Hugh Baker puts a good word in for one of the fictional nineteenth century evangelical clergy
He is possessed of more than average abilities, and is of good courage’. Thus the urbane Trollope says of Mr Slope, who achieves the position of Bishops Chaplain through the approval of the egregious Mrs Proudie. But why does Trollope choose to make him an evangelical?
Jane Austen is no more kind. Her evangelical, Mr Collins, of Pride and Prejudice fame, is an unctuous toady, while Henry Fielding’s Mr Thwackum speaks for himself. (I take it that Mr Thwackum is an evangelical in that he holds the word ‘religion’ to be defining of that which is Protestant and Church of England, and takes the same dim view of human nature as I do.)
Such lampooning has always struck me as strange: I find no biographical evidence for Trollope, Austen or Fielding being rabid anti-Protestants. Is there, I wonder, a deeper stream that carries them, albeit unconsciously, to their characterizations? Should we look to Romanticism for our source?
Romanticism is a large, complex octopus to grapple with. At first sight it appears to have no philosophical basis, and is certainly anti-rational. Dickens’ Mr Gradgrind and his emphasis on ‘facts’ are a cartoon of what Dickens, himself a Romantic, found dehumanizing about rationalism and what was perceived as its creation, the Industrial Revolution.
The pendulum swings
Romanticism’s prime expression is artistic and literary, and maybe there was something Gradgrindish about Mr Slope, who found its attachment to things medieval, and gothic, hard to come to terms with. ‘His gall rises at a new church with a high pitched roof…a profane jest-book would not, in his view, more foully desecrate the church seat of a Christian, than a book of prayer printed with red letters, and ornamented with a cross on the back.’
Perhaps we could say that Romanticism was a necessary counterbalance to the Enlightenment’s desire to build life and civilization on rationality alone. Even so, counter-balances, left unchallenged, can topple over into a contrary untruth. We now live in a time and place where No One Believes Anything Very Much: the Big Story has disappeared from view, and anyone who runs their life by any meta-history is seen as a (pardon me for using such a word in a respectable journal) f*nd*m*nt*l*st.
Romanticism dethrones dry fact in order to worship feeling. The numinous, to be found in the encounter with wild, unadorned nature, is its gateway to encountering truth. Now, I wouldn’t want to knock the numinous: the prayers of my aged aunt which brought me to the faith first showed themselves in me in an inchoate, undoctrinal way; but had I stayed there, my faith and testimony, my ability to teach, inspire and help others grow in Christ, would have been severely limited. In short, we need to move past the feelings to the facts.
Attend an Alpha Course (or similar) and you will realize that the younger general public are monolithically ignorant of the basic facts of Christianity. Faced with life’s deeper questions, they are operating on feelings, and little else; and which of us, for example, feels like being married to one person for all our natural days, or feels like not resorting to alcohol or drugs when our parents’ feeling-based liaisons break down?
I am not arguing that feelings should be disregarded or ignored: they can be accurate indicators of what is actually happening inside us. What I am saying is that we will be ruined as people if our feelings are to be obeyed.
It was precisely because Mr Slope was not in touch with his feelings that he made such a fool of himself over Signora Madeline Vesey Neroni; but, whereas a Romantic would have felt fully justified in running off with the lady, Mr Slope would have eventually, against his own will and desires, demurred: the lady was married already, and there would have been no scriptural case for her being remarried. Come back, Mr Slope: we need your evangelical certainties, if not your vaunting ambition.