THE ECLIPSE OF FAITH;
A VISIT TO A RELIGIOUS SCEPTIC.
BOSTON: CROSBY, NICHOLS AND COMPANY, 111 WASHINGTON STREET.
The effect of the perusal of this book, and the estimate put upon it by a reader, will depend upon his taking with him a right view of its design. That design seems in the mind of the writer to have been very definite and very restricted. If he should be thought to have intended an answer to all the elaborate objections from criticism and philosophy recently or renewedly urged against faith in the Christian revelation, and, still more, if the reader should suppose that the author had aimed to remove all the difficulties in the way of such a faith, he would equally insure his own disappointment, and wrong the writer. The book comes forth anonymously, but it is ascribed to Mr. Henry Rogers, some of whose very able papers in the Edinburgh Review have been republished in two octavo volumes in England, and one of whose articles, that on "Reason and Faith," dealt with some of the topics which form the subject-matter of this volume.
The author seems to have viewed with a keenly attentive and anxious mind the generally unsettled state of opinion, equally among the literary and some of the humbler classes in England, concerning the terms and the sanction of a religious faith, especially as the issue bears upon the contents and the authority of the Bible. That he understands the state of things in which he proposes himself as one who has a word to utter, will be allowed by all candid judges, whatever criticism they may pass upon the effectiveness of his own argument. There is abundant evidence in this book of his large intimacy with the freshest forms of speculation, as developed by the free thought of our age. While he identifies these speculations with the recent writers who have adopted them, he is not to be understood as allowing that these writers have originated any novel speculations, or excelled the sceptics of former times in acuteness, or plausibility, or success in urging their cause. He adopts the method of the Platonic dialogue, and exhibits a dialectic skill in confounding by objections when objections can be made to do service as arguments. His frank admission that he leaves insurmountable objections and unfathomable mysteries still involved in the theme, a portion of whose range alone he traverses, should secure him from the imputation of having attempted too much, or of boastfulness for what he considers that he has accomplished.
The truculent notice of this book in the Westminster Review for July is wholly unworthy of the reputation and the claims of that journal. Probably a careful perusal of the book is an essential condition for enlightening the mind of the writer, and for rectifying his judgment, so far as information has power to promote candor.
The Prospective Review for August, in an article on the work, for the most part commendatory, though certainly without any warmth of praise, makes the prominent stricture upon it to be, a charge against the author of having evaded "the gravest, and in one sense the only serious difficulty, with which the evidences he supports have to contend." This difficulty is defined to be in the question as to whether our four Gospels are essentially and substantially documents from the pens of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, actual companions and contemporaries of Him whose life and lessons are therein recorded. The Reviewer professes to have satisfied his own mind by an affirmative conclusion on this point. But regarding the question as the very turning-point, the paramount and vital element of the existing issue between faith and unbelief, and not finding it to be dealt with in this volume, the Reviewer considers that it is evaded. It might be urged in reply, that this question is not to other minds of such paramount importance, and that its affirmative answer would not be conclusive, as it would still leave open other questions; such, for instance, as those which enter into the theories of Paulus and other Rationalists, and such as are not even excluded from the incidental adjuncts of Strauss's mythical theory. It might also be urged, that, allowing the question to be paramount in its relation to the whole issue, it is one which is not so judiciously dealt with in the discursiveness of dialogues after dinner, as in the solitary study, with piles of huge tomes, lexicons, and manuscripts that require a most deliberate examination. But to leave the merits and the relative importance of this question undebated, it might have been more generous in the Reviewer to have confined his criticisms to a decision upon what the author has endeavored to accomplish, instead of impugning his judgment in the selection of the points on which to employ his pen. How ever desirable it may be that we should have in another form what Mr. Norton has presented so thoroughly in his work on the Genuineness of the Gospels, it is enough to answer to the Reviewer in the Prospective, that the writer of this volume addressed himself to a different course of argument, starting from other divergences of opinion, philosophical rather than critical in their relations. He certainly was free to select the method and the direction of his argument, if he candidly represented the answering point of view of those to whom he opposed himself.
Amid many episodes and interludes of fancy and narrative, it will be found that the volume arrays its force of argument against two of the assumptions alike of modern and of ancient scepticism; namely, that a revelation from God to men through the agency of a book is an unreasonable tenet of belief; and that it is impossible that a miracle should occur, and impossible that its occurrence should be authenticated. There is a vigorous and logical power displayed in the discussion of these two points. The discomfiture of those who urge these assumptions does not of course convince all scepticism, or substitute faith for it, but it is something to discomfit such pleas, and to expose the fallacies which confuse the minds of their advocates. The matters of debate are lofty, and there is no levity in their treatment.
He who reads this book only superficially will at once see that it is not all fiction; and he who reads it more than superficially will as easily see that it is not all fact. In what proportions it is composed of either would probably require a very acute critic accurately to determine. As the Editor makes no pretensions to such acumen,—as he can lay claim to only an imperfect knowledge of the principal personage in the volume, and never had any personal acquaintance with the singular youth, some traits of whose character and some glimpses of whose history are here given, —he leaves the above question to the decision of the reader. At the same time, it is of no consequence in the world. The character and purport of the volume are sufficiently disclosed in the parting words of the Journalist. "It aspires," as is justly said, "to none of the appropriate interest either of a novel or a biography." It might have been very properly entitled "Theological Fragments."
March 31, 1852.
A GENUINE SCEPTIC
A VERSATILE BELIEVER
LORD HERBERT AND MODERN DEISM
SOME CURIOUS PARADOXES
A DIALOGUE SHOWING THAT "THAT MAY BE POSSIBLE WITH MAN WHICH IS IMPOSSIBLE WITH GOD"
SCEPTIC'S FAVORITE TOPICS
A SCEPTICS FIRST CATECHISM SOME LIGHT ON THE MYSTERY
BELIEF AND FAITH
THE "VIA MEDIA" OF DEISM
A SCEPTIC'S SELECT PARTY
HOW IT WAS THAT INFIDELITY PREVENTED MY BECOMING AN INFIDEL
THE BLANK BIBLE
A DIALOGUE IN WHICH IT IS CONTENDED "THAT MIRACLES ARE IMPOSSIBLE, BUT THAT IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO PROVE IT"
THE ANALOGIES OF AN EXTERNAL REVELATION WITH THE LAWS AND CONDITIONS OF HUMAN DEVELOPMENT
ON A PREVAILING FALLACY
A KNOTTY POINT
THE "PAPAL AGGRESSION" PROVED TO BE IMPOSSIBLE
THE PARADISE OF FOOLS
A FUTURE LIFE
A VARIABLE QUANTITY
DISCUSSION OF THREE POINTS
THE LAST EVENING
THE ECLIPSE OF FAITH.
To E. B*****, Missionary in ———, South Pacific.
Wednesday, June 18, 1851.
My Dear Edward:—
You have more than once asked me to send you, in your distant solitude, my impressions respecting the religious distractions in which your native country has been of late years involved. I have refused, partly, because it would take a volume to give you any just notions on the subject; and partly, because I am not quite sure that you would not be happier in ignorance. Think, if you can, of your native land as in this respect what it was when you left it, on your exile of Christian love, some fifteen years ago.
I little thought I should ever have so mournful a motive to depart in some degree from my resolution. I intended to leave you to glean what you could of our religious condition from such publications as might reach you. But I am now constrained to write something about it. My dear brother, you will hear it with a sad heart;—your nephew and mine, our only sister's only child, has, in relation to religion at least, become an absolute sceptic!
I well recollect the tenderness you felt for him, doubly endeared by his own amiable dispositions and the remembrance of her whom in so many points he resembled. What must be mine, who so long stood to the orphan in the relations which his mother's love and my own affection imposed upon me! It is hardly a figure to say I felt for him as for a son. "Ah!" you will say as you glance at your own children, "my bachelor brother cannot understand that even such an affection is still a faint resemblance of parental love."
It may be so. I know that that love is sui generis; and as I have often heard from those who are fathers, its depth and purity were never realized till they became such. But neither, perhaps, can you know how nearly such a love as I have felt for Harrington, committed to me in death by one I loved so well,—beloved alike for her sake and for his own,—the object of so much solicitude during his childhood and youth,—I say you can hardly, perhaps, conceive how near such an affection may approach that of a parent; how closely such a graft upon a childless stock may resemble the incorporate life of father and son.
You remember what hopes we both formed of his youth, from the promise alike of his heart and of his intellect, How fondly we predicted a career of future usefulness to others, and honor and happiness to himself! You know how often I used to compare him, for the silent ease with which he mastered difficult subjects, and the versatility with which he turned his mind to the most opposite pursuits, to the youthful Theaetetus, as described in Plato's dialogue the movements of whose mind Theodorus compares to the "noiseless flow of oil" from the flask.
