Lecture 1. On Freedom of Religious Discussion.
Difficulty of lecturing on Religion without giving offence.
DO you think it is possible to lecture on religion, even on natural religion, without giving offence either on the right or on the left? And do you think that a lean would be worth his salt who, in lecturing on religion, even on natural religion, were to look either right or left, instead of looking all facts, as they meet him, straight in the face, to see whether they are facts or not; and, if they are facts, to find out, if possible, what they mean, and what they are meant to teach us?
Religion, I know full well, differs from all other subjects. It appeals not only to our head, but to our heart. And as we do not like to hear those who are very near to our heart, those whom we love and revere, criticised, or even compared, it is but natural, that many people should object to a criticism of that religion which they love and revere, nay, even to a comparison of it with other religions.
But let us ask ourselves, Does this attitude with regard to those whom we love and revere, really prove that we have an undoubting faith in them? If we had, should we not rather wish to hear our friends compared and criticised, if only in order to have an opportunity of defending them, and of showing how infinitely superior they are to all others?
Why then should we not have the same feeling with regard to our religion as with regard to our friends, always supposing that we can give a good account of the faith that is in us, and of the reasons for which we love and revere our own religion? For if our own religion comes out victorious from the trial, and superior to all the rest, surely we shall have gained, not lost. And if other religions should after all appear not so infinitely inferior to our own, not altogether of a different stuff, should we be really poorer, because others are richer than we supposed? Would our religion be less true, because some of its truths are found in other religions also?
We may, I think, go a step further. Our own self-interest surely would seem to suggest as severe a trial of our own religion as of other religions, nay, even a more severe trial. Our religion has sometimes been compared to a good ship that is to carry us through the waves and tempests of this life to a safe haven. Would it not be wise, therefore, to have it tested, and submitted to the severest trials, before we entrust ourselves and those most dear to us to such a vessel? And remember, all men, except those who take part in the foundation of a new religion, or have been converted from an old to a new faith, have to accept their religious belief on trust, long before they are able to judge for themselves. Hence a child of Mohammedan parents invariably believes in Mohammed and the Korân. An Italian child never doubts the miraculous achievements of the Saints, and follows his mother in kneeling in adoration before the image of the Virgin Mary. And while in all other matters an independent judgment in riper years is encouraged, every kind of influence is used to discourage a free examination of religious dogmas, once engrafted on our intellect in its tenderest stage. A Mohammedan who should renounce the prophet, knows that he risks his life. And a Roman Catholic who should doubt the truth of the legends of the Saints, or look upon the adoration of any image as idolatry, would soon be called a sceptic and an infidel, or, what is even worse, a Protestant. We condemn an examination of our own religion, even though it arises from an honest desire to see with our own eyes the truth which we mean to hold fast; and yet we do not hesitate to send missionaries into all the world, asking the faithful to re-examine their own time-honoured religions. We attack their most sacred convictions, we wound their tenderest feelings, we undermine the belief in which they have been brought up, and we break up the peace and happiness of their homes. And yet, if some learned Jew, like Mendelssohn, if some subtle Brâhman, like Rammohun Roy, aye, even if some outspoken Zulu, like Colenso's friend, turns round on us, asks us to re-examine the date and authorship of the books of the Old or the New Testament, presses us to explain some portions of the Athanasian Creed, or challenges us to produce the evidence on which we also are quite ready to accept certain miracles, we are surprised and offended, forgetting that with regard to these questions we can claim no privilege, no immunity.
When I say we, I only mean those who have rejected once for all every infallible human authority, whether the infallibility of the Pope, or the infallibility of the Church, or the infallibility of the Bible, or, lastly, even the infallibility of the immediate disciples and apostles of Christ, who, as you know, are the very last to claim such infallibility. If we have once claimed the freedom of the spirit which St. Paul claimed, to prove all things and to hold fast that which is good, we cannot turn back, we cannot say that no one shall prove our own religion, no one shall prove other religions and compare them with our own. We have to choose once for all between freedom and slavery of judgment, and though I do not wish to argue with those who prefer slavery, yet one may remind them that even they, in deliberately choosing slavery, follow their own private judgment, quite as much as others do in choosing freedom. In claiming infallibility for Bible, Popes, or Councils, they claim in reality far greater infallibility for themselves in declaring by their own authority Bible, Popes, or Councils to be infallible.
