is right? Both are right in the respective linguistic communities that use them. The average citizen who opposes the introduction of school choice yet denies that he is a socialist is correct in both opinions, because both are true if we use the definitions that prevail in his linguistic community. But the economist who classifies opposition to school choice as a socialist position in an academic paper is also correct.

      Have you ever read the first half of Peter Berger’s The Sacred Canopy? It will blow the top of your head off and you’ll never think about religion the same way again.

  2. Pingback: The Savoyard Vicar Can Have His Religion, but… | Hang Together

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