GOD'S FUNERAL By A.N. Wilson W.W. Norton 402 pp., $27.95
With apologies to Mark Twain, the rumors of God's death have been greatly exaggerated. As A.N. Wilson shows in "God's Funeral," those rumors were particularly thick in the Victorian age.
The assault on orthodox Christian faith, in particular, advanced on several fronts, all carefully presented in this fascinating history by one of England's most articulate intellectuals.
Wilson begins at the end of his story, with the haunting poem by Thomas Hardy that gives this book its title. Writing in 1908, Hardy imagined a macabre procession of mourners carrying their dead faith to the grave.
"Perhaps only those who have known the peace of God which passes all understanding," Wilson comments humbly, "can have any conception of what was lost between 100 and 150 years ago when the human race in Western Europe began to discard Christianity."
Intellectual acumen alone would have made this a dry book, indeed, but Wilson's intense sympathy for what he calls this "profound agony" of spiritual disillusionment makes his study as moving as it is enlightening.
Arranged biographically, the book swings between broad cultural appraisals and intimate anecdotes about various sufferers or promoters of "the Victorian disease, Doubt."
The trouble starts with the philosophers David Hume and Immanuel Kant, who challenged orthodox defenders of faith by effectively insisting that there can be no reliable sensory evidence of God.
With his own "evidence of things not seen" before, geologist Charles Lyell proved that the Biblical record of the earth was entirely mythical. And Charles Darwin made it possible to imagine human development without God.
Meanwhile, Edward Gibbon's "History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" frankly portrayed the saints and popes of the early church - and its ideals -as contemptible.
Promoting their own orthodoxies, Marx described human beings as servants of history, not God, and Freud claimed the Awesome Father in the heavens was merely a projection of the awful dad in the bedroom.
Finally, German critics discovered "that the Bible evolved over many years and, whatever the sublime or even 'inspired' nature of its teaching, was very much the product of the cultures and communities which produced it."
Wilson notes, "Religion, as popularly practiced and understood for fifteen hundred years in Europe, was sent the way of pocket boroughs and inadequate drains." What were intellectually honest Christians to do under such a multi-faceted attack? "Could they in honesty continue to say that they believed in the infallible truth of Scripture, insist that it was the inspired word of God? If so, in what sense?"
Some, like the poets Coleridge and Wordsworth, "huddled for shelter beneath the arms of Orthodoxy," a "rabid reaction," Wilson calls "an attractive but a dishonorable position."
In his journal, Thomas Carlyle cried, "Oh, that I had faith!" Dreading a life without God, the shaggy social critic decided to speak and write "as if God were true." He feared humanity's absent faith in God would be replaced by faith in something far less worthy.
Mystics tried to re-create God as a shadowy "presence" behind the material world. Thomas Huxley, the Apostle of Unbelief, threw himself into atheism with such evangelical enthusiasm that he forced the scientific and religious communities to spout exaggerated claims neither could support. More temperate scientists dared to propose God was the principle of the universe's incredible design.
Under the lens of Wilson's fascination, these doubters and promoters shine with a striking relevance to our own age. Some of this material is tough going, but as Wilson points out, "If war is too important a matter to be left to the generals, then this metaphysical inquiry is certainly too important to be left to the theologians and metaphysicians."
*Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org