On The French Revolution
Christian historians have noted the locus of Christian influence shifting geographically over time. What began in Jerusalem soon shifted east toward Antioch, then west toward Rome, and north into France and Germany – even as the cultures, beliefs, and practices of those local peoples influenced Christianity going forward.
What the French Revolution did was to – rather abruptly – shift the axis of import of the Christian faith away from Northern Europe and into North America. That the turning point was in this case a secular cataclysm rather than a doctrinal dispute points toward the shifting nature of Christianity itself, and the change that would be produced.
The shift was largely secular, and the trend was to be for secularization. The French Revolution occurred for blatantly political reasons: tensions between monarchy and nobility, authority and reason, and the economic clash between aristocrats and the rising bourgeoisie. It produced overtly secular results: national rather than individual or religious sovereignty, the ostensibly purely rational critique of all things, the self-sustaining properties of the natural, secular world and the assertion of self-evident rights of national citizens.
The advent of the Enlightenment was the advent of the flame of Reason in the western world.
Yet the secular revolution swiftly took on proportions that could only be called religious. It may have been a mistaken notion when Samuel Miller preached a hope that the French Revolution would kindle a general conflagration sent to illuminate the darkest corners of the earth, but it was an understandable notion nonetheless. The de-Christianizing zeal displayed in renaming Notre Dame the Temple of Reason and populating it with Greco-Roman motifs and other idols certainly sounds like religious devotion in retrospect.
The remaining Christians of the day would have done well to note that ideals without mediation of accountability or pragmatic applicability inflict casualties no matter their origin, as the indiscriminate violence, fanatical ideology, citizen armies, executions, terrorism, and propaganda of the French Revolution soon showed. Toynbee was right, then, to later characterize this convulsion not as the abandonment of religion but simply “the fanatical worship of collective human power.” With the French Revolution, the nation had claimed for itself the shared public space long claimed by Christianity, or at least by Christendom.
This then might mark the greatest impact of the Enlightenment on Christianity: its privatization. The countervailing forces to the French Revolution inevitably imbibed some of its most prevalent characteristics: religion retreated from the public, intellectual and academic spheres and became personal and evangelistic as the theological responses to Enlightenment claims came up short of their mark.
Thus, while one is certainly wise to note the vigorous apologetics and Catholic reconsiderations that the Enlightenment produced, these can hardly be said to be its most powerful contributions or reactions. Rather, revivals, evangelism, faith healing and mission all appealed to the emotional sides of human nature more than the rational. Schleiermacher carried pietist upbringing into his later theology and called for a sense of dependence upon God even as biblical higher criticism called into question many of the assumptions that interpreters of Scripture had always held.
Meanwhile, sectarian movements sought to leave the influence of the world behind, whether in Protestant form through the Christian Brethren or in Catholic form through the reverence of the otherworldly Virgin Mary.
In other words, Christianity had become a fire nicely adapted for the pistons of the energetically individualistic and Romantic engine that was to be America.