Autobiographical Sketches/Chapter VII


On recovering from that prostrating physical pain, I came to a very definite decision. I resolved that, whatever might be the result, I would take each dogma of the Christian religion, and carefully and thoroughly examine it, so that I should never again say "I believe" where I had not proved. So, patiently and steadily, I set to work. Four problems chiefly at this time pressed for solution. I. The eternity of punishment after death. II. The meaning of "goodness" and "love" as applied to a God who had made this world with all its evil and its misery. III. The nature of the atonement of Christ, and the "justice" of God in accepting a vicarious suffering from Christ, and a vicarious righteousness from the sinner. IV. The meaning of "inspiration" as applied to the Bible, and the reconciliation of the perfection of the author with the blunders and the immoralities of the work.

Maurice's writings now came in for very careful study, and I read also those of Robertson, of Brighton, and of Stopford Brooke, striving to find in these some solid ground whereon I might build up a new edifice of faith. That ground, however, I failed to find; there were poetry, beauty, enthusiasm, devotion; but there was no rock on which I might take my stand. Mansel's Bampton lectures on "The Limits of Religious Thought" deepened and intensified my doubts. His arguments seemed to make certainty impossible, and I could not suddenly turn round and believe to order, as he seemed to recommend, because proof was beyond reach. I could not, and would not, adore in God as the highest Righteousness that which, in man was condemned as harsh, as cruel, and as unjust.

In the midst of this long mental struggle, a change occurred in the outward circumstances of my life. I wrote to Lord Hatherley and asked him if he could give Mr. Besant a Crown living, and he offered us first one in Northumberland, near Alnwick Castle, and then one in Lincolnshire, the village of Sibsey, with a vicarage house, and an income of £410 per annum. We decided to accept the latter.

The village was scattered over a considerable amount of ground, but the work was not heavy. The church was one of the fine edifices for which the fen country is so famous, and the vicarage was a comfortable house, with large and very beautiful gardens and paddock, and with outlying fields. The people were farmers and laborers, with a sprinkling of shopkeepers; the only "society" was that of the neighboring clergy, Tory and prim to an appalling extent. There was here plenty of time for study, and of that time I vigorously availed myself. But no satisfactory light came to me, and the suggestions and arguments of my friend Mr. D—— failed to bring conviction to my mind. It appeared clear to me that the doctrine of Eternal Punishment was taught in the Bible, and the explanations given of the word "eternal" by men like Maurice and Stanley, did not recommend themselves to me as anything more than skilful special pleading— evasions, not clearings up, of a moral difficulty. For the problem was: Given a good God, how can he have created mankind, knowing beforehand that the vast majority of those whom he had created were to be tortured for evermore? Given a just God, how can he punish people for being sinful, when they have inherited a sinful nature without their own choice and of necessity? Given a righteous God, how can he allow sin to exist for ever, so that evil shall be as eternal as good, and Satan shall reign in hell, as long as Christ in Heaven? The answer of the Broad church school was, that the word "eternal" applied only to God and to life which was one with his; that "everlasting" only meant "lasting for an age", and that while the punishment of the wicked might endure for ages it was purifying, not destroying, and at last all should be saved, and "God should be all in all". These explanations had (for a time) satisfied Mr. D——, and I find him writing to me in answer to a letter of mine dated March 25th, 1872:

"On the subject of Eternal punishment I have now not the remotest doubt. It is impossible to handle the subject exhaustively in a letter, with a sermon to finish before night. But you must get hold of a few valuable books that would solve all kinds of difficulties for you. For most points read Stopford Brooke's Sermons—they are simply magnificent, and are called (1) Christian modern life, (2) Freedom in the Church of England, (3) and (least helpful) 'Sermons'. Then again there is an appendix to Llewellyn Davies' 'Manifestation of the Son of God', which treats of forgiveness in a future state as related to Christ and Bible. As to that special passage about the Blasphemy against the Holy Ghost (to which you refer), I will write you my notions on it in a future letter."

