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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Friday, 29 November 2019

The Deadly Sin of Envy

A Lecture given to the Carlisle Theological Society in October 2009
Posted on Black Friday 2019

When I agreed to speak to you tonight, we were probably at the lowest point of the recession.  At that time of despondency, it did not look likely that the economy would show signs even of the beginnings of recovery before the middle of next year.  Now, the financial environment appears to be a little less gloomy, and analysts are daring to talk about ‘green shoots’.  I am no expert, so I can’t judge whether such hopes are well-founded.  In north-east England, there has been considerable attrition as a result of this tsunami and I expect it is the same here.  It will be years before we see manufacturing industry in the north-east revitalised, if it ever is, employment levels back to where they were earlier this decade, and inward investment in our region once more flourishing.  
A disaffected public continues to ask why so little regulation has existed to check reckless speculation and the cynical exploitation of the markets.  We all hope, though we do not necessarily expect, that out of this debacle will emerge a more disciplined, more accountable culture that will begin to restore trust.  But a better managed economy will not necessarily address the underlying causes of this crisis.  These are, I am sure we agree, human, moral and spiritual in character.  Religious leaders are right to ask for some serious reflection on what the recession is teaching us about ourselves and our society.  

One book to do this is remarkable for having been written by the chairman, formerly the chief executive, of one of the major world banks.  So it is an insider’s view on the crisis and a refreshingly honest analysis of its roots.  But its author, Stephen Green, is also a non-stipendiary priest of the Church of England.   He is not ashamed to identify what he sees as the underlying malaise in western society that he describes as its Faustian deal with Mephistopheles.  To simplify, this amounts to the selling of our collective soul for the sake of short term material gain.  There is nothing new in this, as the power of the Faust legend down the centuries illustrates.  What is new is the global scale on which this age-old drama is acted out in the world’s financial markets.  The near-failure of the world banking system last year was as near a miss from global disaster as the Cuba Missile Crisis.  

Archbishop Rowan Williams has focused on the erosion of public values and regretted that there have been few signs that the powerful financial institutions and their leadership have begun to reflect on the moral and spiritual causes of this financial debacle.   He has called for repentance.  Repentance, as we know, means a change of mind.  It is close to what the third Benedictine vow calls conversio morum, the conversion of life.  It looks for a new way of living, a new set of attitudes and ambitions, a life that is focused not on our own selves but on God and what he looks for in humanity.  In a renewed, God-fearing society, there would still be accidents and they might be damaging, even catastrophic, but perhaps there would not be economic crises so patently traceable to basic faults due to the relentless pursuit of self-interest.  Such a society would be marked by caritas, generosity, mutuality, collaboration, self-giving and service.  The church is called to model precisely this vision of human beings living together in genuine koinonia.  

But what are the sins which we should repent of, and from which we should want to be delivered?  The usual candidates among the seven deadly sins are gluttony (which is over-indulgence) and avarice or greed (which is the inordinate hunger to acquire and possess).  These are both, like lust, sins of excess.  There is a long Christian tradition that understands these in relation to acquiring wealth.  What makes greed sinful, says Thomas Aquinas, is that it is the abandonment or collapse of spiritual desire for what is material and temporal.  Dante illustrates this in the Divine Comedy by depicting the greedy as tied up and laid face down on the ground because they concentrated too much on earthly things. (It is a good example of what is called contrapasso, literally ‘counter-suffering’: you are punished by the very thing you practise.) Stephen Green’s book suggests that the Faustian bargain so many wage their futures on is a symptom of precisely this.  

However, I want to suggest that Green doesn’t go deep enough into the human spirit.  All the sins of excess are disorders of desire, as Augustine so profoundly understood: it is not that we don’t love, but that our love is wrongly directed.  And if we ask where the origins of disordered desire are to be found, the answer is in the two fundamental sins of all.  The first of these is, of course, pride.  Pride is usually regarded as the worst of all sins because it is the most far-reaching in suppressing or perverting the love that should be directed outwards to God and to our neighbour.  It is, as Augustine says, ‘turned in on itself’.  And this obsession with ourselves is, says the tradition, nothing short of idolatry because there is no place in it for God.  (There is another graphic example of contrapasso in Dante where he shows the proud condemned to wander round for eternity bent double under the weight of their gorgeous copes which are made of lead.)  

But there is another perversion of love which is turned outwards, or at least looks as if it is, and that is envy. I want to focus on envy this evening because I believe it is the besetting sin of our age, and because apart from texts on moral theology, it is not given nearly enough attention in Christian reflection on our human state.  I don’t know, for instance, when you last heard a sermon on envy or when I last preached one.   But the Bible focuses on it a great deal as I shall illustrate, possibly more than it does on pride.  

What is envy?  It is an inward state of mind and heart.  I am careful not to say it is merely a feeling or emotion, though of course we experience it that way.  We could say that the seedbed of envy is our awareness that we lack something that someone else possesses.  This could be their material possessions, their human qualities, their successes or status in life, their religious faith, their personal relationships, their happiness.  All these can be the focus of envy.  But envy is not by itself knowing that someone else has something we do not possess.  Our chairman has the name Richard.  I do not have that name myself.  I recognise this lack.  But it does not make me envious of him.  Envy is born when I want what the other person has for myself, or simply wish that the other person could be deprived of it (which they would be if I took for myself what belonged to them).  

We need to be clear about the difference between
envy and jealousy and resolve that we shall use these words accurately.  Jealousy is the fear of losing someone we love or who is important to us to another person.  Envy is the frustration caused by another person having something that I do not have myself. So envy involves simply two people, myself and another, and is focused on a thing, while jealousy involves three (or more) people and focuses on a threat posed to a significant relationship.  We use that word accurately when we say, ‘I love her jealously’, meaning ‘I will not let her go to another person’.  It is exactly in this sense that Yhwh is a ‘jealous God’ according to the Second Commandment, because he will not ‘lose’ his chosen people to the worship of idols and graven images but shows ‘steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments’ (Exod 20. 4-6).  Try substituting ‘envious’ for ‘jealous’ in that command, and it ceases to make sense.  

Aquinas says that envy as sorrow on account of another person’s benefit or good, drawing on Aristotle’s definition of it as the pain caused by other peoples’ good fortune.  In this tradition, Dante says that envy is the love of my own good and resolve to pursue it perverted to a desire to deprive other people of theirs. In his Purgatorio, the punishment for the envious is to have their eyes sewn shut with wire because they have gained sinful pleasure from seeing others brought low. This tells us straight away that the other side of envy is Schadenfreude, the pleasure we get at other peoples’ misfortune.  They belong together because the usual way of dealing with envy is to damage or destroy the object of my envy, or to deprive the other person of it (possibly, though by no means necessarily, by taking it for myself).  In the last of the Ten Commandments, the prohibition against coveting what belongs to my neighbour is not forbidding me from admiring his house or his wife, his slave, his ox or his ass, nor acknowledging that I am not as well-endowed as he is.  It prohibits any action of mine that could spoil his enjoyment of them, what the French call jouissance, a legal term meaning the ‘proper enjoyment of possession’, either by stealing them, damaging them, violating or abusing them, disparaging them, or (and this is the inward attitude the torah wants absolutely to guard against) becoming so fixated on my neighbour’s fortunes that I lose sight of him as a person and destroy myself in the process.  The moral and theological point is that envy dehumanises.  It degrades the image of God in us.  It robs us of our dignity and worth because it deflects us from a person-centered relationship with God and with other people, which alone is the way towards human flourishing, into an idolatrous concern with what is material and impersonal. 

