Who Killed God? (Christians, with the Ethics, in the Renaissance)

Like in the Clue movie, the culprits may be several.

CJ Green / 12.5.19

Currently reading and enjoying Alec Ryrie’s Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt. For anyone who likes the work of John Gray or Francis Spufford, this could be natural next steps, fitting snugly between those two, in terms of friendliness/approachability.

Cleverly, Ryrie introduces his concept as a whodunnit. If, as Nietzsche argued, God is dead, then who killed him, and when, and with what? Like in the Clue movie, the culprits may be several.

One trail Ryrie follows leads to Erasmus, in the Renaissance. Here, and in the era before, Christian scholars were enamored of the ancient classics. “Medieval theology’s central scholarly project,” Ryrie explains, “was to reconcile the Christian and Graeco-Roman intellectual legacies… So what we call the Renaissance began as an attempt to recover the eloquence of the age of Cicero, to scale once again the heights of Latin…in order to rebuild Rome’s glories” (31-32). It was here that ethics — principles of good behavior — rose up to overshadow theology.

[Christian] Renaissance scholars were keen to learn from the ancients’ exemplary lives as well as their exemplary Latin (indeed, they were convinced the two were connected). Surely — so the argument went — Christians should be spurred to new heights of righteousness by the shameful thought that these mere pagans had outstripped them in virtue? It was an innocent rhetorical ploy, its double edge quite unintended. Christianity was, in this view, simply the consummation of all that was best about ancient philosophy.

The greatest of the Renaissance’s house-trainers, the Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus, included in his Colloquies a self-styled Epicurean who claimed that ‘there are no people more Epicurean than godly Christians’: for Epicureans held that the purpose of human life is the pursuit of happiness, and as everyone knows, true happiness is found in virtue. It was an over-tidy view of Epicureanism — Lucretius’ work has rather more sex in it than Erasmus’ — but also a singular view of Christianity. Erasmus united Renaissance philosophy with his homeland’s tradition of practical devotion, and a dash of German mysticism, to conclude that the heart of Christianity was its ethics. Christian theology conventionally emphasizes that human sin is pervasive and that sinners must be saved by God’s grace. Erasmus, who was suspicious of too much theology, wanted his readers to strive not to be sinners at all. Christians had traditionally thrown themselves on Jesus Christ’s mercy, as their Saviour. Now they were being urged to imitate him, as their exemplar.

So far, this was no more than a shift of emphasis. Erasmus remained a faithful, if provocative, Catholic Christian. But the implications were unsettling. If Christianity was supremely about ethics, and if ancient pagans had been outstandingly virtuous, did that mean unbelievers could achieve true godliness? Christ might be the ideal example, but did that mean he was necessarily essential? Could reason and the God-given natural law implanted in every human soul not bring us to the same destination? (43)

For modern readers, similar questions might include: if I can be a good person by going to a city council meeting, or by reading the features in The New Republic, or by volunteering at a charity, why do I need Jesus? Why do I need Christianity at all? The answer would be, you don’t. You might credit Jesus as a model citizen, acknowledge his death as unfortunate for him, but it takes a sense of sin, and grace, to really feel a particular allegiance to the man and his mission. Ryrie argues that all this tee’d up much of the doubt ordinary people would begin sifting through in the centuries to follow.

Personally, I find here a good reminder of what Christianity is for. While you can’t escape ethics, and certainly Jesus had a lot to contribute there, good behavior was not the main thing he was offering.

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13 responses to “Who Killed God? (Christians, with the Ethics, in the Renaissance)”

  1. Bryan says:

    Evolution was a Red Herring!

  2. Seculosity for beginners – see Erasmus 🙂

    • Matt says:

      Reading Erasmus fells less Seculocity to me and more like a description of the theology of the current ‘evangelical’ church. “Erasmus, who was suspicious of too much theology” ha!

  3. David Zahl says:

    Wow, fascinating. I hereby claim your copy once you’re finished!

  4. RJ says:

    Great piece Ceej. I’m gonna order that book.

  5. Adam Morton says:

    Great stuff, CJ. Of course, Luther was in total agreement as to what Erasmus’ thinking really meant.

  6. Christina says:

    So it was Mustard in the Library with the Candlestick?

  7. Sam says:

    Christina it took me afew minutes to get it but it was Frenches in the seat of knowledge and enlightenment .
    Another great read CJ!

  8. Sarah says:

    “good behavior was not the main thing he was offering” remins me of Pete Holmes’ excellent rant at the beginning-ish of this: https://theliturgists.com/podcast/2019/9/19/pete-holmes-returns

  9. […] reality, unbelief comes easily and/or naturally. Ryrie collects stories of medieval doubt that, to me, at least, seem all too familiar. Despite the caricature of the […]

  10. […] Ryrie (professor at Durham) was releasing such a splendid book. Previously featured on the site here, here, here, and here, it’s fair to say this was a Mockingbird favorite over this past year. […]

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