A little later, according, he wrote:

"With regard to your passage of difficulty about the unpardonable sin, I would say: (1) If that sin is not to be forgiven in the world to come, it is implied that all other sins are forgiven in the world to come. (2) You must remember that our Lord's parables and teachings mainly concerned contemporary events and people. I mean, for instance, that in his great prophecy of judgment he simply was speaking of the destruction of the Jewish polity and nation. The principles involved apply through all time, but He did not apply them except to the Jewish nation. He was speaking then, not of 'the end of the world, (as is wrongly translated), but of 'the end of the age'. (Every age is wound up with a judgment. French Revolutions, Reformations, etc., are all ends of ages and judgments.) ΑΙΟΝ does not, cannot, will not, and never did mean world, but age. Well, then, he has been speaking of the Jewish people. And he says that all words spoken against the Son of Man will be forgiven. But there is a blasphemy against the Holy Spirit of God—there is a confusion of good with evil, of light with darkness—which goes deeper down than this. When a nation has lost the faculty of distinguishing love from hatred, the spirit of falsehood and hypocrisy from the spirit of truth, God from the Devil—then its doom is pronounced—the decree is gone forth against it. As the doom of Judaism, guilty of this sin, was then pronounced. As the decree against it had already gone forth. It is a national warning, not an individual one. It applies to two ages of this world, and not to two worlds. All its teaching was primarily national, and is only thus to be rightly read— if not all, rather most of it. If you would be sure of this and understand it, see the parables, etc., explained in Maurice's 'Gospel of the Kingdom of Heaven' (a commentary on S. Luke). I can only indicate briefly in a letter the line to be taken on this question.

"With regard to the ελυι ελυι λαμα σαββαχθανι. I don't believe that the Father even momentarily hid his face from Him. The life of sonship was unbroken. Remark: (1) It is a quotation from a Psalm. (2) It rises naturally to a suffering man's lips as expressive of agony, though not exactly framed for his individual agony. (3) The spirit of the Psalm is one of trust, and hope, and full faith, notwithstanding the 1st verse. (4) Our Lord's agony was very extreme, not merely of body but of soul. He spoke out of the desolation of one forsaken, not by his divine Father but by his human brothers. I have heard sick and dying men use the words of beloved Psalms in just such a manner.

"The impassibility of God (1) With regard to the Incarnation, this presents no difficulty. Christ suffered simply and entirely as man, was too truly a man not to do so. (2) With regard to the Father, the key of it is here. 'God is love.' He does not need suffering to train into sympathy, because his nature is sympathy. He can afford to dispense with hysterics, because he sees ahead that his plan is working to the perfect result. I am not quite sure whether I have hit upon your difficulty here, as I have destroyed your last letter but one. But the 'Gospel of the Kingdom' is a wonderful 'eye-opener'."

Worst of all the puzzles, perhaps, was that of the existence of evil and of misery, and the racking doubt whether God could be good, and yet look on the evil and the misery of the world unmoved and untouched. It seemed so impossible to believe that a Creator could be either cruel enough to be indifferent to the misery, or weak enough to be unable to stop it: the old dilemma faced me unceasingly. "If he can prevent it, and does not, he is not good; if he wishes to prevent it, and cannot, he is not almighty;" and out of this I could find no way of escape. Not yet had any doubt of the existence of God crossed my mind.

In August, 1872 Mr. D—— tried to meet this difficulty. He wrote:

"With regard to the impassibility of God, I think there is a stone wrong among your foundations which causes your difficulty. Another wrong stone is, I think, your view of the nature of the sin and error which is supposed to grieve God. I take it that sin is an absolutely necessary factor in the production of the perfect man. It was foreseen and allowed as a means to an end—as in fact an education.

"The view of all the sin and misery in the world cannot grieve God, any more than it can grieve you to see Digby fail in his first attempt to build a card-castle or a rabbit-hutch. All is part of the training. God looks at the ideal man to which all tends. The popular idea of the fall is to me a very absurd one. There was never an ideal state in the past, but there will be in the future. The Genesis allegory simply typifies the first awakening of consciousness of good and evil—of two wills in a mind hitherto only animal-psychic.

