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Theology Essay 1 – George Eliot

September 24, 2011

The marks for my first set of theology essays have finally appeared, so now I can put the essays up here without running the risk of being accused of plagiarising my own work…

I had to write a “portfolio” of essays over the course of four weeks, each of ~2,000 words. The subject for each essay was given by the subject of the weeks lecture. We start with George Eliot, who was the focus of the first theology lecture “The Makings of Modern Atheism”. More essays on slightly more “Christian” thinkers to follow!

Typos left intact. Comment from lecturer – how would I answer Nietzsche criticism of Eliot? Nietzsche said:

They are rid of the Christian God and now believe all the more firmly that they must cling to Christian morality. That is an English consistency; we do not wish to hold it against little moralistic females à la Eliot. In England one must rehabilitate oneself after every little emancipation from theology by showing in a veritably awe-inspiring manner what a moral fanatic one is. That is the penance they pay there.

We others hold otherwise. When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one’s feet. This morality is by no means self-evident: this point has to be exhibited again and again, despite the English flatheads. Christianity is a system, a whole view of things thought out together. By breaking one main concept out of it, the faith in God, one breaks the whole: nothing necessary remains in one’s hands. Christianity presupposes that man does not know, cannot know, what is good for him, what evil: he believes in God, who alone knows it. Christian morality is a command; its origin is transcendent; it is beyond all criticism, all right to criticism; it has truth only if God is the truth–it stands and falls with faith in God.

When the English actually believe that they know “intuitively” what is good and evil, when they therefore suppose that they no longer require Christianity as the guarantee of morality, we merely witness the effects of the dominion of the Christian value judgment and an expression of the strength and depth of this dominion: such that the origin of English morality has been forgotten, such that the very conditional character of its right to existence is no longer felt. For the English, morality is not yet a problem.

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George Eliot and Feuerbach on God and the Good

Although initially a devote Christian, George Eliot (the pen name of Mary Anne Evans) came to espouse a form of humanism that would be recognisable today. Eliot was well educated as a child, and through her education, and subsequent move to Coventry, she came to read and think about such thinkers as Lytton, Strauss, Spencer and Emerson. This led her to break from traditional religious views, although not initially from a belief in a deistic or pantheistic God. It was, in particular, the work of Charles Hennell, author of An Inquiry Concerning the Origin of Christianity, that led Eliot away from belief in the bible as literal truth. By viewing Christian doctrine as mythic rather than factual, she opened the door to seeing religion as a whole as something manmade.

In 1854 Eliot translated Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity, and much of her future thinking is reminiscent of themes from this work. Feuerbach proposed that religion is ‘the relation of man to himself’; that is, religion is man’s projection of himself on to the “divine”. The attributes given to God are therefore nothing other than the attributes man finds or desires in himself. “The yearning of man after something above himself is nothing else than the longing after the perfect type of his nature” (Feuerbach, 281). The study of religion becomes anthropology, the study of man.

Eliot wrote that “With the ideas of Feuerbach I everywhere agree”, marking a movement onwards from her initial rejection of Christianity a decade earlier. What she had been missing was a philosophy that could reconcile her notions of morality with the absence of a God. It was the idea of Feuerbach, that religion is a projection of what is human, that allowed Eliot to bridge this gap.

According to Eliot and other thinkers at the time, the world is alone in an unordered, uncaring universe. Man, by virtue of his consciousness, is able to go beyond this thoughtless system, which many would think would be chaotic in the absence of a divine being. Through the evolution of humans as a species, a moral order arose – this can be hypothesised as arising due to the survival value of altruism, sympathy and group cohesion.

