The Book of God

The Book of God: Secularization and Design in the Romantic Era (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007) studies the argument from design as it emerged and circulated in the romantic era. This argument holds that the intricacy and complexity of the natural world points to a divine designer and that nature is to be read as God’s book. A literary and philosophical study of this idea, The Book of God revisits the familiar equation of romanticism, modernity, and secularization. Tracing this idea through diverse texts, ranging from philosophy and theology to poetry and fiction, the book argues that the idea of design functions as both source and interlocutor for many of romanticism’s most famous topics. Arguing that design structures a romantic modernity neither progressive nor entirely secular, it concludes with current controversies over intelligent design and evolution, arguing for a historically informed approach to modernity’s attempts to divide the religious from the secular.

Colin Jager is an Associate Professor of English at Rutgers University.

Read the introduction: [PDF]

Reviews of The Book of God

  • Thomas Pfau’s review in Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net (Fall, 2009)
  • Sean Dempsey in Studies in Romanticism (Fall, 2009) [PDF]
  • Mark Canuel in Eighteenth Century Life (Fall, 2009) [PDF]
  • Margaret Russett, “Recent Studies in the Nineteenth Century,” SEL 47.4 (Autumn 2007)[PDF]
  • other reviews: Romantic Circles, 1650-1850, Nineteenth-Century Contexts
  • From the Times Literary Supplement, February 15, 2008:

The claim that God’s existence can be inferred from the order and intricacy of the world has an ancient lineage.  The Book of God explores the literary, philosophical, and theological inflection of this avowal in the context of encroaching secularism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in general, and in the Romantic era in particular.  It is a timely work, for the historical survey bears also on contemporary discussion.  Some recent commentators have made much of the alleged incompatibility between science and religion.  Colin Jager’s sensitivity to the complexity of “secularization” serves to subvert this binary thinking.

The term normally describes a loss of belief or a decline in the authority of religious institutions; and it is often assumed that there exists a causal relationship between these two.  Jager’s contrary evidence is striking: there can often be traced an inverse link between individual participation and religion’s institutional power.  Empirical evidence is also used by Jager to challenge the fundamental assumption of the classical secularization thesis, namely that religion declines as societies modernize.  Western Europe (though it must be distinguished into northern, southern, and former Eastern Bloc countries) is a conspicuous exception, of course.  In the period covered by Jager, the data shows that religious participation in England actually rose between 1800 and 1850, and then held or rose gradually until 1900.  This trend is the more telling given that it constitutes “the period of most intense modernization and industrialization.”

As this thesis is pursued through a rich discussion of, among others, Wordsworth, Jane Austen, Anna Barbauld. David Hume and William Paley, two traditionally polarized accounts of the period are negotiated.  Romantic literature is convincingly reinterpreted as neither straightforwardly “secular scripture,” nor as a simple critique of that same spiritualizing tendency that sought to preserve or humanize spirituality by abandoning organized religion.  In addition to its valuable contribution to the revision of Romantic exceptionalism, then, this book is more generally to be welcomed for exposing the way “secularization” remains, within literary study, an analytically fuzzy category that usually “tells us as much about the self-understanding of modern-day interpreters as it does about the historical period under consideration.”

–Michael D. Hurley