From A Critical History of Literature, vol. 2, by David Daiches ("Prose: Newman to Morris").
Arnold's attempt to rescue Christianity from commitment to biblical fundamentalism—an attempt carried on in a a variety of ways by many liberal theologians of the period—was made necessary by the impact on religious orthodoxy of German biblical criticism and of developments in geology and biology. "There is not a creed which is not shaken, not an accredited dogma which is not shown to be questionable, not a received tradition which does not threaten to dissolve," wrote Arnold in "The Study of Poetry." Protestantism, whivh based itself on the Bible, was more vulnerable to the new biblical scholarship than Catholicism, and the application of textual and historical criticism to the books of the bible caused panic among many Protestant theologians, most of whom responded by insisting ever more shrilly on the divine inspiration and literal historical accuracy of the biblical text. Charls Hennell'sInquiry Concerning the Origin of Christianity (1838) was one of the first attempts in England to apply the results of new biblical scholarship to the study of Christian origins; its tremendous effect on young Marian Evans (George Eliot) is well known. Much more significant for the whole history of European religious thought was D. F. Strauss's Life of Jesus (1835) which Geroge Eliot translated (1844-46); this was a far more detailed and comprehensive study than Hennell's, and in its combination of anti-miraculism, sympathetic psychological interpretation of the growth of religious ideas and attitudes, and belief in the profound truth of the symbolic core of Christianity while denying the literal truth of biblical story, it laid the foundations of a "modernist" Christianity of the kind Matthew Arnold, from hi won special point of view, endeavored to construct. Meanwhile, Sir Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology(1830-33), Elements of Geology (1838), and Geological Evidence of the Antiquity of Man (1863) were having an even more disturbing effect, first in demonstrating the continuity of natural processes as demonstrated by the study of geology, secondly by adducing the compelling geological evidence for the earth's being much older and much more gradual in development than was compatible with a literal belief in the book of Genesis, and thirdly by showing that man must have lived on earth for a much longer period than biblical chronology would allow. Finally, the publication of The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin in 1859, putting forward with a mass of evidence his theory of natural selection and so relating man through evolutionary descent to the nonhuman animal world, and his Descent of Man (1871), dealing more particularly with the evolution of man and with sexual selection, outraged the orthodox and precipitated a debate that raged violently for many years. It is against this background that we must look at Arnold's attempts to save Christianity from fundamentalist and scientist alike by concentrating on its poetic significance, its meaning for spiritual experience, and leaving us, at the most, optional, literal belief in Old Testament chronology and New Testament miracles.
Darwin was not himself a skilled propagandist, though he could write with the charm that arises from absorbed interest in one's subject, as his early work, The Voyage of the Beagle (1839), an account of a voyage in southern latitudes to collect various specimens of plant and animal life, so clearly shows. He records in his informed autobiography the decay in middle life of his early taste for poetry, painting, and music. ("But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry: I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. I have also almost lost my taste for pictures or music.") He was, in his own phrase, a "philosophical naturalist," and spent the large part of his life quietly and methodically collecting and interpreting data. He left controversy for others. Fortunately he found a champion who was a brilliant controversialist as well as a man who combined scientific knowledge and enthusiasm with broad humanistic interests. This was Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-95), one of the great figures of Victorian controversy.
Huxley was not only a distinguished biologist and a great popularizer of science; he was also an essayist and man of letters, master of a prose style both cogent and elegant. He was no militant atheist, condemning all religion as superstition, nor was he the kind of narrow scientist who dismisses with contempt the claims of imagination and the arts. Like John Stuart Mill, he was influenced (though at an early stage in his life) by Carlyle; he was well-read in English and European literature and was a good linguist. He called himself an agnostic, because he recognized the limits beyond which the human mind could not go in explaining the ultimate mysteries of the universe. He stood for what might be called the new enlightenment, as distinguished from the eighteenth-century variety—an enlightenment based on the claims of "natural knowledge" and an understanding of what such knowledge can do for man, a hatred of obscurantism of all kinds, a belief in man's ability to control his own destiny provided that education and government do their business properly. In his championing of the Darwinian theory of evolution, he engaged for a large part of his life in continuous battle with ignorance and prejudice and with all those who believed that Darwin's theory, by breaking down the absolute barrier between man and the rest of the animal world, was inherently wicked and blasphemous. In the course of his battle he had to meet every kind of scorn, hatred, and misrepresentation. In published essays and in public debates with the most formidable antagonists of his time he demonstrated his confidence, his good humour, his mastery of all relevant facts, his power of marshaling argument, his compelling lucidity. In education, he pleaded for the sciencs and opposed Arnold's insistence on the classics on the ground that even if taught as they should be taught the classics could not consittue a properly comprehensive study of man and the world, and that in any case most pupils never mastered the mechanics of classical knowledge sufficiently as to be able to enjoy the literature properly. The ordinary schoolboy "finds Parnassus uncomonly steep, and there is no chance of his having time or inclination to look about him till he gets to the top. And nine times out of ten he does not get to the top." Education he defined as "the instruction of the intellect in the laws of Nature, under which name I include not merely things and their forces, but men and their ways, and the fashioning of the affections and of the will into an earnest and loving desire to move in harmony with those laws." Huxley's views on liberal education and the place of science in it is expressed forcibly in an address he gave to the South London Workingmen's College in 1868 and published in the same year in Macmillan's Magazine,and also in the title essay of Science and Culture and Other Essays (1881); these essays, together with Arnold's reply, first given as the Rede Lectures at Cambridge in 1880 and published in theNineteenth Century in 1882 (he also delivered this lecture in America and included it in his American Discourses, 1885), constitute an interesting and instructive clash of opinion between two great Victorians, each passionately interested in reforming English education. Mill's was the Victorian secular mind operating on philosophy and political theory; Huxley's, the Victorian secular mind working through a basic interest in the natural sciences; Arnold, the Victorian apostle of culture seeking for new techniques for bringing the religious and literary heritage of the past into the modern world. All three were very much aware of the modernity of the modern world. Mill and Huxley looked forward with hope, while Arnold, though he sometimes appeared to do so, possessed a sensibility which, in spite of himself, remained rooted in nostalgia. In their differences as well as in their similarities (which are greater than might appear at first sight) they help to illuminate some of the finer reaches of the Victorian mind.