Rosemary Jann: Scientific Imagination and “Natural Christianity”

Jann argues that, conscious of the popular debate in Victorian society about the validity of hypotheses, Flatland is Abbott’s attempt at furthering his ideas about a sort of “Natural Christianity” (i.e. a Christianity that is able to work in concert with modern science). He does this by arguing for the importance of imagination in scientific thought, which he then equates to leaps of faith taken with religion, Christianity specifically. Jann says: “he argued (as had Arnold) that if we could believe and depend upon scientific concepts simply because they “worked”, not because we could “prove” them, we could just as confidently believe in religious concepts so long as these worked” (Jann, 481). Abbott uses primitive religions to prove the existence of spirituality in people, and then interprets God as having set us out to seek the truth, while subtly steering us there. He then makes the leap to say that if we can use imaginative reasoning to advance the principles of the scientific world, that we should also be able to use this same principle for understanding the spiritual and religious world. He attributes the word of the Gospels to disciples who took the metaphors of Jesus too literally, because, as a product of their time, they could not possibly understand fully what Jesus was saying to them through metaphor. 

Flatland is then essentially used, in Jann’s own words, as an allegory to discredit dogmatic faith and demonstrate a new way of thinking that allowed Christianity and science to work in concert. The square encourages us to be better, by striving for higher existence. He is a prophet, tasked with the teachings of Spaceland, but because no one is able to imagine something they cannot see, he ends in total defeat.

N. Garvey

In her essay “Abbott’s Flatland: Scientific Imagination and ‘Natural Christianity’”, Jann argues that Flatland is Abbott’s critique of the rigidity of dogmatic scientific or religious thought, as well as a demonstration of how scientific “reality” and religion require similar leaps of faith outside of what is observable from the believer. She reasons that the novel is an allegorical warning against close-mindedness and a failure to appreciate the ability of imagination to lead to growth, and states that Flatland operates on the principle that “the idea of imagination working through appearances to higher truth is for Abbott the fundamental mechanism of both scientific and religious thought” (478). A Square’s experiences in being confronted with theoretical evidence of a higher plane of existence mirror the human struggle to accept the validity of science (specifically, scientific theory/hypothesis) and religion at the same time. Additionally, the Square’s analogy for thinking about the 4th and above Dimensions illustrates how humanity makes use of imagination to fill in the gaps of observation. The Sphere’s response to this analogy points out the hypocrisy of validly engaging with imagination in regards to either science or religion, but not the other. Jann continues to say that Abbott’s Christianity threw off this hypocrisy, affording imagination, science, and religion equal legitimacy. She ultimately summarizes her argument and the purpose of Flatland in the following quote: “Flatland becomes an allegory aimed at correcting the arrogance of the materialist intellect and dogmatic faith and at demonstrating the progressive force of imagination” (486). On the whole I agree with Jann’s interpretation of the text, having also noticed the parallels between the Flatlanders and those who fervently disregard either science or religion in the favor of the other. I felt her references to religion, such as use of the word “prophet” to describe the bringer of the news of the Third Dimension or A Square’s comparison of himself and Prometheus and his initial assumption that the Spaceland people were Gods, were also fitting evidence for her ideas. I think Abbott definitely was attempting to satirize Victorian religion, and Jann’s article was very convincing.

V. Mooney

Jann, Rosemary. “Abbott’s “Flatland”: Scientific Imagination and “Natural Christianity””Victorian Studies 28.3 (1985): 473-90. Print.

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