Thursday, December 15, 2016

A successful sermon

The constant complaints which are made in the present day as to the badness of sermons have attracted a good deal of attention, and have called forth some answers from the clergy; but there is much reason to fear that they have not attracted attention enough, and that those whose compositions are complained of are not aware of the extent to which lay criticisms on their performances really go. The defence set up generally reaches merely to externals. Elaborate causes are assigned why the clergy cannot be expected to be original and eloquent. They are not educated for it. They do not read well. They are too hard-worked, &c. &c. All this, and more, the laity would willingly forgive, if their spiritual pastors and masters had anything to say. The real objection to almost every sermon is that the. preacher has in his mind no solid compact body of thought which he really believes to be true, on which his sermon applies in detail to some special point. Where this is not t e case, a sermon is seldom dull, though it may be bad. The real advantage which illiterate and ignorant preachers have over their superiors is that they have such a foundation of definite belief—as narrow, false, and ignorant as you please, but still one which gives vigour and consistency to what they say, and so enables them to exercise an immense influence over people who stand on the some level of cultivation and experience, and are not set against them by moral antipathy or disbelief. A man who cannot make up his mind whether or not geology is wicked—who has been at school and college with men of the world, and can neither make up his mind that all the heathen are going to be eternally damned, nor yet assign any reason quite consistent with his own teaching why they should not-who feels that the Church to which he belongs is in many ways an inestimable blessing to the country, and who also feels that its formularies are susceptible of doubtful, inconsistent, or even opposite meanings-such a man cannot preach good sermons if is sermons are to be much more than essays on morality or natural religion. And even on those subjects he preaches, not, perhaps, with a sense that he is out of bounds, but at least with the fear that he may easily get out of bounds before he knows where he is. This is the real reason why our trumpets give an uncertain sound, and why the public are beginning to take every decorous way of warning the performers that, if they intend to keep their position, they must really do considerably better, and do it soon.

Faithful to its usual policy, the Times has for some time past been giving repeated hints to this effect. One of the most pungent of their number appeared in a review of a volume of sermons lately published by the Bishop of Oxford. The reviewer selected for notice a sermon addressed to the undergraduates of the University of Oxford on the subject of Doubts, and depicted with a great deal of quiet humour the perplexities which it might be supposed to introduce into the mind of an ingenuous undergraduate. On the next day but one after the appearance of the review, the supposed undergraduate wrote a letter to the Times, complaining1 that injustice had been done to the Bishop. The writer had himself heard the sermon criticized. He, “like others who did not then truly know him (the Bishop), expected to hear him steer between conflicting opinions;” but he adds:—
‘This I can say, I and others I know of will never cease to be thankful for the influence on us of that and others of these sermons. . . . We were led to feel that reverence must go hand in hand with knowledge, that a man's reason and judgment alone are a poor support and comfort, and that the kingdom of God must be received in the spirit of a little child.’
Here then, at last, we have a really good sermon. There is explicit evidence that a real man has derived real benefit from it. It is worth while to study it in order to form a notion of the amount of thought which is required to produce such an effect, and of the sort of defects which would be necessary in order to entitle a sermon to be considered as at all conspicuously bad. The text is, “Be not faithless but believing,” and the running head is, “Doubts as to the Revelation.” Doubts are divided into three classes, of which the first two need not be noticed. The third class of doubts is to be treated in the most decisive manner:—
‘Treat it (doubt) as  a temptation of the enemy; deal with it as you would with any other of his friends; watch against it, pray against it, beware of the company, the books, the tempers, the trains of thought by which you know from past experience it is encouraged in yourself.’
The particular kind of doubts to be viewed as Satanic temptations is described as being—
‘Those which address themselves to specific and clearly revealed points in the revelation which yet, as a whole, the doubting man does not disbelieve.’
A little further on we learn that the province of the intellect with regard to revelation is—
‘First to examine its authority, and then to comprehend, so far as they admit of comprehension, its several propositions.’
 We are also told that “there is always place for such doubts,” for various reasons, of which one is that it has pleased God that “the divine revelation should everywhere he mingled in its delivery with a human element.” These are, so to speak, the bones of the sermon; the greater part of the rest of it is illustration and exhortation.

