Prose Masterpieces from Modern Essayists/An Apology for Plainspeaking
AN APOLOGY FOR PLAINSPEAKING.
By LESLIE STEPHEN.
All who would govern their intellectual course by no other aim than the discovery of truth, and who would use their faculty of speech for no other purpose than open communications of their real opinions to others, are met by protests from various quarters. Such protests, so far as they imply cowardice or dishonesty, must of course be disregarded, but it would be most erroneous to confound all protests in the same summary condemnation. Reverent and kindly minds shrink from giving an unnecessary shock to the faith which comforts many sorely tried souls; and even the most genuine lovers of truth may doubt whether the time has come at which the decayed scaffolding can be swept away without injuring the foundations of the edifice. Some reserve, they think, is necessary, though reserve, as they must admit, passes but too easily into insincerity.
And thus, it is often said by one class of thinkers, Why attack a system of beliefs which is crumbling away quite fast enough without your help? Why, says another class, try to shake beliefs which, whether true or false, are infinitely consoling to the weaker brethren? I will endeavor to conclude these essays, in which I have possibly made myself liable to some such remonstrances, by explaining why I should think it wrong to be bound by them; I will, however, begin by admitting frankly that I recognize their force so far as this; namely, that I have no desire to attack wantonly any sincere beliefs in minds unprepared for the reception of more complete truths. This book, perhaps, would be unjustifiable if it were likely to become a text-book for school-girls in remote country parsonages. But it is not very probable that it will penetrate to such quarters; nor do I flatter myself that I have brought forward a single argument which is not already familiar to educated men. Whatever force there may be in its pages is only the force of an appeal to people who already agree in my conclusions to state their agreement in plain terms; and, having said this much, I will answer the questions suggested as distinctly as I am able.
To the first question, why trouble the last moments of a dying creed, my reply would be in brief that I do not desire to quench the lingering vitality of the dying so much as to lay the phantoms of the dead. I believe that one of the greatest dangers of the present day is the general atmosphere of insincerity in such matters, which is fast producing a scepticism not as to any or all theologies, but as to the very existence of intellectual good faith. Destroy credit, and you ruin commerce; destroy all faith in religious honesty and you ruin something of infinitely more importance than commerce; ideas should surely be preserved as carefully as cotton from the poisonous influence of a varnish intended to fit them for public consumption. "The time is come," says Mr. Mill in his autobiography, "in which it is the duty of all qualified persons to speak their minds about popular religious beliefs." The reason which he assigns is that they would thus destroy the "vulgar prejudice" that unbelief is connected with bad qualities of head and heart. It is, I venture to remark, still more important to destroy the belief of sceptics themselves that in these matters a system of pious frauds is creditable or safe. Effeminating and corrupting as all equivocation comes to be in the long run, there are other evils behind. Who can see without impatience the fearful waste of good purpose and noble aspiration caused by our reticence at a time when it is of primary importance to turn to account all the forces which make for the elevation of mankind? How much intellect and zeal runs to waste in the spasmodic effort of good men to cling to the last fragments of decaying systems, to galvanize dead formulæ into some dim semblance of life! Society will not improve as it might when those who should be leaders of progress are staggering backward and forward with their eyes passionately reverted to the past. Nay, we shall never be duly sensitive to the miseries and cruelties which make the world a place of torture for so many, so long as men are encouraged in the name of religion to look for a remedy, not in fighting against surrounding evils, but in cultivating aimless contemplations of an imaginary ideal. Much of our popular religion seems to be expressly directed to deaden our sympathies with our fellow-men by encouraging an indolent optimism; our thoughts of the other world are used in many forms as an opiate to drug our minds with indifference to the evils of this; and the last word of half our preachers is, dream rather than work.
To the other question, Why deprive men of their religious consolations? I must make a rather longer reply. In the first place, I must observe that the burden of proof does not rest with me. If any one should tell me explicitly, a certain dogma is false, but it is better not to destroy it, I would not reply summarily that he is preaching grossly immoral doctrine; but I would only refrain from the reply because I should think that he does not quite mean what he says. His real intention, I should suppose, would be to say that every dogma includes some truth, or is inseparably associated with true statements, and that I ought to be careful not to destroy the wheat with the tares. The presumption remains, at any rate, that a false doctrine is so far mischievous; and its would-be protector is bound to show that it is impossible to assail it without striking through its sides at something beyond. If Christ is not God, the man who denies him to be God is certainly primâ facie right, though it may perhaps be possible to show that such a denial cannot be made in practice without attacking a belief in morality. We may, or it is possible to assert that we may, be under this miserable necessity, that we cannot speak undiluted truth; truth and falsehood are, it is perhaps maintainable, so intricately blended in the world that discrimination is impossible. Still the man who argues thus is bound to assign some grounds for his melancholy scepticism; and to show further that the destruction of the figment is too dearly bought by the assertion of the truth. Therefore, I might be content to say that, in such cases, the innocence of the plain speaker ought to be assumed until his guilt is demonstrated. If we had always waited to clear away shams till we were certain that our action would produce absolutely unmixed benefits, we should still be worshipping Mumbo-Jumbo.
