Reflection by Sara Lyons

At the end of Cultivating Belief: Victorian Anthropology, Liberal Aesthetics, and the Secular Imagination, Sebastian LeCourt observes that Victorian secular intellectuals often found themselves ‘fetishiz[ing] belief in a highly ambivalent way’ (199). By this he means that secular liberals who sought to manage religion by treating it with a mixture of relativism and sympathy often grew wistful for what made religion seem so troublesome in the first place – its capacity to inspire absolute conviction. In LeCourt’s extremely subtle and sophisticated accounts of the work of Max Müller, Matthew Arnold, George Eliot, Walter Pater, and Andrew Lang, the effort to define religion in terms of cultural or racial inheritance and accommodate it in a spirit of cosmopolitanism ultimately founders upon the problem of belief.

In a sense, LeCourt is also trying to escape the problem of belief: his book is an effort to test how far it is possible to interpret Victorian religion, secularism, and secularisation without relying on belief-centred definitions of religion. As LeCourt points out, such definitions have been subject to robust critique in recent decades, primarily because they can seem to universalise Protestant ideals of individual inwardness, autonomy, and creedal commitment. This bias is not always an obvious problem when analysing Victorian culture; many Victorian writers and intellectuals would have considered the identification of religion with inner belief axiomatic. Yet as LeCourt’s book richly demonstrates, privileging the belief model obscures the extent to which the Victorian crisis of faith was a response to colonialism and the emerging field of anthropology. More particularly, his book enables us to see that crisis not simply as an existential drama in the face of Darwinian science or a demystified Bible but as a struggle to think of religion in global and pluralistic terms.

The image of the Victorian doubter as a kind of heroic depressive, confronting dark truths that other, simpler souls cannot bear, is an overfamiliar one. Equally overfamiliar is the image of the Victorian doubter as a kind of quixotic seeker, yearning for secular substitutes for religion and susceptible to varieties of nostalgia, aestheticism, and mysticism. LeCourt’s book delineates a more affirmative, if still internally conflicted, Victorian response to secularisation (which, following Charles Taylor, he understands not in terms of any simple decline of belief but as a process of pluralisation). As he clarifies, Victorian liberals such as Arnold, Pater, and Eliot attempted to understand secularisation through the prism of a Romantic ideal of bildung and embrace it as an opportunity to cultivate a kind of inner diversity, wherein religion could be experienced as just one facet of a many-sided personality. Although the religious thinking of figures such as Eliot, Pater and Arnold have often been treated with great scholarly respect, LeCourt’s book makes apparent just how freely critics once tended to psychologise and even sentimentalise their positions according to the assumption that secularisation represented a traumatic loss. His alternative approach enables him to put greater pressure on the politics of their secularism, particularly on its tenability as a form of cosmopolitanism.

Although I found LeCourt’s effort to reframe the Victorian crisis of faith as a question of cosmopolitanism refreshing, I did wonder how far the liberal ideal of a many-sided self actually breaks with the belief model of religion. When scholars such as Talal Asad and Saba Mahmood critique the belief model, they do so in order to vindicate the embodied, practice-based, and communal dimensions of religion. While LeCourt duly seeks to highlight how his chosen writers valorise religion in terms of concrete practices or community, they nevertheless still seem to value religion primarily for its capacity to endow the individual with a rich, serious, perhaps mysterious sense of inwardness. The attraction of an ideal of bildung for Eliot, Arnold, and Pater is surely that it provides such a sense of inwardness, not simply that it allows scope for a pluralistic model of identity. In the cases of Müller and Lang, a kind of methodological relativism toward religion subserves a will to prove the universal validity of their metaphysical beliefs. In LeCourt’s rendering, liberal many-sidedness, which he also calls ‘aesthetic secularism’, can sound like a happy postmodernism: instead of thinking of religion as inner belief or commitment, one is free to enjoy it as an element in a personal bricolage or play of contradictions. Yet his astute analysis of the limits and failures of Victorian aesthetic secularism often makes it seem like a strategy for protecting one’s inner belief, or at least one’s belief in the value of inner belief, from the relativising pressures of secularisation.

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