A Review by Nigel Leaves
God's Funeral: The Decline of Faith in Western Civilization
A.N. Wilson, Abacus 2000
Nigel Leaves is Chair of the SoF in Perth. In this review he admits to feeling a bit cheated.
A few years ago I read A. N. Wilson’s biography of C.S. Lewis and had been impressed by the way that he had demythologised and demystified this patron saint of the conservative evangelical wing of the Church. Instead of being the defender of right-wing morality and Christianity in a godless age, Wilson’s Lewis was, to adopt Nietzsche’s phrase, “all too human” with religious doubts and creaturely inconsistencies. So, when I saw the title of this, his latest book, I settled back to enjoy a good read that would, in the tradition of Sea of Faith, recount the death of God and the demise of traditional religion.
However, like many books with arresting titles, the argument of the author is not the same as what one might be led to assume. Whilst for the majority of the book Wilson gives comprehensive (and often humorous) sketches of those who in the 18th and 19th Century called into question the existence of God — from Thomas Hardy (the title is taken from his famous poem) to Samuel Butler — his real agenda is to be found in the last four chapters. Having set out in extraordinary detail and using the great breadth of his journalistic background to show those who have attempted (Sea of Faith-like) to “promote religion (and God) as a human creation” and create new ways of being religious without any metaphysical underpinning, his closing chapters become an apologia for theistic belief despite those who have announced “God’s funeral.” Freely admitting that he is a devotee of the American pragmatist William James, who in The Varieties of Religious Experience
[see Newsletter 52
] argued for the legitimacy of religious belief and the validity of religious experience, Wilson adopts a position close to that of the theologian John Hick, namely that the religious experience of humans means that the rumour of God will be kept alive. Far from attending God’s funeral, people have refused to believe that God is dead and have resisted those that have declared Him/Her so, I felt somewhat duped by the end of the book and a little annoyed that I had spent a birthday book token on such a thesis. Wilson, whilst obviously interested in the story of the death of God does not take its protagonists too seriously and his 397 pages to get to William James is a long introduction to get to what he believes to be the Truth of the matter. In the manner of many evangelical theologians who spend nine-tenths of a book setting out the case for the opposition the last tenth is a rallying-call to forget what you have just read and find the real answer in what they are about to tell you.
A final word. For all his years spent in journalism and his writing for the general public this book has many stylistic flaws. The language is at times cumbersome and pretentious - keep a large dictionary near to hand! It falls somewhat between an academic thesis and a popular novel.
Whilst the character sketches are fascinating they often end abruptly and you find yourself being led into someone else’s life without any connecting paragraph. Overall it is an interesting insight into some Victorians who could throw off the last vestiges of belief in God, but beyond that it needs to be rewritten or, at the very least, retitled.