The most prominent and definite proposal which has been made on the part of those who think that our Government ought to be conducted, as they say, "on Christian principles," relates to public education. They propose that in all schools supported by Government the Bible should be introduced. Some persons seem to propose that the Bible should be placed in the schools merely as a sort of symbol, as the Royal Arms are placed in Courts of Law in this country. Others wish that instruction in the Bible should form part of the instruction in the schools, compulsory upon all scholars who might attend. It can hardly be disputed by any one who has the least acquaintance with education that the practical importance of such steps would be imperceptible. To make children read the Bible for an hour in the morning, whilst the day continued to be passed in heathenism, would have about as much tendency to make them Christians as a rule that the children in our own National Schools should read the Koran for an hour every morning would have to make them Mahometans. The real value of either measure, and the true ground upon which it is recommended, is that it would involve the assertion of a principle on the part of the Government; and as the influence of all Governments in the East is enormously great, it is supposed that the hare assertion of a principle would have considerable practical results, whilst at all events it is contended that it would set the country, in its corporate capacity, in a proper attitude with respect to its Maker.
The principle which the Government is wished to lay down by this means is, that Christianity is true, and that the authorized version of the Bible stands in the same relation to it as the Koran to Mahometanism —that is, that it is an ultimate and infallible authority on all the subjects to which it refers. This is the interpretation which the natives of India are intended to put on the introduction of the Bible into the schools supported by Government, and there can be no doubt that this is the interpretation which they actually would put upon it. It is important to observe what this proposal involves. It proceeds upon the ground that it is not enough for the English in India to be Christians individually—to profess their religion in the most open way by public worship, by endowing ministers of religion, and by endeavouring in their private and individual capacity to convert, the natives to their own faith—but that, in addition to this, the Government ought in its public and corporate capacity to undertake some of the functions of a missionary, by publicly proclaiming, by significant acts, that Christianity is true, and that a translation of the Bible, authorized by itself, is a perfect and infallible exposition of it. This proposal certainly has the merit of being intelligible and important; but it is open to objections so weighty that, independently of its direct results, its adoption would be an immense calamity.
In the first place, if the experience and the controversies of the present generation have proved anything at all, they have shown that it is no part of the province of Governments to lay down the truth of any theological propositions whatever. Not very long ago, few speculative subjects attracted more attention than the nature of the relations between Church and State. If these controversies are now appeased, that circumstance is certainly not owing to the fact that theological speculation excites less interest than it formerly did. On the contrary, it was never more active. It is to be considered rather as the result of a practical solution of the particular question brought to light by the course of events. After a controversy which began with Catholic Emancipation and the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, and which displayed its last relics of vitality in the debates on the admission of Jews to Parliament, it has been practically decided that there is a very large province of human affairs, involving moral responsibilities of the highest possible importance, in which people can co-operate with the greatest mutual advantage without any common profession whatever of theological belief, and in spite of theological differences of the most extreme kind.
Whilst this process has been going on in one department of life, no corresponding results have been reached in the other. That men of very different creeds can, in their political capacity, dispense with any common confession of faith, has been abundantly proved; but the difference between the creeds themselves, if it has changed at all, has become wider and more strongly marked than it used to be. Indeed, the growth of theological differences has not been confined to different sects, but has penetrated their boundaries and extended widely amongst the individuals of whom they are composed. There is probably no religious denomination in the present day, the theological teachers of which could modify its established doctrines with any chance of commanding the assent of the individual members. Formularies already in possession stand by their own weight, but he would be a rash man indeed who attempted to change any of them.
In such a state of things it would be immeasurably undesirable that the State should commit itself to theological propositions, the extent of which would be equalled only by their vagueness. To attempt to profess a religion without professing a creed is an absurdity. If the English Government in India were to inform the people of India that Christianity was true, without informing them whether it meant Roman Catholic Christianity, Church of England Christianity, Greek Christianity, Baptist Christianity, or Unitarian Christianity, it would publish nothing more nor less than an unmeaning platitude. To do justice to those who are most earnest upon the subject, their proposal is not so vague as this. It has the merit of being definite enough, for it consists in proposing that the Government should hold out to the natives of India the authorized version of the Bible as an ultimate, infallible, and sufficient exposition of their own views. The proposal is monstrous. In the first place, this is not the doctrine of any Christian Church whatever. It would be impossible to extract it from the Thirty-nine Articles, and it is diametrically opposed both to the principles and to the practice of the Roman Catholics, who form a large proportion of our population. Why is the Government of India to take upon itself to assert to its subjects that the Song of Solomon and the Book of Esther are ultimate, absolute, and infallible truth, and that the Books of Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, and the Maccabees, are entitled to no authority at all? However true the proposition may be, it is one of which the Government of India officially knows nothing.