Morality thus formed has a subjective and objective basis. The subjective basis is the importance my feelings, my desires, have to me. The objective basis is, to quote Bernard J. Paris, ‘other men; and we become aware of it only when we regard our fellows objectively, that is, as subjects in themselves to whom we are objects. If I am important to myself, and other men have an inner life like my own, then they must be important to themselves.’ This has echoes of Feuerbach: ‘Feeling is therefore feeling with respect to an object taken as a thou, that is, as a person.’ (Feuerbach, 281)

It is in treating our fellow humans as moral agents that we come to have a shared morality. We then stop thinking of ourselves as a group of individuals and realise that we are a species, humans, sharing in our hopes and fears. Living a moral life therefore involves more than looking out for our own interests; we have to life for the good of humankind. ‘As healthy, sane human beings we must love and hate – love what is good for mankind, hate what is evil for mankind’ (Eliot, Letters V 29-31). This is a theme evident in the literary works of Eliot, in which characters are often portrayed as living lives of self-sacrifice that nevertheless contribute to the good of those around them.

Some would see human morality as unimportant if it did not come from a divine source, and was “merely” the product of human evolution. Eliot held that this is ‘equivalent to saying that you care no longer for colour, now you know the laws of the spectrum’ (Letters VI 98). Morality is a self-evident truth, one that we all experience, and a natural description of it should not render it meaningless in our everyday lives and actions.

It may further be asked why anyone should act in a moral way if there is no meaning to live other than that which we create. After all, we will all eventually die, surely making our actions here on Earth meaningless and empty. Eliot refutes this simply – other people are individual moral agents, “objective sources of value”, and some will continue to live after I die. We are part of a continuum of human existence, the existence of a species of individuals, and the effects of our actions will be felt even after we are gone.

What place for religion in this worldview? Surely it (or at least some of the more popular aspects of Christianity) exemplifies the moral position of “love thy neighbour” which Eliot puts forward? It was, and still is, common to hold that morality is a product of religion, that without some form of divine guidance man would be a base creature succumbing to his every whim. Eliot, as outlined above, believed that morality was innate in humans; the moral duty is ‘peremptory and absolute’. Eliot sought a way beyond traditional religious morality.

Religion, according to Eliot’s later thinking, arrives at morality not through divine providence, but through the acquisition and shaping of pre-existing human moral systems. By viewing religion as projecting human attributes (or at least ideals of these attributes) on to God, we cease to see it as a source of morality but instead see it as an expression of morality. But according to Eliot it is a limited expression. By centring attention on God it distracts people from focusing on what really matters, and what they are ultimately talking about when they talk of god; mankind.

‘Heaven help us! Said the old religions – the new one, from its very lack of that faith, will teach us all the more to help one another’ (Eliot, Letters II 82)

Established doctrine and dogma doesn’t help the individual to see their place in the moral system to which they belong. By following authority we undermine the very morality that helped to build up the religious image of morality that the devote sees in front of them. Feuerbach sees Christian doctrines as a projection of human needs and fears, and we need to try to free ourselves of these fears. This is almost Epicurean in scope – to get over our fears we need to free ourselves from religion.

Despite these potentially damning indictments of religion, it could be argued that Eliot was arguing for some form of “religion of humanity”. What do we mean by this? Eliot was certainly influenced by the positivists, and in this vein we could take “religion of humanity” to mean something along the lines of that proposed by Comte. In this model, we need morality, doctrine and worship in order for this “religion” to function properly. Whilst initially emphasising doctrine, Comte eventually focused his “religion” on worship, to the extent that it was referred to as ‘Catholicism without Christ’. Without this emphasis, Eliot cannot be accused of following Comte down this track; she was not advocating the founding of churches to positivism.

What was Eliot proposing? She was certainly working in the positivist tradition – knowledge is limited by our experience, not given to us by divine revelation. With her emphasis on morality over doctrine and worship, Eliot’s religion of humanity was much more a philosophy than a religion, a way of looking at the world and at others rather than a set of dogmas to be followed and explored. It is therefore misleading to label it religion. It is Humanism.

