Faith and Secular Morality in Iris Murdoch’s The Time of the Angels (1966) Open Access

“Could there be a good religious way of life without supernatural beliefs?” Iris Murdoch poses this question to her readers in her philosophic treatise, The Sovereignty of Good (1970). Can individuals be moral citizens without relying on the idea of God? Murdoch’s theories into the nature of morality and rationality were fitting for her historical moment: postwar Britain haunted by the trauma of the Blitz and facing the Cold War threat of nuclear annihilation. In her tenth novel, The Time of the Angels (1966), Murdoch explores the idea of institutionalized religion within a quasi-dystopian world. Carel Fisher, the rector of a bombed-out Christopher Wren-designed church in late 1940s London, suffers from spiritual doubts. His anxiety is manifested in a strange kind of agoraphobia, where he forces himself and his small family to live in isolation. Marcus Fisher, Carel’s younger brother, a philosopher and academic, is writing a treatise on the benefits of atheism. Through the spiritual and emotional dilemmas of the Fisher brothers, Murdoch examines the nature of postwar disillusionment with organized religion. One of the key characters in the novel is Eugene Peshkov, a Russian refugee who is Carel’s handyman. Much of the action of the novel centers around Peshkov’s family heirloom, a centuries-old Russian icon. Murdoch admired the works of Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov, and her interweaving of Russian characters and themes within her novel enables her to compare both English and Russian cultural attitudes towards religion and art within a Cold War setting. In this paper, I hope to explore how Iris Murdoch contends with ontological and ethical themes within the capacious artform of the novel. Is mysticism a necessary prerequisite for the cultivation of moral imperatives? Did Britain’s diminished place within a postwar geopolitical order contribute to a gradual erosion of faith within the Anglican Church, or to the reevaluation of a new kind of belief-system?

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