Thursday, March 2, 2017

A Layman's Faith

Review of:
A Layman’s Faith (by Thomas Hughes, 1868).

Mr. Hughes tells us in his preface to the second edition of a pamphlet bearing the title of "A Layman's Faith," that it was written seven years ago at the suggestion of friends for whose judgment he has the deepest reverence and he observes that his readers “may fairly say," "A man who is neither a divine, a scholar, a critic, nor a philosopher, what can he have to say? Surely he, at least, might hold his tongue?” The rest of the pamphlet appears to us to give a lame answer to this natural and pertinent question. Reduced to the simplest terms it comes to this:-- Mr. Hughes was brought up to his creed, and it suits his taste: whence he infers that it is true. If any one considers these facts important, it is satisfactory to have conclusive evidence of them. We must say, however, that he ought to have bestowed a little more care and thought to the matter if he determined to write upon it. The preface contains an odd proof of the hurry of the performance. He begins by saying, “This tract was written seven years ago." A few lines below he says that the “need for manfully confronting" religious problems is now “even sorer than it was in 1851." This is an obvious slip of the pen for 1861, which we should have taken for a misprint, but a little over the page we find, "On reading the proofs after the lapse of seventeen years," &c.  It is clear from this that when writing this sentence Mr. Hughes must have looked back to the last place in which the date of the first publication was mentioned, been misled by the "5," which he had accidentally substituted for “6,” and actually ante-dated his own pamphlet by ten years, though the first words of the preface which he was then writing would have set him right, and though the whole tenor of the pamphlet shows that it was written in 1861, carelessness of this sort should be avoided by an eminent man who wishes to "help one here and there in the battle" which is going on upon the question, "Whether faith in Christ is only a cunningly devised fable after all, or the only condition upon which this confused earth can be set right." The confused dates might have been set right by ten seconds of thought.

The manner in which the statement that Mr. Hughes believes Christianity because it suits him is made to fill thirty-one pages is worth notice on several grounds. He begins by pointing out at length that, though he is neither scholar, critic, philosopher, nor theologian, religious questions have an interest for all and for him, and, as young men in particular are plunged in doubt, he will honestly speak his mind as to his opinions.  He will have no concealments, he will "speak out, not stepping lightly over or shirking altogether ground which I know that my readers believe to be uinsound." "I solemnly declare that I know of none such.  Suppose people were dying of the cholera, and an excited person were to say, "I cannot stand this any longer. I know nothing of medicine, natural science, or any other subject which bears upon disease, but here are men dying all round me; I must speak, I will speak, and, laying my hand upon my heart, I solemnly declare that I am of the following opinion"-- would this answer the question, Why can't you hold your tongue?

