Decorative Initial Sometime during his adolescence, Matthew Arnold abandoned Christianity, apparently on ethical grounds and with little of the spiritual agonies Carlyle and Ruskin experienced, and turned to agnosticism. He thereafter spent a good bit of his life trying to tell others about it in a gentle, gentlemanly way that would not upset them too much.

This most influential of all Victorian agnostics had a complex relationship with two very different religious leaders, the liberal Protestant Thomas Arnold, his father, and John Henry Newman, the embodiment of religious conservatism. As the son of Thomas Arnold, the pioneering headmaster of Rugby and one of the leaders of Broad Church Anglicanism, Matthew Arnold early encountered mildly liberalizing approaches to Anglican Christianity. Fundamentally a social conservative, Matthew Arnold nonetheless pushed his devout father's Christian liberalism to the breaking point. Whereas the father had allowed that some scriptural language had to be understood as metaphorical rather than as simple-mindedly literal, the son went farther and held, finally, that the Bible is all metaphorical, recording essential human hopes and aspirations rather than historical events.

As David J. Delaura points out,

In the light of St. Paul and Protestantism as a whole, as well as of Arnold's other religious writing, it is fairly clear what Christianity's "true and ultimate development in this line" will be: the jettisoning of the entire metaphysical apparatus and methodology of traditional theology as literally meaningless. Arnold's "additions" tend to be deletions, his ultimate theology being a collection of religiously tinged moral maxims from the Bible. [88; emphasis in original]

Matthew Arnold's intellectual and spritual relationship to John Henry Newman, whom in many ways he took as his master, turns out to be equally subversive. He admires Newman enormously, he cherishes his sense of the religious, he cites him frequently, and he thinks most of what he believes is complete nonsense. Arnold sincerely admired the man who had moved from Evangelicalism to Tractarianism and finally to Roman Catholicism for his emphasizing the non-rational, limitless nature of religious issues:

Arnold confronts Newman directly as the supreme nineteenth-century expositor of the mystery inherent in religious truths who conceived of the universe of supernatural truth and reality as a realm on the edges of man's ordinary consciousness the shadowy outlines of which were fragmentarily revealed to him by Scripture. In Arnold, for all the Biblical quality of his religiously tinged moralism, one feels that the mystery has been torn away, or more accurately, gently brushed aside by a disenchanted Time-Spirit here identified with man's widening "literary experience." [Delaura, 108-9]

He may be true to Newman, but always in his own fashion:

the man is treated with considerable deference, and his words are quoted, usually somewhat out of context, when Newman's literry and intellectual authority semms helpful to Arnold's argument; but Newman is impatiently thrust aside as soon as his more "arbitrary" and "impossible — and central — views are glimpsed. [88]

In concluding. let's look at DeLaura's description of Arnold's complex strategy when dealing with religious matters:

Against orthodox Christians he argues that the notion of a Personal God is unintelligible and unverifiable — according to a special notion of verification. Against the rationalizing philosophical Liberals (whose positivism he accepts) he argues, nevertheless, that the masses need emotional and imaginative support for the practice of morality, and this can come only from the Bible. [105] . . . Finally, against what Arnold sees as the compromising non-Christian but theistic devotees of Unitarianism, he argues that their logic is unsound, since they reject individual Christian doctrines as incredible or irrational but fail to recognize that Christian theology is a logically valid concatenation of probabilities and that only by striking at the very root of all theology can individual Christian tenets be cast down.[106]

Suggested Readings

Buckley, J. H. The Victorian Temper: A Study in Literary Culture. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1964.

DeLaura, David J. Hebrew and Hellene in Victorian England: Newman, Arnold, and Pater. Austin: U of Texas P, 1969. [full text in Victorian Web]


Victorian Overview John Henry Cardinal Newman Matthew Arnold

Last modified 27 August 2004