A Brief History of Secular Thought

A brief history of secular thought from the Enlightenment to the present, looking at how it has been shaped by culture and events. We start in the Enlightenment with Voltaire, Edward Gibbon, David Hume, and Thomas Paine. Moving into the nineteenth century we look at literary influences like Percy Bysshe Shelley and Thomas Carlyle, then social critics like Ludwig Feuerbach and Karl Marx. Charles Darwin takes a central position in the nineteenth century, followed by expositors like Thomas Huxley and Herbert Spencer. And we conclude the nineteenth century with Friedrich Nietzsche and the death of God. We start the twentieth century with Sigmund Freud and Bertrand Russell and look at satirical writers at the turn of the century like like Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken. We conclude the twentieth century with Stephen Hawking and Carl Sagan and start off the twenty-first century with the New Atheists.

I’ve titled this episode “A Brief History of Secular Thought”, which is kind of funny because it’s one of the longest episodes I’ve done. But it’s brief relative to the potential scope of the subject matter. For example, Charles Taylor’s book on the subject, A Secular Age, is 896 pages. Tyler Roberts’ Teaching Company course, Skeptics and Believers, is 18.5 hours in length. So by comparison the following will be a brief history of secular thought.

Why study secular thought? Well for one thing it’s just interesting. But it’s also important for both secular and religious people to be familiar with it in order to understand the history of the ideas that they hold and respond to. One of the thinkers discussed in what follows, Friedrich Nietzsche, would employ in his philosophy what he called a “genealogy” of ideas. This kind of genealogy explores the history of certain ideas in order to see how they have been dependent on events and cultural conditions of that history. Genealogy reveals how ideas are not absolute but rather contingent; they have a history and could have developed differently than they did. In what follows one of the aims is to situate and contextualize secular thought.

In Charles Taylor’s book A Secular Age he introduced a number of terms and concepts that he used to study the development of secular thought. One of these concepts is the “subtraction story”. James K.A. Smith, in his commentary on Taylor’s book, defined subtraction stories as: “Accounts that explain ‘the secular’ as merely the subtraction of religious belief, as if the secular is what’s left over after we subtract superstition.” (How (Not) To Be Secular) In a subtraction story secular thought is decontextualized and we lose sight of its contingency as a cultural construct. In Taylor’s words subtraction stories are:

“Stories of modernity in general, and secularity in particular, which explain them by human beings having lost, or sloughed off, or liberated themselves from certain earlier, confining horizons, or illusions, or limitations of knowledge. What emerges from this process—modernity or secularity—is to be understood in terms of underlying features of human nature which were there all along, but had been impeded by what is now set aside.” (A Secular Age, 21)

A subtraction story of the secular might be something of this form: Humans used to have all kinds of superstitious beliefs because we didn’t have the scientific knowledge to understand how things really work. But with the rise of modern science we don’t need those superstitions anymore. We used to use religion to help us cope with the hardships of life. But our increased scientific knowledge has brought about technology that has made us wealthier and healthier in ways that religion never could. Now we can cast religion aside and see things as they really are and always were.

As an alternative to this Taylor spends his book arguing that the secular is constructed. It’s a cultural construct shaped by a contingent history of development.

“Against this kind of story, I will steadily be arguing that Western modernity, including its secularity, is the fruit of new inventions, newly constructed self-understandings and related practices, and can’t be explained in terms of perennial features of human life.” (ibid. 21)

By looking at secular thought as a cultural construct I think we’re doing something much more interesting than just a simple deconstruction or takedown of it. Sort of in the way people say that atheism is just another religion, which always strikes me as a bit of an unintentional self-own; I don’t like to use “religion” as a pejorative because I think religion is a good thing. I don’t think that seeing secular thought as a construct rather than in terms of a subtraction story discredits it. Instead I think it gives a fuller and more accurate picture of it. If secular thought as we have it today has been shaped by the contingent events of history we can go back through history and see those decisive points where the ideas we take for granted today started to develop. We can certainly do the same with religious thought, which is basically historical theology, and that is also a valuable exercise.

In what follows I’d like to discuss some of the major figures who shaped the development of secular thought. Two important questions leading into that are: (1) where to start and (2) who to include? Christopher Hitchens edited a volume called The Portable Atheist with writings from many such key figures. And I think his list was pretty good. His first selection is from Lucretius (99 BC – 55 BC). That’s definitely a solid pick but I’m going to narrow my focus to modernity, starting with the Enlightenment. On who to include I’ve focused on: (1) people who are generally considered important in this kind of history, (2) people whose ideas are still in the air today, even if we don’t always name them, and (3) people who were highly influential and popular in their day, who were bestsellers. I think this last point is important because cultural construction of a worldview, or what Taylor calls a “social imaginary”, is about more than just who can make the most logical or academically respectable argument. It’s also about influence. Who were people talking about in parlors and taverns? Today, who are people discussing in book clubs and on social media? Those are the people who are major culture shapers, regardless of their credentials.

It will help to do a quick overview first to see where all of this is going. So here’s a brief summary of the trajectory. Our starting point will be in the eighteenth century with the Enlightenment. Any starting point is arbitrary and there were definitely developments that led into this period. For example, there were important ideas from people like Spinoza, Bacon, and Hobbes. So it’s worth mentioning them in passing. Starting in the eighteenth century Voltaire and Denis Diderot were two important intellectuals, or philosophes, with a secularizing influence in France. In the English-speaking world important Enlightenment figures included David Hume, Edward Gibbon, and Thomas Paine. Thomas Paine is especially interesting because he had transnational influence in America, Great Britain, and France. All these men were quite characteristic of the eighteenth century. They tended to embrace deism which, while still technically theist, was moving far from orthodox Christian theism.

In the nineteenth century important intellectual and cultural developments included Romanticism, higher Biblical criticism, Hegelianism, socialism, and evolution. All of these had secularizing influences. Percy Bysshe Shelley was a poet and essayist who went beyond deism and promoted atheism in the strongest sense, both explicitly and figuratively, in his writing. Many nineteenth century thinkers like Feuerbach, Marx, and Nietzsche also embraced this strong form of atheism. Others like Thomas Carlyle represented and wrote for many in the nineteenth century who continued to hold on to some form of symbolic and experiential theism, even to Christianity if sufficiently reinterpreted. Ludwig Feuerbach and Karl Marx each gave accounts for religious belief grounded in naturalistic explanations. Naturalism then gained considerable support with the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Other thinkers following Darwin often referred to his work in support of their own ideas. Two prominent examples of this were Thomas Huxley and Herbert Spencer. Spencer not only promoted and popularized Darwin’s theories but also integrated them into a more comprehensive and total philosophy of progress that dominated the late nineteenth century and early twentieth. Friedrich Nietzsche took some of the boldest and most irreverent positions on atheism and Christianity, declaring the death of God and criticizing Christian morality itself.

In the early twentieth century secular thought and intellectual life more generally was dominated by the ideas of Sigmund Freud. Like Feuerbach and Marx, Freud developed fully naturalistic theories for the origins of religious belief. Freud’s psychoanalytic thought would be foundational in the development of continental philosophy. Around the same time another line of thought was developing in analytic philosophy, led by Bertrand Russell. Russell was a prolific writer and influential both among his technical and academic colleagues as well in the wider public. Public opinion was also heavily influenced by novelists and journalists like Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken. Where scientists and philosophers undermined religious foundations literary figures like Twain and Mencken were able to make it look ridiculous, perhaps an even more significant accomplishment. In the later twentieth century some of the most influential secular thinkers were scientists like Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking.

At the start of the twenty-first century the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 brought new attention to the dangers of religious fundamentalism and sparked a strong response among a group of writers known as the New Atheists. These included Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett.

That’s the overview. Now let’s go through all that again in more detail.

Voltaire, Diderot, Hume, Gibbon, and Paine were all men of the Enlightenment. All were critical of religion. But none was an atheist either, at least not in his own self understanding. They were Deists and proponents of “natural religion”. This natural religion is theistic but in a deistic conception God is remote and doesn’t intervene in human affairs with miracles and revelations. A deistic God is very different from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They admired Jesus, or at least Jesus as they understood him. Jesus was an ancient teacher of natural religion but his teachings had been overlaid with superstitious doctrinal accretions that became Christianity, something quite different from the real Jesus of history. An evocative illustration of this idea is Thomas Jefferson’s editing of the Bible in which he kept Jesus’ ethical teachings but cut out the miracles that later followers ascribed to him.

The stage had been set for the Enlightenment by many events including the Protestant Reformation and the wars of religion, like the great Thirty Years War. Religion, in the eyes of many, was becoming more of a problem than an unquestioned way of life. Another cataclysmic event that rocked Europe was the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755. Europe reacted viscerally to the devastation of this earthquake and traditional religious answers started to be unsatisfying. Philosopher Susan Neiman in her book Evil In Modern Thought argued that the Lisbon Earthquake was a foundational event in modern thought upon which many of the great developments of the next century would build. It was the kind of event after which nothing could ever be the same again, like the Holocaust in the twentieth, but maybe even more so in Neiman’s view.

Well reasoned religious explanations were not lacking. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz had developed an argument justifying God in light of the natural and human evils. Leibniz, one of the inventors of calculus and with a mind honed to think in terms of functions and optimizations, reasoned that the world that actually exists is the world that, out of all possible worlds, has the greatest amount of good over evil: the best of all possible worlds. Any other world that lacked some particular evil that we might want not to exist would, for various reasons unknown to us but known to God, have lower net good overall. And we’ve all probably read enough stories and seen enough movies to imagine how that might work, where something bad is later seen to have been somehow instrumental to the greater good in the long run. It’s a clever argument. But after Lisbon a lot of people weren’t convinced.

One man who was especially not convinced was Voltaire. Voltaire was a master of the pen and wildly popular. In Voltaire’s hand Leibniz became the foolish character Pangloss in the novel Candide. In the face of war, rape, murder, natural disasters, and other forms of suffering and injustice Pangloss always insists that such things happen for a reason, unlike the title character Candide who comes to see that the world often really is just cruel and arbitrary. For deists like Voltaire God is not expected to intervene in harsh realities of the world. God is more of a mathematician and physicist who sets things up with their initial conditions and then just lets the system evolve. If the system happens to have disasters like the Lisbon Earthquake, those aren’t part of any meaningful plan. They’re just meaningless outputs of the system.

Revelation had no place in natural theology. Instead the best way to understand God would be through the sciences. This was an age of massive scholarly studies. Denis Diderot launched his Encyclopédie, a great encyclopedia of all knowledge. Edward Gibbon produced his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. And Hume produced his Treatise of Human Nature and later the more refined and digestible Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. The great thinkers of the Enlightenment were daring to know, to use the words of another Enlightenment thinker, Immanuel Kant. They were amassing knowledge in all fields.

Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall covered the history of Rome from 180 AD with Marcus Aurelius to the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453. Gibbon’s project was to identify the cause of Rome’s decline and fall. And he proposed as an explanation that Rome had fallen because of Christianity. This was actually an argument that many pagans had made at the time of the fall of the Western empire in the 400s AD, which prompted Augustine of Hippo to write his City of God as a response. But unlike Augustine’s pagan opponents who attributed Rome’s misfortunes to abandonment by their gods Gibbon’s explanation was naturalistic and quite characteristic of modern history. Christianity had led to the decline of the Roman Empire because it weakened the traditional Roman social order and values. Christianity interrupted or ended important Roman economic institutions like slavery and trade. Roman soldiers lost their martial virtues and became more preoccupied with religious matters. And preoccupation with religious matters diverted Rome’s citizens from other intellectual and cultural pursuits. As with the Roman historian Tacitus writing about the Germanic barbarians, we might see in Gibbons’ writings about the Romans a critique of the society of his own day. If Christianity caused the decline and fall of Rome how might it be holding us back in our day?

Where Gibbon concerned himself with history David Hume worked in the space of ideas. Hume is one of my favorite philosophers and I really recommend reading his work, especially his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. I think most of the problems of the philosophy of science that we’re still grappling with all go back to Hume, in particular his problem of induction. He was the kind of thinker who would pause over the things we take for granted and ask, “Now how do we really know that?” And then after leaving us all sufficiently perplexed he’d go play a game of backgammon and not worry about it for several hours. On religion Hume was maybe the closest to an atheist among this group of Enlightenment thinkers since he criticized even the idea the universe had been set in motion at all by an intelligent being. His most important work on the subject is his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Here, in the mouths of his fictional characters, Hume pokes fun at the notion of a deistic God of supernatural intelligence, proposing instead some much less attractive possibilities.

“This world, for aught he knows, is very faulty and imperfect, compared to a superior standard; and was only the first rude essay of some infant deity, who afterwards abandoned it, ashamed of his lame performance: it is the work only of some dependent, inferior deity; and is the object of derision to his superiors: it is the production of old age and dotage in some superannuated deity; and ever since his death, has run on at adventures, from the first impulse and active force which it received from him.”

This is all delightfully sacrilegious and though Hume was naturally criticized by many people he also faced no real consequences and his wit and irreverence were no doubt celebrated by many other Enlightenment readers.

No treatment of the Enlightenment is complete in my opinion without touching on one of its most popular and towering figures across the Atlantic: the American pamphleteer Thomas Paine. His Common Sense is still read by school children today and was immensely influential among the American colonists. Just listen to these classic lines:

“We have it in our power to begin the world over again. A situation, similar to the present, hath not happened since the days of Noah until now. The birthday of a new world is at hand, and a race of men, perhaps as numerous as all Europe contains, are to receive their portion of freedom from the events of a few months.”

Paine was a hero not only to Americans but also to the French, having the distinction of being an influential pamphleteer in two great revolutions. Paine’s The Rights of Man was exceptionally popular among the French.

Relevant to our topic here, another of Paine’s great works was The Age of Reason. It’s something of a deist manifesto. It’s favorable to natural religion and a deistic understanding of God but very critical of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Some key passages:

“Every national church or religion has established itself by pretending some special mission from God, communicated to certain individuals. The Jews have their Moses; the Christians their Jesus Christ, their apostles and saints; and the Turks their Mahomet; as if the way to God was not open to every man alike… No one will deny or dispute the power of the Almighty to make such a communication if he pleases. But admitting, for the sake of a case, that something has been revealed to a certain person, and not revealed to any other person, it is revelation to that person only. When he tells it to a second person, a second to a third, a third to a fourth, and so on, it ceases to be a revelation to all those persons. It is revelation to the first person only, and hearsay to every other, and, consequently, they are not obliged to believe it… When Moses told the children of Israel that he received the two tables of the commandments from the hand of God, they were not obliged to believe him, because they had no other authority for it than his telling them so; and I have no other authority for it than some historian telling me so, the commandments carrying no internal evidence of divinity with them. They contain some good moral precepts such as any man qualified to be a lawgiver or a legislator could produce himself, without having recourse to supernatural intervention.”

This is very direct and bold stuff. And it’s characteristic of the Enlightenment or Age of Reason as Paine called it.

As we move into the eighteenth century the spirit of age starts to look different. On the one hand there was a reaction to the heady rationalism of the Enlightenment, a response that came to be known as Romanticism. And in some ways this constituted a return to spirituality of a sort. But it was very different from that of orthodox Christianity. Something more pantheistic like Hegel’s Geist, a spirit or mind present in the events of history. But secularism also started to become more blatant and atheistic.

Percy Bysshe Shelly was an interesting combination of the Romantic poet and blatant atheist. He was kicked out of Oxford after writing a pamphlet called “The Necessity of Atheism”. No deism here anymore. Shelly, one of the greatest poets in history, said that “Poets and philosophers are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” (A Defense of Poetry) This is an important theme that I’d like to stress and return to in this episode. I think Shelly was right on the money. Philosophers are maybe more acknowledged. But we sometimes forget about the influence of the poets, artists, comedians, and other entertainers. They have a lot of influence on how we think. Probably more than the academics. I think Shelly is also a good example of an important trend in the development of secular thought, and that is the self-image of a secular person. For Shelly to be an atheist was to be among an elite group of people who were more reflective and intelligent than most others. Consider the following passage from his essay “A Refutation of Deism”:

“That the frequency of a belief in God (for it is not universal) should be any argument in its

favour, none to whom the innumerable mistakes of men are familiar, will assert. It is among

men of genius and science that Atheism alone is found, but among these alone is cherished an

hostility to those errors, with which the illiterate and vulgar are infected. How small is the proportion of those who really believe in God, to the thousands who are prevented by their occupations from ever bestowing a serious thought upon the subject.”

Shelly has plenty of arguments in the essay but I think this passage, while not one of the arguments, is actually more effective than any of them.

Not everyone was as radical and celebratory as Shelley. Another literary figure significant in the development of secular thought was the essayist Thomas Carlyle. Charles Taylor, in his book chapter on nineteenth-century trajectories, used Carlyle as a representative for much of the social imaginary of that century. Taylor characterized the nineteenth century as one of a “cross-pressure” between the unviability of religion on the one hand and the seemingly unbearable emptiness of the void it left behind. People could not believe but neither could they bear the implications of unbelief.

“Thus for many whatever in the traditional faith went beyond or contradicted the notion of impersonal order was no longer believable; but at the same time, their sense of the weaknesses, ugliness, or evils of their age forbade them to accept the more reductive, scientistic or Utilitarian modes of order.” (A Secular Age, 377-378)

And to explore this he chose to look at Carlyle:

“A good reason for looking at the advance of unbelief in these terms is the influence and impact of Carlyle… In the 1830s and 40s, he was immensely popular. When I speak here of a vector of the advance of unbelief, I mean that Carlyle’s solution to cross-pressures which he was responding to provided the bridge by which many members of the elite public could distance themselves from their ancestral faith.”