Putting together the principles just stated, what do they come to?’ The first and most important of them is conveniently ambiguous. It may mean something which no sane man would ever think of denying, or something else which no sane man would ever think of asserting; but it admits of no third signification. If the Bishop means to warn those whom he addresses against the sin of admitting a particular doctrine to be divinely revealed, and yet denying its truth because it does not agree with their own preconceived notions, he is warning them against something which it is inconceivable that any one should do knowingly. If he means to say that no one is to doubt whether or not a particular doctrine claiming to be part of the Christian religion really does form part of it, he asserts that no Christian ought ever to change his religious opinions in any particular throughout the whole of his life; for how can he change them without doubting whether or not they are true? The difficulty of understanding which of these two meanings the Bishop really held, or whether he only balanced between them, detracts considerably from the merits of the rest of the sermon , but the confusion becomes worse confounded when the nature of the doubts to be thus prayed and fought against is compared with the assertion that “there is always place for them,” that this arises from the universal mixture of a Divine and human element in revelation, and that the legitimate function of the intellect is to examine the authority and meaning of the revelation. If “there is always place” for doubt, and if that arises from the mode of revelation which it pleased God to adopt, why is doubt to be regarded exclusively as a temptation of the devil? What does the Bishop suppose his congregation to be doubting about? They have been taught to believe certain doctrines to be divinely revealed. A man must have got a long way indeed in his scepticism before he doubts whether a divine revelation is true—before he asks the question whether there is Deus quidam deceptor? The class of doubts, then, to which the sermon refers must be doubts whether particular doctrines said to form a part of the Divine revelation—which revelation is admitted to exist—do really form a part of it. It must be of such doubts as these that the Bishop says:
‘He that would overcome must strive aright. For which, above all, it is necessary that he should recognise that against which he strives as a temptation of the Evil One.’
Suppose the son of Baptist parents, who “does not disbelieve, as a whole,” that which he has been taught to believe to be a Divine revelation, becomes uneasy in his mind about Infant Baptism, and thinks that the practice of the Church of England is the true one; what does the Bishop of Oxford say he ought to do? In the first place, he must stifle his doubts as temptations of the devil; but if he cannot manage that, there is one course from which he must studiously abstain. He has perhaps been taught to believe, in substance, that the whole benefits of the Christian dispensation are confined to the members of an obscure sect distinguished from the rest of the world by certain feelings existing in their own minds. As he values all his prospects of happiness here and hereafter, he is to avoid sitting in judgment on this tenet. He is not to say that it is uncharitable, incredible, or bigoted, for such a line of argument “makes him the judge of the fitness of the statement,” and this “destroys all authority in the revelation.” But for the Bishop's kind warning, he might have thought that the rigid minister of his family chapel had mixed up a little of the human elements of exclusiveness and spiritual pride with the version of the revelation which had reached him; but if he takes warning by the sermon, he will learn that this will never do. It comes very near to “subjecting the authoritative declarations of the faith to the scrutiny of each man's intellectual faculties;” for to him his minister's system stands in just the same relation as the Church of England to the Oxford undergraduate. Probably the Bishop would hardly like to say, in so many words, in St. Mary's pulpit—“None of you, my hearers, are ever to inquire at all, for your creed is absolutely true, and you cannot improve it; but with every one who does not enjoy your privileges, doubt is a sacred duty till he comes to agree with us; but if, after all, he ever feels inclined to change his mind, he must at once fight against his doubts as temptations of the devil.” Yet if this is not the gist of his advice, what is it?

