Hope Itself   /   Fall 2022   /    Book Reviews

Spirituality Ascendant

The British Empire shortened the spiritual distance between East and West.

Richard Hughes Gibson

Madame Elena Petrovna Blavatsky, © Giancarlo Costa/Bridgeman Images; background Shutterstock, Inc.

Having already recounted God’s life through popular biographies of Jesus and St. Paul earlier in the nineties, the English author and newspaper columnist A.N. Wilson brought the decade to a close with God’s Funeral (1999). In that book, Wilson sought to offer a fresh slant on the familiar Victorian-era “crisis of faith” by interlacing accounts of leading writers and intellectual figures, including Thomas Carlyle, Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer, George Eliot, Matthew Arnold, William James, and Thomas Hardy (whose poem “God’s Funeral” bookends the narrative). In Wilson’s telling, the nineteenth century is worth revisiting because its intellectuals first confronted several ideas—about the age and nature of the universe, about the origins of life, about the assembling of the Bible—that have made religious belief a difficult prospect for ensuing generations, even if the big metaphysical questions still nag at us.

Yet, as God’s Funeral winds down, Wilson concedes that religion didn’t peter out in the next century, as his doubt-ridden troupe of Victorians had anticipated. On the contrary, he writes, “one of the most extraordinary things about the twentieth century has been the palpable and visible strength of the Christian thing, the Christian idea.” Moreover, he acknowledges that the twentieth century produced towering religious figures, including Simone Weil, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Nicholas Berdyaev, John Paul II, and Martin Luther King Jr. But Wilson is at a loss to explain them other than to suggest, in the book’s concluding sentences, that these “world-changing” icons “decided to ignore the death of God.”

That is obviously not a satisfactory conclusion, and it speaks to the inadequacy of the story of the nineteenth century—one in which the “sea of faith” (to quote Arnold’s famous phrase) receded swiftly and irrevocably—that Wilson inherited from earlier historians, as well as his selection of Victorian observers. The 1990s also saw leading secularization theorists backtrack in their assessments of religion’s inevitable decline in the face of modernity’s onslaught. One such theorist, Peter Berger, flatly admitted that he had been wrong: The world was as religious as ever. From the perspective of 2022, Wilson’s picture of the nineteenth century seems even more suspect, given that the last two decades have issued repeated reminders that religious belief remains not only a viable option for billions around the globe but a powerful social force in the modern Western world. God’s funeral was premature.

But if the declinist account of Victorian-era religion seems dubious now, what should take its place? In The Religious Revolution, critic and historian Dominic Green offers us one answer. His nineteenth century is an age of “frantic religious creativity” in which new ideas didn’t just challenge old doctrines; they also sparked novel varieties of religious experience that remain a part of our spiritual landscape. “Certainly,” Green writes, “the established religions lost ground, especially where new ideas and institutions mimicked the old forms. But the weakening of organized religion liberated the religious impulse…. Rather than atrophying like a superfluous evolutionary inheritance, religiosity surged in hypertrophic vigor.”

Green’s book represents a fascinating contrast with Wilson’s, and thereby an all the more telling sign that times have changed, because Green takes virtually the same approach to the topic. He too seeks to offer a fresh slant on the Victorian-era revolt against traditional belief through a series of interlaced biographies, with Marx, Darwin, and Spencer in starring roles and Carlyle, Eliot, Arnold, Hardy, and James (among other eminent Victorians mentioned by Wilson) making cameo appearances. Green plants those figures within a much wider milieu, however, and their spiritual crises take on a very different character as a result. Their world, Green reminds us, was also inhabited by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Friedrich Nietzsche, Walt Whitman, the French esotericist Éliphas Lévi Zahed, Richard Wagner, Madame Blavatsky, Mohandas Gandhi, the great Hindu evangelist and social reformer Swami Vivekananda, the activist and cofounder of Islamic modernism Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī, and Theodor Herzl, the father of modern political Zionism, among many other would-be religious leaders.

Some Victorians may have found it impossible, as Wilson reports, to sit comfortably in the family pew on Sunday morning after reading Darwin’s On the Origin of Species or Charles Lyell’s Elements of Geology. (“Those dreadful Hammers!” Ruskin wrote, “I hear the clink of them at the end of every cadence of the Bible verses.”) But Green shows that many of those same people, as well as their more traditionally pious neighbors, also participated in séances in hopes of contacting dead relatives, subscribed to Spiritualist newsletters, and attended lectures on Buddhism. Some tried hashish, others yoga. Demand for Blavatsky’s (largely plagiarized) books was so strong that second printings were often needed within months of their initial publication. Annie Besant, an apostate of both Christianity and Marxism, converted to Theosophy after reading Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine (1888). Albert Einstein is said to have kept a copy of the book on his desk.

