William Ralph Inge was born in Crayke, North Yorkshire on 6 June 1860 and died in Brightwell in Berkshire on 26 February 1954. After education at Eton and King's College, Cambridge he taught at his old school and was ordained into the Anglican ministry in 1888. He was fellow of Hertford College, Oxford from 1889 to 1905. After a brief period as vicar of All Saints’, Innismore Gardens in London, he was appointed Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Cambridge in 1907, and in 1911 became Dean of St Paul's Cathedral, London. He was one of the leading churchmen of his age, gaining a reputation for controversial opinions through his regular newspaper columns, particularly in the Evening Standard. He soon earned the title ‘The gloomy Dean’ for his pessimism about democracy and for his insistence on not tying Christianity to the spirit of the present age. Nevertheless, his two widely read series of Outspoken Essays (1919, 1922) betray the spirit of the age in their defence of eugenics and racial supremacy. From 1924 to 1934 he was President of the Modern Churchmen's Union, the leading liberal organization of the Church of England. His modernism was founded on the Greek spirit of free enquiry and the pursuit of truth. He resigned as Dean of St Paul's in 1934, retiring to Brightwell and continuing to lecture and publish widely until the end of his life.
The clearest expression of his religious and philosophical system is given in ‘Confessio fidei’, which outlines a strongly Platonist faith with an emphasis on the presence of the ‘indestructible and eternal’ values of Goodness, Beauty and Truth in the immanent world of ‘space and time’ (Outspoken Essays, 1922, pp. 31-2). At the same time he stresses the importance of mystical experience as the proof and ‘bedrock of religious faith’ (ibid., p. 14). Throughout his life he continued to emphasize the experiential in religion, writing in 1948: ‘If our highest and deepest experiences cannot be trusted, it is useless to seek for truth anywhere’ (Mysticism in Religion, p. 168). He had begun his study of mysticism in his 1899 Bampton Lectures (Christian Mysticism) and he continued to engage seriously with mystical writers from across the centuries especially in his Paddock Lectures (Personal Idealism, 1906) and his Hulsean Lectures (The Platonic Tradition in English Religious Thought, 1926). Mysticism, he felt, with its utter confidence in the reality of ‘absolute and eternal values’, together with its ‘open mind towards the discoveries of science’ and ‘receptive attitude to the beauty … of creation’, would help move the churches beyond the confessional conflict which characterized the modern situation (The Platonic Tradition, p. 33).
Inge's acknowledgement of the higher world, to which the human being could ascend, rested on his deep sympathy with the Platonist tradition. Indeed he felt that Christianity at its most fundamental level was identical to Platonism, to which the doctrine of the incarnation had been added as ‘the keystone in the arch’ (Outspoken Essays, 1922, p. 46). Undoubtedly his most important academic achievement are his Gifford Lectures, The Philosophy of Plotinus (1918), which offer an account of the development of Neoplatonism together with a detailed discussion of the main lines of Plotinus's thought. Inge displays the enthusiasm of a disciple, finding in Plotinus ‘a wise and inspiring spiritual guide’ (ibid., vol. 1, p. 9), and showing the indissoluble relationship between Christianity, Platonism and Western civilization: ‘We cannot preserve Platonism without Christianity nor Christianity without Platonism, nor civilisation without both’ (ibid., vol. 2, p. 227).
Inge's legacy is as a great stylist and interpreter of Plotinus. His spiritual form of Christianity seems strangely anachronistic in a theological world which has rediscovered the importance of history. Similarly, his immensely popular and provocative style was used to express idiosyncratic opinions which have become increasingly unacceptable.
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