Lament of an untamed cynic

Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England Volume III

May 17, 2002

Richard Harries on a fierce complaint that our culture has been filleted of Christianity.

In responding to a culture whose presuppositions and assumptions are predominantly secular, it is possible for Christian thinkers to take up a defiantly hostile stance. On the other hand, they can try to relate to what is true in the culture in a positive and affirmative manner. The danger of the first approach is that the Christian counter-culture so created will go its own way with nothing to say to the wider world in which it is set; or, if it does have something to say, what is said will not be heard because it will be stated in a way that is perceived as strange and alien. The danger of the second approach, of course, is so to accommodate Christian truth to the outlook and values of a secularised society that any distinctive witness is lost.

Maurice Cowling's first volume of Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England was published in 1980 and dealt with what he describes as "the aggressive defence of Christianity" from Newman onwards. The second volume, published in 1985, focused on "the aggressive assaults on Christianity", from Spencer onwards. This third volume discusses in detail those who have tried to relate Christian doctrine to the prevailing Zeitgeist .

The work as a whole is a major intellectual exercise on a crucially important theme. It is deliberately limited to modern England - not Scotland, Wales or Ireland, let alone the rest of Europe - and it is concerned with public doctrine, that is Christianity, as a force in the intellectual and institutional life of the country. It is not primarily about personal faith, though of course that has to be considered. Nor is it social history or sociology. It deals with the writings of a section of the intelligentsia - those who have taken part in and helped to shape the role of Christian doctrine in public life.

The intellectual heart of this third volume lies in its detailed examination of more than 120 thinkers, politicians, literary critics, philosophers, historians and scientists. These discussions are framed by sharp judgements as to where the authors' accommodation to the surrounding intellectual culture fits in with Cowling's own judgement about how far such accommodation is either legitimate or possible. These judgements are also laced with a fair amount of Peterhouse table talk (the author is a fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge) about the private lives and characters of the writers he discusses.

Cowling is clear that there is no neutral history. What he has written is shaped by his own temperament, religious history and the writers who have personally influenced him in the past. He is honest about this even while trying to be as fair as possible. This is at its most obvious in his discussions of Christian socialism and those thinkers who have seen socialism as the only legitimate public expression of Christian doctrine. He writes at one point: "This chapter is the work of a cynical conservative who never had the slightest enthusiasm for the rhetoric of progress, virtue or improvement."

Cowling's harshest strictures are for those who have so accommodated Christian faith to secular presuppositions that the faith has been evacuated of any meaningful content. But he is also severe about ostensibly secular literati who are so often blind to the quasi-religious assumptions and values that underlie their work. Infusing the whole book is something of a sense of bewilderment, sadness and anger at the way Christianity has been displaced as the defining intellectual force of our culture.

He does not regard it as inevitable that the process of secularisation will continue. Christianity, he thinks, could yet surprise us with its capacity for intellectual recovery. But what he is asking for would seem to be logically impossible. For he makes it clear that he does not want the Christian faith to be self-conscious about itself. Furthermore, he does not like the concept of conversion. He wants Christian doctrine to be habitual, so built into our cultural assumptions and institutions - especially the universities - that people need not agonise about "the oddness and arbitrariness of Christianity's doctrines".

Yet it is difficult to see how such a culture could ever come about, from where we are now, unless people are challenged intellectually and spiritually, and as a result shift their allegiance. Such a process cannot help but make Christian faith self-conscious. Nor does Cowling give any kind of indication about how such a change in our society's intellectual life might come about. He does not, at least in this volume, even consider Coleridge and T. S. Eliot's concept of a clerisy, a cultured Christian elite who would operate in the intellectual life of society.

Cowling finds it difficult to admire, qualifying every positive epithet. Archbishop William Temple is described as having a "suspect geniality of character" and Anthony Kenny as having a prose "whose misleading clarity is impressive". Sometimes his judgements are not just lordly but dangerous, as in his comment on George Steiner: "His hysteria about the Holocaust and the heavy insinuating quality of his self-righteousness which does more to provoke anti-Semitism than any of the provocations that he takes account of." He makes no bones about roughing up (his term) icons of liberalism such as E. M. Forster and Isaiah Berlin, although he cannot be called narrow in his dislikes. About C. S. Lewis he writes: "What was awful about Lewis was not so much his politics, the rhetoric of 'fact' about the incarnation or a defence of sexual eccentricity that was so much at variance with his moral doctrine, as his sermonising, his slang and the vulgar wish not to be part of an 'inner ring'. It was, and is, deeply unpleasant to discover that Christianity's business is not only to create 'Little Christs' ... but also to enable those who had had a wretched upbringing to 'astonish us all'."

I am not an uncritical admirer of Lewis but his essay on the inner ring was a wonderfully perceptive piece of psychology, and it is difficult to see how any Christian could so easily scorn the idea of Christians reflecting the life of Christ or offering hope to people from difficult backgrounds. It is also noticeable that Cowling focuses exclusively on Lewis's earlier, moralistic writings and ignores his brilliant wartime essays, as well as the much more sensitive writing at the end of his life after the death of his wife.

Cowling does find a "couple of dozen" thinkers of whom, while he is far from sharing their point of view, he approves because they are the enemy of those who are his enemy. These include novelists such as Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene but also philosophers such as Alasdair MacIntyre and John Milbank. He also approves of Roger Scruton, though I do not think he has taken on board the fact, as I understand it, that Scruton has now gone beyond support for the rhetoric of the Christian religion to give his allegiance to its substance.

He has an antipathy to progressive liberalism, especially its rhetoric, and insofar as that has shaped the intelligentsia of our society is hostile to most of them as well, whether or not they were Christian believers, and whether they accommodated too much or not enough to the prevailing intellectual mores. He is not prepared to dismiss the whole project of industrialisation. He believes in respectability - the hope that bank managers can have a place in the kingdom of God as well as penitent criminals. All this needs to be said, and things are indeed more complicated - one of his favourite words - than colour-supplement progressives suggest.

Cowling has a critical mind, and I mean that as a compliment - but not perhaps critical enough. It would seem that he has never even been tempted by a Marxist analysis of society. He is pessimistic, as most of the best writers are - but not pessimistic enough. At the same time there is an absence of hope. I cannot help contrasting him with the American thinker Reinhold Niebuhr, who was at once more pessimistic and more hopeful. But then Niebuhr was not only profoundly Christian, he had gone through a Marxist phase. His first book was titled Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic .

Historians a century hence will turn to this three-volume work as a major source of what has happened to Christian doctrine in public life over the past 200 years. It is an invaluable record, not attempted by anyone else on this scale. They will, however, be more aware of the sheer difficulty of the task confronting Christian intellectuals in this period, and certainly more sympathetic to those who have made attempts to relate Christian insights of what it is to be a human being in society to the intellectual climate of their times in a way that manages to communicate those insights without dissolving their distinctive voice.

Rt Revd Richard Harries is bishop of Oxford.

Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England Volume III: Accommodations

Author - Maurice Cowling
ISBN - 0 521 25960 6
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £65.00
Pages - 766

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