Graham Neville, Coleridge and Liberal Religious Thought: Romanticism, Science and Theological Tradition

Graham Neville, Coleridge and Liberal Religious Thought: Romanticism, Science and Theological Tradition (London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2010), x+210 pp. £54.50 hb. ISBN 978-1848850897.

Coleridge’s theological writings are less well known than they should be, partly because literary critics are aware of their lack of expertise in the field. Yet the young Coleridge movingly vowed his commitment to “science, freedom and the truth of Christ” (quoted p.35), and this volume shows in detail how he and his greatest followers always linked together freedom of imagination, liberal Christianity and a spirit of critical, open-minded enquiry that came from an admiration for scientific progress. The author, Graham Neville, was a distinguished Anglican priest in the liberal tradition and thus himself not only an interpreter but a follower of Coleridge. He died in 2008, and this posthumous volume is a fitting tribute to the breadth of his learning and his sympathies.

As we read we soon come to realise, however, that we have to revise any popular stereotypes we may have formed. If Coleridge is a ‘liberal’ theologically then this goes together with a deep-rooted Trinitarianism, all the more firmly held as the end point of a journey from Unitarianism. At the heart of his whole belief system moreover is a commitment to the prevenience of God’s grace (the belief that the divine initiative always comes first) and of the need for personal salvation, so much so that he finds Calvinistic doctrines (modified of course) more relevant to his own experience than liberal Arminianism.

We also find here a very refined and highly relevant sense of the idea of ‘tradition’, itself analogous to scientific tradition. In Neville’s words it is “an extended process of receiving and handing on” (p.2). There is a respect for the wisdom and experience of the past in this, a sense of faith as being something far larger than the merely modern, subjective and personal dimension that we might associate with liberalism. At the same time this ‘tradition’ is always flexible and critically-minded, always open to the present and the future, and thus to be distinguished from all forms of traditional authoritarianism, whether Protestant or Roman Catholic. This is made clear in an excellent survey of Coleridge’s deepest intellectual sources. We begin with Plato, who gives the poet his foundational conviction of spiritual realities to which the human mind is by nature (yet gifted by God) responsive. This leads Coleridge to a special interest in the seventeenth-century Cambridge Platonists, whose scientific concerns are also noted in passing. Coleridge’s main philosophical endeavour, however, was to “mediate the Kantian distinction between the Understanding and the Reason” (pp.5-6), and this differentiation between a sense-based faculty and the innate human capacity for the almost intuitive grasp of more profound patterns of truth becomes a central theme in this book. A final major source in Coleridge’s thinking is, of course, the Romantic understanding of language and symbol, where literal meaning is conceived as the agent of imaginative truth, and this has immense repercussions for biblical interpretation and doctrinal theology as well as literature.

Neville then moves on to an extended survey of Coleridge’s direct and indirect influence. In America, for example, he helped both to liberate Calvinist divines and to inspire transcendentalism. In Britain too the breadth of his social concerns and his commitment to free enquiry inspired both the Christian socialism of F. D. Maurice and the biblical scholarship of F. J. A. Hort, known for his famous edition with B. F. Westcott of the Greek New Testament.

The chapter on Hort brings especially to the fore the theme of the relationship between science and religion. Coleridge himself was always fascinated by science and sympathetic to its progress. With Hort, however, we find a professional theologian and biblical scholar who was also well trained in the physical sciences and once considered “one of the rising hopes of Cambridge botany” (p.90), a friend of James Clerk Maxwell, and a churchman of great distinction who declared that The Origin of the Species was a book “one is proud to be contemporary with” (p.91). He resisted, however, premature and over-simplified attempts to harmonize the two realms of discourse, whilst continuing to insist that each must pursue its own analogous critical and open-minded search for the truth.

As Neville goes on to show, there is no doubt that evolutionary thought had an impact on the growing desire for a sense of universal process in theology, the divine purpose working towards a fulfillment of humanity and nature together. This was to lead into twentieth-century process theology, the evolutionary theology of the French Jesuit palaeontolgist Teilhard de Chardin, and the emergence theory theology of Philip Clayton. When these ideas focus on a specifically human creativity arising in response to a pressure that is conceived of as transcendent, as with the work of the Presbyterian theologian John Oman, they may justly be claimed as Coleridgean. For Oman the “distinctively human category of the supernatural” (Neville’s words, p.155) arises when human beings transcend their animal natures in grasping a reality, ‘the sacred’, that is more important than survival itself and for which they might indeed sacrifice their very lives. J. Wentzel van Huyssteen, Professor of Theology and Science at Princeton Theological Seminary, presents similar ways of thinking in very contemporary terms, arguing for the evolutionary development of a uniquely human “cognitive fluidity” in which “imagination and religious awareness are significant elements, succeeded (but not negated) by scientific reasoning” (Neville’s words,p.164).

It is the whole thrust of this volume to open up dialogue and to correct over-simplifications. I was reminded as I finished it of Simon Conway Morris’s very Coleridgean remark at a recent BSLS conference that he believed it was possible to discern what he called a ‘Platonic’ significance within the processes of evolution.

Thomas Woodman, University of Reading