How easily people deceive themselves with regard to what is private judgment and what is not, may be seen in the case of Cardinal Newman. When he was still a member of the Church of his own country, be wrote, May 5, 1841 (Apologia, p. 188):
We have too great a horror of the principle of private judgment to trust it in so immense a matter as that of changing from one communion to another. We may be cast out of our communion, or it may decree heresy to be truth,you shall say whether such contingencies are likely; but I do not see other conceivable causes of our leaving the Church in which we were baptised.
Now between the year 1841 and 1845 the English Church, as far as I know, did neither the one nor the other, it did not invent any new heresy, nor cast out Newman and his friends; and yetCardinal Newman followed his private judgment, and submitted to an infallible Pope.
Comparative Study of Religions.
In choosing between Romanism and Protestantism, or in choosing between Christianity and Judaism, or any other religion, we must necessarily compare these religions with our own. I do not mean to say, therefore, that a comparative study of all religions forms part of the duty of every Christian man and woman, but it seems to me that to condemn such studies, and to throw discredit on those who honestly devote themselves to this examination and comparison of all religions, is contrary to the spirit of St. Paul, and contrary to the highest command of Christianity to do unto others as we wish they should do unto us.
Lord Gifford's Foundation.
And yet, do not suppose that those who have entered on this branch of historical research, and in particular those who have accepted the responsibility imposed upon them by Lord Gifford's bequest, are insensible to the dangers and difficulties with which their work is beset. It may be quite true that they are relieved of some part of their responsibility by the very fact that Lord Gifford's bequest has been accepted by the great Universities of Scotland. It was quite possible that, under the conditions which he had attached to it, some of the Universities might have declined to accept Lord Gifford's bequest. Their acceptance of the bequest, therefore, implied their general approval of its objects, and thus became really more important even than the bequest itself. They admitted thereby that a treatment of religion in the spirit prescribed by the founder of these lectureships, would prove advantageous to the young students committed to their care, and that nothing should be kept back from them that had received the approval of competent scholars.
But it seems right nevertheless to listen to the objections that have been made against granting a place among academic studies to the Science of Religion, and to weigh at all events what has been said and written against it by men whose judgment and sincerity cannot be doubted.
There are persons of very sound judgment who, though they fully approve of a comparative treatment of religions, and of the freest criticism of our own religion, still insist that it is wise to keep such studies for the few. They expressed this opinion years ago in the case of Essays and Reviews, and more recently in the case of Lux Mundi. Such books, they hold, ought to be written in Latin. Religion, they say, is common property. It belongs by its very nature to the young and to the old, to the wise and to the unwise, to men, women, and children. Unless it fulfils that condition, unless it is open to little children, as well as to the wisest of the wise, it may be philosophy, it may be absolute truth, but it ceases to be religion. Now in lectures on any other subjects, we are told that the technical character of the language which is employed, restricts their influence to those who can judge for themselves. No one would think of putting restrictions on lectures on botany, because people might learn from what plants they could extract poisons. No one would prevent Professors of chemistry from lecturing to large classes, because some of their pupils might wish to learn how to prepare dynamite. But while every other subject is thus by its very nature restricted to a professional class, we are reminded that a study of religion, or, at all events, an interest in religion, appeals to every human heart, and that a treatment of religion that may be quite harmless, nay, quite legitimate with advanced students and hard-headed thinkers, may prove very hurtful to younger minds, not prepared as yet for such strong diet.
I know quite well that there is some truth in all this. I do not even deny that the use of the Latin language in theological discussions, which are likely to prove a stumbling-block to the uninitiated, had its advantages. But it seems to me perfectly useless to discuss such proposals now. We must learn to accept the times in which we live, and make the best of them. Whatever is now treated of in academic precincts, is preached the next day in the streets, and there is neither palace nor cottage that is not reached by the million arms of the public press. Latin is no longer any protection; I doubt whether it was so altogether even in the middle ages.