He was just fourteen and a half when you left England; he is now, therefore, nearly twenty-nine. He left me four years ago, when he was just twenty-five,—about a year after the termination of his college course, which you know was honorable to him, and gratifying to me. He then went to spend a year, or a year and a half, as he supposed, in Germany. His stay (he was not all the time in Germany, however) was prolonged for more than three years. In the letters which I received from him, and which gradually became more rare and more brief, there was (without one symptom of decay of personal affection) a certain air of gradually increasing constraint, in relation to the subject which I knew and felt to be all-important. Alas! my prophetic soul took it aright; this constraint was the faint penumbra of a disastrous eclipse indeed! He was not, as so many profess to be, convinced by any particular book (as that of Strauss, for example) that the history of Christianity is false; nay, he declares that he is not convinced of that even now; he is a genuine sceptic, and is the subject, he says, of invincible doubts. Those doubts have extended at length to the whole field of theology, and are due principally, as he himself has owned, to the spectacle of the interminable controversies which (turn where he would) occupied the mind of Germany. Even when he returned home he does not appear to have finally abandoned the notion of the possibility of constructing some religious system in the place of Christianity;— this, as he affirms, is a later conviction formed upon him by examining the systems of such men as have attempted the solution of the problem. He declares the result wholly unsatisfactory; that, sceptical as he was and is with regard to the truth of Christianity, he is not even sceptical with regard to these theories; and he declares that if 'the undoubtedly powerful minds which have framed them have so signally failed in removing his doubts, and affording him a rock to stand upon, he cannot prevail upon himself to struggle further.
And so, instead of stopping at any of those miserable road-side inns between Christianity and scepticism, through whose ragged windows all the winds of heaven are blowing, and whose gaudy "signs" assure us there is "good entertainment within for man and beast,"— whereas it is only for the latter,—Harrington still travelled on in hopes of finding some better shelter, and now, in the dark night, and a night of tempest too, finds himself on the open heath. To employ his own words, "he could not rest contented with one-sided theories or inconsequential reasonings, and has pursued the argument to its logical termination." He is ill at ease in mind, I hear, and not in robust health; and I am just going to visit him.
I shall have some melancholy scenes with him; I feel that. Do you remember, when we were in Switzerland together, how, as we wound down the Susten and the Grimsel passes, with the perpendicular cliffs some thousand feet above us, and a torrent as many feet below, we used to shudder at the thought of two men, wrestling upon that dizzy verge, and striving to throw each other over! I almost imagine that I am about to engage in such a strife now, with the additional horror that the contest is (as one may say) between father and son. Nay, it is yet more terrible; for in such a contest there, I almost feel as if I could be contented to employ only a passive resistance. But I must here learn to school my heart and mind to an active and desperate conflict. I fear lest I should do more harm than good; and I am sure I shall if I suffer impatience and irascibility to prevail. I shall, perhaps, also hear from those lips which once addressed me only in the accents of respect and kindness, language indicative of that alienation which is the inevitable result of marked dissimilarity of sentiment and character, and which, according to Aristotle's most just description, will often dissolve the truest friendship, at all events, extinguish (just as prolonged absence will) all its vividness. So impossible is it for the full sympathies of the heart to coexist with absolute antipathy of the intellect! Nay, I shall, perhaps, have to listen to the language which I cannot but consider as "impiety" and "blasphemy," and yet keep my temper. I half feel, however, that I am doing him injustice in much of this; and I will not "judge before the time." It cannot be that he will ever cease to regard me with affection, though, perhaps, no longer with reverence; and I am confident that not even scepticism can chill the natural kindness of his disposition. I am persuaded that, even as a sceptic, he is very different from most sceptics. They cherish doubts; he will be impatient of them. Scepticism is, with them, a welcome guest, and has entered their hearts by an open door; I am sure that it must have stormed his, and entered it by a breach.
"No," my heart whispers, "I shall still find you sincere, Harrington; scorning to take any unfair advantage in argument, and impatient of all sophistry, as I have ever found you. You will be fully aware of the moral significance of the conclusion at which you have arrived, —even that there is no conclusion to be arrived at; and you will be miserable,—as all must be who have your power to comprehend it."
Accept this, my dear brother, as a truer delineation of my wanderer than my first thoughts prompted. But then all this will only make it the more sad to see him. Still it is a duty, and it must be done.
I have not the heart at present to give more than the briefest answers to the queries which you so earnestly put to me. No doubt you were startled to find, from the French papers that reached you from Tahiti, and on no less authority than that of the "Apostolic Letter of the Pope," and Cardinal Wiseman's "Pastoral," that this enlightened country was once more, or was on the eve of becoming, a "satellite" of Rome. Subsequent information, touching the course of the almost unprecedented agitation which England has just passed through, will serve to convince you, either that Pio Nono's supplications to the Virgin and all the English saints, from St. Dunstan downwards, have not been so successful as he flattered himself that they would have been, or that the nation, if it be about to embrace Romanism, has the oddest way of showing it. It has acquired most completely the Jesuitical art of disguising its real feelings; or, as the Anglicans would say, of practising the doctrine of "reserve." To all appearance the country is more indomitably Protestant than before.
Nor need you alarm yourself—as in truth you seem too much inclined to do—about the machinations and triumphs of the Tractarian party. Their insidious attempts are no doubt a graver evil than the preposterous pretensions of Rome, to which indeed they gave their only chance of success. The evil has been much abated, however by those very assumptions; for it is no longer disguised. Tractarianism is seen to be what many had proclaimed it,—the strict ally of Rome. The hopes it inspired were the causes of the Pope's presumption and of Wiseman's folly; and, by misleading them, it has, to a large extent, undone the projects both of Rome and itself. But even before the recent attempts, its successes were very partial.
The degree to which the infection tainted the clergy was no criterion at all of the sympathy of the people. Too many of the former were easily converted to a system which confirmed all their ecclesiastical prejudices, and favored their sacerdotal pretensions; which endowed every youngster upon whom the bishop laid hands with "preternatural graces," and with the power of working "spiritual miracles." But the people generally were in little danger of being misled by these absurdities; and facts, even before the recent outbreak, ought to have convinced the clergy, that, if they thought proper to go to Rome, their flocks were by no means prepared to follow them. Except among some fashionable folks here and there,—young ladies to whom ennui, susceptible nerves, and a sentimental imagination made any sort of excitement acceptable; who turned their arks of embroidery and painting, and their love of music, to "spiritual" uses, and displayed their piety and their accomplishments at the same time,—except among these, I say, and those amongst the more ignorant of our rural population whom such people influenced, the Anglican movement could not boast of any signal success. In the more densely peopled districts, and amongst the middle classes especially, the failure of the thing was often most ignominious. No sooner were the candles placed upon the "altar" than the congregation began to thin; and by the time the "obsolete" rubrics were all admirably observed, the priest faultlessly arrayed, the service properly intoned, and the entire "spiritual" machine set in motion, the people were apt to desert the sacred edifice altogether. It was a pity, doubtless, that, when such admirable completeness in the ecclesiastical, equipments had been attained, it should be found that the machine would not work; that just when the Church became perfect, it should fail for so insignificant an accident as the want of a congregation. Yet so it often was. The ecclesiastical play was an admirable rehearsal, and nothing more. Not but what there are many priests who would prefer a "full service," and an ample ceremonial in an empty church, to the simple Gospel in a crowded one; like Handel, who consoled himself with the vacant benches at one of his oratorios by saying that "dey made de music sound de ner." And, in truth, if we adopt to the full the "High Church" theory, perhaps it cannot much matter whether the people be present or not; the opus operatum of magic rites and spiritual conjuration may be equally effectual. The Oxford tracts said ten years ago, "Before the Reformation, the Church recognized the seven hours of prayer; however these may have been practically neglected, or hidden in an unknown tongue, there is no estimating what influence this may have had on common people's minds secretly." Surely you must agree that there is no estimating the efficacy of nobody's hearing services which, if heard by any body, would have been in an unknown tongue.
I repeat, that the people of England will never yield to Romanism, —unless, indeed, it shall hereafter be as a reaction from infidelity; just as infidelity is now spreading as a reaction from the attempted restoration of Romanism. That England is not prepared at present is sufficiently shown by the result of the recent agitation. Could it terminate otherwise? Was it possible that England, in the nineteenth century, could be brought to adopt the superstitions of the Middle Age? If she could, she would have deserved to be left to the consequences of her besotted folly. We may say, as Milton said, in his day, to the attempted restoration of superstitions which the Reformers had already cast off; "O, if we freeze at noon, after their easy thaw, let us fear lest the sun for ever hide himself, and turn his orient steps from our ungrateful horizon justly condemned to be eternally benighted." No, it is not from this quarter that England must look for the chief dangers which menace religion, except, indeed, as these dangers are the inevitable, the uniform result of every attempt to revive the obsolete past. The principal peril is from a subtle unbelief, which, in various forms, is sapping the religion of our people, and which, if not checked, will by and by give the Romish bishops a better title to be called bishops in partibus infidelium than has always been the case. The attempt to make men believe too much naturally provokes them to believe too little; and such has been and will be the recoil from the movement towards Rome. It is only one, however, of the causes of that widely diffused infidelity which is perhaps the most remarkable phenomenon of our day. Other and more potent causes are to be sought in the philosophic tendencies of the age, and especially a sympathy, in very many minds, with the worst features of Continental speculation. "Infidelity!" you will say. "Do you mean such infidelity as that of Collins and Bolingbroke, Chubb and Tindal?" Why, we have plenty of those sorts too, and—worse; but the most charming infidelity of the day, a bastard deism in fact, often assumes a different form,—a form, you will be surprised to hear it, which embodies (as many say) the essence of genuine Christianity! Yes; be it known to you, that when you have ceased to believe all that is specially characteristic of the New Testament,—its history, its miracles, its peculiar doctrine—you may still be a genuine Christian. Christianity is sublimed into an exquisite thing called modern "spiritualism." The amount and quality of "faith" are, indeed, pleasingly diversified when come to examine individual professors thereof; but it always based upon the principle that man is a light to himself; that his oracle is within; so clear either to supersede the necessity—some say even possibility—of all external revelation in any sense of that term; or, when such revelation is in some sense allowed, to constitute man the absolute arbiter how much or how little of it is worthy to be received.