“In giving Carlyle such a central role, I am deviating from what is often seen as the standard story of the Victorians’ loss of faith. Somewhat oversimplifying, this is thought to have been caused by the impact of Darwinian evolution, which is held so directly to have refuted the Bible. This created an agonizing conflict for many people of devout religious upbringing, which was in the end resolved by many, often with a poignant sense of loss, by the abandonment of their faith. There is some truth in this story, especially about the agonizing, and sense of loss (which seems to have been felt by Darwin himself). But it leaves out something crucial: that evolutionary theory didn’t emerge in a world where almost everyone still took the Bible story simply and literally; that among other things, this world was already strongly marked by the ideas of impersonal order, not to speak of the dark abyss of time; and that an influential formulation had already been given to the displacement of Christianity by a cosmic vision of impersonal order, that of Carlyle.” (ibid)

Carlyle himself said, “This is not a Religious age,” (Signs of the Times) but he was hardly pleased with that fact:

“To me the Universe was all void of Life, of Purpose, of Volition, even of Hostility; it was one huge, dead, im-measureable Steam-engine, rolling on, in its dead indifference, to grind me limb from limb. O the vast, Gloomy, solitary Golgotha, and Mill of Death.” (Sartor Resartus)

The machine was an important idea for Carlyle, one he saw as the biggest threat. He said in “Signs of the Times”:

“Were we required to characterise this age of ours by any single epithet, we should be tempted to call it, not an Heroical, Devotional, Philosophical, or Moral Age, but, above all others, the Mechanical Age.”

Carlyle bemoaned this fact but believed that most of his contemporaries viewed it with indifference.

“The singular conclusions at which Hume, setting out from their admitted premises, was arriving, brought this school into being; they let loose Instinct, as an undiscriminating ban-dog, to guard them against these conclusions; — they tugged lustily at the logical chain by which Hume was so coldly towing them and the world into bottomless abysses of Atheism and Fatalism. But the chain somehow snapped between them; and the issue has been that nobody now cares about either.” (Signs of the Times)

Nevertheless the influence and popularity of his writings would suggest that this was not entirely true and that he was giving voice to a general reaction that was anything but indifferent. Rather the toppling of traditional religion was a huge problem that needed to be solved. For Carlyle this looked something like an impersonal order. There was a need to “embody the divine Spirit of that Religion in a new Mythus, in a new vehicle and vesture, that our Souls, otherwise too like perishing, may live”. (Sartor Resartus) In Taylor’s view this kind of “not purely human spiritual force” had two important effects. One was to serve as a bridge by which people could “be both against Christianity and for it”. The other was to accustom people to start thinking in terms of impersonal order rather than personal order. Carlyle was not alone in this even if he is representative. Hegel would certainly be another important proponent of this notion, albeit in more complicated terms that were not so clearly impersonal.

The notion of impersonal general order is important because the nineteenth century gave rise to three major intellectual systems of impersonal order: Hegel’s Geist, Marx’s dialectical materialism, and Darwin’s evolution by natural selection. Secular thought in the nineteenth century moved away from deism but it did not jump straight to positivism; that idea from Auguste Comte would have to wait until the next century. Reality still had order and, significantly, direction. But it was impersonal.

I made an episode a couple years ago about how Hegel is much bigger and more interesting than the compressed picture we get through Marx. His Phenomenology of Geist is, in my interpretation, an epic-scale general study on how the mind comes to understand things. Nevertheless for present purposes of the history of secular thought it makes some sense to do violence to his work and view it through Marxism. The idea of Hegel’s that was most relevant to Marx was his theory of history which, far from being just one damned thing after another, was a rational progression. History and ideas develop together in a rational way such that, “What is real is rational, and what is rational is real.” Marx took this notion but then stood Hegel on his head so to speak. Whereas for Hegel the progress of history took place through ideas, for Marx history was emphatically material and especially economic. He took the notion of a dialectic – which would normally be something like a conversation, a dialogue, an exchange of ideas – and made it operate in economics. Later Marxists called this “dialectical materialism”.

For Marx economics was what really mattered. Everything else was “superstructure”. In Marx’s model society was composed of two major parts: base and superstructure. The base was all the modes of production and the superstructure was everything else like law, politics, art, philosophy, and religion. As he laid out in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859):

“In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely [the] relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure, and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political, and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness… The changes in the economic foundation lead, sooner or later, to the transformation of the whole, immense, superstructure. In studying such transformations, it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic, or philosophic—in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production.”

Note Marx’s comment that “one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself”. This is an extremely important idea and something we will also see in Nietzsche and Freud. Paul Ricoeur proposed that these three engaged in a “hermeneutic of suspicion”. This is a way of analyzing how the reasons that you think you have for believing something may not be your real reasons for it. For Marx if you are religious the reasons you have for being religious are not the reasons that you think they are. You are not religious for spiritual reasons but for economic reasons. The economic reasons for religion are, most importantly, the desperate conditions of poverty. Marx explained this in Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right:

“The criticism of religion is the prerequisite of all criticism… Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.”

“The opium of the people” is probably Marx’s most famous statement about religion. And it’s a good symbol summarizing his thoughts on the subject. Why do people need such an opium? Because of the suffering produced by their economic conditions. Religion gives an illusory reprieve but it doesn’t resolve the underlying conditions, which are economic. Religion is a problem for Marx precisely because it masks the underlying conditions. It needs to be swept away so that people can see their economic problems clearly and then act on them

Marx critiqued the ideas of many of contemporaries, taking resources from their ideas where he found use for them and pointing out where he thought they did not go far enough. One such thinker was Ludwig Feuerbach. I also did an episode on Feuerbach and his fascinating book The Essence of Christianity. One of Marx’s significant works is his brief Theses on Feuerbach, with eleven theses on Feuerbach’s thought. The eleventh and most important of these theses is: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” Marx and Feuerbach were both atheists and so Marx essentially agreed with that aspect of Feuerbach’s work. But he criticized Feuerbach for extending his analysis of Christianity only to its ideas rather than to its underlying material causes and for neglecting to promote any kind of action or response to it.

Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity is fascinating for all the reasons Marx disagreed with it. When reading Feuerbach I get the sense that he was someone who really understood Christianity well and thought seriously about it, even while rejecting it. Topics he addresses in his book include: sacred immanence, providence, metaethics, spiritual existence, the elevation of anthropology to theology, religious process, God the Father as understanding, Trinity as relation and self-consciousness, Christ as mediator, the Son as Word, the Son as Love, and the Incarnation as manifestation of God in man. These are all great theological topics but Marx wanted nothing of all that since these are matters of ideas rather than material realities. But there was one idea from Feuerbach that stood out and would have the most significance in the development of secular thought and this was Feuerbach’s concept of projection. This is the idea that humans project their own attributes onto God, basically creating God in their own image. He wrote:

“Man cannot get beyond his true nature. He may indeed by means of the imagination conceive individuals of another so-called higher kind, but he can never get loose from his species, his nature; the conditions of being, the positive final predicates which he gives to these other individuals, are always determinations or qualities drawn from his own nature—qualities in which he in truth only images and projects himself.”

We take the human attributes that we most admire and project them onto this being that we call God. Feuerbach finds this problematic and calls for people to stop doing it and instead to re-internalize the qualities that we project onto God and find them in ourselves. For one thing projection diminishes our self-regard: “To enrich God, man must become poor; that God may be all, man must be nothing.” And Feuerbach also thinks that our projected regard for God is completely misplaced: “All those dispositions which ought to be devoted to life, to man— all the best powers of humanity, are lavished on the being who wants nothing.”

There are two important ideas here in Feuerbach. The first is a secular account of the origin of God. And this is the process of projection, creating God in our image. The second is more of an ethical stance, that we ought not to be distracted by concern for supernatural matters in Heaven from the important issues of material and social realities. We should be thinking more about making the world a better place rather than thinking about God.

All this set the stage and prepared the intellectual environment for the most important of the three major intellectual systems of impersonal order: Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. Darwin’s work is principally scientific but that’s not the main aspect to look at for present purposes. For the subject of the development of secular thought the main issue is the intellectual implications of evolution by natural selection. What sorts of secondary ideas developed from the scientific work? Darwin himself was non-religious and his own scientific work did contribute to that. He wrote in a letter to Asa Gray:

“With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always painful to me.— I am bewildered.– I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I [should] wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed. On the other hand I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe & especially the nature of man, & to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance. Not that this notion at all satisfies me. I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton.— Let each man hope & believe what he can.”

Part of Darwin’s development of the theory included the study of Thomas Malthus, an economist who had observed that while population increases geometrically, food production increases only arithmetically (or at least it did at that time). The dismal conclusion from this is that there would always be unavoidable periodic famine and population reduction through starvation. With limited resources populations are necessarily limited. Some members of the population will survive and others will perish. And this brings up an important question: is the question of who will survive and who will perish random or are there factors that make the survival of some individuals more likely than others? And Darwin determined that it would not be random; that certain traits would be comparatively advantageous to survival. Thus natural selection depends on two important facts: (1) populations being limited and (2) diversity of traits within a species. 

The most careful expositors of Darwinian theory are diligent to remember that the process of natural selection is completely non-directional. Species are not evolving toward anything, to become stronger, faster, or more intelligent. Those things may happen but it’s not because of any teleology. There’s no right or wrong direction for evolution to go. And humans are no more evolved than bacteria. That’s when we’re being careful. But we’re often not. And it’s been very common in the wake of Darwin’s Origin of Species to think of evolution in terms of progress. And this was the mindset that dominated the intellectual environment of the nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Two of the most important expositors of Darwin and evolution were Thomas Huxley and Herbert Spencer. Thomas Huxley was a biologist who was a very public debater on behalf of Darwin’s theory. He came to be known as “Darwin’s Bulldog”. His debating opponents included prominent religious figures, like bishops and archbishops. One of his most famous debates was with Bishop Samuel Wilberforce in 1860. In the course of the debate Wilberforce asked whether it was through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed his descent from a monkey to which Huxley responded that he would not be ashamed to have a monkey for his ancestor, but he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used his great gifts to obscure the truth.

Herbert Spencer was a philosopher, scientist, and social reformer and one of the most famous intellectuals of the nineteenth century. Spencer took the science of Darwinism into new areas of social theory and politics. It was Herbert Spencer who first used the phrase “survival of the fittest”. This idea came to be understood not only as a description of natural processes but as a prescription for how things ought to be. Spencer had a comprehensive, “synthetic” philosophy that incorporated science and sociology into one great system. Characteristic of this synthesis were progress and perfection. He saw things progressing toward “the perfect man in the perfect society”. In his book Social Statics he advocated for laissez-faire policies and a kind of Larmarkian evolutionary idea that only by placing humans in strenuous laissez-faire conditions would they be able to adapt to those conditions and eventually reduce the need for government:

The philosophy of progress was extremely compelling and fashionable in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. It seemed that man truly had the means to bend nature and direct his own destiny. One manifestation of this was a view known as “Social Darwinism”, though it should be noted that neither Darwin nor Spencer called themselves social Darwinists. Social Darwinism was the idea that humanity could be improved through free competition and survival of the fittest. In particular it rejected the idea that charity and assistance to the impoverished are virtuous. Under social Darwinism such charity is actually harmful because it preserves habits and traits that prevent humanity from progressing. Instead the survival and growth of inferior persons and populations should not be enabled. They should be allowed to die out and diminish according to the natural course of things. Social Darwinism and Spencer’s writings were especially popular in the United States. This was also the age of large-scale colonization, which expanded the ideas of survival of the fittest to nations and races. Eugenics also naturally followed from all this as another project for the improvement of humanity.

In late nineteenth century and early twentieth century social Darwinism, imperialism, and eugenics were all intellectually respectable and reputable ideas. Eugenics especially was considered consummately scientific and progressive. Because of certain contingent historical circumstances and events these ideas happened to be associated with secular thought. Richard Hofstadter commented in his book Social Darwinism in American Thought about the unusual secular character of this kind of conservatism in America:

“Social Darwinism was certainly one of the leading strains in American conservative thought for more than a generation. But it lacked many of the signal characteristics of conservatism as it is usually found. A conservatism that appealed more to the secularist than the pious mentality, it was a conservatism almost without religion.” (Hofstadter, 7)

This association wasn’t absolute but there was a pattern. Things changed dramatically following World War II and these ideas quickly fell out of favor. Secular thought persisted and continued to develop, shedding its former associations with social Darwinism, imperialism, and eugenics. So the association of these ideas with secular thought was certainly nonessential. It was contingent and ultimately dispensable.

We can see an example of this older association in the 1914 textbook Civic Biology, written by George William Hunter. This was a widely used biology textbook in the early twentieth century and was the one famously used by John Scopes to teach evolution, for which he was prosecuted in the 1925 Scopes trial. Civic Biology divided humans up into five races and taught that “it is not unfair to ask if the health and vigor of the future generations of men and women on the earth might not be improved by applying to them the laws of selection.” It included the following passages:

“Parasitism and its Cost to Society. – Hundreds of families such as those described above exist today, spreading disease, immorality, and crime to all parts of this country. The cost to society of such families is very severe. Just as certain animals or plants become parasitic on other plants or animals, these families have become parasitic on society. They not only do harm to others by corrupting, stealing, or spreading disease, but they are actually protected and cared for by the state out of public money. Largely for them the poorhouse and the asylum exist. They take from society, but they give nothing in return. They are true parasites.”

“The Remedy. – If such people were lower animals, we would probably kill them off to prevent them from spreading. Humanity will not allow this, but we do have the remedy of separating the sexes in asylums or other places and in various ways preventing intermarriage and the possibilities of perpetuating such a low and degenerate race. Remedies of this sort have been tried successfully in Europe and are now meeting with some success in this country.” (Civic Biology, 263)

I don’t share these troubling passages to propose that evolution and secularism are of necessity linked to these kinds of views. Quite the opposite actually. They were associated at the time but these sorts of views have fallen out of favor even as secular thought persists, demonstrating that they are most certainly not inseparable. The Scopes trial was a watershed event in the development of public opinion toward evolution. That effect persisted even as the other troubling views in the text of Civic Biology were abandoned.

Another atheistic perspective in the later part of the nineteenth century was that of Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s contributions to the development of secular thought take a few forms. Most famously he proclaimed that “God is dead”. But in the context of his writing this proclamation was more cautionary than celebratory. Nietzsche was absolutely an atheist. But he didn’t expect that the death of God was unproblematic. The “God is dead” line comes from the following passage in The Gay Science:

“Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: ‘I seek God! I seek God!’—As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated?—Thus they yelled and laughed

“The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. ‘Whither is God?’ he cried; ‘I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.’”

“’How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us—for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.’”

“Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. ‘I have come too early,’ he said then; ‘my time is not yet.’”

You can get a sense here of Nietzsche’s wonderful writing style, which is both entertaining and provocative. The first thing I’d like to point out with this passage is the character of the crowd. They already didn’t believe in God. You can imagine this is how Nietzsche sees Europe. By saying “God is dead” Nietzsche wasn’t saying anything new. The people of Europe already no longer believed in God. The madman wasn’t announcing the fact that God was dead. What he was trying to get across to the people was that they had not yet comprehended what that meant. That the earth had been unchained from its sun. And I think that’s an interesting way to think about a certain stage along the development of secular thought. There’s the propositional assent to atheism. But that doesn’t necessarily include a full comprehension of what that means existentially. And Nietzsche is often considered one of the early precursors to twentieth century existentialism.

What else do we get from Nietzsche? He also has a very interesting critique of Christian morality. In his book On the Genealogy of Morality he characterizes Jewish and Christian morality as “slave morality”. In an older form of morality before Judaism and Christianity, among the aristocrats, the most important value distinctions were “good” and “bad”. Strength, power, and excellence were good. Weakness and failure were bad. In this aristocratic understanding of value, people who were weak and failures were not evil, they were just not the kinds of people you would want to be. You would want to be strong and successful. But eventually the weak were able to create a morality that reversed things. In a perversion of healthy values domination and strength came to be understood not just as bad but evil. And a person should feel guilty for them. It was better to be meek and humble. And here we see how Christian morality would figure into Nietzsche’s genealogy of morals. Christianity corrupted value by making excellence, what was actually good, seem evil. Furthermore Christianity esteemed attributes of human failure. As with Feuerbach we might say that Nietzsche got Christianity pretty much right. David Bentley Hart remarked that Nietzsche “had the good manners to despise Christianity, in large part, for what it actually was… on account of its enfeebling solicitude for the weak, the outcast, the infirm, and the diseased.” (Atheist Delusions, 6)

Along with Marx and Freud, Paul Ricoeur saw in Nietzsche a certain hermeneutic of suspicion and included him among the three great “masters of suspicion”. Nietzsche challenged conventional accounts of morality through his process of “genealogy”. Michel Foucault would later apply this kind of “genealogy” to ideas in the twentieth century. One of the effects of such a genealogy is to expose, similarly to other hermeneutics of suspicion, that the reasons you think you have for thinking a certain way are not the real reasons. A genealogy contextualizes our ideas in the process of history and exposes how they are contingent and might have been otherwise. And so they are not as self-evident and products of pure reasoning as we might have supposed.

The third of Ricoeur’s masters of suspicion was Sigmund Freud. And with Freud we move into the twentieth century. Freud’s hermeneutic of suspicion occurs in psychoanalysis in which a patient (or any person) has behaviors, fears, desires, or other impulses for reasons hidden to that person. They are hidden in the unconscious mind and need to be retrieved by the psychoanalyst to be properly treated. So again, the reasons you think you have for your ideas are not the real reasons for them. Freud’s psychology addressed the unconscious roots of many tendencies and impulses, including religious impulses. Freud addressed religion in his books: Totem and Taboo, Moses and Monotheism, and The Future of an Illusion.

