Denis Desert on Matthew Arnold’s challenge to the Church to communicate the faith in a way that speaks to contemporary society

In 1851 the poet and educationalist Mathew Arnold wrote his prophetic and perceptive poem Dover Beach. Arnold saw religious faith as an essential element in civilizing humanity and that it was being eroded by the industrialization and secularization of society. He expressed his understanding in the words, ‘The Sea of Faith / Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore / Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d / But now I only hear / Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar …’

A world in flux

Arnold could see that society was beginning to undergo a radical change and that the received understanding of religion was not equipped to speak to a world in flux. He adopted a liberal or ‘modernistic’ view and inevitably came under attack from conservative Christians who considered that he was undermining the faith. On the other hand extreme radicals derided him for holding on to the vestiges of religion. However, he saw the need for Christians to take careful note of the growing secularization of society and to address this situation by communicating the faith to the contemporary world in a way that took note of the cultural and social changes.

As a man of faith and an educationalist he communicated his views in the preface to his book God and the Bible: ‘At the present moment two things about the Christian religion must surely be clear to anybody with eyes in his head. One is, that men cannot do without it: the other, that they cannot do with it as it is.’ He also regarded that much of religion was presented in a negative way and that ‘it was touched with the finger of death.’ As man with breadth of vision he had no time for religious bigots. He a dissenting minister: ‘I say, away with the Mass! It is from the bottomless pit; and in the bottomless pit shall all liars have their part, in the lake that

burneth with fire and brimstone.’

Arnold rated John Newman highly for his intellectual integrity and for his appreciation of poetry. Both men valued poetry because of its ability to kindle the imagination and also as a bastion against the dehumanizing factors latent in industrialization. Although Arnold did not embrace the Oxford Movement, he saw it as a force against middle-class Philistinism.

He saw the Oxford Movement challenging the illusions of ‘middle-class Protestantism’ and ‘self-confident Liberalism’. He continues, ‘It is in this manner that the sentiment of Oxford for beauty and sweetness conquers, and in this manner long may it continue to conquer!’ To my mind Matthew Arnold applauds Newman and the Oxford Movement as a valuable ‘tool’ to maintain within the national culture a wholesome element in which it is possible for human beings to develop in ‘sweetness and light.’

Arnold, and Newman the poet would have agreed, emphasized the importance of the imagination in exploring and developing a culture in which it is possible for humanity to become truly human. But he also gave due weight to reason. In his Democracy he underlined the importance of reason in the formation of a wholesome society, A‘ fine culture is the complement of high reason.’ For Arnold imagination and reason work together in creating a balanced culture.

Leaving belief behind

Don Cupitt, in his book The Sea of Faith published in 1984, took up Arnold’s perception that society was leaving religious belief behind. Cupitt

wrote, ‘The English social and religious order had until quite recently seemed strong enough to be able to resist the encroachment of unbelief by isolating and containing it, but it was becoming apparent that the long rearguard action was being lost.’ Cupitt ends his book, ‘But the historic task of religion, embodying our values, witnessing to them, conserving them, setting them forth in symbols and securing their realisation in human life, remains unchanged.’

Arnold and Cupitt both pointed to theneedofthe Churchto communicate the faith to each age in a manner in which it can be appreciated. While the essence of tradition is unchangeable, its form needs to be presented in a dress that speaks to contemporary society. This factor was demonstrated by the Church of the early Byzantine Empire, in which it moved from a necessarily domestic expression of liturgy to that of the magnificence of basilicas and ceremonial drawn from the imperial court.

A difficult field

To my mind the Church generally has avoided the difficult task of exploring avenues in which the faith can be communicated to our ‘postmodern’ secular, multicultural society. It is a difficult field in which any who are engaged in this task may well be accused of undermining the faith. But our Blessed Lord rocked the boat of the Jewish hierarchy and paid the cost and historically there have been others who have had the courage and vision to challenge received views and have also paid the cost.

So how are we to face the challenge of ‘re-dressing’ our faith in a manner that speaks to our age? There is, of course, no easy answer. But I would suggest that this is a task that we as traditionalists are supremely well equipped to undertake. Matthew Arnold threw down the gauntlet in 1851; have we members of Forward in Faith the courage to take it up? ND