Transforming the Dominant Idea of Religion

In the Preface to his Culture and Anarchy (1869), Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), son of famous headmaster of Rugby School Rev. Thomas Arnold (1795-1842), asserts that “the world is fast going away from old-fashioned people.” Culture and Anarchy, it has been said, is an attack on English narrowness, on Victorian parochialism and philistinism. Arnold saw his fellow Englishmen consumed with themselves, a markedly individualistic and liberal attitude. The creed of the Victorian, he quipped, was “do as one likes.” Arnold considered himself a “liberal of the future,” thus justifying himself in his critique of contemporary liberalism.

In his chapter on “Hebraism and Hellenism,” Arnold writes

Everywhere we see the beginnings of confusion, and we want a clue to some sound order and authority. This we can only get by going back upon the actual instincts and forces which rule our life, seeing them as they really are, connecting them with other instincts and forces, and enlarging our whole view and rule of life.

In the first chapter, “Sweetness and Light,” Arnold claims that “religion” is the most “important manifestation of human nature,” more central to culture than art and poetry. But because Victorian society was at the “beginnings of confusion,” Arnold thinks it is time to transform this “dominant idea of religion.” This central element in human nature can never be abandoned. It is, he writes

the greatest and most important of the efforts by which the human race has manifested its impulse to perfect itself,—religion, that voice of the deepest human experience,—does not only enjoin and sanction the aim which is the great aim of culture, the aim of setting ourselves to ascertain what perfection is and to make it prevail; but also, in determining generally in what human perfection consists, religion comes to a conclusion identical with that which culture,—culture seeking the determination of this question through all the voices of human experience which have been heard upon it, of art, science, poetry, philosophy, history, as well as of religion, in order to give a greater fulness and certainty to its solution.

We see here the beginnings of Arnold’s equating of “religion with morality.” These ideas foreshadowed his later definition of “religion” in Literature and Dogma (1873). There he writes,

Religion, if we follow the intention of human thoughts and human language in the use of the word, is ethics heightened, enkindled, lit up by feeling; the passage from morality to religion is made when to morality is applied emotion. And the true meaning of religion is thus not simply morality, but morality touched by emotion. And this new elevation and inspiration of morality is well marked by the word ‘righteousness.’ Conduct is the word of common life, morality is the word of philosophical disquisition, righteousness is the word of religion.

Here Arnold united the themes in his earlier “Hebraism and Hellenism.”

In the nineteenth century, Matthew Arnold was merely one of many attempting to redefine Christianity by moralizing religion.  Theologians, writers, and even men of science employed a vague, moralizing notion of “religion” in order to re-describe the essential features of Christianity. We see this particularly in the scientific naturalists, including the so-called co-founders of the “Conflict Thesis,” John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White. Draper, for instance, saw the politicization of Christianity as the end of “religion.” “True religion,” he maintained, is found in the teachings of Jesus Christ. Its doom came with Constantine. According to White, a pure and undefiled religion in found in the “recognition of ‘a Power in the universe, not of ourselves, which makes for righteousness,’ and in the love of God and of our neighbor.”

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