A mellifluous, perceptive intellectual history of the Victorians’ struggles with faith.
This study continues English critic/biographer/novelist Wilson’s recent spate of articulate religion books (including Jesus: A Life, 1992, and Paul: The Mind of an Apostle, 1997). It defies easy classification. In the sweeping style of the grand narrative, Wilson converses wittily on the philosophy, literature, art, science, music, and theology of Europe during more than six decades. Amazingly enough, he does it brilliantly. Wilson has a keen eye for historical detail and can chronicle even a familiar story (such as why Darwin hesitated before publishing On the Origin of Species) in a fresh way. He notes that religious faith was shaken in the last half of the 19th century because of biblical criticism, the onslaught of Darwinism, and a new awareness of economic injustice. We meet the era’s most famous thinkers, such as Kant, Marx, and the James brothers, as well as some less celebrated, such as the libertine poet Algernon Swinburune. The latter was among those most openly hostile to religion, while others (George Eliot, whom Wilson calls that “poor horse-faced lady”) persisted in stubborn, though relatively private, unbelief. At the other end of the spectrum, Sigmund Freud and William James were clearly fascinated by religion, though Freud thought it would fade into obsolescence as civilization marched forward, and James considered it a useful psychological crutch. By century’s end, there appeared to be “no good arguments left for religion.” The Church of England in particular was devastated by the challenge from its intellectuals and its own wealth and power. Yet the rumors of God’s imminent death proved to be greatly exaggerated, since the 20th century has seen a new crop of philosophers and theologians (as well as ordinary believers) bent on demonstrating God’s vitality.Sharp, informed writing from one of the late 20th century’s most esteemed cultural commentators. (Author tour)