Having discussed briefly the occasion of Dryden's writing of Religio Laici, we now get to turn to the piece itself.
Remember that Simon's Critical History raised the ire of both traditionalist Catholics and Protestants. It met flames in Paris, prompted by Jacques-Bénigne Bousset, and the few copies that made it to England in 1678 received just as "warm" a welcome.
It's not clear as to when or how deeply Dryden became familiar with Simon's work (was it as late as 1682 when the first English translation was produced?), but in any event, he set out to write Religio in order to reason his readers "into Truth"—a particularly Anglican version of it, in contrast to the claims of Deists, papists, and the non-conformists surrounding him. True, reason is dim light (l.1), but nevertheless it is a guide (l. 7); it simply pales before the blinding light of supernatural revelation (ll. 10–11). Put another way, Dryden's view of faith and reason and tradition is quintessentially Hookerian; that is to say, there is a hierarchical ranking when approaching matters of faith and practice: (1) “What Scripture doth plainly deliver”; (2) That which may be concluded “by force of reason”; and (3) That which “the church by her ecclesiastical authority” thinks and defines as true.
How can the less the Greater comprehend?Starting with the caveat that finite reason cannot reach the infinite (a version perhaps of the Reformed notion of finitum non capax infiniti), Dryden begins his section against the Deists. We won't spend much time covering this part of the poem, suffice to say that he thinks the Deists are self-refuting—the truths they assert are arrived at only after faith had shown the way for their reason:
Or finite Reason reach Infinity?
For what cou’d Fathom GOD were more than He. (ll. 39–41)
These Truths are not the product of the Mind,A fine example of early modern presuppositional apologetics, yes? He then wonders if the Deists think they're all smarter than Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch, Seneca, or Cicero, none of whom saw these truths so well? The implication is clear: the Deists are borrowing from revealed religion in their extrapolations from the natural world. "Vain, wretched Creature, how art thou misled / To think thy Wit these God-like notions bred!" (ll. 64–65)
but dropt from Heaven, and of a Nobler kind.
Reveal'd Religion first inform'd thy Sight,
And Reason saw not, till Faith sprung the Light.
Hence all their Natural Worship takes the Source:
'Tis Revelation what thou thinks Discourse. (ll. 66–71)
Dryden then moves on to assert how in the end the Deists stand lost, forsaking as they have all the essentials of salvation revealed to us in Holy Scripture (the incarnation, the sacrifice, the atonement, etc.). And then he allows the Deist one objection: the problem of pluralism. What about those who never "saw the Light" (l. 183) of God's Messiah revealed in the scriptures? Dryden's answer is fairly typical among the latitudinarians of his day (which is a widely misunderstood term, not least since its meaning changed over time; cf. Griffin's Latitudinarianism in the Seventeenth-Century Church of England). He has hope, hope that God's "boundless Wisedom, boundless Mercy, may / Find ev’n for those be-wildred Souls, a way" (ll. 189–88). It's the chief objection to the Christian faith in an increasingly spherical and undiscovered world in a heliocentric solar system; so Dryden wonders, "Who knows how far transcending Goodness can / Extend the Merits of that Son to Man?" (ll. 194–95) But reason ("Charity") alone doesn't afford him this speculation, St. Paul grants him the impetus as well: In his paraphrase of Romans 2:12–16, Dryden sees a direct correlation to those . . .
. . . who follow’d Reasons Dictates right;Perhaps this pushes the envelope a little (not least in his Catholic or Remonstrant interpretation of Rom 2), but that many theologians and thinkers during this time faced the new pluralism and answered it similarly is a matter of fact.
Liv’d up, and lifted high their Natural Light;
With Socrates may see their Maker’s Face,
While Thousand Rubrick-Martyrs want a place. (208–11)
Next time, we'll dive into Dryden's "digression" about Simon's Critical History and his Roman Catholic claims.