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Victorian Christianity’s flight from faith (2)

April 2016 | by David Young

Last month’s article surveyed the variety of attacks on evangelical faith during the second half of the nineteenth century. This article focuses on how literature, science and philosophy combined to undermine people’s confidence in traditional Christian belief (authors cited are referenced below).

The spirit of the age was, to a significant degree, strengthened and spread through literature, not least by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), whose writings encouraged readers to be guided by feeling and sentiment rather than logic and external proof.

Walker (p.54ff.) suggests that Coleridge’s writings were possibly the single most powerful influence on religious thought in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, especially his Aids to reflection (1825).

Owen Chadwick (p.528) also places unease about Old Testament morality earlier in the century than intellectual questionings, ascribing special influence to Coleridge’s posthumous Confessions of an inquiring spirit (1840). Matters, Chadwick says, which attracted universal distaste included eternal punishment, the slaughter of the Canaanites and the ‘sacrifice’ of Isaac.

Coleridge stressed intuitive perception and deep feeling as the route to truth and morality, rather than logic as defined by external authority. Rowell (p.63) also refers to Coleridge’s appeal to experience and believes that the debate about hell ‘was largely concentrated between the years 1830 and 1880’ (p.17).

Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892) was a writer who exercised enormous influence. In his popular, long poem In Memoriam (1850), he asserted ‘there lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds’ (Stanza XCVI).

Parsons (Volume II, chapter 9) describes In Memoriam as the ‘representative poem of the age’, while Wheeler (pp.234, 239) describes Tennyson as ‘the poet of the larger hope’, adding that, as such a poet, he could express intuitions and aspirations that went beyond the bounds of Christian orthodoxy.

Doubts

The ‘larger hope’ is the hope that salvation will be granted by God, either in or after death, to more than those who have believed the gospel in this life. This was what Tennyson was alluding to, when in stanzas LIV-LV of In Memoriam, he wrote:

Oh yet we trust that somehow good

Will be the final goal of ill,

To pangs of nature, sins of will,

Defects of doubt, and taints of blood;

That nothing walks with aimless feet;

That not one life shall be destroy’d,

Or cast as rubbish to the void,

When God hath made the pile complete;

Behold, we know not anything;

I can but trust that good shall fall

At last — far off — at last, to all,

And every winter change to spring.

So runs my dream: but what am I?

An infant crying in the night:

An infant crying for the light:

And with no language but a cry.

 

The wish, that of the living whole

No life may fail beyond the grave,

Derives it not from what we have

The likest God within the soul?

I falter where I firmly trod,

And falling with my weight of cares

Upon the great world’s altar-stairs

That slope thro’ darkness up to God,

I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,

And gather dust and chaff, and call

To what I feel is Lord of all,

And faintly trust the larger hope.

Many felt that the essence of Christianity could be retained even while its form was discarded. Other influential figures, in this respect, were William Wordsworth (1770-1850), Thomas Arnold (1795-1842) and the novelist Charles Kingsley (1819-75).

Hell, judgment and vicarious atonement were in conflict with the sentimental, humanitarian ethos of the age. Charlotte Brontë’s Jane, in Jane Eyre (1847), said ‘of the fanatic’s burning eternity I have no fear: there is not a future state worse than this present one’.

In Charles Kingsley’s novel Two years ago (1857), Tom said: ‘You may, however, only believe in the same being in whom the Methodist parson believes, one who intends to hurl into endless agony every human being who has not had a chance of hearing the said preacher’s nostrum for delivering men out of the hands of him who made them!’

Tolerance

The preaching of eternal punishment was viewed as outmoded or at variance with a clearer grasp of Christian truth. Anne Brontë put these words on her heroine Helen’s lips, in The tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848): ‘But thank God I have hope … from the blessed confidence that, through whatever purging fires the erring spirit may be doomed to pass, still, it is not lost, and God, who hateth nothing that he hath made, will bless it in the end!’