"Well then—there being no occasion for grief in watching the progress of his own perfect and unfailing plans—your difficulty in God's impassibility vanishes. Christ, quâ God, was, of course, impassible too. It seems to me that your position implies that God's 'designs' have partially (at least) failed, and hence the grief of perfect benevolence. Now I stoutly deny that any jot or tittle of God's plans can fail. I believe in the ordering of all for the best. I think that the pain consequent on broken law is only an inevitable necessity, over which we shall some day rejoice.

"The indifference shown to God's love cannot pain Him. Why? because it is simply a sign of defectiveness in the creature which the ages will rectify. The being who is indifferent is not yet educated up to the point of love. But he will be. The pure and holy suffering of Christ was (pardon me) wholly the consequence of his human nature. True it was because of the perfection of his humanity. But his Divinity had nothing to do with it. It was his human heart that broke. It was because he entered a world of broken laws and of incomplete education that he became involved in suffering with the rest of his race.....

"No, Mrs. Besant; I never feel at all inclined to give up the search, or to suppose that the other side may be right. I claim no merit for it, but I have an invincible faith in the morality of God and the moral order of the world. I have no more doubt about the falsehood of the popular theology than I have about the unreality of six robbers who attacked me three nights ago in a horrid dream. I exult and rejoice in the grandeur and freedom of the little bit of truth it has been given me to see. I am told that 'Present-day Papers', by Bishop Ewing (edited) are a wonderful help, many of them, to puzzled people: I mean to get them. But I am sure you will find that the truth will (even so little as we may be able to find out) grow on you, make you free, light your path, and dispel, at no distant time, your painful difficulties and doubts. I should say on no account give up your reading. I think with you that you could not do without it. It will be a wonderful source of help and peace to you. For there are struggles far more fearful than those of intellectual doubt. I am keenly alive to the gathered-up sadness of which your last two pages are an expression. I was sorrier than I can say to read them. They reminded me of a long and very dark time in my own life, when I thought the light never would come. Thank God it came, or I think I could not have held out much longer. But you have evidently strength to bear it now. The more dangerous time, I should fancy, has passed. You will have to mind that the fermentation leaves clear spiritual wine, and not (as too often) vinegar.

"I wish I could write something more helpful to you in this great matter. But as I sit in front of my large bay window, and see the shadows on the grass and the sunlight on the leaves, and the soft glimmer of the rosebuds left by the storms, I cannot but believe that all will be very well. 'Trust in the Lord; wait patiently for him'—they are trite words. But he made the grass, the leaves, the rosebuds, and the sunshine, and he is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. And now the trite words have swelled into a mighty argument."

Despite reading and argument, my scepticism grew only deeper and deeper. The study of W.R. Greg's "Creed of Christendom", of Matthew Arnold's "Literature and Dogma", helped to widen the mental horizon, while making a return to the old faith more and more impossible. The church services were a weekly torture, but feeling as I did that I was only a doubter, I spoke to none of my doubts. It was possible, I felt, that all my difficulties might be cleared up, and I had no right to shake the faith of others while in uncertainty myself. Others had doubted and had afterwards believed; for the doubter silence was a duty; the blinded had better keep their misery to themselves. I found some practical relief in parish work of a non-doctrinal kind, in nursing the sick, in trying to brighten a little the lot of the poor of the village. But here, again, I was out of sympathy with most of those around me. The movement among the agricultural laborers, due to the energy and devotion of Joseph Arch, was beginning to be talked of in the fens, and bitter were the comments of the farmers on it, while I sympathised with the other side. One typical case, which happened some months later, may stand as example of all. There was a young man, married, with two young children, who was wicked enough to go into a neighboring county to a "Union Meeting", and who was, further, wicked enough to talk about it when he returned. He became a marked man; no farmer would employ him. He tramped about vainly, looking for work, grew reckless, and took to drink. Visiting his cottage one day I found his wife ill, a dead child in the bed, a sick child in her arms; yes, she "was pining; there was no work to be had". "Why did she leave the dead child on the bed? because there was no other place to put it." The cottage consisted of one room and a "lean-to", and husband and wife, the child dead of fever and the younger child sickening with it, were all obliged to lie on the one bed. In another cottage I found four generations sleeping in one room, the great-grandfather and his wife, the grandmother (unmarried), the mother (unmarried), and the little child, while three men-lodgers completed the tale of eight human beings crowded into that narrow, ill-ventilated garret. Other cottages were hovels, through the broken roofs of which poured the rain, and wherein rheumatism and ague lived with the dwellers. How could I do aught but sympathise with any combination that aimed at the raising of these poor? But to sympathise with Joseph Arch was a crime in the eyes of the farmers, who knew that his agitation meant an increased drain on their pockets. For it never struck them that, if they paid less in rent to the absent landlord, they might pay more in wage to the laborers who helped to make their wealth, and they had only civil words for the burden that crushed them, and harsh ones for the builders-up of their ricks and the mowers of their harvests. They made common cause with their enemy, instead of with their friend, and instead of leaguing themselves with the laborers, as forming together the true agricultural interest, they leagued themselves with the landlords against the laborers, and so made fratricidal strife instead of easy victory over the common foe.

