Interview with Timothy Larsen
Thinking in Public
November 21, 2011
This is “Thinking in Public”, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about front line
theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your
host, and President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
Mohler: There are some things that we are quite certain that we know in terms of the patterns of the past. There are certain eras that are simply etched in our historical consciousness in such a way that we think we have a handle on them, we think we know what they mean. That’s true of the Victorian Age and as we shall we in this conversation, it’s true in ways that are profoundly untrue.
Timothy Larsen has been on the faculty of Wheaton College since 2002 where he holds the Carolyn and Fred McManis Professorship of Christian Thought. That’s one of the most esteemed endowed chairs in the world of evangelical higher education. He earned both bachelors and masters degrees from Wheaton College before earning his Ph.D. in History from the University of Stirling in Scotland. His intellectual and teaching areas are in the fields of British history, historical theology, Christian thought, intellectual currents and controversies. He has been elected a Visiting Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford for the Trinity term of 2012. He is the author of several books including, most recently, A People of One Book: The Bible and the Victorians, published by Oxford University Press. Professor Larsen, welcome to “Thinking in Public”.
Larsen: I’m glad to be here.
Mohler: Professor Larsen, there are certain things we just know, those of us who have any historical consciousness at all. For instance, we know that the Dark Ages were uniformly dark and we know that the Victorians lost their faith. Do we actually know these things?
Larsen: Well, we don’t have time to get too far into the Dark Ages, but that’s wrong as well. That even the classic Dark Ages monk. You got the world is round, for example, so there is a mythology there. But as for the Victorians they were a deeply passionate people of faith. That was overwhelmingly the dominate tone of society and the fact that they cared about doubt so much is a reflection about how much they cared about faith. People who are not interested in faith are not concerned about doubt. So the Victorians talked about doubt a great deal not because they didn’t have faith, but because precisely they thought faith mattered.
Mohler: Well, it’s a very interesting argument. As a matter of fact, I would think amongst the historians and especially those whose field is intellectual history, perhaps your most controversial re-reading as that of the Victorian Era as something other than, well the big story being the loss of faith. But in order to understand that, let’s talk about the conventional wisdom when it comes to the Victorian Age, particularly in Great Britain and particularly as it earns that kind of reputation as the era of the loss of faith. How did it get that designation?
Larsen: Well, the Victorian Era was a time when people were more willing to talk publically about doubt so there was less restriction on what job you could do if you denied the Christian faith, for example. So there is a change that is happening, but it is more of a conversation that in the past was held in people’s parlor rooms among their friends without being much more public. But in truth overwhelmingly, again, people were people of passionate faith and what happened in the twentieth century was that scholars became interested in the people who were doubters in the Victorian period because they had seen that they were ahead of the curve, that this was where the world was going. They had a secularization thesis in their mind that ultimately the world would not be religious. So the people that lost their faith became to them the most interesting people of the Victorians because they thought that they were pressing, they were telling us where the world was going.
Mohler: Well, you know, I think I have read all your published work, and I have to tell you, it’s absolutely fascinating. I have been interested in it for a long time in terms of my own project of dealing with, for instance, the emergence of atheism as a major force in Western intellectual thought. And thus looking back to the Victorian Age is kind of a reflex. So let me just run through the course of intellectual history in terms of why the Victorian Age would appear to be rightly characterized as an era of the loss of faith. First of all, you have what might be considered kind of the settling in of the Enlightenment challenged. And not only that, but the Enlightenment challenge to revelation, to the supernatural and all the rest, eventually reaching down from the intellectual elites through the process of England’s very, very systematic education system deeper and deeper into the different classes of culture. And especially amongst the more literate class, there appears to be almost a contagious loss of faith in which you have so many of the most important figures of thought related to British literature and life and thought and, especially those who have been connected to kind of the high church party in the Church of England all of a sudden appear to be announcing their doubts. But you are suggesting that that’s overblown and the doubts have been there for some time but perhaps there’s now a cultural openness to discuss them.
