Intellectual Adoration

Victorian Britain—especially from 1859-1901—it is often described in terms of a “crisis of doubt.” Today we assume that this crisis in Christian thinking developed because of Darwin but, as Owen Chadwick argues in his very long and frequently cited history of the Victorian church, Darwin and the natural sciences had little to do with this Victorian intellectual crisis. Although geological discoveries early in the nineteenth century challenged a literal reading of the creation account in Genesis, this was long before Darwin and evolution came on the scene. And while Darwin’s 1859 publication of The Origins of the Species caused a stir, many British theologians were already convinced that science and theology were really involved in two different projects and, consequently, worked out something like theistic evolution. Thus, Chadwick argues that, by 1885, science as such was not what continued to shake Victorian theology.

No, the Victorian crisis of doubt that ultimately changed the theological landscape was caused by the discoveries in antiquarian fields that revealed that the biblical text was not, perhaps, exactly what the church had traditionally thought. Not only was the bible clearly not a science book but it became apparent that even discrete books within the bible were crafted over a period of time by multiple authors. More disturbingly, what had traditionally been understood as historical books like Jonah started to be understood in terms of different genres like parables…and if Jonah’s whale wasn’t a literal miracle, well then what basis was there for accepting other miracles like God becoming a human being in the person of Jesus or believing that this same Jesus was resurrected bodily from the dead on Easter Sunday?

During this crisis of doubt worship in the English church reached previously unseen heights of splendor. The Gothic revival in architecture and art spurred the production of ornate stained glass, glorious organ music and richly embroidered vestments that—when combined with the rich, poetic language of the Authorized version of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer—produced an unsurpassed aesthetic experience of worship. The problem was, as superb as the Victorian Anglican church service could be, many educated Victorians had problems attending these services because of the creeds: those ancient affirmations of faith in things like the Incarnation and bodily resurrection.

Some eminent Victorians like Mrs. Humphry Ward and Henry Sidgwick called for the abandonment of the creeds so that worshipers could benefit from the beauty of the service and moral instruction the church offered without having to worry about difficult or questionable doctrines. During this great debate over the place and use of creeds in Anglican worship, the journalist Richard Holt Hutton wrote that reciting the creeds was “an act of intellectual adoration, in a day when the intellect is the source of some of our deeper troubles.”

While few people today are concerned with whether or not creeds are recited in a church service, the problem represented by the creeds remains very much alive: how can intelligent, well-read, critical thinkers believe in some of the key doctrines of the Christian faith? Isn’t it better to focus on Jesus as a great moral teacher, and example, and an inspiration than to demand individuals ascent to notions they do not think probable or submit to doctrines that they consider impossible?

While freedom of thought and conscience are essential to human dignity, there is a difference between seeking understanding within the context of faith and allowing the intellect to tyrannize over the individual, establishing each individual mind as the ultimate judge of all truth, alone weighing the nature and meaning of cosmic reality.

To recite the creeds—in nineteenth century Britain or today—is not to blindly agree, to stop asking questions or to cease from questioning and exploring. Rather, to submit to the doctrines of Christian faith is to say that I am not the sole adjudicator of all truth. It is an act of humility, a recognition of one’s limited understanding and an affirmation of the collective reasoning of the larger community of faith to which one belongs. And, as an act of humility, it is an act of adoration. It is an act of worship.

Jessica Hughes

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2 responses to “Intellectual Adoration

  1. I loved this. I was brought up without creeds, but severe doctrine. As I have matured, and been allowed to love both science and God, and rediscover God, I find myself, in times of deep sorrow, sitting at morning prayer, with my Book of Common Prayer. Divine adoration indeed. Sometimes those words are all a traumatized mind knows to go back to!

    • MarisaI’m really pleased you enjoyed the post. It is strange, isn’t it, how the ancient creeds create a space that provide us with the necessary boundaries for the Christian faith, such that it remains Christian faith as opposed to something else, while simultaneously opening up space for intellectual and artistic exploration. Joining our voices with those of the faithful throughout the centuries also, as you so rightly note, provides a way to pray when we don’t have any other idea how to begin. Thanks so much for your comment!

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