Friday, October 23, 2009

The Historical Jesus and the Late Victorian Novel

Ernest Renan

"The great problem of the present age," writes the translator of Ernest Renan's La Vie de Jésus, "is to preserve the religious spirit, whilst getting rid of the superstitions and absurdities that deform it, and which are alike opposed to science and common sense." Renan's book appeared in English in 1863, a few years after the publication of Darwin's The Origin of Species (1859), and invited similar criticism and outrage with its challenge to the traditional Christian world view. Renan (1823-1892) attempted to see Jesus in his historical context, not as the Son of God, but as an historical figure whose thought and actions were influenced by the intellectual, social, and political currents of his time, and by a long tradition of Jewish thought.

The influence of Renan's Life of Jesus pervades Mrs. Humphry Ward's great novel Robert Elsmere (1888). The title character is an Anglican rector whose historical and scientific investigations prompt a crisis of faith that ultimately leads him to reject the supernatural basis of Christianity. He is left with "the image of a purely human Christ—a purely human, explicable, yet always wonderful Christianity." Elsmere's crisis mirrors the intellectual and spiritual crisis of the Victorians in general as they faced the implications of the new scientific and historical views of the world.

It's important, in Robert Elsmere, that the rector is an amateur naturalist—like Rev. Farebrother in Middlemarch and like so many nineteenth-century Anglican clergymen. The study of natural history revealed to the religious mind the wonders of God's creation, but to a more critical mind like Elsmere's it revealed truths fundamentally at odds with his simple Christianity. Certain central Christian doctrines—the Virgin Birth, for example, and the Resurrection—were seen to be absurd in light of a scientific understanding of the world. But more importantly, science gave Elsmere a method by which he could scrutinize Scriptural evidence and see it as part of an historical process, rather than as a divine revelation.

Mrs Ward writes: "Perhaps it was his scientific work, fragmentary as it was, that was really quickening and sharpening these historical impressions of his. Evolution—once a mere germ in the mind—was beginning to press, to encroach, to intermeddle with the mind's other furniture. And the comparative instinct—the tool, par excellence, of modern science—was at last fully awake, was growing fast, taking hold, now here, now there."

Elsmere's crisis is precipitated when he reads about and ponders the latest historical criticism of the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament. Renan, among others, realized that Daniel was written centuries after the events it purports to narrate—that it is, essentially, a work of fiction—and that when Jesus quotes from it, he is not bringing a divine prophecy to fulfillment, but merely reflecting the purely human influence of Jewish tradition.

Mr. Grey, Elsmere's Oxford mentor, dissects Elsmere's loss of literal faith: "Well, the process in you has been the typical process of the present day. Abstract thought has had little or nothing to do with it. It has been all a question of literary and historical evidence. I am old-fashioned stick to the a priori impossibility of miracles, but then I am a philosopher! You have come to see how miracles are manufactured, to recognise in it merely a natural, inevitable outgrowth of human testimony, in its pre-scientific stages. It has been all experimental, inductive."

George Eliot—young Mary Ann Evans—went through a similar crisis of faith as the translator of D.F. Strauss's Life of Jesus (Leben Jesu, 1835), a pioneering German attempt to uncover the historical Jesus. As Eliot biographer Jenny Uglow writes: "She was reluctant to reduce the person of Christ, whom she regarded as an unparalleled charismatic teacher, to a mere pawn of cultural consciousness. Strauss seemed to drain Christianity of any application to life, and she realised, in rejecting his negative position, that she did value the symbolic importance of Christian teaching, indeed of all religions based on notions of self-sacrifice, of spiritual community, of supporting love."

That qualification—"the symbolic importance of Christian teaching"—is significant. Christianity could be seen as full of mythical elements—stories that nevertheless touched an essential chord in the human heart. Not surprisingly, the woman who would become a great novelist, known for the moral depth of her fiction, concluded that fictions could contain great truths. A scientific examination of the Bible reduced it to a collection of absurdities. As Matthew Arnold explained, the Bible only made sense, and only remained relevant, when read as a literary text.

Late Victorians like Arnold and Eliot and Mrs. Humphry Ward needed Christian teaching as the basis of their morality, and as the basis of liberal social action to alleviate poverty and suffering and injustice in the world, but they could no longer accept the Bible as the literal word of God. Renan wrote: "To have made himself beloved, 'to the degree that after his death they ceased not to love him,' was the great work of Jesus, and that which most struck his contemporaries." He continues, "If Jesus were to return among us, he would recognise as disciples, not those who pretent to enclose him entirely in a few catechismal phrases, but those who labour to carry on his work."

To live one's life so as to be loved: not a bad standard of conduct.

The work of Ernest Renan is also read by the title character in American novelist Harold Frederic's 1896 novel The Damnation of Theron Ware. Theron Ware is, like Robert Elsmere, a clergyman (in Ware's case, a Methodist) whose study of Renan, among others, leads to a loss of his Christian faith. Theron Ware is also, like Elsmere, a gifted preacher. But when Ware loses his faith, and can no longer in good conscience preach Christian sermons, he reapplies his talent in a typical American way: he becomes a salesman.

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