MEMOIR OF THE LATE JOHN PICKARD OWEN
BY R. A. STREATFEILD
The demand for a new edition of The Fair Haven gives me an opportunity of saying a few words about the genesis of what, though not one of the most popular of Samuel Butler's books, is certainly one of the most characteristic. Few of his works, indeed, show more strikingly his brilliant powers as a controversialist and his implacable determination to get at the truth of whatever engaged his attention.
To find the germ of The Fair Haven we should probably have to go back to the year 1858, when Butler, after taking his degree at Cambridge, was preparing himself for holy orders by acting as a kind of lay curate in a London parish. Butler never took things for granted, and he felt it to be his duty to examine independently a good many points of Christian dogma which most candidates for ordination accept as matters of course. The result of his investigations was that he eventually declined to take orders at all. One of the stones upon which he then stumbled was the efficacy of infant baptism, and I have no doubt that another was the miraculous element of Christianity, which, it will be remembered, was the cause of grievous searchings of heart to Ernest Pontifex in Butler's semi-autobiographical novel, The Way of All Flesh. While Butler was in New Zealand (1859-64) he had leisure for prosecuting his Biblical studies, the result of which he published in 1865, after his return to England, in an anonymous pamphlet entitled "The Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ as given by the Four Evangelists critically examined." This pamphlet passed unnoticed; probably only a few copies were printed and it is now extremely rare. After the publication of Erewhon in 1872, Butler returned once more to theology, and made his anonymous pamphlet the basis of the far more elaborate Fair Haven, which was originally published as the posthumous work of a certain John Pickard Owen, preceded by a memoir of the deceased author by his supposed brother, William Bickersteth Owen. It is possible that the memoir was the fruit of a suggestion made by Miss Savage, an able and witty woman with whom Butler corresponded at the time. Miss Savage was so much impressed by the narrative power displayed in Erewhon that she urged Butler to write a novel, and we shall probably not be far wrong in regarding the biography of John Pickard Owen as Butler's trial trip in the art of fiction--a prelude to The Way of All Flesh, which he began in 1873.
It has often been supposed that the elaborate paraphernalia of mystification which Butler used in The Fair Haven was deliberately designed in order to hoax the public. I do not believe that this was the case. Butler, I feel convinced, provided an ironical framework for his arguments merely that he might render them more effective than they had been when plainly stated in the pamphlet of 1865. He fully expected his readers to comprehend his irony, and he anticipated that some at any rate of them would keenly resent it. Writing to Miss Savage in March, 1873 (shortly before the publication of the book), he said: "I should hope that attacks on The Fair Haven will give me an opportunity of excusing myself, and if so I shall endeavour that the excuse may be worse than the fault it is intended to excuse." A few days later he referred to the difficulties that he had encountered in getting the book accepted by a publisher: " --- were frightened and even considered the scheme of the book unjustifiable. --- urged me, as politely as he could, not to do it, and evidently thinks I shall get myself into disgrace even among freethinkers. It's all nonsense. I dare say I shall get into a row- -at least I hope I shall." Evidently there is here no anticipation of The Fair Haven being misunderstood. Misunderstood, however, it was, not only by reviewers, some of whom greeted it solemnly as a defence of orthodoxy, but by divines of high standing, such as the late Canon Ainger, who sent it to a friend whom he wished to convert. This was more than Butler could resist, and he hastened to issue a second edition bearing his name and accompanied by a preface in which the deceived elect were held up to ridicule.
Butler used to maintain that The Fair Haven did his reputation no harm. Writing in 1901, he said:
"The Fair Haven got me into no social disgrace that I have ever been able to discover. I might attack Christianity as much as I chose and nobody cared one straw; but when I attacked Darwin it was a different matter. For many years Evolution, Old and New, and Unconscious Memory made a shipwreck of my literary prospects. I am only now beginning to emerge from the literary and social injury which those two perfectly righteous books inflicted on me. I dare say they abound with small faults of taste, but I rejoice in having written both of them."
Very likely Butler was right as to the social side of the question, but I am convinced that The Fair Haven did him grave harm in the literary world. Reviewers fought shy of him for the rest of his life. They had been taken in once, and they took very good care that they should not be taken in again. The word went forth that Butler was not to be taken seriously, whatever he wrote, and the results of the decree were apparent in the conspiracy of silence that greeted not only his books on evolution, but his Homeric works, his writings on art, and his edition of Shakespeare's sonnets. Now that he has passed beyond controversies and mystifications, and now that his other works are appreciated at their true value, it is not too much to hope that tardy justice will be accorded also to The Fair Haven. It is true that the subject is no longer the burning question that it was forty years ago. In the early seventies theological polemics were fashionable. Books like Seeley's Ecce Homo and Matthew Arnold's Literature and Dogma were eagerly devoured by readers of all classes. Nowadays we take but a languid interest in the problems that disturbed our grandfathers, and most of us have settled down into what Disraeli described as the religion of all sensible men, which no sensible man ever talks about. There is, however, in The Fair Haven a good deal more than theological controversy, and our Laodicean age will appreciate Butler's humour and irony if it cares little for his polemics. The Fair Haven scandalised a good many people when it first appeared, but I am not afraid of its scandalising anybody now. I should be sorry, nevertheless, if it gave any reader a false impression of Butler's Christianity, and I think I cannot do better than conclude with a passage from one of his essays which represents his attitude to religion perhaps more faithfully than anything in The Fair Haven: "What, after all, is the essence of Christianity? What is the kernel of the nut? Surely common sense and cheerfulness, with unflinching opposition to the charlatanisms and Pharisaisms of a man's own times. The essence of Christianity lies neither in dogma, nor yet in abnormally holy life, but in faith in an unseen world, in doing one's duty, in speaking the truth, in finding the true life rather in others than in oneself, and in the certain hope that he who loses his life on these behalfs finds more than he has lost. What can Agnosticism do against such Christianity as this? I should be shocked if anything I had ever written or shall ever write should seem to make light of these things."
R. A. STREATFEILD.
BUTLER'S PREFACE TO THE SECOND EDITION
The occasion of a Second Edition of The Fair Haven enables me to thank the public and my critics for the favourable reception which has been accorded to the First Edition. I had feared that the freedom with which I had exposed certain untenable positions taken by Defenders of Christianity might have given offence to some reviewers, but no complaint has reached me from any quarter on the score of my not having put the best possible case for the evidence in favour of the miraculous element in Christ's teaching--nor can I believe that I should have failed to hear of it, if my book had been open to exception on this ground.
An apology is perhaps due for the adoption of a pseudonym, and even more so for the creation of two such characters as JOHN PICKARD OWEN and his brother. Why could I not, it may be asked, have said all that I had to say in my own proper person?
Are there not real ills of life enough already? Is there not a "lo here!" from this school with its gushing "earnestness," it distinctions without differences, its gnat strainings and camel swallowings, its pretence of grappling with a question while resolutely bent upon shirking it, its dust throwing and mystification, its concealment of its own ineffable insincerity under an air of ineffable candour? Is there not a "lo there!" from that other school with its bituminous atmosphere of exclusiveness and self-laudatory dilettanteism? Is there not enough actual exposition of boredom come over us from many quarters without drawing for new bores upon the imagination? It is true I gave a single drop of comfort. JOHN PICKARD OWEN was dead. But his having ceased to exist (to use the impious phraseology of the present day) did not cancel the fact of his having once existed. That he should have ever been born gave proof of potentialities in Nature which could not be regarded lightly. What hybrids might not be in store for us next? Moreover, though JOHN PICKARD was dead, WILLIAM BICKERSTETH was still living, and might at any moment rekindle his burning and shining lamp of persistent self-satisfaction. Even though the OWENS had actually existed, should not their existence have been ignored as a disgrace to Nature? Who then could be justified in creating them when they did not exist?
I am afraid I must offer an apology rather than an excuse. The fact is that I was in a very awkward position. My previous work, Erewhon, had failed to give satisfaction to certain ultra-orthodox Christians, who imagined that they could detect an analogy between the English Church and the Erewhonian Musical Banks. It is inconceivable how they can have got hold of this idea; but I was given to understand that I should find it far from easy to dispossess them of the notion that something in the way of satire had been intended. There were other parts of the book which had also been excepted to, and altogether I had reason to believe that if I defended Christianity in my own name I should not find Erewhon any addition to the weight which my remarks might otherwise carry. If I had been suspected of satire once, I might be suspected again with no greater reason. Instead of calmly reviewing the arguments which I adduced, The Rock might have raised a cry of non tali auxilio. It must always be remembered that besides the legitimate investors in Christian stocks, if so homely a metaphor may be pardoned, there are unscrupulous persons whose profession it is to be bulls, bears, stags, and I know not what other creatures of the various Christian markets. It is all nonsense about hawks not picking out each other's eyes--there is nothing they like better. I feared The Guardian, The Record, The John Bull, etc., lest they should suggest that from a bear I now turned bull with a view to an eventual bishopric. Such insinuations would have impaired the value of The Fair Haven as an anchorage for well-meaning people. I therefore resolved to obey the injunction of the Gentile Apostle and avoid all appearance of evil, by dissociating myself from the author of Erewhon as completely as possible. At the moment of my resolution JOHN PICKARD OWEN came to my assistance; I felt that he was the sort of man I wanted, but that he was hardly sufficient in himself. I therefore summoned his brother. The pair have served their purpose; a year nowadays produces great changes in men's thoughts concerning Christianity, and the little matter of Erewhon having quite blown over I feel that I may safely appear in my true colours as the champion of orthodoxy, discard the OWENS as other than mouthpieces, and relieve the public from uneasiness as to any further writings from the pen of the surviving brother.
Nevertheless I am bound to own that, in spite of a generally favourable opinion, my critics have not been unanimous in their interpretation of The Fair Haven. Thus, The Rock (April 25, 1873, and May 9, 1873), says that the work is "an extraordinary one, whether regarded as a biographical record or a theological treatise. Indeed the importance of the volume compels us to depart from our custom of reviewing with brevity works entrusted to us, and we shall in two consecutive numbers of The Rock lay before its readers what appear to us to be the merits and demerits of this posthumous production."
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"His exhibition of the certain proofs furnished of the Resurrection of our Lord is certainly masterly and convincing."
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"To the sincerely inquiring doubter, the striking way in which the truth of the Resurrection is exhibited must be most beneficial, but such a character we are compelled to believe is rare among those of the schools of neology."
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"Mr. OWEN'S exposition and refutation of the hallucination and mythical theories of Strauss and his followers is most admirable, and all should read it who desire to know exactly what excuses men make for their incredulity. The work also contains many beautiful passages on the discomfort of unbelief, and the holy pleasure of a settled faith, which cannot fail to benefit the reader."
