Matthew Arnold was a wonderful poet, a wonderful literary critic, a wonderful social critic, and a wonderful prose stylist. And he was a very poor theologian.
Matthew was the famous son of a famous father. He was the son of Dr. Thomas Arnold (1795-1842), a Church of England clergyman, the headmaster of Rugby School, a distinguished historian, and a leading champion in his day of “broad church” Anglicanism.
In this latter capacity Dr. Arnold wanted the Church of England to be what it had been once upon a time, a truly national church – the nation at prayer, instead of what it had largely become: one of a number of English Protestant denominations and the Conservative Party at prayer.
He was willing to leave Catholics and Jews and downright infidels outside the national church, but he wanted all Protestants (with the exception of Unitarians) inside. He wanted a Church of England that would include not just Anglicans of all varieties but also all Protestant dissenters – Methodists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Quakers, etc.
To accomplish this, all the causes of intra-Protestant friction would either have to be removed or have to be defined as inessential. This included, above all, doctrinal differences, for doctrine could be a great source of friction.
Matthew Arnold (1822-88), a true son of his father, had the same ambition as his father for the Church of England. He wanted it to be a truly national church, and he understood that to accomplish this it would be necessary to minimize the points of disagreement among Protestants while stressing only those points on which all Protestants could agree.
But there was a great difference between his father’s day and his own. The second half of the 19thcentury was far more modernized, and in several respects far more secularized, than the first half had been.
In particular, since his father’s day there had taken place three great intellectual development inimical to traditional Protestantism:
(a) Darwinism and its incompatibility with the account of creation given in the Book of Genesis;
(b) the discovery by Englishmen of the German higher criticism of the Bible, which had undermined the Protestant idea that the Bible is infallible; and
(c) the rise of agnosticism, as exemplified in England by such influential writers as Herbert Spencer, Thomas Henry Huxley, and Leslie Stephen (the father of Virginia Woolf, who would take the process even further).
And so, if the religion of England was to be based on what all Protestants could agree on, there could be only a very narrow consensus. They could all agree that the Bible should continue to be regarded as an essential and fundamental feature of Protestantism. But they could no longer agree as to the nature of the Bible of its fundamental teachings.
Some old-fashioned Protestants continued to hold that the Bible is the literal word of God, verbally inerrant from the first page of Genesis to the last page of Revelation.
Others (like Matthew Arnold himself) could no longer believe anything like that; yet they held that the Bible, despite what they regarded as its many inaccuracies and inconsistencies, is a book still worth reading, and worth reading with care, on account of its literary merits and its morally edifying effects.
Matthew Arnold had a greatly exaggerated idea of the impact poetry could have on the mind and heart of the average person. In his essay “The Study of Poetry,” he says:
The future of poetry is immense, because in poetry, where it is worthy of its high destinies, our race, as time goes on, will find an ever surer and surer stay. There is not a creed which is not shaken, not an accredited dogma which is not shown to be questionable, not a received tradition which does not threaten to dissolve. Our religion has materialised itself in the fact, in the supposed fact; it has attached its emotion to the fact, and now the fact is failing it. But for poetry the idea is everything; the rest is a world of illusion, of divine illusion. Poetry attaches its emotion to the idea; the idea is the fact. The strongest part of our religion to-day is its unconscious poetry.
And he was far from being the only one with this view.
All Protestants, even the least traditional and most skeptical, agreed on the existence of God. But they no longer agreed as to the nature of God. Old-fashioned Protestants continued to think of God in anthropomorphic terms. Modern Protestants, influenced by Herbert Spencer’s notion that God (if God exists, which is not at all certain) is in the realm of the Unknowable, rejected anthropomorphism.
This led Arnold to his famous redefinition of God as “an Eternal not-ourselves that makes for righteousness.” In other words, there is some power in reality that aids us in our quest for moral goodness.
All Protestants should be able to agree that God, whatever he (or she or it) may be in the fullness of his being, is at least this. Whether this “Eternal not-ourselves” is personal or impersonal, whether it’s a Trinity or a Unity, whether it bears any relationship to that ancient man Jesus of Nazareth – these are questions a truly broad church will leave unanswered.
As for the agnostic contention that God (if he exists) is totally unknowable, Matthew Arnold dismissed this as an objection to his new-fashioned English Christianity by arguing – or rather, asserting, for he put very little argument behind this proposition – that religion has to do with morality and feeling, not with knowledge.
He offered his own definition of religion (by which he meant Protestantism) as “morality touched by emotion.”
That’s where things stand for many people, not only Anglicans, today. And the virtual collapse of Anglicanism in the developed world – in the developing world it’s still much closer to traditional Christianity – may serve as a warning that there’s not a bright future for such a faith.
*Image: Evening. Melancholy by Edvard Munch, 1891 [Munch Museum, Oslo]