This dynamic of envy as emptiness or need allied to the instinct to ‘spoil’ the good that others have is studied extensively in the Bible,.  I should like to explore this theme in three Old Testament texts, the third of which begins to suggest how envy can be addressed as a spiritual problem.  I shall then comment on some New Testament texts that develop these themes before returning to our own day and asking what these biblical insights might suggest to us as we try to read the signs of the times and understand the human hungers and longings that permeate our society.  

My first text is a locus classicus of envy, the story of Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kings 21.).  It is a simple enough narrative.  Naboth has a vineyard up against the royal palace.  King Ahab wants it: when it comes to real estate, location is everything.  Naboth will not sell his patrimony, whereupon Ahab goes to bed and sulks.  Jezebel devises a scheme whereby Naboth is accused of sacrilege for resisting the royal, and therefore divine, will.  Naboth is stoned to death and Ahab takes possession of the vineyard, only to find Elijah already there to pronounce judgment for his contempt of his subjects and of his God.  

This looks like a story of avarice, inordinate desire, and so it is.  Ahab wants something so desperately that it occupies all his waking thoughts.  In his emptiness of spirit, the ennui that so many rich and powerful people know, he obsesses about something he does not need.  But there is an important clue about his deeper mental state.  ‘Ahab said to Naboth, “Give me your vineyard, so that I may have it as a vegetable garden”.’  In other words, the wanting is accompanied by a destructive impulse.  The vine, like the olive and the fig tree, symbolises the best and most productive that the land is capable of.  To degrade a vineyard into a vegetable patch is to spoil what has been handed down in an ancient family for centuries. What is spoiled is not simply a vineyard.  It is part of a family’s sacred geography.  It is terrain that holds long-cherished memories that are not transferrable to another place.  It is the patrimony not only of a man’s ancestry but of a people to whom the land was a divine gift and the charter of their freedom from tyranny.  Tyranny, always deeply implicated in envy, is precisely what Naboth resists.  A tyrant’s envy costs him his life, though as the story goes on to relate, the envier meets an altogether more ignoble end.    

My next text is more complex.  It is the story of Saul and David in the First Book of Samuel, one of the finest tales of the ancient world.  Its greatness as tragedy comes from recognising the need to ‘speak what we feel; not what we ought to say’, as Edgar puts it in the final speech of King Lear.  Like Lear, Saul is ‘every inch a king’: not ague-proof, but for all that, a man whose flawed dignity elicits our compassion and even our regard.  He starts out so well, the young, charismatic hero whose prowess with the sword wins him acclaim from the tribes of Israel longing, in their fragile bond, for some unifying symbol of their kinship that will offer stability in the chaotic, uncertain world of the 11th century BC.  But Saul’s problem is that he is never given the space to develop as king and as human being in his own right.  The scenery is always populated with others who surround him, in particular Samuel the prophet, Jonathan his son and heir, and David the bright-eyed youth whose magnetic looks and personality pulls all three of them into his orbit and whose sunny presence casts Saul into ever deepening shadows.  We have only to recall how Saul takes a rash oath to kill anyone who breaks a needlessly imposed fast, only to find that it is his own son Jonathan who is implicated, and how the people turn against Saul so that Jonathan may live; or how Saul is bowed down with melancholia and is soothed by David’s music; or how he frets about David’s absence from the feast, inventing every kind of reason why he has not come, then hurling a spear at his son because of his friendship with David; or the exquisitely crafted scene in the cave where David calls to Saul and delivers a long self-righteous speech, to which Saul listens and simply replies, ‘Is this your voice, my son David?’ and weeps; and at the emotional climax of the tragedy, the worn out king going in disguise by night to the woman at En-dor and learning from Samuel’s ghost that the coming day will be his last.  

Tragedy, in the strict sense, is a story told about greatness that is brought down by some failure in character, some ‘basic fault’.  What is Saul’s?  I propose that it is envy.  His obsession is not his own grandiosity (this was Solomon’s fault).  It is his preoccupation with what others have that he himself does not (or, if he has had it, he becomes deprived of it).  Again, we sense the void in his life, the emptiness that gives birth to envy.  He is envious of Samuel (even after he is dead) because of his direct access to the word of the Lord, something Saul has once enjoyed but now lost: ‘Is not Saul also among the prophets?  He is envious of first of his own son Jonathan and then of David for their military success and popular acclaim, qualities that fitted them so well for leadership, an art in which Saul for all his good beginnings, progressively fell short of Israel’s aspirations for what was required in a king.  There is a telling moment in the story when David returns from killing Goliath.  The women turn out (‘to meet Saul’, the text says carefully, not to adulate David directly) dancing and singing: ‘Saul has killed his thousands, and David his tens of thousands’.  It is meant, I think, as a celebration of them both, with the thousands-ten thousands comparison meant simply as a dramatic figure of speech to intensify their adulation: common enough, in Hebrew poetry.  But Saul takes it literally and is ‘very angry… “They have ascribed to David tens of thousands, and to me they have ascribed thousands; what more can he have but the kingdom?”  So Saul eyed David from that day on’  (1 Samuel 18.6-9).  This malevolent ‘eyeing’ (or, we could say, the ‘evil eye’) is envy in its purest form, with all its destructive intention laid bare.  

Most powerfully of all, in the way the story is told, he envies the love between David and Jonathan.  It is true that here we are dealing with a story about jealousy as well as envy, for both David and Jonathan pose a threat to Saul’s own attachment to each of them: each of them, he thinks, is taking the other away from him.  There are shades of Othello in this sad and beautiful tale.  But I think we can safely say that overshadowing his jealousy of his double attachment is his hard-edged envy of what existed between Jonathan the heir, and David, Saul’s friend turned (as he supposes) supplanter.  Such a friendship is what he does not have, and imagines he can never have.  And this, reinforced by his envy of David’s military success, is what he is determined to spoil by killing David and thereby destroy the very thing that animates and gives life to both his son and to himself, the love David is prepared to offer to them both.  There is only one way the mental distress of despair can end.  Saul falls on his own sword on Mount Gilboa, defeated by his own demons.  Who is to say whether, in the complex mysteries of the human mind, envy is the symptom or the cause?  But the symbolism is clear.  Envy always has the tendency to destroy.  In the end, say both the stories we have looked at, it visits destruction at home, in the very seat of the human soul.  