On the other hand, in spite of all my precautions, the same misfortune which overtook Erewhon has also come upon The Fair Haven. It has been suspected of a satirical purpose. The author of a pamphlet entitled Jesus versus Christianity says:-
"The Fair Haven is an ironical defence of orthodoxy at the expense of the whole mass of Church tenet and dogma, the character of Christ only excepted. Such at least is our reading of it, though critics of the Rock and Record order have accepted the book as a serious defence of Christianity, and proclaimed it as a most valuable contribution in aid of the faith. Affecting an orthodox standpoint it most bitterly reproaches all previous apologists for the lack of candour with which they have ignored or explained away insuperable difficulties and attached undue value to coincidences real or imagined. One and all they have, the author declares, been at best, but zealous 'liars for God,' or what to them was more than God, their own religious system. This must go on no longer. We, as Christians having a sound cause, need not fear to let the truth be known. He proceeds accordingly to set forth the truth as he finds it in the New Testament; and in a masterly analysis of the account of the Resurrection, which he selects as the principal crucial miracle, involving all other miracles, he shows how slender is the foundation on which the whole fabric of supernatural theology has been reared."
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"As told by our author the whole affords an exquisite example of the natural growth of a legend."
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"If the reader can once fully grasp the intention of the style, and its affectation of the tone of indignant orthodoxy, and perceive also how utterly destructive are its 'candid admissions' to the whole fabric of supernaturalism, he will enjoy a rare treat. It is not however for the purpose of recommending what we at least regard as a piece of exquisite humour, that we call attention to The Fair Haven, but &c. &c."
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This is very dreadful; but what can one do?
Again, The Scotsman speaks of the writer as being "throughout in downright almost pathetic earnestness." While The National Reformer seems to be in doubt whether the book is a covert attack upon Christianity or a serious defence of it, but declares that both orthodox and unorthodox will find matter requiring thought and answer.
I am not responsible for the interpretations of my readers. It is only natural that the same work should present a very different aspect according as it is approached from one side or the other. There is only one way out of it--that the reader should kindly interpret according to his own fancies. If he will do this the book is sure to please him. I have done the best I can for all parties, and feel justified in appealing to the existence of the widely conflicting opinions which I have quoted, as a proof that the balance has been evenly held, and that I was justified in calling the book a defence--both as against impugners and defenders.
Oct. 8, 1873.
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The subject of this Memoir, and Author of the work which follows it, was born in Goodge Street, Tottenham Court Road, London, on the 5th of February, 1832. He was my elder brother by about eighteen months. Our father and mother had once been rich, but through a succession of unavoidable misfortunes they were left with but a very moderate income when my brother and myself were about three and four years old. My father died some five or six years afterwards, and we only recollected him as a singularly gentle and humorous playmate who doted upon us both and never spoke unkindly. The charm of such a recollection can never be dispelled; both my brother and myself returned his love with interest, and cherished his memory with the most affectionate regret, from the day on which he left us till the time came that the one of us was again to see him face to face. So sweet and winning was his nature that his slightest wish was our law- -and whenever we pleased him, no matter how little, he never failed to thank us as though we had done him a service which we should have had a perfect right to withhold. How proud were we upon any of these occasions, and how we courted the opportunity of being thanked! He did indeed well know the art of becoming idolised by his children, and dearly did he prize the results of his own proficiency; yet truly there was no art about it; all arose spontaneously from the wellspring of a sympathetic nature which knew how to feel as others felt, whether old or young, rich or poor, wise or foolish. On one point alone did he neglect us--I refer to our religious education. On all other matters he was the kindest and most careful teacher in the world. Love and gratitude be to his memory!
My mother loved us no less ardently than my father, but she was of a quicker temper, and less adept at conciliating affection. She must have been exceedingly handsome when she was young, and was still comely when we first remembered her; she was also highly accomplished, but she felt my father's loss of fortune more keenly than my father himself, and it preyed upon her mind, though rather for our sake than for her own. Had we not known my father we should have loved her better than any one in the world, but affection goes by comparison, and my father spoiled us for any one but himself; indeed, in after life, I remember my mother's telling me, with many tears, how jealous she had often been of the love we bore him, and how mean she had thought it of him to entrust all scolding or repression to her, so that he might have more than his due share of our affection. Not that I believe my father did this consciously; still, he so greatly hated scolding that I dare say we might often have got off scot free when we really deserved reproof had not my mother undertaken the onus of scolding us herself. We therefore naturally feared her more than my father, and fearing more we loved less. For as love casteth out fear, so fear love.
This must have been hard to bear, and my mother scarcely knew the way to bear it. She tried to upbraid us, in little ways, into loving her as much as my father; the more she tried this, the less we could succeed in doing it; and so on and so on in a fashion which need not be detailed. Not but what we really loved her deeply, while her affection for us was unsurpassable still, we loved her less than we loved my father, and this was the grievance.
My father entrusted our religious education entirely to my mother. He was himself, I am assured, of a deeply religious turn of mind, and a thoroughly consistent member of the Church of England; but he conceived, and perhaps rightly, that it is the mother who should first teach her children to lift their hands in prayer, and impart to them a knowledge of the One in whom we live and move and have our being. My mother accepted the task gladly, for in spite of a certain narrowness of view--the natural but deplorable result of her earlier surroundings--she was one of the most truly pious women whom I have ever known; unfortunately for herself and us she had been trained in the lowest school of Evangelical literalism--a school which in after life both my brother and myself came to regard as the main obstacle to the complete overthrow of unbelief; we therefore looked upon it with something stronger than aversion, and for my own part I still deem it perhaps the most insidious enemy which the cause of Christ has ever encountered. But of this more hereafter.
My mother, as I said, threw her whole soul into the work of our religious education. Whatever she believed she believed literally, and, if I may say so, with a harshness of realisation which left very little scope for imagination or mystery. Her plans of Heaven and solutions of life's enigmas were direct and forcible, but they could only be reconciled with certain obvious facts--such as the omnipotence and all-goodness of God--by leaving many things absolutely out of sight. And this my mother succeeded effectually in doing. She never doubted that her opinions comprised the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth; she therefore made haste to sow the good seed in our tender minds, and so far succeeded that when my brother was four years old he could repeat the Apostles' Creed, the General Confession, and the Lord's Prayer without a blunder. My mother made herself believe that he delighted in them; but, alas! it was far otherwise; for, strange as it may appear concerning one whose later life was a continual prayer, in childhood he detested nothing so much as being made to pray and to learn his Catechism. In this I am sorry to say we were both heartily of a mind. As for Sunday, the less said the better.
I have already hinted (but as a warning to other parents I had better, perhaps, express myself more plainly), that this aversion was probably the result of my mother's undue eagerness to reap an artificial fruit of lip service, which could have little meaning to the heart of one so young. I believe that the severe check which the natural growth of faith experienced in my brother's case was due almost entirely to this cause, and to the school of literalism in which he had been trained; but, however this may be, we both of us hated being made to say our prayers--morning and evening it was our one bugbear, and we would avoid it, as indeed children generally will, by every artifice which we could employ. Thus we were in the habit of feigning to be asleep shortly before prayer time, and would gratefully hear my father tell my mother that it was a shame to wake us; whereon he would carry us up to bed in a state apparently of the profoundest slumber when we were really wide awake and in great fear of detection. For we knew how to pretend to be asleep, but we did not know how we ought to wake again; there was nothing for it therefore when we were once committed, but to go on sleeping till we were fairly undressed and put to bed, and could wake up safely in the dark. But deceit is never long successful, and we were at last ignominiously exposed.
It happened one evening that my mother suspected my brother John, and tried to open his little hands which were lying clasped in front of him. Now my brother was as yet very crude and inconsistent in his theories concerning sleep, and had no conception of what a real sleeper would do under these circumstances. Fear deprived him of his powers of reflection, and he thus unfortunately concluded that because sleepers, so far as he had observed them, were always motionless, therefore, they must be quite rigid and incapable of motion, and indeed that any movement, under any circumstances (for from his earliest childhood he liked to carry his theories to their legitimate conclusion), would be physically impossible for one who was really sleeping; forgetful, oh! unhappy one, of the flexibility of his own body on being carried upstairs, and, more unhappy still, ignorant of the art of waking. He, therefore, clenched his fingers harder and harder as he felt my mother trying to unfold them while his head hung listless, and his eyes were closed I as though he were sleeping sweetly. It is needless to detail the agony of shame that followed. My mother begged my father to box his ears, which my father flatly refused to do. Then she boxed them herself, and there followed a scene and a day or two of disgrace for both of us.
Shortly after this there happened another misadventure. A lady came to stay with my mother, and was to sleep in a bed that had been brought into our nursery, for my father's fortunes had already failed, and we were living in a humble way. We were still but four and five years old, so the arrangement was not unnatural, and it was assumed that we should be asleep before the lady went to bed, and be downstairs before she would get up in the morning. But the arrival of this lady and her being put to sleep in the nursery were great events to us in those days, and being particularly wanted to go to sleep, we of course sat up in bed talking and keeping ourselves awake till she should come upstairs. Perhaps we had fancied that she would give us something, but if so we were disappointed. However, whether this was the case or not, we were wide awake when our visitor came to bed, and having no particular object to gain, we made no pretence of sleeping. The lady kissed us both, told us to lie still and go to sleep like good children, and then began doing her hair.
I remember that this was the occasion on which my brother discovered a good many things in connection with the fair sex which had hitherto been beyond his ken; more especially that the mass of petticoats and clothes which envelop the female form were not, as he expressed it to me, "all solid woman," but that women were not in reality more substantially built than men, and had legs as much as he had, a fact which he had never yet realised. On this he for a long time considered them as impostors, who had wronged him by leading him to suppose that they had far more "body in them" (so he said), than he now found they had. This was a sort of thing which he regarded with stern moral reprobation. If he had been old enough to have a solicitor I believe he would have put the matter into his hands, as well as certain other things which had lately troubled him. For but recently my mother had bought a fowl, and he had seen it plucked, and the inside taken out; his irritation had been extreme on discovering that fowls were not all solid flesh, but that their insides--and these formed, as it appeared to him, an enormous percentage of the bird--were perfectly useless. He was now beginning to understand that sheep and cows were also hollow as far as good meat was concerned; the flesh they had was only a mouthful in comparison with what they ought to have considering their apparent bulk-- insignificant, mere skin and bone covering a cavern. What right had they, or anything else, to assert themselves as so big, and prove so empty? And now this discovery of woman's falsehood was quite too much for him. The world itself was hollow, made up of shams and delusions, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.