But, whilst claiming the advantage of this presumption, I am ready to meet the objector on his own ground, and to indicate, simply and inefficiently enough, the general nature of the reasons which convince me that the objection could not be sustained. To what degree, in fact, are these sham beliefs, which undoubtedly prevail so widely, a real comfort to any intelligent person? Many believers have described the terrible agony with which they had at one period of their lives listened to the first whisperings of scepticism. The horror with which they speak of the gulf after managing to struggle back to the right side is supposed to illustrate the cruelty of encouraging others to take the plunge. That such sufferings are at times very real and very acute, is undeniable; and yet I imagine that few who have undergone them would willingly have missed the experience. I venture even to think that the recollection is one of unmixed pain only in those cases in which the sufferer has a half-consciousness that he has not escaped by legitimate means. If in his despair he has clutched at a lie in order to extricate himself as quickly as possible and at any price, it is no wonder that he looks back with a shudder. When the disease has been driven inward by throwing in abundant doses of Paley, Butler, with perhaps an oblique reference to preferment and respectability, it continues to give many severe twinges, and perhaps it may permanently injure the constitution. But, if it has been allowed to run its natural course, and the sufferer has resolutely rejected every remedy except fair and honest argument, I think that the recovery is generally cheering. A man looks back with something of honest pride at the obstacles through which he has forced his way to a purer and healthier atmosphere. But, whatever the nature of such crises generally, there is an obvious reason why, at the present day, the process is seldom really painful. The change which takes place is not, in fact, an abandonment of beliefs seriously held and firmly implanted in the mind, but a gradual recognition of the truth that you never really held them. The old husk drops off because it has long been withered, and you discover that beneath is a sound and vigorous growth of genuine conviction. Theologians have been assuring you that the world would be intolerably hideous if you did not look through their spectacles. With infinite pains you have turned away your eyes from the external light. It is with relief, not regret, that you discover that the sun shines, and that the world is beautiful without the help of these optical devices which you had been taught to regard as essential.
This, of course, is vehemently denied by all orthodox persons; and the hesitation with which the heterodox impugn their assumption seems to testify to its correctness. "After all," the believer may say, with much appearance of truth, "you don't really believe that I can walk by myself, if you are so tender of removing my crutches." The taunt is fair enough, and should be fairly met. Cynicism and infidelity are supposed to be inseparably connected; it is assumed that nobody can attack the orthodox creed unless he is incapable of sympathizing with the noblest emotions of our nature. The adversary on purely intellectual grounds would be awed into silence by its moral beauty, unless he were deficient in reverence, purity, and love. It must therefore be said, distinctly, although it cannot be argued at length, that this ground also appears to me to be utterly untenable. I deny that it is impossible to speak the truth without implying a falsehood; and I deny equally that it is impossible to speak the truth without drying up the sources of our holiest feelings. Those who maintain the affirmative of those propositions appear to me to be the worst of sceptics, and they would certainly reduce us to the most lamentable of dilemmas. If we cannot develop our intellects but at the price of our moral nature, the case is truly hard. Some such conclusion is hinted by Roman Catholics, but I do not understand how any one raised under Protestant teaching should regard it as any thing but cowardly and false. Let me endeavor in the briefest possible compass to say why, as a matter of fact, the dilemma seems to me to be illusory. What is it that Christian theology can now do for us; and in what way does it differ from the teaching of free thought?
The world, so far as our vision extends, is full of evil. Life is a sore burden to many, and a scene of unmixed happiness to none. It is useless to inquire whether on the whole the good or the evil is the more abundant, or to decide whether to make such an inquiry be any thing else than to ask whether the world has been, on the whole, arranged to suit our tastes. The problem thus presented is utterly inscrutable on every hypothesis. Theology is as impotent in presence of it as science. Science, indeed, withdraws at once from such questions; whilst theology asks us to believe that this "sorry scheme of things" is the work of omnipotence guided by infinite benevolence. This certainly makes the matter no clearer, if it does not raise additional difficulties; and, accordingly, we are told that the existence of evil is a mystery. In any case, we are brought to a stand: and the only moral which either science or theology can give is that we should make the best of our position.
Theology, however, though it cannot explain, or can only give verbal explanations, can offer a consolation. This world, we are told, is not all; there is a beyond and a hereafter; we may hope for an eternal life under conditions utterly inconceivable, though popular theology has made a good many attempts to conceive them. If it were further asserted that this existence would be one of unmixed happiness, there would be at least a show of compensation. But, of course, that is what no theologian can venture to say. It is needless to call the Puritan divine, with his babes of a span long now lying in hell, or that Romanist priest who revels in describing the most fiendish torture inflicted upon children by the merciful Creator who made them and exposed them to evil, or any other of the wild and hideous phantasms that have been evoked by the imagination of mankind running riot in the world of arbitrary figments. Nor need we dwell upon the fact, that where theology is really vigorous it produces such nightmares by an inevitable law; inasmuch as the next world can be nothing but the intensified reflection of this. It is enough to say that, if the revelation of a future state be really the great claim of Christianity upon our attentions, the use which it has made of that state has been one main cause of its decay. "St. Lewis the king, having sent Ivo, Bishop of Chartres, on an embassy, the bishop met a woman on the way, grave, sad, fantastic, and melancholic; with fire in one hand and water in the other. He asked what those symbols meant. She answered, 'My purpose is with fire to burn Paradise, and with my water to quench the flames of hell, that men may serve God without the incentives of hope and fear, and purely for the love of God.'" "The woman," adds Jeremy Taylor, "began at the wrong end." Is that so clear? The attempts of priests to make use of the keys of heaven and hell brought about the moral revolt of the Reformation; and, at the present day, the disgust excited by the doctrine of everlasting damnation is amongst the strongest motives to popular infidelity; all able apologists feel the strain. Some reasoners quibble about everlasting and eternal; and the great Catholic logician "submits the whole subject to the theological school," a process which I do not quite understand, though I assume it to be consolatory. The doctrine, in short, can hardly be made tangible without shocking men's consciences and understandings. It ought, it may be, to be attractive, but when firmly grasped, it becomes incredible and revolting.