If there is any religious body with which the English Government can be said to be connected, it is the Church of England. But the Church of England has cautiously abstained from any detailed categorical statements as to the attributes of the Bible, or as to the assistance necessary to understand it. To put forward the Bible by itself in the manner proposed, would be to give an official declaration as to its authority far more emphatic than any theological declaration which the Church of England has ever made on the subject; and such a course would, at the same time, pass over a variety of collateral considerations which it is impossible to neglect with any regard either for honesty or for safety.
When an Englishman reads the Bible, he reads it by the light of a thousand associations and traditional modes of thought and feeling. He and his countrymen have professed the Christian faith for many centuries, in one shape or another. His language, his moral sentiments, even his intellectual habits, have been deeply influenced by Christianity. He is, moreover, an Englishman, and as such has been accustomed to regard other things, which have reached him through other than Christian sources, as equally entitled to respect. However much, for example, he may believe in the divine authority of the Sermon on the Mount, he would shoot dead an invader or a robber with as little hesitation as a mad doc He would think it excessively absurd to scruple to take oaths in a court of law. However strong his belief may be in the book of Genesis, he is quite as firmly convinced of the truth of physical science; and though he may believe in the most literal manner that the Israelites were commanded to exterminate the Canaanites, he would never make a precedent of their conduct, nor would he consider that the bitter imprecations which fill the 109th Psalm would justify him in praying that unrighteous men might be judges over his enemies, and that their seed might beg their bread in desolate places. In other words, he reads his Bible by the light of experience, science, and morality; and though he may not form any definite theory upon the subject of the relations of these authorities amongst each other, the practical result is utterly different from that to which he would be brought if, being a mere heathen immersed in slavery and barbarism, ho were officially told that the whole of the Bible was an absolutely true exposition of the Christian religion, and that every part of it was of equal authority.
It is notorious that people will find in the Bible, as in other books, very much what they seek in it; and if the children of the authors of the massacres of Delhi and Cawnpore were really to study it, they would probably dwell far more on the stories of the hewing of Agag in pieces, the extermination of the Amalekites, and the execution of the descendants of "Saul and his bloody house," than on the Ten Commandments, the Gospels, and the Epistles. There is one modern example of the use made of the Bible by persons who had none of its spirit, and to whom it was communicated upon the same sort of terms as those on which it is proposed to cause the Government to put it before the people of India. That example is an instructive one—it is the case of the Taeping rebels, who, by cruelty and blasphemy, have done much to disgust the Chinese with the very name of Christianity.
The single consideration that the relations between the Bible and science are far from being definitely settled is a reason sufficient to call upon the Government to abstain from the course proposed to them. Governments can act upon broad, patent, notorious facts only. They cannot treat anything as true until the assertion of its truth has become a commonplace. Now no one can doubt that there is great difficulty in adjusting the relations of the book of Genesis and the science of geology; and till that question is settled it would be monstrous for the Government to put forward the Bible on the terms proposed. To a European such difficulties may not present themselves as very formidable. He may, and often does say—and very justly—I find that the great spiritual and moral doctrines of the Bible appeal both to my experience and to my conscience, and I will be contented to treat its relations to physical science as of comparatively little importance. A Hindoo cannot hold this language. Cosmogony is exactly the part of theology which most attracts his imagination; and it is the
subject of all others on which he expects anything claiming to be a revelation to be at once authentic and precise. To treat the cosmogony of a book held out to him as infallible, as the geology of the book of Genesis is often treated, would appear to him an inconsistency at once ludicrous and blasphemous. Most of all would this be the case when the missionaries of the race which makes this declaration to him always attack his own religion on the ground of its inconsistency with physical science.
It must be observed that these remarks are directed, not against the efforts of private persons in their private capacity to convert the natives of India, but against any official declaration by the Government of a theological proposition. The two things stand on entirely different grounds. The private missionary may, and if he is a man of sense no doubt docs, accompany his preaching with such qualifications and explanations as may be requisite, but Government cannot do that. It can only lay down dogmas. It can say, "This book is our Koran, or our Veda," but it cannot explain, qualify, and argue; and therefore its enunciation of principles must always be made at a disadvantage which would be ludicrous if the matter were not so serious.
Saturday Review, May 26, 1860.