The age wanted non-judgmental tolerance, not vengeful torment, as they saw it. Michael Bartholomew, in Parsons (pp.166ff.), describes how many now saw Christianity as portraying a vengeful, unjust, capricious and cruel God. Rowell (p.vii) says, ‘Of all the articles of accepted Christian orthodoxy that troubled the consciences of Victorian churchmen, none caused more anxiety than the everlasting punishment of the wicked’.

Charles Gore (p.136) explains that ‘the idea of vicarious punishment — Christ punished that we might be “let off” — had, more than anything else, tended to alienate the best moral conscience of mankind from Christian teaching’. Bebbington (2005, pp. 157-8) writes that, while the atonement was still a central theme with Victorian churches, it was no longer preached as retributive justice, but an expression of God’s kindly disposition to mankind.

As penal substitution gave rise to disbelief, so the focus of Christ’s saving work shifted to his incarnation. French, (pp. 150ff.) in a chapter entitled ‘The sceptic’s chief attack on Christianity’, writes concerning Romans 3:25: ‘The doctrine of this text [on propitiation] is the fatal stumbling-block to the acceptance of Christianity in many minds’. The notion that the innocent Christ should die for the sins of the world seemed barbarous.

Geology

The first scientific threat to faith came not, as is often supposed, from evolution, but from geology. Discoveries of fossils in rock strata made people question the timing and method of creation and the historicity of Noah’s flood.

Charles Lyell, regarded as the foremost geologist of his day, published his Principles of geology in 1830. This work exerted much influence in support of the theory that the forces which shaped the world in the past are the same ones which continue in operation today. People began to question whether the world was really created in six literal days, some 6,000 years ago, and whether there really had been a universal, Noahic flood.

Chadwick (p.558) highlights that, from 1820-40, geology was ‘the science of the day’. It seemed to challenge both design in creation and moral order in the world, and suggest there had been no human beings for many ages before man appeared. Vanished species, such as dinosaurs, were exciting (Parsons, Vol II, chapter 9) — but where were they in Noah’s ark? Geology seemed to be contradicting and disproving Genesis.

Philosophy

Further opposition arose from the contemporary philosophical stance that miracles do not and cannot occur, that there is no supernatural and no divine intervention in the affairs of mankind. In this the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) was particularly influential.

Another critic was novelist George Eliot, whose translation of David Friedrich Strauss’ Das leben Jesu kritisch bearbeitet (Tübingen: 1835-1836) was published under the title The life of Jesus, critically examined, in 1846. This reduced much of the history of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels to the status of myth.

The New Testament writers were thought to have been sincere, but to have mistaken natural events for miracles. For example, it looked as if Jesus walked on the water, but really he was walking on the shore! Joseph Ernest Renan’s rationalising Life of Jesus followed in 1863, and enjoyed widespread popularity and influence.

Science was making many new discoveries and devising new theories that were rooted in the orderliness and uniformity of nature. Combined with science’s apparent ability to explain everything, Victorian philosophy felt able to dismiss any possibility of miracles.

From about 1860, these different assaults combined with the theory of evolution and with Higher Criticism in an all-out attack on evangelical faith — with devastating effect. This attack will be the focus of the next article.

David M. Young was for many years director of the Albanian Evangelical Trust

References:

Bebbington, D. W. (1989), Evangelicalism in modern Britain (London: Unwin Hyman).

Bebbington, D. W. (2005), The dominance of evangelicalism (Leicester: IVP).

Chadwick, O. (1970), The Victorian church, Volume 1 (London: Black).

French, E. A. (1908), God’s message through modern doubt (London: Duckworth & Co.).

Gore, C. (1908), The new theology and the old religion (London: John Murray).

Parsons, G (Ed.) (1988), Religion in Victorian Britain (Manchester University Press).

Rowell, G. (1974), Hell and the Victorians (Oxford: Clarendon Press).

Walker, W. (1922), A history of the Christian Church (Edinburgh: Clark).

Wheeler, M. (1990), Death and the future life in Victorian literature and theology (Cambridge University Press).

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