A passionate tumultuous age will overthrow everything, pull everything down; but a revolutionary age, that is at the same time reflective and passionless, transforms that expression of strength into a feat of dialectics: it leaves everything standing but cunningly empties it of significance. Instead of culminating in a rebellion it reduces the inward reality of all relationships to a reflective tension which leaves everything standing but makes the whole of life ambiguous: so that everything continues to exist factually whilst by a dialectical deceit, privatissime, it supplies a secret interpretation—that it does not exist.
—Søren Kierkegaard, The Present Age
It is not religious because of the quality of its faith, but because of the quality of its doubt.
—T. S. Eliot on Tennyson’s In Memoriam
When Alcibiades defected from Athens to Sparta at the height of the Sicilian Expedition, one of the things that made his treachery so effective was that he knew the Athenian military strategy intimately from within. Having himself been a commander of the Athenian forces, he understood exactly what Sparta should do to inflict maximum damage on Athens’s interests. It would be unfair in all sorts of ways to compare the English writer A. N. Wilson to Alcibiades— “the most complete example,” Sir Edward Creasy remarked in 1851, “of genius without principle that history produces, the Bolingbroke of antiquity”—and I have no intention of doing so. But there is a peculiarity about Wilson’s latest book, God’s Funeral1 that kept reminding me of someone who, feeling betrayed, switches sides and sets out to avenge himself on his former compatriots. Wilson’s announced subject in God’s Funeral is “the demise of faith among the Victorians”—less, he explains, “the end of a phase of human intellectual history” than “the withdrawal of a great Love-object.” And Wilson himself, as one reviewer put it, is “a lapsed orthodox Anglican.” (At one time he even studied for the clergy.) In God’s Funeral, this interesting conjunction of lapsed orthodoxy and lost love yields a species of intellectual history in which arrogance infects the exposition and professed admiration often betrays a current of contempt.
Of course, that is not the whole story. A. N. Wilson is an engaging and knowledgeable writer—a notably prolific one as well. In addition to having written a shelf of novels (Wise Virgin, The Vicar of Sorrows, Daughters of Albion, etc.), the fifty-year-old Wilson is also the author of something like a dozen biographies: of Milton, Hilaire Belloc, C. S. Lewis, St. Paul, Jesus, and Tolstoy, among others. He is also an inescapable presence in English journalism, producing with indefatigable regularity articulate, quirkily Toryish columns for various quality papers.
God’s Funeral kept reminding me of someone who, feeling betrayed, switches sides and sets out to avenge himself on his former compatriots.
It is not surprising that such prodigious output often lends Wilson’s excursions in intellectual history an intermittently potted quality. It would be surprising were this not the case. Much of God’s Funeral, in any event, shows signs of hasty digestion, though in this book as elsewhere the verve of Wilson’s rhetoric helps to mitigate—or at least distract attention from—its summary, swotted-up character. But because the subject of God’s Funeral continues to resonate powerfully, it is worth following the course of its argument with some care.
Wilson takes his title and his theme from Thomas Hardy’s poem depicting a “slow-stepping” cortege that bears “A strange and mystic form” to its last resting place, “toward our myth’s oblivion.” As originally published, in The Fortnightly Review in 1912, “God’s Funeral” bore the subtitle “An Allegorical Conception/ Of the Present State of Theology.” Wilson doesn’t mention this, but the subtitle suggests, I think, that the poem may be read as a somberly ironical commentary on those proclaiming the death or absence of God as much as a declaration of disbelief on the part of the narrator. In any event, the tone of “God’s Funeral” is one of profound bereavement, not triumph. The narrator notes that in the background are “Sweet women, youths, men, all incredulous,/ Who chimed: ‘This is a counterfeit of straw,/ This requiem mockery! Still he lives to us!’” But he sadly acknowledges that
I could not buoy their faith: and yet
Many I had known: with all I sympathized;
And though struck speechless, I did not forget
That what was mourned for, I, too, long had prized.
