God's Funeral Hardcover – 15 Jun 1999
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It is extraordinary that in the century that witnessed the greatest period of church-building in human history, the mass revivals of the Evangelicals and the Anglo-Catholics and the founding of missionary societies to convert the heathen should also have been the period when atheism went from being an esoteric and secretive persuasion to being the religion of the suburbs. By the end of the 19th century the great mass of thinking men and women had come to abandon the religion which, for at least a millennium, had dominated the British Isles.
A.N. Wilson follows up his sensational biographies of Jesus and Paul with this fascinating account of the lives and ideas of those prominent men and women who, to differing degrees and for many different reasons, felt that they could not number themselves among the Christian faithful. Starting with the works of Hume and Gibbon, Wilson introduces us to the eccentric utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham, the agonising doubts of Carlyle, the revolutionary atheism of Marx and the militant defence of unbelief by Huxley. Lyell, Darwin, Freud, George Eliot, Hardy--the list covers what seems like most of the great minds of the century.
Wilson's wit, warmth and erudition make God's Funeral enthralling throughout and this reviewer would strongly recommend it to people of all shades of belief. --Douglas Pretsell
Wilson's rare combination of extraordinary scholarship with an almost pathological sense of mischief makes him the most entertaining writer we have (MAIL ON SUNDAY)
Excellent...Wilson has so clear a grasp of opposing principles and personalities that he is able effortlessly to make them live again (Peter Ackroyd The Times)
Wilson's extraordinary arc of knowledge and astonishing range of reading enables him to work highly effectively...his narrative is a model of scholarship and restraint (Anthony Howard Suday Times)
An illuminating analysis of Victorian religious doubt (DAILY TELEGRAPH)
An impressive sweep...Wilson asks us virtually to relive the ebbing of faith as it afflicted our ancestors (John Casey Evening Standard) --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
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Could this be the forerunner of more recent and popular books on related themes such as The God Delusion of Richard Dawkins, or God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens? Yes, but this book is not as hostile to religion as the famous atheists. Wilson retains a whimsical love of Christianity despite realising that none of its central dogmas can possibly be true. So, from the common Anglican perspective of solemn disbelief in orthodox dogma, Wilson enjoys exploring how thinkers, and especially 19th C literary ones, started to question Christianity.
Wilson is especially fond of Hardy and Tennyson but pours scorn on the third rate poetasting of Matthew Arnold. This is perhaps a good thing as Arnold's 'Dover Beach', somehow still a favourite in anthologies, has probably been taken too seriously in recent times. For instance, while telling us that love in a determined and material universe is without meaning and is clearly an illusion, Arnold also apostrophises it:
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light.
And, as Wilson reminds us albeit in a somewhat heavy-handed manner, Arnold's 'tide of faith' is an unhappy trope. If, as Arnold seems to be saying, science has forced faith into an irreversible retreat, tides turn.
But, unmindful of Wilson's reminders in 1999 that this poem is not really worth taking too seriously, Ian McEwan introduces it in the harrowing climactic scene of his 2005 novel about a neurosurgeon, A scene of working class violence morphs into a middle class poetry reading in a neurosurgeon's front room. Saturday, in which a chap with a psychotic condition shows up at the surgeon's London home and is prevented from committing atrocities to the surgeon's daughter by - by what? - by a poetry reading. Surely not that? Yes. And, even more astonishing, the poem which calms the savage mind of the would-be maniac is none other than Matthew Arnold's 'Dover Beach'. The almost assailant is soothed by the poem. He finds it 'beautiful'. What's going on?
Now Wilson and McEwan might seem superficially similar in their attitudes towards religion. Like Hitchens and Dawkins, both writers may be associated (for a certain time at least in Wilson's more wavering case) with the flourishing genre of atheism literature around the time of the 1999 attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York by religious fundamentalists. However, Wilson's book predates that terrible event and also McEwan's novel. And while McEwan implies that 'Dover Beach is a poem not only of beauty but of transcendent truth and extraordinary insight, Wilson suggests that it's a bit silly. And while Wilson's close-reading of poetry is not always of the subtlest or profound, it should be praised for suggesting - especially in its last chapters- that the 'tide of faith' may, in ways Arnold does not perhaps intend, operate in a cycle and not in a line. And it is for this reason that God's Funeral presents more complex and more convincing picture than the similarly popularist but monolithically anti-religious writings of Dawkins and Hitchens.