Truly a prosaic young gentleman enough. Everything with him was to be exactly in all its parts what it appeared on the face of it, and everything was to go on doing exactly what it had been doing hitherto. If a thing looked solid, it was to be very solid; if hollow, very hollow; nothing was to be half and half, and nothing was to change unless he had himself already become accustomed to its times and manners of changing; there were to be no exceptions and no contradictions; all things were to be perfectly consistent, and all premises to be carried with extremest rigour to their legitimate conclusions. Heaven was to be very neat (for he was always tidy himself), and free from sudden shocks to the nervous system, such as those caused by dogs barking at him, or cows driven in the streets. God was to resemble my father, and the Holy Spirit to bear some sort of indistinct analogy to my mother.
Such were the ideal theories of his childhood--unconsciously formed, but very firmly believed in. As he grew up he made such modifications as were forced upon him by enlarged perceptions, but every modification was an effort to him, in spite of a continual and successful resistance to what he recognised as his initial mental defect.
I may perhaps be allowed to say here, in reference to a remark in the preceding paragraph, that both my brother and myself used to notice it as an almost invariable rule that children's earliest ideas of God are modelled upon the character of their father--if they have one. Should the father be kind, considerate, full of the warmest love, fond of showing it, and reserved only about his displeasure, the child having learned to look upon God as His Heavenly Father through the Lord's Prayer and our Church Services, will feel towards God as he does towards his own father; this conception will stick to a man for years and years after he has attained manhood--probably it will never leave him. For all children love their fathers and mothers, if these last will only let them; it is not a little unkindness that will kill so hardy a plant as the love of a child for its parents. Nature has allowed ample margin for many blunders, provided there be a genuine desire on the parent's part to make the child feel that he is loved, and that his natural feelings are respected. This is all the religious education which a child should have. As he grows older he will then turn naturally to the waters of life, and thirst after them of his own accord by reason of the spiritual refreshment which they, and they only, can afford. Otherwise he will shrink from them, on account of his recollection of the way in which he was led down to drink against his will, and perhaps with harshness, when all the analogies with which he was acquainted pointed in the direction of their being unpleasant and unwholesome. So soul-satisfying is family affection to a child, that he who has once enjoyed it cannot bear to be deprived of the hope that he is possessed in Heaven of a parent who is like his earthly father--of a friend and counsellor who will never, never fail him. There is no such religious nor moral education as kindly genial treatment and a good example; all else may then be let alone till the child is old enough to feel the want of it. It is true that the seed will thus be sown late, but in what a soil! On the other hand, if a man has found his earthly father harsh and uncongenial, his conception of his Heavenly Parent will be painful. He will begin by seeing God as an exaggerated likeness of his father. He will therefore shrink from Him. The rottenness of stillborn love in the heart of a child poisons the blood of the soul, and hence, later, crime.
To return, however, to the lady. When she had put on her night-gown, she knelt down by her bedside and, to our consternation, began to say her prayers. This was a cruel blow to both of us; we had always been under the impression that grownup people were not made to say their prayers, and the idea of any one saying them of his or her own accord had never occurred to us as possible. Of course the lady would not say her prayers if she were not obliged; and yet she did say them; therefore she must be obliged to say them; therefore we should be obliged to say them, and this was a very great disappointment. Awe- struck and open-mouthed we listened while the lady prayed in sonorous accents, for many things which I do not now remember, and finally for my father and mother and for both of us--shortly afterwards she rose, blew out the light and got into bed. Every word that she said had confirmed our worst apprehensions; it was just what we had been taught to say ourselves.
Next morning we compared notes and drew the most painful inferences; but in the course of the day our spirits rallied. We agreed that there were many mysteries in connection with life and things which it was high time to unravel, and that an opportunity was now afforded us which might not readily occur again. All we had to do was to be true to ourselves and equal to the occasion. We laid our plans with great astuteness. We would be fast asleep when the lady came up to bed, but our heads should be turned in the direction of her bed, and covered with clothes, all but a single peep-hole. My brother, as the eldest, had clearly a right to be nearest the lady, but I could see very well, and could depend on his reporting faithfully whatever should escape me.
There was no chance of her giving us anything--if she had meant to do so she would have done it sooner; she might, indeed, consider the moment of her departure as the most auspicious for this purpose, but then she was not going yet, and the interval was at our own disposal. We spent the afternoon in trying to learn to snore, but we were not certain about it, and in the end regretfully concluded that as snoring was not de rigueur we had better dispense with it.
We were put to bed; the light was taken away; we were told to go to sleep, and promised faithfully that we would do so; the tongue indeed swore, but the mind was unsworn. It was agreed that we should keep pinching one another to prevent our going to sleep. We did so at frequent intervals; at last our patience was rewarded with the heavy creak, as of a stout elderly lady labouring up the stairs, and presently our victim entered.
To cut a long story short, the lady on satisfying herself that we were asleep, never said her prayers at all; during the remainder of her visit whenever she found us awake she always said them, but when she thought we were asleep, she never prayed. It is needless to add that we had the matter out with her before she left, and that the consequences were unpleasant for all parties; they added to the troubles in which we were already involved as to our prayers, and were indirectly among the earliest causes which led my brother to look with scepticism upon religion.
For a while, however, all went on as though nothing had happened. An effect of distrust, indeed, remained after the cause had been forgotten, but my brother was still too young to oppose anything that my mother told him, and to all outward appearance he grew in grace no less rapidly than in stature.
For years we led a quiet and eventless life, broken only by the one great sorrow of our father's death. Shortly after this we were sent to a day school in Bloomsbury. We were neither of us very happy there, but my brother, who always took kindly to his books, picked up a fair knowledge of Latin and Greek; he also learned to draw, and to exercise himself a little in English composition. When I was about fourteen my mother capitalised a part of her income and started me off to America, where she had friends who could give me a helping hand; by their kindness I was enabled, after an absence of twenty years, to return with a handsome income, but not, alas, before the death of my mother.
Up to the time of my departure my mother continued to read the Bible with us and explain it. She had become deeply impressed with the millenarian fervour which laid hold of so many some twenty-five or thirty years ago. The Apocalypse was perhaps her favourite book in the Bible, and she was imbued with the fullest conviction that all the threatened horrors with which it teems were upon the eve of their accomplishment. The year eighteen hundred and forty-eight was to be (as indeed it was) a time of general bloodshed and confusion, while in eighteen hundred and sixty-six, should it please God to spare her, her eyes would be gladdened by the visible descent of the Son of Man with a shout, with the voice of the Archangel, with the trump of God; and the dead in Christ should rise first; then she, as one of them that were alive, would be caught up with other saints into the air, and would possibly receive while rising some distinguishing token of confidence and approbation which should fall with due impressiveness upon the surrounding multitude; then would come the consummation of all things, and she would be ever with the Lord. She died peaceably in her bed before she could know that a commercial panic was the nearest approach to the fulfilment of prophecy which the year eighteen hundred and sixty-six brought forth.
These opinions of my mother's were positively disastrous--injuring her naturally healthy and vigorous mind by leading her to indulge in all manner of dreamy and fanciful interpretations of Scripture, which any but the most narrow literalist would feel at once to be untenable. Thus several times she expressed to us her conviction that my brother and myself were to be the two witnesses mentioned in the eleventh chapter of the Book of Revelation, and dilated upon the gratification she should experience upon finding that we had indeed been reserved for a position of such distinction. We were as yet mere children, and naturally took all for granted that our mother told us; we therefore made a careful examination of the passage which threw light upon our future; but on finding that the prospect was gloomy and full of bloodshed we protested against the honours which were intended for us, more especially when we reflected that the mother of the two witnesses was not menaced in Scripture with any particular discomfort. If we were to be martyrs, my mother ought to wish to be a martyr too, whereas nothing was farther from her intention. Her notion clearly was that we were to be massacred somewhere in the streets of London, in consequence of the anti- Christian machinations of the Pope; that after lying about unburied for three days and a half we were to come to life again; and, finally, that we should conspicuously ascend to heaven, in front, perhaps, of the Foundling Hospital.
She was not herself indeed to share either our martyrdom or our glorification, but was to survive us many years on earth, living in an odour of great sanctity and reflected splendour, as the central and most august figure in a select society. She would perhaps be able indirectly, through her sons' influence with the Almighty, to have a voice in most of the arrangements both of this world and of the next. If all this were to come true (and things seemed very like it), those friends who had neglected us in our adversity would not find it too easy to be restored to favour, however greatly they might desire it--that is to say, they would not have found it too easy in the case of one less magnanimous and spiritually-minded than herself. My mother said but little of the above directly, but the fragments which occasionally escaped her were pregnant, and on looking back it is easy to perceive that she must have been building one of the most stupendous aerial fabrics that have ever been reared.
I have given the above in its more amusing aspect, and am half afraid that I may appear to be making a jest of weakness on the part of one of the most devotedly unselfish mothers who have ever existed. But one can love while smiling, and the very wildness of my mother's dream serves to show how entirely her whole soul was occupied with the things which are above. To her, religion was all in all; the earth was but a place of pilgrimage--only so far important as it was a possible road to heaven. She impressed this upon both of us by every word and action--instant in season and out of season, so that she might fill us more deeply with a sense of God. But the inevitable consequences happened; my mother had aimed too high and had overshot her mark. The influence indeed of her guileless and unworldly nature remained impressed upon my brother even during the time of his extremest unbelief (perhaps his ultimate safety is in the main referable to this cause, and to the happy memories of my father, which had predisposed him to love God), but my mother had insisted on the most minute verbal accuracy of every part of the Bible; she had also dwelt upon the duty of independent research, and on the necessity of giving up everything rather than assent to things which our conscience did not assent to. No one could have more effectually taught us to try TO THINK the truth, and we had taken her at her word because our hearts told us that she was right. But she required three incompatible things. When my brother grew older he came to feel that independent and unflinching examination, with a determination to abide by the results, would lead him to reject the point which to my mother was more important than any other--I mean the absolute accuracy of the Gospel records. My mother was inexpressibly shocked at hearing my brother doubt the authenticity of the Epistle to the Hebrews; and then, as it appeared to him, she tried to make him violate the duties of examination and candour which he had learnt too thoroughly to unlearn. Thereon came pain and an estrangement which was none the less profound for being mutually concealed.
This estrangement was the gradual work of some five or six years, during which my brother was between eleven and seventeen years old. At seventeen, I am told that he was remarkably well informed and clever. His manners were, like my father's, singularly genial, and his appearance very prepossessing. He had as yet no doubt concerning the soundness of any fundamental Christian doctrine, but his mind was too active to allow of his being contented with my mother's child- like faith. There were points on which he did not indeed doubt, but which it would none the less be interesting to consider; such for example as the perfectibility of the regenerate Christian, and the meaning of the mysterious central chapters of the Epistle to the Romans. He was engaged in these researches though still only a boy, when an event occurred which gave the first real shock to his faith.