The discovery of Copernicus (1473-1543) that the earth moves round the sun and does not form the centre of the universe, may indeed have been kept back for nearly a century, remaining known to those only who could read Latin. But it burst forth all the same in the Italian writings of Galileo (1567-1642), and people soon recovered from the shock, even though deprived of that much cherished conviction that they formed the centre of the universe.
Artificial protection of any kind is out of date in the century in which we live, and in which we must learn to act and to do as much good as we can. To expect that religion could ever be placed again beyond the reach of scientific treatment or honest criticism, shows an utter misapprehension of the signs of the times, and would, after all, be no more than to set up private judgment against private judgment. I believe, on the contrary, that if the inalienable rights of private judgment, that is, of honesty and truth, were more generally recognised, the character of religious controversy would at once be changed. It is restriction that provokes resentment, and thus embitters all discussions on religious topics.
I have had to discuss this question many times with some of the leading theologians of our time. I do not mean with men who simply acted their part on the stage of the world, but with men who were honestly convinced that freedom of thought and freedom of discussion were wrong and mischievous within the sphere of religion, and ought to be restrained by authority.
One of them declared to me that it had been his lot during a long life to read more heresy than any other living man, and he dwelt in the most forcible language on the abyss, both intellectual and moral, into which he had gazed again and again, but from which he had at last turned resolutely away. He considered it his duty for the rest of his life to keep others from the mental agonies through which he himself had passed, and he would have welcomed any measures by which that abyss could have been enclosed, and public discussion of religious problems could have been prevented once for all.
All I could say to him in reply was, if such a terrible abyss really existed, it must have its purpose in the world in which we have been placed, like many other things which entail suffering and agony, and are nevertheless meant to serve a good purpose. To shut our eyes will not remove that abyss, while courage and faith may possibly help to throw a bridge across the dark chasm that scans to separate man from those bright regions for which his heart is always yearning.
When I read a few days ago a letter from Cardinal Newman, which Canon Maccoll has published in the Contemporary Review (January, 1891, p. 144), I seemed once more to hear almost the same voice to which I had often listened at Oxford. Speaking of the authors of Essays and Reviews, Newman writes: Some of them, I trust, were urged by a sincere feeling that it is not right to keep up shams. Yet did they really see the termination, or rather the abyss, to which these speculations lead, surely they would see that, before attempting to sift facts, they ought to make sure that they have a firm hold of true and eternal principles. To unsettle the minds of a generation, when you give them no landmarks and no causeway across the morass, is to undertake a great responsibility.
The religion of England depends, humanly speaking, on belief in the Bible, the whole Bible, etc., and on the observance of the Calvinistic Sabbath. Let the population begin to doubt in its inspiration and infallibilitywhere are we? Alas! whole classes do already; but I would not be the man knowingly to introduce scepticism into those portions of the community which are as yet sound. Consider the misery of wives and mothers losing their faith in Scripture; yet I am told this sad process is commencing.
But the most curious part is, that while Cardinal Newmanhe was already a member of the Roman Catholic Church when he wrote thisconsiders a belief in the plenary inspiration of the whole Bible, the Old as well as the New Testament, and the observance of the Calvinistic Sabbath, essential to the faith of Protestants, he does not think that the Roman Catholic faith requires the same elaborate support.
The volume in question, he continues, namely Essays and Reviews, is levelled at Revelation as a whole, but is especially a blow at the Old Testament. Now the plenary inspiration of Scripture is peculiarly a Protestant question, not a Catholic. We, indeed, devoutly receive the whole Bible as the Word of God; but we receive it on the authority of the Church, and the Church has defined very little as to the aspects under which it conies from God, and the limits of its inspiration. Supposing, for argument sake, that it could be proved that some passage in the Pentateuch about Egyptian history was erroneous; nay, let the universality of the deluge over the globe, or the literal interpretation of Genesis be, for argument sake, disproved, it would not affect a Catholic, for two reasons(1) Because the Church has not made them points de fide, and (2) because not the Bible, but the Church, is to him the oracle of Revelation; so that, though the whole Scripture were miraculously removed from the world as if it had never been, evil and miserable as would be the absence of such a privilege, he would still have enough motives and objects of his faith, whereas to the Protestant the question of Scripture is one of life and death.
