Serious “Religious Thought” in Britain, ca. 1860-1910, was by no means confined to theologians and religious writers. The burgeoning natural and human sciences of the time presented the most noted challenges. Scientists were prominent among those who responded. A broader public was not satisfied with compartmentalized studies. The result was an interdisciplinary treatment of theological issues of a scope that has been rarely equaled since. Livingston’s study is up to the task of laying it out for us.
Even so, the prominence of Darwin and Huxley amid a large and learned phalanx and the ramifications of evolutionary thought among theologians of the Victorian cultural scene may still occasion surprise. Perhaps one reason for this surprise is our relative unfamiliarity with the precise scientific positions to which the religious thinkers were responding. James Livingston fills this lacuna with a probing investigation. In successive chapters on intelligent design and teleology, divine providence and evil, miracles and apologetics, sin and original sin, the mind, free will, and morals, and finally the “history of religions school,” he recounts in detail the uses made of science by proponents of a new religious or non-religious outlook as well as by Anglican, Nonconformist, and Catholic champions of Christian faith. Livingston, well known for his mastery of the history of modern religious thought in the West, has delved deep into the history of the sciences of biology, archeology, paleontology, physiology and psychology, and of course philosophy, as they impinged upon the history of Christian thought in the Anglo-Saxon world.
There were definitely new questions raised in the late Victorian age, many of which are still with us. One example would be the issue of a single Adam, progenitor with Eve of the whole human race, challenged by evolutionary doctrine in the form of polygenesis. This alone required a rethinking of the Genesis story of the first human beings and of their fateful sin. There were other problems that the late Victorians inherited from previous generations. The age of the human race only became a problem around the middle of the nineteenth century, surprisingly enough. But the perspective of Intelligent Design had been around for much longer. Livingston refrains from pointing out its contemporary currency, no doubt out of a courteous regard for the intelligence of his American reader.
My only cavil is that this well-produced book might contain (beside the plentiful references and the index of persons) an index of subjects, which would further facilitate inquiries into scientific, philosophical, and theological themes.