Literary Theology by Women Writers of Nineteenth Century

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      Throughout the nineteenth century, women used literature as a means to engage in theological discourse, through which they reinterpreted Christianity to meet deeply felt personal and political needs. This book considers women writers who voiced frustration with the forms of faith that they inherited, finding them inadequate to address their existential demands. But they discovered new resources within religion, which were brought to bear on matters of public morality, social justice, cultural formations of gender and personal meaning. While the concerns of these writers were varied, they shared a common desire to re-conceive Christianity as a more 'earthly' faith, whereby the spiritual is thoroughly integrated with social, material and emotional realities.

      It was necessary for these writers to create a 'literary theology' because female writers were denied any formal theological role in the church and academy, and they also encountered cultural prohibitions regarding the assumption of spiritual authority. Yet, by using secular literary forms, women contributed significantly to the formation and circulation of religious ideas. Novels, poetry, biography, periodical essays and political speeches were employed to articulate notions of the divine nature and divine-human relations. Furthermore, the use of popular writing forms enabled women to mediate effectively between religion and their cultural context. Literature foregrounds the experiential dimension, and these writers placed high demands on Christianity's effectiveness in lived experience. In the works considered here, matters of objective truth recede in importance, while priority is given to faith's power to transform personal and social life. Sin and salvation are re-conceptualized in ways that take human needs as the starting point. The first chapter of this book outlines the cultural and intellectual contexts in which women's theology of the nineteenth century can be appreciated.

      This includes the benefits of literature as a theological mode, women's complex position in relation to religious authority and wider tendencies towards an 'incarnational' Christianity; in which the division between secular and sacred is blurred. Chapter 2 addresses the work of a popular Evangelical novelist, Emma Worboise, whose fiction promotes a deprivatized, defeminized Christianity which is effective in male life and the public sphere. In her contribution to the discourse of Christian manliness, her biography of Thomas Arnold is central. In Chapter 3, Anne Bronte's poetry is shown to dramatize a painful struggle between the emotional and rational dimensions of belief. As well as being significant in relation to Romantic and Enlightenment discourses, Bronte's work is also considered to share many characteristics with the philosophies of Christian Existentialism. Chapter 4 explores the genre of collective biography, in particular examples which portray the lives of Bible women.

      The writers, including Lucy Aikin, Julia Kavanagh, Clara Balfour, Sarah Hale, Grace Aguilar, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Elizabeth Charles and Anna Jameson, are shown to anticipate in striking ways the strategies and conclusions of the school of feminist Bible criticism which emerged in the late twentieth century. The biographers argue that scripture is more liberating for women than its traditional interpreters acknowledged. The final two chapters turn to politics. While better known for her later writings, the young Harriet Martineau played an important role for Unitarians at a crucial moment in the denomination's development. Chapter 5 examines this role and her articulation of a theology which underwrote the values of an emerging middle-class citizenry. Finally, Josephine Butler's writings on the subject of the state regulation of prostitution towards the end of the century are analyzed, in terms of her recovery of a radical gospel which transforms social structures. Chapter 6 places her work in the tradition of Liberation Theology which, although in name a twentieth-century phenomenon, has its forbears.

      All these writers succeeded in forging new understandings of faith and new possibilities for living it. They negotiated between their inherited forms of belief, their urgent sense of the human needs which it must address and the ambiguous opportunities for religious expression which, as women, they experienced. In doing this, they not only revised the meanings of Christianity, but they also reinterpreted the very purpose of religion, and the role of the theologian, in a modern society.

      In the nineteenth century, literature was recognized to have particular strengths as a theological method. Numerous voices claimed that popular, secular forms of writing were a more effective mode of religious communication than the traditional sermon or treatise, on the grounds that the non-specialist writer presented ideas in a more accessible, relevant way. In an 1855 article for the National Review; Walter Bagehot commented on this popularizing tendency: In religion the appeal now is not to the technicalities of scholars, or the fiction of recluse schoolmen, but to the deep feelings, the sure sentiments, the painful strivings of all who think and hope. And this appeal to the many necessarily brings with it a consequence. We must speak to the many so that they will listen - that they will like to listen - that they will understand. It is of no use addressing them with the forms of science, or the rigor of accuracy, or the tedium of exhaustive discussion.

