- The Making of Modern English Theology: God and the Academy at Oxford, 1833–1945by Daniel Inman, and: Victorian Christianity at the Fin De Siècle: The Culture of English Religion in a Decadent Ageby Frances Knight
One of the invigorating developments in Victorian studies today is the lively, compelling studies that are emerging because the tired obsession with the loss of faith and secularization has abated. In her welcome new study, Victorian Christianity at the Fin De Siècle: The Culture of English Religion in a Decadent Age, Frances Knight expresses relief that we have moved beyond the verities of "that generation of late twentieth-century scholars who had been schooled in the idea that religion had become irrelevant the moment that Darwin published The Origin of Species" (75). [End Page 322]
Daniel Inman's The Making of Modern English Theology: God and the Academy at Oxford, 1833–1945is not about theology at Oxford; rather, it is about the placeof theology at Oxford. Inman argues that theology has always had a place at Oxford (and still does), a claim that overturns many people's assumptions. I recently presented some of my work for a collaborative research project on "Theologically Engaged Anthropology" to the Anthropology Seminar at the London School of Economics and Political Science. One professor was confident that my presentation was built on a fatal flaw, namely, the assumption that theology and anthropology were commensurate. Instead, he asserted, anthropology is scholarly while theology is discredited. I gently pointed out that as one could obtain a Ph.D. in Theology at Cambridge and turn it into an Oxford University Press monograph which would be noticed in the Harvard Theological Review, it would seem that his assumption was not universal.
Inman's book is, at least partially, an account of the persistence of theology as a subject of study at Oxford. There actually was an attempt in 1911 to turn theology into comparative religions (essentially to replace it with religious studies), but it was soundly defeated. Of course much has changed over time. Inman tracks the influence of Anglo-Catholics across the nineteenth century, as well as the controversial appointment of the liberal Renn Dickson Hampden as Regius Professor of Divinity in 1836, which revealed that the Tractarians would not have matters all their own way. Although many conservatives resisted the establishment of a school of theology—E. B. Pusey was disgusted by the thought of students cramming to gain honors in a subject matter that was sacred—but a school was nevertheless instituted in 1869.
One thing that did eventually die was the compulsory undergraduate examination in the rudiments of religion (the general education proficiency test in biblical and theological studies). This change was successfully resisted in 1904, but "Divvers" (slang for Divinity) was finally eliminated in 1932 after it had been widely derided for decades. Inman recalls: "what has come to be one of the most infamous episodes in divinity's history was the failure of the young John Betjeman to pass the examination in early 1928" (224). Even that vignette complicates a straightforward secularization narrative, as Betjeman would go on to be known as a Christian poet, and the tutor who failed him, C. S. Lewis, although an atheist at the time, would convert to Christianity and become Oxford's most famous theologian.
Overall, Inman's tale is of a classic British settlement, a Burkean holding on to what is there without needing to justify it in some systematizing ideology, but quietly modifying it to keep up with the times. Once resolutely Anglican, Oxford found a way to fold in Nonconformists. The Congregational Mansfield College, opened in 1886, actually brought vigor and excellence to the university's theological enterprise. On the other hand, Oxford maintained an ability...