The difficulty is evaded in two ways. Some amiable and heterodox sects retain heaven and abolish hell. A kingdom in the clouds may, of course, be portioned off according to pleasure. The doctrine, however, is interesting in an intellectual point of view only as illustrating in the naïvest fashion the common fallacy of confounding our wishes with our beliefs. The argument that because evil and good are mixed wherever we can observe, therefore there is elsewhere unmixed good, does not obey any recognized canons of induction. It would certainly be pleasant to believe that everybody was going to be happy forever, but whether such a belief would be favorable to that stern sense of evil which should fit us to fight the hard battle of this life is a question too easily answered. Thinkers of a high order do not have recourse to these simple devices. They retain the doctrine as a protest against materialism, but purposely retain it in the vaguest possible shape. They say that this life is not all; if it were all, they argue, we should be rightly ruled by our stomachs; but they scrupulously decline to give form and substance to their anticipations. We must, they think, have avowedly a heavenly background to the world, but our gaze should be restricted habitually within the visible horizon. The future life is to tinge the general atmosphere, but not to be offered as a definite goal of action or a distinct object of contemplation.
The persons against whom, so far as I know, the charge of materialism can be brought with the greatest plausibility at the present day are those who still force themselves to bow before the most grossly material symbols, and give a physical interpretation to the articles of her creed. A man who proposes to look for God in this miserable world and finds Him visiting the diseased imagination of a sickly nun, may perhaps be in some sense called a materialist, and there is more materialism of this variety in popular sentimentalisms about the "blood of Jesus" than in all the writings of the profane men of science. But in a philosophical sense the charge rests on a pure misunderstanding.
The man of science or, in other words, the man who most rigidly confines his imagination within the bounds of the knowable, is every whit as ready to protest against "materialism" as his antagonist. Those who distinguish man into two parts, and give the higher qualities to the soul and the sensual to the body, assume that all who reject their distinction abolish the soul, and with it abolish all that is not sensual. Yet every genuine scientific thinker believes in the existence of love and reverence as he believes in any other facts, and is likely to set just as high a value upon them as his opponent. He believes equally with his opponent, that to cultivate the higher emotions, man must habitually attach himself to objects outside the narrow sphere of his own personal experience. The difference is that whereas one set of thinkers would tell us to fix our affections on a state entirely disparate from that in which we are actually placed, the other would concentrate them upon objects which form part of the series of events amongst which we are moving. Which is the more likely to stimulate our best feelings? We must reply by asking whether the vastness or the distinctness of a prospect has the greater effect upon the imagination. Does a man take the greater interest in a future which he can definitely interpret to himself, or upon one which is admittedly so inconceivable that it is wrong to dwell upon it, but which allows of indefinite expansion? Putting aside our own personal interest, do we care more for the fate of our grandchildren whom we shall never see, or for the condition of spiritual beings the conditions of whose existence are utterly unintelligible to us? If sacrifice of our lower pleasures be demanded, should we be more willing to make them in order that a coming generation may be emancipated from war and pauperism, or in order that some indefinite and indefinable change may be worked in a world utterly inscrutable to our imaginations? The man who has learned to transfer his aspirations from the next world to this, to look forward to the diminution of disease and vice here, rather than to the annihilation of all physical conditions, has, it is hardly rash to assert, gained more in the distinctness of his aims than he has lost (if, indeed, he has lost any thing) in their elevation.
Were it necessary to hunt out every possible combination of opinion, I should have to inquire whether the doctrine of another world might not be understood in such a sense as to involve no distortion of our views. The future world may be so arranged that the effect of the two sets of motives upon our minds may be always coincident. Our interest in our descendants might be strengthened without being distracted by a belief in our own future existence. Of such a theory I have now only space to say that it is not that which really occurs in practice: and that the instincts which make us cling to a vivid belief in the future always spring from a vehement revolt against the present. Meanwhile, however, the answers generally given to sceptics are apparently contradictory. To limit our hopes to this world, it is sometimes said, is to encourage mere grovelling materialism; in the same breath it is added that to ask for an interest in the fate of our fellow-creatures here, instead of ourselves hereafter, is to make excessive demands upon human selfishness. The doctrine it seems is at once too elevated and too grovelling.