He was accustomed to teach in a school for the poorest children every Sunday afternoon, a task for which his patience and good temper well fitted him. On one occasion, however, while he was explaining the effect of baptism to one of his favourite pupils, he discovered to his great surprise that the boy had never been baptised. He pushed his inquiries further, and found that out of the fifteen boys in his class only five had been baptised, and, not only so, but that no difference in disposition or conduct could be discovered between the regenerate boys and the unregenerate. The good and bad boys were distributed in proportions equal to the respective numbers of the baptised and unbaptised. In spite of a certain impetuosity of natural character, he was also of a matter-of-fact and experimental turn of mind; he therefore went through the whole school, which numbered about a hundred boys, and found out who had been baptised and who had not. The same results appeared. The majority had not been baptised; yet the good and bad dispositions were so distributed as to preclude all possibility of maintaining that the baptised boys were better than the unbaptised.
The reader may smile at the idea of any one's faith being troubled by a fact of which the explanation is so obvious, but in truth my brother was seriously and painfully shocked. The teacher to whom he applied for a solution of the difficulty was not a man of any real power, and reported my brother to the rector for having disturbed the school by his inquiries. The rector was old and self-opinionated; the difficulty, indeed, was plainly as new to him as it had been to my brother, but instead of saying so at once, and referring to any recognised theological authority, he tried to put him off with words which seemed intended to silence him rather than to satisfy him; finally he lost his temper, and my brother fell under suspicion of unorthodoxy.
This kind of treatment might answer with some people, but not with my brother. He alludes to it resentfully in the introductory chapter of his book. He became suspicious that a preconceived opinion was being defended at the expense of honest scrutiny, and was thus driven upon his own unaided investigation. The result may be guessed: he began to go astray, and strayed further and further. The children of God, he reasoned, the members of Christ and inheritors of the kingdom of Heaven, were no more spiritually minded than the children of the world and the devil. Was then the grace of God a gift which left no trace whatever upon those who were possessed of it--a thing the presence or absence of which might be ascertained by consulting the parish registry, but was not discernible in conduct? The grace of man was more clearly perceptible than this. Assuredly there must be a screw loose somewhere, which, for aught he knew, might be jeopardising the salvation of all Christendom. Where then was this loose screw to be found?
He concluded after some months of reflection that the mischief was caused by the system of sponsors and by infant baptism. He therefore, to my mother's inexpressible grief, joined the Baptists and was immersed in a pond near Dorking. With the Baptists he remained quiet about three months, and then began to quarrel with his instructors as to their doctrine of predestination. Shortly afterwards he came accidentally upon a fascinating stranger who was no less struck with my brother than my brother with him, and this gentleman, who turned out to be a Roman Catholic missionary, landed him in the Church of Rome, where he felt sure that he had now found rest for his soul. But here, too, he was mistaken; after about two years he rebelled against the stifling of all free inquiry; on this rebellion the flood-gates of scepticism were opened, and he was soon battling with unbelief. He then fell in with one who was a pure Deist, and was shorn of every shred of dogma which he had ever held, except a belief in the personality and providence of the Creator.
On reviewing his letters written to me about this time, I am painfully struck with the manner in which they show that all these pitiable vagaries were to be traced to a single cause--a cause which still exists to the misleading of hundreds of thousands, and which, I fear, seems likely to continue in full force for many a year to come- -I mean, to a false system of training which teaches people to regard Christianity as a thing one and indivisible, to be accepted entirely in the strictest reading of the letter, or to be rejected as absolutely untrue. The fact is, that all permanent truth is as one of those coal measures, a seam of which lies near the surface, and even crops up above the ground, but which is generally of an inferior quality and soon worked out; beneath it there comes a layer of sand and clay, and then at last the true seam of precious quality and in virtually inexhaustible supply. The truth which is on the surface is rarely the whole truth. It is seldom until this has been worked out and done with--as in the case of the apparent flatness of the earth-- that unchangeable truth is discovered. It is the glory of the Lord to conceal a matter: it is the glory of the king to find it out. If my brother, from whom I have taken the above illustration, had had some judicious and wide-minded friend to correct and supplement the mainly admirable principles which had been instilled into him by my mother, he would have been saved years of spiritual wandering; but, as it was, he fell in with one after another, each in his own way as literal and unspiritual as the other--each impressed with one aspect of religious truth, and with one only. In the end he became perhaps the widest-minded and most original thinker whom I have ever met; but no one from his early manhood could have augured this result; on the contrary, he shewed every sign of being likely to develop into one of those who can never see more than one side of a question at a time, in spite of their seeing that side with singular clearness of mental vision. In after life, he often met with mere lads who seemed to him to be years and years in advance of what he had been at their age, and would say, smiling, "With a great sum obtained I this freedom; but thou wast free-born."
Yet when one comes to think of it, a late development and laborious growth are generally more fruitful than those which are over-early luxuriant. Drawing an illustration from the art of painting, with which he was well acquainted, my brother used to say that all the greatest painters had begun with a hard and precise manner from which they had only broken after several years of effort; and that in like manner all the early schools were founded upon definiteness of outline to the exclusion of truth of effect. This may be true; but in my brother's case there was something even more unpromising than this; there was a commonness, so to speak, of mental execution, from which no one could have foreseen his after-emancipation. Yet in the course of time he was indeed emancipated to the very uttermost, while his bonds will, I firmly trust, be found to have been of inestimable service to the whole human race.
For although it was so many years before he was enabled to see the Christian scheme AS A WHOLE, or even to conceive the idea that there was any whole at all, other than each one of the stages of opinion through which he was at the time passing; yet when the idea was at length presented to him by one whom I must not name, the discarded fragments of his faith assumed shape, and formed themselves into a consistently organised scheme. Then became apparent the value of his knowledge of the details of so many different sides of Christian verity. Buried in the details, he had hitherto ignored the fact that they were only the unessential developments of certain component parts. Awakening to the perception of the whole after an intimate acquaintance with the details, he was able to realise the position and meaning of all that he had hitherto experienced in a way which has been vouchsafed to few, if any others.
Thus he became truly a broad Churchman. Not broad in the ordinary and ill-considered use of the term (for the broad Churchman is as little able to sympathise with Romanists, extreme High Churchmen and Dissenters, as these are with himself--he is only one of a sect which is called by the name broad, though it is no broader than its own base), but in the true sense of being able to believe in the naturalness, legitimacy, and truth qua Christianity even of those doctrines which seem to stand most widely and irreconcilably asunder.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
But it was impossible that a mind of such activity should have gone over so much ground, and yet in the end returned to the same position as that from which it started.
So far was this from being the case that the Christianity of his maturer life would be considered dangerously heterodox by those who belong to any of the more definite or precise schools of theological thought. He was as one who has made the circuit of a mountain, and yet been ascending during the whole time of his doing so: such a person finds himself upon the same side as at first, but upon a greatly higher level. The peaks which had seemed the most important when he was in the valley were now dwarfed to their true proportions by colossal cloud-capped masses whose very existence could not have been suspected from beneath: and again, other points which had seemed among the lowest turned out to be the very highest of all--as the Finster-Aarhorn, which hides itself away in the centre of the Bernese Alps, is never seen to be the greatest till one is high and far off.
Thus he felt no sort of fear or repugnance in admitting that the New Testament writings, as we now have them, are not by any means accurate records of the events which they profess to chronicle. This, which few English Churchmen would be prepared to admit, was to him so much of an axiom that he despaired of seeing any sound theological structure raised until it was universally recognised.
And here he would probably meet with sympathy from the more advanced thinkers within the body of the Church, but so far as I know, he stood alone as recognising the wisdom of the Divine counsels in having ordained the wide and apparently irreconcilable divergencies of doctrine and character which we find assigned to Christ in the Gospels, and as finding his faith confirmed, not by the supposition that both the portraits drawn of Christ are objectively true, but THAT BOTH ARE OBJECTIVELY INACCURATE, AND THAT THE ALMIGHTY INTENDED THEY SHOULD BE INACCURATE, inasmuch as the true spiritual conception in the mind of man could be indirectly more certainly engendered by a strife, a warring, a clashing, so to speak, of versions, all of them distorting slightly some one or other of the features of the original, than directly by the most absolutely correct impression which human language could convey. Even the most perfect human speech, as has been often pointed out, is a very gross and imperfect vehicle of thought. I remember once hearing him say that it was not till he was nearly thirty that he discovered "what thick and sticky fluids were air and water," how crass and dull in comparison with other more subtle fluids; he added that speech had no less deceived him, seeming, as it did, to be such a perfect messenger of thought, and being after all nothing but a shuffler and a loiterer.
With most men the Gospels are true in spite of their discrepancies and inconsistencies; with him Christianity, as distinguished from a bare belief in the objectively historical character of each part of the Gospels, was true because of these very discrepancies; as his conceptions of the Divine manner of working became wider, the very forces which had at one time shaken his faith to its foundations established it anew upon a firmer and broader base. He was gradually led to feel that the ideal presented by the life and death of our Saviour could never have been accepted by Jews at all, if its whole purport had been made intelligible during the Redeemer's life-time; that in order to insure its acceptance by a nucleus of followers it must have been endowed with a more local aspect than it was intended afterwards to wear; yet that, for the sake of its subsequent universal value, the destruction of that local complexion was indispensable; that the corruptions inseparable from viva voce communication and imperfect education were the means adopted by the Creator to blur the details of the ideal, and give it that breadth which could not be otherwise obtainable--and that thus the value of the ideal was indefinitely enhanced, and DESIGNEDLY ENHANCED, alike by the waste of time and by its incrustations; that all ideals gain by a certain amount of vagueness, which allows the beholder to fill in the details according to his own spiritual needs, and that no ideal can be truly universal and permanents unless it have an elasticity which will allow of this process in the minds of those who contemplate it; that it cannot become thus elastic unless by the loss of no inconsiderable amount of detail, and that thus the half, as Dr. Arnold used to say, "becomes greater than the whole," the sketch more preciously suggestive than the photograph. Hence far from deploring the fragmentary, confused, and contradictory condition of the Gospel records, he saw in this condition the means whereby alone the human mind could have been enabled to conceive--not the precise nature of Christ--but THE HIGHEST IDEAL OF WHICH EACH INDIVIDUAL CHRISTIAN SOUL WAS CAPABLE. As soon as he had grasped these conceptions, which will be found more fully developed in one of the later chapters of his book, the spell of unbelief was broken.
