Thursday, November 17, 2016

"In the sight of God"

A fashion has grown up of late years amongst public writers of making use of the name of God in a manner which is not profane, for it certainly involves no intentional irreverence, but which, to say the least of it, proceeds upon questionable assumptions. A very able and respectable contemporary lately observed that the Russian policy in Poland proceeded upon a “negation of God.” Another writer in another journal, having occasion to criticize Mr. Campbell Smith’s theories about Scotch marriages, began by admitting the truth of that gentleman's proposition that, “ in the sight of God,” consent constitutes marriage ; and in the same way we are constantly told that pews in churches and splendid funerals are wrong, because before God all men are equal, and these arrangements or ceremonies assume that they are unequal.

Such phrases rim over the tongue with extreme and therefore suspicious fluency. When we come to look at them narrowly, we find that they have either no meaning at all, or else a meaning of the utmost importance, and one which those who use them so readily would in many cases shrink from maintaining. Let us take a single illustration. Consent, says Mr. Campbell Smith—and his critic admits the truth of the statement—constitutes marriage “in the sight of,” or “by the law of” God. All that human laws on the subject effect is to arrange beforehand the kind of evidence which, for civil purposes, shall be required of the fact of that consent. This may mean either that, when two people solemnly and publicly consent to live together as husband and wife, God does not view their cohabitation as a sinful act, or it may mean that God views their cohabitation as a marriage, and views any human law which says otherwise as null and void. The first of these propositions is unimportant, and the second presumptuous, and, as far as we can judge, utterly false. Suppose that A and B, with the full consent of their parents, and with every other requisite for a lawful marriage, go through the marriage service in the usual way, and that afterwards it appears that, for some purely technical reason, the marriage was null and void. What view would a reasonable person take of the position of the parties? He would say, in the first place, You have clearly been guilty of no kind of immorality in living together, not a shadow of guilt can attach to you, but at the same time your marriage was no marriage at all. Your children will be illegitimate if you do not get regularly married. If one of you were to die before the celebration of the second marriage, the property of the other would descend as if he or she had died unmarried. If either were to marry again in the meantime, you would not be guilty of bigamy. It is the duty of both of you to perform the ceremony again as early as possible, and in the regular way. Is there any reason at all to suppose that the Divine view of such a transaction would be in the least degree different from this?  --that God would consider either that, in point of fact, the consequences of irregularity would not legally follow, or that, in point of prudence, the persons concerned ought not to avert those consequences by repeating the ceremony, or that the judges before whom the case might come would do wrong in holding the children to be illegitimate, or that Parliament was wrong in laying down certain rules as to the time at which marriages must be celebrated?  If there is no reason to think this, what is the meaning of the assertion that in the sight of God such persons would be married? That in the sight of God they would lie free from moral blame--that in the sight of God they would owe to each other the duties of husband and wife--is no doubt true. But this would be the case in the sight of all reasonable men as well as in the sight of God. To say that in the sight of God they would be married, is, in plain words, to impute error to God.

The only escape from this inference is by making an assertion so audacious that no one would make it who had anything like a conception of its importance. That assertion is, that itis possible to lay down a system of law or morals sanctioned by God, applicable to all human transactions, and so definite that we can compare human laws with it, and say that inasmuch as they differ from it, the consequences which result from them are “in the sight of God" iniquitous. It is difficult to show any one who does not see it for himself how monstrous would be the pretension to lay down such a system as this. Perhaps the particular illustration already referred to may throw some light on the subject. Consent, it is said, makes marriage “in the sight of God.” Will an one say whether, “in the sight of God,” there is such a thing as divorce; and, if so, what are the grounds on which it is lawful, what is the authority by which it is to be decided, in case of dispute, whether those grounds exist, and how that authority is to announce its decision? In treating such a question, the only ground on which any one could proceed would be the conformity or otherwise of any given institution and body of law with his notions of the Divine character; and thus the result is that every one would try to enforce his own opinions as to
what would be desirable by labelling on those opinions the words, “in the sight of God." They are words which no one has a right to apply to any human institution whatever, unless he is prepare to prove the existence and explain the character of a whole system of laws and morals divinely authorized and instituted.

