From a recent item in the Catholic Herald, we see that Chuck Darwin’s great-great-great granddaughter has lost her faith in scientific materialism. The item has been travelling through Catholic media & blogosphere since June. By now it has appeared even in the National Catholic Register, which frees me to mention it here. For I take pride in being “last with the news.”
Laura Keynes is descended on the other side from the family that gave the world John Maynard Keynes (I think he was her great-great uncle). This is the innermost ventricle in the heart of Bloomsbury — which is to say, from the outlook of the High Doganate, the centre of enemy territory in the English-speaking world. Darwinism is the cosmology, Keynesianism the economic theory; & for more than a sesquicentury, Liberalism has been the product of this self-publicizing intellectual aristocracy. It is an extended family affair — one marries in, or marries out — with lines of descent traceable to generations even before the bearded sage of Down House. For he was himself conscious of an intellectual pedigree; of being from birth in the forefront of enlightened liberalism, with its attendant social activism.
The famous Oxford debate of 1860 between the Anglican bishop, Samuel Wilberforce, & Darwin’s bulldog, Thomas Henry Huxley, was itself an intra-family affair. Samuel was the son of William Wilberforce, the great slave emancipator, & both he & Huxley were in some intimate sense heirs to the evangelical tradition of the “Clapham Sect” — which emerged in all the majesty of its self-regard, at the tail end of the 18th century. Both were men of science, & Wilberforce no fool in his grasp of contemporary biology. Neither had the slightest patience for “mediaeval obscurantism.” But Huxley was trending “agnostic” on Christianity itself.
They were both from the evangelical, progressive milieu that had “freed the slaves,” & founded Freetown in West Africa, among other knightly acts of Christian philanthropy. They had brought the thunder of moral earnestness into the British Parliament, & carried the drumroll of progressive Victorian self-importance to the ends of the Earth — from Little England to the farthest Imperial shore. For they founded, too, the Church Missionary Society, the British & Foreign Bible Society, & almost every other outreach of Anglican evangelical fervour. They were “muscular Christians.” But what we now call the “Bloomsbury” component slid into a sophisticated, quizzical agnosticism, passing by degrees of scientism & socialism into the bitter atheism of today — yet without sacrifice of fervour, or any acquisition of self-doubt.
It is a fascinating history, perhaps too often traced, but never with sufficient irony. In addition to his campaign against slavery, William Wilberforce & his entourage had campaigned against domestic immorality, founding innumerable societies for the reformation of manners & the suppression of public vice. Not only slavery was outlawed, but through high-toned beseigement, Parliament was persuaded to pass various proclamations against “excessive drinking, blasphemy, profane swearing & cursing, lewdness, profanation of the Lord’s Day,” & other “dissolute, immoral, or disorderly practices.” (I am inclined to call this, “Christian Shariah,” reflecting as it does the old Koranic, if not also Presbyterian admonition, to “command the good.”) They installed the “nanny” in our Nanny State, with that heroic commitment to perpetual Reform & Improvement that seized the imagination of the Victorian Age — & which still echoes in the battle cry for Progress, long after their Protestant God was held to have died. (So that now I call it, “Progressive Shariah.”)
For through Darwin, Huxley, & their avant-garde, they also discovered Evolution, or perhaps more exactly, Evolution discovered them. What on the Continent was received as a tentative scientific hypothesis, full of holes, was in England — & then throughout the English-speaking world — taken for a refutation of Scripture. The Bloomsbury set were the vanguard of what became in effect a new secular religion. Darwin’s Origin of Species became the foundational document for the new scientistic faith — its replacement for Genesis. Evangelical religion was not so much abandoned, as transformed. By the more talented of Bloomsbury it was turned into aestheticism & “art for art’s sake.” The moral earnestness continued with polarities reversed. The old obsessions over sexual vice, for instance, flipped into sexual experimentation. Meanwhile, the science types assembled their New Inquisition, hunting down & eliminating from the possibility of employment those who strayed from Darwinian orthodoxy in the academic worlds they increasingly controlled.
These were people long habituated to identifying wherever they were standing as the high moral ground. With that goes the habit of demonizing anyone not standing with you, & the technique of substituting defamation for debate. To my mind, the nasal tone of today’s “political correctness” owes as much to descent from the Clapham Sect, as to later Soviet inspirations; & the catastrophic relaxation of intellectual standards, to that refusal to debate.
Feminism & homosexualism were never something new, but the political edge they acquired for their slicing action was honed in Bloomsbury. The knife of the new sexual politics was thrust into the body politic with the zeal that had once propelled campaigns “for the Encouragement of Piety & Virtue, & for the Preventing & Punishing of Profaneness & Immorality.” (I allude to the title of a Royal Proclamation advanced by the Wilberforce party, back in 1802.)