The emotional center of “God’s Funeral” comes near the end when the narrator confesses that “how to bear such loss I deemed/ The insistent question for each animate mind.”
One may plausibly contend that this was Hardy’s “insistent question,” too. Certainly, it stands at the spiritual core of several of the figures whom Wilson discusses. Wilson wants us to think that it is his question as well. On every other page, more or less, it may well be. There is, however, a vertiginous quality to God’s Funeral. It runs on at least two opposing tracks. The book is shot through with nostalgia for religious belief; but it is a bitter, one might even say vengeful, nostalgia. Wilson seems to have found himself not so much at God’s funeral, but at home in his library fantasizing about the ceremony and the wake that followed. What worries him, it seems, is not Hardy’s “insistent question” but the fact that, to him, the question no longer speaks peremptorily.
In form, God’s Funeral is a straightforward exercise in intellectual history, covering, and supplementing, some of the same ground as studies like J. Hillis Miller’s The Disappearance of God (1963). After some preliminary discussion of Hardy’s poem, Wilson begins his investigation of “the Victorian disease, Doubt.” He early on tells the paradigmatic story of Leslie Stephen (the great literary biographer and father of Virginia Woolf) who, in 1875, asked Hardy to visit him in his study no matter how late the hour. Seventeen years earlier, Stephen had been ordained as a clergyman in the Church of England but had since lost his faith. Late that night, Hardy arrived to find Stephen highly agitated, pacing up and down his room. On a table was a legal document. Stephen wanted the agnostic Hardy to witness his signature severing his ties with the church.
Seeking the sources of the Victorian religious crisis—which in many ways is still our crisis—Wilson steps back (in “Hume’s Time Bomb”) to the eighteenth century and David Hume’s skeptical musings about religion in his posthumously published Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779) and to Edward Gibbon’s disillusioning portrait of early Christendom in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–1788). Both works, Wilson notes, had a profoundly dispiriting effect on many believers. This, of course, is a commonplace observation; but Wilson is fearless in purveying commonplace observations. He then proceeds to offer a few pages on most of the usual suspects and one or two unusual ones. A chapter called “The Religion of Humanity” introduces readers to the founder of utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham, and his disciples Mill, James and John Stuart, as well as their French mentor, Auguste Comte, the self-proclaimed founder of the “Religion of Humanity” (who liked, Wilson tells us, to be addressed as “La Fondateur de la réligion universelle, Grand Prêtre de l’Humanité”).
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Wilson also discusses Thomas Carlyle, “an embodiment of the Victorian dilemma about God.” He deals especially with Carlyle’s dense, almost unreadable, masterpiece Sartor Resartus. Carlyle wanted to believe, but could not; nor could he subsist in simple unbelief; so, Wilson writes, he “spoke and wrote as if God were true, manifesting Himself less in the miraculous and unbelievable tales of religious mythology than in the inexorable workings of History.” Wilson spares a few pages each for those other apostles of “the inexorable workings of History itself,” Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, neither of whom entertained any doubts—let alone Doubt—but whose militant atheism greatly influenced later generations.
Wilson reminds readers of the devastating influence of the nineteenth-century German Biblical criticism and biographical investigations into the life of Jesus—of what happens when the Bible is transformed from scripture into an object of disinterested, scholarly investigation. He dilates particularly on David Friedrich Strauss’s famous Das Leben Jesu (“The Life of Jesus”), which George Eliot translated early on in her career and which did a great deal to undermine popular belief. George Eliot herself naturally figures prominently in Wilson’s story, as does one of the many objects of Eliot’s infatuation, “funny old Herbert Spencer” (“this pompous ass,” in Wilson’s epithet), the author of scores of influential tomes (The Principles of Psychology, First Principles of a New System of Philosophy, Man Versus the State, etc., etc.)—influential at the time, now utterly unread.
