Following the Reformation, theology became less important than Protestant fervor, buoyed by “right belief.” Many of the early Protestants were called “Enthusiasts.” With Luther’s emphasis upon direct revelation from the Bible to the reader, without the requirement of a priestly mediary to interpret it, and with the emotional atmosphere of Protestantism, there developed in Protestantism the notion of “biblical inerrancy:” i.e., the notion that not only is the Bible inspired by God, but that its statements are to be taken literally as “The Truth.” Whereas Catholics tend to see the Bible stories as such, with truth beyond the mere words, Protestants focused on “Truth” revealed in the Bible, when “rightly understood.” Various interpretations of the Bible, taken as absolute, often became the basis of yet another Protestant faction. In short time this developed into Biblicism, or in effect, the worship of the Bible. For English speaking peoples, the King James Version for a long time was not only divinely authorized, but was itself literally “the Word of God.”
Rene Descartes, recognized as “the Father of Western Philosophy,” took the lead, paving the way for the Scientific Revolution. He also is credited as the father of analytical geometry. There could be no science without the tools of mathematics. Without mathematical developments, particularly those of Descartes, Newton would have no language to formulate his laws of motion. He also introduced the West to notions of human emotions, which gave rise in music to the Doctrine of Affections, i.e., the notion that music, its scales, its keys, and its melodic and harmonic elements, can evoke specific emotions. Whereas Medieval society had been oriented toward the Church, the Renaissance was discovering the power of the human spirit and of the mind. That was expressed by Descartes in the famous phrase, “I think, therefore I am.”
Descartes was no threat to Christianity, neither to Catholicism nor to any of the Protestant sects. Mathematics, seeming to be a purely intellectual activity and discipline, would hardly threaten Christian doctrine, whether Catholic or Protestant. Neither was Newtonian physics a threat as was Galileo. By Newton’s time, theconcept of the solar system was well established and accepted. Nor was he a threat to either the Catholic or the Protestant churches – not because he was openly compliant with either, but because he held his hereticall views secret; for example, he believed that the notion of the Trinity had corrupted the Church. In matters of physical bodies in motion, he revealed certain laws of motion which permitted humankind to work more effectively within that physical environment. But to newton’s world was a dualistic, part scientific and part the fanciful world offairies, goblins, devils, and angels. He was equally adaptable to object of experimentation and to divinations. These physical and spiritual worlds were entirely separate; the one did not affect the other. Christianity in all its forms was happy with Newton as they knew him. He laughed their Bible stories of creation, and of wondrous, supernatural works, unscathed.
Without the algebraic foundations built by Descartes, Newton’s development of calculus, necessary to express the laws of motion in mathematic terms, would have been impossible. Newton, although dependent upon the mathematical foundation built by Descartes nonetheless loathed him. At times he even refused to acknowledge the name of Descartes or his contributions. Newton was a strange admixture of great mathematical and scientific achievement, and, within his private world, of strange experiments in alchemy and crucibles. He was fiercely puritanical and utterly intolerant of those who disagreed with him. And yet, he also had a humble side, as expressed in his own assessment of his achievements: “I do not know how I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy, playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself, in now and then finding a smoother pebble or prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”
Unitarianism and Universalism arose in reaction to Protestant fervor and Biblicism, and to notions of the Trinity held by both Catholics and Protestants. In general, they would deny the “godhood” of Jesus, but would tend to see him as a great prophet of God. They also would likely see spirit as bound up with matter; a function of matter, rather each holding a separate domain.
Whereas, theology floundered in a dualistic Newtonian world, philosophy took the lead in the post-Protestant and post-Catholic Counter-Reformation era. Prior to the American constitutional convention in 1787, Kant published his Critique of Pure Reason in 1781. In it, he epitomized his philosophy: “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe . . . the starry heavens above and the moral law within.” Whereas the Newtonian system addressed bodies in motion within a great machine operating on cause and effect, and s into motion by a creator God, Kant addressed the moral duty of humankind, which also subsumed the freedom to act upon that duty. Knowledge of such a duty is not based upon any empirical knowledge, he held, but rather may come to humanity “a prior:” every person with the ability to think, thinks about things according to the natural structure of the mind. Such a notion was consistent with the notion of Natural Law, which was also consistent with Christian notions of being created in “the image of God” and living in a world called into being by God’s words, “Let there be…”
Kant’s philosophy went beyond rationality and empiricism to elevate the human spirit; so much so that nothing existed except that the mind first perceived it. For him, the mind had no limits. The human mind was, one might say, made in the image of the Absolute Mind. As God’s words, “Let there be . . . ,” had the power to call all physical existence into being, so, the human mind could call things into existence. Hegel’s great contribution to philosophy was his perception of the world as a dynamic process in which all is related. His dynamic view of the world has been reaffirmed repeatedly, notably in 20th century philosophy of Bergson, Whitehead, and, perhaps by a different route, Teilhard deChardin. For Hegel, moral right consisted in harmony between the individual will and the Universal Will. Therefore, good is the “realization of freedom, the absolute final purpose of the world,” and a concomitant moral duty to others. There were some dangers in Hegel’s philosophy in that, for example, Nazi Germany claimed it as inspiration for its Superman Theory; however, it also demonstrated the danger that arises from dualism.
