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God's Funeral: The Decline of Faith in…
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God's Funeral: The Decline of Faith in Western Civilization (1999)

by A. N. Wilson

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Wilson looks at the wrestles that various Victorian British writers and intellectuals had with faith and doubt--the rise of atheism and secularism in the 19th century. The book is enjoyably written, with many amusing and engaging anecdotes. I liked Wilson's ability to sympathize with the existential despair of so many of these figures without discounting the importance of religion as a structuring force of human life. ( )
  jalbacutler | Jan 10, 2017 |
God still has " value" e.g., when a politician or other prominent individual gets himself into trouble (usually through a failing of his zipper or wallet), and he (rarely she) seeks redemption in the eyes of the public by public confession of his sins and expression of the need for divine forgiveness and grace. Witness Charles Colson, Eldridge Cleaver, and Bill Clinton (the bizarre prayer breakfast).

" Value" may have a rather foreign meaning in this context, but the philosopher who coined the phrase meant that whether God exists or not may be irrelevant; those in disgrace can always fall back on Divine Mercy to seek redemption. It's effective. This despite centuries of scientific destruction of religious dogma. It was no wonder the Renaissance popes reacted so fiercely to Galilean ideas. The anthropomorphic view of the universe, and " made in God's image" was being effectively destroyed.

The discovery by geologists of the long evolution of the earth and the creation and extinction of numerous forms of life on the planet made belief in a loving, benevolent, and omnipotent creator seem fatuous. The scientific research of the nineteenth century revealed a Nature with no discernible purpose, "not a loving purpose, or an anthropocentric purpose. In other words, if you pressed the argument from Design too far you might infer a God who was curious about a multiplicity of life-forms, entirely unconcerned about the bloodiness and painfulness with which many of these forms sustained life while on this planet, a God who was no more demonstrably interested in the human race than He was in, say, beetles, of which He created an inordinately large variety."

What Wilson has done is to examine the origins of the twentieth-century conflict that has evolved between scientific fact and religious belief (fantasy) through brief sketches of a variety of nineteenth-century philosophers, writers, and naturalists who participated in this great debate. He examines the Victorian experience of the conflict between doubt and faith and its effect on the twentieth century. The nineteenth century provided the context for the debate and polemics for the discussion of God's demise.

It was a time for celebration of political thinkers, scientists and artists to proclaim the end of religion, yet Wilson notes that church attendance remained constant. Even the debate between Thomas Huxley and Bishop Wilberforce helped create an atmosphere of optimism about the perfectibility of humankind. Thinking ranged from the stubborn unbelief of people like Marx and Swinbourne to Freud, who thought religion would just wither away, to William James, who argued it provided a useful psychological crutch.

Thinkers of the nineteenth century had to "choose between giving up intellectual honesty or abandoning that spiritual and religious dimension to life which, as far as we can discover from the historians and anthropologists, is so fundamental a part of all previous human existence."

The title of the book is from a poem by Thomas Hardy, subject of the first chapter. In this poem, Hardy imagines himself at God's funeral. He speaks of the death of the myth of God that we have created, but simultaneously he regrets the loss of faith and notes sympathetically those who continue to believe despite evidence that the God we have created no longer exists. Hardy, himself atheist, remained very fond of religious trappings, the music and liturgical ceremony. When he was invested in Magdalene College, the dons were very worried he might eschew the formal religious ceremony, but he surprised them by accepting it completely. His remark, " course, it' all just sentiment to me now" did spoil the effect, however. ( )
  ecw0647 | Sep 30, 2013 |
Wilson's book is a tour de force of the unraveling of bourgeois Christianity in the English speaking world during the Victorian Era. He guides us through the minds of the great believers-at-all-costs and unbelievers, including both the at-all-costs and the because-I-must types, with skill, wit, and precision. In his own sympathy for the various figures of this period, he leads us to sympathize with the plight of those who wouldn't and those who couldn't believe. This sympathy, in turn, leads us to a great understanding of our own modern situation as we fall in at the tail end of the dismantling of bourgeois Christianity.

In spite of the excellence of this book, however, I have two complaints to lodge against it and its author. The first: as I mentioned twice in the preceding paragraph, this is a book about bourgeois Christianity and about those members of the bourgeoisie (and, yes, that includes Karl Marx) who came to disbelieve in it, and came to disbelieve in it largely because both it and they were (and are) bourgeois. What might have been a great credit to this book, or perhaps to another study as it might not have fit in this book, is the effect that, for example, Darwin's and Lyell's theories or perhaps the biblical criticism a la the Tubingen School had upon believers of other classes in society and castes of mind.

