Alec Vidler in his excellent short volume in the Pelican History of the Church series (V), quotes Margaret Maison (Search your Soul Eustace, p 209): “Never has an age in history produced such a detailed literature of lost faith, or so many great men and women of religious temperament standing outside organized religion”. (Vidler p. 113). Alfred Tennyson does not quite fit into the category of lost faith, but from his Cambridge days on and in most of his writing the issue is often near at hand. Some close friend, perhaps Emily Sellwood, whom he was eventually to marry (after a broken engagement of over a decade), tells him “doubt is Devil-born”, to which he responds that his great friend Hallam was “perplext in faith, but pure in deeds”. Then follows what have been, perhaps, the most quoted lines of In Memoriam:
Lives more faith in honest doubt
Believe me, than in half the creeds (XCVI, 11 & 12).
Tennyson was not fully in the company of the likes of Thomas Carlyle, George Eliot, John Stuart Mill, and many others who quite publicly rejected traditional and established Christianity, while often, we need to be reminded, retaining what might be called a generalized religious temper of mind. Morality remained paramount, but its necessary connection to religion, and especially the traditional view of many orthodox believers that rejection of a Christian position inevitably led to immorality, was vehemently rebutted. T.S Eliot’s justly famous essay on In Memoriam, proposed the often quoted view that the poem is religious in tone, not “because of the quality of its faith, but because of the quality of its doubt. Its faith is a poor thing, but its doubt is a very intense experience.” (Quoted in the Norton critical Edition of In Memoriam, p. 138). One hesitates to take issue with so great a name as Tom Eliot, but a sorely tried faith, a faith that recognizes that it is under attack and honestly faces up to the truths behind the attack, is perhaps more than a “poor thing”. In Tennyson, one feels, that the conflict is in progress whereas in so many of his intellectual contemporaries it was taken for granted that it was over and religion lay in its final throes. Without doubt, Tennyson’s faith was far removed from Nicene-Chalcedonian orthodoxy as the very final stanza of the poem suggests (note the neuter, “which”):
That God* which ever lives and loves
One God, one law, one element,
And one far-off divine event,
To which the whole creation moves. *(in whom AHH now lives)
The Intellectual Scene as the 19th Century began:
Causes of the Convulsions
We have seen some of the factors that led up to the nineteenth century intellectual convulsions, a scene well illustrated by Simon Winchester in his book, The Map That Changed The World; pages 11-16 give a good over-view.
We now need to consider in more detail some of the specific writing, controversies and strongly held positions. A great deal of the “battle” raged in the newspapers and journals of the day: the Quarterly Review, the Edinburgh Review, The Christian Observer, The Guardian, and, of course, The Times. The discourse was frequently unmannerly and strident. The most strident voices came, on the whole, from the defenders of tradition, Bishops, Deans and Dons. Alec Vidler has an excellent comment on this situation:
It may also be surmised that the strident tones and proclivity to heresy-hunting…characteristic of many Victorian divines may have hidden from themselves as well as others…anxiety about their own faith…Men talk with shrill excitement when they are least sure of themselves and most fearful that those who disagree with them may be right. (op.cit. p. 113).
From where did the defenders of the Faith perceive the threats to be coming? By and large they had come to some kind of rapprochement with the Copernican and Newtonian revolutions. The universe might be a massive and intricate machine, but it was one created by God, and the architects of the new world-view were almost all at least Deists, and remained fully involved in the life of the church. It is worth recalling that Newton wrote more pages of theology and commentary (particularly on the Book of Revelation) than on all scientific, writings in physics, mathematics and astronomy.
So what was it? Two main areas of debate were emerging as the nineteenth century opened. The first was the field of the Natural Sciences where the rate of discovery based on empirical observation moved into high gear. The second, more immediately threatening, because it seemed like an attack from within, was the rapid expansion of a critical, historical approach to the Bible. What was being discovered and written about in these fields added to the disquiet already voiced by men like Carlyle, about the morality of a God portrayed in the Old Testament: there was, too, among many thoughtful people an increasing unease about traditional atonement theories which seemed to suggest an angry father demanding the punishment of an innocent son.
