Monday, February 19, 2007

The Faith/Doubt Scenario Lecture 3

I broke off last week somewhat in the middle of a consideration of the impact of Geology and, in particular,

Charles Lyell’s significant contribution in his two volume Principles of Geology.

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.

Vestiges of Creation

They were suggested in 1844 (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 but speculations also suggested Lady Lovelace, Byron’s daughter, Thackeray or even Charles Darwin who was thought to be writing something in this field. The book was a very mixed bag: its central thesis was more or less in line with ideas that were beginning to percolate to the reading public, but also contained a mish mash of fable and hearsay: spontaneous generation of life by passing an electric current through inorganic matter; the possibility of hatching a rat from a goose egg; and wild pigs do not get measles, so measles in humans result from eating bacon (from domesticated pigs). (Chadwick TVC I, p. 565f.) The book writes Chadwick, “embarrassed serious students of evolution. It embarrassed literate Christian geologists because it encouraged illiterate Mosaic cosmogonists…The book embarrassed the tiny handful of serious students working towards a tolerable and scientific theory of organic development. Huxley never forgave Chambers (for that was the author’s name. not revealed until some time after his death) for making truth ridiculous.” (TVC I, p.566).
Whereas Tennyson was greatly troubled by Lyell’s work on geology, what Robert Chambers (much later revealed as the author) had to say seemed reassuring. Quite apart from the ludicrous claims, 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?”

Analytic & Critical History

The other great cause for outrage to traditional positions came, as it were, from within, particularly from German biblical scholars. In the usual accounts of the impact of science on religion, the focus tend to be on the natural sciences, geology, physics, biology and, though, often forgotten, astronomy. [See Norton Ed. of In Memoriam, pp. 147 ff. with interesting lines from The Princess. In the light of this, it is important to note that the approach to history and history writing had been undergoing a sea change. Methods analogous to the empirical approach of the natural sciences began to be used. Texts were analyzed with statistical probabilities in mind; traditional attributions of authorship were, therefore, often called into question, and forgeries revealed What might be called a scientific approach to history and ancient documents did not begin with the biblical texts, but with classical. Students began to ask about, for example, the Odyssey: did it really represent an early stage in Greek history? Was it by a single author? How did it compare with other great orally transmitted epics and so on.

The Old Testament

As early as the late 18th century, scholars began to turn their attention to the Hebrew scriptures, beginning with the first five books of the bible known as the Pentateuch. Both Jewish and Christian tradition was in no doubt that all five were written by Moses, and it was this article of faith that was first to go. Critical analysis revealed that the books were a composite of at least four documents though later students preferred to speak of “traditions’, and to consider more than four). These theories explained facts that earlier generations had ignored, and problems that had been rationalized away. Preeminent was a new understanding of why so many incidents and stories appeared more than once. Perhaps the most striking example is the two creation stories right at the beginning of the Book of Genesis: it appeared that the very first chapter of the book was probably almost the last piece to be written as the Pentateuch reached its final form after many editings. Of course this was only the beginning: the prophetic books, the Psalms and the records of the later history of the Hebrews in the books of Kings and Chronicles were soon subjected to minute inspection and, indeed, dissection. Not surprisingly, in the flush of enthusiasm for a whole new understanding of the scriptures, some rather wild theories were propounded, giving the beleaguered traditionalists a few straws to clutch. Chadwick writes, “Germany entered this phase in the history of ideas nearly half a century earlier than England. On his arrival Prince Albert cold not help regarding English clergymen a obscurantist.” (TVC I, p.530).

Allegory & Moral Objections

The reaction in England was somewhat delayed partly because few academics thought it worthwhile to learn the language, and those who did and showed some interest in and sympathy for the new ideas clearly were regarded by the Oxbridge/Cathedral axis of power as suspect at least and as heretical at worst. The Old Testament has in some measure been a problem from the start: the 3rd century commentator, Origen, struggled with the law that Christians clearly did not any longer keep, and turned to allegory: shell fish really referred to sensual sins that clung lie a limpet. its stories of Joshua killing all the Canaanites, Jepthah sacrificing his daughter because of vow to Jehovah (Jud. 11.30 ff.),and the generally war-like and revengeful character of the said Jehovah. By the way, the very name Jehovah was shown to be an absurd reading of the Hebrew text, resulting from putting together the consonants of the name of God revealed to Moses, YHWH, with the vowels of aedonai (Lord). The vowels were written above Yahweh to remind the reader not to utter to sac red name.

The New Testament

Still, the Old Testament was one thing, the New quite another matter and it was not long before the waves of radical criticism were lapping at the very rock on which the church was built, at least from a Protestant perspective. Slowly the new critical views filtered through. George Eliot’s translation of one of the seminal works, The Life of Jesus by D. F. Strauss, certainly did a good deal to raise the anxiety level. As Owen Chadwick says: “The unsettlement of scholarship-and also of the public mind was greater over the New Testament than over the Old…because it touched the centre of Christianity”. (Victorian Church II, p. 60). That the First five books of the O.T. were shown not to be by Moses, but to be made of multiple sources of varying dates several centuries after his death (even if that could any longer be dated at all), was unsettling, but to be told that the four gospels were almost certainly not by the Evangelists to whom they are attributed, that Jesus made mistakes of fact (e.g. David wrote the Psalms) was devastating. As time went on the rear-guard actions of conservative scholars looked less and less credible, but for more than the first half of the century, all this shook up faith and strengthened doubt.
There is nothing in In Memoriam that seems specifically to refer to the corrosive effects of critical, historical, criticism in the way Tennyson’s passages about geology and evolution do, but the turmoil in Lecture Room and Pulpit contributed significantly to the growing cloud of doubt that one frequently feels swirling round as one reads.

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