Victorian Optimism

I have been working on a chapter on “historical context” in my paper on Newman’s Apologia. Victorian England was not an easy audience for Newman. The Baconian project of domination over nature reached a high-point of confidence in the Victorians.  The tremendous technological and commercial achievements of the time had not yet been clouded by the shock to the faith in progress that WWI was to give – nor by the ideological critique of capitalism and imperialism through Marxism etc. The religion that appealed most to the Victorian Zeitgeist was the liberal Christianity of Newman’s opponent Charles Kingsley, which substituted the optimism of progress for Christian hope, to the point of practically identifying the scientific, technological and commercial success of British society with the coming of the kingdom of God. Kingsley is (no surprise) a huge fan of Bacon:

Remember that while England is, and ever will be, behindhand in metaphysical and scholastic science, she is the nation which above all others has conquered nature by obeying her; that as it pleased God that the author of that proverb, the father of inductive science, Bacon Lord Verulam, should have been an Englishman, so it has pleased Him that we, Lord Bacon’s countrymen, should improve that precious heirloom of science, inventing, producing, exporting, importing, till it seems as if the whole human race, and every land from the equator to the pole must henceforth bear the indelible impress and sign-manual of English science. And bear in mind, as I said just now, that this study of natural history is the grammar of that very physical science which has enabled England thus to replenish the earth and subdue it. Do you not see, then, that by following these studies you are walking in the very path to which England owes her wealth ; that you are training in yourself that habit of mind which God has approved as the one which He has ordained for Englishmen, and are doing what in you lies toward carrying out, in after life, the glorious work which God seems to have laid on the English race, to replenish the earth and subdue it? (“On the Study of Natural History,” available through the magic of google books)

The incredible English chauvinism that he shows here is wholly typical of his age. Ronald Knox thinking back about his Victorian childhood expresses it like this:

Only those of us, I think, who were born under Queen Victoria know what it feels like to assume, without questioning, that England is permanently top nation; that foreigners do not matter, and if the worst comes to the worst, Lord Salisbury will send a gun-boat. (Ronald Knox, God and the Atom (London: Sheed and Ward, 1945) 53-54.)

Victorian Liberal Christianity was impatient of what it saw as the irrelevant subtlety of speculative doctrine; it was a very practical religion. For Newman to make a history of the theological investigations that lead him to abandon the religion of England for the “superstitions of Rome” palatable to Victorian England was a challenge indeed.

One thought on “Victorian Optimism

  1. Pingback: Saki on Edwardian Religion « Sancrucensis

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