      The multitude are impatient of system, desirous of brevity, puzzled by formality. The theology of 'schoolmen' is here rejected as excessively technical and abstract, and out of kilter with readers most profound needs and aspirations, which religion sought to address. Literature was also felt to engage the reader's sensibilities more persuasively than dry intellectual discourse, because it appealed also to the imagination and emotions. Faith is embodied in narrative patterns and characters to whom the reader is drawn through empathetic response. Dinah Mu lock (later Craik), one of the most popular of mid-Victorian novelists, commented thus on the novelist's power to convert hearts as well as minds: His power is three fold over heart, reason and fancy. The orator we hear eagerly but as his voice fades from us its lessons depart: the moral philosopher we read and digest, by degrees, in a serious, ponderous way; but the really good writer of fiction takes us by storm.

      George Eliot, too, felt that 'art' could instill a moral or philosophical viewpoint through its subtle, indirect method more effectively than the overt discourse of 'hundreds of sermons and philosophical dissertations'. Women writers were conscious that they were rivaling formal theological discourse, and presented their work as an alternative which better suited the times. The literary marketplace was also felt to be a more egalitarian field for the airing of religious views than were ecclesiastical structures.

      The democratization of intellectual discourse is a well-noted feature of the nineteenth century, in which the 'man of letters' arose to replace the priest as educator and guide. As T. W. Heyck explains, the writer enjoyed a particularly 'sympathetic' relationship with the audience, speaking from a shared lay context: Whether novelist, poet, historian, philosopher, or social critic, the man of letters was expected to help the audience through the troubles of economic, social and religious change .... In the process of secularization, the public encouraged the men of letters to act as preachers, moralists, critics and sages, with essentially didactic and prophetic functions.

      The earned authority of the writer suited the meritocratic tendencies of the times and undermined the authority of the ordained minister, a leveling which was welcomed by many; regretted by others. High churchman and priest John Henry Newman rued the loss of clerical authority, and the fact that
men have hitherto depended on others and especially on the clergy for religious truth: now each man attempts to judge for himself'. In contrast, Thomas Carlyle's famous lecture, 'The Hero as Man of Letters', celebrated the priest-like role now available through the press, declaring that 'the writers of Newspapers, Pamphlets, Poems, Books, these are the real working effective church of a modern country .... Books are our church .... The Press is to such a degree superseding the Pulpit'. For here, a more secular notion of the priest could be realized, appointed by readers' consent, to offer 'spiritual light' to people with whom he was more closely in touch than clergy who have been set apart by specialist training and ordination. While Carlyle clearly conceived of this as a masculine ideal, women writers made similar claims for the status of their work. The journalist Frances Power Cobbe declared her regular column in the Echo to be her 'pulpit’, and Geraldine.

      Jewsbury thought of her novel Zoe as a Sermon. Margaret Oliphant, too, claimed a spiritual vocation in writing fiction: Authors who feel the solemnity of their calling cannot suppress the truth that is within them .... They must go straight on, as the inward voice impels; and He who seeth their hearts will guide them aright. Oliphant claims a prophet-like role for authors, as divinely inspired vessels of truth, a characteristic ideal available to women and men alike.

      The meritocratic principle of the press permitted women to acquire a priestly role which religious institutions forbade, enhanced by the immense appetite for religious reading. More popular in their time than Charles Dickens's Bleak House and David Copperfield were, respectively, Catherine Marsh's religious Memorials of Captain Hedley Vicars (1856) and Charlotte Yonge's High Church novel, The Heir of Radcliffe (1853). However, literature was powerful not only as a method of communicating religious ideas, but of constructing them. In recent decades, the case has been made for 'literary' or 'metaphorical' theology, in which figurative language is considered as a unique way of creating an understanding of religious phenomena. Metaphor does not merely illustrate pre-existing ideas, which are first expressed in the form of propositions, but is instead a "unique cognitive vehicle enabling us to say things that can be said in no other way. This twentieth-century view reverses what Northrop Frye describes as the 'cultural prejudice produced by Enlightenment empiricism, which equated truth with 'descriptive verbal structures' and was suspicious of the literary. Words connected with literary devices, such as 'myth', 'fiction' and 'fable', acquired the connotations of being 'not really true'. Hence John Locke declared figurative language to be productive of 'pleasure and delights' but not 'truth and knowledge' Contradicting this dualism, literary-minded theologians have claimed that metaphor is truth-creating, since the expression of one phenomenon in terms of another enables new understandings. Therefore, figurative language is 'a way of knowing, not just a way of communicating.