I spoke about the symbolism of Saul’s mental collapse and suicide.  This is a layer of the story we should pay attention to.  I said that envy always has the propensity to spoil.  In the psychoanalytic literature, this insight is associated with Melanie Klein whose work Envy and Gratitude (1957) proved ground-breaking in post-Freudian theory.  She says of envy that it entails an attack on the ‘good’ object because of its goodness, because the awareness of being separated from the ‘good’ which arouses envy becomes intolerable.  So acting out envious impulses is to relieve the tension between the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ objects.  Klein develops this theory in the light of her observation of infant behaviour at the mother’s breast, and the tendency of the infant to ‘split’ the ‘good breast’ from the ‘bad’.  What I want to stress is her insight that envy attacks the good object because it is good.  And this perfectly explains Saul’s erratic behaviour towards David.  The good that is ultimately spoiled by his own envy is not external but internal, his love for David and the wholesomeness that comes from it.  More than that, the clarity of his moral vision, the integrity of his own motives and attitudes becomes increasingly clouded and compromised through his envy.  In this sense, Saul has already ‘died’ as a human person long before he throws himself on to his own sword.  The seven sins, of which envy is perhaps the most potent, are rightly known as ‘deadly’. 

My final text from the Hebrew Bible is one of the psalms.  Envy is a frequent theme in the Psalter, particularly among the wisdom Psalms.  Psalm 37 warns the feverish complainant against the destabilising effects of envy: ‘Fret not thyself because of the ungodly, neither be thou envious against the evil doers’.  The antidote here is a calm and equable spirit, for the evil doers will soon be cut down like the grass.  Psalm 49 is more probing.  ‘Be not thou afraid, though one be made rich: or if the glory of his house be increased; for he shall carry nothing away with him when he dieth; neither shall his pomp follow him.’  There, the argument turns on human mortality: there is no point in being consumed by envy when death is the great leveller of high and low, rich and poor.  It is a bleak way of dealing with envy, though undeniably potent.  

However, the Psalter’s most searching anatomy of envy is to be found in Psalm 73.  It is unique in the Old Testament for its acute psychological and spiritual perception of human envy, not least as a meditation that autobiographically charts the landscape of the psalmist’s own life.  

The Psalm begins with what looks like an orthodox statement of belief: ‘truly God is good to the upright’ (or to ‘Israel’ depending on how we read the Hebrew) (1).  Statements like this (perhaps meant to be read in implied quotation marks?) are very easy to make, but the theme of the Psalm is to test whether the credal assertion matches experience.  So, without further ado the psalmist launches out on his story.  ‘As for me, my feet had almost stumbled… for I was envious of the arrogant’ (2-3).  Psalm 37 may warn against futile worry, but here the psalmist could not help himself.  The prosperity of the arrogant is described with striking imagery as if the psalmist has personally had his nose rubbed in their graceless affluence.  He sees them gliding around ‘sound and sleek’ (4), wearing their pride like a necklace and violence like clothing (6), a kind of second skin.  Porcine eyes  bulbous with fat (7), mouths gaping open to the sky and tongues greedily scouring the earth for fodder (9) build up the unpleasant image of a grotesque self-inflated beast – for such people, to the psalmist, have forfeited their right to be called human.  And this is the symptom of their deadly underlying disease, the functional atheism we have already met in Psalm 14.  Like the fool who says, ‘there is no God’, the arrogant proudly defy their Maker with the question that most characterises the arrogant: ‘How can God know?  Is there knowledge in the Most High?’  What does a remote, transcendent deity know or care about anything (11)?  
After this graphic and colourful portrait of hubris the psalmist returns to his testimony.  If the arrogant are so favoured, what is the point of being wise or good or religious – this is the heart of the psalmist’s dilemma.  ‘All in vain have I kept my heart clean, and washed my hands in innocence.  For all day long I have been plagued and am punished every morning’ (13-14).  The inward struggle between the faith of verse 1 and the experience of the following verses is an unbearable burden, for there is simply no answer to this conflict (15-16).  The circle of theodicy cannot be squared.  Until, that is, the great turning point of this Psalm.  ‘I went into the sanctuary of God’ (17).  In this life-changing moment, illumination happens; there is a sudden disclosure of how things truly are.  ‘Then I perceived their end’ (17).  It’s as if the psalmist has been given spectacles so that where previously there had only been hints and nudges of reality, now at last everything comes into focus. 

Something very striking happens to the psalmist’s discourse here.  Up to now, the story has been told in the 1st and 3rd person: this is how it is with them; these are the consequences for me.  But no sooner has he experienced this sudden reorientation of perspective than he turns to address God himself.  ‘Truly you set them in slippery places; you make them fall to ruin’ (18).  Narrative turns into prayer, and remains in that mode for the rest of the Psalm.  In other words, it is as the psalmist turns towards God that everything else begins to make sense and his envy begins to subside.  He understands now the truth already sketched out in Psalms 37 and 49.  Above all, he recognises that good fortune is a chimera, an insubstantial dream (20); once seen for what it is, those favoured by it are to be pitied, for it blinds them to the infinitely better, more lasting rewards the psalmist has now discovered. 

What are these rewards?  The psalmist likens his earlier, pre-enlightened state to that of a ‘brute beast’ (22).  So while the arrogant had become bestial through their pride and avarice, there had been a comparable risk to the psalmist: that he too would be brutalised through the sin of envy (3).  But what he now describes is how the corrupting effects of envy are transfigured by humanising desire.  This is no longer the destructive envy of others’ wealth and success but the life giving hunger for God.  Where envy had poisoned his vision, desire for God transforms and renews it.  And so the Psalm rises to a magnificent climax of faith: ‘Nevertheless I am continually with you; you hold my right hand.  You guide me with your counsel and afterward you will receive me with honour.  Whom have I in heaven but you?  And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you.  My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever’ (23-26).  So the journey ends with an elaboration of the opening credal statement, but this time without quotation marks, for the conventional rewards-and-punishment formula he had trotted out has become his personal confession of a lived faith.  ‘But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge to tell of all your works’ (28).  He has made the pilgrimage from the words of religion to the inward experience of it, the most important journey a human being can ever make.  

Melanie Klein’s work was entitled Envy and Gratitude.  Her thesis was that gratitude is the polar opposite to envy and the antidote to it.  She defines gratitude as our response to what we experience as the true ‘good’.  She means by this that when we experience something as gift, our response is not the envious instinct to attack and destroy but the loving instinct to care, appreciate and give in return.  It awakens a life-instinct that is generous and transformative and that is the antithesis of the death-instinct that gives birth to envy.  This is because contentment is the hard-won realisation that we are not empty after all: the good permeates our lives, if we can only see it.  And the recognition that our cup is, so to speak, full of what is good, and the gratitude that flows from it, drains the poison out of our propensity to envy.  I think we can see this transformation happening in Psalm 73, which provides us with a happier ending than the stories of either Naboth’s vineyard or King Saul.  The psalm’s turning point marks the threshold at which the psalmist crosses over from envy to gratitude, from destructive impulse to the opening up of the self to all that will be integrative and healing.  

