Matthew Arnold, in 1883, on the Bible’s Hold upon the Public Imagination

In what sounds as if it could have been written yesterday, here is the 19th century literary critic and poet, Matthew Arnold, from the preface of his book Literature and Dogma, on the cultural state of play of Bible-based religion in 1883:

Clergymen and ministers of religion are full of lamentations over what they call the spread of scepticism, and because of the little hold which religion now has on the masses of the people,—the lapsed masses, as some call them. Practical hold on them it never, perhaps, had very much, but they did not question its truth, and they held it in considerable awe. As the best of them raised themselves up out of a merely animal life, religion attracted and engaged them. But now they seem to have hardly any awe of it at all, and they freely question its truth. And many of the most successful, energetic, and ingenious of the artisan class, who are steady and rise, are now found either of themselves rejecting the Bible altogether, or following teachers who tell them the Bible is an exploded superstition.

Matthew Arnold attributed the Bible’s declining influence to the dug-in nature of the clergy with regard to dogmatic theology. The clergy, against the advancing knowledge of science, the Higher Criticism, and Darwinian evolution, continued to read the Bible in “old-school” fashion—literally and dogmatically—and as if a serious contemporary reader can move from biblical book to biblical book, treating them as a harmony. But the Bible is not harmonious. Not from author to author, and not even from word to word. In other words, the very terms used throughout the Bible are not uniform, precise, fixed, and consistent throughout it. But biblical terms are nevertheless treated in this ahistorical way by dogmatic theology. And so here’s one of Arnold’s examples (from the beginning of chapter 1):

We have said elsewhere how much it has contributed to the misunderstanding of St. Paul, that terms like grace, new birth, justification—which he used in a fluid and passing way, as men use terms in common discourse or in eloquence and poetry, to describe approximately, but only approximately, what they have present before their mind, but do not profess that their mind does or can grasp exactly or adequately,—that such terms people have blunderingly taken in a fixed and rigid manner, as if they were symbols with as definite and fully grasped a meaning as the names line or angle, and proceeded to use them on this supposition. Terms, in short, which with St. Paul are literary  terms, theologians have employed as if they were scientific  terms.    

Matthew Arnold’s alternative to reading the Bible in this nonhistorical and noncontexual—and, as we would put it, fundamentalist way—is to instead approach the Bible for what it gives us every appearance of being: literature. Hence the title of Arnold’s book, Literature and Dogma. He might also have titled the book, Literature vs. Dogma, for that is what Arnold sees as the great category mistake of the nineteenth century clergy: that they went on deriving the language of dogma from a book that is so self-evidently an anthology of human literature.

And so, in answer to the question—“How, in the light of the contemporary academic discoveries surrounding the Bible, shall we continue to find relevance in it?”—Arnold’s answer is this: read the Book of Job as you might read Sophocles or Homer—as part of our collective Western literary and cultural inheritance. There is wisdom there, and perhaps, if God exists, even some divine guidance, but the milk has already spilled: the Bible cannot, by contemporary educated people, be held to in the ways that, say, pre-Enlightenment dogmatic theologians like Calvin and Luther held to it.

Here’s Arnold’s observation, for example, on the Bible’s use of the term God (10-11):

[I]n truth, the word “God” is used in most cases as by no means a term of science or exact knowledge, but a term of poetry and eloquence, a term thrown out, so to speak, at a not fully grasped object of the speaker’s consciousness, a literary term, in short; and mankind means different things by it as their consciousness differs.

And here’s Arnold on whether it makes sense to seriously consult the writings of Martin Luther—over, say, the discoveries of literary criticism—for what the Bible means (xix):

Luther, again, Mr. Liddon cites as a witness on the question of the Athanasian Creed; and he might as well cite him as a witness on the question of the origin of species. Luther’s greatness is in his revival of the sense of conscience and personal responsibility, and the fresh and vigorous power which this sense, joined to his robust mother-wit, gave him in using the Bible. . . . [But] whoever reads in the folios of Luther’s works without passing lightly over very much, and, amongst it, over this [his speculative dogma], reads there ill.

Of course, Arnold’s take on the Bible is no solution to its greater acceptance by large masses of people. Most people, afterall, go to religion for answers, not nuance and an increase in perplexity (and hence the revival in our own time of confidence men who attract large followings precisely by their fundamentalist confidence posing).

And Arnold’s middle way—his desire not to throw the Bible out with the fundamentalist bath water—and retain it as a literary treasure—is unpleasing not just to the religious dogmatist, but to the irreligious dogmatist. Matthew Arnold, in attempting to find a middle ground, and to make some peace between believers and nonbelievers, no doubt found himself between zealots raising their rhetorical swords for one another—and for Arnold. Matthew Arnold was to religion what Barack Obama is to politics: a man trying to split the differences between people possessed of dogmatic passions. Whether rational moderation, in the end, prevails, is always an open question.

File:Matthew Arnold - Project Gutenberg eText 16745.jpg

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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