But, once broken, it was dissolved utterly and entirely; he could allow himself to contemplate fearlessly all sorts of issues from which one whose experiences had been less varied would have shrunk. He was free of the enemy's camp, and could go hither and thither whithersoever he would. The very points which to others were insuperable difficulties were to him foundation-stones of faith. For example, to the objection that if in the present state of the records no clear conception of the nature of Christ's life and teaching could be formed, we should be compelled to take one for our model of whom we knew little or nothing certain, I have heard him answer, "And so much the better for us all. The truth, if read by the light of man's imperfect understanding, would have been falser to him than any falsehood. It would have been truth no longer. BETTER BE LED ARIGHT BY AN ERROR WHICH IS SO ADJUSTED AS TO COMPENSATE FOR THE ERRORS IN MAN'S POWERS OF UNDERSTANDING, THAN BE MISLED BY A TRUTH WHICH CAN NEVER BE TRANSLATED FROM OBJECTIVITY TO SUBJECTIVITY. In such a case, it is the error which is the truth and the truth the error.
Fearless himself, he could not understand the fears felt by others; and this was perhaps his greatest sympathetic weakness. He was impatient of the subterfuges with which untenable interpretations of Scripture were defended, and of the disingenuousness of certain harmonists; indeed, the mention of the word harmony was enough to kindle an outbreak of righteous anger, which would sometimes go to the utmost limit of righteousness. "Harmonies!" he would exclaim, "the sweetest harmonies are those which are most full of discords, and the discords of one generation of musicians become heavenly music in the hands of their successors. Which of the great musicians has not enriched his art not only by the discovery of new harmonies, but by proving that sounds which are actually inharmonious are nevertheless essentially and eternally delightful? What an outcry has there not always been against the 'unwarrantable licence' with the rules of harmony whenever a Beethoven or a Mozart has broken through any of the trammels which have been regarded as the safeguards of the art, instead of in their true light of fetters, and how gratefully have succeeding musicians acquiesced in and adopted the innovation." Then would follow a tirade with illustration upon illustration, comparison of this passage with that, and an exhaustive demonstration that one or other, or both, could have had no sort of possible foundation in fact; he could only see that the persons from whom he differed were defending something which was untrue and which they ought to have known to be untrue, but he could not see that people ought to know many things which they do not know.
Had he himself seen all that he ought to have been able to see from his own standpoints? Can any of us do so? The force of early bias and education, the force of intellectual surroundings, the force of natural timidity, the force of dulness, were things which he could appreciate and make allowance for in any other age, and among any other people than his own; but as belonging to England and the Nineteenth Century they had no place in his theory of Nature; they were inconceivable, unnatural, unpardonable, whenever they came into contact with the subject of Christian evidences. Deplorable, indeed, they are, but this was just the sort of word to which he could not confine himself. The criticisms upon the late Dean Alford's notes, which will be given in the sequel, display this sort of temper; they are not entirely his own, but he adopted them and endorsed them with a warmth which we cannot but feel to be unnecessary, not to say more. Yet I am free to confess that whatever editorial licence I could venture to take has been taken in the direction of lenity.
On the whole, however, he valued Dean Alford's work very highly, giving him great praise for the candour with which he not unfrequently set the harmonists aside. For example, in his notes upon the discrepancies between St. Luke's and St. Matthew's accounts of the early life of our Lord, the Dean openly avows that it is quite beyond his purpose to attempt to reconcile the two. "This part of the Gospel history," he writes, "is one where the harmonists, by their arbitrary reconcilement of the two accounts, have given great advantage to the enemies of the faith. AS THE TWO ACCOUNTS NOW STAND, it is wholly impossible to suggest any satisfactory method of UNITING THEM, every one who has attempted it has in some part or other of his hypothesis violated probability and common sense," but in spite of this, the Dean had no hesitation in accepting both the accounts. With reference to this the author of The Jesus of History (Williams and Norgate, 1866)--a work to which my brother admitted himself to be under very great obligations, and which he greatly admired, in spite of his utter dissent from the main conclusion arrived at, has the following note:-
"Dean Alford, N.T. for English readers, admits that the narratives as they stand are contradictory, but he believes both. He is even severe upon the harmonists who attempt to frame schemes of reconciliation between the two, on account of the triumph they thus furnish to the 'enemies of the faith,' a phrase which seems to imply all who believe less than he does. The Dean, however, forgets that the faith which can believe two (apparently) contradictory propositions in matters of fact is a very rare gift, and that for one who is so endowed there are thousands who can be satisfied with a plausible though demonstrably false explanation. To the latter class the despised harmonists render a real service."
Upon this note my brother was very severe. In a letter, dated Dec. 18, 1866, addressed to a friend who had alluded to it, and expressed his concurrence with it as in the main just, my brother wrote: "You are wrong about the note in The Jesus of History, there is more of the Christianity of the future in Dean Alford's indifference to the harmony between the discordant accounts of Luke and Matthew than there would have been EVEN IN THE MOST CONVINCING AND SATISFACTORY explanation of the way in which they came to differ. No such explanation is possible; both the Dean and the author of The Jesus of History were very well aware of this, but the latter is unjust in assuming that his opponent was not alive to the absurdity of appearing to believe two contradictory propositions at one and the same time. The Dean takes very good care that he shall not appear to do this, for it is perfectly plain to any careful reader that he must really believe that one or both narratives are inaccurate, inasmuch as the differences between them are too great to allow of reconciliation by a supposed suppression of detail.
"This, though not said so clearly as it should have been, is yet virtually implied in the admission that no sort of fact which could by any possibility be admitted as reconciling them had ever occurred to human ingenuity; what, then, Dean Alford must have really felt was that the spiritual value of each account was no less precious for not being in strict accordance with the other; that the objective truth lies somewhere between them, and is of very little importance, being long dead and buried, and living in its results only, in comparison with the subjective truth conveyed by both the narratives, which lives in our hearts independently of precise knowledge concerning the actual facts. Moreover, that though both accounts may perhaps be inaccurate, yet that A VERY LITTLE natural inaccuracy on the part of each writer would throw them apparently very wide asunder, that such inaccuracies are easily to be accounted for, and would, in fact, be inevitable in the sixty years of oral communication which elapsed between the birth of our Lord and the writing of the first Gospel, and again in the eighty or ninety years prior to the third, so that the details of the facts connected with the conception, birth, genealogy, and earliest history of our Saviour are irrecoverable--a general impression being alone possible, or indeed desirable.
"It might perhaps have been more satisfactory if Dean Alford had expressed the above more plainly; but if he had done this, who would have read his book? Where would have been that influence in the direction of truly liberal Christianity which has been so potent during the last twenty years? As it was, the freedom with which the Dean wrote was the cause of no inconsiderable scandal. Or, again, he may not have been fully conscious of his own position: few men are; he had taken the right one, but more perhaps by spiritual instinct than by conscious and deliberate exercise of his intellectual faculties. Finally, compromise is not a matter of good policy only, it is a solemn duty in the interests of Christian peace, and this not in minor matters only--we can all do this much--but in those concerning which we feel most strongly, for here the sacrifice is greatest and most acceptable to God. There are, of course, limits to this, and Dean Alford may have carried compromise too far in the present instance, but it is very transparent. The narrowness which leads the author of The Jesus of History to strain at such a gnat is the secret of his inability to accept the divinity and miracles of our Lord, and has marred the most exhaustively critical exegesis of the life and death of our Saviour with an impotent conclusion."
It is strange that one who could write thus should occasionally have shown himself so little able to apply his own principles. He seems to have been alternately under the influence of two conflicting spirits--at one time writing as though there were nothing precious under the sun except logic, consistency, and precision, and breathing fire and smoke against even very trifling deviations from the path of exact criticism--at another, leading the reader almost to believe that he disregarded the value of any objective truth, and speaking of endeavour after accuracy in terms that are positively contemptuous. Whenever he was in the one mood he seemed to forget the possibility of any other; so much so that I have sometimes thought that he did this deliberately and for the same reasons as those which led Adam Smith to exclude one set of premises in his Theory of Moral Sentiments and another in his Wealth of Nations. I believe, however, that the explanation lies in the fact that my brother was inclined to underrate the importance of belief in the objective truth of any other individual features in the life of our Lord than his Resurrection and Ascension. All else seemed dwarfed by the side of these events. His whole soul was so concentrated upon the centre of the circle that he forgot the circumference, or left it out of sight. Nothing less than the strictest objective truth as to the main facts of the Resurrection and Ascension would content him; the other miracles and the life and teaching of our Lord might then be left open; whatever view was taken of them by each individual Christian was probably the one most desirable for the spiritual wellbeing of each.
Even as regards the Resurrection and Ascension, he did not greatly value the detail. Provided these facts were so established that they could never henceforth be controverted, he thought that the less detail the broader and more universally acceptable would be the effect. Hence, when Dean Alford's notes seemed to jeopardise the evidences for these things, he could brook no trifling; for unless Christ actually died and actually came to life again, he saw no escape from an utter denial of any but natural religion. Christ would have been no more to him than Socrates or Shakespeare, except in so far as his teaching was more spiritual. The triune nature of the Deity--the Resurrection from the dead--the hope of Heaven and salutary fear of Hell--all would go but for the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus Christ; nothing would remain except a sense of the Divine as a substitute for God, and the current feeling of one's peers as the chief moral check upon misconduct. Indeed, we have seen this view openly advocated by a recent writer, and set forth in the very plainest terms. My brother did not live to see it, but if he had, he would have recognised the fulfilment of his own prophecies as to what must be the inevitable sequel of a denial of our Lord's Resurrection.
It will be seen therefore that he was in no danger of being carried away by a "pet theory." Where light and definition were essential, he would sacrifice nothing of either; but he was jealous for his highest light, and felt "that the whole effect of the Christian scheme was indefinitely heightened by keeping all other lights subordinate"--this at least was the illustration which he often used concerning it. But as there were limits to the value of light and "finding"--limits which had been far exceeded, with the result of an unnatural forcing of the lights, and an effect of garishness and unreality--so there were limits to the as yet unrecognised preciousness of "losing" and obscurity; these limits he placed at the objectivity of our Lord's Resurrection and Ascension. Let there be light enough to show these things, and the rest would gain by being in half-tone and shadow.
His facility of illustration was simply marvellous. From his conversation any one would have thought that he was acquainted with all manner of arts and sciences of which he knew little or nothing. It is true, as has been said already, that he had had some practice in the art of painting, and was an enthusiastic admirer of the masterpieces of Raphael, Titian, Guido, Domenichino, and others; but he could never have been called a painter; for music he had considerable feeling; I think he must have known thorough-bass, but it was hard to say what he did or did not know. Of science he was almost entirely ignorant, yet he had assimilated a quantity of stray facts, and whatever he assimilated seemed to agree with him and nourish his mental being. But though his acquaintance with any one art or science must be allowed to have been superficial only, he had an astonishing perception of the relative bearings of facts which seemed at first sight to be quite beyond the range of one another, and of the relations between the sciences generally; it was this which gave him his felicity and fecundity of illustration--a gift which he never abused. He delighted in its use for the purpose of carrying a clear impression of his meaning to the mind of another, but I never remember to have heard him mistake illustration for argument, nor endeavour to mislead an adversary by a fascinating but irrelevant simile. The subtlety of his mind was a more serious source of danger to him, though I do not know that he greatly lost by it in comparison with what he gained; his sense, however, of distinctions was so fine that it would sometimes distract his attention from points of infinitely greater importance in connection with his subject than the particular distinction which he was trying to establish at the moment.