The theory on which the latter charge rests seems to be that you can take an interest in yourself at any distance, but not in others if they are outside the circle of your own personality. This doctrine, when boldly expressed, seems to rest upon the very apotheosis of selfishness. Theologians have sometimes said, in perfect consistency, that it would be better for the whole race of man to perish in torture than that a single sin should be committed. One would rather have thought that a man had better be damned a thousand times over than allow of such a catastrophe; but, however this may be, the doctrine now suggested appears to be equally revolting, unless diluted so far as to be meaningless. It amounts to asserting that our love of our own infinitesimal individuality is so powerful that any matter in which we are personally concerned has a weight altogether incommensurable with that of any matter in which we have no concern. People who hold such a doctrine would be bound in consistency to say that they would not cut off their little finger to save a million of men from torture after their own death. Every man must judge of his own state of mind; though there is nothing on which people are more liable to make mistakes; and I am charitable enough to hope that the actions of such men would be in practice as different as possible from what they anticipate in theory. But it is enough to say that experience, if it proves any thing, proves this to be an inaccurate view of human nature. All the threats of theologians with infinite stores of time and torture to draw upon, failed to wean men from sins which gave them a passing gratification, even when faith was incomparably stronger than it is now, or is likely to be again. One reason, doubtless, is that the conscience is as much blunted by the doctrines of repentance and absolution as it is stimulated by the threats of hell-fire. But is it not contrary to all common-sense to expect that the motive will retain any vital strength when the very people who rely upon it admit that it rests on the most shadowy of grounds? The other motive, which is supposed to be so incomparably weaker that it cannot be used as a substitute, has yet proved its strength in every age of the world. As our knowledge of nature and the growth of our social development impress upon us more strongly every day that we live the close connection in which we all stand to each other, the intimate "solidarity" of all human interests, it is not likely to grow weaker; a young man will break a blood-vessel for the honor of a boat-club; a savage will allow himself to be tortured to death for the credit of his tribe; why should it be called visionary to believe that a civilized human being will make personal sacrifices for the benefit of men whom he has perhaps not seen, but whose intimate dependence upon himself he realizes at every moment of his life? May not such a motive generate a predominant passion with men framed to act upon it by a truly generous system of education? And is it not an insult to our best feelings and a most audacious feat of logic, to declare on à priori grounds that such feelings must be a straw in the balance when weighed against our own personal interest in the fate of a being whose nature is inconceivable to us, whose existence is not certain, whose dependence upon us is indeterminate, simply because it is said that, in some way or other, it and we are continuous?
The real meaning, however, of this clinging to another life is doubtless very different. It is simply an expression of the reluctance of the human being to use the awful word "never." As the years take from us, one by one, all that we have loved, we try to avert our gaze; we are fain to believe that in some phantom world all will be given back to us, and that our toys have only been laid by in the nursery upstairs. Who, indeed, can deny that to give up these dreams involves a cruel pang? But, then, who but the most determined optimist can deny that a cruel pang is inevitable? Is not the promise too shadowy to give us real satisfaction? The whole lesson of our lives is summed up in teaching us to say "never" without needless flinching, or, in other words, in submitting to the inevitable. The theologian bids us repent, and waste our lives in vain regrets for the past, and in tremulous hopes that the past may yet be the future. Science tells us—what, indeed, we scarcely need to learn from science—that what is gone, is gone, and that the best wisdom of life is the acceptance of accomplished facts.
"The moving Finger writes, and having writ,
Moves on; nor all your piety nor wit
Can lure it back to cancel half a line,
Nor all your tears wipe out a word of it."
Never repent, unless by repentance you mean drawing lessons from past experience. Beating against the bars of fate you will only wound yourself, and mar what yet remains to you. Grief for the past is useful so far as it can be transmuted into renewed force for the future. The love of those we have lost may enable us to love better those who remain, and those who are to come. So used, it is an infinitely precious possession, and to be cherished with all our hearts. As it leads to vain regrets, it is at best an enervating enjoyment, and a needless pain. The figments of theology are a consecration of our delusive dreams; the teaching of the new faith should be the utilization of every emotion to the bettering of the world of the future.
The ennobling element of the belief in a future life is beyond the attack, or rather is strengthened by the aid, of science. Science, like theology, bids us look beyond our petty personal interests, and cultivate faculties other than the digestive. Theology aims at stimulating the same instincts, but provides them with an object in some shifting cloud-land of the imagination instead of the definite terra firma of this tangible earth. The imagination, bound by no external laws, may form what rules it pleases, and may therefore lend itself to a refined selfishness, or to dreamy sentimentalism. When we rise beyond ourselves we are most in need of some definite guidance, and in the greatest danger of following some delusive phantom. The process illustrated by this case is operative throughout the whole sphere of religious thought. The essence of theology, as popularly understood, is the division of the universe into two utterly disparate elements. God is conceived as a ruler external to the ordinary series of phenomena, but intervening at more or less frequent intervals; between the natural and the supernatural, the human and the divine element, there can be no proper comparison. Man must be vile that God may be exalted; reason must be folly when put beside revelation; the force of man must be weakness when it encounters Providence. Wherever, in short, we recognize the Divine hand, we can but prostrate ourselves in humble adoration. In franker times, when people meant what they said, this creed was followed to its logical results. The dogmas of the literal inspiration of the Scripture, or of the infallibility of the Church, recognized the presence of a flawless perfection in the midst of utter weakness. The corruption of human nature, the irresistible power of Divine grace, the magical efficacy of the Sacraments are corollaries from the same theory. In the phraseology popular with a modern school we are told that the essence of Christianity is the belief in the fatherhood of God. That doctrine is intelligible and may be beautiful so long as we retain a sufficient degree of anthropomorphism. But as our conceptions of the universe and, therefore, of its Ruler are elevated, we too often feel that the use of the word "father" does not prevent the weight of His hand from crushing us. If noble souls can convert even suffering into useful discipline, it is but a flimsy optimism which covers all suffering by the name of paternal chastisement. The universe partitioned between infinite power and infinite weakness becomes a hopeless chaos; and when we proceed farther, and try to identify the Divine and the human elements amidst this intricate blending of good and evil we are in danger of vital error at every step. What, in fact, can be more disastrous, and yet more inevitable, than to mistake our corrupt instincts for the voice of God, or, on the other hand, to condemn the Divine intimations as sinful? How can we avoid at every instant committing the unpardonable sin of blasphemy against the ineffable Holiness? And if, indeed, the distinction be groundless, are we not of necessity dislocating our conceptions of the universe, and hopelessly perplexing our sense of duty?