      Narrative functions in a similar way, its patterns embodying meanings that cannot be reduced to statement. Furthermore, literary theologians point out that this metaphorical approach revives the method of the Bible itself, in which: We are never given a theology of the kingdom ... but we are told stories about it, about people who want the kingdom and why they want it; we are shown metaphors ... which image it forth. Biblical tradition is therefore closer to literature than to dogma, since its truths are embodied, or suggested, rather than categorically defined. Literary theology was particularly suited to the sensibilities of a culture in which traditional religious certainties were becoming hard to sustain. The theology of statement assumes an objective divine reality to which belief is directed, and which language can adequately describe. But the ability of language to directly refer to 'reality' has been rendered problematic by theorists in the twentieth century. They point to the ideological nature of all systems of language, and to the subjectivity inherent in all perception. Structuralists have argued that language does not refer neutrally to an external reality, but rather itself constitutes a 'reality' which cannot claim objective status. Few theologians would go as far as claiming language as an enclosed system with no reference beyond itself, but many have adopted a position that Terry Wright calls 'critical realism', believing that language does refer to a divine reality, but indirectly and partially.

      Literary language evades the hard certainties of literalism and dogma, making more modest claims to a truth which is suggested, not defined, and which allows for the tensions of paradox and ambiguity. Several religious writers of the nineteenth century; who were also poets or novelists, expressed their preference for a religious language centered on symbol rather than statement. Samuel Taylor Coleridge equated faith with imagination, and read the Bible as 'a system of symbols'. John Keble appreciated the indirectness of metaphors and similes which 'guide us by gentle hints' and, like the sacraments in his High Church tradition, 'preach silently to man's aesthetic sensibilities'. George MacDonald suggested that there was a certain arrogance, as well as incongruity about trying to talk about God in conclusive terms: We are far too anxious to be definite and to have finished, well-polished, sharp-edged systems - forgetting that the more perfect a theory about the infinite, the surer it is to be wrong, the more impossible it is to be right.

      Having left his pulpit, MacDonald chose mythopoeic fantasy as his theological method, which eschewed any attempts to pronounce 'the definite', but had the power 'to impress' and to 'wake things up' that were deep within the reader's being. It was Matthew Arnold who most explicitly contrasted the 'scientific' and 'poetic' modes of religious language. While the former speaks of God in terms of 'substance, identity; causation, design', the latter admits that even the word 'God' is poetic, 'a term thrown out, so to speak, at a not fully grasped object of the speaker's consciousness'.

      Writers who used literature as their theological mode were respecting the growing conviction as to the limits of human perception and language. Nonetheless, literary theology was potent because it was accessible and relevant, particularly to an increasingly secular sensibility. It does not use a specialized religious language but the terms of the everyday, which can be understood by all. Just as the gospels present the kingdom of God through images of coins, seed, oil lamps and weddings, and through parables about employers, widows, publicans and shepherds, so modern religious writers of fiction and verse offer: ... a story of ordinary people and events which is the context for envisaging and understanding the strange and the extraordinary .... People are not asked to be 'religious' or taken out of this world; rather, the transcendent comes to ordinary reality and disrupts it.

      Thus 'sacred' ceases to be a distinct category from 'secular', and instead becomes an extension of it. This is all the more true given that metaphor itself is integral to everyday language and even to the way we think. The unknown can only ever be understood in terms of the familiar, even in discourses that seem the least poetic. Science conceptualizes light in terms of 'waves', and magnetism as a 'field', in ways that open up conceptual possibilities for understanding these phenomena.

      Finally, as well as being conceptually rich, metaphor has the power to structure behavior at a subconscious level. As George Lakoff and Mark Johnson explain: Metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature. The concepts that govern our thought are not just matters of the intellect. They also govern our everyday functioning, Thus, to conceive of God, sin or redemption in terms of certain images or narrative patterns is to establish models in the psyche which enable possibilities for response.

      Therefore, by writing novels, biographies, poems, speeches and periodical articles which explored the spiritual in secular terms and forms, women writers of the nineteenth century contributed significantly to creating new understandings of faith and new possibilities for living it. For a faith to maintain its relevance and freshness, it is the theologian's vital task to find new metaphors and stories to articulate it. This work is a necessary part of mediating between a religion and the cultural context, by which a tradition is given new life.

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