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An age in thrall to enthusiasm

By Peter Sellick - posted Friday, 13 June 2008

There is something within us that signals that we are in the presence of an enthusiast. I had that feeling while watching Andrew Denton interview Jeff Kennett. After stalling question after question Jeff launched into a promo about depression and the organisation Beyond Blue. This kind of behaviour is embarrassing because it breaks the norms of conversation. This is why we quickly move away from someone we meet at a party who displays enthusiast tendencies, there is no room for conversation, let alone a quiet critical discussion, you are there only to receive the message.

The historian John Pocock, in an article on Enlightenment England, refers to a gravestone said to record that a certain clergyman “served his Maker for forty years without the smallest sign of enthusiasm”. Admittedly, he also says that this may be a piece of historian’s folklore since he has never seen the said grave stone or possesses any reference to it or authentication.

Still, it is an interesting inscription that sounds odd in our day. For our response on reading it is that this was a slur on a lazy and careless clergyman and we wonder who would be so uncharitable as to place such a slur on his headstone. The explanation is that “enthusiasm” in 17th and 18th century England was “the belief in personal inspiration, in the infusion, in-pouring or inbreathing of the Holy Spirit to the psyche of the individual”. This movement was thought to be a danger to religion and to society. Hence the inscription was not a slur but praise for resisting this noxious idea that threatened to overthrow church and society.


There had been outbreaks of enthusiasm on the continent after the reformation that wrought havoc to the civil society. Closer to home, the period of the Protectorate under Cromwell, which followed the regicide of Charles I and during which the power of the bishops was cancelled, saw a hotbed of gathered communities and sects that, in the absence of Episcopal authority claimed to be energised by the Spirit of God.

Pocock surmises that the Enlightenment in England was in part a response to the lawlessness so produced and that that movement produced a highly intellectual religious culture in which God could be imputed but never encountered. The result was the laicisation of English life as referred to in a previous article on Jane Austin and the substitution of the above encounter with theistically sanctioned morality complete with the threat of punishment in the afterlife.

Pocock states that “It is this self deification of the auto-intoxicated mind that gives enthusiasm its terrible power; while enthusiasm lasts, says Hume, the normal operations of history are suspended.”

It is clear that much of the present day antipathy towards religion of all stripes, especially since 9-11, is directed against this kind of religiosity. Fundamentalist Christians in America can believe in angels, disbelieve the theory of evolution, long for the end of the world and trust in faith healing. Enthusiasm is “the worship of the godhead in the ideas that the human mind formed concerning it, and then disastrously supposed to be the godhead itself, working within the mind, inspiring and possessing it.”

So enthusiasm is not merely intense emotion, although it may be accompanied by that, it is essentially an intellectual phenomenon.

Abraham Heschel reminds us that the Greeks understood enthusiasm as a “divine seizure”, as the state of being filled with the god, enthusias, in the original sense of the word enthos: having god in oneself.


The problem for church and society in this is the problem of discernment, which is the same problem that writers had in the Old Testament discerning true from false prophets. It is also the phenomenon that makes selection of candidates for Christian ministry a minefield, not to mention the selection of candidates for public life. Enthusiasm often masks ability.

Enthusiasm has a long history in religion from the Greek bacchanalian cults, to the societies of prophets recorded in the Old Testament, to post reformation anabaptists and in our day the charismatic movement. Indeed the new mega-churches pitch their worship with the calculated intent of producing an ecstatic experience for those who attend. The deadly mix occurs when enthusiasm mixes with passion.

Enthusiasm was deemed dangerous in the religious realm because it promised a short cut to the divine, that is, a short cut that ignored the doctrines of the Church and the benefit of clergy. This movement is an outcome of antidogmatism that was discussed on these pages two months ago. Civil and church authorities rightly saw that it is a dangerous thing, get it wrong and you could find yourself and your children drinking the Kool Aid laced with cyanide. Get it wrong and you could find your life making no sense at all or flying a plane into the world trade center.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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