The great utilitarian, Bentham, was a contemporary of Kant. The moral law for Kant looked beyond the utility of a moral act to obedience to the command of good will: good will for its own sake. A more modern expression of that principle is that of Gandhi: “The truth has its own reward.” Bentham, however, was seeking an objective measure of moral acts through utilitarian principles, governed by his maxim, “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as determine what we shall do.” In contrast to Kant’s notion of right action in good will for its own sake, Bentham argued the opposite: morality is directly dependent upon the consequences. Bentham was greatly influenced by the work of John Stuart Mill. He took that utilitarianism in new directions. He adopted the ancient epicurean notion that although man lives for pleasure and avoidance of pain, not every pleasure is desirable. Sometimes pleasure must be eschewed for a greater pleasure. For Bentham, such pleasures could include those of aesthetic, intellectual and imaginative achievements, and moral sentiments. He also taught that healthy pleasure extends beyond the individual: acts are good or right insofar as they produce happiness not only for the individual but also for the whole of society. In that way, he acknowledged our moral duty not only to ourselves but to society. In his philosophy there is a place for altruism.
Auguste Compte was also a contemporary of John Stuart Mill. He applied science to human society. In a time when Biblical criticism, i.e., a study of the texts of the Bible, their authenticity, their contexts and significance to the writer and the original audience, it may have seemed to some that sociology had become the new religion, stripped of super natural elements: “Just the facts, ma’am.” He saw no need for divine providence; rather, humankind is the measure of all that is. The progress of humanity would require a stable family. Its success would depend upon the cultivation of altruism and love.
Whereas other philosophers of the 19th century saw great hope for the advancement of humankind and of society, Friedrich Nietzsche prophesied the collapse of traditional values. When, at the end of the century, the world was wildly optimistic of mankind’s powers to regulate human conduct and to utilize the powers of nature in the interest of all, Nietzsche saw a world of power gone crazy: a world of competing politics and vicious war: “This world is the Will to Power – and nothing else.”
Despite Protestant zeal, intellectual society had passed from Newton, who saw a marvelous world constructed by God and set into motion, to agnosticism. With emphasis upon the material aspect of existence to the exclusion of the spiritual, it was natural, also, to exclude the idea of the ground of all spiritual being, God. And so, Nietzsche announced the death of God. Far from reveling in that prophecy, Nietzsche feared the consequences when humankind came fully to realize the implications of the death of God. If man is the measure of all that is, and if the value of life is of no greater significance than the biological processes composing it, then there is no purpose to life: hence, Nihilism.
In the late 19th century, Darwin applied scientific observation to life in the tropics. From those observations, he compared species, their similarities, their differences, and their habitats. He noticed that although the life forms may bear remarkable similarity, yet, there were certain characteristics of life in different habitats which seemed to make that habitat friendly to that particular life form and unfriendly to others the. From that, he developed the notion of evolution. Whereas the early 19th century philosophers were wor interest saying the powers of the individual, of the individual’s duty to society, and the power of society in the becoming of the world, at the end of the 19th century Darwin was applying science to life forms: biology. Darwin noted that, however life began, it clearly changed, or evolve, in response to environmental changes, or it died, as evidenced by fossils found in areas about the world that would be unfriendly to life found there today, such as great fish on the Nebraska Plains. It was clear to Darwin that life participates in its own development from its simple beginnings to the most complex of all creatures, the human being.
Protestantism, with its emphasis upon individualism, may have abandoned the stringency of Catholic creeds, but it replaced them with the demands of their own forms of orthodoxy, or “right belief.” Whereas Catholic emphasis on the individual within the Church, and Protestantism, in its various factions, came to emphasize in the 20th century, at least, the question, “Are you saved?” Among the intellectuals, by the end of the 19th century it was popularly believed that humanity was at the threshold of knowing all things. That which Kant might have seen as the ultimate creation of the mind, Auguste Compte might have seen as the triumph of social progress, and Darwin might have seen as the culmination of the evolutionary process, and Nietzsche anticipated as the ultimate end of the Will to Power: Nihilism.