Having made his opening statement, Mr. Hughes proceeds to sketch the position of his opponents. He supposes that the "Essays and Reviews" have destroyed their faith in miracles, prophecy, the inspiration of the Bible, creation, and the personality of God, after which, he says, "What are you going to put up instead? You cannot leave me, you cannot stand yourselves on a simple negation." The facts that considerable sections of the human race have lived and died, and do live and die, without anything which Mr. Hughes would call a religion, and that unless preachers and philanthropists are much mistaken, religion has so little hold on large numbers of nominal Christians that they may be reckoned in the number, do not suggest themselves to Mr. Hughes. He does not suppose the case of his sceptical young men saying, "We do stand at present on a simple negation, and must make the best of it. Help us out of this if you can. If not, let us alone." He puts a different answer in their mouths. "You will answer, probably, that all things are founded on a permanent order, and that men are only links in a chain." If the young men say that this order, these laws, are founded on the will of God, and will further say of what God, and tell where, how, and when he has revealed himself (which from their preceding imaginary answers does not appear likely), Mr. Hughes will sit down contented, and try first to understand, and then to obey, the laws in question. But if the imaginary young men say that “these laws are not founded on any living will," and tell Mr. Hughes that he is to worship them since worship is a necessity of his nature (which they certainly would not say), then "in the name and in the strength of a man and a man's will, I utterly reject and defy your dead laws, for dead they must be. They may grind me to powder, but I have that in me which is above them, and will own no obedience to them." This upon the whole is as grotesque a sentiment as ever was uttered. A law of nature can no more be dead or living, or the object of worship or of rejection and defiance, than it can be green or blue, roast or boiled. Mr. Hughes might just as well have said, "You tell me to walk from one o'clock to London-bridge.” Concede the existence of God and I am ready to oblige you; but if this is denied, then in the name and strength of a man and a man's will, I curse and defy one o'clock, and announce my determination to throw it over the parapet of London-bridge." A little further on Mr. Hughes asks whether he is never to build a house out of respect to the law of gravitation? We should advise him not to do so until he has got some sort of elementary notions as to the relation between the law of gravitation and the building of houses. The law of gravitation does not say that houses are not to be built, but only that the weight of bricks and beams acts in a certain direction through their centres of gravity. If we understand Mr. Hughes rightly, he proposes to " defy and reject "this fact if he may not believe it to be "the expression of a living and righteous will." By taking this course he will not affront the law of gravitation, but he will run a considerable risk of breaking his own and his friends' necks, and that whether there is a God or not. The law of gravitation will be fulfilled equally well whether brick presses brick with a given force towards the centre of the earth, or whether, the bricks being so placed that a perpendicular through their centre of gravity falls outside of their Lase, they come down with a run and impinge at a given velocity upon the skull of the member for Lambeth. Mr. Hughes next asks his young men what they will do with superstition, and thus replies to his own question:-- "Granted that you have shown me that what I held to be my knowledge of God is all moonshine, I tell you that I shall not give up thinking about a God for all that. I tell you that I shall make gods for myself in my own image, in the image of devils." The young men would probably say, You can please yourself; but you will be a fool for your pains if you do make yourself gods in the image of devils, but what is this to us? If nothing will satisfy you but sitting down deliberately and methodically to go mad, how can we help it? So long as you keep your "gods in the image of devils" to yourself much good may they do you. If they become troublesome to others, we shall know how to act.

Having thus disposed of his antagonists, Mr. Hughes proceeds to give his own creed, which he holds to be "a faith, the faith, the only faith for mankind." He was, he tells us, bred up to believe Christ to be the Son of God and the Son of Man. Considering the matter "when I was as young as most of you to whom I am now speaking, I found that this was indeed He. The more I read and thought, the more absolutely sure I became of it.”  -- He had set out, by the way, with saying that he had read and thought very little on these subjects.-- "This is He: I wanted no other then. I have never wanted another since. Him I can look up to and acknowledge with the most perfect loyalty. He satisfies me wholly. There is no recorded thought, word, or deed of His that I would wish to change-- that I do not recognize and rejoice in as those of my rightful and righteous King and Head." There is an orthodox twang and savour about this language, but when reduced to a simple form its audacity is perfectly astounding; for, apart from tricks of phraseology, it comes to this: Thomas Hughes is satisfied with Jesus Christ-- go home and be happy, my young friends. We need not give the steps by which Mr. Hughes gets out of his own mind the Incarnation and the Atonement, but he gets his belief in the Trinity in such a very odd way that we must say a word on it. Christ (he states as a fact) "was not only revealed to those who saw him here. . . . He is revealed in the heart of you and of me and of every man and woman who is now or ever has been on this earth. His Spirit is in each of us. . . . At any moment in the lives of any of us we may prove the fact for ourselves. . . . From this knowledge (more certain to me than any other, of which I am ten thousand times more sure than I am that Queen Victoria is reigning in England, that I am writing with this pen at this table)-- if I could see no other manifestation of Christ in creation, I believe the Trinity in Unity." It is satisfactory to know that Mr. Hughes is so very sure of the doctrine of the Trinity, and that on evidence open to all the world in all ages. Perhaps he could tell us whether Confucius believed it, and if not, why not? If any objection can be taken to such a profession of faith, it lies in a doubt whether my lady doth not protest too much. To be ten thousand times surer of anything than of the direct testimony of one's senses is not a common state of mind.