In Totem and Taboo Freud theorized about the origins of religion in its most primitive social setting, in what he called the “primal horde”. Freud understood his own work as scientific and he based his theories on work of the anthropologists of his day, particularly studies indigenous Australians. He saw his own work as continuous with Darwin. A totem for Freud was a symbolic object or animal that is revered by a group. He understood the totem to be representative of the group’s primal father figure.

“Psychoanalysis has revealed to us that the totem animal is really a substitute for the father, and this really explains the contradiction that it is usually forbidden to kill the totem animal, that the killing of it results in a holiday and that the animal is killed and yet mourned. The ambivalent emotional attitude which to-day still marks the father complex in our children and so often continues into adult life also extended to the father substitute of the totem animal. But if we associate the translation of the totem as given by psychoanalysis, with the totem feast and the Darwinian hypothesis about the primal state of human society, a deeper understanding becomes possible and a hypothesis is offered which may seem fantastic but which has the advantage of establishing an unexpected unity among a series of hitherto separated phenomena.”

One thing to point out here, important to all of Freud’s works, is the Oedipus complex. The Oedipus Complex is a complex of emotions associated with a boy’s sexual desire for his mother and resentment toward his father. Oedipus, in Greek mythology and tragedy, killed his own father and married his mother. Hence the name. This is the “ambivalent emotional attitude which to-day still marks the father complex… extended to the father substitute of the totem animal.” Freud then asserted the following origin story of such a totem that would have taken place, perhaps in multiple occasions and places, among a primordial horde ruled over by an authoritarian father father figure:

“There is only a violent, jealous father who keeps all the females for himself and drives away the growing sons… One day the expelled brothers joined forces, slew and ate the father, and thus put an end to the father horde. Together they dared and accomplished what would have remained impossible for them singly… Of course these cannibalistic savages ate their victim. This violent primal father had surely been the envied and feared model for each of the brothers. Now they accomplished their identification with him by devouring him and each acquired a part of his strength. The totem feast, which is perhaps mankind’s first celebration, would be the repetition and commemoration of this memorable, criminal act with which so many things began, social organization, moral restrictions and religion.”

The sons killed and ate their father and took the females, their mothers; acts of murder, cannibalism, and incest. But after this act of patricide they felt intense guilt which worked itself out in the forms of rituals and taboos. Religion for Freud is itself a neurosis and he sees religious rituals as the same in essence as nervous tics and other compulsive habits associated with neurotic disorders. And in Freud’s psychology these are generally associated with some kind of repressed guilt or trauma. He sees religion as basically a large, group manifestation of the same thing. This primordial horde would have developed the trappings of religion as a way to deal with their simultaneous triumph and guilt:

“In order to find these results acceptable, quite aside from our supposition, we need only assume that the group of brothers banded together were dominated by the same contradictory feelings towards the father which we can demonstrate as the content of ambivalence of the father complex in all our children and in neurotics. They hated the father who stood so powerfully in the way of their sexual demands and their desire for power, but they also loved and admired him. After they had satisfied their hate by his removal and had carried out their wish for identification with him, the suppressed tender impulses had to assert themselves. This took place in the form of remorse, a sense of guilt was formed which coincided here with the remorse generally felt. The dead now became stronger than the living had been, even as we observe it to-day in the destinies of men. What the fathers’ presence had formerly prevented they themselves now prohibited in the psychic situation of ‘subsequent obedience’, which we know so well from psychoanalysis. They undid their deed by declaring that the killing of the father substitute, the totem, was not allowed, and renounced the fruits of their deed by denying themselves the liberated women. Thus they created the two fundamental taboos of totemism out of the sense of guilt of the son, and for this very reason these had to correspond with the two repressed wishes of the Oedipus complex. Whoever disobeyed became guilty of the two only crimes which troubled primitive society.”

Thus murder and incest became taboo and the primal father figure a totem, an object of worship.

Freud follows a similar path in Moses and Monotheism but this time with reference specifically to Israelite religion. Freud asserted that Moses was actually an Egyptian, originally a devotee of the Egyptian monotheistic religious experiment of Akhenaten. Moses led a revolt and liberated a band of fellow rebels whom he led out of Egypt. Moses was their political and religious leader but his religious rule was so demanding that the group revolted and killed him. So here we have another father figure as in Totem and Taboo and another instance of the Oedipus complex. The people felt remorse for what they had done and developed a system of belief in which Moses was the founder of their religion.

For us today Freud’s supposedly “historical” accounts seem rather fanciful. I don’t think anyone believes them even if Freud did. But what remains relevant are not the details but the overall interpretation of religion as neurosis and an instance of some kind of Oedipus complex. Today we might refer instead to something like religious scrupulosity. We still understand people to have motivations for religious practice and ritual that are rooted in psychologically unhealthy sources.

In The Future of an Illusion Freud looks forward to how religion might develop into the future as humanity becomes more advanced and, as he sees it, outgrows its need for religion. As in his subsequent book, Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud recognized that the aggregation of human beings, with all our destructive impulses, into the close quarters of a society requires repression of those impulses, which is also a source of frustration or discontent. Frustrating but necessary. For premodern, primitive humanity religion serves an important function, helping us deal with the discontent and guilt of social life by providing the illusion of a strong and loving protector and father figure. The father figure in The Future of an Illusion is much more exclusively positive than in his other two books on religion. The father is an object of love. We crave the comfort and security that a father could provide in childhood. The illusion of religion is that our wish for this father figure is actually true. Although Freud understands religion to have played an important role in humanity’s pre-modern immaturity he thinks that it is time to grow out of it.

“Our knowledge of the historical worth of certain religious doctrines increases our respect for them, but does not invalidate our proposal that they should cease to be put forward as the reasons for the precepts of civilization. On the contrary! Those historical residues have helped us to view religious teachings, as it were, as neurotic relics, and we may now argue that the time has probably come, as it does in an analytic treatment, for replacing the effects of repression by the results of the rational operation of the intellect.”

I think this is an idea that persists in secular thought. We don’t necessarily disparage our ancestors for their religious beliefs. Of course they needed them and didn’t know any better. But in our scientific and technological age we ought to move beyond religion.

Two important intellectual trends in the twentieth century were in continental philosophy and analytic philosophy. Freud’s influence has continued more in continental philosophy than in his own field of psychology. Prominent Freudians include Jacque Lacan, Gilles Deleuze, Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva, and Judith Butler. One of the founders of analytic philosophy was Bertrand Russell. Where Freud worked in the unobservable phenomena of the mind and relied on the narrative accounts of dreams and culture the analytic school valued empiricism and precision. One early form of this was Russell’s logical atomism, which aimed to break concepts down into their most basic components for the purposes of analysis.

Bertrand Russell was one of the most important and prolific philosophers of the early twentieth century and he wrote on a number of subjects, including religion. Through logical atomism he sought to eliminate ambiguity and the potential for obfuscation. Naturally when it came to religion Russell found its scriptures, doctrines, and rituals nonsensical. Later analytic philosophers like A.J. Ayer in the school of logical positivism would similarly call them “meaningless”. Like Freud, Russell believed that religion was something humanity had outgrown:

“We want to stand upon our own feet and look fair and square at the world—its good facts, its bad facts, its beauties, and its ugliness; see the world as it is, and be not afraid of it. Conquer the world by intelligence, and not merely by being slavishly subdued by the terror that comes from it. The whole conception of God is a conception derived from the ancient Oriental despotisms. It is a conception quite unworthy of free men.”

This passage is from the conclusion of Russell’s essay Why I Am Not a Christian. In the same text he argued against the merit of Jesus as a moral exemplar. To us today some of the most compelling arguments from this essay are likely the moral ones. For example, many have advanced a similar argument as the following:

“You find as you look around the world that every single bit of progress in humane feeling, every improvement in the criminal law, every step towards the diminution of war, every step towards better treatment of the coloured races, or every mitigation of slavery, every moral progress that there has been in the world, has been consistently opposed by the organised Churches of the world. I say quite deliberately that the Christian religion, as organised in its Churches, has been and still is the principal enemy of moral progress in the world… There are a great many ways in which at the present moment the Church, by its insistence upon what it chooses to call morality, inflicts upon all sorts of people undeserved and unnecessary suffering. And of course, as we know, it is in its major part an opponent still of progress and of improvement in all the ways that diminish suffering in the world, because it has chosen to label as morality a certain narrow set of rules of conduct which have nothing to do with human happiness; and when you say that this or that ought to be done because it would make for human happiness, they think that has nothing to do with the matter at all. ‘What has human happiness to do with morals? The object of morals is not to make people happy.’”

There are of course arguments against Russell’s point here but it certainly carries force. It also resonates with some of the most prominent religious-secular conflicts of the twenty-first century in which progressive secular values and traditional Christian values really are just contradictory, as with issues of abortion, sexuality, and gender.

One of Russell’s most famous illustrations is his teapot analogy. This comes from his article “Is There a God?” In this article Russell makes the case that the philosophic burden of proof rests on religious people who are making empirically unfalsifiable claims. He writes:

“Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.”

This analogy has been highly influential and the basic idea has taken on other forms. For example a common version today is the Flying Spaghetti Monster, sometimes seen as a car decal. The Flying Spaghetti Monster originated from a satirical open letter in 2005 demanding that science classrooms give equal time to the Flying Spaghetti Monster alongside intelligent design and evolution. Russell’s Teapot and the Flying Spaghetti Monster play an important role in the development of secular thought, which is to make religious belief seem ridiculous.

Making things look ridiculous has a celebrated history and there are a couple American examples worth mentioning from this time period in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century: Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken.

The novelist Mark Twain was especially well known for his wit, satire, and irreverent sense of humor. He had a number of memorable one-liners. For example: “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.” 

The most important example of a critique of religion in his fiction is in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn where Huck is deciding whether or not to turn in his traveling companion Jim, who is also a runaway slave. What’s important to the story is that Huck thinks that he’s supposed to turn in a runaway slave and that it’s what God wants him to do. (He wasn’t aware that Deuteronomy 23:15 says exactly the opposite). In fact Huck thinks that he’ll go to Hell if he doesn’t do it. So in his mind all the weight of religious authority is pushing him to betray his friend. But in an act of heroic defiance he refuses to do so and says, “All right then, I’ll go to hell”.

Twain also wrote essays criticizing religion. In his essay “Fables of Man” he invited readers to think how they would feel if anyone other than God created the world in the way that it is. He used the example the fly, if anyone other than God were to create a pest like the fly:

“Let us try to think the unthinkable: let us try to imagine a Man of a sort willing to invent the fly; that is to say, a man destitute of feeling; a man willing to wantonly torture and harass and persecute myriads of creatures who had never done him any harm and could not if they wanted to, and–the majority of them–poor dumb things not even aware of his existence. In a word, let us try to imagine a man with so singular and so lumbering a code of morals as this: that it is fair and right to send afflictions upon the just–upon the unoffending as well as upon the offending, without discrimination.”

Twain’s problem here with the state of nature is quite similar to Darwin’s problem with the Ichneumonidæ feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars. In Europe and Elsewhere he pointed out many instances in which the Bible has been the cause of evil and how humans have only progressed morally in cases where they have rejected it. He says:

“The Christian Bible is a drug store. Its contents remain the same; but the medical practice changes… The stock in the store was made up of about equal portions of baleful and debilitating poisons, and healing and comforting medicines; but the practice of the time confined the physician to the use of the former; by consequence, he could only damage his patient, and that is what he did.”

Twain admits that there is much in the Bible that is good. But people seem to know the difference between the good and the bad independently of the Bible. In fact, people are able to discern the difference between the good and the bad that is in the Bible. And happily, it has been by and large only the bad parts, so Twain believed, that people rejected as they have progressed morally:

“Is it not well worthy of note that of all the multitude of texts through which man has driven his annihilating pen he has never once made the mistake of obliterating a good and useful one? It does certainly seem to suggest that if man continues in the direction of enlightenment, his religious practice may, in the end, attain some semblance of human decency.”

Twain accused the churches of following rather than leading moral progress, usually after some period of opposing it. But then have the audacity to take credit for it:

“In all the ages the Roman Church has owned slaves, bought and sold slaves, authorized and encouraged her children to trade in them. Long after some Christian peoples had freed their slaves the Church still held on to hers… So unassailable was her position that in all the centuries she had no word to say against human slavery. Yet now at last, in our immediate day, we hear a Pope saying slave trading is wrong, and we see him sending an expedition to Africa to stop it. The texts remain: it is the practice that has changed. Why? Because the world has corrected the Bible. The Church never corrects it; and also never fails to drop in at the tail of the procession–and take the credit of the correction. As she will presently do in this instance.”

I include Twain in this history of secular thought precisely because he was not a philosopher or an academic but, like Shelley, an unacknowledged legislator who shaped the character of a nation through literature. Another man I’d include in this class is H.L. Mencken, a wildly popular journalist, essayist, and critic. Mencken had an acerbic wit that would be pitiful to fall victim to. Like Twain, he was also a master of turns of phrase. One of my favorites is: “Conscience is a mother-in-law whose visit never ends.” Another classic, this one on the subject of religion is: “Puritanism – The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” (A Mencken Chrestomathy, 624) 

In his essay “Memorial Service” Mencken paid mocking memorial to the numerous gods of ages past who are no longer worshiped:

“Where is the graveyard of dead gods? What lingering mourner waters their mounds? There was a time when Jupiter was the king of the gods, and any man who doubted his puissance was ipso facto a barbarian and an ignoramus. But where in all the world is there a man who worships Jupiter today? And who of Huitzilopochtli? In one year – and it is no more than five hundred years ago – 50,000 youths and maidens were slain in sacrifice to him. Today, if he is remembered at all, it is only by some vagrant savage in the depths of the Mexican forest.” 

Mencken then gave a long list of two columns with many other such deceased gods and concluded:

“Ask the rector to lend you any good book on comparative religion: you will find them all listed. They were gods of the highest dignity – gods of civilized peoples – worshipped and believed in by millions. All were omnipotent, omniscient and immortal. And all are dead.”

Richard Dawkins would later make a similar point to Mencken that, “We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.” (The God Delusion)

One event of particular importance where Mencken played a role was the Scopes Trial of 1925. As mentioned earlier, John Scopes was prosecuted for teaching evolution in school. It was arguably the trial of the century, a total media spectacle, and very public. In a sense there were two courts: the actual legal court and, more significantly, the court of public opinion. In the actual court of law Scopes was convicted for violating the law. But in the court of public opinion creationism suffered a disastrous defeat. And Mencken, writing at the time for the Baltimore Sun, played no small role in that. He delighted in lampooning the southern Christian fundamentalists of this Tennessee town. He famously quipped: “Heave an egg out of a Pullman window, and you will hit a fundamentalist anywhere in the United States.” He was especially merciless in his accounts of the prosecuting attorney William Jennings Bryan.

The Scopes trial reinforced an important perceived division between religion and science. One was legitimized at the expense of the other. And many of the scientists who were most well-known to the public reinforced this idea. In the later twentieth century two important publications that brought the latest developments of physics and cosmology to household libraries and television screens were Carl Sagan’s 1980 television series Cosmos and Stephen Hawking’s 1988 book A Brief History of Time. Sagan and Hawking were both scientists at the top of their fields but they were also public figures and household names. The combination of their legitimate expertise and communications skills meant that their opinions carried weight, not just in their scientific fields but in many subjects, including their views on religion.

Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time was a major bestseller, especially for a science book. When I was a kid a number of my friends and I had that book on our shelves. Hawking was a major role model. Religion didn’t feature heavily in that book other than the comment, “What need for a creator?” In the 2011 television series Curiosity he expressed quite genially that “We are each free to believe what we want” but also acknowledged, “It is my view that the simplest explanation is there is no God. No one created the universe and no one directs our fate.” Like Freud, he thought that belief in God made sense for premodern peoples but that it was something we can now move beyond: “Before we understand science, it is natural to believe that God created the universe. But now science offers a more convincing explanation.” Hawking suffered from a slow-progressing form of motor neurone disease and death was a constant prospect for him. Remaking on this he said in a 2011 interview with The Guardian: “I have lived with the prospect of an early death for the last 49 years. I’m not afraid of death, but I’m in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first… I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.” Although he was upfront and open about his atheism it was not a major topic for Hawking.

It was more of a topic for Sagan. Sagan was especially interested in critical thinking and the harms that follow from believing things without justification. Not just religion but all sorts of popular pseudoscience. This was the topic of his book The Demon-Haunted World, in which he assembled what he called a “baloney detection kit”. In that book Sagan adapted Russell’s teapot with his own story of a dragon in the garage. Someone tries to convince you that there’s a dragon in the garage but when you go to look at it you don’t see it. So they say it’s an invisible dragon. So you might spread flour on the floor to see its footprints. But the dragon floats in the air. What about an infrared camera to see the invisible fire? But the fire is heatless. Every proposal has some reason for why it will not work. Sagan concludes: “Now what’s the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all? If there’s no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists? Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true.”