Larsen: Yes, and I like they way you set that up because there was a kind of intellectual fashion as well. I think that there was a certain elite culture where it became fashionable to doubt. You looked like you were part of the trendy movement. But that goes away quite quickly. So if you look in the inter-war period a few decades later, especially, as you mention high church Anglicans and Catholics, you have people like T.S. Elliot and Graham Green and Odin and Dorothy Sayers and C.S. Lewis. You have this whole flowering of the British literary intelligensia being people who are passionately talking about faith again. So I think the story that often gets told is if thinking people learn that Christianity was not true and then hence forth and forevermore intellectuals go on knowing better. Where in reality you just have a kind of bubble there where it became fashionable in late nineteenth century for certain kind of elite figures to say that they were doubters.
Mohler: And it certainly was fashionable. I mean, all you need to do is mention someone like Dover Beach, Matthew Arnold and you recognize that a good deal of how we come to understand the literature and thought of the age, including the background for the evangelical revival in the late nineteenth century is over and against this very public, very elite doubt.
Larsen: The evangelical revival actually is part of the sensibility that is creating that. Evangelicals taught people that it matters very much what you really believe, what you believe in your heart, not just something you are willing to give lip service to, but what you truly, truly hold to. And so that sets the standard really high for honesty and integrity and that leads certain kinds of Victorians to say, well I have doubts and I want to be honest about that. So again, in the eighteenth century it would have been the assumption that you wouldn’t say that aloud. You would only say that in discrete company. Where I think it is precisely because of evangelicalism that people feel a necessity to talk about those things more candidly and publically.
Mohler: When I wrote my book on the New Atheism, I discovered somewhat to my surprise that the word atheist was apparently coined, at least according to the Oxford English Dictionary, by Miles Coverdale in the Tudor Period and before that they really didn’t need the word. And of course it was, I guess Thomas Huxley who invented the word agnostic somewhere between, well, knowing and not knowing and certainly somewhere between theism and atheism, he tried to create this new middle ground where doubt was more or less the principle of thought.
Larsen: That’s right, and fascinatingly he seems to have created that as a biblical allusion to the Apostle Paul referring to the unknown god. And he wanted to highlight what we don’t know for sure about God and so he sees the Apostle Paul as emphasizing this undetermined theology. So Huxley himself was deeply into a biblical and theological debate culture. And so although he emphasized agnosticism, and he certainly was annoyed by certain Christians that he thought were smug and pronounced too quickly and knew too much or thought they knew more than they knew, he nevertheless wrestled with faith in pretty deep ways, I think, for his whole life.
Mohler: Well, the reason I began is that I began asking about the Dark Ages and Victorians is that we do tend to think in terms of historical generalizations. And to some degree I guess that’s just rather necessary as we try to keep an intellectual frame around our understanding of history. But why is it that this one sided reading of Victorians is so dominate among intellectual historians?
Larsen: There are a couple of reasons I think. I think it reflects the interests of the scholars themselves for a long time. The scholars personally thought that faith was on the decline and that doubt was winning and therefore they took that as the most important thing to focus on, not the largest thing happening, not the thing that was representative of the age, but the thing that they felt was representative of the truth. And that expectation, I actually wrote to one of the key scholars who wrote a book like this and she wrote back to me quite candidly. I had no idea that faith would be this vibrant in the twenty-first century. I thought it was dying off. So that was part of the expectation that created this context for sure. The other thing is this whole mythology of the conflict between faith and science. So there has been a lot of people who have tried to discredit Christianity by seeing it as anti-scientific. And therefore they had this whole story about Darwin coming along and disproving Christianity and therefore, henceforth, once again faith is not credible and so Darwin, because Darwin fits right in the middle of the Victorian Age that becomes a nice shorthand for that whole way of constructing the relationship between faith and science which is, again, as false as these other things that we have been talking about.
Mohler: Now in your own work Crisis of Doubt: Honest Faith in Nineteenth Century England also published by Oxford University Press, you use several different historical figures in order to show a counter movement. And that is those who did not lose their faith, but rather, having previously been skeptics, regained their faith or gained it for the first time. Talk about some of those figures and how you were drawn to that area of research.