This theory we all perceive, of course, cannot fail to recommend itself by the well-known uniformity and distinctness of man's religious notions and the reasonableness of his religious practices! We all know there has never been any want of a revelation;—of which have doubtless had full proof among the idolatrous barbarians you foolishly went to enlighten and reclaim. I wish, however, you had known it fifteen years ago; I might have had my brother with me still. It is a pity that this internal revelation—the "absolute religion," hidden, as Mr. Theodore Parker felicitously phrases it, in all religions of all ages and nations, so strikingly avouched by the entire history of world—should render itself suspicions by little discrepancies in its own utterances among those who believe in it. Yet so it is. Compared with the rest of the world, few at the best can be got to believe in the sufficiency of the internal light and the superfluity all external revelation; and yet hardly two of the flock agree. It is the rarest little oracle! Apollo himself might envy its adroitness in the utterance ambiguities. One man says that the doctrine of "future life" is undoubtedly a dictate of the "religious sentiment,"—one of the few universal characteristics of all religion; another declares his "insight" tells him nothing of the matter; one affirms that the supposed chief "intuitions" of the "religious faculty"—belief in the efficacy of prayer, the free will of man, and the immortality of the soul—are at hopeless variance with intellect and logic; others exclaim, and surely not without reason, that this casts upon our faculties the opprobrium of irretrievable contradictions! As for those "spiritualists"—and they are, perhaps, at present the greater part—who profess, in some sense, to pay homage to the New Testament, they are at infinite variance as to how much—whether 7 1/2, 30, or 50 per cent of its records—is to be received. Very few get so far as the last. One man is resolved to be a Christian,—none more so,—only he will reject all the peculiar doctrines and all the supernatural narratives of the New Testament; another declares that miracles are impossible and "incredible, per se"; a third thinks they are neither the one nor the other, though it is true that probably a comparatively small portion of those narrated in the "book" are established by such evidence as to be worthy of credit. Pray use your pleasure in the selection; and the more freely, as a fourth is of opinion that, however true, they are really of little consequence. While many extol in vague terms of admiration the deep "spiritual insight" of the founders of Christianity, they do not trouble themselves to explain how it is that this exquisite illumination left them to concoct that huge mass of legendary follies and mystical doctrines which constitute, according to the modern "spiritualism," the bulk of the records of the New Testament, and by which its authors have managed to mislead the world; nor how we are to avoid regarding them either as superstitious and fanatical fools or artful and designing knaves, if nine tenths, or seven tenths, of what they record is all to be rejected; nor, if it be affirmed that they never did record it, but that somebody else has put these matters into their mouths, how we can be sure that any thing whatever of the small remainder ever came out of their mouths. All this, ever, is of the less consequence, as these gentlemen descend to tell us how we are to separate the "spiritual" gold which faintly streaks the huge mass of impure ore of fable, legend, and mysticism. Each man, it seems has his own particular spade and mattock in his "spiritual faculty"; so off with you to the diggings in these spiritual mines of Ophir. You will say, Why not stay at home, and be content at once, with the advocates of the absolute sufficiency of the internal oracle, listen to its responses exclusively? Ask these men—for I am sure I do not know; I only know that the results are very different—whether the possessor of "insight" listens to its own rare voice, or puts on spectacles and reads aloud from the New Testament. Generally, as I say, these good folks are resolved that all that is supernatural and specially inspired in sacred volume is to be rejected; and as to the rest, which by the way might be conveniently published as the "Spiritualists' Bible" (in two or three sheets, 48mo, say), that would still require a careful winnowing; for, while one man tells us that the Apostle Paul, in his intense appreciation of the "spiritual element," made light even of the "resurrection of Christ," and everywhere shows his superiority to the beggarly elements of history, dogma, and ritual, another declares that he was so enslaved by his Jewish prejudices and the trumpery he had picked up at the feet of Gamaliel, that he knew but little or next to nothing of the real mystery of the very Gospel he preached; that while he proclaims that it is "revealed, after having been hidden from ages generations," he himself manages to hide it afresh. This you will be told is a perpetual process, going on even now; that as all the "earlier prophets" were unconscious instruments of a purpose beyond their immediate range of thought, so the Apostles themselves similarly illustrated the shallowness of their range of thought; that, in fact, the true significance of the Gospel lay beyond them, and doubtless also, for the very same reasons, lies beyond us. In other words, this class of spiritualists tell us that Christianity is a "development," as the Papists also assert, and the New Testament its first imperfect and rudimentary product; only, unhappily, as the development, it seems, may be things so very different as Popery and Infidelity, we are as far as ever from any criterion as to which, out of the ten thousand possible developments, is the true; but it is a matter of the less consequence, since it will, on such reasoning, be always something future.
"Unhappy Paul!" you will say. Yes, it is no better with him than it was in our youth some five-and-twenty years ago. Do you not remember the astute old German Professor in his lecture-room introducing the Apostle as examining with ever-increasing wonder the various contradictory systems which the perverseness of exegesis had extracted from his Epistles, and at length, as he saw one from which every feature of Christianity had been erased, exclaiming in a fright, "Was ist das?" But I will not detain you on the vagaries of the new school of spiritualists. I shall hear enough of them, I have no doubt, from Harrington; he will riot in their extravagances and contradictions as a justification of his own scepticism. In very truth their authors are fit for nothing else than to be recruiting officers for undisguised infidelity; and this has been the consistent termination with very many of their converts. Yet, many of them tell us, after putting men on this inclined plane of smooth ice, that it is the only place where they can be secure against tumbling into infidelity, Atheism, Pantheism, Scepticism. Some of Oxford Tractarians informed us, a little before Crossing the border, that their system was the surest bulwark against Romanism; and in the same way is this site "spiritualism", a safeguard against infidelity.
Between many of our modern "spiritualists" and Romanists there is a parallelism of movement absolutely ludicrous. You may chance to hear both claiming, with equal fervor, against "intellect" and "logic" as totally incompetent to decide on "religion" or "spiritual" truth, and in favor of a "faith" which disclaims all alliance with them. You may chance hear them both insisting on an absolute submission to an "infallible authority" other than the Bible; the one external,—that is, the Pope; the other internal,—that is, "Spiritual Insight"; both exacting absolute submission, the one to the outward oracle, the Church, the other to the inward oracle, himself; both insisting that the Bible is but the first imperfect product of genuine Christianity, which is perfected by a "development," though as to the direction of that development they certainly do not agree. Both, if I may judge by some recent speculations, recoil from the Bible even more than they do from one another; and both would get rid of it,—one by locking it up, and the other tearing it to tatters. Thus receding in opposite directions round the circle, they are found placed side by side at the same extremity of a diameter, at the other extremity of which is the—Bible. The resemblances, in some instances, are so striking, that one is reminded of that little animal, the fresh-water polype, whose external structure is so absolutely a mere prolongation of the internal, that you may turn him inside out, and all the functions of life go on just as well as before.
It is impossible to convey to you an adequate idea of the bouleversement which has taken place in our religious relations, —even in each man's little sphere. It is as if the religious world were a masquerade, where you cease to feel surprise at finding some familiar acquaintance disguised in the most fantastical costume. There is our old friend W——, rigorously, as you know, educated in his old father's Evangelical notions, ready to be a confessor for the two wax candies, even though unlighted, and to be a martyr for them if but lighted. His cousin in the opposite direction has found even the most meagre naturalism too much for him, and avows himself a Pantheist. L——, the son, you remember, of an independent minister, is ready to go nobly to death in defence of the prerogatives of his "apostolic succession"; and has not the slightest doubts that he can make out his spiritual genealogy, without a broken link, from the first Bishop of Rome, downwards!—though, poor fellow, it would puzzle him to say who was his great-grandfather. E——, you are aware, has long since joined the Church of Rome, and has disclosed such a bottomless abyss of "faith," that whole cart-loads of mediaeval fables, abandoned even by Romanists (who, by the way, stand fairly aghast at his insatiable appetite), have not been able to fill it. All the saints in the Roman Hagiography cannot work miracles as fast as he can credit them. On the other hand, his brother has signalized himself by an equal facility of stripping himself, fragment by fragment, of his early creed, till at last he walks through this bleak world in such a gossamer gauze of transparent "spiritualism," that it makes you both shiver and blush to look at him. Your old acquaintance P——, true to his youthful qualities (which now have most abundant exercise), who has the "charity which believeth all, things," though certainly not that which "bareth all things," goes about apologizing for all religious systems, and finding truth in every thing;—our beloved Harrington, on the other hand, bewildered by all this confusion, finds truth—in nothing.