Sagan was also invited to deliver the prestigious Gifford lectures in 1985 in Glasgow. The lectures were later published as The Varieties of Scientific Experience. The Gifford lectures are annual lectures on the topic of science and religion and this is Sagan’s most comprehensive treatment of the subject. Sagan’s lectures were very respectful but also pulled no punches. While reviewing a number of arguments for the existence of God he said the following on arguments from religious experiences:

“People have religious experiences. No question about it. They have them worldwide, and there are some interesting similarities in the religious experiences that are had worldwide. They are powerful, emotionally extremely convincing, and they often lead to people reforming their lives and doing good works, although the opposite also happens. Now, what about this? Well, I do not mean in any way to object to or deride religious experiences. But the question is, can any such experience provide other than anecdotal evidence of the existence of God or gods?… Large numbers of people can have experiences that can be profound and moving and still not correspond to anything like an exact sense of external reality… Every culture has things of this sort. That doesn’t mean that they all exist; it doesn’t mean that any of them exist.”

On the argument from design he made the following remark, quite similar to Hume’s:

“Why in any case is it necessary for God to intervene in human history, in human affairs, as almost every religion assumes happens? That God or the gods come down and tell humans, ‘No, don’t do that, do this, don’t forget this, don’t pray in this way, don’t worship anybody else, mutilate children as follow.’ Why is there such a long list of things that God tells people to do? Why didn’t God do it right in the first place? You start out the universe, you can do anything. You can see all the future consequences of your present action. You want a certain desired end. Why don’t you arrange it in the beginning? The intervention of God in human affairs speaks of incompetence.”

Although Hawking and Sagan were prominent faces of atheism at the end of the twentieth century neither made atheism a primary focus of their public engagement. This would not be the case for the new public faces of irreligion at the start of the twenty-first century. One of the most significant events in the development of secular thought in recent times was the catastrophic terrorist attack of September 11, 2001 perpetrated by Islamist extremists. The religious motivations for this attack provoked a strong secular response that came to be known as New Atheism. Four members of this movement were known as the “The Four Horsemen”: Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett. With the possible exception of Dennett the atheism of The Four Horsemen was front and center to their public engagement.

Sam Harris began writing The End of Faith shortly after the September 11th attacks. His other major book on the topic of religion was Letter to a Christian Nation. The September 11th attacks were an occasion to point out the violence that religious fundamentalism can provoke and is just one example in a long list of historical cases of such religiously inspired violence and atrocities. Harris made particular note of the complicity of religious moderates in all this. Far from excusing moderates or recommending a conversion from fundamentalism to more moderate forms of religion Harris argued that religious moderates, by taking certain texts and beliefs selectively or metaphorically, grant legitimacy to those texts and beliefs and enable those who take them literally and to extremist ends. Harris also criticized religion generally as fundamentally irrational and lacking in evidence. Science is a much more solid basis for our understanding of reality and even for moral decision making, as he argued in The Moral Landscape.

Biologist Richard Dawkins was already a popular writer on the topic of evolutionary biology prior to the New Atheist movement, having written books like The Selfish Gene, The Extended Phenotype, and The Ancestor’s Tale. As a writer on evolutionary biology his books naturally addressed creationism and intelligent design ideas, especially in books like The Blind Watchmaker and Climbing Mount Improbable. But he really became a major face for New Atheism with the 2006 publication of The God Delusion. The God Delusion was a major bestseller and attracted widespread response and discussion. In it Dawkins explained why, in his view, there is almost certainly no God. He included arguments from his field in evolutionary biology but also discussed religious violence and intolerance.

Christopher Hitchens was a prolific journalist and essayist, a staunch free-speech advocate, and opponent of religion. Hitchens called himself not only an atheist but an “antitheist”. He not only did not believe in God but thought that it would be a horrible thing if God actually did exist. He compared a universe with God to a cosmic North Korea. His major book on the topic and contribution to the New Atheist movement was God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Hitchens said that religion was “the main source of hatred in the world”. In the book he criticized Judaism, Christianity, and Islam but also Eastern religions like Buddhism. As with Mencken, to be on the receiving end of Hitchens’s attacks was brutal. Some of his targets were predictable, like Bill Clinton and Henry Kissinger. More surprising was his excoriating criticism of Mother Teresa.

Daniel Dennett was also numbered among the Four Horsemen but of the four he was probably the least like the others. Dennett is one world’s most prominent philosophers in the philosophy of mind. He’s certainly an atheist but it’s not as front and center to his work. In his book-length contribution to the New Atheist movement, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, he even called for world religions to be taught in school. Dennett is perhaps best known for his philosophical work on qualia: individual instances of subjective, conscious experience. In Consciousness Explained he develops a number of arguments to demonstrate how the way our minds work must be quite different from the way it seems to us. Dennett’s philosophy of mind, given its subject, naturally impinges on religious ideas of the soul. In Breaking the Spell Dennett proposed that religion should be thought of as a natural phenomenon and studied by scientists just as any other natural phenomenon.

Dennett and Dawkins have made frequent reference to each other’s work. Dennett has made philosophical use of Dawkins’s concept of memes, as developed in The Selfish Gene and Dawkins has praised Dennett’s 1995 book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, in particular his metaphor of skyhooks and cranes. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea is perhaps the most interesting and detailed study on the philosophical implications of Darwin’s work. Dennett refers to the concept of natural selection as a kind of “universal acid” that eats through everything it touches. He uses the metaphor of a skyhook for any kind of apparent intelligent design that seems to be suspended from the heavens, but that in fact is held up by a crane or series of cranes, and anchored securely to the ground. The core of Darwin’s dangerous idea, according to Dennett, is the algorithm; an automatic process that requires no intelligent direction. Dennett then shows instances where Darwinian algorithms dissolve apparent skyhooks in biology, mind, meaning, mathematics, and morality.

I remember that New Atheism was in full bloom when I was in my twenties. It also coincided with the rise of social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube, which enabled its diffusion. It seems to have tapered off somewhat since then for whatever reason. All of the Four Horsemen get a mention in this survey because, being quite recent, their influence on the development of secular thought still persists. My guess is that in a similar survey fifty years from now Dennett will be the only one discussed even though he was probably the least prominent of the New Atheists in its heyday. But I’d say his ideas are the most uniquely interesting and instrumentally useful in the service of secular thought.

So what do we make of all this? In going through this brief history I haven’t stopped to challenge any of these thinkers and their ideas. I’ve tried to present their ideas fairly and doing that properly means making it apparent why these ideas have been appealing and persuasive. That’s challenging because I don’t find their ideas personally persuasive. But I do find them interesting and important.

This is admittedly something of an exercise in genealogy, in the style of Nietzsche and Foucault, to show how secular ideas are not absolute but contingent, how they have been dependent on historical events and trends, and how things could have been otherwise. For example, secular thought today is usually aligned with progressive ideals of antiracism, protection of people with disabilities, and the interests of sexual minorities. But before World War II and the Nuremberg Trials the most secular and scientifically-educated people in society were moving in quite a different direction. I think Charles Taylor is correct that secular thought as we have it today is not merely what is left over when we chip away religion. Secular thought is a construct that has been created over time by people and events.

In a certain sense something being a social construct doesn’t really matter. Technology is a construct or a collection of very many constructs. But our devices still work. The scientific principles underlying our technologies are also constructs. And they still work. So does it matter? I think it does. Thomas Kuhn, with his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions did some excellent work situating and contextualizing scientific developments, showing how they also come about in very circuitous paths with many discarded theories that were once the best theories available. It’s good to know about all that when we think about the future of science and technology. It will likely go in some very unpredicted directions.

Still, with religion and secular thought there are some big either-or questions. Does God exist or not? Was Jesus resurrected or not? At the end of the day between Christians and atheists someone is right and someone is wrong. A genealogy of secular thought doesn’t resolve such questions. But one thing it can do is reveal how certain perspectives can seem more or less compelling because of contingent historical developments. In other words, if certain religious positions seem more problematic and certain secular positions seem stronger than they otherwise would, that’s useful to understand. It helps us to think what is usually unthought. Charles Taylor borrows the term “unthought” from Foucault to refer to all the presuppositions underlying our understanding of religion and secularization that we aren’t even aware that we hold. By bringing the unthought into our conscious thought we should be able to think about things more comprehensively and reflectively.

With this in mind consider two issues that are seemingly problematic for religion: science and religion and the problem of evil.

In Western modernity Judaism and Christianity have been thought to be in conflict with the sciences. And the sciences are so manifestly successful that religion would be at a clear disadvantage. At best, religion could hold to some kind of “God of the gaps” whose domain progressively shrinks as science explains away more and more religious ideas. Natural phenomena like earthquakes and lightning no longer need divine explanations. And our creation myths don’t stand up to geological and fossil evidence. But is this apparent conflict essential or accidental? It’s quite fascinating and often surprising to read premodern Jewish and Christian texts. The authors of the Talmud and the Early Church Fathers were not at all unfamiliar with the internal tensions of the sacred texts or of passages that they could not take literally. They were quite aware of them and wrote extensively about them. Philo of Alexandria (Jewish) and Origen of Alexandria (Christian) are two of the most famous expositors of allegorical interpretation in antiquity. Additionally, in modernity where we make a sharp distinction between the natural and the supernatural, with God operating as something separate from nature, in the Middle Ages educated Christians like Thomas Aquinas understood that distinction to be much less absolute. In their understanding the supernatural always already infuses the natural world, as has been written about by Fergus Kerr (After Aquinas, 2002) and Tyler Roberts (Skeptics and Believers, 2009). Both the premodern comfort with allegorical interpretation and the metaphysical understanding of the natural being infused with the supernatural would make the relationship between science and religion look quite different than the relationship that developed between the two in modernity. David Bentley Hart has even suggested that: “In the ancient or mediaeval worlds, the idea of the evolution of species would not necessarily have posed a very great intellectual challenge for the educated classes, at least not on religious grounds… It would not have been drastically difficult for philosophers or theologians to come to see such evolution as the natural unfolding of the rational principles of creation into forms primordially enfolded within the indwelling rational order of things.” (The Experience God, 62) It was by no means inevitable or necessary that the developments of geology and evolutionary biology would come into conflict with religious beliefs. It just happened to work out that way given the particular intellectual and religious milieux of the time. That’s useful to think about, both for secular and religious people. As Christians we would do well to familiarize ourselves with early thinkers in our tradition to find perspectives that are surprisingly much more unproblematically accommodating to modern science.

The problem of evil is an even more interesting one I think. And if Susan Neiman is correct this is the most salient issue in modernity and for the whole human condition really. How are we to come to terms with God if his creation has so much evil and suffering? The Lisbon Earthquake and the Holocaust are the two major examples of disruptive disasters in modernity. With the problem of evil I actually don’t think there’s ever been any historical period where such disasters would be religiously unproblematic. Disasters of a certain scale and degree always induce religious disruption and crisis. But what’s interesting is that in the case of Judaism especially, and in Christianity by extension, response to this kind of disruption is actually part of the religion. One of the most important events in the Bible is the conquest of Jerusalem and the captivity of the Judeans by the Neo-Babylonian Empire. This dramatically transformed the Judeans as a people. Judaism took another dramatic turn again after the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans, leading to what would become Rabbinic Judaism. And the Holocaust itself induced major reflection and changes in Judaism, as in the work of people like Richard Rubenstein, Emil Fackenheim, Elie Weisel, Irving Greenberg, and Eugene Borowitz. The Hebrew Bible also contains responses and laments to the problems of evil. Most obvious is the Book of Job. Much of the Bible’s Wisdom literature as found in Job, the Psalms, and Ecclesiastes, is testament to the troubled yet creative religious response to suffering. It doesn’t seem like there’s any expectation from God in scripture that we are to be unmoved and untroubled by the evil present in his creation.

Both secular thought and the religions of Judaism and Christianity are part of history and Western heritage. It’s valuable to be familiar with all of it. The history of all these traditions could have taken different paths. But regardless, the traditions as we have them make up who we are and how we think.

Introduction to the Early Church Fathers

An introduction to eight of the Early Church Fathers: Clement, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen of Alexandria. Important witnesses to the Christian faith in its earliest days who everyone should know about.


With this episode I’d like to give a brief introduction to eight of the Early Church Fathers. This is a subject that interests me immensely and one that occupies much of my personal study. I’m fascinated by the lives and writings of these men. But I don’t find that they are especially well known. So I’d like to introduce them here. It’s an introduction in two ways. First, I won’t be going into much depth this time around. And second, I’m just focusing on some the earliest of the Church Fathers from the second century. Maybe later I’ll go into more depth on these eight and also introduce later Church Fathers. 

One of the things I focus on in my study of these men is how they faithfully transmitted and carried on the teachings that had been handed down to them by Jesus and his Apostles. They were immersed in the scriptures: the Hebrew Bible, the epistles of the Apostles, and the Gospels. They maintained continuity of the faith. And their writings were fresh and vibrant. They didn’t always have the systematic rigor of later Church Fathers, but they were steeped in the life of the faith and you can see it in their lives and in their writings.

The eight Church Fathers who I want to introduce today are: 

Clement of Rome (c. 35 – c. 99)
Ignatius of Antioch (c. 35 – c. 110)
Polycarp of Smyrna (c. 69 – c. 155)
Justin Martyr (c. 100 – c. 165)
Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 130 – c. 202)
Tertullian of Carthage (c. 155 – c. 222)
Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 – c. 215)
Origen of Alexandria (c. 185 – c. 254)

All or most of their dates are “circa” or approximate.

First, let’s situate them in the history and timeline of early Christianity. Jesus’s ministry was in the 30s. And our earliest Christian writings are Paul’s letters; to the Galatians, Thessalonians, Corinthians, Romans, Philippians, etc. These date around the 50s and 60s. The four Gospels were written in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. At that point we start to transition and overlap with the period of these Early Church Fathers of the next generation.

Those of the generation immediately following the Apostles are known as the “Apostolic Fathers” because of their contact with the Apostles of Jesus. These include Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, and Polycarp of Smyrna. According to tradition, Clement was consecrated by Peter and Ignatius and Polycarp were disciples of John. These three left important epistles to the churches of their day and were active at the end of the first century and beginning of the second century.

The generations just after these Apostolic Fathers included Justin Martyr, Irenaeus of Lyons, Tertullian of Carthage, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen of Alexandria. These men were active in the later second century. And their writings tend to be works of apologetics, reasoned defenses of the Christian faith.

Clement of Rome (c. 35 – c. 99)

The Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians is the earliest of the writings we have from one of the Church Fathers. Clement is also known as Pope Clement I since he was bishop of Rome from 88 to 99 AD. His most important contribution to Church history is his Epistle to the Corinthians, sometimes called 1 Clement. It was probably written sometime in the 90s.

Funny enough, the situation that called for the letter to be written was quite similar to the situations that called for Paul to write 1st and 2nd Corinthians: community strife. In the case of 1 Clement the specific issue was that members of the Corinthian congregation were trying to depose their bishop. The letter is quite long and before even addressing the issue of the attempted deposition of these Corinthian bishops Clement recounts a history of Israel in which he creatively highlights examples of humility and envy, attributes he later uses as examples for the case he is addressing.

“Our Apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of bishop. For this reason, therefore, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have already been mentioned, and afterwards added the further provision that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry. As for these, then, who were appointed by them, or who were afterwards appointed by other illustrious men with the consent of the whole Church, and who have ministered to the flock of Christ without blame, humbly, peaceably and with dignity, and who have for many years received the commendations of all, we consider it unjust that they be removed from the ministry.” (1 Clement 44:1-3)

Clement traces the authority to appoint bishops back to the Apostles and to Jesus. It’s not a matter of popularity or something that can be arbitrarily changed. These offices are managed through the church hierarchy established with Jesus and the Apostles.

In addition to that specific issue, the letter is also valuable for its doctrine and Gospel teaching. A few highlights:

“Let us fix our gaze on the blood of Christ and know how precious it is to His Father, because it was poured out for our salvation and brought the grace of repentance to the whole world. Let us look back over all the generations, and let us learn that in generation after generation the Master has given a place of repentance to all those who have the will to turn to Him.” (1 Clement 7:4-5)

“Let us consider, beloved, how the Master is continually proving to us that there will be a future resurrection, of which He has made the Lord Jesus Christ the firstling, by raising Him from the dead. Let us look, beloved, at the resurrection which is taking place seasonally. Day and night make known the resurrection to us. The night sleeps, the day arises. Consider the plants that grow. How and in what manner does the sowing take place? The sower went forth and cast each of the seeds onto the ground; and they fall to the ground, parched and bare, where they decay. Then from their decay the greatness of the Master’s providence raises them up, and from the one grain more grow, and bring forth fruit.” (1 Clement 24:1-5)

“We, therefore, who have been called by His will in Christ Jesus, are not justified by ourselves, neither by our wisdom or understanding or piety, nor by the works we have wrought in holiness of heart, but by the faith by which almighty God has justified all men from the beginning: To whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.  What, then, shall we do, brethren? Shall we cease from good works, and shall we put an end to love? May the Master forbid that such should ever happen among us; rather, let us be eager to perform every good work earnestly and willingly.” (1 Clement 32:4 – 33:1)

Good stuff. Good Christian teaching. And definitely worth reading.

Ignatius of Antioch (c. 35 – c. 110)

Ignatius is a personal hero of mine and an inspiration, as he was to the Christians of his day. Ignatius was so prominent because died. He died a martyr’s death and he knew he was going to be martyred when he wrote the letters that we have from him. We have seven of these letters:

The Epistle to the Ephesians
The Epistle to the Magnesians
The Epistle to the Trallians
The Epistle to the Romans
The Epistle to the Philadelphians
The Epistle to the Smyrnaeans
The Epistle to Polycarp, a bishop of Smyrna

Ignatius addressed many issues with the communities he wrote to. And again, because he wrote these letters while traveling, being taken with his full knowledge, to Rome to be fed to the wild beasts, his counsels and teachings carried a lot of weight. They still do as I see it.