For a Christian theologian, this Kleinian language has strongly eucharistic overtones.  Eucharistia, thanksgiving, is of course a liturgical act commanded in the gospel in memory of Jesus on the threshold of his passion.  However, the eucharist is what it is in the larger sense that it expresses the offering of all of life to the Creator and Redeemer of the world.  To be a disciple is to live eucharistically.  To be the church is to be the community of disciples who are shaped by gratitude as the fundamental Christian virtue, and who are thereby being humanised by the transformative gift of grace.  So I want to say that in a fundamental sense, the antidote to envy is the eucharist, because it is in the eucharist that the human race does what it was created to do, to offer God its praise and thanksgiving, to ‘glorify God and enjoy him for ever’ as the Westminster Shorter Catechism has it.  And the consequence of this is as the broken, disordered fragments of our lives are gathered up, like the broken fragments of the eucharistic bread, and put back together again and healed.  Eucharistia is the answer to envy because it takes us out of our narcissistic self-absorption with our own envious desires, and instead invites us to gaze on larger things until, as the hymn says, we are ‘lost in wonder, love and praise’.  This integrative, individuating journey into divine lostness is envy’s ultimate anthithesis.  

There is one passage among many in the New Testament that encapsulates this perfectly.  Writing to the Philippians, Paul constantly underlines the life-giving, transformative effect of gratitude and joy on the believer and the church.  Towards the end of this most beautiful of his letters, Paul captures his major themes.  His final chapter reiterates the command to rejoice in the Lord always, and promises that because of God’s goodness, believers do not need to worry about their needs (‘fret’, in the language of Psalm 37).  It is the peace of God, passing all understanding, that will guard against anxiety.  Therefore, believers are to focus on the ‘good’: ‘whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.’  Paul elaborates on his own circumstances.  ‘Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have.  I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty,  In any and all circumstances, I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and being in need.  I can do all things through him who strengthens me… My God will satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.’ (Philippians 4) 

The key word here is contentment.  Autarkeia literally means ‘self-sufficiency’, being able to support oneself without being dependent on others.  By extension, it came to mean in Stoic philosophy being free of my own inner desires, a state of equilibrium in which I am no longer driven by my needs and drives and envious desires, in other words, ‘contentment’.  We could say this equates in a theological sense, to not being empty. This is, I think, what Paul means here.  He is saying that only when we have begun to transcend our envy with all its destructive tendencies can we experience true liberation.  In Stoic philosophy such a state is achieved by the discipline of living contemplatively.  It would be tempting to say that for Paul contentment is God-given, arising spontaneously in the heart of the believer because of his or her free justification by faith in Jesus Christ.  It is, of course, but not in a simpliste way that excludes the contemplative way we have explored in the Hebrew wisdom literature.  It is I think a subtle marriage of gift-and-response: gift, because salvation cannot be earned by anything that we do, even contemplation; response because the gift is nothing until we do the lifelong ‘work’ of making it our own and inhabiting it. ‘I have learned to be content’ he says.  It is spiritual askesis, part of the artistry of being formed in the image of Christ that is both God’s and ours.  It begins with gratitude, for contentment means, theologically, that state of spiritual balance (to use a Benedictine idea) that comes from knowing that we are loved by God and are on the way to salvation.  Only then, as Paul says in the Letter to the Romans, can we offer our lives as as ‘living sacrifice’ (Romans 12.2).  With gratitude, it is an act of grace.  Without it, it is merely Pelagian effort.   

Envy infiltrates every aspect of modern life.  The reckless competitiveness and bonuses on a scale that beggars belief that have driven our financial institutions to the brink of ruin are a clear symptom of it.  On a smaller scale (but not always so small in the context of modest domestic finances) the advertising industry cleverly plays straight into our envious propensities, and largely encourages them in the young, whether it is electronic games, fast cars, must-have gadgetry or the cult of youth and the body beautiful.  It is perhaps futile to expect society to change very much, for its values have been formed now over many generations.  I do not think we should be too quick to blame post-Enlightenment economics for this: Christians flourished in the 19th century market place by developing the virtues of thrift, prudence and an ethic of hard work.  Is it too much to ponder whether this was because our forebears had a deeper awareness of the importance of gratitude and contentment than we?  If so, then the cultivation of these virtues would seem to be a high priority if our society is, like the prodigal son, ever going to come to its senses and understand the life of a human being in a larger context than simply the gratifying of needs and desires.  I have argued that if envy is the besetting sin of our day, its greatest need for moral and spiritual health is to recapture the life-enhancing generosity of eucharistia and autarkeia, of gratitude and contentment.  With these given house-room as fundamental values in our society, we might perhaps lose interest in even considering, let alone embracing, the Faustian bargains that put our souls in such danger.  

October 2009

Saturday, 16 November 2019

"Mary Ann Did Not Go": George Eliot stays away from church

I first gave a version of this lecture in 1992. That year marked the 150th anniversary, little noticed in either the literary or the theological worlds, of what I believe was the great turning point in George Eliot's life: that wintry Sunday morning in 1842 when she took her resolve in both hands, defied conven­tion and her father, and refused to go to church.

Since then, of course, George Eliot has joined the big-time authors, with the television adaptation of Middlemarch. Now you can buy her on station bookstalls for around a pound. The TV Middlemarch might have made a very interesting topic for the 1994 George Eliot Memorial Lecture, for the interplay between the written text of a novel and its reworking for the screen, small or large, is one of the more absorbing topics of media studies. Should we speak of television's Middlemarch, or merely of its `Middlemarch'? In other words, was the screen version the authentic work of George Eliot, albeit collapsed, cut down to size?  Or is the outcome of that process of col­lapsing great literature so distorting in its effects that it should not bear the same name as the original? 
It is probably elitist to say that any reworking of a written text for a visual medium is bound in the end to be a deconstruction, and that any purist should shun it.  Neverthe­less, most reviewers not only praised Middlemarch as good television. There appeared to be a consensus that in an important way it did attempt to be true to the spirit of the novel whose name it bears, even if it took some liberties with its shape. More cynical observers recalled that the BBC had served notice that if this hugely expensive adaptation was not well received by the critics, it would be the last of the big-budget costume dramas to be seen on television. Some would say that this would not have been a disser­vice to litera­ture. For we have all had to reconstruct for ever our mental images of Dorothea and Casaubon, Lydgate and Rosamund, and that is the price you always have to pay for the easy access televi­sion offers to the storylines of classi­cal lit­erature. It is a medium short on imagination, precisely the quality that makes great litera­ture great.

Meanwhile, those of us who live in George Eliot's Mid­lands also had to re-envision the novel's chief character of all, the town itself. Here, there was perhaps more to complain about. Stamford, Lincolnshire, where the film was made, is undoubtedly one of England's most beautiful towns, and I am not going to begrudge it the dividend Middlemarch has earned it in visitor income since the broadcast. Neverthe­less, the town as portrayed did seem a long way from the west midland setting the author had created. Of course, `Middlemarch' is not a geo­graphical place, but a town of the mind. Never­theless, it was unkind for a stage-coach to trundle on to the set boldly bearing the east-Midland names of Grantham and Newark rather than Leamington, Nuneaton or Bir­mingham.

