The elegant Oxford scholar paved the way for Richard Dawkins

Adam Sisman’s biography of the late Hugh Trevor-Roper has been dominating the reviews recently. It reminded me of how hostile Trevor-Roper was to the Church.

Why? Partly his upbringing, I suppose, and then his own intellectual stand as an Oxford man of the Enlightenment. But his hostility seems more visceral than strictly necessary. He had met Fr Martin D’Arcy SJ , then Master of Campion Hall, on several occasions and had listened to him expound the faith in his own erudite and elegant fashion. But instead of an outsider’s respect for a rich and ancient tradition, it seemed to produce nothing but repugnance. Harold Macmillan (T-R’s publisher, incidentally) came close to the Church through his friendship with Ronald Knox , as William Oddie has mentioned in a recent blog. For Trevor-Roper it was always the Enemy.

Looking through the book that made him famous, The Last Days of Hitler, I am struck by the acidic swipes at the Church. “Joseph Goebbels…the prize pupil of a Jesuit seminary, he retained to the end the distinctive character of his education: he could always prove what he wanted…As the Jesuits created a system of education aimed at preventing knowledge, so Goebbels created a system of propaganda…which successfully persuaded people that black was white.”

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Himmler is compared to St Robert Bellarmine and “those gentle old bishops [who] went home to sup on white fish and inexpensive vegetables, to feed their cats and canaries and to meditate on the Penitential Psalms…”

It strikes me that it is scholars like Trevor-Roper who paved the way for the likes of Richard Dawkins. Dawkins doesn’t write so stylishly as the historian, but the vitriol is the same.

Ironically, a begging letter from Oxford came in this morning’s post. Packaged in the way advertisers know how, it shows a room of old books and a bust of some scholar (unidentified, but it could be Isaiah Berlin) with the words “Oxford Thinking is never cast in stone”.

The next page shows Logic Lane and the words “Oxford Thinking shows the way”. In the small print, we learn that “Many of the world’s most pressing problems cannot be solved in isolation. They need thinking that crosses boundaries between disciplines. Oxford Thinking.”

I have been thinking too: why doesn’t Dawkins stop wasting his considerable intellectual energy attacking Christianity and make the imaginative gesture that Trevor-Roper was never able to contemplate: cross the boundaries between his own discipline of biology and that of theology? Campion Hall is waiting.

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