One of the issues he addressed was, like Clement, dissension and opposition to church leaders. It’s important to note that in these days being a church leader was not a cushy job. And Ignatius was the perfect example of this. As a bishop he was on the front lines during persecution and a prime target for execution. Church leaders sacrificed for their faith in Christ, often with their very lives.

His Epistle to the Romans is famous for his anticipation of his death by wild beasts. It seems quite morbid and I suppose it is. But nonetheless remarkable and heroic.

“I write to the Churches, and impress on them all, that I shall willingly die for God, unless you hinder me. I beseech of you not to show an unseasonable good-will towards me. Allow me to become food for the wild beasts, through whose instrumentality it will be granted me to attain to God. I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ. Rather entice the wild beasts, that they may become my tomb, and may leave nothing of my body; so that when I have fallen asleep, I may be no trouble to any one. Then shall I truly be a disciple of Christ, when the world shall not see so much as my body.” (Epistle to the Romans, Chapter 4)

“From Syria even unto Rome I fight with beasts, both by land and sea, both by night and day, being bound to ten leopards, I mean a band of soldiers, who, even when they receive benefits, show themselves all the worse. But I am the more instructed by their injuries [to act as a disciple of Christ]; yet am I not thereby justified. 1 Corinthians 4:4 May I enjoy the wild beasts that are prepared for me; and I pray they may be found eager to rush upon me, which also I will entice to devour me speedily, and not deal with me as with some, whom, out of fear, they have not touched. But if they be unwilling to assail me, I will compel them to do so. Pardon me [in this]: I know what is for my benefit. Now I begin to be a disciple. And let no one, of things visible or invisible, envy me that I should attain to Jesus Christ. Let fire and the cross; let the crowds of wild beasts; let tearings, breakings, and dislocations of bones; let cutting off of members; let shatterings of the whole body; and let all the dreadful torments of the devil come upon me: only let me attain to Jesus Christ.” (Epistle to the Romans, Chapter 5)

He considered this martyrdom the ultimate witness of his life for Christ.

In addition to his counsel to submit to the authority of the bishop and his anticipated martyrdom, Ignatius taught important doctrines regarding the nature and person of Jesus Christ. Some examples:

“There is one Physician, who is both flesh and spirit, born and not born, who is God in man, true life in death, both from Mary and from God, first able to suffer and then unable to suffer, Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Letter to the Ephesians 7:2)

“He underwent all these sufferings for us, so that we might be saved; and He truly suffered, just as He truly raised Himself, not as some unbelievers contend, when they say that His passion was merely in appearance. It is they who exist only in appearance; and as their notion, so shall it happen to them: they will be bodiless and ghost-like shapes. I know and believe that He was in the flesh even after the resurrection. And when He came to those with Peter He said to them: ‘Here, now, touch Me, and see that I am not a bodiless ghost.’ Immediately they touched Him and, because of the merging of His flesh and spirit, they believed. For the same reason they despised death and in fact were proven superior to death. After His resurrection He ate and drank with them as a being of flesh, although He was united in spirit to the Father.” (Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 2:1-3)

Here Ignatius is speaking against the heresy of docetism, which was the teaching that Christ’s body was not human but either a phantasm or of real but celestial substance, and that therefore his sufferings were only apparent.

One more I’ll share from the Epistle to Polycarp:

“Become more diligent than you are. Observe well the times. Look for Him that is above seasons, timeless; invisible, yet, for our sakes, becoming visible; who cannot be touched; who cannot suffer, yet, for our sakes, accepted suffering, and who on our account endured everything.” (Letter to Polycarp 3:2)

Polycarp of Smyrna (c. 69 – c. 155)

Polycarp was also a great martyr for the Church. We have some of his writing in his Epistle to the Philippians. And he is also known through a document about his death called the Martyrdom of Polycarp. The account is quite miraculous and dramatic. I’ll share part of it:

“And he, placing his hands behind him, and being bound like a distinguished ram [taken] out of a great flock for sacrifice, and prepared to be an acceptable burnt-offering unto God, looked up to heaven, and said,”

“‘O Lord God Almighty, the Father of your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, by whom we have received the knowledge of You, the God of angels and powers, and of every creature, and of the whole race of the righteous who live before you, I give You thanks that You have counted me, worthy of this day and this hour, that I should have a part in the number of Your martyrs, in the cup of your Christ, to the resurrection of eternal life, both of soul and body, through the incorruption [imparted] by the Holy Ghost. Among whom may I be accepted this day before You as a fat and acceptable sacrifice, according as You, the ever-truthful God, have foreordained, have revealed beforehand to me, and now have fulfilled. Wherefore also I praise You for all things, I bless You, I glorify You, along with the everlasting and heavenly Jesus Christ, Your beloved Son, with whom, to You, and the Holy Ghost, be glory both now and to all coming ages. Amen.’”

“When he had pronounced this amen, and so finished his prayer, those who were appointed for the purpose kindled the fire. And as the flame blazed forth in great fury, we, to whom it was given to witness it, beheld a great miracle, and have been preserved that we might report to others what then took place. For the fire, shaping itself into the form of an arch, like the sail of a ship when filled with the wind, encompassed as by a circle the body of the martyr. And he appeared within not like flesh which is burnt, but as bread that is baked, or as gold and silver glowing in a furnace. Moreover, we perceived such a sweet odour [coming from the pile], as if frankincense or some such precious spices had been smoking there.”

“At length, when those wicked men perceived that his body could not be consumed by the fire, they commanded an executioner to go near and pierce him through with a dagger. And on his doing this, there came forth a dove, and a great quantity of blood, so that the fire was extinguished; and all the people wondered that there should be such a difference between the unbelievers and the elect, of whom this most admirable Polycarp was one, having in our own times been an apostolic and prophetic teacher, and bishop of the Catholic Church which is in Smyrna. For every word that went out of his mouth either has been or shall yet be accomplished.”

Justin Martyr (c. 100 – c. 165)

Justin Martyr is one of this next generation of Church Fathers with whom we see a great focus on apologetics. Two of his most significant works are First Apology and Dialogue with Trypho. Both are works of apologetics.

Justin was trained as a philosopher prior to his conversion to Christianity and he brought a philosopher’s way of thinking to Christian apologetics. For example, he bridged the philosophical concept of logos, reason and intelligibility, with the Christian doctrine of Logos as the person of Jesus Christ. For example, he said in his First Apology:

“We have been taught that Christ is the first-born of God, and we have declared above that He is the Word of whom every race of men were partakers; and those who lived reasonably are Christians, even though they have been thought atheists; as, among the Greeks, Socrates and Heraclitus, and men like them” (Apol. I, 46)

The Apology also has some interesting and important information about the Eucharist and moral standards of the Christians of the second century. One highlight:

“We who formerly delighted in fornication now cleave only to chastity. We who exercised the magic arts now consecrate ourselves to the good and unbegotten God. We who valued above all else the acquisition of wealth and property now direct all that we have to a common fund, which is shared with every needy person. We who hated and killed one another, and who, because of differing customs, would not share a fireside with those of another race, now, after the appearance of Christ, live together with them. We pray for our enemies, and try to persuade those who unjustly hate us that, if they live according to the excellent precepts of Christ, they will have a good hope of receiving the same reward as ourselves, from the God who governs all.” (Apol. I, 14)

Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho is a dialogue, through the persons of Justin and Trypho, between Christianity and Judaism. The Dialogue includes in its first few chapters an account of Justin’s early philosophical education and his conversion to Christianity. He had searched for truth among Stoics, Peripatetics, Pythagoreans, Platonists. His conversion came with a chance meeting on the sea-shore with an elderly man, a Christian, who told him that the truth he sought could be obtained only by divine revelation. Here’s a part of the Dialogue:

“Old Man: There existed, long before this time, certain men more ancient than all those who are esteemed philosophers, both righteous and beloved by God, who spoke by the Divine Spirit, and foretold events which would take place, and which are now taking place. They are called prophets. These alone both saw and announced the truth to men, neither reverencing nor fearing any man, not influenced by a desire for glory, but speaking those things alone which they saw and which they heard, being filled with the Holy Spirit. Their writings are still extant, and he who has read them is very much helped in his knowledge of the beginning and end of things, and of those matters which the philosopher ought to know, provided he has believed them. For they did not use demonstration in their treatises, seeing that they were witnesses to the truth above all demonstration, and worthy of belief; and those events which have happened, and those which are happening, compel you to assent to the utterances made by them, although, indeed, they were entitled to credit on account of the miracles which they performed, since they both glorified the Creator, the God and Father of all things, and proclaimed His Son, the Christ [sent] by Him: which, indeed, the false prophets, who are filled with the lying unclean spirit, neither have done nor do, but venture to work certain wonderful deeds for the purpose of astonishing men, and glorify the spirits and demons of error. But pray that, above all things, the gates of light may be opened to you; for these things cannot be perceived or understood by all, but only by the man to whom God and His Christ have imparted wisdom.”

“Justin: When he had spoken these and many other things, which there is no time for mentioning at present, he went away, bidding me attend to them; and I have not seen him since. But straightway a flame was kindled in my soul; and a love of the prophets, and of those men who are friends of Christ, possessed me; and while revolving his words in my mind, I found this philosophy alone to be safe and profitable. Thus, and for this reason, I am a philosopher. Moreover, I would wish that all, making a resolution similar to my own, do not keep themselves away from the words of the Saviour. For they possess a terrible power in themselves, and are sufficient to inspire those who turn aside from the path of rectitude with awe; while the sweetest rest is afforded those who make a diligent practice of them. If, then, you have any concern for yourself, and if you are eagerly looking for salvation, and if you believe in God, you may— since you are not indifferent to the matter — become acquainted with the Christ of God, and, after being initiated, live a happy life.” (Dialogue with Trypho, 7-8)

I love Justin’s account and find in him a kindred spirit. He is a philosopher because he is a seeker. And I admire his humility in recognizing that a person cannot obtain knowledge independently, without it being imparted by God. And I very much relate to that experience when he says, “But straightway a flame was kindled in my soul; and a love of the prophets, and of those men who are friends of Christ, possessed me.” Yes. That fire of Spirit being kindled in the soul. That’s where it’s at.

Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 130 – c. 202)

Irenaeus has actually been in the news recently because Pope Francis just this year officially made him a Doctor of the Church. On January 21, 2022. I think everyone had assumed he already was one before that. But now it’s official. Irenaeus was also a kind of apologist but more specifically against Christian heresies. In particular he wrote against Gnostic Christian heresies. His great work was Against Heresies.

What stands out to me about Irenaeus is his continuity with the other Church Fathers, the Apostles, and the earliest Christian texts that we now have in the New Testament. There’s a narrative about early Christianity that what we now call “orthodox” Christian doctrine should, in the context of the first and second centuries, only be called “proto-orthodox”, because it was one of several competing Christianities. This is the view of New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman. I have nothing but high regard for Ehrman’s scholarship and I’ve learned a lot from reading his work on the New Testament. But I don’t find that particular idea very convincing. For one thing, as a believing Christian I have an understanding of orthodoxy as something objectively true, regardless of whatever competing views may have been around. But even beyond that, I think Irenaeus himself made a good case that the Gnostics were the ones coming out of left field, whereas the teachers of orthodoxy had a continuous line of authority and tradition going back to Jesus and his Apostles. The oldest documents by the people closest to Jesus are orthodox in their doctrine. All the Gnostic documents come later. And this, I think, is Irenaeus’s strongest point:

“For all these [heretics] are of much later date than are the bishops to whom the Apostles handed over the Churches; and this fact I pointed out most carefully in the third book. It is of necessity, then, that these aforementioned heretics, because they are blind to the truth, walk in various and devious paths; and on this account the vestiges of their doctrine are scattered about without agreement or connection. The path of those, however, who belong to the Church, goes around the whole world; for it has the firm tradition of the Apostles, enabling us to see that the faith of all is one and the same.” (Against Heresies, 5,20,1)

Gnosticism was highly varied and Irenaeus documented much of that diversity. The 20th century discoveries of the Nag Hammadi documents, which included Gnostics texts, corroborated many of Irenaeus’s accounts of Gnostic ideas which, though he disagreed with them, he actually portrayed fairly and accurately. Some common Gnostic ideas include that the material world was created by an incompetent deity, who was lower in status than the higher deities. Gnosticism disparaged Judaism and the God of the Hebrew Bible. They understood Jesus to be one who imparted secret knowledge, gnosis, that would enable the elect to escape from materiality. Irenaeus would have none of this.

“It is possible, then, for everyone in every Church, who may wish to know the truth, to contemplate the tradition of the Apostles which has been made known throughout the whole world. And we are in a position to enumerate those who were instituted bishops by the Apostles, and their successors to our own times: men who neither knew nor taught anything like these heretics rave about. For if the Apostles had known hidden mysteries which they taught to the elite secretly and apart from the rest, they would have handed them down especially to those very ones to whom they were committing the self-same Churches. For surely they wished all those and their successors to be perfect and without reproach, to whom they handed on their authority.” (Against Heresies, 3,1,1)

“The true gnosis is the doctrine of the Apostles, and the ancient organization of the Church throughout the whole world, and the manifestation of the body of Christ according to the successions of bishops, by which successions the bishops have handed down the Church which is found everywhere; and the very complete tradition of the Scriptures, which have come down to us by being guarded against falsification, and which are received without addition or deletion; and reading without falsification, and a legitimate and diligent exposition according to the Scriptures, without danger and without blasphemy; and the pre-eminent gift of love, which is more precious than knowledge, more glorious than prophecy, and more honored than all the other charismatic gifts.” (Against Heresies, 4,33,8)

One of the ideas I especially like from Irenaeus is that the Christian Gospel is not elitist. There is not a superior, secret version that is taught only to the most intelligent and superior people. It is taught openly. It’s not about trying to get some secret knowledge. Along with Paul in 1 Corinthians 13, Irenaeus affirms that “the pre-eminent gift of love” is a “more excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:31) “more precious than knowledge, more glorious than prophecy, and more honored than all the other charismatic gifts”.

Tertullian of Carthage (c. 155 – c. 222)

I wondered whether I should include Tertullian in this introduction because in one respect he was the complete opposite of Irenaeus: by the end of his life Tertullian was a heretic. But I include him for two reasons. The first is that his contributions to Christian theology when he was orthodox were substantial and significant. The second is that the way he became a heretic is quite interesting and instructive.

Tertullian was highly intelligent, prolific, eloquent, and feisty. He was the kind of person you’d want on your side in a debate. His Latin style was superb. And he was highly adept in Roman legal styles of argumentation. Some of his major works include: The Apology, Ad Nationes, On Prayer, On Patience, On Repentance, and On Baptism. His writing is often entertaining but also very edifying. Some famous passages from The Apology:

“If the Tiber rises to the city walls, if the Nile does not rise to the fields, if the weather continues without change, if there is an earthquake, if famine, if pestilence, immediately, “Christians to the lion!” So many for one beast?” (The Apology 40,1)

“Crucify us, torture us, condemn us, destroy us! Your wickedness is the proof of our innocence, for which reason does God suffer us to suffer this.. Nor does your cruelty, however exquisite, accomplish anything: rather, it is an enticement to our religion. The more we are hewn down by you, the more numerous do we become. The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians!” (The Apology, 50,12)

Some of Tertullian’s feisty side. There’s also this passage on Christian character, which is quite moving:

“Now I myself will explain the practices of the Christian society.…We are a body joined together by religious conviction, unity of discipline, and by hope. We assemble in a meeting and comprise a congregation, so that we might surround God with our prayers, as if by force of arms. Such violence is pleasing to God. We pray even for the emperors, for their ministers and those in power, for the condition of the world, that peace may prevail, and that the end may be stayed. We assemble to recall the divine Scriptures, if any condition of the present times makes it needful to be forewarned or to reflect. And in any case, with holy words we nourish our faith, uplift our hope, strengthen our trust, and confirm the discipline by the inculcating of precepts. In the same place there are exhortations, corrections and divine censure. Judgment is passed with the greatest of gravity, as among men who are certain of the presence of God; and it is the greatest foretaste of the future judgment, when anyone has sinned so grievously that he is cut off from communication in prayer and assembly and from every holy transaction. Certain approved elders preside, who have received that honor not for a price but by the witness of character; for nothing that pertains to God is to be had for a price. Even if there is some kind of a treasury, it is not made up of huge grants, as if they were the price of religion. Each one puts in a small amount on the monthly day, or when he wishes, accordingly as he wishes and is able. No one is compelled, and it is given freely. These are, as it were, the deposits of piety. For they are not expended therefrom on feasts and drinking parties and in thankless houses of gluttony, but for the support and burial of the poor, for boys and girls without parents and destitute of means, for the aged quietly confined to their homes, for the shipwrecked; and if there are any in the mines or in the islands or in the prisons, if it be for the reason that they are worshippers of God, then they become the foster-sons of their confession. But it is mainly the practice of such a love which leads some to put a brand upon us. ‘See,’ they say, ‘how they love one another’; for they themselves hate each other. ‘And how ready they are to die for one another,’ they themselves being more inclined to kill each other. (The Apology, 38,1-7)

Some comments on Tertullian’s heresy. He eventually followed a movement known as the Montanists, named after its charismatic founder Montanus. Won’t get into the details of Montanism at the moment but what’s interesting about Tertullian’s trajectory is that you can track his slide into heresy by the increasing rigor and extremism of his ideas. Scholars divide his work into three periods:

Catholic period (197 – 206)
Semi-Montanist period (206 – 212)
Montanist period (213 – 220)

William Jurgens describes his Semi-Montanist period as one “marked by rigorist tendencies and a developing attitude of anticlericalism” and the Montanist period in which “his rigorism has become extreme, his anti-clericalism has reached the point of invective”. (The Faith of the Early Fathers, Vol. 1, pp. 111-112) Works from his full Montanist period include On Monogamy, in which he condemned re-marriage even after the death of a spouse, Flight in Time of Persecution, in which he condemns those who flee persecution, and On Modesty, in which he declared that there is no forgiveness for the gravest sins. It’s interesting to me that Tertullian’s heresy was marked by increasing rigor and extremism. These days we usually think of heresy as compromising and softening of the hard doctrines. And it can certainly take that form and often does. But extremism and ratcheting rigor is an especially dangerous path to heresy because it can seem like ever-increasing enlightenment and religiosity, even as it is actually leading away from God.