The reader may be glad to know what my brother felt about retaining the unhistoric passages of Scripture. Would he wish to see them sought for and sifted out? Or, again, what would he propose concerning such of the parables as are acknowledged by every liberal Churchman to be immoral, as, for instance, the story of Dives and Lazarus and the Unjust Steward--parables which can never have been spoken by our Lord, at any rate not in their present shape? And here we have a remarkable instance of his moderation and truly English good sense. "Do not touch one word of them," was his often-repeated exclamation. "If not directly inspired by the mouth of God they have been indirectly inspired by the force of events, and the force of events is the power and manifestation of God; they could not have been allowed to come into their present position if they had not been recognised in the counsels of the Almighty as being of indirect service to mankind; there is a subjective truth conveyed even by these parables to the minds of many, that enables them to lay hold of other and objective truths which they could not else have grasped.
"There can be no question that the communistic utterances of the third gospel, as distinguished from St. Matthew's more spiritual and doubtless more historic rendering of the same teaching, have been of inestimable service to Christianity. Christ is not for the whole only, but also for them that are sick, for the ill-instructed and what we are pleased to call 'dangerous' classes, as well as for the more sober thinkers. To how many do the words, 'Blessed be ye poor: for your's is the kingdom of Heaven' (Luke vi., 20), carry a comfort which could never be given by the 'Blessed are the poor in spirit' of Matthew v., 3. In Matthew we find, 'Blessed are the poor in spirit: for their's is the kingdom of Heaven. Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God. Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for their's is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.' In Luke we read, 'Blessed are ye that hunger now: for ye shall be filled. Blessed are ye that weep now: for ye shall laugh. . . . But woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation. Woe unto you that are full! for ye shall hunger. Woe unto you that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep. Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you! for so did THEIR fathers to the false prophets,' where even the grammar of the last sentence, independently of the substance, is such as it is impossible to ascribe to our Lord himself.
"The 'upper' classes naturally turn to the version of Matthew, but the 'lower,' no less naturally to that of Luke, nor is it likely that the ideal of Christ would be one-tenth part so dear to them had not this provision for them been made, not by the direct teaching of the Saviour, but by the indirect inspiration of such events as were seen by the Almighty to be necessary for the full development of the highest ideal of which mankind was capable. All that we have in the New Testament is the inspired word, directly or indirectly, of God, the unhistoric no less than the historic; it is for us to take spiritual sustenance from whatever meats we find prepared for us, not to order the removal of this or that dish; the coarser meats are for the coarser natures; as they grow in grace they will turn from these to the finer: let us ourselves partake of that which we find best suited to us, but do not let us grudge to others the provision that God has set before them. There are many things which though not objectively true are nevertheless subjectively true to those who can receive them; and subjective truth is universally felt to be even higher than objective, as may be shown by the acknowledged duty of obeying our consciences (which is the right TO US) rather than any dictate of man however much more objectively true. It is that which is true TO US that we are bound each one of us to seek and follow."
Having heard him thus far, and being unable to understand, much less to sympathise with teaching so utterly foreign to anything which I had heard elsewhere, I said to him, "Either our Lord did say the words assigned to him by St. Luke or he did not. If he did, as they stand they are bad, and any one who heard them for the first time would say that they were bad; if he did not, then we ought not to allow them to remain in our Bibles to the misleading of people who will thus believe that God is telling them what he never did tell them--to the misleading of the poor, whom even in low self-interest we are bound to instruct as fully and truthfully as we can."
He smiled and answered, "That is the Peter Bell view of the matter. I thought so once, as, indeed, no one can know better than yourself."
The expression upon his face as he said this was sufficient to show the clearness of his present perception, nevertheless I was anxious to get to the root of the matter, and said that if our Lord never uttered these words their being attributed to him must be due to fraud; to pious fraud, but still to fraud.
"Not so," he answered, "it is due to the weakness of man's powers of memory and communication, and perhaps in some measure to unconscious inspiration. Moreover, even though wrong of some sort may have had its share in the origin of certain of the sayings ascribed to our Saviour, yet their removal now that they have been consecrated by time would be a still greater wrong. Would you defend the spoliation of the monasteries, or the confiscation of the abbey lands? I take it no--still less would you restore the monasteries or take back the lands; a consecrated change becomes a new departure; accept it and turn it to the best advantage. These are things to which the theory of the Church concerning lay baptism is strictly applicable. Fieri non debet, factum valet. If in our narrow and unsympathetic strivings after precision we should remove the hallowed imperfections whereby time has set the glory of his seal upon the gospels as well as upon all other aged things, not for twenty generations will they resume that ineffable and inviolable aspect which our fussy meddlesomeness will have disturbed. Let them alone. It is as they stand that they have saved the world.
"No change is good unless it is imperatively called for. Not even the Reformation was good; it is good now; I acquiesce in it, as I do in anything which in itself not vital has received the sanction of many generations of my countrymen. It is sanction which sanctifieth in matters of this kind. I would no more undo the Reformation now than I would have helped it forward in the sixteenth century. Leave the historic, the unhistoric, and the doubtful to grow together until the harvest: that which is not vital will perish and rot unnoticed when it has ceased to have vitality; it is living till it has done this. Note how the very passages which you would condemn have died out of the regard of any but the poor. Who quotes them? Who appeals to them? Who believes in them? Who indeed except the poorest of the poor attaches the smallest weight to them whatever? To us they are dead, and other passages will die to us in like manner, noiselessly and almost imperceptibly, as the services for the fifth of November died out of the Prayer Book. One day the fruit will be hanging upon the tree, as it has hung for months, the next it will be lying upon the ground. It is not ripe until it has fallen of itself, or with the gentlest shaking; use no violence towards it, confident that you cannot hurry the ripening, and that if shaken down unripe the fruit will be worthless. Christianity must have contained the seeds of growth within itself, even to the shedding of many of its present dogmas. If the dogmas fall quietly in their maturity, the precious seed of truth (which will be found in the heart of every dogma that has been able to take living hold upon the world's imagination) will quicken and spring up in its own time: strike at the fruit too soon and the seed will die."
I should be sorry to convey an impression that I am responsible for, or that I entirely agree with, the defence of the unhistoric which I have here recorded. I have given it in my capacity of editor and in some sort biographer, but am far from being prepared to maintain that it is likely, or indeed ought, to meet with the approval of any considerable number of Christians. But, surely, in these days of self-mystification it is refreshing to see the boldness with which my brother thought, and the freedom with which he contemplated all sorts of issues which are too generally avoided. What temptation would have been felt by many to soften down the inconsistencies and contradictions of the Gospels. How few are those who will venture to follow the lead of scientific criticism, and admit what every scholar must well know to be indisputable. Yet if a man will not do this, he shows that he has greater faith in falsehood than in truth.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
On my brother's death I came into possession of several of his early commonplace books filled with sketches for articles; some of these are more developed than others, but they are all of them fragmentary. I do not think that the reader will fail to be interested with the insight into my brother's spiritual and intellectual progress which a few extracts from these writings will afford, and have therefore, after some hesitation, decided in favour of making them public, though well aware that my brother would never have done so. They are too exaggerated to be dangerous, being so obviously unfair as to carry their own antidote. The reader will not fail to notice the growth not only in thought but also in literary style which is displayed by my brother's later writings.
In reference to the very subject of the parables above alluded to, he had written during his time of unbelief:- "Why are we to interpret so literally all passages about the guilt of unbelief, and insist upon the historical character of every miraculous account, while we are indignant if any one demands an equally literal rendering of the precepts concerning human conduct? He that hath two coats is not to give to him that hath none: this would be 'visionary,' 'utopian,' 'wholly unpractical,' and so forth. Or, again, he that is smitten on the one cheek is not to turn the other to the smiter, but to hand the offender over to the law; nor are the commands relative to indifference as to the morrow and a neglect of ordinary prudence to be taken as they stand; nor yet the warnings against praying in public; nor can the parables, any one of them, be interpreted strictly with advantage to human welfare, except perhaps that of the Good Samaritan; nor the Sermon on the Mount, save in such passages as were already the common property of mankind before the coming of Christ. The parables which every one praises are in reality very bad: the Unjust Steward, the Labourers in the Vineyard, the Prodigal Son, Dives and Lazarus, the Sower and the Seed, the Wise and Foolish Virgins, the Marriage Garment, the Man who planted a Vineyard, are all either grossly immoral, or tend to engender a very low estimate of the character of God--an estimate far below the standard of the best earthly kings; where they are not immoral, or do not tend to degrade the character of God, they are the merest commonplaces imaginable, such as one is astonished to see people accept as having been first taught by Christ. Such maxims as those which inculcate conciliation and a forgiveness of injuries (wherever practicable) are certainly good, but the world does not owe their discovery to Christ, and they have had little place in the practice of his followers.
"It is impossible to say that as a matter of fact the English people forgive their enemies more freely now than the Romans did, we will say in the time of Augustus. The value of generosity and magnanimity was perfectly well known among the ancients, nor do these qualities assume any nobler guise in the teaching of Christ than they did in that of the ancient heathen philosophers. On the contrary, they have no direct equivalent in Christian thought or phraseology. They are heathen words drawn from a heathen language, and instinct with the same heathen ideas of high spirit and good birth as belonged to them in the Latin language; they are no part or parcel of Christianity, and are not only independent of it, but savour distinctly of the flesh as opposed to the spirit, and are hence more or less antagonistic to it, until they have undergone a certain modification and transformation--until, that is to say, they have been mulcted of their more frank and genial elements. The nearest approach to them in Christian phrase is 'self-denial,' but the sound of this word kindles no smile of pleasure like that kindled by the ideas of generosity and nobility of conduct. At the thought of self-denial we feel good, but uncomfortable, and as though on the point of performing some disagreeable duty which we think we ought to pretend to like, but which we do not like. At the thought of generosity, we feel as one who is going to share in a delightfully exhilarating but arduous pastime--full of the most pleasurable excitement. On the mention of the word generosity we feel as if we were going out hunting; at the word 'self-denial,' as if we were getting ready to go to church. Generosity turns well-doing into a pleasure, self-denial into a duty, as of a servant under compulsion.