Thus, according to Cardinal Newman, the Roman Catholic may be trusted to criticise the Bible, particularly the Old Testament. He would not be affected if, for argument sake, the universal deluge or the crossing of the Red Sea, could be disproved. And why? Because the Church is to him the oracle of Revelation. And who speaks in the name of the Church? Popes and Cardinals. And who are Popes and Cardinals? Men such as Mr. John Newman himself, who followed his own private judgment in leaving the Church in which he was born, the Church of England, for the Church of Italy. There is no escape, you see, from private judgment, as little as there is from our own shadow.
Another great theologian whom I knew at Oxford, and whose recent death is still in all our memories, would draw in eloquent and touching words the picture of a child sleeping in his cradle, and dreaming happy dreams of God and His angels. Who would wake such a child, he said. I knew full well what he meant. There is certainly no happier life than a life of simple faith, of literal acceptance, of rosy dreams. We must all grant that, if it were possible, nothing, would be more perfect. Nay I go further still, and I gladly acknowledge that some of the happiest, and not only some of the happiest, but also some of the best men and women I have known in this life, were those who would have shrunk with horror from questioning a single letter in the Bible, or doubting that a serpent actually spoke to Eve, and an ass to Balaam.
But can we prevent the light of the sun and the noises of the street from waking the happy child from his heavenly dreams? Nay, is it not our duty to wake the child, when the time has come that he should be up and doing, and take his share in the toils of the day? And is it not well for those who for the first time open their eyes and look around, that they should see by their side some who have woke before them, who understand their inquiring looks, and can answer their timid questions, and tell them in the simple-hearted language of our old poet:
There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds.
No, however excellent the motives of these fainthearted theologians may be, not only are the remedies which they propose impossible, but it is easy to see that they would prove much more dangerous than the diseases which they are meant to heal. To encourage people, and particularly theologians, not to speak the truth openly, though they know it, must be fatal to every religion. Who could draw the line between the truth that may, and the truth that may not be communicated? I have known theologians, occupying now the highest positions in the Church, who frankly admitted among their own intimate friends, that physical miracles, in the ordinary sense of the word, were once for all impossible, but who would not have considered it right to say so from the pulpit. I do not question their motives nor do I doubt their moral courage, I only question the soundness of their judgment. I feel convinced that to many of their hearers, an open statement of the conviction at which they had themselves arrived would have been far more helpful than many an apologetic sermon. If their own faith in Christianity is not shaken, because they have ceased to believe in miracles as mere miracles, nay, if their belief in Christ's teaching has grown all the stronger since they discarded these crutches, why should it be different with others whom they profess to guide? There exists at present a very wide-spread impression that preachers do not preach all they know, that they will not help others to face the abyss, which all have to face, and that they will not open the shutters to let in the light of the sun and the fresh air of the morning, which we are all meant to breathe; but that they are keeping the truth to themselves, I will not say from any unworthy motives, but from fear that it might do more harm than good to others. To all this I know but one reply. Can there be anything higher and better than truth? Is any kind of religion possible without an unquestioning trust in truth? No one knows what it is to believe who has not learnt to believe in truth, for the sake of truth, and for the sake of truth only. The question of miracles is no longer, as it was in the days of Hume, a mere question of historical evidence. A comparative study of religions has taught us that miracles, instead of being impossible, are really inevitable, that they exist in almost every religion, that they are the natural outcome of what Mr. Gladstone has well called imperfect comprehension and imperfect expression. Why should such well-established results of scientific enquiry be withheld from those whom they most concern, and, what is still worse, why should they reach the people at large, as it were, through unauthorised channels, and not from the mouths of their recognised teachers?
It ought, I think, to be clearly understood that restrictions on religious discussions have in our days, and in this country, at all events, become perfectly impossible, and that such palliatives as the use of Latin would be simply futile. But for that very reason the question becomes all the more important, what we have a right to expect and to demand from those whose duty it is to treat religious questions.