A sanguine person might have expected to find an answer to this question in the Bishop's account of the province of the intellect in religious matters. We are never to doubt—we are to pray and fight against doubts; but the province of the intellect with regard to what claims to be a revelation is, “first to examine its authority.” How is this to be done? May a man look at the moral character of the doctrines proposed to him as evidence of their authority? May he object to the practice of self-immolation to Juggernauth? May he question the Mahometan views as to the relation between the sexes? May his conscience revolt against Mormonism? Had Plato a right to object to the myths which ascribed to the Gods all manner of immoral conduct? Or, is it the business of every Hindoo, Arab, and Mormon to defer all consideration of these questions till he has worked out the Paley's Evidences view of the subject? Moreover, in examining the authority of the alleged revelation, how can a man help examining its truth? For, instance, he takes the Bible as the Christian Revelation. He is, it is admitted, to examine its authority; but is he to confine himself to those arguments which apply equally to every book, and to every part of every book? or may he go into the question of the “human element,” to which the Bishop refers, and examine separately the authority of the separate books of which it is composed. How, too, is he to regulate his mind about doubt during this examination? Is he to be praying against doubt all the time? If he is, can the examination possibly be bonĂ  fide? If he is not, what doubts likely to arise are unlawful? Questions of this kind are not answered, and cannot be answered, by descriptions of death-bed scenes and sceptical tutors, nor yet by pages of eloquence, which, when put in plain words, means, “Peace of mind is a very pleasant thing.”

We have examined this sermon because public attention has been attracted to it, and in order to give the clergy a notion of what the laity mean when they find fault with bad sermons. In one sense, the sermon in question is not at all a bad one. It is written in good English, and was no doubt excellently delivered, like all the Bishop's sermons. The objection to it is this:—It is like a jellyfish, all colour and no backbone. It goes to pieces wherever a man puts his foot on it; and, but for the evidence of the Oxford undergraduate, one would have said that, however valuable a specimen of rhetoric, it scarcely meets the exigencies of the grave case to which it is addressed. Of course there is no novelty in the questions which we have suggested. They are as old as religious controversy itself. The conflict between reason and authority, and the dispute as to the proper limits of each, is nearly, if not quite, perennial. The important point to notice is, that the Bishop of Oxford, having volunteered to write a sermon about it, either can find nothing better to say than what we have quoted, or else thinks that good enough for a sermon. The fact that this is so gives rise to a curious question. What must the preacher think of his hearers? What questions does he suppose them to be asking, and what sort of answers does he think they expect? What they do in fact ask is plain enough. They say “Is this, and this, and this a part of the revelation of God to man? Do in good faith and plain words tell us whether or not we are to believe this to be revelation? If so, why—if not, why not, and how then?” What answer do they get? “Don’t presume to sit in judgment on the revelation of God, and remember that all doubts are a temptation of the devil.” It did not want a University sermon, delivered to a learned audience, to tell us that.

The dogged tenacity with which the Bishop and others like him cling to platitudes is the more vexatious, because scores of topics may be suggested on which preachers might be at once orthodox and original. For instance, in reference to this very subject, most curious matters of inquiry, suggest themselves. There is the question of what may be called provisional belief– belief pending inquiry—such a belief as Descartes describes in his account of the formation of his own creed. So there is the question of what may be described as practical belief of belief on a balance of probabilities, resolved upon for practical purposes. Again, there is the distinction which appears to have vaguely floated before the Bishop's mind, between those who are fitted for inquiry and those who are not. A lady with ten children to educate cannot inquire. Is she to have no religion, or to be frightened out of her wits if she hears that a hare does chew the cud, and, if not, why not? How is this in other cases—for instance, in politics? Such a woman is not a philosopher, but she reads the Times every morning with great interest, and has a good deal to say about Federals and Confederates. Why not try to work out such questions as these with the amount of care which a respectably conducted magazine requires in its contributors? A man who could do so would have half London to hear him preach if he had but a quarter of the Bishop of Oxford's grace and eloquence.

Saturday Review, May 9, 1863.

No comments:

Post a Comment