Mr. Casaubon and the Content of Belief

Mark Knight
Lancaster University

Discussions of belief often emphasize questions of epistemology—the reasons that justify our religious commitments, the degree of confidence we can have in those reasons, and the changing conditions for faith in a secular age. However, as scholarship on the postsecular and “weak thought” has shown, these epistemological concerns are not easily separated from the question of what it is that one believes. My focus here is on the content of belief and how that content is registered through narrative. I am aware that all stories involve multiple shifting and fragmentary vantage points, and I acknowledge, too, that the church has a dark history when it tries to insist on the importance of theological specificity. Despite this, I want to make a case for why we should continue to think about the content of belief. To help navigate the accompanying problems and complexities, I will draw on a range of thinkers including Rita Felski, Stanley Hauerwas, Bruno Latour, Linn Tonstad, and Gianni Vattimo. My main interlocutor, though, is the fictional character of Mr. Casaubon, from George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Casaubon is an unlikely interlocutor for several reasons: I have written elsewhere about the problems of looking to Eliot as a guide to the Christian faith; Casaubon is far from being a role model; and the descriptions we have of his beliefs are notable for their lack of content rather than their theological precision. Yet there is much that we can learn from Casaubon and his struggles with belief, not least because of the ways in which his characterization offers points of connection with the experiences of many who work in literary studies.

~Mark Knight, Lancaster University