It has always been considered as one of the essential conditions of civilised life that the religious convictions of every citizen should be respected and protected against insult and injury. Whether a state should recognise and support an established Church, is a question that admits of debate. But what admits of no debate is that the law should prevent or punish any insults offered to individuals or societies on account of their religious convictions. A state in which religious convictions entail civil disabilities, or in which religious professions lead to social advantages, cannot be called a civilised state in the highest sense of the word. Every creed is sacred to those who hold it. Whether a fetish-worshipper calls on his fetish for food and drink, or chastises it if his prayer is not fulfilled, or whether an atheist exclaims in despair, O God, if there be a God, save my soul, if I have a soul, they both hold their belief and their unbelief sacred, and they have a right to see their religious convictions, if not respected, at all events protected against insult. These are no doubt extreme cases, but even in such extreme cases toleration and charity are far more likely to prove efficient remedies than scorn and insult. If we can respect a childlike and even a childish faith, we ought likewise to learn to respect even a philosophical atheism which often contains the hidden seeds of the best and truest faith. We ought never to call a man an atheist, and say that he does not believe in God, till we know what kind of God it is that he has been brought up to believe in, and what kind of God it is that he rejects, it may be, from the best and highest motives. We ought never to forget that Socrates was called au atheist, that the early Christians were all called atheists1
, that some of the best and greatest men this world has ever known, have been branded by that name. Men may deny God for the very sake of God. You remember what old Plutarch said, that it was better not to believe in Gods at all, than to believe in Gods, such as the superstitious believe them to be. I, for my own part, he continues, would much rather have men say of me that there never was a Plutarch at all, nor is now, than to say that Plutarch is a man inconstant, fickle, easily moved to anger, revengeful for trifling provocations, vexed at small things.2
This is as true to-day as it was in Plutarch's time, and it is right that it should be said, however much it may offend certain ears. One of our greatest theologians has not hesitated to say: God is a great word. He who feels this and knows it, will judge more mildly and justly of those who confess that they dare not say, I believe in God 3
When people speak in a truly honest and kind spirit, they will understand one another, however widely they may stand apart in their religious opinions. But for that object it is absolutely necessary that discussion and controversy should be completely unfettered. You cannot have a good fight or a fair fight, if you tie the hands of the two combatants; least of all, if you tie the hands of one combatant only.
Lord Gifford's Conditions.
It was the object of Lord Gifford's bequest to untie the hands of combatants, but at the same time to fix the conditions on which the combat should be conducted. What was wanted for that purpose, as he declared in his will, were reverent men, true thinkers, sincere lovers, and earnest enquirers after truth. These words are not used at random. Each sentence seems to have been carefully chosen and attentively weighed by him. He felt that religion was not a subject like other subjects, but that, whether on account of its age or owing to its momentous bearing on human welfare, it ought to be treated with due care and respect. Reverence alone, however, would not he sufficient, but should be joined with true thinking. True thinking means free thinking, thinking following its own laws, and unswayed by anything else. Think what thinking would be, if it were not free! But even this would not suffice. There ought to be not only loyal submission to the laws of thought, there ought to be a sincere love, a deep-felt yearning for truth. And lastly, that love should not manifest itself in impatient and fanatical outbursts, but in earnest enquiry, in patient study, in long-continued research.
Men who have passed through these four stages are not likely to give offence to others or to be easily offended themselves. I am sorry to have to confess it, but among the many lessons which a comparative study of religions teaches us, there is one that seems very humiliating, namely, that religious intolerance has been much more common in modern than in ancient times. I know the excuse which is made for this. It is said, that as our convictions become deeper and stronger, our intolerance of falsehood also must assume a more intense character, and that it would show an utter want of earnestness if it were otherwise. There may be some truth in this, but it is a dangerous truth. It is the same truth which led the Inquisition to order the burning of heretics, because it would be better for their souls, and which inflicted in our own times a less violent though perhaps a not less painful martyrdom on such reverent men, true thinkers, sincere lovers, and earnest inquirers after truth as Dean Stanley, Bishop Colenso, and Charles Kingsley.