We must content ourselves with a rapid summary of Mr. Hughes's other opinions. He gives no reasons for them; but they are stated with a headlong confidence which is a curiosity in its way. The Bible “speaks to needs and hopes set deep in our human nature," and its writers were inspired as no other men ever were. Mr. Hughes will not, however, distinguish between Isaiah and Shakspeare, and does not believe the distinction to be expressible in words. As for prophecy, "the longing for a Redeemer" was the deepest feeling in the hearts of Jewish patriots. Their lives were "grounded and centred on the promise of such an one." Hence they would naturally express their feelings, and if their words did refer, as they probably might, to passing events, still they would be prophetic too. Holding this view about the Bible, men may perhaps satisfy Mr. Hughes, "if" he "has time to give to the study, that the Pentateuch was the work of twenty men," "that the Evangelists did not write the Gospels," &c. &c., but " what is this to me?" Does it never occur to him that it is a matter of some degree of importance whether our only account of the facts stated in the Apostles' Creed are derived from eye-witnesses, or from people writing long afterwards, perhaps at many removes from the eye-witnesses? If his internal consciousness goes so far as to tell him in what year Pontius Pilate was Governor of Judea, well and good. On any other supposition, the question "who wrote the Gospels" is of the deepest importance. He proceeds:-- The Bible has "told me what I wanted to know." He "means to go on reading" all its books, "and believing them all to be inspired." As to the miracles, some-- miracles of healing-- "were the restoring of an order which had been disturbed" and "witnesses for the law of life." Others go to show that natural laws "are living and not dead laws," not "dead tyrannous rules." What does this mean? How can a dead thing tyrannize? How can a rule either live or tyrannize (the rule of three, for instance)? and what is the difference between a live law and a dead rule? He is, however, very liberal. "If there are any miracles which do not on a fair examination fulfil these conditions, which are such as a loving father educating sons who had strayed or rebelled against him would not have done, I am quite ready to give them up." As to the Mosaic cosmogony, Mr. Hughes was at first inclined to believe that the first chapter of Genesis was the "mere human utterance of some reverent but dogmatic old rabbi." By degrees he was brought to think that the first chapter is an account of the manner in which God made his plan; and the second an account of the way in which he worked it out. Mr. Hughes thinks that this is the way in which such an account would naturally be given, but he does not care how this may be. "It is nothing but a speculation, very possibly it may not meet many of the difficulties." "I only give it you for what it is worth." As to heaven and hell, Mr. Hughes says that heaven is to know God, and that hell is to be separated from God, and that he himself wishes for no other reward, and fears no other punishment.

