Page 9, 13th August 1999

13th August 1999
Page 9
Page 9, 13th August 1999 — God's funeral? Pull the other one

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Organisations: Oxford University


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God's funeral? Pull the other one

A.N. Wilson's latest assault on orthodox Christian belief is facetious and unconvincing, says Ian Ker

God's Funeral by AN Wilson, John Murray. £20

THIS IS A FLIPPANT book on what the author recognises is an extremely serious subject, the loss of religious faith in the 19th century. The tone belies AN Wilson's awareness of the massive

emotional crisis that this brought about. The book is not without its amusing moments, but the facetious tone is often just silly and tiresome. Still, it fits a pervasive intellectual frivolity that contradicts Wilson's acknowledgement of the seriousness of the crisis, which was a profoundly cultural as well as a personal one: for the very foundations of Western society were being shaken by the assault on Christian orthodoxy by philosophers, scientists, and biblical scholars.

Wilson correctly points out that Hume's critique of the philosophical "proofs" of God's existence was devastatingly reinforced by Darwin's The Origin of Species, the geology of Lyell, and German higher biblical criticism. Accordingly, in his view there were — and are — only three options left for believers: to abandon their faith, to bury their heads in the sand and ignore the twin assault of 18th century scepticism and the scholarly and scientific discoveries of the 19th century, or to hold on to some kind of spiritual religion free of the outmoded dogmas of traditional Christian belief.

Wilson regrets that few Victorians realised that you could still have "religious feelings" but without actually believing anything in particular; apart apparently from the belief that God is "actually in his universe", a belief which is equated with Wordsworth's "something more deeply interfused", as opposed to the belief that God is "outside" the world, that is, "the Watchmaker-God of Deism" who "was destroyed in the last century".

Wilson seems completely unaware that orthodox Christians who believe that God is outside the universe in a way analogous to that in which an author is outside his book are not committed to the God of Deism and have always believed that God is also immanent in the world.

It is not clear from the book whether the author is just not a very clear or rigorous thinker or whether the obfuscation of issues is deliberate. What, for example, are we to make of the statement that Benjamin Jowett, who was denounced by "all the churchy bigots" as a "complete heretic", "was something of a mystic...he believed Christ"? How exactly are you supposed to believe in somebody without also believing or knowing something about them? The Master of Balliol certainly didn't believe in "the reality of a revealed religion" as it would have been "an insult to Jowett's free and inquiring intellect" to do so. However, he is one of the heroes of this book, hailed as "that rather attractive mixture, a person of profound religious feeling and a sceptical cast of mind". This is clearly how Wilson sees himself, but I can't say that I found in his case that this is at all an attractive mixture.

In fact, of course, the author is not a fool and knows perfectly well that in this postmodern age the three options he puts before us are not the only ones. He acknowledges that there are now plenty of "would-be clever thinkers" who would contend that science is true in its own way but that that doesn't mean that theology is not also true in its own different way. "Plenty of room for confusion of thought, here" is Wilson's only comment. I am sure that if Wilson had attempted to discuss this there would indeed have been plenty of confusion — but deliberately so.

It is surely very significant for appreciating the animus of this book that Wilson makes no attempt at all to examine in any sort of sustained way the one towering thinker of the 19th century who not only refused to accept that the options Wilson claims were the only possible ones, but who also provided a way forward for orthodox Christians on all the problematic areas identified by Wilson as fatal to religious belief.

Such references as there are to John Henry Newman are contemptuous and sneering, except for one passing, and quite inconsistent, remark to the effect that he was a genius. But it is not so inconsistent as the message to the reader that he was a dishonest knave: "it is not easy to forgive men such as Pusey and John Henry Newman who...committed the sin against the Intellect which is surely, in the world of the university, the equivalent of the sin against the Holy Ghost".

Three decades before the Grammar of Assent, Newman was already expounding in the Oxford University Sermons a philosophy of religion which anticipates a 20th century philosopher like Alvin Plantigina, not to mention Wittgenstein's concept of "language games". Newman saw clearly and without dismay that the traditional proofs for God's existence were certainly not logical or scientific proofs. But that doesn't mean that they are not convincing arguments which entitle us to be certain of God's existence. If rationality is to be confined to what is logically or scientifically verifiable, then it is not only religion which suffers; it would be impossible for a man to say that he knows his wife loves him.

Apart from deploring the "imperialism" of science's successful attempt to impose its own criteria of verification on wholly alien subjectmatters — an imperialism which he freely admitted theologians had been guilty of when dealing with Galileo Newman saw no reason why evolution was incompatible with creation: if God had chosen to create human beings in that way, then it only concurred with his understanding of the way the Christian "idea" unfolded by development through the ages. As for the geologists and the Biblical critics, not only was Newman wary of swallowing every new theory as if it were Gospel truth, but he also was one of the first to appreciate that the Bible was meant to teach religious or theological truths, not history or science.


raised by the storms of the last century has settled, it is much easier to appreciate that orthodoxy is not the same as fundamentalism. And AN Wilson should stick to writing novels instead of spouting fictitious nonsense such as that thinking Catholics no longer believe that Jesus instituted the Eucharist or in the existence of hell. Nor were 20th century converts like Chesterton and Waugh ("minds of great delicacy and genius") converted to the Catholic modernism that Wilson favours, any more than TS Eliot was a "Modernist".

Wilson stresses that 19th century unbelief was caused by new "facts", not arguments. Well, he should pay attention to the fact that a large number of people in this century, including philosophers and scientists of far more intellectual distinction than himself, are orthodox believers.

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