William Ralph Inge (1860-1954)
DECEMBER 01, 1960 by EDMUND OPITZ
The Reverend Mr. Opitz is a member of the staff of the Foundation for Economic Education.
The life of William Ralph Inge, late "gloomy dean" of St. Paul‘s Cathedral, spanned ninety-four years of the past one hundred. He died in 1954, twenty years after retiring from the post known as the scholar’s pulpit in the Church of England. For more than half a century Inge was a leading figure in the intellectual and spiritual life of England. His first major work appeared in 1899, the Bampton Lectures, published as Christian Mysticism. Fifty-four years later Inge was asked to revise his book, England, and write a new preface for the third edition. He accepted the assignment, writing to Sir Ernest Benn, the publisher, "I am very feeble, at 92, but I hope not quite imbecile." Indeed he was not, as his brilliant ten thousand word essay proved.
In the same year he contributed a foreword to Advance to Barbarism by F. J. P. Veale, a sobering account of modern civilization’s lurch toward savagery in World War II and its aftermath.
Between his first published work and his last this somber figure produced a steady succession of books, essays, lectures, and sermons. He earned the grudging respect accorded men of the cloth by the academic community for works of monumental scholarship —such as his definitive two-volume account of The Philosophy of Plotinus, the Gifford Lectures of 191718 —and he reached a general audience as well. During the twenties he invaded the field of journalism with weekly newspaper articles which made his name and face familiar to the man in the street. He had something to say on a variety of subjects, and was gifted with a superb literary style —clear, caustic, and witty. His newspaper pieces were collected in four books which even now may be read with pleasure.
But despite Inge’s involvement in the intellectual, religious, and literary currents of the past fifty years, he was never completely at home in any of them. He was too much his own man —and God’s —ever to become a popular figure, and he possessed too much reserve to become the champion of anyparty or movement. In religion, in philosophy, and in politics he belonged to schools sanctioned by the great tradition, but increasingly repudiated in the twentieth century. He was out of step with his times, but it was only because he heard the rhythm of a more distant music. Dedicated to the truth, he was a lifelong witness on behalf "of lost causes, and forsaken beliefs, and unpopular names, and impossible loyalties" —to borrow Arnold‘s words about Oxford. How many scientific theories espoused during this century are now extinct! How few schemes of political and economic reconstruction have survived this turbulent era! Numerous philosophies have had their short vogue and are no more. But Inge’s writings have a curiously contemporary ring. They are not dated.
The world and Inge were headed in different directions and the breach between the two widened with the years. The tides of unreason and insanity all but blotted out the landmarks he had laid down. By the time of his death, Inge had pretty much outlived his popular reputation, and the memorial service at St. Paul‘s was attended mostly by elderly people, friends of earlier days.
Inge was, by temperament, a shy scholar, inheriting from his mother’s people, he wrote, "the faculty of being silent in several languages." But the deanship was thrust upon him in 1911 and he became a reluctant public figure. He was a high ranking ecclesiastic, but no organization man. "Christ came among his countrymen as a layman," he wrote, "preaching a lay religion." Religion is not, in its essence, churchgoing, philanthropy, or ritual —important as these things are —but "the thirst for God, and its satisfaction." Some of Inge’s contemporaries interpreted "lay religion" to mean Christian Socialism. Not Inge, who fought a lifelong battle on this front, scoring Christian Socialists as "black-coated advocates of spoliation." This did not mean, however, that he urged a turning away from life and its concerns in order to find God. Christian Ethics and Modern Problems is one of his major works. It is the fruit of a lifetime of effort to apply religious insights to the everyday perplexities which bedevil our age: war, unemployment, statism, and so on.
Inge was a stanch Christian Platonist at a time when his fellow philosophers were turning from idealism to pragmatism to positivism to existentialism or whatever. His fellow theologians were trying to recover a purer Biblical religion by eliminating the Greek elements from Christianity, while Inge, a master in Greek studies, stoutly maintained that "the Christian Church was the last great creative achievement of classical culture." People who appreciated Inge’s high regard for mysticism and the inner life were dismayed by his equal concern for the historic faith and the institutions of religion. He defended reason in religion and in life, but his defense pleased neither the simple rationalists nor those who put private revelations or feelings ahead of thinking. Inge was, in short, a man who fit none of the usual categories. He was that rare kind of rebel who may exemplify, in his rebellion, the best and rarest qualities of a nation or a religion.
Ideas on Liberty
If liberty is to be saved, it will not be by the doubters, the men of science, or the materialists; it will be by religious convictions, by the faith of individuals who believe that God wills man to be free but also pure.