Thursday, October 6, 2016

Shakspeare and Calvin

A few days ago there appeared in the Times a report of a Scotch sermon which must have given immense scandal to the Scotch, unless, indeed, their religious belief has undergone a change which may almost be called a revolution. The preacher, we are told, preached on the text, “Call no man your father upon the earth,” and his sermon consisted of a fierce attack upon Calvin and a vehement panegyric upon Shakspeare. “Calvin no doubt was a great man, and there was a great amount of truth in his system, but Calvin was not only not Christ, but he had less of Christ about him than almost any Christian divine he could name. He was harsh, narrow, dogmatic, cold, cruel.” Shakspeare was “a better representative of the Christian religion than Calvin. The one was a Jew of the stoniest type, the other a Christian of the noblest form. The one found evil in things good, the other a soul of goodness in things evil,” and so on. Language like this, used in a Scotch church, may possibly be a mere personal eccentricity, but even if it is, such eccentricities have their causes. Men do not begin to fly in the face of all the traditions of their time and country until those traditions have begun to lose their power; and we may be very sure that, when a Scotch clergyman, even if he be anxious to make a sensation, takes that particular way of doing it, Scotch religious sentiment has undergone a deep change. If the change were exclusively Scotch, it would hardly be worth while to notice it. It is not a question of great importance to the world at large whether Calvin stands higher or lower in the opinion of the nation over which he ruled so long and so harshly, but the change is general. It has gone quite as far in this country as elsewhere, and it is rapidly affecting the thoughts and language of nearly the whole community. The language of the sermon in question expresses it exactly—all the more exactly because it is of the order of decorated commonplace, the sort of matter which a popular preacher produces at the time when his serious friends begin to lament the distressing laxity of his views. Shakspeare is a better Christian than Calvin. It is more Christian to find a soul of goodness in things evil than to find evil in things good. What would be called by one class of popular writers “the great genial human heart” of Shakspeare is more Christian than the grim theology of Calvin. Nothing is more common in the present day than this vein. Mr. Bright opposes capital punishment partly on the ground that, if people are publicly hung, accidents will sometimes happen, and disgusting spectacles be exhibited, as was lately the case at Chester, and this is intolerable to any one who has any notions of Christianity. We are constantly told that the American war is anti-Christian, and the nickname of “War-Christians” is supposed to convey the bitterest of all taunts, and to impute to those whom it designates the most glaring of all inconsistencies. This kind of phraseology, which meets us at every turn, deserves examination. It is so boisterous, so pathetic, so unconscious of being open to any sort of retort—it brings in phrases like “our common Christianity,” or “the religion of love and mercy,” to round off contrasts, with such an air of self-confident though rather pursy rhetoric—that it challenges criticism. How far is it true? Is Christianity, or “our common Christianity,” a religion of love and mercy?

What “our common Christianity” may be would be a very difficult inquiry. It is probably closely allied to that Christianity which high judicial authorities have declared to form part of the common law of England; and indeed, when examined carefully, the phrase will be found to mean no more than the aggregate of those pathetic sentiments which, in the state of public opinion for the time being, are generally associated with Christianity. In short, it is a mere rag of second-rate rhetoric. But what is Christianity itself when the words “our common" have been struck out? The proper meaning of Christianity is the aggregate of the doctrines, sentiments, habits of conduct, views of life, and casts of character which have, in point of fact, been associated with, and coloured by, the life and teaching of Jesus Christ and his disciples. If it be used in this sense, the meaning of the word is certainly indefinite enough; but it is perfectly plain, for the question whether the growth of a particular sentiment can be historically traced to the origin specified must always be one of fact, and must, admit of a solution: For instance, in this sense, smoking tobacco is not a Christian practice, nor is the Newtonian system of astronomy, nor the penny postage. On the other hand, monasticism is Christian; the doctrines of the Greek, Roman, or Nestorian Churches are Christian; religious persecution is Christian. This does not imply either any censure on smoking tobacco or on the penny postage, or any approbation of monasticism or religious persecution. It is merely an assertion that, historically and in fact, a connexion of cause and effect can be traced between the existence of monasticism, theological dogmas, and religious persecution on the one hand, and the facts recorded in the four gospels on the other; whereas no such connexion can be traced between the facts recorded in the four gospels and the practice of smoking tobacco. Men would not have been Greeks, Romans, or Nestorians if those events had not happened. They would have smoked tobacco whether or not.