The Emergence of Geology
It is commonly assumed that the focus of the great debate was the work of Charles Darwin, whose decades of patient research and observation resulted in the publication of The Origin of the Species in 1859. The facts show otherwise. The well-known stanzas LV & LVI demonstrate that views about evolution were current long before Darwin published, written as they were in the early 1840s. But long before the major battle over evolution began, another branch of science was causing immense anxiety to the traditionalists. It was the work of the early geologists, making a major appearance in the poem in stanzas LVI & CXXIII, for example, which really began to rock the boat of faith at its moorings.
Geology was a new science at the beginning of the 19th century: the third edition of Enc. Brit. 1797 had no entry for it, but by the time of the fourth edition in 1810 a lengthy article is found. Many factors lay behind the emergence of this new interest in the formation of the earth. Suggestions were being made that the shell-fish like stones that were frequently picked up as a farmer ploughed might even be organic in origin: their named changed from “figured stones” to fossils; the frenzy of canal building in the late 18th and railway building in the early 19th centuries exposed deep cuttings which to one or two ingenious minds suggested strata of differing kinds, rock, pebble, marl and so on; so on, particularly, to coal deposits, which were discovered to be much more vast than those exploited since Roman times. The seams needed to be identified and the canals were needed to carry the coal to the new industrial centers at half the cost of a horse wagon and much more quickly. In many ways the economic factors facilitated the scientific enquiry that followed.
Collision with the Bok of Genesis
The data thus revealed were the basis of the new science, and its most complete exposition to date was given by Charles Lyell, later, Sir Charles, who between 1830 and 1833, published the two volumes of Principles of Geology. The main thesis was that the present state of the earth’s surface could not be accounted for by current theory, mainly that of the “catastrophists”, which posited a series of immense upheavals over a rather short period (to fit in with the biblical time-table established by The Book of Genesis, of which, more later). It was to be explained, rather, by the continuous operation of natural forces like wind, tide, volcano and earthquake over protracted periods of time. Here was the most startling clash with biblical data so far in the history of science. Galileo’s observations about the moons of Jupiter did not explicitly contradict the bible and Newton’s mechanical universe could be fitted into a theistic scheme. But tens of millions of years since the creation: that was impossible. Had not Bishop Ussher of Armagh in his erudite and prolix Annalis Veteris et Novi Testamenti of 1658, shown conclusively that the first day of creation began at 9.00 a.m. on Monday, October 23, 4004 B.C.(E.)? Lyell’s time-table, if correct, overturned Genesis, and that was an affront to the almost universally held views about the authority of the bible.
Winchester has an interesting footnote to page15 relevant to this:
Few outside the world of rigid Christian fundamentalism today accept the strict interpretation of Ussher’s arithmetic…[but] a 1991 survey showed that fully 100 million Americans [he means the USA!] still believed that “God created man (sic. )pretty much in his own image at one time during the last ten thousand years…This might suggest that aspects of the religious climate into which William Smith was born-and that he was to help start changing-are now starting to return.
Immutability of Species
Lyell upset the biblical time scale irremediably, but worse was to come. His thesis gave a rational explanation of why fossils of sea creature could be found on the top of mountains, without recourse to a Noachian flood of immense proportions. It also made clear that many species had perished, a notion totally unacceptable to long-held views about the immutability of the species. “The inhabitants of the globe”, he wrote, “like all other parts of it are subject to change. It is not only the individual that perishes but whole species.” (Quoted in Basil Willey, More Nineteenth Century Studies, p 84). This phrase is virtually quoted in stanzas LV and LVI of the poem, and we know that in 1837, Tennyson was ‘deeply immersed’ in, and troubled by, a study of Lyell’s work. That the species are ‘subject to change’ shows that what one might call proto-evolutionary ideas were around decades before Darwin published. They were most clearly articulated (though without Darwin’s meticulous work that explained the precise mechanism of change) in a somewhat cranky book published in 1844, The Vestiges of Creation. It was published anonymously and occasioned wild speculations about the identity of the author: Prince Albert was a favorite candidate among many others. Whereas Tennyson was greatly troubled by Lyell’s work, what Robert Chambers (much later revealed as the author) had to say seemed reassuring. Chambers fell back on the older arguments. God worked through the ‘natural laws’ he had established, and “what is to hinder our supposing that the organic creation is also a result of natural laws, which are in like manner an expression of His will?”
The other great cause for outrage to traditional positions came, as it were, from within, particularly from German biblical scholars, and we will take this up in the next lecture.