Larsen: Yes, I’ll start with the end. I was drawn to it because I was amazed. I did my Ph.D. work on mainly non-conformists as a code name for Baptists, Congregationalists, groups outside the Church of England in Victorian England and their political views. And I would kind of cross these figures who often had been a working class figures, who had been radical and that’s how they got on my reading list. But I would find out in a footnote or just on the margin that after having years of being a major champion of atheism, they had come to faith. And part of what intrigued me was how uninterested scholars were in this. It seemed to me quite an amazing thing even just looking at history in general. If somebody had spent their career passionately arguing one political position and then had switched to the opposite you would think, oh that’s interesting, what made that change? But scholars weren’t interested. It was a narrative they didn’t care about. And so I started to pursue them and what I found was, again, these are names that are foregone because scholars haven’t been interested in preserving people who are atheist leaders who came to faith and history tends to get rid of most people anyways. They are not names that most people know today, but in their day they were the people that would have been named. If you said, who is a leader of organized atheism they would have named people like Thomas Cooper, like Joseph Barker, like William Hone and George Sexton and they for years gave the main lectures in London that advocated an atheist point of view that attacked Christianity. They wrote or edited the main radical newspapers and journals that were from a skeptical point of view and then they came to faith and then they spent another career, as it were, explaining why their ideas had been wrong, why Christianity was true and defending the faith in lectures, in publications and on and on.
Mohler: Now, it’s very interesting in your book when you talk about the question how many reconverts were there, you mention that you say finally fellow scholars have often gone on to comment in the world of one professor of modern British history at an English university in a letter to me, “more people look the other way, of course.” And you’re not arguing that more people were reconverts than had lost their faith, but rather that this is a part of the story that just hasn’t been told.
Larsen: Well, yes. And I did, I go on to say the absurdity of that argument because you can’t have a greater set than the set is being drawn from that many more people had faith than lost it. There are many more people of faith in the Victorian Period than there are people who are skeptics. But I see them as telling and I see them as telling because it’s precisely the question that people don’t think is in play. It’s the intellectual credibility of Christianity that they gave their life to. They carefully sifted the arguments against Christianity and all of the best arguments, Hume on miracles, what do we do with the scientific evidence of Darwinism, what do we do with biblical criticism from Germany, whatever corrosive ideas were out there they read hard, they sifted those ideas and in the end they said that faith is satisfying intellectually, and its credible. And I am willing to stand up on a platform and debate you and give a public lecture and write books and explain why.
Mohler: You know, it’s very interesting, the old conventional wisdom here that in polite company you don’t discuss religion and politics. It’s very interesting you look back at the Victorians and you look at the kinds of periodic literature they were reading, you look at the kinds of letters they were writing and you look at the kind of conversation that goes on virtually at all levels of society. It looks like they talked about little else than religion and politics.
Larsen: That’s right and they talked about it with great passion and learning. You look at those Victorian quarterlies and reviews and I covet publications like that today, that seriousness where you get an article that really unfolds an argument carefully.
Mohler: Now let me ask you a question that I think is rather necessary at this point. And it is one that you are in a unique position to speak to. And that is this, just how important is the Victorian Age, especially the Victorian Age in Great Britain we are talking about here, to our understanding of Christianity in the modern world and to the nature of what it means to be an evangelical.
Larsen: Yes, I think it is important for both of those things. It’s important for our understanding both for what they stood for and for these misperceptions that had been perpetuated into modern thought. So there are ways in which the conversation has become distorted because of myths about the Victorian. But in truth almost all of the issues that we are wrestling with today that have salience for us the Victorians had a version of that conversation that is still ongoing. So how do we think about people in other parts of the world? How do we think about missions and the colonial encounter and what it means to think theologically about people who practice a different religion? What do we think about the nature of the Bible and its composition and its truthfulness? What do we think about issues of sexuality or morality? You know, almost all the issues that are still the issues that we are addressing today and thinking through are issues that the Victorians had a conversation about that they started or added to and therefore it becomes a kind of seed bed for what we are doing now.
