Review: God and the Natural World: Religion and Science in Antebellum America

God and the Natural World: Religion and Science in Antebellum America
God and the Natural World: Religion and Science in Antebellum America by Walter H. Conser Jr.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It seems that there are two errors you can make in discussing the relationship of Christianity and science. One is that they have always been at war. The second is that only recently have there been enlightened folk who saw the two in harmonious relationship.

This book is a valuable study of a number of nineteenth century American “mediation theologians” who believed it possible to construct a harmonious understanding of the relationship of Christianity and science. The “antebellum” focus of this work points up that with the advent of Darwin’s work, a new situation arose, one which, at least in this country we are still attempting to come to terms with.

Charles Hodge

Charles Hodge

Many of the names might be unfamiliar to us: Henry Boynton Smith, Union Seminary theology professor, Philip Schaff, the church historian, Charles Hodge, the Princeton theologian, James Henley Thornwell, a southern Presbyterian preacher, Edward Robinson, biblical scholar at Andover Seminary, W.G.T Shedd, a Calvinist theologian influenced by Romantic ideas, James Marsh, U of Vermont college president, and Horace Bushnell, pastor.

These figures engaged the challenges to religious authority arising from European biblical criticism, new philosophical approaches to historical study, discoveries in geology and other natural sciences, thinking about the nature of language and how this related to understanding scripture and how faith engaged social and political science, particularly with regard to America’s most pressing issue in this period, slavery.

Philip Schaff

Philip Schaff

There were several interesting threads I found in this work. One was the influence of European scholarship and Romantic ideas that opened the door to thinking about religion less in doctrinal terms and more in terms of lived experience. The second thread was the effort to find commonalities between theological and scientific methods, such as the focus in Hodges work on the common inductive character to both. A third interesting thread was romantic historical ideals and an optimism about the future, albeit generally a very Anglo-Saxon shaped future. This also is reflected in the very troubling engagement around the issue of slavery where theologians drawing on these sources reached very different conclusions (all of which had racist elements) that contributed to increasing the tension in the fault lines leading to the Civil War.

In Conser’s “Epilogue” he notes how the advent of Darwinism changed everything. It led to a different way of defining how science was done that was incompatible with the earlier understanding and to sharp distinctions between supernaturalist and positivist approaches. Even to this day, different models of origins in part reflect different philosophies of science that points up how important our definition of science is in these discussions. It was also striking to me that those more shaped by doctrinal considerations tended to be the forebears of the fundamentalists, whereas those more shaped by Coleridgean romanticism tended to be the progenitors of the modernists.

In summary, this was a valuable work for me in understanding “how we got here” in terms of some of the present challenges around science and faith and I find anticipated in these thinkers many of the formulations present day scholars are using, whether or not they are aware of their intellectual antecedents.

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2 thoughts on “Review: God and the Natural World: Religion and Science in Antebellum America

  1. Pingback: May 2014: The Month in Reviews « Bob on Books

  2. Pingback: A Reading List of Books on Science and Religion | Bob on Books

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