Shortly afterwards, the Observer rang to ask me for a clergyman's quote from the town of Middlemarch-alias-Coventry itself.  Were Coventrians buying the book of the film, I was asked; were they talking about it on street-cor­ners; how was it affecting Coventry's self-aware­ness on the literary map of England; and were there many Casaubons (male or female) left now­adays in the Church of England, and if so, what mythologies are they attempting to discover the key to? My wise and thoughtful answers went unrecorded, apart from my wish to see another Daniel Deronda on screen if the BBC were looking for another of George Eliot's novels to adapt.

Middlemarc­h, as I have said, means middle England, the England of Warwickshire, of Nuneaton, of Coventry.  But the real George Eliot country is the landscape of human life. In Middlemarch, her study of provincial life, we recognise the provincialisms of the worlds we ourselves inhabit, the shift­ing sands of human relationships, the struggles for power and recognition, our quest for value and meaning. George Eliot is one of her century's most brilliant portrayers of the human spirit.  Simon Callow, in his autobi­ography Being an Actor, says that the important thing in acting `is not to feel a lot, but to feel accurate­ly.'[1] That is what George Eliot excels at: not so much tidal waves of emotion, but an uncanny accuracy in her depiction of human life. Hers is an art that is sharply focused, pro­foundly true. She herself embodied in her writing those qualities she so much admired in Dutch painting: what she called `this rare, precious qual­ity of truthfulness'. Her plea for realism in the great 17th chapter of Adam Bede, "In which the Story Pauses a Little", bears quoting again, because it seems to embody the programme George Eliot set herself as a writer:

I turn without shrink­ing, from cloud-borne angels, from prophets, sibyls, and heroic warriors, to an old woman bending over her flower-pot, or eating her soli­tary dinner, while the noonday light, softened perhaps by a screen of leaves, falls on her mob-cap, and just touches the rim of her spinning-wheel, and her stone jug, and all those cheap com­mon things which are the precious necess­ities of life to her....

"Foh!" says my idealistic friend, "what vulgar details! What good is there is taking all these pains to give an exact likeness of old ugly women and clowns?  What a low phase of life! - what clumsy, ugly people!"

But... things may be lovable that are not altogether handsome... human feeling is like the mighty rivers that bless the earth: it does not wait for beauty - it flows with resistless force and brings beauty with it.... Paint us an angel if you can.... paint us yet oftener a Madonna.... but do not impose on us any aesthetic rules which shall banish from the region of Art those old women scraping carrots with their work-worn hands, those heavy clowns taking holiday in a dingy pot-house, those rounded backs and stupid weather-beaten faces that have bent over the spade and done the rough work of the world - those homes with their tin pans, their brown pitchers, their rough curs, and their clusters of onions.... Let
Art always remind us of them: therefore let us always have men ready to give the loving pains of a life to the faithful repre­sentation of commonplace things.


But I want tonight to look at George Eliot's art in the light of that particular event in her early life with which I began. It is appropriate perhaps that a Coventry clergyman should be giving this lec­ture, because it belongs to the Coventry period of her life, when she was living in Bird Grove, Foles­hill.  It was on Sunday, 2 January 1842 that her father wrote a laconic entry in his diary: "Went to Trinity Church in the forenoon.  Miss Lewis went with me.  Mary Ann did not go.  I stopd the sacrement (sic) and Miss Lewis stopd also." Few words to describe a momentous and life-changing deci­sion.  Two weeks later, again: "Went to church in the fore­noon. May Ann did not go to church".[2]

Robert Evans, the fine looking man whose portrait hangs in Nuneaton, was less interested in Marian's inner religious struggles than in making sure that his daughter behaved as was proper for a middle class young woman with eligible prospects.  As so often, religion was not so much a matter of conviction or truth, rather a convenient social tool. We know what grief this wayward act of subversion caused Marian's father. We know that she and her father were barely on speaking terms for two months, communicat­ing only by letter.  One Monday February morning, she wrote about her intellectual difficulties with Christi­anity. 

Such being my very strong convictions, it cannot be a ques­tion with any mind of strict integrity, what­ever judgment may be passed on their truth, that I could not without vile hypoc­risy and a miserable truck­ling to the smile of the world for the sake of my supposed interests, profess to join in worship which I wholly disap­prove.  This, and this alone I will not do even for your sake.

What she called her "holy war" lasted four months. After that, she agreed to conform, resume churchgoing, and restore the status quo.  Robert Evans sighed with relief. But for Marian, nothing had changed.  She had not reverted to ortho­dox Chris­tian belief, and would never do so again.  Far from it.  For this profoundly inward woman had been rocked to her foun­da­tions by a deep spiritual crisis. For her, things could never be the same again.

Now, I suppose that as a clergyman, I am bound to find this little episode particularly fascinating.  After all, most of us clergy spend a great deal of time asking why people don't go to church.  Large sums of money, and an inordinate amount of time, are spent on considering that question. The Decade of Evangelism, which we are in at present, shows that it has not gone away. So when an erstwhile evangelical churchgoer sudden­ly throws it all over and does a dramatic spiritual volte face, well, any ordained admirer of George Eliot will find in that little drama much to ponder.

It is my view, as I have said, that what happened to Marian Evans in Coventry in 1842 was of the pro­foundest importance for the rest of her life: that, together with her meeting George Henry Lewes. I cheekily sug­gest that whereas it was Nuneaton that gave the world the woman, it was Coventry that conceived the writer; after which it was Lewes, as the best literary midwife of the 19th century, who eventually brought the novelist to birth.  For Marian's crisis brought to the surface hitherto repressed energies.  It marked, I think, the beginning of what was to be characteris­tic of her life and her art:  rigorous, relentless questioning of what she took to be a superficial status quo; an upsurge of radical doubt within her as to the validity of any belief or position that she had not ruthlessly made her own.  Hers was a determination to discard for ever what she called "crutches of superstition"; and to be as truthful with herself as it was possible to be, even at the cost of hurting those to whom she felt closest.

At one level, all this can be read as the search of any young man or woman for identity.  Most of us need, in adoles­cence or later, to make our protest, put our mark on things by questioning what was handed down to us, daring to doubt that our parents and grandparents had a monopoly of wisdom. Robert Evans' daughter was always very much a free spirit.  Her various spellings of her name suggest a restless seeking after her own authentic self: first Mary Anne, then Mary Ann, then Marian, and right at the end of her life, Mary Ann once again. Whether we should see the name `George Eliot' as part of this search for self, or simply a literary conveni­ence can be discussed.

But Marian's sitting at home one Sunday morning while the rest of the family went to church is of a piece with the pattern of her life.  The out­rage she caused her domestic circle was repeat­ed, on a far bigger stage, when she chose to live with the married George Henry Lewes.  It is as if she was destined to be a peren­nial thorn in the side of the Victor­ian estab­lishment. We could say that life, for her, was more com­plex, more elusive, more subtle than conven­tional wisdom could see; that her life-choices entailed a difficult balancing act between public morality and private faith. This of course is one of the themes explored in Middlemarch.  When you read George Eliot, you know that like those Dutch interiors she loved, you are touching the experi­ence of someone who has truly lived.