After some pages of practical application to the effect that this creed is all that can be required comes the conclusion, which is characteristic, but surprising. "You," the young men, "have a right to say to every one, whatever his rank or position in the Church, who comes forward now to speak to you, No anonymous stabbings from behind. Stand out in your own names, and now tell us not what we are not to believe, but what we are to believe, and before all things just tell us this, 'Have you any faith? What is it? Has it answered?" Whoever holds this sort of language shows that he does not know how much easier it is to talk about oneself than to argue upon general grounds. If Mr. Hughes had but condescended to "anonymous stabbing," as he calls it, for this once, if he had but written less about what Thomas Hughes thinks and how he came to think it, and more about the great question which he has chosen to handle, he would have discovered after a few lines that he really had nothing at all to say. Strike "I" out of his tract, and nothing remains but slight common-places caught up from a well-known school. However, let us look at the answer which is given to the question, "Has it answered?”
“My faith has been no holiday or Sunday faith, but one for every-day use-- a faith to live and die in, not to argue or talk about. It has had to stand the wear and tear of life, It was not got in prosperity. It has had to carry me through years of anxious toil and small means, through the long sicknesses of those dearer to me than my own life-- through deaths amongst them, both sudden and lingering. Few men of my age have bad more failures of all kinds; no man has deserved then more by the commission of all kinds of blunders and errors, by evil tempers and want of faith, hope, and love.”
Every friend of Mr. Hughes-- and he has and deserves to have many-- must, we think, feel pained at this passage. When a very successful man talks of his failures and blunders, is he not indulging in the pride that apes humility? When a man who has never been supposed by any one who knolls him to be capable of falling in any serious matter below a high standard of truth, courage, and honour, bemoans himself over his "evil tempers" and "want of faith, hope, and love," must we not sorrowfully admit that, after all, he has a bit of humbug in him? When a man who enjoys pretty nearly every blessing which life has to give-- health, strength, competence, social and professional standing, a seat in Parliament, and literary success to the full extent of his merits-- tells us, in the very prime of his powers, that his creed has carried him through all this, most people must feel that it has had no very hard task. When, to parry this obvious remark, Mr. Hughes condescends to say that in his youth he had to work hard and was not rich, and that in more advanced life members of his family died as or were ill, it is impossible not to add two remarks. First, to have at the outset of life pressing motives for honourable exertion is a blessing and a privilege, not a trial. Next, as life goes on we all suffer by death and sickness, but, sharp as such trials are, every one with an average degree of mental health and firmness survives them, and recovers in time from the wounds which they inflict. Thousands of men, who have no sort of sympathy with Mr. Hughes’s religious views, and some who have little or no religion, might say with equal truth that their creed or no creed, as the case might be, had “carried them through” far greater trials quite as well. If Mr. Hughes really means to say that nothing but this peculiar religious belief saved him from a total break down under the trials of his life, he must be made of, much softer material than other people-- a conclusion which appears to us far less probable than that on this occasion he has given way to a fit of cant.

If we are asked why we have given so much space to this performance, our answer is that it is a representative tract. It illustrates the effect upon a man of standing and talent of a school which we think is rapidly losing its influence, but which in its day threw numbers of promising men upon a hopelessly false scent in matters of the uttermost importance. It diverted the minds of many serious inquirers into religious subjects from the real questions at issue, and set them to chase phantoms. Mr. Hughes shows its characteristics in the most naked form. He has an inward manifestation of Christ which exceeds in clearness and force the evidence of the senses. He judges of the truth of miraculous histories not by the evidence of their truth, but by their compliance with certain tests existing in his own mind as to what miracles ought to be. He considers that the great question about every creed proposed to men is not whether it is true, but whether it "answers"-- whether, that is, those who have been brought up in it like it. In reality, to ask a man whether he has found his creed answer is like asking him whether he will confess his whole life to have been a mistake or an imposture. Every kind of Christian, to say nothing of Hindoos, Mahometans, Confucians, Positivists, and Mormons, will be ready to say that their old shoes fit, and have carried them through many a weary mile. In fact, it is they who have carried their shoes and trodden them into the shape of their feet. Miss Carpenter, a day or two ago, when taking leave of her friends on her way to India for charitable purposes, declared that she did not believe any views except those she held could have enabled her to persevere as she had done in the work which she felt called to do. Miss Carpenter is a Unitarian. The Incarnation is the keystone of Mr. Hughes's faith.

Let us hope that people will soon begin to see that the question whether Christianity is true or false is one to the solution of which there is no royal road. What the final solution may be, what may be the ultimate result of the tremendous controversy of which, as Mr. Hughes justly observes, people in England are beginning to realize the existence, are points on which no one who has any sort of conception of their importance would lightly give an opinion. They are the greatest of all questions; and in order to deal with them fairly two things are indispensably necessary. It is necessary first, to give a patient hearing to every one who call really add anything to the discussion as it stands; and, secondly, to show those who talk about it, without appreciating its position, that they are really darkening counsel by words without knowledge.

Pall Mall Gazette, October 15, 1868.
(Identified as by J.F.S. by John Llewelyn Davis, p. xiv in “The Gospel and Modern Life”)

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