Take, for instance, one common topic which is typical of the general process. Divines never tire of holding up to us the example of Christ. If Christ were indeed a man like ourselves, his example may be fairly quoted. We willingly place him in the very front rank of the heroes who have died for the good of our race. But if Christ were in any true sense God or inseparably united to God, the example disappears. We honor him because he endured agonies and triumphed over doubts and weaknesses that would have paralyzed a less noble soul. The agonies and the doubts and the weakness are unintelligible on the hypothesis of an incarnate God. Theologians escape by the old loophole of mystery, ordinary believers by thinking of Christ as man and God alternately. We can doubtless deceive ourselves by such juggling, but we cannot honestly escape from the inevitable dilemma. In paying a blasphemous reverence to Christ, theologians have either placed him beyond the reach of our sympathies, or have lowered God to the standard of humanity. Let us, if possible, dwell with an emotion of brotherly love on the sufferings of every martyr in the cause of humanity, but you sever the very root of our sympathy when you single out one as divine and raise him to the skies. Why stand we gazing into heaven when we have but to look round to catch the contagion of noble enthusiasm from men of our own race? The ideal becomes meaningless when it is made supernatural.
The same perplexity meets us at every step; we are to follow Christ's example. Be humble, it is said, as Christ was humble. Theology indeed would prescribe annihilation rather than humiliation. Man in presence of the Infinite is absolutely nothing. Science, according to a glib commonplace of popular writers, agrees with theology in prescribing humility. But that very ambiguous word has a totally different meaning in the two cases. Science bids us recognize the inevitable limitation of our powers, and the feebleness of any individual as compared with the mass. We can do but little: and at every step we are dependent upon the co-operation of countless millions of our race and an indefinite series of past generations. We are like the coral insects, who can add but a hair's breadth to the structure which has been raised by their predecessors. Yet the little which we can do is something; and we will neither degrade ourselves nor our race. As measured by an absolute standard, man may be infinitesimal, but the absolute is beyond our powers. Science tells us that our little individuality might be swept out of existence without appreciable injury to the world; but it adds that the world is built up of infinitesimal atoms, and that each must co-operate in the general result. Theology crushes us into nothingness by placing us in the presence of the infinite God; and then compensates by making us divine ourselves. Man is a mere worm, but he can by priestly magic bring God to earth; he is hopelessly ignorant, but set on a throne and properly manipulated he becomes an infallible vice-God; he is a helpless creature, and yet this creature can define with more than scientific accuracy the precise nature of his inconceivable Creator; he grovels on the ground as a miserable sinner and stands up to declare that he is the channel of Divine inspiration; all his wisdom is ignorance, but he has written one book of which every line is absolutely perfect: and meanwhile that which one man singles out as the Divine element is to another the diabolical, so strangely dim is our vision, and so imperceptible is the difference between the Infinite and the infinitesimal.
Or, again, we are to deny ourselves as Christ denied himself. But what are the limits and the purpose of this self-denial? Am I to carry on an indefinite warfare against the body, which you say that God has given me, and to crush the physical for the sake of the spiritual element? What is the line between the spirit which is of God, and the body which is hopelessly corrupt? All sound reasoning prescribes a training with the given purpose of bringing the instincts of the individual into harmony with the interests of the whole social organism. Theology trying to lay down an absolute law sometimes encourages the extremes of asceticism, sometimes it inclines to antinomianism; and sometimes sanctions the condonation of sin in consideration of acts of humiliation.
We are to resign ourselves to God's will, say theologians, but what is God's will? If it is the inevitable, then theology falls in with free reason. But if God's will be, as theologians maintain, something which we are at liberty to resist or to obey, then resignation implies our ignoble yielding to evils which might be extirpated. Theology deifies the force of circumstances, when our life should be a victory over circumstances, and encourages us to repine over misfortunes, where all repining is useless.