Toleration in other Religions.
Let us see how the problem of toleration has been solved in other religions. Perhaps on this point also a comparative study of religions may have some useful lessons for us. For the difficulty is one that besets them all. The religion of the young can never be quite the same as that of the old, nor the religion of the educated the same as that of the ignorant. We all know it. Bishop Berkeley was a Christian; so is Mr. Spurgeon. But think of the gulf that separates the two. And yet it is the object of religion that it should serve as a bond between all classes, and should supply a language in which all should be able to join without dishonesty.
Toleration in Ancient India.
I tried to explain on a former occasion how this problem has been solved in ancient India. The Indian Law recognised four stages in the life of every man. The first stage was that of the pupil, which lasted till a man had reached the age of manhood. A pupil had to show implicit obedience to his superiors, and to learn without questioning the religion of his forefathers.
The second stage was that of the householder, which lasted till a man had grown-up children. A householder had to marry, to earn his living, to bring up a family, to perform daily sacrifices, and all this again without questioning the teaching of his religious guides.
Then followed the third stage, that of the dweller in the forest, the Vânaprastha, the ascetic. In that stage a man was not only released from his household duties, but his sacrificial observances also were much reduced, and he was allowed to indulge in the freest philosophical speculations, speculations which often ran counter to the theological system of the Brâhmans, and ended by replacing religion altogether by philosophy.
The last stage was that of the hermit, who withdrew himself from all human society, and willingly went to meet his death, wherever it would meet him4
To us it seems difficult to understand how a religion, not only so full of different shades of thought, but containing elements of the most decidedly antagonistic character, could have lasted; how neither the father should have contemptuously looked down on his son who performed sacrifices which he himself had surrendered as useless, nay as mischievous, nor the son should have abhorred his father who had thrown off his belief in the gods or devas, and adopted a philosophy that taught the existence of something higher and better than all these gods. And yet this system seems to have answered for a long time. Recognising the fact that the mind of man changes from childhood to old age, it allowed the greatest freedom to old age, provided always that old age had been preceded by the fulfilment of all the duties of a pater familias, and by an unquestioning submission to the discipline of youth.
I do not say that we see here the best solution of our problem. I only call your attention to it as one out of many solutions, based on the principle of toleration for diversities of religious faith, which are inevitable so long as human nature remains what it is, and what it always has been. No society can exist without different classes. Our own society at all events, as it has grown up during thousands of years, cannot exist without them. I do not think so much of classes differing from each other by wealth or titles. I mean classes differing by education, and consequently by culture and intelligence. It is impossible to expect that these different classes, differing from each other so much in all other respects, in their education, their occupations, their manners, their tastes, their thoughts and language, should not differ in their religion also. It is the ignoring of this simple fact which has wrought so much mischief. It has led to hypocrisy on one side, and to an unreasoning dogmatism on the other. I know there are some who hold that, however much people may differ in other respects, they are all alike in religion. We are told that the faith of the child is as good as that of the sage; and that an old ignorant woman, who cannot even read her Bible, may be a far better Christian than a young curate who has just taken a first class at Oxford. It is the old story of using words in different senses, or ignoring what Mr. Gladstone calls the changes which the lapse of time works in the sense of words. So far as practical religion goes, so far as doing good is concerned, no doubt many a poor widow who throws in her two mites is better than the scribes and rich men who cast their gifts into the treasury. And who that ever saw an innocent child dyingstretching her arms towards angel-faces above, and giving her last parting look to all whom she loved on earthcan doubt that of such is the kingdom of heaven?
But we are speaking of something quite different, though it is called by the same name of religion. We are speaking of what educated and highly educated men believe, what conceptions they form of the Deity, of the relation of the human to the divine, of the true meaning of revelation, of the true nature of miracles, nay of the date of MSS., and the value of the various readings in the Hebrew or Greek text of the Bible. All these are questions which hardly exist for millions of human beings, of which they need not take any cognisance at all, but which nevertheless to those for whom they once exist, are questions of the deepest import. It is on these questions that we must claim the same freedom which even the most orthodox of Brâhmans allowed to their fellow-creatures. Only, we must claim it, not only for the aged who retire into the forest, but for all whose mind has been awakened, and who mean to do their duty in this life.