In a chapter called “Science”—by far the weakest in the book—Wilson has a few pages on the shattering effect of Darwinism (represented especially by “Darwin’s bulldog,” T. H. Huxley) and Charles Lyell’s geological investigations. (The fossil record was a great challenge to Victorian piety.) He discusses Algernon Charles Swinburne, “the laureate of mid-nineteenth-century unbelief,” who was fond of writing lines like “the supreme evil, God” (which Christina Rossetti crossed out of her copy of Atalanta in Calydon). Wilson also discusses John Henry Newman (“self-obsessed”) and Matthew Arnold (“intellectually snobbish,” “pathologically anti-British”), both of whom he loathes, and John Ruskin, who engages his affection.
People might still be religious but only because of an “irrational” spiritual hunger.
About William James, to whom Wilson devotes an entire chapter, he apparently feels deep ambivalence. On one page he approvingly quotes James’s opinion that religion, “like love, like wrath, like hope, ambition, jealousy, like every other instinctive eagerness and impulse … adds to life an enchantment which is not rationally or logically deducible from anything else.” On the next page, he writes, “there is in fact quite a strange mixture of belligerence and what you could call Emersonian moonshine in James’s religious philosophy.” Wilson quotes (in a chapter called “In the Name of the Father”) some amusing, Tom-Sawyerish bits from Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son (1907)—another of the “great texts of Victorian unbelief.” He reminds readers of the sad case of Samuel Butler, whose posthumously published The Way of All Flesh (1903) was—to quote the philosopher David Stove quoting Malcolm Muggeridge—“the first hand grenade thrown over the Victorian garden wall, before the Freudian heavy artillery came up.” And Wilson recalls the explosions Freud himself set off with his theories about ineluctable family conflict that “prepared us for a generation who would think it virtuous to sue their parents in a court of law, or blame them for all the miseries of existence.” Wilson concludes with a chapter called “The Modernist Experiment.” This deals not with the modernism of Pound or Joyce or Eliot but with the effort by certain Roman Catholics in the 1890s and early 1900s (Baron von Hügel, George Tyrrell, Alfred Loisy) to inject an observant but doctrinally latitudinarian element into Catholic practice. Wilson has considerable sympathy for Catholic Modernism, if only because it so irritated the nineteenth-century Vatican (“the great powerhouse of reaction”), for which he seems to nurture a special detestation.
God’s Funeral is at its best when considered as a collection of anecdotes. Wilson is widely read, and he brings a novelist’s eye for absurdity to the characters he discusses. Even in retelling familiar stories—the horrible tale of John Stuart Mill’s childhood, for instance: Greek at three, Latin at eight, nary a toy in sight—he manages to enliven them with some new detail or narrative freshness. And one cannot be reminded too often of how absurd and megalomaniacal a figure was Auguste Comte, not only the “fondateur” of the Religion of Humanity but also (and not, perhaps, coincidentally) the inventor of sociology. Comte wanted to turn Notre Dame into a temple to his new religion, replete with newly minted rituals and sacraments. Having set up house with Caroline Massin, a prostitute he had once patronized and then rediscovered in a bookshop, Comte descended into periodic bouts of madness. During one such episode, he came to believe that he was an Homeric hero and began hurling knives around his apartment. Caroline patiently nursed him through his dementia rather than consign him to an asylum. Comte was eventually prevailed upon to marry Caroline in the church. Caroline’s reward, Wilson writes, “was persistent vilification from Comte, who filled his voluminous political and philosophical pamphlets with paranoid denunciations of his wife, and embarrassingly explicit rehearsals of her earlier career.”
