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Having a strange power of speech

by
15 June 2010

Coleridge stands tall in the history of ideas, says John Pridmore

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Coleridge and Liberal Religious Thought: Romanticism, science and theological tradition
Graham Neville
I B Tauris £54.50
(978-1-84885-089-7)
Church Times Bookshop £49.05

GRAHAM NEVILLE died in Sep­tem­ber 2008. Reviewing a book by a writer who did not live to see it published is a sad business, but that sadness is assuaged when the book is as good as this one.

We can see why Neville was drawn to Coleridge. Like Coleridge, Neville explored ideas that would never occur to most of us. For example, in his previous book, Free Time: Towards a Theology of Leisure (University of Birmingham Press, 2004), Neville pointed out that “Anyone for tennis?” is a theological question.

Neville begins his study of Coler­idge’s philosophical and theological legacy by tracing the broad outlines of Coleridge’s intellectual journey. As an undergraduate, Coleridge was a Unitarian. He ended his life where many do, including perhaps Neville himself, as “an Anglican with reservations”. Coleridge recognised that truth is not fully contained in any one tradition. Tradition is not an inherited body of doctrine, but something organic, developing and changing. It is a river, not a reser­voir. Neville insists that the current of Coleridge’s thought flows from sources far upstream of him. That current continues to flow after him, as it always will among those for whom truth is not a closed book.

Significantly, Neville’s last chapter is entitled “Towards the Future”. The history of ideas he records is a his­tory that has not stopped. The Cam­bridge Platonist Ralph Cudworth meant much to Coleridge, but the next name in Neville’s index is Don Cupitt.

Neville is sensitive to Coleridge the man as well as to Coleridge the prodigious mind. You do not have to get to know uncomplicated indi­viduals personally to understand what they think. With a character as complex as Coleridge, it is quite another matter. It is impossible to engage with his ideas without com­ing to terms with the man himself.

Neville identifies four of Coler­idge’s characteristics that moulded the contours of his mind and shaped his theology — his imagina­tion, his curiosity, his antipathy to authority, but also his weak will. Neville suggests that Coleridge’s lack of will-power, a fact about himself Coleridge knew very well, contri­b­utes to his theology as much as the more admirable aspects of his make-up. Someone addicted to opium perhaps understands what it means to need forgiveness better than someone more confident of possessing the moral high ground.

The central chapters of this fascinating study are essays on a series of figures — on both sides of the Atlantic — in that same broad liberal tradition to which Coleridge belonged. Neville’s discussion of F. D. Maurice — who saw the folly of attempting to bottle truth in words — is particularly impressive. We are reminded that F. J. A. Hort was more than a meticulous student of the minutiae of the Greek text of the New Testament. Driven by what he described as “a deliberate dread of shutting out of truth unknown”, Hort discovered a new bramble in the Wye valley.

Neville’s brilliant portrait of F. W. Robertson, the famous 19th-century Brighton preacher, will fascinate readers who have yet to discover him. Fresh air flowed from Robertson’s pulpit. “God builds his temple in the heart on the ruins of churches and religions,” he said — a comment made when Anglo-Catholics were building the huge churches all over Brighton which today no one knows what to do with.

Words of the prophet Ezekiel — even if, like Coleridge, he was a man with too many ideas in his head for his own peace of mind — might serve as a scriptural subtitle for this book. “Everything shall live where the river runs.” Liberality is life-giving. Without it, our religion is the Dead Sea.

The Revd Dr John Pridmore is a former Rector of Hackney in east London.

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