Esoteric and Exoteric Religion.
I know how strong a feeling there is against anything like a religion for the few, different from the religion for the many. An esoteric religion seems to be a religion that cannot show itself, that is afraid of the light, that is, in fact, dishonest. But so far from being dishonest, the distinction between a higher and a lower form of religion is in reality the only honest recognition of the realities of life. If to a philosophic mind religion is a spiritual love of God and the joy of his full consciousness of the spirit of God within him, what meaning can such words convey to the millions of human beings who nevertheless want a religion, a positive, authoritative, or revealed religion, to teach them that there is a God, and that His commands must be obeyed without questioning. And do not think that this appeal for freedom of conscience comes from the educated laity only. The educated clergy are sighing for it even more. Let me quote the words of one whose right to speak on this subject can hardly be questioned, considering that thousands of families in England have confided to him the care of their sons, just at that critical period of life when childish faith has to grow into manly conviction; considering also that one of our most orthodox Bishops has entrusted him with the examination of candidates for Holy Orders, I mean the Ven. James M. Wilson, Archdeacon of Manchester, the late Headmaster of Clifton, Examining Chaplain to Bishop Moorhouse, and Private Chaplain to Bishop Temple.
I say at once, he writes5
, that we, educated Christian men, have a distinct duty to perform in this direction, always remembering the great law of charity. I think that the Church ought to provide meat for her strong men, as well as secure that her babes shall get milk. One of our failures is in this duty. I do not think that it can be denied that the popular Christianity of the day, whether among priests or people, in church or chapel, is for the most part far less tolerant than is the Spirit of Christ, or of St. Paul, or of the great minds among Christians of all ages. That it should be so among the people is for the present unavoidable. It ought not to be so, and it need not be so among the educated laity and clergy, and they ought not to permit the intolerance of ignorance to pass unchecked, as it often does. We clergy ought to stem the tide more bravely than we do, and we ought to have done so in time past. We, as a rule, regard differences of opinion on speculative questions, and even on the terms in which we choose to present them, as very serious matters; and expect old and young, philosophers and simple men and women, to accept unquestioningly the same terms. I think this is wrong. I do not at all think that this is the mind of Christ. Much may be done to claim for more abstract and philosophic views, and especially for all views that profess to rise directly from the study of facts and promote rightness of conduct, a place within the recognised boundaries of the Christian Church.
Then, after dwelling on the value of the discipline of established forms, he continues:
Why should we fail to recognise the fact that man ought to grow, and does grow, not only in stature and favour with God and man, but in wisdom also? No Church is honest which does not recognise that fact, and which is not anxious to secure a place of safety, nay, of honour, to those who have grown in goodness and wisdom and understanding, in the gifts of the Spirit, and have thus attained to a truer insight into the nature of religion than can, for the present at least, be reached by the majority of educated people. A Church which declines to recognise the right of the Few who are fond of wisdom, not only to be tolerated, but to be respected, must become stagnant; and if it actually encourages the ignorant intolerance of the multitude, if it identifies itself with the narrowness and exclusiveness of the uneducated or half-educated masses, it will drive its best champions into silence, and many who under proper guidance might have fought a good fight and done noble work for the Church, into atheism, or what is still worse, into hypocrisy.
When the Few cease to differ from the Many, we may have uniformity and peace, but we may also have dishonesty and death. When the Few are respected by the Many, we may hope to have again in the Church a true spiritual, that is, intellectual aristocracya small heart throbbing within, but giving life and strength to the large body of Christian people without.
