A theology of suffering love: a critique of the fictional embodiments of divine compassion in the novels of George Eliot.
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Patrick, Jason N.
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The unorthodox theology of nineteenth century British novelist George Eliot resulted not in a dispassionate avoidance of Christianity in her narratives but in an existential engagement with the faith she had once embraced. Prior to writing her first novel, Eliot, already recognized as a leading literary critic and translator, had adopted the empiricist and positivist philosophies of the elite intellectual circles of British society. Like many of her contemporaries, Eliot adhered to a liberal Christology advocating Jesus Christ as a moral exemplar whom humanity should imitate. A change in Eliot's religious viewpoints, however, emerged as she began writing fiction. Although she never returned to an orthodox form of Christianity, her novels reveal that she continued to struggle with Christianity's radical proclamation of Good News. Eliot's novels contain characters who embody a "divine" compassion as they enter into the suffering lives of others, and who are, for her, incarnational. In her novels, Eliot enfleshes but a solitary aspect of the Incarnation—God's sharing in the suffering of humanity. After an introductory chapter tracing Eliot's own religious journey, I address the "incarnations" in selected Eliot novels—Dinah Morris in Adam Bede, Romola (title character) and Dorthea Brooke in Middlemarch. The sixth chapter addresses the theology of the Maurice who, like Eliot, was cognizant of the Enlightenment criticisms of Christianity yet remained orthodox in his treatment of the Incarnation. The conclusion of my dissertation addresses the postliberal context of 21st century Christianity and yields increased clarity to my examination of arguably the greatest novelist, Eliot, and greatest theologian, Maurice, of Victorian Britain. Although Maurice predates the dawn of the postliberal era, much of his theology hints at the nonfoundational character of present day theology. Maurice holds to a reality shaped by a community and tradition that have not been incapacitated by liberal reductionism. The primary theoretical source I utilize for the conclusion is Fritz Oehlschlager's Love and Good Reasons. Oehlschlager's work, treating the formation of a distinctively Christian ethic, explores the unique manner in which Christians read literary texts in a postliberal context, enabling them thus to sharpen their own moral and theological vision.