The other complaint is that A.N. Wilson seems himself to advocate a form of Christianity that is no-Christianity at all; while complaining – rightly – about the watered-down pseudo-religiosity of the Deists, Wilson seems very close to their ideas, especially in the conclusion of his book. Whether that is the effect he intended, I do not know, but it is the impression I received. A Christianity without the Resurrection, with a God who intervenes directly and is/can be experienced by mystics and saints, etc. – that is, a Christianity without passion, asceticism, mysticism, and zeal -- is not Christianity at all. ( )
  davidpwithun | May 31, 2012 |
After a slow and shaky start, my philosophy-challenged brain cells adapted to the intellectual tone of this meticulously researched and documented book about the decline of religious faith in the 19th century. The author discusses the various scientific discoveries and philosophical arguments that led to many prominent individuals to abandon Christianity, and even God, altogether; and the effects this abandonment of belief had on these individuals and on society itself.

The thing I found most notable is how much this 19th-century struggle between intellectualism and faith is still going on for many people today. It certainly was mirrored in my own life. After about age 17 or 18, I could no longer accept the dogmatic, literalist fundamentalism with which I had been raised, but I couldn't reject the concept of God out of hand. After several years of searching, I returned to Christianity, but a different faith tradition: one which allows and encourages me to think, to question, to come to my own understanding of God and a faith that works for me.

I found it interesting, and encouraging, that the book itself ends on a similar note. ( )
2 vote avanta7 | Apr 25, 2009 |
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Epigraph
GOD'S FUNERAL
Thomas Hardy

I
I saw a slowly-stepping train --
Lined on the brows, scoop-eyed and bent and hoar --
Following in files across a twilit plain
A strange and mystic form the foremost bore

II
And by contagious throbs of thought
Or latent knowledge that within me lay
And had already stirred me, I was wrought
To consciousness of sorrow even as they.

III
The fore-borne shape, to my blurred eyes,
At first seemed man-like, and anon to change
To an amorphous cloud of marvellous size,
At times endowed with wings of glorious range.

IV
And this phantasmal variousness
Ever possessed it as they drew along:
Yet throughout all it symboled none the less
Potency vast and loving-kindness strong.

V
Almost before I knew I bent
Towards the moving columns without a word;
They, growing in bulk and numbers as they went,
Struck out sick thought that could be overheard:-

VI
'O man-projected Figure, of late
Imaged as we, thy knell who shall survive?
Whence came it we were tempted to create
One whom we can no longer keep alive?

VII
'Framing him jealous, fierce, at first,
We gave him justice as the ages rolled,
Will to bless those by circumstance accurst,
And long suffering, and mercies manifold.

VIII
'And tricked by our own early dream
And need of solace, we grew self-deceived,
Our making soon our maker did we deem,
And what we had imagined we believed.

IX
'Till, in Time's stayless stealthy swing,
Uncompromising rude reality
Mangled the Monarch of our fashioning,
Who quavered, sank; and now has ceased to be.

X
'So, toward our myth's oblivion,
Darkling, and languid-lipped, we creep and grope
Sadlier than those who wept in Babylon,
Whose Zion was a still abiding hope.

XI
'How sweet it was in years far hied
To start the wheels of day with trustful prayer,
To lie down liegely at the eventide
And feel a blest assurance he was there!

XII
'And who or what shall fill his place?
Whither will wanderers turn distracted eyes
For some fixed star to stimulate their pace
Towards the goal of their enterprise?' ...

XIII
Some in the background then I saw,
Sweet women, youths, men, all incredulous,
Who chimed: 'This is a counterfeit of straw,
This requiem mockery! Still he lives to us!'

XIV
I could not buoy their faith: and yet
Many I had known: with all I sympathized;
And though struck speechless, I did not forget
That what was mourned for, I, too, long had prized.

XV
Still, how to hear such loss I deemed
The insistent question for each animate mind,
And gazing, to my growing sight there seemed
A pale yet positive gleam low down behind,

XVI
Whereof, to life the general night,
A certain few who stood aloof had said,
'See you upon the horizon that small light --
Swelling somewhat?' Each mourner shook his head.