"There are people who will deny this, but there are people who will deny anything. There are some who will say that St. Paul would not have condemned the Falstaff plays, Twelfth Night, The Tempest, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and almost everything that Shakspeare ever wrote; but there is no arguing against this. 'Every man,' said Dr. Johnson, 'has a right to his own opinion, and every one else has a right to knock him down for it.' But even granting that generosity and high spirit have made some progress since the days of Christ, allowance must be made for the lapse of two thousand years, during which time it is only reasonable to suppose that an advance would have been made in civilisation--and hence in the direction of clemency and forbearance--whether Christianity had been preached or not, but no one can show that the modern English, if superior to the ancients in these respects, show any greater superiority than may be ascribed justly to centuries of established order and good government."
* * * * * * *
"Again, as to the ideal presented by the character of Christ, about which so much has been written; is it one which would meet with all this admiration if it were presented to us now for the first time? Surely it offers but a peevish view of life and things in comparison with that offered by other highest ideals--the old Roman and Greek ideals, the Italian ideal, and the Shakespearian ideal."
* * * * * * *
"As with the parables so with the Sermon on the Mount--where it is not commonplace it is immoral, and vice versa; the admiration which is so freely lavished upon the teachings of Jesus Christ turns out to be but of the same kind as that bestowed upon certain modern writers, who have made great reputations by telling people what they perfectly well knew; and were in no particular danger of forgetting. There is, however, this excuse for those who have been carried away with such musical but untruthful sentences as 'Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted,' namely, that they have not come to the subject with unbiassed minds. It is one thing to see no merit in a picture, and another to see no merit in a picture when one is told that it is by Raphael; we are few of us able to stand against the PRESTIGE of a great name; our self-love is alarmed lest we should be deficient in taste, or, worse still, lest we should be considered to be so; as if it could matter to any right-minded person whether the world considered him to be of good taste or not, in comparison with the keeping of his own soul truthful to itself.
"But if this holds good about things which are purely matters of taste, how much more does it do so concerning those who make a distinct claim upon us for moral approbation or the reverse? Such a claim is most imperatively made by the teaching of Jesus Christ: are we then content to answer in the words of others--words to which we have no title of our own--or shall we strip ourselves of preconceived opinion, and come to the question with minds that are truly candid? Whoever shrinks from this is a liar to his own self, and as such, the worst and most dangerous of liars. He is as one who sits in an impregnable citadel and trembles in a time of peace--so great a coward as not even to feel safe when he is in his own keeping. How loose of soul if he knows that his own keeping is worthless, how aspen-hearted if he fears lest others should find him out and hurt him for communing truthfully with himself!
* * * * * * *
"That a man should lie to others if he hopes to gain something considerable--this is reckoned cheating, robbing, fraudulent dealing, or whatever it may be; but it is an intelligible offence in comparison with the allowing oneself to be deceived. So in like manner with being bored. The man who lets himself be bored is even more contemptible than the bore. He who puts up with shoddy pictures, shoddy music, shoddy morality, shoddy society, is more despicable than he who is the prime agent in any of these things. He has less to gain, and probably deceives himself more; so that he commits the greater crime for the less reward. And I say emphatically that the morality which most men profess to hold as a Divine revelation was a shoddy morality, which would neither wash nor wear, but was woven together from a tissue of dreams and blunders, and steeped in blood more virulent than the blood of Nessus.
"Oh! if men would but leave off lying to themselves! If they would but learn the sacredness of their own likes and dislikes, and exercise their moral discrimination, making it clear to themselves what it is that they really love and venerate. There is no such enemy to mankind as moral cowardice. A downright vulgar self- interested and unblushing liar is a higher being than the moral cur whose likes and dislikes are at the beck and call of bullies that stand between him and his own soul; such a creature gives up the most sacred of all his rights for something more unsubstantial than a mess of pottage--a mental serf too abject even to know that he is being wronged. Wretched emasculator of his own reason, whose jejune timidity and want of vitality are thus omnipresent in the most secret chambers of his heart!
"We can forgive a man for almost any falsehood provided we feel that he was under strong temptation and well knew that he was deceiving. He has done wrong--still we can understand it, and he may yet have some useful stuff about him--but what can we feel towards one who for a small motive tells lies even to himself, and does not know that he is lying? What useless rotten fig-wood lumber must not such a thing be made of, and what lies will there not come out of it, falling in every direction upon all who come within its reach. The common self- deceiver of modern society is a more dangerous and contemptible object than almost any ordinary felon, a matter upon which those who do not deceive themselves need no enlightenment."
* * * * * * *
"But why insist so strongly on the literal interpretation of one part of the sayings of Christ, and be so elastic about that of the passages which inculcate more than those ordinary precepts which all had agreed upon as early as the days of Solomon and probably earlier? We have cut down Christianity so as to make it appear to sanction our own conventions; but we have not altered our conventions so as to bring them into harmony with Christianity. We do not give to him that asketh; we take good care to avoid him; yet if the precept meant only that we should be liberal in assisting others--it wanted no enforcing: the probability is that it had been enforced too much rather than too little already; the more literally it has been followed the more terrible has the mischief been; the saying only becomes harmless when regarded as a mere convention. So with most parts of Christ's teaching. It is only conventional Christianity which will stand a man in good stead to live by; true Christianity will never do so. Men have tried it and found it fail; or, rather, its inevitable failure was so obvious that no age or country has ever been mad enough to carry it out in such a manner as would have satisfied its founders. So said Dean Swift in his Argument against abolishing Christianity. 'I hope,' he writes, 'no reader imagines me so weak as to stand up in defence of real Christianity, such as used in primitive times' (if we may believe the authors of those ages) 'to have an influence upon men's beliefs and actions. To offer at the restoring of that would be, indeed, a wild project; it would be to dig up foundations, to destroy at one blow all the wit and half the learning of the kingdom, to break the entire frame and constitution of things, to ruin trade, extinguish arts and sciences, with the professors of them; in short, to turn our courts of exchange and shops into deserts; and would be full as absurd as the proposal of Horace where he advises the Romans all in a body to leave their city, and to seek a new seat in some remote part of the world by way of cure for the corruption of their manners.
"'Therefore, I think this caution was in itself altogether unnecessary (which I have inserted only to prevent all possibility of cavilling), since every candid reader will easily understand my discourse to be intended only in defence of nominal Christianity, the other having been for some time wholly laid aside by general consent as utterly inconsistent with our present schemes of wealth and power.'
"Yet but for these schemes of wealth and power the world would relapse into barbarianism; it is they and not Christianity which have created and preserved civilisation. And what if some unhappy wretch, with a serious turn of mind and no sense of the ridiculous, takes all this talk about Christianity in sober earnest, and tries to act upon it? Into what misery may he not easily fall, and with what life-long errors may he not embitter the lives of his children!
* * * * * * *
"Again, we do not cut off our right hand nor pluck out our eyes if they offend us; we conventionalise our interpretations of these sayings at our will and pleasure; we do take heed for the morrow, and should be inconceivably wicked and foolish were we not to do so; we do gather up riches, and indeed we do most things which the experience of mankind has taught us to be to our advantage, quite irrespectively of any precept of Christianity for or against. But why say that it is Christianity which is our chief guide, when the words of Christ point in such a very different direction from that which we have seen fit to take? Perhaps it is in order to compensate for our laxity of interpretation upon these points that we are so rigid in stickling for accuracy upon those which make no demand upon our comfort or convenience? Thus, though we conventionalise practice, we never conventionalise dogma. Here, indeed, we stickle for the letter most inflexibly; yet one would have thought that we might have had greater licence to modify the latter than the former. If we say that the teaching of Christ is not to be taken according to its import--why give it so much importance? Teaching by exaggeration is not a satisfactory method, nor one worthy of a being higher than man; it might have been well once, and in the East, but it is not well now. It induces more and more of that jarring and straining of our moral faculties, of which much is unavoidable in the existing complex condition of affairs, but of which the less the better. At present the tug of professed principles in one direction, and of necessary practice in the other, causes the same sort of wear and tear in our moral gear as is caused to a steam-engine by continually reversing it when it is going it at full speed. No mechanism can stand it."
The above extracts (written when he was about twenty-three years old) may serve to show how utter was the subversion of his faith. His mind was indeed in darkness! Who could have hoped that so brilliant a day should have succeeded to the gloom of such mistrust? Yet as upon a winter's morning in November when the sun rises red through the smoke, and presently the fog spreads its curtain of thick darkness over the city, and then there comes a single breath of wind from some more generous quarter, whereupon the blessed sun shines again, and the gloom is gone; or, again, as when the warm south-west wind comes up breathing kindness from the sea, unheralded, suspected, when the earth is in her saddest frost, and on the instant all the lands are thawed and opened to the genial influences of a sweet springful whisper--so thawed his heart, and the seed which had lain dormant in its fertile soil sprang up, grew, ripened, and brought forth an abundant harvest.
Indeed now that the result has been made plain we can perhaps feel that his scepticism was precisely of that nature which should have given the greatest ground for hope. He was a genuine lover of truth in so far as he could see it.
His lights were dim, but such as they were he walked according to them, and hence they burnt ever more and more clearly, till in later life they served to show him what is vouchsafed to such men and to such only--the enormity of his own mistakes. Better that a man should feel the divergence between Christian theory and Christian practice, that he should be shocked at it--even to the breaking away utterly from the theory until he has arrived at a wider comprehension of its scope--than that he should be indifferent to the divergence and make no effort to bring his principles and practice into harmony with one another. A true lover of consistency, it was intolerable to him to say one thing with his lips and another with his actions. As long as this is true concerning any man, his friends may feel sure that the hand of the Lord is with him, though the signs thereof be hidden from mortal eyesight.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
During the dark and unhappy time when he had, as it seems to me, bullied himself, or been bullied into infidelity, he had been utterly unable to realise the importance even of such a self-evident fact as that our Lord addressing an Eastern people would speak in such a way as Eastern people would best understand; it took him years to appreciate this. He could not see that modes of thought are as much part of a language as the grammar and words which compose it, and that before a passage can be said to be translated from one language into another it is often not the words only which must be rendered, but the thought itself which must be transformed; to a people habituated to exaggeration a saying which was not exaggerated would have been pointless--so weak as to arrest the attention of no one; in order to translate it into such words as should carry precisely the same meaning to colder and more temperate minds, the words would often have to be left out of sight altogether, and a new sentence or perhaps even simile or metaphor substituted; this is plainly out of the question, and therefore the best course is that which has been taken, i.e., to render the words as accurately as possible, and leave the reader to modify the meaning. But it was years before my brother could be got to feel this, nor did he ever do so fully, simple and obvious though it must appear to most people, until he had learned to recognise the value of a certain amount of inaccuracy and inconsistency in everything which is not comprehended in mechanics or the exact sciences. "It is this," he used to say, "which gives artistic or spiritual value as contrasted with mechanical precision."