Alice Miller, in her study of infant trauma The Drama of Being a Child, suggests that the world's greatest art often seems to emerge out of struggle of some kind,  mental, emotional, or physical.  Our most searching novel­ists, musicians or artists are often people who stand somewhat on the margins of human life, who are able to look into it from the vantage point of "the dangerous edge of things", to quote Robert Browning's great phrase. They seem to know, so many of them, social ostracism, loneliness or pain.  It is as if struggle sets a man or woman apart, enables a person to see in a new way, inter­pret the life of his or her contempor­aries back to them.  One fashion­able west‑end preacher singled out Bulstrode, he of the "seri­ous Christian beliefs", and described how he shud­dered at the novelist's "awful dissection of a guilty con­science. That is what I mean by the prophetic spirit" he said.  The great novel­ists are the prophets of their day, and perhaps that is because, in Wordsworth's words, their experi­ence leads them to "see into the life of things".

Now, prophets are by nature disturbers, protesters.  We don't always like them, but we need them. It seems to me that only those capable of protest are capable of great art. To give a counter‑example, so much of the art of the Third Reich or Stalinist Russia strikes us now as devoid of inspiration precisely because this astringent element of protest was absent. So we must not think that Marian Evans' little protest in not going to church was unimportant, nor that it was easy, or impulsive, or petulant. Romola has a telling comment:

The law was sacred, yes; but the rebellion might be sacred too.  It flashed upon her mind that the prob­lem before her was .... the problem where the sacredness of obedience ended, and where the sacred­ness of rebellion began.

If I read her aright, it cost her dear to stay at home that January Sunday morning, just as it cost her dear to enter into a relationship with George Henry Lewes and forgo not only the respect of society, but, much more important to her, the love of her brother as well.  It seems to me at least plausible that had Marian Evans gone to church that day, we might never have had George Eliot the novelist whom we cel­ebrate tonight. Instead, we should have had merely a virtuous woman of impec­cable evangelical orthodoxy and irreproach­able habits.  She would have married well and borne seven children.  But she would have left not the slightest trace in history at all.

What was the religious crisis that led Marian Evans to give up going to church in 1842?

The 1840s were a time of seething religious foment in England. The Church of England was racked by bitter disputes that many said would split it apart. The Victorian crisis of faith was a crisis at many levels. The Church of England was already losing its grip on the popula­tion.  There were a number of reasons for this: the rise of nonconformity, the effects of the industrial revolution and the shadow of the dark satanic mills, the growth of cities. But for many thinking people, the diffi­culties with religion were more intellectual. Natural science, in particu­lar, seemed to pose a huge question mark by the revealed truths of scripture.  Charles Darwin (himself once destined for the Anglican priesthood until his conscience got the better of it) was yet to write his Origin of Species that was to bring the science‑and‑religion debate to a head.  But Charles Lyell's Elements of Geology had been pub­lished in the early 1830s.  Its theme was that the evi­dence of geology pointed to the world being far older than the six thousand or so years sug­gested by Genesis. What science was disclosing was that the world around simply didn't seem to fit the narrow categories conven­tional dogma tried to force them into.  The universe was more elusive than that: it had out­grown the tired formulae of organised religion.

And so had many thoughtful men and women of the 1840s. It was not without regret.  Matthew Arnold, born three years after Marian Evans, became the spokesman of this spiritual malaise:

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl'd.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

There is no poem that so perceptively catches the mood of the religious dilemma of the 19th century as Dover Beach: both its despair at ever finding meaning in the new understandings of the universe natural science was opening up, and its incurable nostalgia for the past, when everything seemed secure, and religious faith timeless. Like Matthew Arnold, Marian found herself on Dover Beach, gazing into the void. She probably approved of the sentiment that:

There lives more faith in honest doubt
Believe me, than in half the creeds.

as Tennyson put it in that manifesto of the Victorian search for meaning, In Memoriam.  In 1842, Marian Evans publicly joined the company of honest doubters.

She had Coventry to thank for that.  In 1841, when she had lived at Bird Grove for only a few months, she met Charles and Cara Bray, and Cara's family the Hennells. At the Brays' home at Rosehill, she fell under the influence of free thought. It was said that `everyone who came to Coventry with a queer mission....or was supposed to be a "little cracked" was sent up to Rosehill, where they all sat on a bearskin under an acacia tree, talking endlessly about phrenology, labour co‑operatives, the repeal of the Corn Laws and how the new science of geology had undermined the sanctity of holy writ.

Charles Hennell's book An Inquiry into the Origins of Christi­anity had been published in 1838. This painstakingly researched book was a key influence on the young woman's inquiring mind. So was the epoque-making book by the great German theologian David Friedrich Strauss, Das Leben Jesu. This work was one of the pioneering works of New Testament criticism.  Strauss set to work to rein­terpret Christianity in a non‑supernatural way. He wanted to probe beneath the surface of the gospels, remove the mytho­logical accretions he saw there, so as to discover a historical Jesus modern 19th cen­tury men and women could identify with. It was an influential, and subversive book. In 1839, at Charles Hennell's invi­tation, Marian began to trans­late the book into English, so we can assume that by that year, she was already moving swiftly away from the Calvinism of her youth. 

There was a rigour of thought and argu­ment in this book, published in English in 1846 as The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, that her finely-tuned mind, with its love of detail, could respond to. Her evangeli­cal friends tried to win her back, but in vain. The die had been cast.


It seems to me that there is a strong connection between Marian's religious faith of a few years before, and her rejec­tion of it in 1842.  The link is in her fervour, in the passion with which, one year she is obsessed with Christian­ity, and not long after, is turning her back on it. You remem­ber that, in her letter to her father, she talks about her loathing of hypoc­risy. That letter is as deeply felt as any religious writing can be: there is some­thing evangelical about her rejection of religion, something crusading. And that stems directly from the kind of faith she had practised up to that time at the evangelical school of Mrs Wallington, and the Calvinistic establish­ment of the Misses Franklin. Evangelical belief looked for a personal relationship with God, a radical honesty that refused to hide behind rituals or priests or formulae, but instead called for "truth in the inward parts".  Churchgoing, as such, was of no virtue at all, said the leaders of the evangelical awakening at the end of the 18th century, unless it corresponded to an inner disposition, a heart set free by the love of Christ.  The perennial danger of organised religion was that it so easily led to hypocrisy, literally `play acting'. From this well, with its call to relent­less self-examination of inner motive and disposition, Marian had drunk deep.

What is more, the evangelicals taught that in Christ, every man, woman or child was equal before God, accepted, not on the basis of what they had achieved, but solely because of God's love. In other words, evangelicalism was an emancipation from a dogma‑ridden system of belief.  It taught the primacy of personal value. It stressed the part feeling played in relig­ion. It proclaimed that no‑one else could believe on your behalf, do your thinking for you.  You had to do your spiri­tual work for your­self. This, too, became a hall‑mark of Marian's world view. She wrote of it in the following year in a letter to Sarah Hennell:

Speculative truth begins to appear but a shadow of individual minds, agreement between intellects seems unattain­able, and we turn to the truth of feeling as the only univer­sal bond of union.

