Theodicy, Enlightenment, and American History: Exploring Dr. Lee’s Forthcoming Book

Templeton professor Dr. Michael Lee has spent the summer working on his new book about American theological history. In his last book, The Erosion of Biblical Certainty: Battles over Authority and Interpretation in America, Dr. Lee examines early American theological pursuits which, he argues, ultimately unintentionally helped bring about the downfall of an earlier, more pre-modern approach to biblical certainty and interpretation. In his new work, Dr. Lee is once again sleuthing through forgotten manuscripts and sermons to investigate a new subject: an American history of theodicy.

The grand theological question posed by the suppositions of God’s ultimate goodness and ultimate power has been grappled with by some of the finest minds Christianity has had to offer. Sts. Augustine, Aquinas, and Chrysostom all wrestled with the question. But to do battle on the theological battle is not Dr. Lee’s goal. “I want to write a biography of an idea, and how that idea has changed over time,” he said. He is interested particularly in how the development of American thought shaped the debate over theodicy through theological, social, and political forces. Dr. Lee is still sorting through the evidence and diligently untying the Gordian Knot of historical interpretation around this topic, but was kind enough to allow me into his office, the sanctum sanctorum of American History on our campus, and allow me to ask him some questions about his work.

Dr. Lee observes how the problem of theodicy has been addressed by theologians of past millennia, and points out that it is not until the rise of the enlightenment and the provocations of the deists that the question gains anything close to the garment-rending concern it is often given in later theological circles. He also finds it particularly interesting that it is not really until then that prominent Christians, in their disputations against the deists, seem to scramble for definitive answers to a well-aged question.

As an American historian, Dr. Lee is also fascinated by the rise of American political thought, which is generally rather derivative of the enlightenment. The switch from a relatively unlimited divine-right vision of monarchy to that of a more parliamentary system of checks and balances which place the king under the law—and ultimately, for Americans,  replaced the monarchy altogether—closely mirrors the theological switch that suddenly subjects God to the laws of morality as if he were but man.

Enlightenment, and later, American economic thought, Dr. Lee believes, may have also played a part in our understandings of the theodicy. “Compare Adam Smith to, say, Pilgrim’s Progress,” says Lee. He explains that the shift by enlightenment thought away from the more ascetic and medieval ways of understanding Christianity, which tended to eschew desire and wealth, towards a more gain-oriented philosophy in which self-interest benefits all parties materially, may make the change in the way Americans and Enlightenment continentals view the theodicy more intelligible. A general philosophical orientation of life around holiness—one means of attaining which is suffering—is exchanged for a life which revolves around “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Perhaps suffering and tribulation in the world is more intelligible and less anxiety-provoking when comfort and material wealth were not viewed as centrally as they came to be viewed in the enlightenment.

Thus, in search of a better historical perspective on how Enlightenment-influenced American thought shaped the discourse around theodicy, Dr. Lee pores through time-worn sermons by early American patriarchs and churchmen, beneath the many pennants of his Alma Maters. While Dr. Lee is still in the early stages of his research, the ideas he proposes are profound and fascinating: we eagerly await the publication of his discoveries. 


Wayne Brown (’18) is a Templeton scholar studying history, accounting, and finance. He is a fellow of the Agora Institute, co-founder of Eastern’s ISI Montaigne Society, and a member of Eastern’s Center for Orthodox Thought and Culture.

Comments

  1. I would love to have a review copy of Dr. Lee’s book The Erosion of Biblical Certainty and am interested in his upcoming book as well. I review books on my blog listed above. Books dealing with the intersection of history and theology are a special love and specialty of mine.

    Reply
    • Michael Lee

      Mr. House,

      Thank you for your interest in my work. For a review copy, contact my publisher, Palgrave Macmillan.

      Cheers,

      Michael Lee

      Reply

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