Wilson’s book is full of such set pieces:
It will be recalled that when [Queen Victoria] was dying, and contemplating the various dignitaries whom she might be expected to receive at her first Levee in Heaven, a clergyman told her that she would be in Abraham’s bosom. “We will not meet Abraham,” she pronounced solemnly. The patriarch’s behaviour in Genesis, Chapter xii, when he pretended to the Pharaoh that Sarai was his sister rather than his wife, thinking the sacrifice of her virtue to the Egyptian potentate preferable to the offering of his own life, put Abraham decidedly beyond the pale. One could not imagine a man who behaved like that being made welcome at Balmoral. Wilson also provides a running descant of asides: “When George Eliot complimented Spencer on the lack of wrinkles in his forehead, he replied that nothing ever really puzzled him.” Wilson’s wreaths of anecdote and eccentricity greatly enliven God’s Funeral; they also threaten to overwhelm its claims to seriousness. In part, Wilson seems to have pursued a strategy of intellectual and spiritual emasculation through trivializing detail. The more he expatiates on the smallness, the venality, the absurdity of the figures he discusses, the less seriously need we take their spiritual struggles.
There are at least two A. N. Wilsons present in God’s Funeral. One is the former theology student who knows all about the inner springs of belief. “The God-question,” he says in his preface, “does not go away.” Spiritual hunger does not disappear “because so many, in the churches and the universities, seem incapable of understanding what is really at stake.” At least since Ludwig Feuerbach’s Das Wesen des Christentums (1841)—“The Essence of Christianity,” another book that the young George Eliot translated—skeptics have dismissed religion as a “projection” of humanity’s fears or aspirations. But, Wilson asks,
if some religion, or all religion, is “just a projection” … then would it not be the projection of the most fundamental of our concerns? Would not the discarding of this projection have calamitous psychological effects? And what if the analysis was in any event wrong? What if the literalists or the fundamentalists of both sides were the false guides, and the truth lay elsewhere, in those mysterious and linguistic areas which the simple-minded would like to dismiss as wishy-washy or fudge?
In this context, Wilson approvingly quotes Goethe: “Let us seek to fathom those things that are fathomable, and reserve those things which are unfathomable for reverence in quietude.”
The other Wilson can sometimes sound like his alter ego: “In the actual business of life, in grief, fear, and sorrow, men and women and children say their prayers and find themselves comforted. This continues, whatever the unbelievers may wish to say about the sheer irrationality of the practice.” The sheer irrationality of the practice? Here we discern the voice of Wilson the disabused, “enlightened,” intellectual. Wilson refers several times to the writings of G. K. Chesterton. He does not, however, quote Chesterton’s observation that “the madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.” As Chesterton knew, a view of life that systematically attempted to exclude or transcend the irrational would itself be, perhaps paradoxically, highly irrational in the sense that it would be deeply inhospitable to our humanity. The Victorian essayist Walter Bagehot—a hearty soul generally unassailed by Doubt—put this point well in his essay “The First Edinburgh Reviewers” (1855):
A clear, precise, discriminating intellect shrinks at once from the symbolic, the unbounded, the indefinite. The misfortune is that mysticism is true. There are certainly kinds of truth, borne in as it were instinctively on the human intellect, most influential on the character and heart, yet hardly capable of stringent definition. Their course is shadowy; the mind seems rather to have seen than to see them, more to feel after than definitely apprehend them. They commonly involve an infinite element, which of course cannot be stated precisely, or else a first principle—an original tendency—of our intellectual constitution, which it is impossible not to feel, and yet which it is hard to extricate in terms and words.
“The misfortune is that mysticism is true”: this is the crux that Wilson has difficulty accommodating. A phrase that recurs often in God’s Funeral is “intellectual honesty.” People might still be religious, Wilson acknowledges, but only because of an “irrational” spiritual hunger. At least since Nietzsche announced that “God is dead,” intellectuals have assured one another that belief was mere credulousness. “Since Nietzsche we know …” “Freud taught us that …” “Marx showed the world …” “Darwin made it impossible …” Wilson provides a good sample of the genre in his chapter on William James:
The skeptical inferences so wittily sketched by David Hume in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion do not merely make us doubt the God of the eighteenth-century Deists; they kill him stone dead. And if anyone should turn around and say, “We do not believe in the God of the Deists, we believe in the revealed God of Scripture,” then the German biblical critics destroyed Him. And in case anyone should turn from the God of the Bible and say that there is still some mileage in the Argument from Design, and in a nature-mysticism which claims a knowledge of God from the shape and pattern of Nature, Darwinism removes not merely the necessity of supposing a Designer, but its very plausibility.