XVIII
And they composed a crowd of whom
Some were right good, and many nigh the best ...
Thus dazed and puzzled 'twixt the gleam and gloom
Mechanically I followed with the rest.
Dedication
First words
The God-question does not go away. (Preface)
The English poet Thomas Hardy, some time between 1908 and 1910, wrote a poem in which he imagined himself attending God's funeral.
Quotations
It is not wise to generalize. We do not know whether the 'Victorian' Father, so heavy-handed and so odious, was any more prevalent in the nineteenth century than in previous ages; but it was one of the perceptions which literary Victorians had of themselves – from Mr. Barrett of Wimpole Street to the Marquess of Queensbury, it seems like a century peopled with fathers making impossible emotional demands on their sons and daughters, Lear-like demands for affection which cannot possibly be forthcoming, and which in any event belongs elsewhere. (p.248)
Of course, if we accepted any of these broad-brush impressions and dignified them with the name of argument, we could see that they work both ways. On the one hand you could say that God the Father was the ultimate projection of a phantasmagoric psycho-figure from our pre-pubescent nightmares. But, equally, you could argue that the desire to discard God is not a rational thing; it is part of one's Oedipal need to assert oneself. We tell ourselves that God is dead, when what we mean is God is Dad, and we wish him dead. (p.249)
It could be argued that the ideas of Freud have been more socially disruptive than those of Marx. [... Freud's] diagnosis of what made [humanity] unhappy was family life. He taught us that in order to become sane, we must undermine and question what for most of us is the bedrock of our social and emotional security – our trust in, and love for, our parents. By teaching that neurosis can only be eliminated by overt hatred of our parents, he re-drew the inner map of millions of European and American human beings, making what had been a safe place into a battlefield. (p.252)
Nadezhda Mandelsram told us (in Hope Against Hope) that it was Stalin's achievement to make everyone in the Soviet Union distrust one another. Freudianism was a cultural revolution on this scale of success. He created a generation who not only believed that the virtues of his ancestral religion – to honour father and mother – were vices, but who also subscribed to the view that our inner selves are inescapable: the story which we believe might be alterable by effort or luck has already been written in the forgotten or half-forgotten years of infancy. (p.252)
[Matthew Arnold's] famous essay on Culture and Anarchy envisaged perpetual warfare between, on one hand, cultivated fellows like himself, who read Homer and Dante and who, if they wished to have a breath of modern culture, rushed off to France and Germany; and contemporary England, which was largely populated by the Philistines (that is to say, the governing aristocratic class) and the rising class – the class Arnold himself was trying to educate – whom he flattering called the Barbarians. (p. 258)
Last words
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Disambiguation notice
The paperback edition, Ballantine Books (2000), includes a Foreword in which the author comments on the reactions that he received, and says that while he chose the title from Hardy's poem, unfortunately people took it in a way he didn't intend.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0393047458, Hardcover)

God's Funeral is A.N. Wilson's account of the decline of orthodox Christianity in Victorian Britain. The most popular explanation for this widely-recognized phenomenon is the acceptance by intellectuals of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. To disprove the notion that Darwin singlehandedly committed deicide, Wilson describes a host of secularizing predecessors and accomplices such as Hume, Gibbon, John Stuart Mill, Hegel, Marx, and Carlyle. All play major roles in Wilson's brilliantly staged reconstruction of the so-called death of God. God's Funeral also takes account of the pain and confusion these intellectuals brought upon themselves when their great achievements helped erode the social and intellectual foundations of their lives. Furthermore, Wilson shows how their crises of faith relate to our own. Like our Victorian forebears, contemporary readers still must ask, "Is our personal religion that which links us to the ultimate reality, or is it the final human fantasy...?" and, "Is there a world of value outside ourselves, or do we, collectively and individually, invent what we call The Good?" God's Funeral helps readers learn to ask these questions in smarter and sharper ways by giving them a clearer sense of how Western society reached its current state of confusion.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 17:58:23 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

By the end of the nineteenth century, almost all the great writers, artists, and intellectuals had abandoned Christianity; many had abandoned belief in God altogether. This was in part the result of scientific discovery, particularly the work of Charles Darwin in The Origin of Species and the controversy that followed. But the doubt about religion had many sources. A. N. Wilson demonstrates in this synthesis of biography and intellectual history that the real destruction of religions belief had been achieved well before Darwin's momentous publication. Yet despite the fact that the church had essentially become an edifice empty of faith, it survived into our century because so few of the fascinating, tortured people Wilson portrays could face the brutal consequences of their own logic. Whether or not God was dead, they still needed to believe, hence the great spiritual angst of their culture which is now echoed in ours.--Publisher description.… (more)

» see all 2 descriptions

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