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.