Fall 2018 · Vol. 47 No. 2 · pp. 287–289 

Book Review

The Soul of Doubt: The Religious Roots of Unbelief from Luther to Marx

Dominic Erdozain. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. 336 pages.

Reviewed by Vic Froese

Unlike many historians of the modern West, Dominic Erdozain believes that the modern world is the product of a centuries-long clash of Christian visions, not a war on them by scientific or neo-pagan unbelievers. He is not the first to make this kind of argument and acknowledges Charles Taylor’s significant contribution in A Secular Age (2007). However, whereas Taylor’s account of Christianity’s eclipse tends to privilege what Erdozain calls the “clean logic of ideas,” Erdozain’s attends to “the raw fuel of human experience” (5). The Soul of Doubt is a survey of the “inner history of alienation” (5) as experienced by particular human beings, making it a unique contribution to the story of the subversion of the post-Reformation Christian order and its transformation into enlightened modernity.

Erdozain’s survey walks readers through the writings of a significant sample of social and religious critics from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century. His thesis is that their criticisms were rooted in the conscience. A slippery concept, conscience was variously defined as “the supreme arbiter of moral truth” whose truths “were etched into the fabric of creation, hard and irreversible” (11), but also as “a divine force appraising the whole person” (12), “a vital ‘spark’ of divinity in an otherwise fallen {288} nature” (13), “the voice of God in the soul” (15), the divine seed in the hearts of everyone (66), and later thought to be synonymous with moral reason (121). It was this Christian conscience, “the enduring solvent of orthodoxy” (116), that condemned Christendom as unworthy of the name and ultimately cleared a path to the modern “secular” world. In Nietzsche’s succinct phrasing, which Erdozain cites with approval, what ultimately defeated the Christian God was Christian morality itself (220).

Erdozain begins his study with Martin Luther, the very model of obedience to conscience. He concisely narrates Luther’s migration from an impassioned defender of conscience to one of its fiercest enemies. This “unblushing contradiction” attended the birth of Luther’s reformation: his early defense of the inviolability of conscience—even that of heretics (19)—but his later reversal, advocating the violent suppression of those whose conscience led them into error and rebellion (viz., Anabaptists). Still, Luther played a pivotal role in unbridling and emboldening the conscientious dissenter. His bold claim that the authority of conscience is higher even than the authority of the church soon generated a “culture of dissent” (33), one that has, in various forms, been the fountainhead of Western social, political, and religious change ever since.

The many figures Erdozain treats include Thomas Müntzer, Hans Hut, Hans Denck, Sebastian Franck, all Luther supporters who later called him out for contorting the Scriptures to justify religious oppression. Franck lamented that the state of religion was so mean that not only Catholics but even evangelicals like Luther “call for beheadings, burnings, and hangings” (42). On another front, Sebastian Castellio struggled in vain to convince Calvin that “To kill a man is not to defend a doctrine. It is to kill a man” (57). Small wonder that many dissenters identified the main problems of the magisterial reformers as their idolization of doctrine, reducing “faith” to belief in a specific body of church teaching, and their readiness to put to death anyone who disputed its truth.

But Erdozain saves his most detailed expositions for Benedict Spinoza, Pierre Bayle, Voltaire, George Eliot, Ludwig Feuerbach, and Karl Marx, each of which expressed their criticisms in biblical if not pointedly Christian terms. Dutch philosopher and excommunicated Jew, Spinoza (d. 1677), suspected that dogma only served the purposes of the powerful, leading not to Christian love but to hatred, conflict, and anger at any who dared challenge it. Pierre Bayle (d. 1706), himself a French Calvinist, castigated Calvinism for championing a theology that failed to generate genuinely Christian virtues. The supposedly atheistic Voltaire (d. 1778) “invariably attacked [a Christian world] for failing to honor its principles” (166) and later devoted himself to a Christ who abhorred the murders performed in his name. Eliot (d. 1880), who left the Calvinist church {289} on account of its doctrines of total depravity and predestination, could still warmly praise any Christianity that lived up to its highest ideals (218). Feuerbach (d. 1872) found Protestantism guilty of rank idolatry in fashioning a God whose central concerns coincided exactly with the self-interest of its adherents. Karl Marx (d. 1883) followed suit and decried a Christian culture that replaced a merciful God of the downtrodden with the idols of self and property.

In these ways and others, the dissenting conscience subverted harsher forms of Christianity and promoted a more humane and religiously tolerant social order. On Erdozain’s telling, the faith rebuffed was predominantly Augustinian—fixated more on Christ’s passion than his resurrection, more on sin than forgiveness, more on God as judge than as father, more on hell than heaven (263-64). Its coziness with oppressive regimes exacerbated the alienation many already felt and loosened the ties of loyalty to that brand of faith. There is much cliché in this, but Erdozain’s copious documentation places a heavy burden of proof on those who would still argue that early modern Augustinian Christianity (and the social order it established) kept God’s love, mercy, and grace front and center.

Erdozain’s identification of the Christian conscience as the chief culprit in orthodoxy’s decline and modernity’s advance does, however, minimize the roles of other players in the drama: the growing independence and prestige of the natural sciences; advances in medicine, industry, and communication; archeological discoveries; exploration of distant lands; and political upheaval—all helped to muddy the once clear waters of social, religious, and political certainty. But as a corrective to the reductionism of many histories of modernity, The Soul of Doubt contributes solidly, adding much to our understanding of why an apparently thriving Christendom was transformed into secular modernity.

Anyone who has ever puzzled over that question will benefit from this book, which is also to be appreciated for its vivid prose. Erdozain has a flair for bold metaphors: The “acids in the gentle rhapsodies of the mystics . . . were Christian acids, raining on the paradox of violent faith” (68); Pierre Bayle’s “was a ministry of holy confusion unleashed in the name of health and humanity” (124); Eliot’s unbelief “knew what religion ought to look like. It retained a title of ownership even as it left the building” (264). Rarely has an academic history been so enlightening and such fun to read.

Vic Froese
Library Director
Canadian Mennonite University, Winnipeg, MB