To which one may reply, “Really?” A certain kind of philosopher assures us that Hume’s famous arguments against induction made it impossible for us ever again to have absolute confidence in inductive reasoning. The fact that a lighted match (to use Hume’s example) was hot yesterday is no grounds for believing it will be hot today. Do you, dear reader, have any serious doubts on the subject? Hume himself later ridiculed the juvenile quality of such “pretended skepticism.” In such matters, is not the argument from experience finally more persuasive—more rational, more “intellectually honest”—than an argument based on someone’s theory about the way the world must be? Hume never extended such restorative skepticism about skepticism to religion—indeed, he explicitly declined to— but that is no reason why we shouldn’t follow his lead and do so ourselves.
There are few things that intellectuals fear more than being thought naïve.
There are few things that intellectuals fear more than being thought naïve. And yet that very fear is often an impediment to apprehending the truth. Indeed, it may be the ultimate naïveté to think that one can encounter the truth—to say nothing of salvaging one’s humanity—without regular recourse to the simple receptiveness of something very like naïveté. Wilson, like many modern prophets of suspicion, tells us that religion has, strictly speaking, become incredible in the wake of thinkers like Nietzsche, Marx, Darwin, and Freud. God’s Funeral is meant to provide a dramatic enactment of how that supposed impossibility surfaced in the lives of certain Victorian writers. It does this quite well. But it does so at the expense of the larger religious issues Wilson raises. As the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski once observed,
religion is not a set of propositions, it is the realm of worship wherein understanding, knowledge, the feeling of participation in the ultimate reality (whether or not a personal god is meant) and moral commitment appear as a single act, whose subsequent segregation into separate classes of metaphysical, moral, and other assertions might be useful but is bound to distort the sense of the original act.
Wilson says many things which suggest that he agrees with Kolakowski. But he then takes it all back with declarations about the impossibility of honest faith in the modern age. “The truth,” he says in his preface “can’t be resisted, of course”—meaning the truths furnished by science and scholarship in explaining various things about the way the world works. In one sense he is correct. The truths of science are irresistible when the question is “How?” or “What?” When one ventures upon “Why?,” however, science is no guide at all. To think otherwise is to make a fetish out of science, to transform it from an instrument of knowledge into an instrument of mystification: scientism, not science. It is curious that Nietzsche, the great enemy of Christianity who, after he went mad, took to signing himself “the Anti-Christ,” should have seen this with such clarity. “Science,” Nietzsche wrote in an early essay,
probes the processes of nature, but it can never command men. Science knows nothing of taste, love, pleasure, displeasure, exaltation, or exhaustion. Man must in some way interpret, and thereby evaluate, what he lives through and experiences. Religions gain their power by being standards of value, criteria. An event appears in a different light when looked at from the point of view of myth. Religious interpretations have this to be said for them: that they measure life according to human ideals.
Discussing Benjamin Jowett, the famous master of Balliol and translator of Plato, Wilson tells us he exhibited “that rather attractive mixture, a person of profound religious feeling and a skeptical cast of mind.” It is clearly a commendation that Wilson wishes for himself. Wilson really is a man of profound religious sensibility. But in his desire to appear sufficiently skeptical—sufficiently clever—he has allowed smugness to blunt that sensibility and warp his judgment. In his discussion of Matthew Arnold, Wilson imagines what would have happened had God been called upon to review Arnold’s Literature and Dogma. The results are not favorable to Arnold. But what if God were asked to review God’s Funeral? The notice, I fancy, would be short—a single line, perhaps, quoted from another notable skeptic: “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 18 Number 6, on page 4
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