Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Did Arnold Believe in God?

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Did Arnold Believe in God?

Article excerpt

I want to start by submitting that I do not come before you as a scholar or as an academic. I have no degrees in English, and I have never taught the humanities. I am by training a concert pianist, and to some extent a political scientist, with my specialty in British politics at the end of the 19th century; I have spent the last twenty or so years writing about music, and increasingly of late about the general situation of high culture today. In 1989 I wrote an article in The New Criterion, based on Culture and Anarchy, attempting to examine the linkage, in Amoldian terms, of these two words. I stayed with Culture and Anarchy, and in 1991 I agreed to edit for Yale a reprinting of the first edition (1869) of the work, with an extended glossary and several commissioned essays, including one from me.

But then, like Arnold himself, my interests began to turn from culture to religion. Arnold's remarkable hymn to Hebraism at the end of the "Preface" to Culture and Anarchy (the last part of the entire work to be written) led me inescapably to his three great subsequent religious works--St. Paul and Protestantism (1870), Literature and Dogma (1873), and God and the Bible (1875). So far as my own intellectual friends were concerned, these works are mostly devalued, when not actually ignored. Arnold's pre-eminence, then and now, remains for his literary-critical essays and because of the frequent use by William Bennett--the Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities during the early 1980s--of Arnold's once famous phrase, "The best that is known and thought" (Bennett, To Reclaim a Legacy [1984], 3).

But about the fundamental question of Arnold's religious position--Did he believe in God?--there has been remarkably little discussion, though there was discussion about Arnold's attitudes to Christian writings and institutions. Except for James C. Livingston's immensely and properly sympathetic Matthew Arnold and Christianity (1986), the literature seemed to concentrate on what Arnold recommended to others about God and religion, and not about what he himself believed. Such was the case, it seems to me, with Ruth apRoberts' stimulating Arnold and God (1983) and its significant predecessors, the much briefer treatments in A.O.J. Cockshut's The Unbelievers (1964) and Basil Willey's Nineteenth -Century Studies (1949). So far as religious historians were concerned, Arnold seemed to have disappeared. For Owen Chadwick in the second volume of The Victorian Church (1970), during Arnold's life and thereafter he was "not influential as theology"; he is not even listed in the index of E.R. Norman's estimable Church and Society in England 1740-1970 (1976). The story was the same with the new breed of 1960s theologians, so eager, like Arnold, to demolish myth and the miraculous; Arnold is ignored, for example, in that popular quintessence of what might be called post-God Latitudinarianism, John A.T. Robinson's best-selling Honest to God (1963).

And yet as I continued to read Arnold on religion, there seemed good reason for his wife's remark, "Matt is a good Christian at the bottom" (Livingston, 143); furthermore, in reading Mordecai Kaplan's The Place of God in Modern Jewish Religion (1937), which explicitly quotes and approves Arnold (p. 297), I found that the Christian Arnold could speak to me as a Jew, through a Jew. But reading Arnold about religion has been a lonely task. For as the 20th century lurches toward its ugly end, the words "belief" and "God" seem to disappear from discussion even without being attacked. For our educated classes the idea of "God"--or perhaps more appropriately the idea of gods--belongs to the history of comparative religion, and any current residue of the idea is placed in the tender loving care of abnormal psychology. In making this summary judgment, one must not, it is true, ignore such small but vigorous developments as Opus Dei and analogous phenomena among Lutherans and other Protestants; but with the great numbers of people, the picture is bleak. …

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