Nineteenth-Century Religion and Literature: An Introduction

Nineteenth-Century Religion and Literature: An Introduction

Nineteenth-Century Religion and Literature: An Introduction

Nineteenth-Century Religion and Literature: An Introduction

Excerpt

At the end of his essay, 'Hebraism and Hellenism' (1869), Matthew Arnold strikes a troubled note of concern regarding his fellow Victorians, at sea without the stability of an unquestioned Christianity for support, and desperate for a new guiding force. 'Everywhere we see the beginnings of confusion', he writes:

and we want a clue to some sound order and authority. This we can only get
by going back upon the actual instincts and forces which rule our life, seeing
them as they really are, connecting them with other instincts and forces, and
enlarging our whole view and rule of life.

Arnold suggests here that society is controlled by 'actual instincts and forces', ideologies that it must seek to penetrate and then check with 'other instincts and forces'. It is on this basis that he calls for a transformation of the 'dominant idea of religion' through the re-energizing stimuli of culture and poetry. Religion, however, is not abandoned, either in the essay or anywhere in the book in which it appears. Indeed, Culture and Anarchy is a collection of essays that is near indecipherable without at least some understanding of existing religious expressions, such as Presbyterianism, Unitarianism, Anglicanism, the Oxford Movement, and Roman Catholicism. For Arnold, religion remains 'that voice of the deepest human experience', at once directing the individual inwards into a process of self-examination and moral assessment, but also outwards to that 'one great whole' that is humanity (or in the words of Paul, the 'divine body'). The tension the individual experiences between a desire to turn from oneself out to others (doing) and for inner self analysis (thinking) is explicated by Arnold through the categories 'Hebraism' and 'Hellenism'. Hebraism pertains to those rules associated with Judaic Christianity, for Arnold 'self-conquest, self-devotion, the following not our own individual will, but the will of God, obedience', that is, laws of right conduct governed by an earnest duty to work, action. Hindered by bodily desire, the Hebraic dictates a strictness of conscience tuned . . .

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