All this is not to say that Eliot wanted the world to be rid of religions:

It would be wise in our theological teachers … [to enable the Christian system]…to strike a firm root in man’s moral nature, and to entwine itself with the growth of those new forms of social life to which we are tending (Eliot, Selected Critical Writings, 32)

The good works performed by Christians, the evident morality of the teachings of Jesus; Eliot saw these as religion at its best. If the power that religion harnessed could be used to further these messages rather than furthering temporal power and needs, then religion could be one of, if not the, best method of getting across to “the masses” the message that Eliot wanted to spread. It would require breaking free of

Terms and conceptions which having their root in conditions of thought no longer existing, have ceased to possess any vitality and are for us as spells which have lost their virtue (Eliot Selected Critical Writings, 19)

Religion therefore has to be changed rather than kept in its current form. It is useful as a way for people to come to a sense of morality, but the emphasis needs to shift away from a relationship between a person and God. This self-centred relation is really, in Feuerbach’s model, a relationship between the self and a projection of the self. By stepping back from this model it is, according to Eliot’s philosophy, possible to realise that the relationship that we should be in is with our fellow humans.

“My soul is so knit with yours that it is but a divided life that I live without you. And this moment, now you are with me, and I feel that our hearts are filled with the same love, I have a fullness of strength to bear and do our heavenly Father’s will, that I had lost before”.

So says Dinah in Adam Bede. Despite the heavy use of religious language, this passage emphasises that it is with human connections and relationships that we gain meaning and morality for our lives. Despite this, Eliot is sympathetic towards religion. It is after all a powerful force, and Eliot sees it as a force for good in the world around her, helping many people towards acts of good.

‘The idea of God 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 recognize to be moral in humanity…. The idea of a God…is an extension and multiplication of the effects produced by human sympathy; and it has been intensified for the better spirits who have been under the influence of orthodox Christianity by the contemplation of Jesus as “God manifest in the flesh”.’ (Evangelical Teaching: Dr Cumming)

This passage encapsulates the central ideas that Eliot wanted to get across. Morality is important as applied to humanity, and it is a product of humanity. Religion, correctly thought of, acts as a great vehicle for this morality, but it only does so if we realise that the object of our devotion is another moral being, another self, and not a mythical God.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 24, 2011 6:22 PM

    Very interesting post. It sounds like you are in the midst of an interesting class. Have you formulated any ideas or a response to Nietzsche passage that your professor pointed you to? While, as a Christian I’m not sure that I often would agree with Nietzsche on this point I do. Christian morality – apart from the Christian God – is baseless. It is as Nietzsche says pulling the legs out from under your system of belief. You are eroding the foundations while at the same time you are standing up shouting for others to join you. It is a dangerous place to be.

  2. September 25, 2011 10:48 AM

    It was an interesting part of the course, got a few more essays to put up soon, hopefully they’re as interesting!

    Nietzsche’s point is that criticism of a religion and the morality that it produces are inextricably linked. If we denounce the religion as ideology based on faith, and claim that is has no grounding in reality, then (Nietzsche says) we have automatically made the same claim on its moral system., and we cannot lay claim to the morality any more.

    I think this is refuted in what I wrote in the essay, even if I don’t explicitly make the point. Nietzsche seems to presuppose a “horizontal” relationship between a religion and it’s morality, with both developing together and being bound together logically as well as in popular opinion. This point seems best illustrated by his “morality is a commandment”. Eliot (and Feuerbach, and Paris) would counter that actually it’s more of a “vertical” relationship (I’m making these terms up, but they make sense in my head). Religion, or religious systems of thought, grew up out of morality – religion is thus morality taken to far. Eliot’s point is thus that we should strip religion back to what it grew out of, not that we should just take half of it away and hope it stands up on its own.

    I’m not as well read in the latest theories on the evolutionary origins of religion as I should be, but I suspect from what I have read that something along these lines would be supported. It may not be as simple as Feuerbach made out, but it isn’t as radical as Nietzsche made out…

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