“The world decays, sir, as it ages” — or rather, it is made new in every generation, from the seed of the generation before, & it is wonderful to behold the metamorphoses. I have now lived long enough myself to watch the liberalism of my parents’ generation mutate into the liberalism of my own, & to see it again mutated in the liberalism of my children’s generation. What was unthinkable in one, becomes thinkable in the next, de rigueur in the one after. What is presented as the jet of Progress flies not with time’s arrow towards some pre-determined goal, but rather arcs & twists in wild spirals, forward then back in upon itself; rolling, pitching, yawing in its sport; finally spinning, tumbling, & cartwheeling until it hits the ground, in a magnificent explosion.
My own retreat from Progress, into the Catholic Church, was a complicated thing. It began I suppose at age six, when by father put me in a school named for Saint Anthony (of Padua) in Lahore, Pakistan. He did this with no religious intention whatever, being Methodist post-Christian himself, but from the same motive as so many across subcontinental India, of diverse religious strains, who entrusted their children to the missionary Catholic schools because these had (by far) the highest academic standards. If I was uplifted by the experience, it was only by the ears, for to this day I flinch at the memory of such as Brother Berg, come to punish me for writing with a blunt pencil.
Not even my conversion to Christianity quite pushed me into the Catholic Church, though it put me very near. I came within a trice of joining at the age of twenty-three, & would have, had the Church’s local representatives (in the England of 1976) not struck me as rather more Progressive, than Christian. For it was from Progress that I was fleeing — at first into the rafters of High Anglicanism.
What brought me finally home was the contemplation of history. It was the gradually increasing shock of realizing that this Church was teaching, in her catechesis, precisely the same doctrine she had begun teaching nineteen centuries before, & was still doing in her 20th century. She had strayed often in her behaviour, she had tilted & sometimes tipped, but she had kept righting herself again, returning to her original course; indeed, never quite abandoning it even while taking on water. No other institution on the face of this Earth, crewed as each must be, by humans, could make anything resembling such a claim. In the end I became convinced that God would never abandon her; that Christ was at her tiller, & the Holy Spirit in her sails. There could be no other explanation for this unearthly consistency.
But this piece was supposed to be about Laura Keynes, our latest convert from Bloomsbury. A brilliant girl, at least by the standard of academic attainment, & by personal accounts; & an unusual refugee, given all the advantages of family connexion that she is — in the slipstream of John Henry Newman — now consciously leaving behind. She intends, from what I can read, not only quietly to attend on Sundays, but to become one of those “Catholic apologists” the Bloomsbury set have always particularly despised.
As Huxley once said of the Roman argument, it is “carefully calculated for the destruction of all that is highest in the moral nature, in the intellectual freedom, & in the political freedom of mankind.” Richard Dawkins says pretty much the same today, without the old jowling sonority, yet still with a certain shrieking pomposity. For if there has been one consistent theme, through the Bloomsbury generations, it has been reviling the Catholic Church — first from one side, then from another, & another. This, in turn, is what links it back to the Reformation, & the larger Protestant heritage: for though erratic in their own doctrines, the descendants of the first schismatics have been absolutely consistent in their condemnation of Rome.
Welcome aboard, Miss Keynes.
What fascinates me is the suggestion that a significant impetus to her conversion came from actually reading the aggressive “New Atheists” of her own (former) tribe. She describes, “the strange mix of angry emotion I encountered there: anger at the thought of God; anger at any restrictions on behaviour; anger at thwarted will; pride in the exertion of will; pride in feeling intellectually superior; contempt for anyone who reveals human vulnerability in asking for the grace of God. It’s important to remember that where there’s anger, there’s often pain. I see a lot of pain there. I think it stems from clinging to the idea that we’re in control, that we have autonomy.”
More: “The question of whether the existence of God is demonstrable by rational argument has kept philosophers & theologians busy for centuries. I’d ask the claimant to explain how closing this discussion furthers the cause of reason. So I’d respond gently, but if I really lost my patience, I’d tell them: ‘Just go & read Aquinas!’ ”
Consider, if you will, gentle reader, what is implied in these remarks. It is that far from leading young intellects astray, the legion of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens (& Grayling, Krauss, Shermer, Stenger, et alia) have actually been doing the work of God. They have been doing it involuntarily, to be sure, but that is the miracle of the Holy Spirit, who stays at least one infinity ahead of the quickest human minds. In this case, they have finally made the argument against God so plain, so obvious, & so symmetrically the reverse of the truth, as to win souls over to the One Holy Catholic & Apostolic Church — in effect, chasing the intelligent over to Christ’s side.
Let us now utter a little prayer of thanksgiving for every one of these dark little expostulators; & hope that Our Lord will reward each in turn by the same “mechanism” of conversion.