In the summer and autumn of 1872, I was a good deal in London with my mother.—My health had much broken down, and after a severe attack of congestion of the lungs, my recovery was very slow. One Sunday in London, I wandered into St. George's Hall, in which Mr. Charles Voysey was preaching, and there I bought some of his sermons. To my delight I found that someone else had passed through the same difficulties as I about hell and the Bible and the atonement and the character of God, and had given up all these old dogmas, while still clinging to belief in God. I went to St. George's Hall again on the following Sunday, and in the little ante-room, after the service, I found myself in a stream of people, who were passing by Mr. and Mrs. Voysey, some evidently known to him, some strangers, many of the latter thanking him for his morning's work. As I passed in my turn I said: "I must thank you for very great help in what you have said this morning", for indeed the possibility opened of a God who was really "loving unto every man", and in whose care each was safe for ever, had come like a gleam of light across the stormy sea of doubt and distress on which I had been tossing for nearly twelve months. On the following Sunday, I saw them again, and was cordially invited down to their Dulwich home, where they gave welcome to all in doubt. I soon found that the Theism they professed was free from the defects which revolted me in Christianity. It left me God as a Supreme Goodness, while rejecting all the barbarous dogmas of the Christian faith. I now read Theodore Parker's "Discourse on Religion", Francis Newman's "Hebrew Monarchy", and other works, many of the essays of Miss Frances Power Cobbe and of other Theistic writers, and I no longer believed in the old dogmas and hated while I believed; I no longer doubted whether they were true or not; I shook them off, once for all, with all their pain, and horror, and darkness, and felt, with relief and joy inexpressible, that they were all but the dreams of ignorant and semi-savage minds, not the revelation of a God. The last remnant of Christianity followed swiftly these cast-off creeds, though, in parting with this, one last pang was felt. It was the doctrine of the Deity of Christ. The whole teaching of the Broad Church School tends, of course, to emphasise the humanity at the expense of the Deity of Christ, and when the eternal punishment and the substitutionary atonement had vanished, there seemed to be no sufficient reason left for so stupendous a miracle as the incarnation of the Deity. I saw that the idea of incarnation was common to all Eastern creeds, not peculiar to Christianity; the doctrine of the unity of God repelled the doctrine of the incarnation of a portion of the Godhead. But the doctrine was dear from association; there was something at once soothing and ennobling in the idea of a union between Man and God, between a perfect man and divine supremacy, between a human heart and an almighty strength. Jesus as God was interwoven with all art, with all beauty in religion; to break with the Deity of Jesus was to break with music, with painting, with literature; the Divine Child in his mother's arms, the Divine Man in his Passion and in his triumph, the human friend encircled with the majesty of the Godhead—did inexorable Truth demand that this ideal figure, with all its pathos, its beauty, its human love, should pass into the Pantheon of the dead Gods of the Past?