Thursday, October 6, 2016

Sceptical Humility

We have always made it a matter of principle to abstain from taking part in the theological warfare which is exciting so much interest at present. If handled at all, such matters ought to be handled thoroughly. Here, and there, however, an incident occurs in the course of the warfare which is too characteristic to be passed over by observers who, though silent, are by no means uninterested. The tone in which the combatants address each other often requires and repays notice at least as much as the arguments which they use. It is for this reason that we propose to consider shortly some remarks made by the Times on the circular which the Archbishop of Canterbury or his friends thought it right to call a pastoral. As a general rule, our contemporary abstains from religious controversy, but from time to time it gives utterance to most remarkable sentiments on such subjects. They are always of precisely the same character—respectable to the last possible degree, unimpeachably serious, and combining a regard for the interests of orthodoxy with a mild superiority to anything like superstition or prejudice in a manner which no other journal can possibly hope to emulate. We learn, for instance, that the writers of the Essays and Reviews, Dr. Colenso, and others of the same character, are altogether in the wrong, that their speculations will soon pass away and be forgotten, and that it is foolish to attribute the least importance to them; but, after this thesis has been amplified with becoming seriousness into about a column, a quiet observation is inserted at the end of the article to the effect that it might perhaps be as well if the clergy would show rather more confidence in their excellent cause, and refute these heresies instead of being content to denounce them. On another occasion we learn that the conduct of Mr. Wilson and Dr. Williams has been most improper. They have “escaped by the skin of their teeth”; the world, especially, the clerical world, appreciates their wickedness, and feels for the judges who disapproved of their speculations, though they were prevented from condemning them; but the article—which, like March, came in like a lion— goes out like a lamb. “The fact remains” that the gentlemen in question have tried the right to criticize the Bible and have established it. These ambidextrous compositions have an admirable gravity which is peculiarly their own, and which no meaner hand could hope to emulate; but from time to time they also contain something which it is perhaps not altogether misplaced irreverence to attempt to criticize.

The article referred to above, on the Archbishop of Canterbury's pastoral afforded a good illustration of the class to which it belongs. The body of the article consisted of a prolonged criticism on the Archbishop's logic, which was somewhat mercifully, snubbed, not without that degree of affable condescension which a courteous and kindhearted superior might naturally be expected to extend to a person to so in the general providential scheme of things, an inferior position had been assigned. After pointing out the various excuses which might fairly be urged on behalf of those exceptional clergymen who think it desirable to know a little about Biblical criticism, and expatiating on the difficulties to which such audacious pretensions might expose them, the writer concluded by informing the clergy their true policy, and pointing out to them the way in which they might “take the best revenge on the supposed enemies of their faith.” The advice is, to avoid controversy and to try to proselytize ignorant people:—
‘If there are any in this country who seriously wish to pull down the Word of God from its place of authority, the best way to defeat their wishes is to instal it and its doctrines in every cottage, every dwelling in this country. The first receivers of that Word had but vague and imperfect ideas upon the questions which have since distracted Christendom, yet they were as good Christians in all essential respects as any of us can pretend to be. The Church can never be far wrong when it returns as much as possible to its humble origin, and seeks to extend itself as it was founded. There are millions among us who have yet to learn the great facts of the gospel, to accept its work and its example, and to acknowledge its obligations. They have a great deal to do before it will be necessary to give them accurate ideas upon Inspiration, the Sacred Canon, and the relation of Eternity to Time.’
What can sound more beautifully orthodox, more humble-minded, more practical? Leave these refined and fruitless speculations; stick to the great truths, the broad common ground. Never mind the men of learning and refinement; preach to every cottage, every British hearth and home. Such is the advice of the writer, and, what is more remarkable, such is his sincere advice. He obviously believes it. It is perfectly clear that he really supposes, or supposed when he wrote the article, that what he advised was not merely possible, but was even the right thing to do. It is, indeed, the sort of remark which thousands of respectable well-established people would either make themselves or applaud in others. Let us consider what it really means.

Every one who knows anything about teaching ought to know that, before it is possible to teach a thing to a child or a very ignorant person, it is necessary, to know it thoroughly well yourself. The reason why it is possible to teach children in a national school the great outlines of astronomy, or to give a familiar explanation of a steam-engine or a common pump, is that the principles of the sciences of astronomy and mathematics are perfectly well understood and thoroughly familiar, if not to the teacher himself, at least to those from whom the teacher gets his knowledge. When the Ptolemaic system, or the system of Tycho Drahe, with their cycles and epicycles, were the received systems of astronomy, it would have been impossible to teach astronomy to little children, because the fundamental principles of the science were so imperfectly understood that no clear and coherent interpretation of familiar facts could be put forward. Any moderately intelligent father in the present day can explain with perfect ease to any moderately intelligent child why it is that, if you tie, a string round your finger, the end of the finger swells up, and not the part below the string. No one could explain this in a familiar way till the fact that the blood goes from the heart by the arteries and returns to it by the veins was scientifically established. Now that Sanscrit is understood, it is easy to explain to anybody the resemblances between a number of words in Greek, Latin, and German. When Sanscrit was an unknown tongue this was a mere puzzle. By the help of a common terrestrial globe, a child in the present day may rapidly get a notion of the general configuration of the earth. Probably no ancient Roman had anything beyond the vaguest and most bewildered conceptions as to the relative size and position of any countries at all. In a word, the existence of a clear, definite, precise science somewhere or other is the indispensable condition without which satisfactory elementary teaching cannot exist upon any subject.