Mohler: Setting the record straight is part of the ongoing historical conversation. Historians present their reading of history and then it is the fodder of conversation for other historians, it becomes a matter of thesis and then antithesis and then an ongoing conversation in terms of the understanding. That is why there is so much interest in revisionist history. It’s because we have a history that has been received, a standard version in terms of a standard narrative and yet historians are going back and asking, was that really the case or is that all to the story? That’s what makes Timothy Larsen’s work on the Victorian so interesting. He does tell us a great deal of interesting material about what we think we already know, but it’s even more important when he comes along and says, there was more to the story, it should have been seen and now because of his research we’re talking about it.
Professor Larsen, when you think of the Victorians it’s hard to imagine a Victorian without his or her Bible. This was the great age of Biblical literacy and especially in Britain. You’ve made the point very clearly that the Bible was at the center of well, just about the entire culture, such that every single individuals had to have some understanding of where he or she stood vis-à-vis the Bible. Your new book A People of One Book: The Bible and the Victorians published by Oxford University Press is really a magnum opus on this. Now how again did you come to this research interest?
Larsen: It was something that I kind of realized was hiding in plain sight. Scholars did not want to talk about this for a variety of reasons. Not that they would deny it, but they wouldn’t see it, they wouldn’t focus on it, they wouldn’t do any work on it. And there are multiple reasons for that. One is that they just find the Bible and commenting on the Bible boring. So major Victorian figures wrote at length about the Bible, they cared about most. Even T.H. Huxley, although going toward agnostic wrote book after book about the Bible. Florence Nightingale, famous for her nursing program just wrote and thought about the Bible all the time. And that was typical, but scholars today don’t want to read that material and also scholars today are biblically illiterate themselves so they are not catching the Biblical allusions in their own subject matter and they misunderstand what these people are saying or they latch onto it as revealing something, some hidden dark secret about them because they don’t understand biblical language so they can’t get the resonance of it. So I just wanted to set the record straight because I could see that there was so much that was being missed and misunderstood.
Mohler: You know, if you are trying to come up with a bad joke, that joke could involve E.B. Pusey and T. H. Huxley and C.H. Spurgeon and walking into a bar, that old trope, where is this story going to go? But I’ve never known of a book that puts those figures along with several others into one frame of reference and that frame of reference having to do with their understanding of Scripture. To my knowledge you really hadn’t written about Spurgeon before, at least with this kind of approach and so you begin with one of the Tractarians, the highest of high church Anglicans and then you end with a Non-Conformist and in between you have got down right, well, unbelievers. But all of them defined themselves in terms of the Bible in one way or the other; either by accepting it or rejecting it; obeying it, disobeying it. You know, the status of the Scripture was so central to Victorian culture it was that one question they could not avoid.
Larsen: And so scholars had been interested in those who defy the Bible, but what they haven’t been able to notice is that if you spend your lifetime trying to write against the Bible, really it’s gotten underneath your skin and you think it is absolutely essential. Though what was more interesting to me was not that they were objecting to the Bible, but that they couldn’t get around it. They had to spend their life attacking it. And that seemed to be the negative image of the centrality of Scripture which, of course, for most people was the most beloved book in their life, the most beloved book they read literally every morning and every night which was the great comfort of their lived where they turned in suffering, where they turned in grief, where they turned to find meaning and purpose in their lives.
Mohler: You know, it was said of a Lutheran reformation that at the end of that reformation every Lutheran had two books in his or her hand, the Bible and the hymn book. And then I guess you could say by certainly the beginning of the Victorian Era given the dissemination of literature, the massive printing industry that emerged, there virtually everyone could have the Bible and I guess the Book of Common Prayer if they were Anglican, or if you were Spurgeon you were putting out just tons and tons of printed material all the time. But the Bible was also a part of the school curriculum, and it was a part of the ongoing conversation. You know, looking at the speeches of not only Gladstone but, for instance, even Disraeli, you’ve got all these scriptural references.