All that being said, the earlier Tertullian was a remarkable man and a devoted Christian whose writings are inspiring, instructive, and edifying. Well worth reading.

Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 – c. 215)

Clement is regarded as one of the most intellectual of the Early Church Fathers. He was well educated in and knowledgeable of the philosophy of his day. Residing in Alexandria, he confronted numerous heresies that were rampant in that city. But he also had to confront an overreaction among orthodox Christians under his influence who, wary of philosophically-influenced heresies, had retreated into anti-intellectualism. Critics of Christianity were already accusing Christians of being simplistic and anti-intellectual. So it was up to Clement to confront heresy but also defend the use of the intellect and philosophy to Christians. He was adept at this. But what I also admire about Clement is that for all his familiarity with contemporary philosophy he was still grounded primarily in the scriptures. In his four major extant works he quotes the New Testament 3000 times and the Hebrew Bible 1500 times. Historian Robert Louis Wilken, in his book The Spirit of Early Christian Thought commented on this heavy use of scripture among the Church Fathers generally:

“I have tried to give a sense of how fresh, even astonishing, the Bible appeared to thinkers schooled in ancient literature. The Scriptures disclosed a world unlike anything they had known before, and reading and expounding the Bible left a lasting imprint on their vocabulary and altered their patterns of thought.”

“As intellectuals formed by the classical tradition, the first Christian thinkers belonged to a learned and contented club, secure in the confidence they knew whatever was useful to know… Yet when they took the Bible in hand they were overwhelmed. It came upon them like a torrent leaping down the side of a mountain. Once they got beyond its plain style they sensed they had entered a new and mysterious world more alluring than anything they had known before.”

For Wilken this was especially true of Clement:

“How fresh the water of the Bible seeped drop by drop into the mind of the early church can be observed best in the writings of Clement of Alexandria… In Clement’s writings the Bible emerges for the first time as the foundation of a Christian culture. His writings are suffused with its language, its forms of expressions, its images and metaphors, its stories.”

“Clement cites Greek literature to illustrate a point, to give flourish to an argument, to delight and amuse his readers. When he cites the Scriptures there is a sense of discovery, that something extraordinary is to be learned in its pages, that it is not one book among many.”

William Jurgens summarized the thrust of Clement’s thought as a deep concern with “the educative function of the Logos, the Divine Word, throughout the history of mankind”. In this he was very similar to Justin Martyr. A few characteristic quotes:

“The Word, then, the Christ, is the cause both of our ancient beginning—for He was in God—and of our well-being. And now this same Word has appeared as man. He alone is both God and man, and the source of all our good things. It is by Him that we are taught to live well and then are sent along to life eternal.… He is the New Song, the manifestation which has now been made among us, of the Word which existed in the beginning and before the beginning. The Savior, who existed before, has only lately appeared. He that has appeared is in Him that is; for the Word that was with God, the Word by whom all things were made, has appeared as our Teacher; and He, who bestowed life upon us in the beginning, when, as our Creator, He formed us, now that He has appeared as our Teacher, has taught us to live well so that, afterwards, as God, He might furnish us abundantly with eternal life.” (Exhortation to the Greeks, 1,7,1-3)

“When the loving and benevolent Father had rained down the Word, that Word then became the spiritual nourishment of those who have good sense. O mystic wonder! The Father of all is indeed one, one also is the universal Word, and the Holy Spirit is one and the same everywhere.…  The Word is everything to a child: both Father and Mother, both Instructor and Nurse. ‘Eat My Flesh,’ He says, ‘and drink My Blood.’ The Lord supplies us with these intimate nutriments. He delivers over His Flesh, and pours out His Blood; and nothing is lacking for the growth of His children. O incredible mystery!” (The Instructor of Children, 1,6,41,3)

“But that man in whom reason (λόγος) dwells is not shifty, not pretentious, but has the form dictated by reason (λόγος) and is like God. He is beautiful, and does not feign beauty. That which is true is beautiful; for it, too, is God. Such a man becomes God because God wills it. [2, 1] Rightly, indeed, did Heraclitus say: ‘Men are gods, and gods are men; for the same reason (λόγος) is in both.’ That this is a mystery is clear: God is in a man, and a man is God, the Mediator fulfilling the will of the Father. The Mediator is the Word (Λόγος) who is common to both, being the Son of God and the Savior of men.” (The Instructor of Children, 3,1,1,5)

And then a couple more quotes just to get a feel for his writing and thought:

“For into all men in general, and indeed, most particularly into those who are engaged in intellectual pursuits, a certain divine emanation has been instilled, by reason of which they confess, if somewhat reluctantly, that God is one, indestructible and unbegotten, and that somewhere above in the heavenly regions, in His proper and familiar vantage point, He truly and eternally exists.” (Exhortation to the Greeks, 6,68,2-3)

“When we are baptized, we are enlightened. Being enlightened, we are adopted as sons. Adopted as sons, we are made perfect. Made perfect, we are become immortal. ‘I say,’ he declares, ‘you are gods and sons all of the Most High.’ This work is variously called grace, illumination, perfection, and washing. It is a washing by which we are cleansed of sins; a gift of grace by which the punishments due our sins are remitted; an illumination by which we behold that holy light of salvation—that is, by which we see God clearly; and we call that perfection which leaves nothing lacking. Indeed, if a man know God, what more does he need? Certainly it were out of place to call that which is not complete a true gift of God’s grace. Because God is perfect, the gifts He bestows are perfect.” (The Instructor of Children, 1,6,21,1-2)

Origen of Alexandria (c. 185 – c. 254)

Origen is the last of the Church Fathers for this introduction. Origen was also a diligent scholar and extremely prolific. His largest work, the Hexapla, is no longer extant in its entirety but we know what it was and it must have been massive. The Hexapla was a critical edition of the Hebrew Bible with six versions of the text lined up in columns. The six versions were:

1. the Hebrew consonantal text
2. the Hebrew text transliterated into Greek
3. the translation of Aquila of Sinope into Greek (2nd century)
4. the translation of Symmachus the Ebionite into Greek (late 2nd century)
5. a critical edition of the Greek Septuagint showing differences between the Septuagint and the Hebrew text
6. the translation of Theodotion into Greek (mid 2nd century)

Clearly, this was a massive scholarly undertaking. Especially considering that this would all have been done by hand.

Two other important works by Origen that we do have are Against Celsus and On the First Principles.

Against Celsus was a work of apologetics responding to criticism from the philosopher Celsus. Celsus’s criticisms were challenging and, to many, intimidating. As a man of learning and eloquence Celsus’s challenge that no self-respecting philosopher of the Platonic tradition would ever be so stupid as to become a Christian required a response from someone of Origen’s intellectual stature. And Origen proved himself up to the challenge and well in the same league as Christianity’s sophisticated critics. After Origen it was no longer possible to so easily dismiss Christian thought.

On the First Principles was arguably the most comprehensive work of systematic theology written up to that time. It’s a marvelous text and one that, even in our day of digital texts – ebooks and pdfs – I have selected to have in print on my bookshelf.

Some selections. First, here’s an example of Origen’s overview of the basic Christian teachings:

“The specific points which are clearly handed down through the apostolic preaching are these: First, that there is one God who created and arranged all things, and who, when nothing existed, called all things into existence; … and that in the final period this God, just as He had promised beforehand through the Prophets, sent the Lord Jesus Christ.… Secondly, that Jesus Christ Himself, who came, was born of the Father before all creatures; and after He had ministered to the Father in the creation of all things,—for through Him were all things made,—in the final period he emptied Himself and was made man. Although He was God, He took flesh; and having been made man, He remained what He was, God. He took a body like our body, differing only in this, that it was born of a Virgin and the Holy Spirit. Moreover, this Jesus Christ was truly born and truly suffered; and He endured this ordinary death, not in mere appearance, but did truly die; for He truly rose again from the dead, and after His resurrection He conversed with His disciples, and was taken up. Third, they handed it down that the Holy Spirit is associated in honor and dignity with the Father and the Son.” (On the First Principles, 1, Preface, 4)

In his systematic theology he touched on many significant philosophical points. For example, free will and choice:

“After these points, it is taught also that the soul, having a substance and life proper to itself, shall, after its departure from this world, be rewarded according to its merits. It is destined to obtain either an inheritance of eternal life and blessedness, if its deeds shall have procured this for it, or to be delivered up to eternal fire and punishments, if the guilt of its crimes shall have brought it down to this. And it is also taught that there will be a time for the resurrection of the dead, when this body which is now sown in corruption will rise in incorruption, and that which is sown in dishonor will rise in glory. This also is clearly defined in ecclesiastical teaching, that every rational soul has free will and choice; also, that it has a struggle against the devil and his angels and opposing powers, in which they strive to burden it with sins, while we, if we live rightly and properly, should endeavor to shake ourselves free of any such disgrace. Whence it follows also that we do not understand ourselves as being subject to necessity, so as to be entirely compelled, even against our will, to do either evil or good. For while we make our own decisions, some powers may perhaps impel us to sin, and others help us to salvation. We are not, however, forced by necessity to act either rightly or wrongly, as is maintained by those who say that the course and movement of the stars is the cause of human actions, and not only of those events which take place apart from the freedom of choice, but of those also which are placed within our power.” (On the First Principles, 1, Preface, 5)

He also developed ideas and explanations of the nature of God:

“Since our mind is in itself unable to behold God Himself as He is, it knows the Father of the universe from the beauty of His works and from the elegance of His creatures. God, therefore, is not to be thought of as being either a body or as existing in a body, but as a simple intellectual Being, admitting within Himself no addition of any kind. Thus, He cannot be believed to have within Himself something greater and something lesser. Rather, He is in every part μονἀς [alone] and, so to speak, ἑνάς [the One]. He is the mind and source from which every intellectual being or mind takes its beginning.” (On the First Principles, 1,1,6)

“John says in the Gospel, ‘No one has at any time seen God,’ clearly declaring to all who are able to understand, that there is no nature to which God is visible: not as if He were indeed visible by nature, and merely escaped or baffled the view of a frailer creature, but because He is by nature impossible to be seen. And if you should ask of me what I think even of the Only-begotten Himself, whether I could say that the nature of God, which is naturally invisible, is not visible even to Him, let not such a question seem to you to be at once either impious or absurd: for we will give you a logical answer. For it is just as unsuitable to say that the Son is able to see the Father, as it is unbecoming to suppose that the Holy Spirit is able to see the Son. It is one thing to see, another to know. To see and to be seen belongs to bodies. To know and to be known belongs to an intellectual being. That, therefore, which is proper to bodies, is not to be attributed to either the Father or to the Son; but that which pertains to deity is common to the Father and the Son. Finally, even He Himself did not say in the Gospel that no one has seen the Father except the Son, nor anyone the Son except the Father. But He did say, ‘No one knows the Son except the Father, nor does anyone know the Father except the Son.’ By this it is clearly indicated that whatever among corporal natures is called seeing and being seen, is termed, between the Father and the Son, knowing and being known—by means of the power of knowledge, and not by the frail sense of sight. Inasmuch, then, as neither seeing nor being seen can be properly predicated of an incorporeal and invisible being, neither is the Father, in the Gospel, said to be seen by the Son, nor the Son by the Father; rather, They are said to be known.” (One the First Principles, 1,1,8)

Origin, unlike Tertullian, never fell into heresy and was always in communion and good standing with the Church. Some of his ideas were later deemed unorthodox but they had not been so determined during his lifetime. After his death there were groups of people called “Origenists” who persisted in holding to unorthodox ideas not upheld by the Church. But this was not something that Origen himself ever did. He always strove to follow and teach correct doctrine and be in conformity with the Church.


When it comes to ancient history we never have as much documentation and information as we would like. But with early Church history we are actually quite fortunate to have a fair amount. It certainly helped that the documents were treasured and revered with literally religious devotion by people who preserved, copied, and distributed these documents throughout the Christian world. So we know a fair amount. There’s plenty there for any one person to devote an entire lifetime of study toward and never exhaust. Even after reading a text that’s merely the beginning of a process of digging into its profundities.

I think these ancient texts can be as instructive or even more instructive than many modern ideas. It’s interesting to me how the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s combined both aggiornamento, “updating”, with ressourcement, a return to the sources in scripture and these Church Fathers. Theology develops but, paradoxically, inspiration for the future often comes from the past. In the case of the Church Fathers their ability to inspire and guide us is rich indeed. 

The Image of the Invisible God

In scripture Christ is called “the image of the invisible God”. As such Christ is supremely important to our access to and understanding of God. As God made his goodness pass over Moses and declared his graciousness and compassion, Christ shows us the Father in his words and in his works. Three important philosopher-theologians: Origen of Alexandria, Augustine of Hippo, and Thomas Aquinas developed theories to explain the process of coming to see and know God in a form of “intellectual vision”.

One of the challenges of religious belief in modern times is that many of the things we are supposed to believe in and refer to in our religious practices are not things that we see or sense with our physical senses. God, for example. We might ask, as many have asked, “Why doesn’t God just show himself to everyone?” Wouldn’t that clear up a lot? Why does God have to be so seemingly “hidden” and why is faith, whatever its purported virtue, even necessary? Some of the explanations for this may sometimes seem kind of forced and unsatisfactory. I think this is something that has to be addressed. And I actually think it’s quite an interesting subject. Not just in terms of apologetics, justifying belief in God or any number of other things we don’t sense with the physical senses. But also interesting just as a way of thinking about the nature of reality and the kinds of things that make it up and undergird it. It gets into some very interesting theological and philosophical issues.

In studying this question my main sources for insight have been the scriptures and a set of important Christian philosopher-theologians. Three in particular:

1. Origen of Alexandria (184 – 253)
2. Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430)
3. Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274)

What’s interesting to me in looking at these three is their continuity and consistency. We might be tempted to think sometimes that people who lived hundreds or thousands of years ago must have been less intelligent, educated, or sophisticated than we are in modern times. A few minutes of reading Aristotle can very quickly dispel that notion. And the same goes for these three. In most points I find that their ideas about God, and most things, are the most well-reasoned of any you could find from anyone, ancient or modern. Very few people today, believers or not, have thought about God as rigorously or deeply as they did. And when we look at God as found in scripture and explained systematically by these philosopher-theologians it makes more sense why the world is the way it is and why we stand in relation to God in the way that we do.

Let’s look first at some scriptures. There are many scriptures that talk about seeing or not seeing God. Some examples:

John 1:18 – “No one has seen God at any time.”

Matthew 5:8 – “Blessed are the pure in heart, For they shall see God.”

Exodus 33:11 – “So the Lord spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.”

Exodus 33:20 – “You cannot see My face; for no man shall see Me, and live.”

Isaiah 6:1,5 – “I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple… So I said: Woe is me, for I am undone! …For my eyes have seen the King, The Lord of hosts.”

Many passages about seeing God but apparently not all consistent. What to make of that? It could be that the passages are simply inconsistent. A consequence of the texts being authored and compiled by different authors and redactors. It’s certainly the case that it was compiled by different authors and redactors. So that’s one possible explanation. But I think there are more theologically interesting explanations. Apparent contradictions often have a lot of potential to provoke interesting philosophical insight. Whether or not that moves us closer to or further from truth is another question. It can do either. But I think in what follows it moves us closer to truth as well as philosophical insight.

The first of our philosopher-theologians, Origen of Alexandria, in his book On the First Principles (Περὶ Ἀρχῶν), makes an important distinction between things that are (1) not seen and (2) invisible:

“For the same thing is not to be understood by the expressions, ‘those things which are not seen,’ and ‘those things which are invisible.’ For those things which are invisible are not only not seen, but do not even possess the property of visibility, being what the Greeks call asomata, i.e., incorporeal; whereas those of which Paul says, ‘They are not seen,’ possess indeed the property of being seen, but, as he explains, are not yet beheld by those to whom they are promised.”

I think this is a very useful distinction that helps address some of the bafflement over why God would purposely conceal things from us. With this distinction we can see that in at least some cases it may not be that God is purposely concealing things that we would otherwise be capable of seeing, but rather that some things are just not visible by nature. Origen says of John 1:18.

“Moreover, John, in his Gospel, when asserting that ‘no one hath seen God at any time,’ manifestly declares to all who are capable of understanding, that there is no nature to which God is visible: not as if, He were a being who was visible by nature, and merely escaped or baffled the view of a frailer creature, but because by the nature of His being it is impossible for Him to be seen.”

This pertains specifically to physical sight and the physical senses. No one sees God with physical sight. But the same verse says that “The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.” The only begotten Son declares God to us. So we do have access to God but it is through other means than physical sight and senses.