I have quoted this important passage, not only on account of the authority which justly belongs to Mr. James M. Wilson as a clergyman, but because of his unrivalled experience as a schoolmaster. There is, I believe, no argument that appeals so strongly to every heart as the dangers that may arise, if the faith of the young is undermined. Who does not remember the words of Christ: And whosoever shall offend one of these little ones that believe in me, it is better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck and he were cast into the sea. I quote once more from the Headmaster of Clifton (l.c., p. 164):
I have spoken of the childhood of the individual being like the childhood of the race, and said that, therefore, the education of the one will follow the lines of education of the other. And this is true, but with some important qualifications. The child of the present century is not in all respects like the man of a bygone century. And the child may pass very rapidly through the elementary stages; and we do him positive injury, we dispose him to reject religion, if we prolong these stages artificially, for in that case we make him identify religion with that which he will grow out of. Further: As education advances, this transition will inevitably become more rapid. It is more rapid now than most people think.
I feel quite sure that as a rule, religious teachers postpone the higher teaching too long.
Religious Education of Children.
Nothing, I believe, is so dangerous to the healthy growth of a child's mind as the impression that his parents and teachers withhold something, or are not quite honest when they speak of the Bible. The fact that children ask such perplexing questions about miracles in the Bible, shows that their minds are awake, and that everything is not exactly like what it ought to be. A child that bad been stung by a wasp, asked the very natural question whether Noah in the ark was not stung by wasps. And what do you think the answer was? No, my child, the wasps were kept in glass bottles. In these days, when boys see every day on the walls of their school collections of geological specimens, and maps representing the successive strata of the earth, we need not wonder at what Mr. James M. Wilson tells us of his own boy, when nine years old. He was reading the first chapter of Genesis to his mother, and she explained to him that the days were long periods of time. Why, mamma, I should think I knew that, was his remark.
The human mind, and more particularly the child's mind, is so constituted, I believe, that it cannot take in more than what it is prepared for. If any one were to say to a little child, who had just repeated the Lord's Prayer, that Heaven was not the blue sky, the child would listen, but would turn up his hands and his eyes just the same to the clouds above.
I have often wondered what passes in the mind of a young man when he looks for the first time at his Articles of Religion, and reads in the very first article that God is a being without body, without parts, and without passions. Such a formula was intelligible when it was uttered for the first time by a philosopher in whose mind the Aryan thought of Greece and the Semitic thought of Judaea were closely blended. This is what Philo, the contemporary of Christ, says on the concept of God:He is without body, parts, or passions; without feet, for whither should He walk: who fills all things; without hands, for from whom should He receive anything who possesses all things; without eyes, for how should he need eyes who made the light. But what meaning can all this convey to the unformed mind of a young boy? In its negative character, and as a warning against too human a conception of the deity this formula may be useful to him; but when he tries to realise it with all its positive consequences, he would shudder at the crippled image of the Godhead, thus brought before his mind. What would remain if he deducted from his early conceptions or rather imaginations of God everything that we call body or shape, everything that we call parts or distinguishable elements, everything that we call passions, not only wrath and indignation, which are so often ascribed to God, but likewise pity and love, which are passions in the true sense of the word, but which we can never separate from our human ideal of the Godhead.
Growth of the Mind.
My impression is that a boy's faith is not affected by any of these difficulties, till his understanding has grown strong enough to grapple with them. Though he would repeat the words that God was without body, parts, and passions, he would never think of Him as without those loving and pitying eyes without which God would be to him an eyeless and blind idol, not a living and loving God. The mind of a child, of a boy, and of grown-up men and women too, is protected against many dangers till the time comes when they are strong enough to face them, strong enough to reason and to say, that the words of the Article must be taken in a negative (theologia negativa), not in a positive sense (theologia affirmativa); and that, though we may deny that God has body, parts, and passions like human beings, we should never attempt to form any positive conception of Him according to this dangerous formula.
It may be quite right to guard against dangers, whether real or imaginary, so long as it is possible. But when it is no longer possible, I feel certain the right thing is to face an enemy bravely. Very often the enemy will turn out a friend in disguise. The use of Latin in all theological discussions would be a mere sham defence, and any restriction on free discussion would provoke a resistance ten times worse. We cannot be far wrong, if we are only quite honest, but if we are once not quite honest over a few things, we shall soon become dishonest over many things. As I said at the beginning of my lecture, I say once more at the end: In lecturing on religion, even on Natural Religion, we must look neither right nor left, but look all facts straight in the face, to see whether they are facts or not, and, if they are facts, to find out what they mean.