Wednesday, December 7, 2016

An orthodox dean

It is the practice of historical painters to throw the graver parts of their pictures into prominent relief by contrasting them with some vulgar incident. When Paul preaches at Athens, a cripple crawls up to listen to him. When some eminent character is led to execution amidst stern soldiers and scowling inquisitors, a vulgar personage is introduced staring at the show, but hardly knowing what it means. A somewhat similar part was played by a dignitary of the Church of England in last Thursday's Times. The prosecution of Professor Jowett is an important, and, even as regards the prosecutors, an intelligible proceeding. That Dr. Pusey and his two coadjutors should try to stigmatize opinions of which they disapprove, and justify prosecution, or persecution, on the ground that they are right and the heretic wrong, and that they are quite willing to be prosecuted or persecuted themselves in return, is intelligible enough, and is also important. That Mr. Maurice and “Anglicanus” should protest against attempts to narrow the pale of the Church of England is equally natural. On the merits of the controversy between them it would be superfluous to enter here. There is, however, a third party in the Church — a party which is neither bigoted to the persecution pitch, nor liberal in so far as liberality implies intelligence. It represents the interests of contented stupidity, and Dean Close has come forward to represent it. The communication made by that learned divine to the Times of last Thursday has a degree of significance which might escape the notice of those who were prevented from considering its purport by that slight emotion of languid contempt which its style was admirably calculated to produce. If any one wants to understand why young men of ability and education do not take orders, why so many sermons have become a byword for vapid commonplace, and why the opinions of the clergy are rapidly losing their hold on educated men, he has only to read that letter, and remember that the writer is a Dean. It is written throughout in the familiar style of the clerical chat of a certain school. Those who know the popular preacher as he appears at any evening party, full of little playful ways, and smug, half-laughing, half-professional allusions to the most solemn subjects in the world, will understand what this imports. They know how the condescending pastor veils his terrors under a smile, and protects from their impending fate the Semeles whom a full manifestation of his presence might consume, by that amusing prattle which is intended to show how a great mind can play with oils. The trifles are there in plenty; but where is the great mind? The style was obviously adopted on this occasion, because the writer is under the notion that when a clergyman writes to the Times he must write like a man of the world, and because he supposes that men of the world never write without a grin. “When doctors differ patients die”—“what must be the condition of the unfortunate spiritual patients of our land?” “All this may be the result of my obtuseness”—“perhaps upon these abstruse questions of Differing Doctors I am out of court.” If a man must write nonsense, why cannot he write like a man? If Dr. Close could delude himself for a moment into the belief that what he writes is of some importance, probably he would not be more wise than he is, but certainly he would be less foolish. The substance of the letter is worthy of the style. “If in matters medical, the old saying be true, when doctors differ patients die, what must be the condition of the unfortunate spiritual patients of our land?” He then goes on to say that Mr. Maurice has declared that he distrusts both Mr. Jowett's and Dr. Pusey's theological teaching, and believes that either may tend to bewilder the consciences of simple men and women — adding this phrase, “I believe God will turn both to good account if they are left to work together, to sustain and counteract each other.” This sorely puzzles Dr. Close. There are some things that no Dean can be expected to understand, “How differing religious dogmas can at once ‘work together to sustain and counteract each other,’ so as to produce a true or beneficial result, I cannot quite comprehend. Should all three be wrong, no admixture, no collision, no mutual ‘sustentation and counteraction' could make one right principle of three wrong ones; and I should object to have my own theological views subjected to this ‘joint action,’ not having the faintest hope that by such a process or any other they would amalgamate with error. But all this may be the result of my obtuseness; and I may be amongst those ‘simple men’ who are so easily deceived by the opinions of Dr. Pusey or Mr. Jowett; and certainly I confess that when studying some of Mr. Maurice's own writings I have been somewhat “bewildered.’”

For once Dr. Close is quite right. His difficulty is the result of his obtuseness. No one ever felt a more characteristic difficulty, or expressed it with greater simplicity. If Dr. Close, and the party to which he belongs, could be brought to see what every layman of ordinary intelligence sees upon these points—if they could be shaken into some faint conception of the extent of their own ignorance and obtuseness—so great a benefit to the public would be cheaply purchased at the expense of all the theological scandals of the last two or three years. What was the difficulty which so puzzled Dr. Close? Mr. Maurice said – “I agree neither with Mr. Jowett nor with Dr. Pusey, but I think that if each be allowed to express his views fully and freely, those views will both sustain and counteract each other.” Dr. Close cannot conceive how anything can sustain what it counteracts. The solution is easier than that of the great problem about the fingers which puzzled the lay Dundreary. If Dr. Close will set up his Bible and Prayer Book on end, and will then gently incline them towards, each other till their top edges meet, he may in time contrive to make them stand in the shape of an inverted V. The two books will sustain each other, because, if either were removed, the other would fall. They will counteract each other for precisely the same reason. Dr. Close has strong reasons for knowing that there are such things as Cabinet Ministers, and he may in time come to understand that they represent political parties of different opinions which sustain and counteract each other. What gives Mr. Bright his locus standi, and keeps him in a state of vigour and excitement? The existence of a system which he dislikes and tries to alter. What does the same kind office for Mr. Bright's opponents? Mr. Bright and others like him. Mr. Bright sustains his political opponents, and they sustain him. How they counteract each other Dr. Close can, perhaps, understand without explanation. If he will think quietly of one thing at a time, and try to consider whether, after all, words in writings rather beyond him may not be used with a meaning, he may in time arrive at the point of putting two ideas together. It is never too late to learn, not even when one is a Dean.