Now, there are cases where deliberate concealment serves some instrumental purpose. Jesus apparently spoke almost entirely in parables, to the point that when he did speak directly it was very unusual. For example, in John 16:29 his apostles say: “See, now You are speaking plainly, and using no figure of speech!” But that was more the exception. Jesus deliberately made his teachings a challenge for his disciples. “Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For whoever has, to him more will be given, and he will have abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him. Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.” (Matthew 13:11-13) There are many potential reasons for this form of teaching. One is just the benefit of Socratic “midwifery”. Students sometimes learn things better when they have to work harder for them. So there is that. But I don’t think deliberate concealment is applicable everywhere. There are things unseen. But there are also things that are intrinsically invisible.

So there’s that distinction; between the merely unseen and the intrinsically invisible. But what kinds of things are intrinsically invisible? Would this commit one to belief in supernatural things? In a certain sense I’d say, “yes”, which might be off-putting if you lean more secular or have more secular commitments. But I’d also say that most people tacitly assume or take for granted certain intrinsically invisible things anyway; things that are beyond just those things that subsist in the natural world. Even if we don’t realize it.

One example is abstractions. We make use of abstractions all the time. Some examples are: quantity, quality, relation, causality, possibility. We use these kinds of abstractions to make raw sense data intelligible. For example, we project causation onto events. When one billiard ball moves toward another, comes into contact with the second, and then the second billiard ball starts moving, we say that the first billiard ball caused the second billiard ball to move (by collision and transfer of momentum). That makes sense but we don’t actually see that causation. We see events and those events are only intelligible to us in terms of causation. But we don’t physically see the causation itself. We only “see” it in the intellect. The sciences are essentially projects of characterizing non-physical structures, laws of nature, to explain the data of empirical observations and experiments. We don’t want just isolated data points. We want to be able to describe relations and make predictions.

This way of thinking about the world is by no means obvious. Augustine of Hippo described in his autobiography, Confessions, how he had a very hard time understanding non-material entities. He “could not imagine any substance, but such as is wont to be seen with [the] eyes.” This made it difficult for him to think about God.

“But what else to conceive of Thee I knew not… I was constrained to conceive of Thee… as being in space, whether infused into the world, or diffused infinitely without it. Because whatsoever I conceived, deprived of this space, seemed to me nothing, yea altogether nothing, not even a void, as if a body were taken out of its place, and the place should remain empty of any body at all, of earth and water, air and heaven, yet would it remain a void place, as it were a spacious nothing.”

This is a very natural way to see the world. And I think it’s the way most people think of the world today and even the way we are educated to think. The modern outlook is very materialist or physicalist. Materialism and physicalism are defensible positions. But they’re not the only defensible positions. And I don’t think they hold up very well to extensive philosophical scrutiny. And it’s that kind of philosophical scrutiny that ultimately led Augustine to think past his materialism. He encountered this in the work of the Platonists:

“Thou [God] procuredst for me… certain books of the Platonists.”

“But having read then those books of the Platonists, and thence been taught to search for incorporeal truth, I saw Thy invisible things, understood by those things which are made.”

This is the essence of the process of the natural sciences that we go through even if without thinking about it. We come to understand incorporeal truths “by those things which are made”. We infer causation from the observation of events. We develop theories about laws of nature from empirical data. In Platonist thought this is movement along Plato’s “divided line”, an analogy he introduced in the Republic, moving from visible things to intelligible things.

In Plato’s thought this process of intellectual ascent has a single ending point, which he calls “the Form of the Good” [ἡ τοῦ ἀγαθοῦ ἰδέα (he tou agathou idea)]. Plotinus (205 – 270) called this ultimate principle “the One” [το ἕν (to hen)]. Augustine of course, being Christian, just called this God. The intellectual ascent ultimately leads to the Christian beatific vision, The immediate knowledge of God which the angelic spirits and the souls of the just enjoy in Heaven.

Both Origen and Augustine have theories of a certain form of vision that is distinct from physical vision. For Augustine this is his notion of “intellectual vision”. Origen describes it as a kind of seeing as knowing. In On the First Principles Origen says:

“It is one thing to see, and another to know: to see and to be seen is a property of bodies; to know and to be known, an attribute of intellectual being… [the Son] did not say that no one has seen the Father, save the Son, nor any one the Son, save the Father; but His words are: ‘No one knoweth [ἐπιγινώσκω (epiginosko)] the Son, save the Father; nor any one the Father, save the Son.’ (Matthew 11:27) By which it is clearly shown, that whatever among bodily natures is called seeing and being seen, is termed, between the Father and the Son, a knowing and being known, by means of the power of knowledge, not by the frailness of the sense of sight. Because, then, neither seeing nor being seen can be properly applied to an incorporeal and invisible nature, neither is the Father, in the Gospel, said to be seen by the Son, nor the Son by the Father, but the one is said to be known by the other.”

Augustine develops a similar idea, what he calls “intellectual vision”. In his book On the Literal Meaning of Genesis (De Genesi ad litteram) Augustine distinguished between three sorts of vision.

1. Corporeal Vision
2. Imaginative Vision
3. Intellectual Vision

Quoting from Augustine:

“These are the three kinds of visions… The first, therefore, let us call Corporeal, due to the fact that it is perceived by the body and revealed by the body’s senses. The second, let us call Imaginative; whatever is not truly of the body, and yet however is to some extent, it is said imagination correctly already: and in any case it is not material, it may be however similar to the body, is in the image of the absent body, nor is the gaze distinguished from itself for that purpose. The third is called Intellectual, from intellect, due to the fact that it is mental, of the mind.” (On the Literal Meaning of Genesis 12.7.16)

Augustine demonstrates the use of these three kinds of vision by giving an example of three levels at which a person can understand the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:39) He says:

“Here in the reading of this one command, ‘love thy neighbor as yourself’ (Matthew. 22, 39), occur three types of vision: one is of his eyes, which appears in the writing itself; another is of the human imagination in which one’s neighbor is thought of in his absence; and third of these, which is love as such, as seen by the intellect.”

This is a very simple example from which Augustine demonstrates multiple layers of understanding. And this is similar to the levels of ascent in Plato’s divided line with likenesses of visible things, visible things, and the ideas abstracted from them, visible to the intellect. In reading a text there is the physical visual sensation in which we see the ink imprinted on a page. But while reading that we also think about what things the ink refers to, which is a more sophisticated level of understanding. And finally we can gather general principles from the particular thoughts generated by the text. In the case of this example: from ink, to the thought of one’s neighbor, one eventually thinks about the general principle of love itself. And love as such has no visible image. It is understood thoroughly by the intellect, no doubt accompanied by corresponding sentiments. Augustine says of the things seen in intellectual vision that they “have no images resembling them. The objects of intellectual vision are perceived proprie (“in their own nature”), not imaginaliter (“through a representation”).

Virtues like love are important objects of intellectual vision. And intellectual vision of the virtues is closely tied to the intellectual vision of God. Augustine says:

“This spiritual nature, therefore, in which not the bodies, but similarities to bodies are expressed, having visions of an inferior variety, as that of the mind, even the light of intelligence… they do not have any similar material forms; even as the mind itself and all good dispositions of spirit to which they are opposed in their vices, which are correctly condemned and are even condemned in men. To what end is the intellect to be understood, except truly in some other way? And thus love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, self-control, and so forth, of such by which he is drawn near to God (Galatians 5:22-23) and God himself, from whom all things, through whom all things, in whom all things (Romans 11:36).” (On the Literal Meaning of Genesis 12.24.50)

The idea here being that the mind being able, through intellectual vision, to understand important moral abstractions like the virtues is also able, in a similar way, to eventually understand God, from whom these moral virtues emanate. There’s an interesting example of this kind of vision in Exodus.

In Exodus 33 it says that, “The Lord spoke to Moses face to face.” Not only that but, “as a man speaks to his friend.” They were in close proximity, both in space (of some kind) and in their regard for one another. It is repeated, several times in this chapter, that Moses had found “favor”, חֵן (chen), in the eyes of the Lord. And this favor is repeatedly mentioned as the reason that the Lord grants Moses’s entreaties.

Whatever had happened in verses 11 Moses requests even more. In verse 18 he says: “Please, show me Your glory.” Your כָּבוֹד (kabod). God’s response is interesting. He says: “I will make all My goodness [טוּב (tub)] pass before you, and I will proclaim the name of the Lord before you. I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” (verse 19) Moses asks to see God’s glory (kabod) and God responds that he will see his goodness (tub). God also declares his capacity to be gracious [חָנַן (chanan)] and to be merciful [רָחַם (racham)].

We see more of this in the next chapter, Exodus 34, in which God proclaims the name of YHWH, saying: “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful [רַחוּם (rachum)] and gracious [חַנּוּן (chanun)], longsuffering, and abounding in goodness [חֵסֵד (chesed)] and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:6-7) Traditionally this act of self-revelation is known as the Thirteen Attributes. This prayer, the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, is recited in times of crisis to beseech God to show mercy. It contains thirteen Names and descriptions of God, all of them referring to God’s compassion in various situations. In this remarkable theophany, self-revelation of God, to Moses what we have recorded is a revelation of attributes.

Isn’t that interesting? In what way would Moses, or any other person, perceive these kinds of attributes? Mercy, graciousness, longsuffering, goodness, truth, forgiveness, justice? I think Augustine’s theories make sense here. We could think about them at the three levels of vision: corporeal, imaginative, and intellectual. There are the words for these attributes, taking physical form as ink on a page, pixels on a screen, or sound waves in the air. Then we can imagine, or maybe remember, particular examples of these attributes in individuals, maybe people we know, or people in the scriptures, like especially Jesus Christ. And then we can perceive in the intellect the attributes as such: mercy, graciousness, longsuffering, goodness, truth, forgiveness, justice. And when we do this we are closer to perceiving God himself.

Full perception of God would seem to be beyond our possibility in mortality. The third of our philosopher-theologians, Thomas Aquinas, talks about this in his Summa Theologiae. This comes up in Question 12, Article 11: “Whether anyone in this life can see the essence of God”. Aquinas concludes:

“God cannot be seen in His essence by a mere human being, except he be separated from this mortal life. The reason is because, as was said above, the mode of knowledge follows the mode of the nature of the knower. But our soul, as long as we live in this life, has its being in corporeal matter; hence naturally it knows only what has a form in matter, or what can be known by such a form. Now it is evident that the Divine essence cannot be known through the nature of material things… This can be seen in the fact that the more our soul is abstracted from corporeal things, the more it is capable of receiving abstract intelligible things. Hence in dreams and alienations of the bodily senses divine revelations and foresight of future events are perceived the more clearly.”

This is consistent with the statement by God in Exodus that:

“You cannot see My face; for no man shall see Me, and live.”

What followed after this is (maybe) an intriguing illustration of the partial but necessarily incomplete vision of God that a human may have in mortality. God says:

“Here is a place by Me, and you shall stand on the rock. So it shall be, while My glory passes by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock, and will cover you with My hand while I pass by. Then I will take away My hand, and you shall see My back; but My face shall not be seen.”’ (Exodus 33:20-23)

God says that Moses will see his back [אָחוֹר (achor)] but not his face [פָנִים (panim)].

What’s going on here? It would seem that Moses’s experience of seeing God must be limited. We might ask, as we asked at the beginning of this episode, is this limitation due to God deliberately withholding the complete vision? Or is it just an intrinsic limitation of the nature of the thing being revealed? To use Origen’s distinction, is the face, panim, of God merely “unseen” or is it actually “invisible”, not capable of being seen physically?

Rabbi Sforno (1470 – 1550) commented on this verse saying (in God’s words): “Your inability to see what you would like to see is not due to My depriving you, personally, of such an experience, but is rooted in man’s inability to see such things unless you had died first, as an eye of flesh and blood cannot see such things. You would be fatally blinded before understanding anything you would see.”

Both Aquinas and Sforno hold that no human can see the essence of God on this side of death. Sforno says “an eye of flesh and blood cannot see such things”. And Aquinas says that “Divine essence cannot be known through the nature of material things.” Knowledge of the divine essence can be approximated, as Aquinas says, “the more our soul is abstracted from corporeal things”. But full knowledge and intellectual vision of God can only be received after physical death, which is why, like Moses, no mortal person can see God and live.

The issue of God and images is prominent throughout the Torah. Making images to worship, even images of the Lord God interestingly enough, are strictly forbidden. The golden calf may have been an attempt to make an image of the Lord God himself. But that didn’t make it any less egregious. The Israelites are given the commandment:

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image [פֶסֶל (pesel)]—any likeness [תִּמוּנָה (temunah)] of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them.” (Exodus 20:4-5)

We find an expansion on this commandment in Deuteronomy:

“Take careful heed to yourselves, for you saw no form [תִּמוּנָה (temunah)] when the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, lest you act corruptly and make for yourselves a carved image in the form of any figure: the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth or the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground or the likeness of any fish that is in the water beneath the earth. And take heed, lest you lift your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun, the moon, and the stars, all the host of heaven, you feel driven to worship them and serve them, which the Lord your God has given to all the peoples under the whole heaven as a heritage.” (Deuteronomy 4:15-19)

The text here is primarily concerned with the ethical issue of how the Israelites are to conduct themselves, what they should and should not do. But there’s an interesting hint here to a metaphysical matter as well that underlies the ethical. “For you saw no form [תִּמוּנָה (temunah)] when the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire.” It’s not just the case that the Israelites shouldn’t make carved images of the Lord; based off of some image that was present but forbidden for them to copy. There wasn’t even an image there. It wouldn’t even be possible in principle for them to make an image of the Lord because there was no temunah.

This is interesting to compare with a couple verses in the first chapter of the Bible:

“Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image [צֶלֶם (tzelem)], according to Our likeness [דְּמוּת (demuth)]; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ So God created man in His own image [צֶלֶם (tzelem)]; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” (Genesis 1:26-27)

Human beings are made in the image of God. Notably by God. The Hebrew words used here are not the same, but I think the concept is similar enough. In what way are humans created in the “image of God”, in the [צֶ֥לֶם אֱלֹהִ֖ים (tzelem elohim)]? One interesting thing about this tzelem is that it has both male and female manifestations. A lot of possibilities here but one thing I’ll observe is that attributes like humanness, maleness, femaleness, along with virtuous attributes like mercy, graciousness, longsuffering, goodness, truth, forgiveness, justice are abstract concepts that in the philosophies of Augustine and Aquinas are understood most fully by the intellect, rather than through physical form or the image of physical form.

Aquinas developed his theory of knowing and seeing God extensively in his Question 12 of the Summa, Prima Pars: “How God is Known By Us”. First, Aquinas affirmed that it is indeed possible for a created intellect to see the essence of God:

“Since everything is knowable according as it is actual, God, Who is pure act without any admixture of potentiality, is in Himself supremely knowable. But what is supremely knowable in itself, may not be knowable to a particular intellect, on account of the excess of the intelligible object above the intellect.”

Aquinas says that God is not only knowable but “supremely knowable”. God is “pure act”. Here he’s making use of the Aristotelian concepts of potentiality and actuality. Aristotle understood God to be supremely and recursively intellectual, as “a thinking of thinking” [νοήσεως νόησις (noeseos noesis)]:

Quoting from the his Metaphysics:

“Hence it is actuality rather than potentiality that is held to be the divine possession of rational thought, and its active contemplation is that which is most pleasant and best. If, then, the happiness which God always enjoys is as great as that which we enjoy sometimes, it is marvellous; and if it is greater, this is still more marvellous. Nevertheless it is so. Moreover, life belongs to God. For the actuality of thought [νοῦ ἐνέργεια (nou energeia)] is life, and God is that actuality; and the essential actuality of God is life most good and eternal. We hold, then, that God is a living being, eternal, most good; and therefore life and a continuous eternal existence belong to God; for that is what God is.” (Metaphysics 12.1072b)

“The actuality of thought is life, and God is that actuality.” But what is the subject of that thought? Aristotle says: “Mind thinks itself, if it is that which is best; and its thinking is a thinking of thinking (noeseos noesis)”. (Metaphysics 12.1074b)

This being the case, God is supremely intelligible by the intellect. Whatever limitations human beings have to seeing the essence of God in their intellect is due to limitations in the capacities of their intellects, rather than in the intrinsic intelligibility of God. Aquinas says:

“But what is supremely knowable in itself, may not be knowable to a particular intellect, on account of the excess of the intelligible object above the intellect; as, for example, the sun, which is supremely visible, cannot be seen by the bat by reason of its excess of light.”

Not only bats for that matter. Even we humans cannot see the sun directly. But that’s not because it’s not invisible, but rather because it’s too visible. It produces more light than we can handle. That’s a physical analogy. In the case of God the analogy is to intellectual visibility, or intelligibility. If we can’t see God with our intellectual vision it’s not because God is intrinsically unintelligible but rather because God is too intelligible, of greater intelligibility than we are able to understand. Nevertheless, Aquinas does think it is possible for created intellect to see God’s essence. It just needs the aid of divine grace.

In Question 12, Article 4 Aquinas responds to the question of “Whether any created intellect by its natural powers can see the divine essence”. Aquinas concludes that:

“It is impossible for any created intellect to see the essence of God by its own natural power… To know self-subsistent being is natural to the divine intellect alone; and this is beyond the natural power of any created intellect; for no creature is its own existence, forasmuch as its existence is participated. Therefore the created intellect cannot see the essence of God, unless God by His grace unites Himself to the created intellect, as an object made intelligible to it.”

Aquinas is appealing to the fundamental ontological difference between created things and their creator. He says, “To know self-subsistent being is natural to the divine intellect alone.” God is the only self-subsistent being, whose existence is not derived from any other thing. For created beings it’s not natural to know this kind of self-subsistent being. But this kind of knowledge can be given by grace.

