Faculty Book Review

Colin Jager
The Book of God: Secularization and Design in the Romantic Era
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006

Reviewed by William H. Galperin

Colin Jager’s first book, The Book of God: Secularization and Design in the Romantic Era, makes an important contribution to our understanding of British Romantic literature by revising the prevailing view of Romanticism as a species of modernity defined chiefly by an idea of progress or secularization. Focusing on the argument for design, which extrapolates and analogizes the existence of a divine creator from the evidence of the natural world, Jager widens his frame of reference to include not only William Paley, the principal exponent of design in the late eighteenth century, but other contemporaries or near-contemporaries as well, especially David Hume, Anna Barbauld, and Jane Austen, whom he then reads in Paley’s company, and finally in conjunction with William Wordsworth, the most critically important Romantic writer of the time. One upshot of Jager’s investigation is that Romantic secularization is contradicted repeatedly in the way design informs texts that are contemporaneous with Romantic writing or representative of the British Romantic movement in its canonical formation.

Perhaps the most important achievement of The Book of God lies in its redefinition of Romantic secularization. According to Jager, secularization is less a break with the past than a matter of differentiation, in which modern initiatives coexist with practices and orientations whose historical shape is as much a matter of modernity as it is a residue of tradition. The advantage of this approach is that orientations such as natural theology, in which science and religion seemingly converge, turn out to be a species of modernity not by sustaining that convergence, but more by demonstrating the persistence of belief in practices where it is seemingly absent.

In examining Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Jager demonstrates that even when the argument for design is shown to be inductive rather than deductive, a designing God remains very much at the fore. His basis for this claim is in the Dialogues themselves, where Cleanthes, the proponent of design, is deemed the winner in the debate despite being roundly defeated by the skeptic Philo. What matters, according to Jager, is not the debate or its conclusions, in which skepticism prevails, but the dialogue itself, which projects a social unity grounded in belief or in the way the “idea of a designing God is made coherent by the act of coming together to debate its probability.”

This sense of belief as practice—as something sufficiently present and habitual regardless of its impoverishment at the hands of experience—proves the basis, too, of Jager’s reading of Anna Barbauld’s “A Summer Evening’s Meditation.” Once again it is failure—specifically the cognitive and epistemological failure of Barbauld’s flight of fancy—that is key. Even as the poem follows Hume in demonstrating the futility of the analogical argument, it also follows Hume in demonstrating analogy’s persistence as an idea predicated on belief or habit.

Jager next turns his attention to Paley himself, whose Natural Theology prosecutes an argument that, following Hume’s conclusion in the Dialogues, stresses the inclination to “feel in a certain way” when presented with the evidence of intricately formed objects from nature. The emphasis is not necessarily on the strength of Paley’s argument as much as on the “emotional force” of statements such as this one: “We find that the eye of a fish, in that part of it called the crystalline lens, is much rounder than the eye of terrestrial animals. What plainer manifestation of design can there be?” But that is not all. In segueing to Immanuel Kant, another opponent of design, Jager shows how the idea of purposiveness—namely that an object is made for a purpose—is a “sensibility” owned by the argument for design. Thus, even as purposiveness remains a matter of judgment rather than a question of intention in Kant’s aesthetic theory, it also registers as a desire for completion, or for a teleological judgment in which intention or design remains the only vocabulary at Kant’s disposal.

The chapters on Wordsworth are taken up with an intentionality that is a way of reading nature of which poetic creation remains the vehicle par excellence. Returning to the idea of Wordsworth as nature poet, Jager mobilizes design to show not only how poetic creation for Wordsworth is a matter of reading nature correctly, but also how poetry is effectively a gift of nature itself. In what might well be the study’s most compelling instance of differentiation or multiple modernity, Jager reads the “analogy passage” at the close and climax of Wordsworth’s The Prelude, to show how imaginative agency and divine agency are continuous yet necessarily discrete. In a stroke of considerable ingenuity, The Prelude is able to “keep religious forms at arms length” so as not to compromise the status of literature. The emergence of literature as a privileged category or register of response is an epiphenomenon of belief itself.

Austen proves to be the exception in this study. For as Jager repeatedly shows, many seemingly nonreligious practices and orientations become religious through the logic of differentiation, the sites of belief, or the need to find answers. The Book of God manages not only to extend the field of Romantic studies to include texts and contexts that are contemporaneous rather than romantic (hence the “Romantic era” rather than “Romanticism” in the title); it also extends the field of Romanticism to include aspects of human nature that were of considerable interest to the human or empirical sciences in the eighteenth century.