The figure of Kant looms surprisingly large. Surprising to me, anyway - but our ignorance in this country about 'the greatest metaphysician of modern times' is matched only, it seems, 'even or especially in intellectual circles up to and including our own day' by our ignorance of science. One would like to feel the situation has improved somewhat - but then we intellectuals are such busy, self-important and - be it said - easily distracted people! The stricture would not have applied to 'scrambling provincial' and self-educated polymath Herbert Spencer. AN's mocking yet sympathetic treatment of this ultimately rather sad figure (someone I'd always rather looked up to) is exemplary. His teeming oeuvre AN likens to 'an overcrowded canvas by Frith'. Another erstwhile hero of mine, that paragon of seriousness Matthew 'sweetness and light' Arnold, is likewise exposed as a foolish, blinkered snob, though to quibble about the sea of faith (because seas have tides) is simply demeaning - a sea may be any large body of water - and when AN says the poet 'appears not to have noticed this rather simple bidiurnal fact' it is he who emerges as the egg-bedaubed prat. The sea of faith has not 'gone out' (AN's term) but is receding (with poetic license Arnold says withdrawing); the lake is shrunken, drying up as we watch and, that shocking word 'roar' suggests, the process is audible to those with ears to hear. Were Arnold's antennae so wrong?
Nearly all the intellectuals who strenuously bolstered unbelief are now unreadable, AN assures us (like sexologists, one imagines, and for similar reasons, though not half as much as theologians of almost ANY period; the point is that rationalists, from Russell and Haldane on, or even before, those who take a godless universe as a given, are very far from unreadable) but he claims we still read Tennyson's In Memoriam. Well, up to a point, Lord Copper - though, striving 'faintly' for that elusive 'larger hope', Alf did stain the purple drapes with 'nature red in tooth and claw', one of unbelief's clinchers. (Did he who made the lamb make thee? Who else?) Christians would do well, too, to ponder AN's quiet words on page 132 about the historical Jesus
As AN points out, the study of Classics showed Victorians that 'not every generation has meant quite the same by God' (to put it mildly) and that even 'the sterner dictates of monotheism were.. quite a late development' - though it's surprising he doesn't both make more of the Greek Anthology and cite FitzGerald's Rubaiyat as the 19th century's key secular texts. The Swinburne chapter from which that quotation comes is a bit of a blind alley - Swinburne was even less of a thinker than Verlaine, who was no thinker, and as a debauchee a frank disappointment - though AN comes up with revealing and sympathetic paragraphs on Swinburne's family history, on William Johnson Cory and on Jowett. 'A confusion of the heart and head may lead sensitive minds into a desertion of the principles of Christian life.. because they are in doubt about facts which are really external to them.' Thus was AN enabled to find his way back to the fold ten years later
Yes, folks, it's AN's own tussles with God that lend this work its vigour. There are tantalising hints throughout of the change of heart that will eventually overtake him (following a surfeit of strenuously bolstered unbelief?); the book's the better for them. If AN has written another as good I'd like to know. The four-page demolition of Shaw (p301-4) is, simply, magisterial. The only weakness is that unaccountable Swinburne crush. Swinburne of all people - one just wouldn't have had AN down as the greenery-yallery type. The index is exemplary (see, for instance, the entry on Hume)
* A footnote on Lewes (Mr George Eliot). Bel Mooney reviewed Haight's life of Lewes for The Spectator when AN was literary editor there. Summing up her subject, Mooney observed: "All the jibes at Lewes -- that he was pushy, conceited, vulgar, over-energetic, and with one eye for the main chance -- make him a welcome and refreshing relief from such dour Victorian valetudinarians as Carlyle and Herbert Spencer. Lively, a polymath, Lewes reads like an early incarnation of Clive James." For some reason AN had it in for Clive James, and in his hands the passage became "Pushy, conceited, vulgar, over-energetic, and with one eye for the main chance: Lewes seems like a Victorian Clive James." He lost his 'dream job' in consequence but manages to recycle the slur here, again by skilful editing. What a rogue!
** AN has himself written a life. I especially liked Tolstoy's articulation of the 'two Gods' or forms of belief
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