It is precisely these same, evangelical instincts that were at work in the 22 year old Marian as she resolved that she could no longer go to church. Organised religion, I think we may say, was just too facile. "Falsehood is so easy, truth is so difficult" writes the novelist in Adam Bede. At Holy Trinity Church, evidently, not enough was demanded of her.  Her evan­gelicalism had taught her that she could find happiness only in thinking her own thoughts and becoming her own person. And that must mean saying farewell to evangelicalism. For her, as for John Henry Newman on the brink of joining the Church of Rome three years later, it was "the parting of friends".

But evangelical belief was still on the agenda some years later. From the portrayal of clergy in Scenes of Clerical Life, it is true, as Graham Handley says, that "fifteen years after her rejection of her faith George Eliot could look back with tolerance, compassion, understanding and irony to what she had left behind".
[5]  But from much the same period of her life comes the piece of writing that first convinced George Henry Lewes of her genius. Here is how it begins:

Given, a man with moderate intellect, a moral stan­dard not higher than the average, some rhetorical affluence and great glibness of speech, what is the career in which, without the aid of birth and money, he may most easily attain power and reputation in English society?  What is the Goshen of medi­ocrity in which a smattering of science and learning will pass for profound instruction, where platitudes will be accepted as wisdom, bigoted narrowness as holy zeal, unctuous egoism as God-given piety? Let such a man become an evangelical preacher; he will then find it possible to reconcile small ability with great ambition, superficial knowledge with the pres­tige of erudition, a middling morale with a high reputa­tion for sanctity.

There is nothing very tolerant here. What occasioned this piece was the writing of Dr John Cumming, a Scottish Presby­terian preacher who drew large crowds at his London chapel through his extravagant and bizarre account of Bible proph­ecy. I myself once possessed a copy of his lectures on the Book of Revelation. Mary Ann Evans is unsparing in her withering condemnation of the rhetoric of what we now call fundamental­ism: its preoccupation with hell, its lack of charity, its superficial notion of truth and its subver­sion of personal responsibility and public morality. But we seem to hear more in the diatribe than the examination and exposure of a kind of religion that fraudulently manipu­lates men and women.  What we overhear is Mary Anne Evans confronting her own past, the convert freethinker disowning, with the same apostolic vehe­mence as in her letter to her father, what she perhaps only half realises will always be a part of herself. The tone of this review is in striking contrast to the sympathy with which she writes of religion in the novels, as we shall see.


What, then, was the faith of the mature Marian Evans?

In her changing attitude to religion, as I have suggested, George Eliot accurately symbolises and embodies the profound changes in society at large as it wrestled with the great religious questions of the 19th cen­tury.  The Victorian crisis of faith was Marian's.  She charts its progress from faith to doubt with uncanny accuracy.

It is difficult to be too precise, however, about the exact nature of her beliefs. On the one hand, there are plenty of indications that she aban­doned all belief in a supernatural God, adopting instead a positivist, Comte-ian `religion of humanity' in which the ethic of Christianity, shorn of its metaphysics, becomes the governing principle. In the article I have just quoted, she writes:

The best minds that accept Christianity as a divinely inspired sys­tem, believe that the great end of the Gospel is not merely the saving but the educating of men's souls, the creating within them of holy dispositions, the subduing of egotistical pretensions, and the perpetual enhancing of the desire that the will of God - a will synonymous with goodness and truth - may be done on earth.

Fatally powerful as relig­ious systems have been, human nature is stronger and wider than religious systems, and though dogmas may ham­per, they cannot absolutely repress its growth: build walls round the living tree as you will, the bricks and mortar have by and by to give way before the slow and sure oper­ation of the sap.... The idea of Go
d is really moral in its influence - it really cherishes all that is best and loveliest in man - only when God is contemplated as sympathizing with the pure elements of human feeling, as possessing infinitely all those attributes which we recognise to be moral in human­ity.  In this light, the idea of God and the sense of His presence intensify all noble feeling, and encourage all noble effort.

In the same decade, she was saying:

I have not returned to dogmatic Christianity - to the accept­ance of any set of doctrines as a creed, and a superhuman revelation of the Unseen - but see I see in it the highest expression of the religious sentiment that has yet found its place in the his­tory of mankind, and I have the profoundest interest in the inward life of sincere Christians of all ages.... where I used to delight in expressing intellectual difference, I now delight in feeling an emotional agreement.

There is the famous story of her meeting Frederic Myers in the garden of Trinity College Cambridge in the rain in 1873.

Taking as her text the three words which have been used so often as the inspiring trumpet calls of men - the words God, Immortality, Duty, pro­nounced, with terrible earnestness, how inconceivable was the first, how unbelievable was the second, and yet how peremptory and absolute the third.... I seemed to be gazing on a sanctuary with no Pres­ence to hallow it, and heaven left empty of a God.

And then there is her discovery of the ideas of Ludwig Feuerbach, whose book The Essence of Christianity influenced her deeply.  Feuerbach believed that the entire edifice of religion could be collapsed into a single truth, that "Love is God himself, and apart from it there is no God". Religion is the consciousness of the infinity of the conscious­ness, and "God" is but the outward projection of the inwardness of human beings. Marian's translation of this book was occupying her in the 1850s, a decade during which her religious convictions were evidently arriving at stability after the foment of the 1840s. Perhaps significantly, this was the only book to bear her own name on the title page - Marian Evans, as if to say that the Feuerbachian version of religion was, so far as she was con­cerned, her final position.

On the other hand, Marian's deep interest in the figure of Jesus is an important clue to her inner self. There is the well known story of how Marian, immersed in Strauss and get­ting bogged down, like Casaubon, in this key to all mythol­ogies, became, in her own words, `Strauss‑sick'. Her antidote was to set up a statue of Christ in her study, and contemplate it. That is of a piece with that contemplative scene in Mill on the Floss, where Maggie, in the aftermath of the crisis that has ruined the Tullivers, goes in search of something, any­thing, to read. Her brother Tom's trunk of school books yields only Latin, Euclid and Logic.  But on the window sill, unnot­iced until now, she finds "a little, old, clumsy book" which turns out to be Thomas à Kem­pis' Imita­tion of Christ.

A strange thrill of awe passed through Maggie while she read, as if she had been wakened in the night by a strain of solemn music, telling of beings whose souls had been astir while hers was in stupor....Here...was a secret of life that would enable her to renounce all other secrets ‑ here was a sublime height to be reached...here was insight and strength.

This is the classic account of evangelical conversion, as Wesley had recounted it when he told of his heart being `strangely warmed' at Aldersgate Street, and as the young Marian Evans had herself experienced it. Maggie's soul, adrift on the chaotic streams of her emotional life, begins to find an anchor. She discovers the strength to renounce Stephen's seduc­tions, to rescue Tom. Religion issues in moral courage, in being good.  In The Mill, George Eliot quotes the text of The Imita­tion of Christ at length. It is said that this well‑thumbed book was found by George Eliot when she died, along with her Bible. She could not worship Christ.  But she could endorse, and cel­ebrate, the moral and spiritual insights she saw in his teach­ing; be drawn to the charisma of the man. You could even say that she longed to imitate him.

