Conrad Wright’s 1970 collection of essays The Liberal Christians is a classic of American church history, especially for those of us who work on the more liberal streams of the tradition. Wright is a major historian of Unitarianism in particular, and it is with the Unitarians that The Liberal Christians is concerned. Perhaps most important is Wright’s opening essay on rational religion, which is of great importance for understanding the world of eighteenth century American Christian thought. Wright’s major achievement in this essay is the highlighting of an awkward but nonetheless highly useful term, supernatural rationalism, describing a phenomenon that is otherwise hard to discern. Supernaturalism and rationalism seem like opponents to the modern reader, so the term is helpful in pointing away from anachronistic approaches to the subject.
Wright calls attention to a middle way between Deism and Christian enthusiasm which appears to have been widespread. In so doing, he not only points out a common attitude but also draws the Deists and revivalistic evangelicals into sharper focus. The supernatural rationalists shared with the Deists an appreciation of reason and natural religion, while they also shared with the evangelicals a belief in the Christian revelation. For them, natural religion serves as the launching point for the special revelation of Jesus Christ, which not only doesn’t oppose reason, it is confirmed because of its accordance with reason. Christianity for them is rational, not mysterious: even miracles are basically the logical actions that an orderly God would take to intelligently demonstrate his intentions to humanity. One could call it a theology that promotes the reasonableness of the miraculous. Christianity thus functions to guide people in a Newtonian, Lockian universe, discernible through the senses and intelligible to the mind that approaches it empirically. Natural religion sets the stage, and revealed religion becomes the star performer.
The term is especially important for historians of Unitarianism and for Unitarians wishing to understand our history. Wright is a major historian of Unitarianism and as he points out in The Liberal Christians, it is these supernatural rationalists, not the vaunted Deists, who are our direct forebears. It brings to mind Channing’s intention in entering the ministry, which was not to fight the conservatives but rather because he was alarmed by the growing levels of non-belief in the United States and Europe.
A few excerpts from Wright will help illustrate his main points:
“There were, in short, two kinds of rationalism in religion in the eighteenth century. One was Deism, which maintained that the unassuming intellectual powers of man can discover the essential doctrines of religion: the existence of God, the obligations resting on men of piety towards their Creator and of benevolence towards one another, and a future state of rewards and punishments. For the true deist, these tenets of Natural Religion were enough, without any doctrines of Revealed Religion. The other kind of rationalist agreed with the deist that there is such a thing as Natural Religion, but denied its adequacy, insisting that it must be supplemented with additional doctrines which come to us by a special divine revelation of God’s will. We shall never understand the religion of the Age of Reason until we recognize that, from the point of view of that century, the difference between these two kinds of rationalism was simply tremendous. We have been led to suppose that because both groups believed in Natural Religion, they were, after all, pretty much alike. It is historically much more nearly correct to say that because one group accepted the Christian revelation, while the other did not, the gulf between them was considered to be unbridgeable.”
“[From the point of view of our supernatural rationalist forebears] Revealed Religion is as rational as Natural Religion, not in the sense that its principles are discovered by the bare use of reason, but in the sense that reason accepts them and approves them as soon as they are known.”
“Here, then, are the essential principles of what we have called–for lack of a better name–‘Supernatural Rationalism.’ Like the deists, the supernatural rationalists asserted the validity of Natural Religion, arguing for the existence of God largely in terms of a Creator who set the heavenly bodies moving harmoniously in their orbits. Unlike the deists, they also asserted the validity of Revealed Religion, which may present doctrines that are above reason, but not contrary to it. Like the deists, they assumed that acceptance of the claims of a particular religion to be a divine revelation is solely a matter of historical evidence and logical analysis. Unlike the deists–and skeptics like Hume–they were persuaded by the historical evidence for Christianity, especially the miracles. Other bases for Christian faith were set aside; its claims do not rest on religious experience, or on tradition, or on the authority of the Church, or on the witness of the Spirit, which had once assured the Puritan that the Bible was truly the Word of God.”