It may be asked whether, after all, such phrases are really anything more than a rhetorical and violent way of saying that this or that is morally right, though the law may not enforce it; that the people irregularly married ought to consider themselves married for all practical purposes; that when a man is saying his prayers he ought not to be thinking about his being wiser or richer than his neighbours, and so forth. Upon this ground such expressions may certainly be palliated and explained, though they cannot be justified. People ought to say what they mean ; and if what they mean to say is that something which is not a marriage is as good as if it were one, they ought to say so, without making the false assertion that God views it as being something which it is not. Correctness in phraseology is the first step towards correctness of thought, and the class of phrases in question keeps up in the minds of those who use them a delusion which as an extraordinary charm for people in general, and of which it is next to impossible to disabuse them. This delusion is, that the right way of managing all the affairs of life is easily discovered, that everything that shocks our sympathies or sentiments at a given moment is wrong “in the sight of God,” and that some pattern ideal society exists by comparison with which all the wrongs of life might be righted. Such phrases as that “we are all equal before God” are instances of this. If they mean merely that, if Dives were put in the position of Lazarus, and Lazarus in that of Dives, God would treat Lazarus as Dives was treated, and Dives as Lazarus was treated—if, in a word, they mean only that the Divine laws are impartially executed-the remark is not worth making. This, however, is not what they are really supposed to imply. They are invariably used to imply that there ought by rights to be no Dives and no Lazarus, that Dives is a usurper and. Lazarus an oppressed person, and that "in the sight of God" this fact is recognised and will be acted upon. If this were not so, the phrase would never be used as in practice it is. For instance, in the case of a fine funeral, how often it is said that, as “in the sight of God” we are all equal, there ought to be no pomp at a funeral! The gist of the funeral is that the remains of a miserable sinner are being laid in the ground to be turned to corruption. Why, when prince and peasant are thus put upon one love, make an invidious distinction between them in the way of outward show—are they not “equal before God?” The answer to this is that it proves too much. It might be said with equal justice that the gist of human life is that a miserable sinner is passing through his short period of probation; and it might be urged that, pending this process, there is no reason why one worm of the earth should be distinguished from another. The fact, however, is otherwise. The condition of things in this life is inequality. Men are not only unequally prosperous and rich, but unequally strong, wise, and beautiful. If analogy is any guide at all to our anticipations of another world, these inequalities may be perpetuated, or reversed, or replaced by others elsewhere. If this were the case, would the inhabitants of those worlds be “equal in the sight of God?” If not, why should we say that the inhabitants of this world are so? and why should we not, in commemorating the departure of a rich man from this life, acknowledged, by the number of horses and carriages which follow him to the grave, that he was a rich man, and was so far distinguished from his fellow-creatures, whatever that distinction may be worth?

Some weeks ago we published a few remarks on the vague way in which the common run of French writers use the word “principe,” converting any abstract substantive such as “liberty,” “authority,” or the like, into a quasi-proposition by prefixing to it the words “principe de.” The Temps favoured us with some vigorous criticisms on the article, which it considered puerile and absurd. Whatever may have been the case with our own article, that of our contemporary was interesting and by no means puerile. It ran into a speculation which has a close relation to the present subject. The writer, after an energetic onslaught on our position, concludes thus:—
‘I fear that on the part of the English journal this great disdain of abstract terms hides something beyond philological criticism. I think I discover in it a systematic hostility against those elevated aspirations which in the French language—a very clear one, whatever these gentlemen may say--we comprehend under the term of the ideal.’
It would certainly not have been worth while to dispute about the use of a word unless there had been something characteristic about it, and the writer in the Temps is perfectly right in supposing that the article to which he objects had something like the object which he imputes to it. What he regards as “elevated aspirations” appear to us vague guesses about subjects which are sublime only when treated in the most cautious manner, and with the most precise reference to facts. That some things are good and others bad in the sight of God, that God has designs for men to which it is their highest interest and duty to conform, are the most important of all truths. But what are those designs? To those who use wide general words about equality, liberty, nationality, and the like, and who passionately prefix the awful name of God to every crude imagination of their own, they may appear clear enough. To Englishmen in general they appear intensely mysterious matters, to be investigated patiently, step by step, by the consideration of all relevant facts, and not by the help of arbitrary general propositions which have no precise meaning. To say that equality of legal rights is a useful arrangement is to speak plainly and to the purpose. To say that in the sight of God all men are equal is to make an assertion which has no meaning capable of being proved to be true. To say that, in most parts of Western Europe in the nineteenth-century, an increase of political liberty would be desirable, is to speak plainly. To talk of the “principe de liberté” is to hint that the person who uses the phrase, and those whom he addresses, are acquainted with some proposition relating to liberty which is obviously and universally true. Of what proposition relating to human affairs, especially in their higher departments, can this be affirmed? Some mathematical principles can be laid down as perfectly true. The same may be said of such legal propositions as are plainly enacted by legislative authority, and this may also be true of political economy; but in relation to morals, politics, and the other subjects which have the deepest interest for men, both knowledge and language are inexact, incomplete, and tentative, and it requires the utmost care and circumspection to lay down general propositions which even approximate to the truth.

Saturday Review, October 31, 1863.

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