Yet you must not imagine that our religious maladies are at present more than sporadic; or that the great bulk of our population are at present affected by them: they still believe the Bible to be the revealed Word God. Should these diseases ever become epidemic, they will soon degenerate into a still worse type. Many apostles of Atheism and Pantheism amongst our classes say (and perhaps truly), that this modern "spiritualism" is but a transition state. In that case, you will have to recall, with a deeper meaning, the song of Byron, which you told me gave you such anguish, as you paced the deck on the evening in which lost sight of Old England,—"My native land, night!"
I have sometimes mournfully asked myself, whether the world may not yet want a few experiments as to whether it cannot get on better without Christianity and the Bible; but I hope England is not destined be the laboratory.
I almost envy your happier lot I picture to myself your unsophisticated folks, just reclaimed from the grossest barbarism and idolatry, receiving the simple Gospel (as it ought to be received) with grateful wonder, as Heaven's own method of making man wise and happy; reverencing the Bible as what it is,—an infallible guide through this world to a better; "a light shining in a dark place." They listen with unquestioning simplicity to its disclosures, which find an echo in their own hearts, and with a reverence which is due to a volume which has transformed them from savages into men, and from idolaters into Christians. They are not troubled with doubts of its authenticity or its divinity; with talk of various readings and discordant manuscripts; with subtle theories for proving that its miracles are legends, or its history myths, or with any other of the infinite vagaries of perverted learning. Neither are they perplexed with the assurances of those who tell them that, though divine, the Bible is, in fact, a most dangerous book, and who would request them, in their new-born enlightenment, to be pleased to shut their eyes, and to return to a religion of ceremony quite as absurd and almost as cruel as the polytheism they have renounced. I imagine you and your little flock in the Sabbath stillness of those mountains and green valleys, of which you give me such pleasant descriptions, exhibiting a specimen of a truly primitive Christianity; I imagine that the peace within is as deep as the tranquillity without.
Yet I know it cannot be; for you and your flock are men,—and that one word alone suffices to dissolve the charm. You and they have cares, and worse than cares, which make you like all the rest of the world; for guilt and sorrow are of no clime, and the "happy valley" never existed except in the pages of Rasselas. You are, doubtless, plagued by every now and then finding that some half-reclaimed cannibal confesses that he has not quite got over his gloating recollections of the delicacies of his diabolical cuisine; or that fashionable converts turn with a yearning heart, not to theatres and balls, but to the "dear remembrance" of the splendors 'of tattoo and amocos; or that some unlucky wretch who has not mastered the hideous passions of his old paganism has almost battered out the brains of a fellow disciple in a sudden paroxysm of anger; or that some timid soul is haunted with half-subdued suspicions that some great goggle-eyed idol, with whose worship his whole existence has been associated, is not, what St Paul declares it is, absolutely "nothing in world." And then you vex your soul about these things, and worry yourself with apprehensions lest "you should have labored in vain and spent your strength for naught"; and lastly, trouble yourself still more lest you should lose your temper and your patience into the bargain.
Yes, your scenery is doubtless beautiful, as the sketches you have sent me sufficiently show; especially that scene at the foot of the mountain Moraii or Mauroi, for I cannot quite make out the pencil-marks. But, beautiful as they are, they are not more so than those which greet my eye even now from my study window. No, there is no fault to be found with external nature; it is man only who spoils it all. I see nothing in sun, moon, or stars, in mountain, forest, or stream, that needs to be altered; we are the blot on this fair world, "O man," I am sometimes ready to exclaim, "what a—"; but I check myself, for as Correggio whispered to himself exultingly, "I also am a painter," so I, though with very different feelings, say, "I also am a man." Johnson said, that every man probably worse of himself than he certainly knows of most other men; and so I am determined that misanthropy, if is to be indulged at all, shall, like its opposite charity, "begin at home."
Yet, now I think better of it, it shall not begin at all; for I recollect that HE also was a "man," who was infinitely more; who has penetrated even this cloudy shrine of clay with the effulgence of His glory and so let me resolve that our common humanity shall be held sacred for His sake, and pitied for its own. Thus ends my little, transient fit of spleen, and may it ever end.
May we feel more and more, my dearest brother, the interior presence of that "guest of guests," that Divine Impersonation of Truth, Rectitude, and Love, whose image has had more power to soothe and tranquillize, stimulate and fortify, the human heart, than all the philosophies ever devised by man; who has not merely left us rules of conduct, expressed with incomparable force and comprehensiveness, and illustrated by images of unequalled pathos and beauty; who was not merely (and yet, herein alone, how superior to all other masters) the living type of His own glorious doctrine, and affects us as we gaze upon Him with that transforming influence which the studious contemplation of all excellence exerts by a necessary law of our nature; but whose Life and Death include all motives which can enforce His lessons on humanity;—motives all intensely animated by the conviction that He is a Living Personality, in communion with our own spirits, and attracted towards us by all the sympathies of a friendship truly Divine; "who can be touched with the feelings of our infirmities, though Himself without sin." May He become so familiar to our souls, that no suggestions of evil from within, no incursion of evil from without, shall be so swift and sudden that the thought of Him shall not be at least as near to our spirits, intercept the treachery of our infirm nature, and guard that throne which He alone deserves to fill; till, at every turn and every posture of our earthly life, we may realize a mental image of that countenance of divine compassion bent upon us, and that voice of gentle instruction murmuring in our ears its words of heavenly wisdom; till, whenever tempted to deviate from the "narrow path," we may hear Him whispering, "Will ye also go away?" when hated by the world,—"Ye know that it hated me before it hated you"; when called to perform some difficult duty,—"If ye love me, keep my commandments"; when disposed to make an idol of any thing on earth,—"He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me"; when in suffering and trial,—"Whom I love I rebuke and chasten"; when our way is dark,—"What I do thou knowest not now, but thou shalt know hereafter"; till, a word, as we hear His faintest footsteps approaching our hearts, and His gentle signal there according to His own beautiful image, "Behold, I stand at the door and knock," our souls may hasten to welcome the heavenly guest.
So may it ever be with you and me! And now I find the very thought of these things has cured all my dark and turbulent feelings, as indeed it ever does; and I can say before I go to rest, "O man, my brother, I am at peace with thee!"
Ah! what an empire is His! How, even at the antipodes, will these lines touch in your heart a chord responsive to that which vibrates in mine! .... I go to Harrington in a few days, and as our conversation (perhaps, alas! our controversies) will turn upon some of the most momentous religious topics of the day, I shall keep an exact journal—Boswellize, in fact—for you, as well as I can; and how well some of my earlier days have practised my memory for this humble office you know. I shall have a pleasure in this, not only because you will be glad to hear all I can communicate respecting one you love so well, but also because in this way, perhaps, I shall in part fulfil your earnest request to let you know the state of religion amongst us. You will expect, of course, to find only that portion of our conversations reported which relates to these subjects; but I anticipate, in discussing others, some compensation for the misery which will, I fear, attend the discussion of these.
Thank your convert Outai for his present of his grim idol. It is certainly "brass for gold," considering what I sent him; but do not tell him so. If a man gives us his gods, what more can he do? And yet, it seems, he may be the richer for the loss. Never was a question more senseless than that of the idolatrous fool,—"Ye have taken away my gods, and what else have I left?" His godship was a little injured in his transit; but he was very perfect in deformity before, and his ugliness could not, by any accident, be improved. I have put him into a glass case with some stuffed birds, at which he ogles, with his great eyes, in a manner not altogether divine. His condition, therefore, is pretty nearly that to which prophecy has doomed all his tribe; if not cast to the "moles and the bats," it is to the owls and parrots. I cannot help looking at him sometimes with a sort of respect as contrasted with his worshippers; for though they have been fools enough to worship him, he has, at least, not been fool enough to worship them. Yet even they are better than the Pantheist, who must regard it and every thing else, himself included, as a fragment of divinity. I fear that, if I could regard either the Pantheist or myself as divine, nothing in the world could keep me from blasphemy every day and all day long.
"Again!" you will say, "my brother; is not that old vein of bitterness yet exhausted?" But be it known to you that that last sarcasm was especially for my own behoof. She is a sly jade,—conscience; like many other folks, she has a trick of expressing her rebukes in general language; as thus: "What a contemptible set of creatures the race of men are!"—hoping that some folks will practically take it to heart. Sometimes I do; and sometimes, I suppose, like my fellows, I look very grave, and approvingly say, "It is but too true," with the air of one who philosophically assents to a proposition in which he is totally uninterested; whereupon conscience becomes outrageous and—personal.