In inaccuracy and inconsistency, therefore (within certain limits), my brother saw the means whereby our minds are kept from regarding things as rigidly and immutably fixed which are not yet fully understood, and perhaps may never be so while we are in our present state of probation. Life is not one of the exact sciences, living is essentially an art and not a science. Every thing addressed to human minds at all must be more or less of a compromise; thus, to take a very old illustration, even the definitions of a point and a line-- the fundamental things in the most exact of the sciences--are mere compromises. A point is supposed to have neither length, breadth, nor thickness--this in theory, but in practice unless a point have a little of all these things there is nothing there. So with a line; a line is supposed to have length, but no breadth, yet in practice we never saw a line which had not breadth. What inconsistency is there here, in requiring us to conceive something which we cannot conceive, and which can have no existence, before we go on to the investigation of the laws whereby the earth can alone be measured and the orbits of the planets determined. I do not think that this illustration was presented to my brother's mind while he was young, but I am sure that if it had been it would have made him miserable. He would have had no confidence in mathematics, and would very likely have made a furious attack upon Newton and Galileo, and been firmly convinced that he was discomfiting them. Indeed I cannot forget a certain look of bewilderment which came over his face when the idea was put before him, I imagine, for the first time. Fortunately he had so grown that the right inference was now in no danger of being missed. He did not conclude that because the evidences for mathematics were founded upon compromises and definitions which are inaccurate--therefore that mathematics were false, or that there were no mathematics, but he learnt to feel that there might be other things which were no less indisputable than mathematics, and which might also be founded on facts for which the evidences were not wholly free from inconsistencies and inaccuracies.
To some he might appear to be approaching too nearly to the "Sed tu vera puta" argument of Juvenal. I greatly fear that an attempt may be made to misrepresent him as taking this line; that is to say, as accepting Christianity on the ground of the excellence of its moral teaching, and looking upon it as, indeed, a superstition, but salutary for women and young people. Hardly anything would have shocked him more profoundly. This doctrine with its plausible show of morality appeared to him to be, perhaps, the most gross of all immoralities, inasmuch as it cuts the ground from under the feet of truth, luring the world farther and farther from the only true salvation--the careful study of facts and of the safest inferences that may be drawn from them. Every fact was to him a part of nature, a thing sacred, pregnant with Divine teaching of some sort, as being the expression of Divine will. It was through facts that he saw God; to tamper with facts was, in his view, to deface the countenance of the Almighty. To say that such and such was so and so, when the speaker did not believe it, was to lead people to worship a false God instead of a true one; setting them, to quote the words of the Psalmist, "a-whoring after their own imaginations." He saw the Divine presence in everything--the evil as well as the good; the evil being the expression of the Divine will that such and such courses should not go unpunished, but bring pain and misery which should deter others from following them, and the good being his sign of approbation. There was nothing good for man to know which could not be deduced from facts. This was the only sound basis of knowledge, and to found things upon fiction which could be made to stand upon facts was to try and build upon a quicksand.
He, therefore, loathed the reasoning of Juvenal with all the intensity of his nature. It was because he believed that the Resurrection and Ascension of our Lord were just as much matters of actual history as the assassination of Julius Caesar, and that they happened precisely in the same way as every daily event happens at present--that he accepted the Christian scheme in its essentials. Then came the details. Were these also objectively true? He answered, "Certainly not in every case." He would not for the world have had any one believe that he so considered them; but having made it perfectly clear that he was not going to deceive himself, he set himself to derive whatever spiritual comfort he could from them, just as he would from any noble fiction or work of art, which, while not professing to be historical, was instinct with the soul of genius. That there were unhistorical passages in the New Testament was to him a fact; therefore it was to be studied as an expression of the Divine will. What could be the meaning of it? That we should consider them as true? Assuredly not this. Then what else? This--that we should accept as subjectively true whatever we found spiritually precious, and be at liberty to leave all the rest alone--the unhistoric element having been introduced purposely for the sake of giving greater scope and latitude to the value of the ideal.
Of course one who was so firmly persuaded of the objective truth of the Resurrection and Ascension could be in no sort of danger of relapsing into infidelity as long as his reason remained. During the years of his illness his mind was clearly impaired, and no longer under his own control; but while his senses were his own it was absolutely impossible that he could be shaken by discrepancies and inconsistencies in the gospels. What small and trifling things are such discrepancies by the side of the great central miracle of the Resurrection! Nevertheless their existence was indisputable, and was no less indisputably a cause of stumbling to many, as it had been to himself. His experience of his own sufferings as an unbeliever gave him a keener sympathy with those who were in that distressing condition than could be felt by any one who had not so suffered, and fitted him, perhaps, more than any one who has yet lived to be the interpreter of Christianity to the Rationalist, and of Rationalism to the Christian. This, accordingly, was the task to which he set himself, having been singularly adapted for it by Nature, and as singularly disciplined by events.
It seemed to him that the first thing was to make the two parties understand one another--a thing which had never yet been done, but which was not at all impossible. For Protestantism is raised essentially upon a Rationalistic base. When we come to a definition of Rationalism nothing can be plainer than that it demands no scepticism from any one which an English Protestant would not approve of. It is another matter with the Church of Rome. That Church openly declares it as an axiom that religion and reason have nothing to do with one another, and that religion, though in flat contradiction to reason, should yet be accepted from the hands of a certain order as an act of unquestioning faith. The line of separation therefore between the Romanist and the Rationalist is clear, and definitely bars any possibility of arrangement between the two. Not so with the Protestant, who as heartily as the Rationalist admits that nothing is required to be believed by man except such things as can be reasonably proved--i.e., proved to the satisfaction of the reason. No Protestant would say that the Christian scheme ought to be accepted in spite of its being contrary to reason; we say that Christianity is to be believed because it can be shewn to follow as the necessary consequence of using our reason rightly. We should be shocked at being supposed to maintain otherwise. Yet this is pure Rationalism. The Rationalist would require nothing more; he demurs to Christianity because he maintains that if we bring our reason to bear upon the evidences which are brought forward in support of it, we are compelled to reject it; but he would accept it without hesitation if he believed that it could be sustained by arguments which ought to carry conviction to the reason. Thus both are agreed in principle that if the evidences of Christianity satisfy human reason, then Christianity should be received, but that on any other supposition it should be rejected.
Here then, he said, we have a common starting-point and the main principle of Rationalism turns out to be nothing but what we all readily admit, and with which we and our fathers have been as familiar for centuries as with the air we breathe. Every Protestant is a Rationalist, or else he ought to be ashamed of himself. Does he want to be called an "Irrationalist"? Hardly--yet if he is not a Rationalist what else can he be? No: the difference between us is one of detail, not of principle. This is a great step gained.
The next thing therefore was to make each party understand the view which the other took concerning the position which they had agreed to hold in common. There was no work, so far as he knew, which would be accepted both by Christians and unbelievers as containing a fair statement of the arguments of the two contending parties: every book which he had yet seen upon either side seemed written with the view of maintaining that its own side could hold no wrong, and the other no right: neither party seemed to think that they had anything to learn from the other, and neither that any considerable addition to their knowledge of the truth was either possible or desirable. Each was in possession of truth already, and all who did not see and feel this must be either wilfully blinded, or intensely stupid, or hypocrites.
So long as people carried on a discussion thus, what agreement was possible between them? Yet where, upon the Christian side, was the attempt to grapple with the real difficulties now felt by unbelievers? Simply nowhere. All that had been done hitherto was antiquated. Modern Christianity seemed to shrink from grappling with modern Rationalism, and displayed a timidity which could not be accounted for except by the supposition of secret misgiving that certain things were being defended which could not be defended fairly. This was quite intolerable; a misgiving was a warning voice from God, which should be attended to as a man valued his soul. On the other hand, the conviction reasonably entertained by unbelievers that they were right on many not inconsiderable details of the dispute, and that so-called orthodox Christians in their hearts knew it but would not own it--or that if they did not know it, they were only in ignorance because it suited their purpose to be so--this conviction gave an overweening self-confidence to infidels, as though they must be right in the whole because they were so in part; they therefore blinded themselves to all the more fundamental arguments in support of Christianity, because certain shallow ones had been put forward in the front rank, and been far too obstinately defended. They thus regarded the question too superficially, and had erred even more through pride of intellect and conceit than their opponents through timidity.
What then was to be done? Surely this; to explain the two contending parties to one another; to show to Rationalists that Christians are right upon Rationalistic principles in all the more important of their allegations; that is to say, to establish the Resurrection and Ascension of the Redeemer upon a basis which should satisfy the most imperious demands of modern criticism. This would form the first and most important part of the task. Then should follow a no less convincing proof that Rationalists are right in demurring to the historical accuracy of much which has been too obstinately defended by so-called orthodox writers. This would be the second part. Was there not reason to hope that when this was done the two parties might understand one another, and meet in a common Christianity? He believed that there was, and that the ground had been already cleared for such mutual compromise as might be accepted by both sides, not from policy but conviction. Therefore he began writing the book which it has devolved upon myself to edit, and which must now speak for itself. For him it was to suffer and to labour; almost on the very instant of his having done enough to express his meaning he was removed from all further power of usefulness.
The happy change from unbelief to faith had already taken place some three or four years before my return from America. With it had also come that sudden development of intellectual and spiritual power which so greatly astonished even those who had known him best. The whole man seemed changed--to have become possessed of an unusually capacious mind, instead of one which was acute, but acute only. On looking over the earlier letters which I received from him when I was in America, I can hardly believe that they should have been written by the same person as the one to whom, in spite of not a few great mental defects, I afterwards owed more spiritual enrichment than I have owed to any other person. Yet so it was. It came upon me imperceptibly that I had been very stupid in not discovering that my brother was a genius; but hardly had I made the discovery, and hardly had the fragment which follows this memoir received its present shape, when his overworked brain gave way and he fell into a state little better than idiocy. His originally cheerful spirits left him, and were succeeded by a religious melancholy which nothing could disturb. He became incapable either of mental or physical exertion, and was pronounced by the best physicians to be suffering from some obscure disease of the brain brought on by excitement and undue mental tension: in this state he continued for about four years, and died peacefully, but still as one in the profoundest melancholy, on the 15th of March, 1872, aged 40.
Always hopeful that his health would one day be restored, I never ventured to propose that I should edit his book during his own life- time. On his death I found his papers in the most deplorable confusion. The following chapters had alone received anything like a presentable shape--and these providentially are the most essential.
A dream is a dream only, yet sometimes there follows a fulfilment which bears a strange resemblance to the thing dreamt of. No one now believes that the Book of Revelation is to be taken as foretelling events which will happen in the same way as the massacre, for instance, of St. Bartholomew, indeed it is doubtful how far the whole is not to be interpreted as an allegory, descriptive of spiritual revolutions; yet surely my mother's dream as to the future of one, at least, of her sons has been strangely verified, and it is believed that the reader when he lays down this volume will feel that there have been few more potent witnesses to the truth of Christ than John Pickard Owen.
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