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God and Jane Austen

By Peter Sellick - posted Monday, 5 May 2008


The Jane Austen industry continues to move on as television adaptations, movie treatments, biographical fiction and modern spin offs fill our wide and small screens.

Why this interest in an early 19th century writer of virtue and sensibility? Is it because we lack in our age any such thing since liberalism has taught us that anything goes as long as no one gets hurt? Is it because of the romance and the happy endings that have the heroine finally marrying the man of fine sensibility, every woman’s dream, a retreating one in the face of the personality of the modern male? Or is it that all of this happens without resort to the messy and by now unintelligible involvement of God?

It is safe to say that God does not appear as a character in the novels of Jane Austen. The church is certainly present as a respectable profession for second sons, but such sons are not moved by any religious sensibility but by the necessity of obtaining a place in society.

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Clergy may be enthralled to worldly prestige and goods like Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice or simply solid and noble like Edmund in Persuasion but they do not appear to be moved by the Spirit of God. Indeed they show little difference in character to any other character in the novels.

Austen wrote after a period of almost 100 years of laicisation in England that resulted in the church occupying a respected position in society but not central to it. The mores of Christianity were replaced by those of the Tatler and the Spectator, the church was replaced by the assembly rooms and the coffee shop as the place of social discourse.

While Enlightenment thinking in France resulted in the killing of clergy along with aristocrats and the confiscation of church property (the original meaning of secularisation), a similar movement in England occurred, within Protestantism and not against it, so that the position of the church in society was never really threatened.

There was certainly anticlericalism in the 18th century but never to the extent that it was exhibited in France where the despotism of the monarchy was closely linked to the despotism of the church.

The English had already whittled away the power of the monarch even though James II and Charles II admired the power of the French king and treated parliament with contempt. The glorious revolution of 1688 brought William and Mary and a softening of both the Puritanism of Cromwell and the Catholic leanings of James.

The neutralising of the political agenda involving the church cleared a space in which the new learning produced by the early English scientists and the philosophy, especially of John Locke, could be incorporated into the church’s understanding of itself. The situation was quite different in France where enlightening ideas were directed against both church and state with the disastrous result of the Terror.

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The peaceful coexistence in England between the new learning and the church was built on the understanding that God was behind all of nature. When Newton elucidated the law of gravity he elucidated a law established by God and revealed in the book of nature as distinguished from laws revealed in the book of the Bible, like the Ten Commandments.

There was thus natural theology and revealed theology. This is how the new learning was incorporated into the church’s understanding of itself and how the criticism of natural science towards Christianity was softened.

The alliance between the new natural sciences and the church was bought at a price because the ancient understanding of God derived from the Bible was transformed into something more palatable to the modern taste. The doctrine of the Trinity was more or less abandoned although naming it was retained in the liturgy after a serious struggle. God became the universal creator indistinguishable from Greek Stoicism. Under this regime the church became increasingly redundant.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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