So Aquinas is quite optimistic about the possibility of a created intellect seeing the essence of God, with the aid of divine grace. What is the nature of that seeing? Is it with physical sight? Here Aquinas is consistent with both Origen and Augustine. Consistent with Origen’s concept of God’s physical invisibility.

In Question 12, Article 3 Aquinas addresses the question of “Whether the essence of God can be seen with the bodily eye?” He says:

“It is impossible for God to be seen by the sense of sight, or by any other sense, or faculty of the sensitive power. For every such kind of power is the act of a corporeal organ.”

Aquinas makes the case that the kind of sight in which the created intellect may see the essence of God is a sight of some other kind, other than physical sight. He uses the example of Ephesians 1:17-18.

“Likewise the words, ‘Now my eye seeth Thee,’ are to be understood of the mind’s eye, as the Apostle says: ‘May He give unto you the spirit of wisdom… in the knowledge of Him, that the eyes of your heart’ may be ‘enlightened’”.

Wisdom [σοφία (sophia]) and knowledge [ἐπίγνωσις (epignosis)] may enlighten the “eyes of the heart” [τοὺς ὀφθαλμοὺς τῆς καρδίας (tous ophthalmous tes kardias)]. In talking about “eyes of the heart” we’re clearly speaking of something other than physical vision. It’s seeing in another way.

Speaking further of this “intellectual vision” Aquinas says:

“The sense of sight, as being altogether material, cannot be raised up to immateriality. But our intellect, or the angelic intellect, inasmuch as it is elevated above matter in its own nature, can be raised up above its own nature to a higher level by grace.”

“We have a more perfect knowledge of God by grace than by natural reason. Which is proved thus. The knowledge which we have by natural reason contains two things: images derived from the sensible objects; and the natural intelligible light, enabling us to abstract from them intelligible conceptions.”

Bringing this is all to conclusion I’d like to look at examples from scripture in which we are able to see God through His self-revelation in Christ. Paul says that Christ is “the image of the invisible God [εἰκὼν τοῦ Θεοῦ τοῦ ἀοράτου (eikon tou theou tou aoratou)]” (Colossians 1:15). That seems almost like an oxymoron. How can there be an image of something that’s invisible? I think that here again, as in many instances before, we have to think about the possible different meanings of the words so that they can make sense. Two important terms here are image [εἰκών (eikon)] and invisible [ἀόρατος (aoratos)]. Starting with the invisible, we could say that there are aspects of Christ that are physically visible and others that are physically invisible. Christ’s body is certainly visible. But since Christ is God he also has divine attributes that are invisible, just like those of the father. The senses in which Christ is an image are quite rich. Certainly he is a physical image in his body. Paul says that in Christ “dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily” [σωματικῶς (somatikos)] (Colossians 1:9). Jesus himself also says:

“I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” (John 14:6)


“He who has seen Me has seen the Father; so how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me? The words that I speak to you I do not speak on My own authority; but the Father who dwells in Me does the works. Believe Me that I am in the Father and the Father in Me, or else believe Me for the sake of the works themselves.” (John 14:9-11)

This can certainly pertain to Christ’s body. But Jesus also points to his words [ῥήματα, (rhemata)] and to his works [ἔργα (erga)]. Not only Christ’s body, which most of his do not physically see, but also his entire way of life, his words and his works, as recorded in the scriptures, show us the Father. And those certainly are available to us.

In Matthew Jesus says:

“Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:29)

In inviting us to learn from Him Christ points to His attributes, that he is “gentle and lowly in heart”. Recall how God revealed Himself to Moses when Moses had asked to show him his glory. God made his goodness pass before him and proclaimed his graciousness, compassion, longsuffering, truth, forgiveness, and justice.

Augustine proposed that we could move up through levels of vision from the corporeal to the imaginative to the intellectual. If there’s something to that I’d propose that the most fruitful way to do this is through Jesus Christ. In my Christo-centric theology Christ is always the Way [ἡ ὁδὸς (he hodos)].

So let’s return to the question at the start of this episode. Why doesn’t God just show himself to everyone? Wouldn’t that clear up a lot? Why does God have to be seemingly “hidden” and why is faith, whatever its purported virtue, even necessary?

We see that the understanding of traditional Christianity, both in the scriptures and in the history of theology, is that seeing God is necessarily a different kind of seeing than that of physical sight. This is a consequence of God’s intrinsically invisible nature. As Origen said, it’s not that God could be seen physically and simply decides to hide Himself from us. Rather seeing God is a process of intellectual vision, with what Paul calls the “eyes of the heart” [τοὺς ὀφθαλμοὺς τῆς καρδίας (tous ophthalmous tes kardias)]. So how is this done? At the end of the day it comes down to basic Christian practice. Reading of scripture, prayer, Christian fellowship in the Church, and all the sacraments. All this theoretical background isn’t necessary to engage in the process. But if the question over why God doesn’t reveal Himself to everyone physically has bothered you it could be helpful. I find it helpful and think others may find it helpful, even though it’s quite demanding. We have the scriptures and we can read about Jesus Christ, his life, words, and teachings. As we read these words and think about them and put them into practice they will expand our understanding, so that we can grasp the fullness of these attributes in our intellect. This is the Way to the Father, always through Christ, eventually to be able to see, with the eyes of the heart, the very essence of God.

The Tikal-Calakmul Wars

One of the great things about Mesoamerican history is that we know so much about it. Names of places like Tikal, Calakmul, and Copán might inspire images of stone temples with a mysterious, long-lost history. This may have been true one hundred years ago. But today we know a great deal about their history because we can read their writing. We know the names of their rulers. We know important things that they did. In fact, they put a lot of effort into making sure their histories were preserved for posterity. Thanks to these records we have some very exciting and interesting history.

One of the great things about Mesoamerican history is that we know so much about it. Names of places like Tikal, Calakmul, and Copán might inspire images of stone temples with a mysterious, long-lost history. This may have been true one hundred years ago. But today we know a great deal about their history because we can read their writing. We know the names of their rulers. We know important things that they did. In fact, they put a lot of effort into making sure their histories were preserved for posterity. Thanks to these records we have some very exciting and interesting history.

One of the most important things to understand about Mayan politics in the Classic Period was the rivalry between Tikal and Calakmul. The clashes between these two states dominated the region. These are often called the Tikal-Calakmul Wars and they took place between 537 to 744. These two states forged complicated networks of alliances with other states as they competed for dominance. It’s great history, full of violence and intrigue. Other key players in the great wars included Dos Pilas, Copán, Quiriguá, Naranjo, and Caracol. This period of warefare can be divided into three warring periods: The First Tikal-Calakmul War (537–572), The Second Tikal-Calakmul War (650–695), and the Third Tikal-Calakmul War (720–744).

In what follows I will give a historical narrative of events in the Tikal-Calakmul Wars without referring to all the archeological evidence and glyphs that were used to construct it. This kind of detailed background is available in Robert Sharer and Loa Traxler’s excellent book The Ancient Maya.


Before the ascendancy of Calakmul, Tikal had been the dominant power in the region. One of the most important events in the history of Tikal occurred in 378 when it’s ruler, Chak Tok Ich’aak I (Great Jaguar Paw), was killed by foreign invaders. Chak Tok Ich’aak was defeated by one Siyaj K’ak’ (Fireborn) ostensibly under the auspices of Teotichuacan. Siyaj K’ak’ was serving under Spearthrower Owl, possibly the ruler of Teotichuacan. The first ruler of the new dynasty was Yax Nuun Ayiin I. The new dynasty installed in Tikal was thereafter influenced by Teotihuacan culture mixed with Mayan culture. Tikal exercised significant influence over states in the region in ways that would set the stage for the alliances in the Tikal-Calakmul wars. In 426, Tikal installed K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’ as the first ruler of Copán. Copán in turn founded the vassal state of Quiriguá in 426. Calakmul was a less important power in the region until the onset of the First Tikal-Calakmul War in 537.

The First Tikal-Calakmul War (537-572)

Calakmul began to wield more influence in the region after Yaxchilan captured the rulers of Bonampak, Lakamtuun, and Calakmul in 537. After its defeat by Yaxchilan, Calakmul retaliated and conquered Yaxchilan. Calakmul then began to show more ambition, conquering other states. In 546 Calakmul defeated Naranjo and installed Aj Wosal as ruler. This gave Calakmul hegemony over Naranjo and extended its sphere of influence. Meanwhile, in Tikal, Wak Chan K’awill oversaw the inauguration of Yajaw Te’ K’inich II in Caracol. Wak Chan K’awill may have been reacting to Calakmul’s growing power by strengthening an alliance with Caracol. In any event a Tikal-Caracol alliance was not to last.

Tikal and Caracol broke whatever alliance they had and the two states went to war with each other in 556. But things were going to get worse for Tikal. In 561, a new ruler named Sky Witness came to power in Calakmul. One year later, in 562, Wak Chan K’awill was captured by Caracol, which had switched alliances and joined Calakmul. Under this new Calakmul-Caracol alliance Wak Chan K’awill was offered as sacrifice and Tikal suffered significant loss of prestige and influence. Tikal did win some less significant battles in the years following, such as a victory over Caracol in 564. But by 572 Tikal was thoroughly defeated and the First Tikal-Calakmul more came to a close. That same year Sky Witness died.

After the First Tikal-Calakmul War, Tikal entered a period of hiatus. During this time Calakmul strengthened its hegemony. In 579 Scroll Serpent came to power in Calakmul. In 611 Scroll Serpent launched a major campaign against Palenque. The reason for this campaign is not known for certain but Palenque may have been a Tikal ally and this may have been part of the larger conflict between the two states. This attack on Palenque was an impressive logistical achievement and a fine demonstration of Calakmul’s power and ambition. It was a long-distance campaign. Palenque lies nearly 300 km from Calakmul and the army needed to cross several rivers, including the Usumacinta, to get there. As an aside, it was during this time that the future king of Palenque, K’inich Janaab Pakal I, was a young boy. K’inich Janaab Pakal I (603-683), or Pacal the Great, would later become one of the most famous rulers in Mesoamerican history. Pacal’s tomb is also one of the most impressive tombs to have been discovered in the Americas.

There was also trouble within the Calakmul alliance. Caracol and Naranjo were both allies of Calakmul but they were also longtime enemies of each other. In 626 Caracol launched two attacks on Naranjo. Caracol’s king, Tajoom Uk’ab’ K’ak’ was dead shortly after in 630, possibly from conflict with Naranjo. In 631 it seems that Calakmul’s ruler, Yuknoom Head, dealt with these inter-alliance conflicts by conquering Naranjo and torturing its ruler.

Meanwhile in Tikal, Ajaw K’inich Muwaan Jol II founded the vassal state of Dos Pilas in 629, installing his own son, B’alaj Chan K’awiil, as its ruler. B’alaj Chan K’awiil was going to have an important part to play in the upcoming resurgence of conflict with Calakmul. Tikal’s influence was beginning to resurface and become a threat to Calakmul, which was now becoming accustomed to its preeminent position.

The Second Tikal-Calakmul War (650–695)

In 636 one of the most important rulers in Maya history came to power in Calakmul. His name was Yuknoom Ch’een II, also known as Yuknoom the Great. He was to reign for 50 years from 636 to 686. In 650 Yuknoom the Great launched an attack on Dos Pilas, Tikal’s recently formed vassal state. This began the Second Tikal-Calakmul War. The ruler of Dos Pilas, B’alaj Chan K’awiil, was the son of the late Tikal ruler Ajaw K’inich Muwaan Jol II. B’alaj Chan K’awiil was forced to flee from Dos Pilas to Aguateca.

In 657 Yuknoom the Great attacked Tikal itself, which was now under the rule of Nuun Ujol Chaak. If Nuun Ujol Chaak was the son of previous ruler, Ajaw K’inich Muwaan Jol II, he would have been the brother of the exiled Dos Pilas ruler B’alaj Chan K’awiil. If these two were indeed brothers they were about to be engaged in a fracticidal conflict of shifting alliances. In any event, Nuun Ujol Chaak was forced to flee Tikal. That same year B’alaj Chan K’awiil accepted Yuknoom the Great as his overlord and Dos Pilas, the vassal state Tikal had founded, moved into the Calakmul alliance.

After submitting to Calakmul, B’alaj Chan K’awiil was able to return to Dos Pilas but 15 years later, in 672, he was forced to flee again. That year Nuun Ujol Chaak attacked Dos Pilas and B’alaj Chan K’awiil fled to Chaak Naah. Seemingly in relentless pursuit, Nuun Ujol Chaak burned down Chaak Naah, forcing B’alaj Chan K’awiil to flee yet again, this time to Hix Witz. In 677 Calakmul defeated Nuun Ujol Chaak at Pulil and B’alaj Chan K’awiil was once again able to return to Dos Pilas.

The conflict between Tikal, Dos Pilas, and Calakmul came to a head in 679, when Dos Pilas and Calakmul finally defeated and killed Nuun Ujol Chaak. The battle was apparently very bloody and celebrated for this fact. In 682 B’alaj Chan K’awiil commissioned inscriptions to commemorate his struggles and ultimate, glorious victory over Tikal. Famously, the inscriptions speak of “pools of blood” and “piles of heads” in the great battle. B’alaj Chan K’awiil spent a lot of effort to assure his legacy, quite successfully it seems. B’alaj Chan K’awiil also strenghtened his position through marriage alliances. He produced his heir, Itzamnaaj Balam, through a wife from the nobility of Itzan. Through his second wife came a daughter, named Lady Six Sky.

Meanwhile, Caracol’s influence began to decline after a defeat at the hands of its old rival, Naranjo, in 680. Caracol’s deposed king, K’ak’ Ujol K’inich II, fled. In 682 the daughter of Dos Pilas ruler B’alaj Chan K’awiil, Lady Six Sky, was chosen as ruler of Naranjo. She proved to be an exceptional leader and appears on several monuments. She was never formally ruler herself but carried out royal functions and seems to have been the de facto ruler. In 688 K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Chaak become official ruler of Naranjo but he was only 5 years old at the time. He was probably Lady Six Sky’s son and she almost certainly acted as regent for quite some time. Lady Six Sky seems to have lead Naranjo in 8 military campaigns in the first 5 years of K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Chaak’s reign, including a victory against Tikal in 695.

Meanwhile, in Tikal a sleeping giant was growing. In 682 Jasaw Chan K’awill I came to power and launched an ambitious cultural revitalization program. This program included the construction of temples and tombs that pointed back to Tikal’s glorious past, before it lost it’s preeminence to Calakmul. It was clear that Jasaw Chan K’awill I’s revitalization not only pointed to a glorious past but looked forward to a similarly glorious future. This was an ominous sign for Calakmul.

In 695 the Second Tikal-Calakmul War came to a climax. Tikal recorded that it successfully confronted Calakmul, “bringing down the flint and shield” of its ruler, Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ak’. In an important symbolic move, in a world rich in symbolism, Tikal captured a huge effigy of one of Calakmul’s patron deities. Jasaw Chan K’awill I celebrated his victory with ceremony and inscriptions. Ever one to connect Tikal’s glory to the past, he chose to hold his victory celebration on the anniversary of the death of Spearthrower Owl, father of the Yax Nuun Ayiin I, who had replaced Chak Tok Ich’aak I as ruler back in 379.

The Third Tikal-Calakmul War (720-744)

The great victory of Tikal over Calakmul in 695 changed the course history in the region. It went a long way to restore Tikal’s prestige and dominance. But there were still some important events in the region following this great battle. The Third Tikal-Calakmul War involved two very key players: Copán and Quiriguá. Recall that before the wars, Tikal had founded Copán in 426, installing as its ruler K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’. Copán in turn founded its own vassal state of Quiriguá in 426. This system of relations was critical to what would follow.

In 725 the ruler of Copán, Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil (18-Rabbit), installed K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat as a subordinate ruler in Quiriguá. But by 734 K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat had declared Quiriguá independent from Copán. Things got even more complicated a couple years later. As a subordinate state to Copán, Quiriguá had been, by extension, subject to Tikal. Quiriguá had been part of a network of alliances tied to Tikal. But in 736 Calakmul’s ruler, Wamaw K’awiil, met with K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat and forged an alliance. Quiriguá had switched sides.

Quiriguá was a smaller state than Copán and presumably less powerful on its own. But with a superpower like Calakmul backing it, Quiriguá was able to challenge and actually defeat Copán. In 738 K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat captured his former overlord, Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil, and beheaded him. It was a dramatic reversal.

However, Calakmul was ultimately not able to permanently thwart Tikal’s regained dominance. In 743 Tikal conquered El Peru. In 744 also defeated Naranjo and then Calakmul itself ending the Third Tikal-Calakmul War.


The history of both kingdoms was much less glorious following the events of the great battle of 695 and the battles between Copán and Quiriguá. In fact, the entire region seems to have entered into a decline, at least as far as organizational complexity is concerned. The reasons for the decline of the Classic Maya civilization are heavily debated. One theory is that the Tikal-Calakmul Wars took such a toll on the inhabitants of Mesoamerica that it led to a collapse. Other theories include drought, climate change, overpopulation, and mismanagement of natural resources. Popular theories like drought focus on external forces that we can measure and quantify archeologically. But it is also possible that various cultural trends contributed to a change in the structure of the civilization. But a simultaneous decrease in the amount records being kept at this time makes cultural causes difficult to corroborate. Eventually new powers like Uxmal and Chichen Itza came to dominate in Terminal Classic and Postclassic.

Additional Reading

Sharer, Robert J., and Loa P. Traxler. The Ancient Maya. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2006.

Edwin Barnhart. Maya to Aztec: Ancient Mesoamerica Revealed. Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company, 2015.

Simon Martin, and Nikolai Grube. Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Thames and Hudson, 2008.