Green insists that religious history cannot be narrated apart from economic, political, and technological developments, which he portrays as both catalysts for religious speculation and mechanisms through which new religious ideas may be disseminated. For example, Lévi (as he is known in theosophical circles) called his art “occult science,” and he described the astral light he beheld, as Green notes, “in the imagery of the new science.” Integrating Lévi’s language, Green explains: “Like the telegraph, astral light was a ‘universal plastic mediator’ that put ‘every nervous apparatus’ in ‘secret communication.’ Like the camera plate and the battery, it was a ‘common receptacle for vibrations of movement and images of form.” “Spirit photographers” claimed to catch ghosts summoned by séances on film. The Society of Psychical Research, a coterie of British elites, including physicists, philosophers, and classicists, sought to apply rigorous investigative techniques to the spiritual realm, publishing reports on telepathy, automatic writing, mediumship, haunted houses, and mesmerism.

Meanwhile, Empire shortened the spiritual distance between East and West. The religious outlooks of Emerson and Thoreau were profoundly shaped by readings in the Bhagavad Gita and Laws of Manu, which reached them in translation thanks to the efforts of the Asiatic Society, a cohort of colonial bureaucrats and East India Company employees who shared literary and antiquarian interests. Throughout Victoria’s reign, steamships carried spiritual seekers in both directions. After traveling to India with Blavatsky, Henry Steel Olcott appears to have been the first Westerner to declare himself a Buddhist. Reading Besant and Blavatsky while in London ignited Gandhi’s interest in his ancestral religion, Hinduism. Vivekananda became a star in the Western world thanks to a speech at the first-ever World’s Parliament of Religions, held in Chicago in 1893. Nietzsche imagined himself as the “Buddha of Europe” and pondered a move to Tunisia so that he could live for a while among stout-hearted Muslims.

In so many ways, The Religious Revolution provides a corrective to the insularity of an account like Wilson’s. Yet Green also runs the opposite risk of corralling too many lives, and attempting to reveal too many subterranean connections between them, in a single 464-page history. The issue isn’t simply that the book gives this or that figure short shrift. (Tolstoy, for one, is an astonishingly minor character.) It’s that while pursuing so many plot lines, and striving to keep abreast of so many scientific, political, and technological developments, Green sometimes lets his myriad interests crowd out his stated theme. That problem is compounded by his curious reluctance to give “modern spirituality” a proper definition (ideally, accompanied by a footnote listing influences on his thinking on the subject). Admittedly, “spirituality” is an extremely flexible term at the moment, claimed by adherents of traditional religions as well as make-your-own varieties. Green would be within his rights to emphasize that the very nebulousness of contemporary “spirituality” is part of our Victorian inheritance. But in a book heralding the “birth” of modern spirituality, firmer parameters must be provided up front.

The book is also a bit thin on the edges regarding the author’s rationale for the specific fifty-year period named in its subtitle. Eighteen forty-eight is, of course, a recognizable historical landmark, and Green can point to notable events that year such as Marx and Engels’s publication of The Communist Manifesto, Emerson’s lecture tour of Britain, and the incident frequently cited as the beginning of the Spiritualist movement, the Fox sisters of Hydesville, New York, claiming contact with a spirit whose body was later found to be buried in their house. Yet Green frequently strays further back into the nineteenth century (and beyond) to explain his revolution, both to recognize earlier events in his principal figures’ lives (Emerson’s “Divinity School Address,” for example, was delivered in 1838, his major essays “Self-Reliance,” “Over-Soul,” and “History” following three years later) and to trace the Victorians’ spiritual debts to earlier generations, especially the Romantics. Those frequent backward glances suggest that the “birth” of modern spirituality may have already occurred, with several of Green’s mid- and late-century figures (Nietzsche excepted) seeming less radical new thinkers than synthesizers and popularizers.

I do not intend those words as a devastating critique. In my view, the language of “birth” actually fails to do justice to Green’s dense narrative. Thankfully, the socialist historian Eric Hobsbawm stands ready with a solution. Explaining the project behind his several books on the “long” nineteenth century extending from the French Revolution to World War I, Hobsbawm points out that “so profound a transformation” of the world as he chronicles “cannot be understood without going back very much further in history than 1789.” But Hobsbawm then clarifies that he is not seeking to tell an origins story but to understand the moment when the long-simmering pots boiled over: “Our problem is…to explain not the existence of these elements of a new economy and society, but their triumph; to trace not the progress of their gradual sapping and mining in previous centuries, but their decisive conquest of the fortress.” That, I submit, also describes what Green has attempted to do in The Religious Revolution. The book does not uncover the distant sources of modern spirituality, which would require Green to go back to the Evangelical Revival of the eighteenth century and to pietism in the seventeenth, if not to the Reformation. Rather, he has provided an illuminating chronicle of spirituality’s “triumph” in the turbulent world of the later nineteenth century, and, in turn, a clearer understanding of the contemporary world’s ongoing spiritual commerce with the Victorians.