Larsen: Absolutely. And everybody quotes Scripture in public speeches and not just the few most common texts that minimum biblical literacy would allow you to know. They assume a great depth of biblical literacy in their audiences even though their audience is a political audience or a social reform audience or on some other subject matter they are assuming that they all know the contents of the Bible deeply. It was by far the norm, irrespective of people’s denominational identity or own kind of sense of fervor in their spiritual lives that people learned how to read on the Bible. That is was the main textbook in schools whether they were schools that were officially religious or that were not intended to be religious. It didn’t matter. Huxley himself signed a resolution that said that the Bible was the first point of curriculum in state schools, after it came reading and writing and arithmetic; the first subject matter was Bible then reading, writing and arithmetic and that was what he thought was a good state education for elementary school children.
Mohler: You have a chapter in here, for instance, on the Unitarians. I was reading a work on Charles Darwin some years ago, and I came across something that to my evangelical sensibilities was just something of a surprise. For instance, it said that both the evangelicals and the Unitarians taught Sunday school. And then, speaking of the Unitarians, said that they would more or less teach the Bible as the Bible, and they would simply assume that children once they reached a certain age would be able to handle the fact that they didn’t understand these things the way they had been taught. You know it’s kind of the mirror image of what happened in evangelical circles where parents read these Bible stories to their children and then thought that well, when they grew to be older they’ll understand them at greater depth. But none the less these children are taught the same stories.
Larsen: Yeah, and part of what I don’t really identify strongly in the book but is that all of these traditions are getting pulled by the gravitational force of evangelicals to a degree. So even if you are Unitarian your piety looks from our perspective today surprisingly evangelical, that you are reading the Bible day and night and you are meditating on it. These pastors are sending verses to their parishioners saying the lord laid this on my heart for you. And I take that as a tribute to how strong the evangelical revival had been for the whole culture so that other traditions are being pulled into those ways of piety.
Mohler: Now when it comes to Victorian morality it is interesting that, again, it was based explicitly, at least as they understood it, on the Scriptures, anyone making a moral argument had to argue on the basis on some kind of Biblical influence and authority. And even those who denied the supernatural content to the Scriptures, at least to that point, by-in-large, it was certainly the Victorians who were the skeptics still wanted to hold to something very similar to a biblical morality which they saw as indispensible to human happiness and flourishing.
Larsen: Oh, absolutely. What they meant by morality was traditional Christian morality and they were deeply insulted if you said they did not hold to morality and they totally assumed that morality was defined in the same ways as Christians define it. And that’s the irony now if you look at how agnostics, atheists and skeptics in the twentieth century pull away from Christian morality and see it as this sort of unsubstantiated hangover where in the Victorian Period atheists thought it was a great insult if you didn’t think that they held to the exact same morality. They thought that morality was just morality and now from our perspective Christian morality, but for them it was just morality.
Mohler: Now in one of your earlier works on the Victorians, a work entitled Contested Christianity: The Political and Social Context of Victorian Theology, that published by Baylor University Press, you mention and look closely at someone who has always been an issue of fascination with me and that is Bishop Colenso. Could you just tell us that story? It seems to me to be one of the most perigmatic stories of the Victorian coming to terms with biblical criticism and its consequences.
Larsen: Yes, Colenso became a theologically liberal Anglican. He was deeply influenced by F. D. Maurice who would set people in a liberal direction but Maurice himself was quite a mystery. His theological language was enormously vague so what precisely he meant was never clear, but he got in trouble for denying eternal punishment, Maurice did. So Colenso, and Colenso in kind of one of the weakness of Anglican training in the Victorian Period had been a great mathematician, studying mathematics and then he got ordained. He had never gotten a proper theological and biblical training, and he is appointed as bishop to the town. So he goes off as a missionary bishop to work among the Zulus. And he then starts to write liberal theological works and works of biblical criticism from his position in Africa. He claims that this comes out of his encounters with the Zulus which is true in the sense that I think when he realized when he tried to teach others that he didn’t believe some of this himself, but I think that he uses the missionary position a little bit as a rhetorical device to kind of structure some of this. But in truth he kind of loses his theological moorings and then starts to write books of radical biblical criticism. He thinks of himself as a kind of new reformer. I think he thinks he is kind of leading a great movement, but the reaction is quite negative across the spectrum; even people like Mathew Arnold who is very theologically liberal in his own way was embarrassed by the crudeness of Colenso’s arguments. And so there is a pretty strong negative reaction, but for a bit of legal muddle, he still gets to retain the legal rights of being a bishop, but he’s treated as excommunicated by the other Anglican bishops.