Why should not theological opinions sustain and counteract each other as well as any others? To the lay understanding there is no reason at all. Every man of ordinary intelligence and feeling—every one who has known what it is to live, to expect to die, to love, and to lose what we love—every one who knows the part which religion has played in the world at large, and especially in the history of our own nation, must feel that it is the greatest subject of human thought, that its existence makes life worth having, and that to know the truth respecting it— as far as it can be known—would be a discovery as much greater than all science and all learning, as eternity is greater than time. Those who think thus will respect every one who tries to convey the truth to their minds, will listen to and compare their teaching, and will not despair of catching some outline of the truth, even from the stammering lips which imperfectly describe what the weak eye obscurely sees. Ignorance which knows, and weakness which feels, its own extent, command the sympathy of all who know how weak and ignorant they are themselves; and when such men meet with one who hopes that his defects and those of other men may mutually sustain and counteract each other, they must not only understand but honour him.

There is, however, another form of ignorance and weakness. That obtuseness, which supposes that its own little theory accounts for everything in heaven and earth, and that insensibility which mistakes the absence of feeling for the presence of strength, may introduce a man to the notice of those who can give him a deanery, but give him no access to the esteem of those whose esteem is an honour. Dean Close's letter comes, in plain words, to this:—“I know all about this world and the next. I have no difficulties; or if I have, I can give you chapter and verse for the proof that they are temptations of the devil. If any man wants to know about God and man, life and death, let him take his knowledge out of the four corners of my little theory, and be thankful. He may, if he likes, talk in a conventional way about difficulties and mysteries, but only on condition that he views them, not as subjects to be studied, but as tests to be swallowed, and that he renounces and abjures the notion of any real discussion of really important subjects, and the possibility of any real progress in religious knowledge.” There is a sense in which believers in systems are humble enough — as humble as Uriah Heep. They will call themselves any number of unpleasant names. “Poor worm” is an habitual title. If it would give any additional satisfaction they would probably not object to “poor maggot.” Bible phrases break no bones, and as times go a worm who lives in a deanery is a respectable animal. There is, however, one thing that such men will never do.  They will never say, bonĂ  fide, “I don't know.” True humility, when they happen to see it, scandalizes and puzzles them. That Mr. Maurice should differ from Mr. Jowett and yet not wish to silence him, is a far greater stumbling block to Dean Close than that Dr. Pusey should wish to “banish" him. No doubt, in Dean Close's eyes, Dr. Pusey is a heretic—a very wicked man for thinking as he thinks, the parent of all sorts of doubt and unbelief; but then he is a heretic with a system. He stands in a recognised position. He plays pot to Dean Close's kettle, and ten years hence may be ready to burn, or be burnt, on precisely the same principles as he avows to-day. It is the absence of this in Mr. Maurice that so puzzles his opponent. He does not know where to have him. “You expect to learn, and to learn from those with whom you do not agree—what do you mean? You bewilder me. You have bewildered me before, and now you are getting quite out of my sight. Do you know what you are doing? You are actually suggesting that people should think upon these subjects; that there is still something for them to learn, and not only something to learn, but something to learn from your adversaries; you seem to think that the matter is not to choose between system A and system B, but to study the facts for themselves in the order in which their Maker placed them. O tempora, o mores.” This is the real scope of the little difficulty which Dean Close states with such charming simplicity, and attributes, with an air of such merry satisfaction, to his own obtuseness. When he gets a glimpse of the extent of his own obtuseness, and of the nature of the controversies amongst which he is living, he will perhaps think that the best thing he can do is to keep quiet in his deanery, and be glad that he has got one over his head. When Javert got a notion of a higher standard of right and wrong than that which police regulations imply, he went and drowned himself. It is to be hoped that Dean Close does not set the same yalue on his raison d'ĂȘtre. It would be vain to hope that he is in equal danger of seeing that he has not got one.

Saturday Review, February 28, 1863.

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