I can easily imagine what you tell me, that you hardly know the difference between the missionaries of different denominations, and are very much troubled to remember, at times, which is which. It is a natural consequence of the relations in which you stand to heathenism. I fancy the sight of men worshipping an idol with four heads and twice as many hands must considerably abate impressions of the importance some of the controversies nearer home. Do you remember the passage in "Woodstock," in which our old favorite represents the Episcopalian Rochecliffe and the Presbyterian Holdenough meeting unexpectedly in prison, after many years of separation, during which one had thought the other dead? How sincerely glad they were, and how pleasantly they talked; when lo! an unhappy reference to the "bishopric of Titus" gradually abated the fervor of their charity, and inflamed that of their zeal, even till they at last separated in mutual dudgeon, and sat glowering at each other in their distant corners with looks in which the "Episcopalian" and "Presbyterian" were much more evident than the "Christian";—and so they persevered till the sudden summons to them and their fellow-prisoners, to prepare for instant execution, dissolved as with a charm the anger they had felt, and "Forgive me, O my brother," and "I have sinned against thee, my brother," broke from their lips as they took what they thought would be a last farewell.
I imagine that a feeling a little resembling this, though from a different cause, makes it impossible for you to remember, in the presence of such spiritual horrors as heathenism presents, the immense importance of many of the controversies so hotly waged at home, I can conceive (as some of our zealots would say) that you are tempted to a certain degree of insensibility and defection of heart; that you no longer discern the momentous superiority of "sprinkling" over "immersion," or of "immersion" over "sprinkling"; that the "wax candles," "lighted" and "unlighted," appear to you alike insignificant; that even the jus divinum of any system of ecclesiastical government is sometimes not discerned with absolute precision; and, in short, that you look with contemptuous wonder on half our "great controversies." If I mistake not, things are coming to that pass amongst us, that we shall soon think of them almost with contemptuous wonder too.
Vale,—et ora pro me,—as old Luther used to say at the end of his letters. I will write again soon.
Your affectionate Brother, F.B.
Grange, July 7, 1851.
My Dear Brother:—
I have been with Harrington a week: I am glad to say that I was under some erroneous impressions when I wrote my letter. He is not a universal sceptic,—he is only a sceptic in relation to theological and ethical truth. "Alas!" you will say, "it is an exception which embraces more than the general rule; it little matters what else he believes."
True; and yet there is consolation in it; for otherwise it would have been impossible to hold intercourse with him at all. If he had reasoned in order to prove to me that human reason cannot be trusted, or I to convince one who affirmed its universal falsity, it were hard to say whether he or I had been the greater fool. Your universal sceptic—if he choose to affect that character,—no man is it—is impregnable; his true emblem is the hedgehog ensphered in his prickles; that is, as long as you are observing him. For if you do not thus irritate his amour propre, and put him on the defensive, he will unroll himself. Speaking, reasoning, acting, like the rest of the world, on the implied truthfulness of the faculties whose falsity he affirms, he will save you the trouble of confuting him, by confuting himself.
And I am glad, for another reason, that Harrington does not affect this universal scepticism: for whereas, by the confession of its greatest masters, it is at best but the play of a subtle intellect, so it does not afford a very flattering picture of an intellect that affects it. I should have been mortified, I confess, had Harrington been chargeable with such a foible.
It is true that, in another aspect, all this makes the case more desperate; for his scepticism, so far as it extends, is deep and genuine; it is no play of an ingenious subtilty, nor the affectation of singularity with him;—and my prognostications of the misery which such a mind must feel from driving over the tempestuous ocean of life under bare poles, without chart or compass, are, I can see, verified. One fact, I confess, gives me hopes, and often affords me pleasure in listening to him. He is an impartial doubter; he doubts whether Christianity be true; but he also doubts whether it be false; and, either from his impatience of the theories which infidelity proposes in its place, as inspiring yet stronger doubts, or in revenge for the peace of which he has been robbed, he never seems more at home than in ridiculing the confidence and conceit of that internal oracle, which professes to solve the problems which, it seems, Christianity leaves in darkness; and in pushing the principles on which infidelity rejects the New Testament to their legitimate conclusion.
I told you, in general, the origin and the progress of his scepticism. I suspect there are causes (perhaps not distinctly felt by him) which have contributed to the result These, it may be, I shall never know; but it is hardly possible not to suppose that some bitter experience has contributed to cloud, thus portentously, the brightness of his youth. Something, I am confident, in connection with his long residence abroad, has tended to warp his young intellect from its straight growth. The heart, as usual, has had to do with the logic; and "has been whispering reasons which the reason cannot comprehend." I suspect that passionate hopes have been buried,—whether in the grave, I know not. I must add, that an indirect and most potential cause, not indeed of the origination, yet of the continuance, of his state of mind, must be sought in what the world would call his good fortune. His maiden aunt by the father's side left her favorite nephew her pleasant, old-fashioned, somewhat gloomy, but picturesque and comfortable house in —-shire, about fifty or sixty acres in land, and three or four hundred a year into the bargain. Poor old lady! I heartily wish she had kept him out of possession by living to a hundred; or, dying, had left every farthing to "endow a college or a—cat." To Harrington she has left a very equivocal heritage. For with this and his little patrimony he is entirely placed above the necessity of professional life and fully qualified to live (Heaven help him!) as a gentleman;—but, unhappily, as a gentleman whose nature is deeply speculative,—whose life has been one of study,—and who has no active tastes or habits to correct the morbid portions of his character, and the dangers of his position. With his views already unsettled, he retired a few months ago to this comparative solitude; (for such it is, though the place is not many miles from the learned city of——-;) and partly from the tendencies of his own mind, partly from want of some powerful stimulus from without, he soon acquired the pernicious habit of almost constant seclusion in his library, where he revolves, as if fascinated, the philosophy of doubt, or some equally distressing themes; all which has now issued as you see. The contemplative and the active life are both necessary to man, no doubt; but in how different proportions!
To live as Harrington has lived of late, is to breathe little but azote. I believe that all these ill effects would have been, though not obviated, at least early cured, had he been compelled to mingle in active life,—to make his livelihood by a profession. The bracing air of the world would have dissipated these vapors which have gathered over his soul. In very truth, I half wish that he could now be stripped of his all, and compelled to become hedger and ditcher. It would almost be a kindness to ruin him by engaging him in some of the worst railway speculations!
I found him all that I had promised to find him; unchanged towards myself; sometimes cheerful, though oftener melancholy, or, at least, to all appearances ennuye; with more causticity and sarcasm in his humor, but without misanthropy; and I must add, with the same logical fairness, the same abhorrence of sophistry, which, were his early characteristics.
But the journal of my visit, which I am most diligently keeping, will more fully inform you of his state of mind.
JOURNAL OF A VISIT, ETC.
July 1, 1851.
I arrived at ——Grange this day. In the evening, as Harrington and myself were conversing in the library, I availed myself of a pause in the conversation to break the ice in relation to the topic which lay nearest my heart, by saying:—
"And so you have become, they tell me, a universal sceptic?"
"Not quite," he replied, throwing one of his feet over the edge of the sofa on which he was reclining and speaking rather dogmatically (I thought) for a sceptic. "Not quite: but in relation to religion I certainly become convinced that certainty, like pride, was not made for man, and that it is in vain for man to seek it."
I was amused at the contradiction of a certainty of universal uncertainty, as well as at the discovery there was nothing to be discovered.
He noticed my smile, and divined its cause.
"Forgive me," he said, "that, like you Christians and believers of all sorts, I sometimes find theory discordant with practice. The generality of people are, you know, a little inconsistent with their creed; suffer me to be so with mine."
"I have no objection, Harrington, in the world; the more inconsistent you are, the better I shall like you; you have my free leave to be, in relation to scepticism, just what the Antinomian is in relation to Christianity or as true a sceptic as he was a true Churchman who showed his good principles, according to Dr. Johnston, by never passing a church without taking off his hat, though he never went into it; or even as Falstaff, who had forgotten 'what the inside of a church was made of.' I shall be contented indeed to see you as little attached to your no-truth, as the generality of Christians are to their truth."
"I thank you," said he, a little sarcastically, "I doubt if I shall ever be able to reach so perfect a pitch of inconsistency. But are you wise, my dear uncle, in this taunt? What an argument have you suggested to me, if I thought it worth while to make use of it! How have you surrendered, without once thinking of the consequences, the practical power of Christianity!"
I began to fear that there would be a good deal of sharp-shooting between us.
"I have surrendered nothing," I replied. "If every thing is to be abandoned, which, though professedly the subject of man's conviction, he fails to reduce to practice, his creed will be short enough. Christianity, however, will be in no worse condition than morals, the theory of which has ever been in lamentable advance of the practice. And least of all can scepticism stand such it test, of which you have just given a passing illustration. Of this system, or rather no-system, there has never been a consistent votary, if we except Pyrrho himself; and whether he were not an insincere sceptic, the world will always be most sincerely sceptical. But forgive me my passing gibe. In wishing you to be as inconsistent as nine tenths of Christians are, I did not mean to prejudice your arguments, such as they are. I know it is not in your power to be otherwise than inconsistent; and I shall always have that argument against you, so far as it is one."
"And so far as it is one," he replied, "I shall always have the same argument against you."
"Be it so," I replied, "for the present: I am unwilling to engage in polemical strife with you, the very first evening on which I have seen you for so long a time. I would much rather hear a chapter of your past travels and adventures, which you know your few and brief letters—but I will not reproach you—left me in such ignorance of."
