Context: In the poetry of the early part of his life, Arnold gave expression to the various forces of the Victorian era which tended to frustrate him and dislocate him spiritually. Turning to prose in the latter half of his life, he produced a series of essays with a remarkably consistent and persistent perspective. If, he said, the old religion based on faith and in its forms and conventions restrictive to a world which man had outgrown was no longer operative as the foundation for human civilization, then something must replace it. This substitute was culture–"the best that has been said and thought in the world." Through education which would inculcate into the new generations the inherent human values as they have been articulated in the great aesthetic creations of the past, man could be taught to respect and to sanctify the traditions of his civilization which have been inspired and crystallized under the impetus of religious worship. More precisely, such an education would provide the power, through reading, to estimate the proportion and relation in what is read. The result would be neither a destruction of the Jewish Messiah or the Christian Jesus, but an abstraction of the inherent values which such deities possess apart from the dogma and institutions which through the centuries have encrusted them in human error:
But there remains the question: what righteousness really is. The method and secret and sweet reasonableness of Jesus. But the world does not see this; for it puts, as righteousness, something else first and this second. So that here, too, as to seeing what righteousness really is, the world now is much in the same position in which the Jews, when Jesus Christ came, were. It is often said: if Jesus Christ came now, his religion would be rejected. And this is only another way of saying that the world now, as the Jewish people formerly, has something which thwarts and confuses its perception of what righteousness really is. It is so; and the thwarting cause is the same now as then:–the dogmatic system current, the so-called orthodox theology. . . .