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God's Funeral: The Decline of Faith in Western Civilization Hardcover – June 1, 1999
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God's Funeral is A.N. Wilson's account of the decline of orthodox Christianity in Victorian Britain. The most popular explanation for this widely-recognized phenomenon is the acceptance by intellectuals of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. To disprove the notion that Darwin singlehandedly committed deicide, Wilson describes a host of secularizing predecessors and accomplices such as Hume, Gibbon, John Stuart Mill, Hegel, Marx, and Carlyle. All play major roles in Wilson's brilliantly staged reconstruction of the so-called death of God. God's Funeral also takes account of the pain and confusion these intellectuals brought upon themselves when their great achievements helped erode the social and intellectual foundations of their lives. Furthermore, Wilson shows how their crises of faith relate to our own. Like our Victorian forebears, contemporary readers still must ask, "Is our personal religion that which links us to the ultimate reality, or is it the final human fantasy...?" and, "Is there a world of value outside ourselves, or do we, collectively and individually, invent what we call The Good?" God's Funeral helps readers learn to ask these questions in smarter and sharper ways by giving them a clearer sense of how Western society reached its current state of confusion.
From Publishers Weekly
At the end of the 19th century, Christian theologian Ernst Troeltsch proclaimed that the sun was setting on Christianity, and poet Matthew Arnold declared that in the future poetry would replace religion. As Wilson (The Vicar of Sorrows) points out in this splendid book, the 19th century provided the context not only for theories of God's demise but also for the numerous challenges that political thinkers, scientists and artists posed to Christian belief. Yet, as he notes, while the battles between faith and doubt were raging, church attendance did not decline but remained constant. The famous debates between Thomas Huxley, Darwin's "bulldog," and Bishop Wilberforce contributed to an atmosphere of optimism about the perfectibility of humankind and the world. Wilson traces the development of this rise of unbelief from the 18th century to the early 20th century. He contends that Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, with its contempt of Christianity's "highest ideals," and David Hume's skeptical Dialogues Concerning National Religion, which challenges the very possibility of the existence of the supernatural, provide the groundwork for the demise of belief in the 19th century. Wilson explores some of the most explicit instances of the century's intellectual challenges to faith: George Eliot's translations of Feuerbach's The Essence of Christianity and David Friedrich Strauss's The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined; Darwin's evolutionary formulations calling into question the idea of a special creation; Marx and Engels's charge that bourgeois institutions used religion to enslave people and make them weak; William James's reading of various religious states in The Varieties of Religious Experience as psychological states of mind. Eliot's translations alone introduced into England both Strauss's contentions that the life of Jesus was clothed in myth pictures like the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection and Feuerbach's claim that God was nothing more than a projection of humanity's wishes. Wilson examines also how the Catholic Church responded to the Modernist thought of Alfred Loisy, who imported much of the skepticism of the 19th century into his religious writings and challenged conventional Catholic teachings on the Church and the Bible. With passionate prose and a lively style, Wilson narrates a first-rate intellectual and religious history.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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I have no problem with the premise of the book, namely, the challenge to faith that discovered truths create. As some background, please know that I am a rabbi but that never means that Biblical myths are taken by me to be literally true. In my mind, religion is a search for truth and not mere adherence to myths and stories that satisfy the imagination but not the intellect. Clearly Darwin, Kant, et al certainly opened our minds to these realities and truths. Wilson, the author, is the messenger of their message.
It is true that he has something of an axe to grind against blind and oft-times prejudicial religious faith but that should not interfere with your enjoyment of the book.
Read it and say 'hi' to some old friends you haven't spoken with since school!
A word of caution on the subject matter: This isn't strictly history or literary criticism. If you want an academic analysis, head elsewhere. But if you find academic treatises dry and cautious, you may find more life in this text. However, you have to know your own doubts and your own hopes, and you have to be at the very least curious about why people then (or now) cared so much about God. If you don't care, you must possess at least some basic compassionate for others in general so that you can empathize if sympathy is beyond the capacity of your experience. Beginning here, Wilson's book may help you grasp the limitless gulf of pain and loss that they felt, so that you understand the funeral march they followed in Wilson's narrative. It is not a apologetic for or against religion, though as others have pointed out, the skepticism, bitterness and anger vibrating through its pages have provoked many to dismiss it. Imagine, rather, finding yourself at a wake, sitting next to a friend or mentor or respected teacher without comment or comfort. Tribulation is treasure in the nature of it. If you haven't even imagined the enormity of the problem of these men in the face of a vast emptiness of a world without God--the death of an idea, an age, and a hope--then you may have a hard time entering into this text. If you have, but you're unwilling to tolerate the consequences of "what if" that comes with asking the questions and facing the doubt, then you may have a hard time getting out of it. This will not answer your doubts or solve your problems; it is a way sign to indicate that you are with companions who ache with you and not alone.
I hate this book for touching on so many painful things I care about more than anything--the things that give me hope, the questions I can't answer in sufficiently satisfying ways. But I love it for giving me space to wrestle with who I am and the legacy I live in. And I respect Wilson a great deal for the care and heart he put into his task in telling these peoples' story. I am grateful that he could take a sliver of my own story and tell it back to me more richly and deeply.