Mohler: You know, it’s a fascinating story and kind of the talk on the street about Colenso was that he went to convert the heathen and became one.
Larsen: Yes, exactly.
Mohler: And yet I have to say as a theologian in the twenty-first century with grave concern for biblical authority in terms of how it has functioned or been denied over the last, say, two centuries, it’s clear to me in retrospect that this incident was telling in more ways than one. But the thing I want to ask you here is that when Bishop Colenso began to write this biblical criticism, he does seem to have that Maurician influence in the background, but he also appears to be kind of doing it on his own. In other words, he’s making moral judgments about the Scriptures. You know, Professor Larsen, I’m thinking of the fact, for instance, that he would say, how in the world can I tell the Zulus not to involve themselves in tribal warfare when the Bible has tribal warfare? It’s a very simplistic hermeneutic. It’s kind of embarrassing this is coming from a bishop of the church, but he appears to be just making these moral judgments about Scripture.
Larsen: Yeah, I think actually moral is the exact right word there. I think he came to find the Bible morally offensive. And so he needed some way to process that and what he does is he uses higher criticism as way of saying we don’t have to take the Bible as true which then frees him to just be able to reject texts that bother him. So I think a certain kind of moral sensibility is actually driving his rejection of the Bible and his kind of mathematical attack on the Bible is really a way for him to get out of this uncomfortableness he has with not knowing what to do with texts that bother him.
Mohler: Well, I look at him with great interest because it is important as a case not only in terms of how he developed his thought and disseminated his thought and its impact, but the fact that it appears to me that the Church of England made more or less a decision not to deal with this head on as a theological issue. And I would suggest that many of the subsequent issues faced by the Anglican communion can be traced back to a decision in this case just simply not to deal with this as a theological issue, but rather to deal with it more or less as a matter of the abuse of office.
Larsen: Yes, and what the Victorians find progressively is that your status as a priest or bishop in the Church of England is a legal status and not a spiritual status. And again and again the courts refuse to allow the church to disciple somebody. And yeah, that is the turning point where you get a church that functionally cannot call anybody of its own a heretic and therefore bring disciple to him.
Mohler: Now to swing to the other side, so to speak. Having dealt with Colenso, in your new book and that is A People of One Book: The Bible and the Victorians, in chapter ten you deal with C.H. Spurgeon. So in dealing Spurgeon whom evangelicals think they know so well, was their anything in particular that surprised you as you dealt with him in light of this research?
Larsen: There are many things that surprised me. Again, they are reinforcing, I think, of what we know of Spurgeon, but to me, anyway, in much greater depth. So, for example, everybody knows that his sermons were hugely successful. What I never knew was that he would come out before his sermon and he would have a whole chapter of Scripture read and he would exposit that chapter of Scripture verse by verse. And so his sermon which was often much more aimed at the heart and a response was only one half of his teaching on any given Sunday. The other half was an exposition of a text of Scripture, a chapter of Scripture usually. That part of his ministry I had never heard of, but it revealed to me the depth of his determination to have a biblically literate congregation. And just when I started to look at how much work he put into the Treasury of David, this multivolume commentary on Psalms and many other projects like that that were not just kind of a collection of his addresses or whatever that could be turned into a book, but it was work he had already done. This was additional labor for a man whose commitment was staggering. And it showed me something about his passion for Scripture, his intellectual rigor and intellectual curiosity and his desire to give resources to the church that would feed them.