Christ, you say, died for us; and Butler, in the book which still receives more praise than any other attempt at reconciling philosophy and theology, tries to show that here, at least, the two doctrines are in harmony. He has probably produced, in men of powerful intellects, more atheism than he has cured; for he tries to demonstrate explicitly what is tacitly assumed by most theologians—the injustice of God. The doctrine may be horrible, but he says that facts prove it to be true. His whole logic consists in simply begging the question by calling suffering punishment. That the potter should be angry with his pots is certainly inconceivable; but when you once attempt to trace the supernatural in life, it undoubtedly follows that God is not only weak with the creatures he has made, but punishes the innocent for the guilty. Theologians may rest complacently in such a conclusion; to unprejudiced persons, it appears to be the clearest illustration of the futility of their theories. Free thought declines to call suffering a punishment; but it admits and turns to account the undoubted fact, that men are so closely connected, that every injury inflicted upon one is inevitably propagated to others. If morality be the science of minimizing human misery, to say that sin brings suffering, is merely to express an identical proposition. The lesson, however, remains for us that we should look beyond our petty, personal interests, because no act can be merely personal. The stone which we throw spreads widening circles to all eternity, and to realize that fact is to intensify the sense of responsibility; but the same doctrine translated into the theological dialect becomes shocking or "mysterious."
Finally, we are to love our brothers as Christ loved us. That, truly, is an excellent doctrine, but translated into the theological, does it not lose half its efficacy? Love them that are of the household is the more natural corollary from the Christian tenets than love all mankind. People sometimes express surprise that the mild doctrines of Christianity should be pressed into the service of persecution. What more natural? "We love you," says the theologian to the heathen, "but still you are children of the devil. We love men, but the human heart is desperately wicked. We love your souls, but we hate your bodies. We love you as brothers; but then God, who so loved the world as to give His Son to die for it, has left the vast majority to follow their own road to perdition, and given to us a monopoly of truth and grace. We can only follow His example, and adore the mysterious dispensations of Providence."
"Ah!" replies a different school, "that is indeed a blasphemous and hideous doctrine. We will not presume to divide the human from the divine. God is the father of all men; His grace is confined to no sect or creed. His revelation is made to the universal human heart as well as to a select number of prophets and apostles. He is known in the order of nature as well as by miracles. The body has been created by Him as well as the soul, and all instincts are of heavenly origin and require cultivation not extirpation."
Whether this doctrine is reconcilable with Christianity is a question not to be discussed here. It certainly does not imply those flat contradictions of the lessons of experience which emerge from the other method of thought. It asks us to believe no miracles. It involves no supernaturalism. Whatever is, is natural, and is at the same time divine. Stated, indeed, as a bare logical formula, the doctrine seems to elude our grasp. It is intelligible to say that Christ was divine and Mahomet human, for the statement implies a comparison between two different terms; but if you say that Christ and Mahomet are both of the same class, what does it matter whether you call them both divine or both human? Every logical statement implies an exclusion as well as inclusion. To say that A is B is meaningless if you add that every other conceivable letter is also B. You attempt to make everybody rich by reckoning their property in pence instead of pounds, and the process, though at first sight attractive, is unsatisfactory. In fact, this phase of opinion generally slips back into the preceding. We find that exceptions are insensibly made, and that after pronouncing nature to be divine, it is tacitly assumed there is an indefinite region which is somehow outside nature. Few people have the reasoning tendency sufficiently developed to follow out this view to its logical result in Pantheism. Yet short of that, there is no really stable resting-place.
Let us glance, however, for a moment at the ordinary application of the doctrine. The theologian agrees with the man of science in admitting that we are governed by unalterable laws, or, as the man of science prefers to say, that the world shows nothing but a series of invariable sequences and co-existences. The difference is, in other words, that the theologian puts a legislator behind the laws, whilst the man of science sees nothing behind them but impenetrable mystery. The difference, so far as any practical conclusions are concerned, is obviously nothing. The laws of Nature, you tell us, are the work of infinite goodness and wisdom. But we are utterly unable to say what infinite goodness and wisdom would do, except by showing what it has done. Therefore, the ultimate appeal of the theologian, is as unequivocally to the laws as the primary appeal of the man of science. He has made a show of going to a higher court only to be referred back again to the original tribunal. History, for example, shows that mankind blunders by degrees into an improved condition and calls the process progress. Theology can give no additional guaranty for progress, for a state of things once compatible may, for any thing we can say, always remain compatible with infinite wisdom and goodness. As a matter of historical fact, theology only suggested the dogma of man's utter vileness, and all genuine theologians are marked by their readiness to believe in deterioration instead of progress. They look forward to a future world instead of this. But what reason have they to believe in this future of blessedness? God's love for His creatures? But the most prominent fact written on the whole surface of the world is what we cannot help calling the reckless and profuse waste of life. If every thing we see teaches us that millions of individuals are crushed at every step by the progress of the race, and if that process is, as it must be, compatible with infinite goodness, why suppose that infinite goodness will act differently in future? It is an ever-recurring but utterly fruitless sophistry which first infers God from nature, and then pronounces God to be different from nature.