Of course this is not the common way of using the words “Christian” and “Christianity.” They are generally meant to imply nothing more than a peculiar kind of moral compliment. When the Scotch preacher described Shakspeare as a better Christian than Calvin, he meant only to say, in an emphatic kind of way, that he was humane, charitable, and a lover of mankind; and that to be so is a good thing. He may perhaps have meant to assert, not only that such qualities are good, but that they are qualities which would not have been acknowledged as such if the Sermon on the Mount had never been preached. If that was his meaning, the word was used correctly, although it is very doubtful whether the fact alleged or implied is true.

Using thus the word “Christian” in the more correct and definite sense assigned to it above, is it true to say that Shakspeare is more Christian than Calvin? As to Calvin's Christianity in this sense of the word, there can surely be no real doubt. His system may be, and certainly is, horrible in the extreme, but that it is historically deducible from the existence of the creed of the Gospels, and from the history of the Christian Church, is just as plain as it is that the Parliament now sitting is the representative of the body which passed Magna Charta. It is a commonplace now universally admitted to be true by every decently educated person, that Christianity was not in its first announcement a definite coherent system. It is obvious, one would suppose, to the most superficial reader, that, with but very few exceptions, the New Testament contains neither systematic morality nor systematic theology. The whole question of the nature of the relation between God and man is rather assumed than stated in the Gospels. Calvin did no more than put into a systematic shape, according to the lights of his day, and according to his own reflections, the teaching set forth in the New Testament in general terms. That it admits of being conceived as he conceived it is a fact about which there can be no doubt at all. The experience of many centuries proves it. It is altogether unfair to describe Calvin as the “stoniest of Jews.” In the first place (stoniness apart), if he were Jewish, it would not follow that he was not a Christian. The founder of Christianity and all his original disciples without exception were Jews, and the Old Testament is always recognised by the writers of the New Testament as supplying the foundation and, so to speak, the background of their writings.

But if Calvin deserves, in the strictest sense of the word, to be called Christian, can the same be said for Shakspeare, especially in regard to his general view of life and its affairs? Is the geniality (as it is called) of Shakspeare's views, is his extreme enjoyment of life in all its forms, is the indulgent sympathizing view of human nature, which appears in all his plays, is his passionate sympathy with the splendid and chivalrous side of human life, in harmony with the general tone of the New Testament, or historically deducible from it? The source from which Shakspeare got his high spirits, his ardour, and his genial humour is obvious enough. The period at which he lived would seem, at least in this country, to have been one of the most cheerful and hopeful in the history of the world. It was a time of great discoveries, great thoughts, and a great and successful effort after every kind of progress. Whatever the reason may have been, he certainly did see the world en beau, and thoroughly indulged the lust of the eye, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life. This is the very charm of his writings; but did he learn is from Christianity? If so, from what part of it? He certainly did not learn it from that mediaeval creed which inspired the inferno—a Christian poem, beyond all doubt. Nor did he learn it from Calvin, whose death was contemporaneous with his own birth, and whose austere system was flourishing in full vigour throughout the whole of his life. Shakspeare's plays convey rather the impression that the controversies of his day led him to leave on one side the restraints of definite creeds of all kinds, and to take an artistic, enjoying, sympathetic view of human life altogether apart from theology, not to say alien to it. There is in his writings much more nature than grace.

It is of course open to Scotch clergymen, or to any one else, to admire this state of mind, and, if they please, to prefer it to Christianity; but they ought to call things by their right names. Christianity has been before the world in a great variety of shapes for more than eighteen hundred years, and it may be confidently said that all its more prominent and energetic forms have recognised and do recognise the dark side of things, and attach due, and in some cases exaggerated, weight to them. Something in the nature of a hell there must always be in any creed which mankind will care for. Put Christianity altogether on one side, and fall back, if you will, on atheism pure and simple. Surely that is gloomy enough. It is, in fact, so gloomy and so fatal to all that human beings as such care for, that, rather than go altogether without a creed, men will invent the vilest superstitions and frighten themselves with the most hideous phantoms created by their own minds. Step from atheism to deism, and, though part of the cloud is removed and room is gained for hopes of a future and better life, the existence of moral and physical evil is still a problem which, if not insoluble, admits only of a terrible solution. Pass from deism to any positive theology, and you are met at every step by hell-fire. Turn, in short, where you will, and your religion must have a dark side. Dismiss the subject from your mind, and it becomes the skeleton in the closet. It is far better to take the measure of the gloomy side of life and make the best of it than to label, everything that looks good-natured with the word “Christianity.”

Saturday Review, June 18, 1864.

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