Mohler: Well, by the time you come to the end of the nineteenth century, kind of the close of the Victorian Age as the twentieth century is now dawning, you really have a choice, don’t you? I mean you have a people of one Book, but some very divergent understandings now of the status and nature of that Book and the influence of that Book and increasingly even the teachings of that Book. So, in other words, where did this consensus break down, and where did it lead?
Larsen: What breaks down that gives the hidden thing that interests me most is teaching our people the contents of the Bible. So once you have taught them the contents of the Bible then there can be a discussion and informed argument about theological division, about ecclesiastical division. But what changes in the twentieth century dramatically is this very tool that would make that an informed, interesting conversation. And my only view of that is this is a wider breakdown of spiritual formation or even just kind of intellectual formation which has something to do, there are multiple causes, I’m naming one here. I don’t want to be reductionistic, but there is a real move toward a permissive society which makes it much harder to tell children to do something because it is the right thing for them to do whether they want to do it or not. So the Victorians were clear, you are going to Sunday School, you’re going to learn this, you’re going to memorize this, you are going to read this because we can see as adults that this will be useful to you. As the twentieth century progresses and the second half of the twentieth century, parents more and more and teachers even think, well the kids hate doing it, maybe we shouldn’t make them do it. If they are going to resist it, we’ll just kind of cave in. And so you end up with children no longer being given the tools and the resources for deep literacy and Biblical knowledge.
Mohler: You know, that’s very interesting and kind of reminds me of saying, having to paraphrase here from something Winston Churchill once said and that is that Victorian parents who lost the nerve to raise their own children sent them off to school masters who retain the nerve. And so many of these children, boys especially to these school where, again, the Bible was at the very center of the curriculum whether it be Easton or Rugby or Harrow or virtually any of these schools even the schools that were not directly under the patronage of the Church the Scriptures, that’s how they learned to read and that’s how they basically, well, let’s put it this way, the confidence of their tutors was that they would have a moral influence in their lives even if the tutors were not theists. Well, Professor Larsen, it has been a fascinating conversation. I have to ask you, and I say this with some appreciation for the fact that you just release a massive monograph by Oxford University Press, but I know you well enough to know that you have a research project already underway. I’d like to know what that’s all about.
Larsen: Yes, I’m doing a project on the discipline of anthropology and the Christian faith. So it’s another one of these kind of trying to retell the story. The story that gets told is about how anti-Christian anthropology is, and I want to get at some of the reasons for that, but some of the mythology. For example, anthropologists are scathing about missionaries. And it turns out that they are scathing about missionaries, I think, because they steal their work, because they know that missionaries are better anthropologists. They are in the field for much, much longer. They understand these cultures, these languages much better. They steal their work on the field and they feel guilty about it, and they respond to that guilt by going around bad-mouthing missionaries that they can’t do good works because they are biased and this kind of thing. Which is the only why they can justify why it is their work that is being published and not the missionaries who actually did the hard work for fifteen, twenty years and they just came into the field for six months and stole it. So I’m having fun with that.
Mohler: Well, we’ll have fun when you have it published and in the meantime let me thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public
Larsen: I’ve enjoyed it very much, thank you.
Mohler: It is interesting and informative to note the centrality of Scripture in the Victorian Age, especially speaking of Victorian Britain. Perhaps that one issue is that which sets it in greatest contrast to our own age. When we consider not just the secularization of postmodern or hypermodern America in Western countries, but rather the fact that the Bible has become so distant from us. We can no longer count on the fact that a person hearing a direct allusion to the Scripture knows either its source or its meaning. There’s just a profound absence of the specific content of Scripture in terms of our contemporary conversations. And it is interesting to note that the Victorians, on virtually all sides of the great issues of that day say themselves as speaking out of, on behalf of and consistent with the Scriptures.