The only meaning, indeed, which can be given to the theological statement when thus interpreted is that we should accustom ourselves to look with reverence and love upon the universe. That love and reverence are emotions which deserve our most strenuous efforts at cultivation; that we should be profoundly impressed by the vast system of which we form an infinitesimal part; that we should habitually think of ourselves in relation to the long perspective of events which stretches far away from us to the dim distance and toward the invisible future, are indeed lessons which all sound reasoning tends to confirm. But when we are invited to love and wonder at the world, as the work of God, we must guard against the old trick of substitution which is constantly played upon us. Once more, the God of nature is turned into the God of a part of nature. Theology of the old stamp, so far from encouraging us to love nature, teaches us that it is under a curse. It teaches us to look upon the animal creation with shuddering disgust; upon the whole race of man, outside our narrow sect, as delivered over to the devil; and upon the laws of nature at large as a temporary mechanism, in which we have been caught, but from which we are to anticipate a joyful deliverance. It is science, not theology, which has changed all this; it is the atheists, infidels, and rationalists, as they are kindly called, who have taught us to take fresh interest in our poor fellow denizens of the world, and not to despise them because Almighty benevolence could not be expected to admit them to heaven; to the same teaching we owe the recognition of the noble aspirations embodied in every form of religion, and the destruction of the ancient monopoly of Divine influences; and it is science again that has taught us to accommodate ourselves to the laws in which we are placed, instead of fruitlessly struggling against them and invoking miraculous interference to conquer them. The theology of which I am now speaking differs, indeed, radically from the old, so radically that one is at times surprised that the agreement, to use a common word, should reconcile vital differences in faith. But it often tends to the same end by a different path. It attempts to deny the existence of evils, instead of proclaiming their ultimate destruction. Every thing comes from a paternal hand; why struggle against it? Disease and starvation and nakedness are, somehow or other, parts of a divine system which is somehow or other deserving of our sincerest adoration. If anybody who is in fact naked or sick or starving takes that phrase in the sense that he had better submit cheerfully to evils which he cannot help, there is little to be said against it. If the doctrine of the Divine origin of all things is compatible with the belief that a vast number of things are utterly hateful, that we ought to spend our whole energy in eradicating them, and to protest against them with our latest breath, then the doctrine is certainly innocuous. But whether there is much use in language thus employed seems a little questionable; and, in any case, it is clear that it really adds nothing, except words, to the teaching of science.
Here again people cling passionately to the old formulæ because they appear to sanction a soothing optimism. We cannot be happy, it is said, unless we believe that our wishes will be fulfilled; and we endeavor to convert our wishes into a guaranty for their own fulfilment. If we cannot make up our minds to say "never," neither can we resolve to admit that there is really evil. We passionately assert that the past will come back and that pain will turn out to be an illusion. The argument against the infidel comes essentially to this; you tell me that my hopes will not be realized, and therefore you make me necessarily and needlessly miserable. For God's sake, do not disperse my dreams. People are not satisfied with the answer that the nightmare has gone as well as the vision of bliss, and that fears are destroyed as much as hopes; because, as a matter of fact, they can contrive to dwell upon that part of the doctrine which is comfortable for the moment. We have power over our dreams though we conceal its exercise from ourselves. But the argument itself involves the fundamental fallacy. To destroy a groundless hope is not to destroy a man's happiness. The instantaneous effort may be painful: but it is the price which we have to pay for a cure of deep-seated complaints. The infidel's reply is substantially this: I may destroy your hopes; but I do not destroy your power of hoping. I bid you no longer fix your mind on a chimera but on tangible and realizable prospects. I warn you that efforts to soar above the atmosphere can only lead to disappointment, and that time spent in squaring the circle is simply time spent. Apply your strength and your intellect on matters which lie at hand and on problems which admit of a solution. The happiest man is not the man who has the grandest dreams, but the man whose aspirations are best fitted to guide his talents: the most efficient worker is not the one who mistakes his own fancies for an external support, but he who has most accurately gauged the conditions under which he is laboring. Trust in Providence may lead you to pass successfully through dangers which would have repelled an unbeliever, or it may lead you to break your neck in pursuing a dream. It makes heroes and cowards, patriots and assassins, saints and bigots who each mistake their wisdom or their folly for divine intimations. Providence for us can only be that aggregate of external forces to which willingly or unwillingly we must adapt ourselves. We should calmly calculate by all available means the conditions of our life, and then dare, without ignoring, the dangers that are inevitable. Through all human affairs there runs an element of uncertainty which cannot be suppressed, and we seek in vain to disguise it under names consecrated by old associations; there are evils which are only made more poignant by our efforts to explain them away; and to each of us will very speedily come an end of his labors in the world. We can best fortify ourselves by recognizing and submitting to the inevitable and by anchoring our minds on the firmest holding ground. Science will tell us that by working with the great forces that move the world, we may contribute some fragment to an edifice which will not be broken down; that to think for others instead of limiting our hopes to our petty interests is the best remedy for unavailing regret. We can take our part in the long warfare of man against the world, which is nothing else but the gradual accommodation of the race to the conditions of its dwelling-place. By so disciplining our thoughts that we may fight eagerly and hopefully, we have the best security for happiness, and not in encouraging an idle dwelling upon visions which can never be verified, and which are apt to become most ghastly when we most wish for consolation.