He complied with my request; and in the course of conversation informed me of many circumstances which had formed steps in that slow gradation by which he had reached his present state of mind; a state which he did not affect to conceal. But still I felt sure there were other causes which he did not mention.
At length I said, "You must give me the title of an old friend, —a father, Harrington, I might almost say,"—and the tears came into my eyes,—"to talk hereafter fully with you of your so certain uncertainty about the only topics which supremely affect the happiness of man."
I told him, and I spoke it in no idle compliment, that I was convinced he was far enough from being one of those shallow fools who are inclined to scepticism because they shrink from the trouble of investigating the evidence; who find so much to be said for this, and much for that, that they conclude that there is no truth, simply because they are too indolent to seek it. "This," said I, "is the plea of intellectual Sybarites with whom you have nothing in common. And as little do you sympathize with those dishonest, though not always shallow thinkers, who take refuge in alleged uncertainty of evidence, because they are afraid of pursuing it to unwelcome conclusions; who are sceptics on the most singular and inconsistent of all grounds, presumption. I know you are none of these."
"I am, I think, none of these," said he quietly.
"You are not: and your manner and countenance proclaim it yet more strongly than your words. The only genuine effect of a sincere scepticism is and must be, not the complacent and frivolous humor which too often attaches to it, but a mournful confession of the melancholy condition to which, if true, the theory reduces the sceptic himself and all mankind."
Of all the paradoxes humanity exhibits, surely there are none more wonderful than the complacency with which scepticism often utters its doubts, and the tranquillity which it boasts as the perfection of its system! Such a state of mind is utterly inconsistent with the genuine realization and true-hearted reception of the theory. On such subjects such a creature as man cannot be in doubt, and really feel his doubts, without being anxious and miserable. When I hear some youth telling me, with a simpering face, that he does not know, or pretend to say, whether there be a God, or not, or whether, if there be, He takes any interest in human affairs; or whether, if He does, it much imports us to know; or whether, if He has revealed that knowledge, it is possible or impossible for us to ascertain it; when I hear him further saying, that meantime he is disposed to make himself very easy in the midst of these uncertainties, and to await the great revelation of the future with philosophical, that is, being interpreted, with idiotic tranquillity, I see that, in point of fact, he has never entered into the question at all; that he has failed to realize the terrible moment of the questions (however they may be decided) of which he speaks with such amazing flippancy.
It is too often the result of thoughtlessness; of a wish to get rid of truths unwelcome to the heart; of a vain love of paradox, or perhaps, in many cases, (as a friend of mine said,) of an amiable wish to frighten "mammas and maiden aunts." But let us be assured that a frivolous sceptic,—a sceptic indeed,—after duly pondering and feeling the doubts he professes to embrace, is an impossibility. What may be expected in the genuine sceptic is a modest hope that he may be mistaken, a desire to be confuted; a retention of his convictions as if they were a guilty secret; or the promulgation of them only as the utterance of an agonized heart, unable to suppress the language of its misery; a dread of making proselytes,—even as men refrain from exposing their sores or plague-infected garments in the eyes of the world. The least we can expect from him is that mood of mind which Pascal so sublimely says becomes the Atheist ... "Is this, then, a thing to be said with gayety? Is it not rather a thing to be said with tears as the saddest thing in the world?"
The current of conversation after a while, somehow swept us round again to the point I had resolved to quit for this evening. "But since we are there," said I, "I wish you would in brief tell me why, when you doubted of Christianity, you did not stop at any of those harbours of refuge which, in our time especially, have been so plentifully provided for those who reject the New Testament? You are not ignorant, I know, of the writings of Mr. Theodore Parker, and other modern Deists. How is it that none of them even transiently satisfied you? An ingenious eclecticism founded on them has satisfied, you see, your old college friend, George Fellowes, of whom I hear rare things. He is far enough from being a sceptic,"
"Why," said he, laughing, "it is quite true that George is not a sceptic, He has believed more and disbelieved more, and both one and the other for less reason, than any other man I know. He used to send me the strangest letters when I was abroad, and almost every one presented him under some new phase. No, he is no sceptic. If he has rejected almost every thing, he has also embraced almost every thing; at each point in his career, his versatile faith has found him some system to replace that he had abandoned; and he is now a dogmatist par excellence, for he has adopted a theory of religion which formally abjures intellect and logic, and is as sincerely abjured by them. If the difficulties he has successively encountered had been seen all at once, I fancy he would have been much where I am. Poor George! 'Sufficient unto the day,' with him, is the theology 'thereof'! I picture him to myself going out of a morning, with his new theological dress upon him, and, chancing to meet with some friend, who protests there is some thing or other not quite 'comme il faut,' he proceeds with infinite complacency to alter that portion of his attire; the new costume is found equally obnoxious to the criticism of somebody else, and off it goes like the rest."
This was a ludicrous, but not untrue, representation of George Fellows's mind; only the "friend" in the image must be supposed to mean his own wayward fancy; for he is not particularly amenable (though very amiable) to external influences. So dominant, however, is present feeling and impulse, or so deficient is he in comprehensiveness, that he often takes up with the most trumpery arguments; that is, for a few days at a time. Yet he does not want acuteness. I have known him shine strongly (as has been said of some one else) upon an angle of a subject; but he never sheds over its whole surface equable illumination. Where evidence is complicated and various, and consists of many opposing or modifying elements, he never troubles himself to compute the sum total, and strike a fair balance. He stands aghast in the presence of an objection which he cannot solve, and loses all presence of mind in its contemplation. He seldom considers whether there are not still greater objections on the other side, nor how much farther, if a principle be just, it ought to carry him. The mode in which he looks at a subject often reminds me of the way in which the eye, according to metaphysicians, surveys an extensive landscape. It sees, they say, only a point at a time, punctum visibile, which is perpetually shifting; and the impression of the whole is in fact a rapid combination, by means of memory, of perceptions all but coexistent; if the attention be strongly fixed upon some one object, the rest of the landscape comparatively fades from the view. Now George Fellowes seemed to me, in a survey of a large subject, to have an incomparable faculty of seeing the minimum visibile, and that so ardently, that all the rest of the landscape vanished at the moment from his perceptions.
"Well," said I, smiling, "you must not blame him for his not reaching at once and per saltum your position. He has been more deliberate in stripping himself. Yet he has come on pretty well. You ought not to despair of him. I wonder at what point he is now."
"You may ask him to-morrow," said he, "for I am expecting him here to spend a few weeks with me. At whatever point he may be in these days of 'progress,' as they are called, he does not know that I am already arrived at the ne plus ultra; for my letters to him were yet briefer and rarer than to you: and I never touched on these topics. Where would have been the use of asking counsel of such an oracle?"
I said I should be glad to see him. "But I shall be still better pleased to hear from you, why you are dissatisfied with any such system as his; and especially why you say he ought in consistency to go much farther."
"I am far from saying that my reasons will be satisfactory, but I will endeavor, if you wish it, to justify my opinion."
"I shall certainly expect no less," replied I. "You are strangely altered, if you are willing to assert without attempting to prove; and if you were altered, I am not. When will you let me hear you?"
"O, in a day or two, when I have had time to put my thoughts on paper; but, if I mistake not, some of the most important points will be discussed before that, for Fellowes, I hear, is a very knight-errant of 'spiritualism,' and it is a thousand to one but he attempts to convert me. I intend to let him have full opportunity."
"I hardly know," said I. "Harrington, whether I wish him success or not. But one thing, surely, all must admire in him: I mean his candor. What less than this can prompt him, after abandoning with such extraordinary facility so many creeds and fragments of creeds, after travelling round the whole circle of theology, to confess with such charming simplicity the whole history of his mental revolutions, and expose himself to the charge of unimaginable caprice,—of theological coquetry? I protest to you that, a priori, I should have thought it impossible that any man could have made so many and such violent turns in so short a time without a dislocation of all the joints of his soul.—without incurring the danger of a 'universal anchylosis.'"
"One would imagine," said Harrington, with a laugh, "that, in your estimate, his mind resembles that ingenious toy by which the union of the various colored rays of light is illustrated: the red, the yellow, the blue, the green, and so forth, are distinctly painted on the compartments of a card: but no sooner are they put into a state of rapid revolution than the whole appears white. Such, it seems, is the appearance of George Fellowes in that rapid gyration to which he been subjected: the part-colored rays of his various creeds are lost sight of and the pure white of his 'candor' is alone visible!"
"For myself," said I, "I feel in some measure incompetent to pronounce on his present system. When I saw him for a short time a few months ago, he told that, though his versatility of faith had certainly been great, he must remind me (as Mr. Newman had said) that he had seen both sides; that persons like myself, for example, have had but one experience; whereas he has had two."
"If he were to urge me with such an argument," replied Harrington, "I should say we are even then. But I think even you could reply: 'You yourself injustice, Mr. Fellowes, in saying you have had two experiences. You have had two dozen, at least; but whether that can qualify you for speaking with any authority on these subjects I much doubt; to give any weight to the opinions of any man some stability at least is necessary.'"