The application of this to theology is obvious. The learners may not require “accurate ideas upon inspiration,” but the teachers most unquestionably do. It is idle to talk of carrying the great facts of the Gospel and its work and example into every cottage in the country, if in the same breath it is conceded that those great facts, that work and example, are called in question, and that the teachers are not clear about them. It may be more important to teach cottagers than to teach clergymen; but unless the clergy are firmly persuaded in their own minds, and know thoroughly well what they have to teach, they will not be able to teach at all. To try to get rid of religious scepticism by teaching in Sunday Schools is like trying to get rid of doubts about political economy by teaching Mrs. Marcet's questions on the subject to a set of children. So far from evading the difficulty, you only bring its existence, in so far as it has a real existence, more vividly before your eyes. A man troubled by Dr. Colenso begins to read the Old Testament to a class of children. They must be very stupid, or he must be very uninteresting, if the phenomenon of the intelligent Zulu does not repeat itself. “Father, is Samson true?” was the question of a child of about five years old who, having heard tales of giants and fairies, wanted to know whether or not Samson belonged to the same category. A person who is not prepared to say at once to such a question either “Yes,” or “No,” or “I cannot say,” has no business to try to teach children; yet, before he can say either of these things, he must have made up his mind on the controversies of the day.

The truth upon this matter is as simple as it is to many people unpleasant. The only way in which clergymen or any other men in the position of teachers can discharge their duties with satisfaction to themselves is by making up their minds on the merits of the questions at issue. The broad question is, Is the Bible a collection of human books of various degrees of merit, or is it a divine revelation complete in itself? or is there any (and what) intermediate position which can be reasonably and consistently maintained? On the question itself we say nothing at all, but this we do say—it is a question which cannot be shirked. Every man who has to teach his neighbours or children must make up his mind upon it and act accordingly. To take what the Times describes as the humble line of teaching religion to common people and children, without prejudice to the question what it is that you are teaching, is to act in an unworthy and cowardly manner. It is mere nonsense and an abuse of terms to talk of the “humble origin” of the Christian Church. It was humble enough in one sense—that is, it began amongst people of low degree; but it succeeded because those who first taught Christianity believed with the most intense earnestness that its founder was God Incarnate, who had come upon earth for the express purpose of teaching a certain set of truths. This cannot be called a humble origin. It was the highest origin that could possibly be conceived, and those who taught Christianity viewed the doctrines which they taught as the most sublime truths that could be offered to the souls of men. They would have despised the suggestion that they should leave open the question whether their religion was true, and contend merely that it was a good sort of thing for poor people to believe in. There is only one course which the clergy can take with credit and consistency, and that is the course of saying that Christianity is true, and that they or some of them can prove it to be true, and can answer the objections brought against it. No doubt this involves the admission that it is conceivable that Christianity may not be true, in which case it must be given up; but that admission can be avoided only by withdrawing the whole subject from discussion, and by thus depriving religion at once of all influence over men of educated and powerful minds, and gradually over the human race. It is of the highest importance that the world in general, and the clergy in particular, should understand that a proposition of whatever kind becomes utterly worthless as soon as it is placed beyond the reach of argument or possible contradiction. The only propositions which cannot be contradicted are those which relate to matters about which we can have no knowledge. If I say, “Perhaps a child will be born to-morrow with eyes in the back of his head,” no one can contradict me, but the proposition is totally worthless. If I say, “Such a child was born last week at such a place,” the proposition is curious and may be highly important, but it derives its curiosity and importance from the fact that its truth can be tested. So, if I say, “I do not affirm the truth of the Christian religion, but I will teach a number of poor people to go through certain Christian ceremonies,” my position is unassailable, but it is also unmeaning. If, on the other hand, I say, “I teach this religion because it is true,” I take a great responsibility, no doubt, and am open to contradiction, but if I can establish my point I can move the world and change the face of society. With a definite creed, founded on a rational conviction, everything is possible. Without it, men may say what they like about being humble and practical, but in fact they will never get beyond beating the air.

Saturday Review, April 9, 1864.

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