To the question, then, from which I started, it seems that an unequivocal reply can be given. Why help to destroy the old faith from which people derive, or believe themselves to derive, so much spiritual solace? The answer is, that the loss is overbalanced by the gain. We lose nothing that ought to be really comforting in the ancient creeds; we are relieved from much that is burdensome to the imagination and to the intellect. Those creeds were indeed in great part the work of the best and ablest of our forefathers; they therefore provide some expression for the highest emotions of which our nature is capable; but, to say nothing of the lower elements which have intruded, of the concessions made to bad passions, and to the wants of a ruder form of society, they are at best the approximations to the truth of men who entertained a radically erroneous conception of the universe. Astronomers who went on the Ptolemaic theory managed to provide a very fair description of the actual phenomena of the heavens; but the solid result of their labors was not lost when the Copernican system took its place; and incalculable advantages followed from casting aside the old cumbrous machinery of cycles and epicycles in favor of the simpler conceptions of the new doctrine. A similar change follows when man is placed at the centre of the religious and moral system. We still retain the faiths at which theologians arrived by a complex machinery of arbitrary contrivances destined to compensate one set of dogmas by another. The justice of God the Father is tempered by the mercy of God the Son, as the planet wheeled too far forward by the cycle is brought back to its place by the epicycle. When we strike out the elaborate arrangements, the truths which they aim at expressing are capable of far simpler statements; infinite error and distortion disappear, and the road is open for conceptions impossible under the old circuitous and erroneous methods.
We have arrived at the point from which we can detect the source of ancient errors, and extract the gold from the dross. One thing, indeed, remains for the present impossible. The old creed, elaborated by many generations, and consecrated to our imaginations by a vast wealth of associations, is adapted in a thousand ways to the wants of its believers. The new creed—whatever may be its ultimate form—has not been thus formulated and hallowed to our minds. We, whose fetters are just broken, cannot tell what the world will look like to men brought up in the full blaze of day, and accustomed from infancy to the free use of their limbs. For centuries all ennobling passions have been industriously associated with the hope of personal immortality, and base passions with its rejection. We cannot fully realize the state of men brought up to look for a reward of heroic sacrifice in the consciousness of good work achieved in this world instead of in the hope of posthumous repayment. Nor again, have we, if we shall ever have, any system capable of replacing the old forms of worship by which the imagination was stimulated and disciplined. That such reflections should make many men pause before they reveal the open secret is intelligible enough. But what is the true moral to be derived from them? Surely that we should take courage and speak the truth. We should take courage, for even now the new faith offers to us a more cheering and elevating prospect than the old. When it shall have become familiar to men's minds, have worked itself into the substance of our convictions, and provided new channels for the utterance of our emotions, we may anticipate incomparably higher results. We are only laying the foundations of the temple, and know not what will be the glories of the completed edifice. Yet already the prospect is beginning to clear. The sophistries which entangle us are transparent. That faith is not the noblest which enables us to believe the greatest number of articles on the least evidence; nor is that doctrine really the most productive of happiness which encourages us to cherish the greatest number of groundless hopes. The system which is really most calculated to make men happy is that which forces them to live in a bracing atmosphere; which fits them to look facts in the face and to suppress vain repinings by strenuous action instead of luxurious dreaming.
And hence, too, the time is come for speaking plainly. If you would wait to speak the truth until you can replace the old decaying formula by a completely elaborated system, you must wait for ever; for the system can never be elaborated until its leading principles have been boldly enunciated. Reconstruct, it is said, before you destroy. But you must destroy in order to reconstruct. The old husk of dead faith is pushed off by the growth of living beliefs below. But how can they grow unless they find distinct utterance? and how can they be distinctly uttered without condemning the doctrines which they are to replace? The truth cannot be asserted without denouncing the falsehood. Pleasant as the process might be of announcing the truth and leaving the falsehood to decay of itself, it cannot be carried into practice. Men's minds must be called back from the present of phantoms and encouraged to follow the only path which tends to enduring results. We cannot afford to make the tacit concession that our opinions, though true, are depressing and debasing. No; they are encouraging and elevating. If the medicine is bitter to the taste, it is good for the digestion. Here and there, a bold avowal of the truth will disperse a pleasing dream, as here and there it will relieve us of an oppressing nightmare. But it is not by striking balances between these pains and pleasures that the total effect of the creed is to be measured; but by the permanent influence on the mind of seeing things in their true light and dispersing the old halo of erroneous imagination. To inculcate reticence at the present moment is simply to advise us to give one more chance to the development of some new form of superstition. If the faith of the future is to be a faith which can satisfy the most cultivated as well as the feeblest intellects, it must be founded on an unflinching respect for realities. If its partisans are to win a definitive victory, they must cease to show quarter to lies. The problem is stated plainly enough to leave no room for hesitation. We can distinguish the truth from falsehood, and see where confusion has been reproduced, and truth pressed into the service of falsehood. Nothing more is wanted but to go forward boldly, and reject once for all the weary compromises and elaborate adaptations which have become a mere vexation to all honest men. The goal is clearly in sight, though it may be distant; and we decline any longer to travel in disguise by circuitous paths, or to apologize for being in the right. Let us think freely and speak plainly, and we shall have the highest satisfaction that man can enjoy—the consciousness that we have done what little lies in ourselves to do for the maintenance of the truths on which the moral improvement and the happiness of our race depend.