This I could not gainsay. Slow revolutions on momentous subjects, when there has been much sobriety as well as diligence of investigation, are, perhaps, not despised as authority. Some superior weight may even be attached to the later and maturer views. But man changes them every other day; if they rise and fall with the barometer; if his whole life has been one rapid pirouette, it is impossible with gravity to discuss the question, whether at some point he may not have been right. Whoever be in the right, he cannot well be who has never long been any thing; and to take such a man for a guide would be almost as absurd as to mistake a weathercock for a signpost.
"In seeking religious counsel of George Fellows," said Harrington. "I should feel much as Jeannie Deans, when she went to the Interpreter's House.' as Madge Wildfire calls it, in company with that fantastical personage. But he is a kind-hearted, amiable fellow, and, in short, I cannot help liking him." _
July 2. Mr. Fellowes arrived this day about noon. He is about a year younger than Harrington. The afternoon was spent very pleasantly in general conversation. In the evening, after tea, we went into the library. I told the two friends that, as they had doubtless much to talk of, and as I had plenty of occupation for my pen, I would sit down at an adjoining table with my desk, and they might go on with their chat. They did so, and for some time talked of old college days and on indifferent subjects; but my attention was soon irresistibly attracted by finding them getting into conversation in which, on Harrington's account, I felt a deeper interest. I found my employment impossible, and yet, desiring to hear them discuss their theological differences without constraint, I did not venture to interrupt them. At last the distraction became intolerable; and, looking up, I said, "Gentlemen, I believe you might talk on the most private matters without my attending to one syllable you said; but if you get upon these theological subjects, such is my present interest in them," glancing at Harrington, "that I shall be perpetually making blunders in my manuscript. Let me beg of you to avoid them when I am with you, or let me go into another room." Harrington would not hear of the last; and as to the first he said, and said truly, that it would impede the free current of conversation, "which," said he, "to be pleasurable at all, must wind hither and thither as the fit takes us. It is like a many-stringed lyre, and to break any one of the chords is to mar the music. And so, my good uncle, if you find us getting upon these topics, join us; we shall seldom be long at a time upon them. I will answer for it; or if you will not do that, and yet, though disturbed by our chatter, are too polite to show it, why, amuse yourself (I know your old tachygraphic skill, which used to move my wonder in childhood), I say, amuse yourself, or rather avenge yourself, by jotting down some fragments of our absurdities, and afterwards showing us what a couple of fools we have been." I was secretly delighted with the suggestion; and, when the subjects of dispute were very interesting, threw aside my work, whatever it was, and reported them pretty copiously. Hence the completeness and accuracy of this admirable journal. I cannot of course always, or even often, vouch for the ipsissima verba; and some few explanatory sentences I have been obliged to add. But the substance of the dialogues is faithfully given. I need not say, that they refer only to subjects of a theological and polemical nature.
I hardly know how the conversation took the turn it did on the present occasion; but I think it was from Mr. Fellowes's noticing Harrington's pale looks, and conjecturing all sorts of reasons for his occasional lapses into melancholy.
His friend hoped this and hoped that, as usual.
Harrington at last, seeing his curiosity awakened, and that he would go on conjecturing all sorts of things, said, "To terminate your suspense, be it known to that I am a bankrupt!"
"A bankrupt!" said the other, with evident alarm; "you surely have not been so unwise as to risk recently acquired property, or to speculate in——"
"You have hit it," said Harrington; "I have speculated far more deeply than you suppose."
The countenance of his friend lengthened visibly.
"Be not alarmed." resumed Harrington, with a smile; "I mean that I have speculated a good deal in—philosophy, and when I said I was a bankrupt, I meant only that I was a bankrupt—in faith; having become in fact, since I saw you last, thoroughly sceptical."
The countenance of Fellowes contracted to its proper dimensions. He looked even cheerful to find that his friend had merely lost his faith, and not his fortune.
"Is that all?" said he, "I am heartily glad to hear it. Sceptic! No, no; you must not be a sceptic either, except for a time," continued he, musing very sagely. "It is no bad thing for a while: for it at least leaves the house 'empty, swept and garnished.'"
"Rather an unhappy application of your remnant of Biblical knowledge," said Harrington; "I hope you do not intend to go on with the text."
"No, no, my dear friend; I warrant you we shall find you worthier guests than any such fragments of supposed revelation. If you are in 'search of a religion,' how happy should I be to aid you!"
"I shall be infinitely obliged to you," said Harrington, gravely; "for at present I do not know that I possess a farthing's worth of solid gold in the world. Ah! that it were but in your power to lend me some: but I fear" (he added half sarcastically) "that you have not got more than enough for yourself. I assure you that I am far from happy."
He spoke with so much gravity, that I hardly knew whether to attribute it to some intention of dissembling a little with his friend, or to an involuntary expression of the experience of a mind that felt the sorrows of a genuine scepticism. It might be both.
However, it brought things to a crisis at once. His college friend looked equally surprised and pleased at his appeal.
"I trust," said he, with becoming solemnity, "that all this is merely a temporary reaction from having believed too much; the languor and dejection which attend the morrow after a night's debauch. I assure you that I rejoice rather than grieve to hear that you have curtailed your orthodoxy. It has been just my own case, as you know: only I flatter myself, that, perhaps having less subtilty than you, I have not passed the 'golden mean' between superstition and scepticism,—between believing too much and believing too little."
I looked up for a moment. I saw a laugh in Harrington's eyes, but not a feature moved. It passed away immediately.
"I tell you," said he, "that I believe absolutely no one religious dogma whatever; while yet I would give worlds, if I had them, to set my foot upon a rock. I should even be grateful to any one, who, if he did not give me truth, gave me a phantom of it, which I could mistake for reality." He again spoke with an earnestness of tone and manner, which convinced me that, if there were any dissimulation, it cost him little trouble.
"If you merely meant," said Fellowes, "that you do not retain any vestige of your early 'historical' and 'dogmatical' Christianity, why, I retain just as little of it. Indeed, I doubt," he continued, with perhaps superfluous candor, "whether I ever was a Christian"; and he seemed rather anxious to show that his creed had been nominal.
"If it will save you the trouble of proving it." said Harrington, "I will liberally grant you both your premises and your conclusion, without asking you to state the one or prove the other."
"Well, then, Christian or no Christian. there was a time, at all events, when I was orthodox, you will grant that; when I should hate been willing to sign the Thirty-nine Articles: or three hundred and thirty-nine; or the Confession of Faith: or any other compilation, or all others; though perhaps, if strictly examined, I might have been found in the condition of the infidel Scotch professor, who, being asked on his appointment to his Chair, whether the 'Confession of Faith' contained all that he believed, replied, 'Yes, Gentlemen, and a great deal more.' I have rejected all 'creeds'; and I have now found what the Scripture calls that 'peace which passeth all understanding.'"
"I am sure it passes mine," said Harrington, "if you really have found it, and I should be much obliged to you if you would let me participate in the discovery."
"Yes," said Fellowes, "I have been delivered from the intolerable burden of all discussions as to dogma, and all examinations of evidence. I have escaped from the 'bondage of the letter,' and have been Introduced into the 'liberty of the spirit.'"
"Your language, at all events, is richly Scriptural," said Harrington; "it is as though you were determined not to leave the 'letter' of the Scripture, even if you renounce the 'spirit' of it."
"Renounce the spirit of it! say rather, that in fact I have only now discovered it. Though no Christian in the ordinary sense, I am, I hope, something better; and a truer Christian in the spirit than thousands of those in the letter."
"Letter and spirit! my friend," said Harrington, "you puzzle me exceedingly; you tell me one moment that you do not believe in historical Christianity at all, either its miracles or dogmas,—these are fables; but in the next, why, no old Puritan could garnish such discourse with a more edifying use of the language of Scripture. I suppose you will next tell me that you understand the 'spirit' of Christianity better even than Paul."
"So I do," said our visitor complacently, "'Paulo majora canamus'; for after all he was but half delivered from his Jewish prejudices; and when he quitted nonsense of the Old Testament,—though in fact he never did thoroughly,—he evidently believed the fables of the New just as much as the pure truths which lie at the basis of 'spiritual' Christianity. We separate the dross of Christianity from its fine gold. 'The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life,'—'the fruit of the spirit is joy, peace,' not—-"
"Upon my word," said Harrington, laughing, "I shall begin to fancy presently that Douce Davie Deans has turned infidel, and shall expect to hear of 'right-hand failings off and left-hand defections.' But tell me, if you would have me think you rational, is not your meaning this:—that the New Testament contains, amidst an infinity of rubbish, the statement of certain 'spiritual' truths which, and which alone, you recognize."
"But you do not acknowledge that these are derived from the New Testament."
"Heaven forbid; they are indigenous to the heart of man, and are anterior to all Testaments, old or new."
"Very well; then speak of them as your heart dictates, and do not, unless you would have the world think you a hypocrite, willing to cajole it with the idea that you are a believer in the New Testament, while you in fact reject it, or one of the most barren uninventive of all human beings, or fanatically fond of mystical language,—do not, I say, affect this very unctuous way of talking. And, for another reason, do not. I beseech you, adopt the phraseology of men who, according to your view, must surely have been either the most miserable fanatics or the most abominable impostors; for if they believed all that system of miracle and doctrine they professed, and this were not true, they were certainly the first; and if they did not believe it. They were as certainly the second."
