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BROWNING BELIEVING: “A DEATH IN THE DESERT” AND THE STATUS OF BELIEF

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 February 2010

Jonathan Loesberg*
Affiliation:
American University

Extract

Some John, we are told, possibly both the Evangelist and the beloved apostle, but, for reasons we will see, possibly only one, the other, or neither, reanimated so his dying words can be recorded by other early Christians, tries to tell those who will now live with no contact with anyone who had contact with Jesus Christ, how they may live with that absence. Although his reanimaters preserve and venerate his words, it's not clear that they actually follow them or even understand them. In the wake of the questions first German Higher Criticism and then more recent work in the 1860s had raised with regard to the historical accuracy of the New Testament, Robert Browning, tries to propose how his contemporaries might believe. At the same time, as a consequence of a definition of how to believe, Browning also suggests how to look at the beliefs of others as expressions of one's condition and situation rather than as assertions whose accuracy it is in our interests to measure: he tells us what a dramatic monologue may show us. With regard to either aim, either with his contemporaries or with his critics, he did no better than John did with the poem's auditors. At least with regard to the issue of how to believe, one watches an odd critical history as readers have become increasingly aware of how completely Browning seems to have accepted the conclusions of the Higher Criticism about the historicity of the gospels, but have refused to accept how completely this meant that his justification for belief wound up reproducing the Higher Critical position about the historical reality of Christianity, with the addition of an epistemologically daring and dangerous justification of willed belief in an object accepted as possibly fictional that gives his ostensible Christianity only the appearance of an orthodoxy it had in fact abandoned.

Type
Work in Progress
Copyright
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2010

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