I enjoyed that conversation with Timothy Larsen. It is interesting to go back to the Victorian Age, and I ask him a very important question and that is, why the Victorians, why is there such great historical interest in the Victorians? And I think it goes back to the fact that it is this early, modern, Western civilization that we now see coming into shape, especially in Great Britain with the Industrial Revolution and all the rest. With the crisis of knowledge there came a crisis of faith and a crisis of doubt in terms of the nineteenth century. There is this great conversation going on in Victorian culture. It is going on, of course, in the elites, the elites always have the privileged access to the conversation, they did before and they do now. But it became a matter of conversation at virtually all levels of society and all level of society in the Victorian Age believed that these issues were of utmost importance; at least they did discuss religion and politics and seemed to discuss little else. And it’s because these were the issues of the greatest cultural conversation, the greatest personal interest.
The research done by Professor Larsen helps to set the record straight on several things. First of all, as he concedes or wants to make the point even himself as a historian, there certainly was a Victorian loss of faith; a crisis of faith that led many, especially amongst the elites who abandon any reference to Christianity, any personal faith and any vestige of theism. And yet, of course that explains the great lament of the age; the kind of elegies you do see in something like Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach;” the kind of retreat of faith into an ocean of doubt that certainly was understood to be a catastrophic loss, even on the part of many who lost the faith. Unlike the more triumphalistic new atheists of the twenty-first century, these nineteenth century skeptics often felt the great loss that had come to themselves and would inevitably come to their civilization by the loss of this kind of Christian conviction. At the same time Professor Larsen comes back to say there was another story. And that story was the recovery of faith amongst some of those who had been the skeptics. They began to weigh the evidence and looking directly at the evidence, having first-hand knowledge of the great intellectual and moral challenges presented to Christianity, they came to see Christianity as more credible than atheism or agnosticism or skepticism. They embraced the truths of Christianity and, as he said, many of them had fascinating second careers, as it where, as defenders of the very faith that they had sought to subvert and as proponents of the very faith that they once themselves seemed to have lost.
In his newest book on the Bible and the Victorians or Victorians and the Bible it is interesting to note again that great central place played by Scripture in Victorian culture. There is a tremendous sense of loss that should come to Christians today in considering the loss of this Biblical knowledge in the society around us; a society that no longer recognizes Biblical allusions, no longer recognizes Biblical quotations and phrases of poetry and of course is only vestigially influenced by a biblical morality and a Christian memory. But you know, when I read his work and consider this conversation I also had the realization that evangelicals ought to look at this book in order to recognize how much we have lost in our own families, in our own churches, and in our own circles. That is to say, there was a deep and pervasive scriptural knowledge, the content of Scripture was living and known, much of it was memorized, the text was not only accessible as it was at hand by the development of the printing press, it was accessible to them in terms of their imagination and their memory having been inculcated into them in terms of their education and their childrearing and all the rest. We face a generation of our own who also don’t recognize a lot of the biblical allusions that are, of course, central to literature, but far more depressingly, a far greater concern, they simply don’t understand most of the central teachings of the Bible in the way that a Victorian young person would have, even if the Victorian young person would not be raise in a Christian home or actually learning the Scripture from someone who was not specifically a theist. We’re living in a very different set of intellectual circumstances. As Charles Taylor, the Canadian philosopher puts it, every age has its own set of intellectual conditions and our intellectual conditions are a far cry from those in Victorian England.
On the other hand, the continuities are also important. If you want to see the modern age coming into view go back to Victorian England, look at the Industrial Revolution, look at the educational reforms, look at the massive social issues and look, of course at England’s great age of empire and you can see what the modern age looks like as it is coming into view. Look to the twentieth century and you can see through all the carnage in the clouds of very morally complex, and in some ways morally catastrophic century, and then you come to the twenty-first century and you recognize we’re having a lot of the same conversations over again. That’s when you go back to the past and make certain that we understand the conversation correctly, that we know actually what was said and why it matters and why it continues to matter. That’s why I enjoyed this conversation so much as we look from the Victorians to our present day understanding that going back and getting the story of the Victorians more accurate in terms of our understanding is important in order that we have a more accurate understanding of ourselves and our own time.
Before signing off I want to remind you to avail yourself of the full wealth of resources available at Albertmohler.com and at sbts.edu. Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.