Despite the clear autobiographical material in The Mill, we must not assume that Maggie's faith is necessarily that of Marian Evans'. Nevertheless, in the sympathetic light in which per­sonal relig­ion is portrayed in that novel, indeed, in all her novels, "atheism" (John McDade is only the latest commentator to use that word in a recent article on George Eliot's religion) seems too crude to describe her own finely nuanced relig­ious position. The mysticism of "The Choir Invisible", as per­sonal a piece of writing as you could find in her canon, while hardly an orthodox Christian statement, is far removed from the bleak positiv­ism of Auguste Comte and his dis­ciples. Her lifelong inter­est in religion (not, incidentally, shared by Lewes) seems to have been the pursuit of the "essence of Christianity" which she found in Jesus' call to personal responsi­bility, to moral serious­ness. Kierkegaard said that every human being needed to find "that idea for which he can live and die". Marian Evans found it in the solemn word "duty". It was easy for Matthew Arnold to carica­ture that kind of religion as "moral­ity, tinged with emotion". That memorable epithet accurately por­trayed a good deal of Victorian society religion, and the species is not dead yet. But for Marian, the word "duty" connoted the life task of achiev­ing personal authen­ticity. It was a profoundly relig­ious, because inwardly experienced, vocation.

In that sense, you could say that what happened to Marian Evans in 1842 when she `did not go' with her father to church, was as much a conversion, that is a turning-point in life, as it was a rejection of faith. It was, perhaps, a moment of illumination, a discovery of that idea for which she knew she could now live and die. And because I believe that throwing away the "crutches of superstition" is always the prelude to a truer finding of oneself, I want to say that George Eliot is really a profound­ly religious writer.

This, to me, marks her out as very dif­ferent from Charles Dickens, whose novels strike one as remarkably untouched by any spiri­tual vision, despite their marvellous perception of the humour and incon­gruity of so much of life, the agony and ecstasy in the often unobserved for­tunes of men, women and children, the fierce protest against the injustices endured by the London poor.  She is different again from Anthony Trollope, whose own deep interest in religion seems somehow to be the more detached view of the professional clergy-watcher. While cel­ebrating sincerity when he finds it (in Mr. Harding, for example, in The Warden), Trollope's account of Victor­ian relig­ion is so laced with irony that the overall effect, for all his establishment loyalties, is actually far more subvers­ive of traditional values than George Eliot's. Per­haps she is more akin to Thomas Hardy, who, like her, had lost confidence in orthodox religion to provide answers to life's riddles; yet who, from his profoundly pessi­mistic, even tragic, view of things, never abandoned a nostal­gic instinct for religion and the tran­scen­dent element in life ‑ call it God, call it des­tiny ‑ mysteriously at work in the inscrutable changes and chances of the world, "hoping it might be so" as he puts it in his poem `The Oxen'.

Anyone who reads George Eliot will, I think, be struck by this sensitivity to what is spiritual, this openness to life.  That is what makes her novels so generous, so illuminat­ing, so humane.  Let me offer one more example of her insight into the spiritual order of things.  It comes from Adam Bede, and in view of our church going theme this evening, it is all the more significant that the maturing George Eliot, and not the adolescent Marian Evans, should have written it.

But Adam's thoughts of Hetty did not deafen him to the ser­vice; they rather blended with all the other deep feelings for which the church service was a channel to him this after­noon, as a certain consciousness of our entire past and our imagined future blends itself with all our moments of keen sensibil­ity.  And to Adam the church service was the best channel he could have found for his mingled regret, yearn­ing, and resignation; its interchange of beseeching cries for help, with outbursts of faith and praise ‑ its recurrent responses and the familiar rhythm of its collects, seemed to speak for him as no other form of worship could have done.

That passage could only have been written by someone who understood Anglican worship very well indeed, knew it from within, understood the connection between liturgy and living that is basic to religious faith. It is, I suggest, a deeply nostalgic piece of writing, in the same way as the Imita­tion of Christ passage in Mill on the Floss. It is as if the novel­ist is once more in dialogue with her own past, just as she had been in her pol­emics against Dr Cumming and his evan­geli­cal funda­mental­ism. The difference is that in the novels, she is able to affirm and celebrate her religious past which, in the diatribe against Cumming, she is rejecting and disowning. Of course, they are different sides of the past. Her angry rejec­tion of evangeli­calism is a disowning of a more recent and tumultuous relig­ious experience than the gentle village Angli­canism of her childhood. Perhaps in the novels, she found herself returning, if not to the doctrines, then at least to the eirenic temper and ethos of the faith in which she had been brought up before she encountered Calvinism.

So it matters less to me that George Eliot should have severed her links with organised religion than that she learned to read the map of the human heart. In that, the novelist makes common cause with the priest.  The art of both is to invite men and women into an experience of life that is richer and deeper than perhaps they have yet glimpsed, "larger life" as she calls it in Daniel Deronda.  Their common vocation is to explore meanings, make connections, point to the possibil­ity that human life, in the midst of its brokenness and pain, can reach out towards wholeness.

Let me end with a twentieth century tribute to the moral power of George Eliot's writing. Vera Brittain, in Testa­ment of Youth, describes how the novelist helped her make the choice at the start of the Great War to renounce Oxford (an ambition for which, like Marian Evans, she had defied her father) in order to serve as a nurse. She is contrasting the sig­nificance she had hitherto attached to her private life with all its immedi­ate, absorb­ing personal concerns, with the remoteness (as it then seemed to her) of the dramas being played out on the wider stage of current affairs. Sud­denly, with the out­break of war in 1914, her entire world-view was overturned. 

Now, suddenly, the one impinged upon the other, and public events and private lives had become insepar­able.... Uneasily, I read a passage from Daniel Deronda that I had read in comfortable detachment the year before:

"There comes a terrible moment to many souls when the great movements of the world, the larger des­tinies of man­kind, which have lain aloof in newspa­pers and other neglected read­ing, enter like an earthquake into their own lives ‑ where the slow urgency of growing generations turns into the trend of an invading army, or the dire clash of civil war....Then it is that the submission of the soul to the Highest is tested, and....life looks out from the scene of human struggle with the awful face of duty."[9]

Like Maggie Tulliver, like Marian Evans, that writer found the moral courage to do what was required of her and chart a course through life.  She found the idea for which she must live and die, as we all must do. It may not be religion in the conven­tional sense. But there is a fire in the belly that to me is religious in all but name. Our own relig­ious and moral vision of life would be the poorer without her.

October 1994

[1]              Being An Actor, London, 1985, 100.
[2]              Robert Evans' Journal 1842; cited Gordon S. Haight, George Eliot: A Biography (Harmondsworth 1985), 40.
[3]              Letters, I, 128-30; cited ibid., 41-43.
[4]              Letters, I,
[5]              Graham Handley, George Eliot's Midlands: Passion in Exile (London, 1991), 109.
[6]              `Evangelical Teaching: Dr Cumming' (1855) in Selected Critical Writings (ed. R. Ashton), Oxford, 1992, 138 
[7]              Letters, III, 230-1.
[8]              Century Magazine 23, November 1881, 62-3; cited Haight, op. cit., 464.
[9]              cited Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth, London, 1933, 98.