"Pardon me; I believe them to have been eminently holy men,—full of spiritual wisdom and of a truly sublime faith, though conjoined with much ignorance and credulity, which it is unworthy of us to tolerate."
"Whether it could be ignorance and credulity on your theory," retorted Harrington, "is to my mind very doubtful. Whether any men can untruly affirm that they saw and did the things the Apostles say they saw and did, and yet be sincere fanatics, I know not; but even were it so, since it shows (as do also the mystical doctrines you reject as false) that they could be little less than out of their senses; and as you further say that the spiritual sentiments you retain in common with them were no gift of theirs, but are yours and all mankind's, by original inheritance, uttered by the oracle of the human heart before any Testaments were written,—why, speak your thoughts in your own language."
"Ay, but how do we know that these original Christians said that they had seen and done the things you refer to? which of course they never did see and do, because they were miraculous. How do we know what additions and corruptions as to fact, and what disguises of mystical doctrine, 'the idealizing biographers and historians' (as Strauss truly calls them) may have accumulated upon their simple utterances?"
"And how do you know, then, whether they ever uttered these simple 'utterances'? or whether they are not part of the corruptions? or how can you separate the one from the other? or how can you ascertain these men meant what you mean, when you thus vilely copy their language?"
"Because I know these truths independently of Bible, to be sure."
"Then speak of them independently of the Bible. If you profess to have broken the stereotype-plates of the 'old revelation' and delivered mankind from their bondage, do not proceed to express yourself only in fragments from them; if you profess freedom of soul, and the possession of the pure truth, do not appear to be so poverty-stricken as to array your thoughts in the tatters of the cast-off Bible."
"Ay, but the 'saints' of the Bible," replied Fellows, "are, even by Mr. Frank Newman's own confession, those who have entered, after all, most profoundly the truths of spiritual religion, and stand almost alone in the history of the world in that respect."
"If it be so, it is certainly very odd, considering the mountain-loads of folly, error, fable, fiction, from which their spiritual religion did not in your esteem defend them, and which you say you are obliged to reject. It is a phenomenon of which, I think, you are bound to give some account."
"But what is there so wonderful in supposing them in possession of superior 'spiritual' advantages, with mistaken history and fallacious logic, and so forth?"
"Why" answered Harrington, "one wonder is, that they alone, and amidst such gross errors, should possess these spiritual advantages. But it also appears to me that your notions of the 'spiritual' are not the same theirs, for you reject the New Testament dogmas as well as its history; if so, it is another reason for not misleading us by using language in deceptive senses. But, at all events, I cannot help pitying your poverty of thought, or poverty of expression,—one or both; and I beg you, for my sake, if not for your own, to express your thoughts as much as possible in your own terms, and avail yourself less liberally of those of David and Paul, whose language ordinary Christians will always associate with another meaning, and can never believe you sincere in supposing that it rightfully expresses the doctrines of your most; spiritual' infidelity. They will certainly hear your Scriptural and devout language with the same feelings with which they would nauseate that most oppressive of all odors, —the faint scent of lavender in the chamber of death. My good uncle here, who cannot be prevailed upon to reject the Bible will not, I am sure, hear you, without supposing that you resemble those Rationalists of whom Menzel says, 'These gentlemen smilingly taught their theological pupils that unbelief was the true apostolic, primitive Christian belief; they put all their insipidities into Christ's month, and made him, by means of their exegetical jugglery, sometimes a Kantian, sometimes a Hegelian, sometimes one ian and sometimes another, 'wie es dem Herrn Professor beliebt': neither will he be able to imagine that you are not resorting to this artifice for the same purpose. 'The Bible,' says Menzel, 'and their Reason being incompatible, why do they not let them remain separate? Why insist on harmonizing things which do not, and never can harmonize? It is because they are aware that the Bible has authority with the people; otherwise they would never trouble themselves about so troublesome a book.' I cannot suspect you of such hypocrisy; but I must confess I regard your language as cant. As I listen to you I seem to see a hybrid between Prynne and Voltaire. So far from its being true that you have renounced the 'letter' of the Bible and retained its 'spirit,' I think it would be much more correct to say, comparing your infidel hypothesis with your most spiritual dialect, that you have renounced the 'spirit' of the Bible and retained its 'letter.'"
"But are you in a condition to give an opinion?" said Fellowes, with a serious air. "Mr. Newman says in a like case, 'The natural man discerneth not things of the spirit of God, because they are foolishness unto him'; it is the 'spiritual man only who search the deep things of God.' At the same time I freely acknowledge that I never could see my way clear to employ an argument which looks so arrogant; and the less, as I believe, with Mr. Parker, that the only revelation is in all men alike. Yet, on the other hand, I cannot doubt my own consciousness."
"Why, no man doubts his own consciousness," said Harrington, laughing. "The question is, What is its value? What is the criterion of universal 'spiritual truth,' if there be any? Those words in Paul's mouth were well, and had a meaning. In yours, I suspect they would have none, or a very different one. He dreamt that he was giving to mankind (vainly, as seems) a system of doctrines and truths which were, many of them, transcendental to the human intellect and conscience, and which when revealed were very distasteful (and not least to you); but the assertion of a spiritual monopoly would assuredly sound rather odd in one who professes, if I understand you, that has given to man (for it is no discovery of any individual) an internal and universal revelation! But of your possible limitations of your universal spiritual revelation,—which all men 'naturally' possess, but which the 'natural man' receiveth not,—we will talk after. Sceptic as I am, I am not a sceptic who is reconciled to scepticism. Meantime, you reject the Bible in toto, as an external revelation of God, if I understand you."
"In toto; and I believe that it has received in this age its death-blow."
"Ay, that is what the infidel has been always promising us; meantime, they somehow perish, and it laughs at them. You remember, perhaps, the words of old Woolston, so many fragments of whose criticism, as those of many others, have been incorporated by Strauss. He had, as he elegantly expresses it, 'cut out such a piece of work for the Boylean lectures as should hold them tug as long as the ministry of the letter should last'; for he too, you see, masked his infidelity by a distinction between the 'letter' and the 'spirit,' though he applied the convenient terms in a totally different sense. Poor soul! The fundamental principles of his infidelity are surrendered by Strauss himself. Similarly, a score of assailants of the Bible have appeared and vanished since his day; each proclaiming, just as he himself went to the bottom, that he had given the Bible its death-blow! Somehow, however, that singular book continues to flourish, to Propagate itself, to speak all languages, to intermingle more and more with the literature of all civilized nations; while mankind will not accept, slaves as they are, the intellectual freedom you offer them. It is really very provoking; of what use is it to destroy the Bible so often, when it lives the next minute? I have little doubt your new attempts will end just like the labors of the Rationalists of the Paulus school, so graphically described by the German writer whom I have already referred to. 'It is sad, no doubt,' says he, or something to the same effect, 'that, after fifty years' exegetical grubbing, weeding, and pruning at 'the mighty primitive forest of the Bible, the next generation should persist in saying that the Rationalist had destroyed the forest only in his own addled imagination, and that it is just as it was.'"
"Yes; but the new weapons will not be so easily evaded as those of a past age."
"Will they not? We shall see. You must not prophesy; in that, you know, you do not believe."
"No; but nevertheless we shall see so-called sacred dogma and history exploded, for Mr. Newman—"
"Thinks so, of course; and he must be right, because he has never been known to be wrong in any of his judgments, or even to vary in them. But we have had enough, I think, of these subjects this evening, and it is too bad to give you only a controversial welcome. I want to have some conversation with you about very different things, and more pleasant just now. We shall have plenty of opportunity to discuss theological points."
To this Fellowes assented: they resumed general conversation, and I finished my letters.
July 3. We were all sitting, as on the previous day, in the library.
"Book-faith!" I heard Harrington say, laughing; "why, as to that I must needs acknowledge that the whole school of Deism, 'rational' or 'spiritual,' have the least reason in the world to indulge in sneers at book-faith; for, upon my word, their faith has consisted in little else. Their systems are parchment religions, my friend, all of them;—books, books, for ever, from Lord Herbert's time downwards, are all they have yet given to the world. They have ever been boastful and loud-tongued, but have done nothing; there are no great social efforts, no organizations, no practical projects, whether successful or futile, to which they can point. The old 'book-faiths' which you venture to ridicule have been something at all events; and, in truth, I can find no other 'faith' than what is somehow or other attached to a 'book,' which has been any thing influential. The Vedas, the Koran, the Old Testament Scriptures,— those of the New,—over how many millions have these all reigned! Whether their supremacy be right or wrong, their doctrine true or false, is another question; but your faith, which has been book-faith and lip-service par excellence, has done nothing that I can discover. One after another of your infidel Reformers passes away, and leaves no trace behind, except a quantity of crumbling 'book-faith.' You have always been just on the eve of extinguishing supernatural fables, dogmas, and superstitions,—and then regenerating the world! Alas! the meanest superstition that crawls laughs at you; and, false as it may be, is still stronger than you."