An inevitable revolution, of which we all recognize the beginnings and signs, but which has already spread, perhaps, farther than most of us think, is befalling the religion in which we have been brought up. In those countries where religion has been most loved, this revolution will be felt the most keenly; felt through all its stages and in all its incidents. In no country will it be more felt than in England. This cannot be otherwise. It cannot be but that the revolution should come, and that it should be here felt passionately, profoundly, painfully. In regard to it, however, there is incumbent on every one the utmost duty of considerateness and caution. There can be no surer proof of a narrow and ill-instructed mind, than to think and uphold that what a man takes to be the truth on religious matters is always to be proclaimed. Our truth on these matters, and likewise the error of others, is something so relative, that the good or harm likely to be done by speaking ought always to be taken into account. 'I keep silence at many things,' says Goethe, 'for I would not mislead men, and am well content if others can find satisfaction in what gives me offence.' The man who believes that his truth on religious matters is so absolutely the truth, that say it when, and where, and to whom he will, he cannot but do good with it, is in our day almost always a man whose truth is half blunder, and wholly useless.
To be convinced, therefore, that our current theology is false, is not necessarily a reason for publishing that conviction. The theology may be false, and yet one may do more harm in attacking it than by keeping silence and waiting. To judge rightly the time and its conditions is the great thing; there is a time, as the Preacher says, to speak, and a time to keep silence. If the present time is a time to speak, there must be a reason why it is so.
And there is a reason; and it is this. Clergymen and ministers of religion are full of lamentations over what they call the spread of skepticism, and because of the little hold which religion now has on the masses of the people,—the lapsed masses, as some call them. Practical hold on them it never, perhaps, had very much, but they did not question its truth, and they held it in considerable awe. As the best of them raised themselves up out of a merely animal life, religion attracted and engaged them. But now they seem to have hardly any awe of it at all, and they freely question its truth. And many of the most successful, energetic, and ingenious of the artisan class, who are steady and rise, are now found either of themselves rejecting the Bible altogether, or following teachers who tell them that the Bible is an exploded superstition. Let me quote from the letter of a working-man,—a man, himself, of no common intelligence and temper,—a passage that sets this forth very clearly. 'Despite the efforts of the churches,' he says, 'the speculations of the day are working their way down among the people, many of whom are asking for the reason and authority for the things they have been taught to believe. Questions of this kind, too, mostly reach them through doubtful channels; and owing to this, and to their lack of culture, a discovery of imperfection and fallibility in the Bible leads to its contemptuous rejection as a great priestly imposture. And thus those among the working class, who eschew the teachings of the orthodox, slide off towards, not the late Mr. Maurice, nor yet Professor Huxley, but towards Mr. Bradlaugh.'
Despite the efforts of the churches, the writer tells us, this contemptuous rejection of the Bible happens. And we regret the rejection as much as the clergy and ministers of religion do. There may be others who do not regret it, but we do. All that the churches can say about the importance of the Bible and its religion, we concur in. And it is the religion of the Bible that is professedly in question with all the churches, when they talk of religion and lament its prospects. With Catholics as well as Protestants, and with all the sects of Protestantism, this is so; and from the nature of the case it must be so. What the religion of the Bible is, how it is to be got at, they may not agree; but that it is the religion of the Bible for which they contend, they all aver. 'The Bible,' says Cardinal Newman, 'is the record of the whole revealed faith; so far all parties agree.' Now, this religion of the Bible we say they cannot value more than we do. If we hesitate to adopt strictly their language about its all-importance, that is only because we take an uncommonly large view of human perfection, and say, speaking strictly, that there go to this certain things,—art, for instance, and science,—which the Bible hardly meddles with. The difference between us and them, however, is more a difference of theoretical statement than of practical conclusion. Speaking practically, and looking at the very large part of human life engaged by the Bible, at the comparatively small part unengaged by it, we are quite willing, like the churches, to call the Bible and its religion all-important.
All this agreement there is, both in words and in things, between us and the churches. And yet, when we behold the clergy and ministers of religion lament the neglect of religion and aspire to restore it, how must we feel that to restore religion as they understand it, to re-inthrone the Bible as explained by our current theology, whether learned or popular, is absolutely and for ever impossible!—as impossible as to restore the feudal system, or the belief in witches. Let us admit that the Bible cannot possibly die; but then the churches cannot even conceive the Bible without the gloss which they at present put upon it, and this gloss, as certainly, cannot possibly live. And it is not a gloss which one church or one sect puts upon the Bible and another does not; it is the gloss they all put upon it, calling it the substratum of belief common to all Christian churches, and largely shared with them even by natural religion. It is this so-called axiomatic basis which must go, and it supports all the rest. If the Bible were really inseparable from this and depended upon it, then Mr. Bradlaugh would have his way and the Bible would go too; since this basis is inevitably doomed. For whatever is to stand must rest upon something which is verifiable, not unverifiable. Now, the assumption with which all the churches and sects set out, that there is 'a Great Personal First Cause, the moral and intelligent Governor of the universe,' and that from him the Bible derives its authority, cannot at present, at any rate, be verified.
Those who 'ask for the reason and authority for the things they have been taught to believe,' as the people, we are told, are now doing, will begin at the beginning. Rude and hard reasoners as they are, they will never consent to admit, as a self-evident axiom, the preliminary assumption with which the churches start. But this preliminary assumption governs everything which in our current theology follows it; and it is certain, therefore, that the people will not receive our current theology. So, if they are to receive the Bible, we must find for the Bible some other basis than that which the churches assign to it, a verifiable basis and not an assumption; and this, again, will govern everything which comes after. This new religion of the Bible the people may receive; the version now current of the religion of the Bible they never will receive.
Here, then, is the problem: to find, for the Bible, for Christianity, for our religion, a basis in something which can be verified, instead of in something which has to be assumed. So true and prophetic are Vinet's words: 'We must,' he said, make it our business to bring forward the rational side of Christianity, and to show that for thinkers, too, it has a right to be an authority.' Yes, and the problem we have stated must be the first stage in the business. With this unsolved, all other religious discussion is idle trifling.
This is why Dissent, as a religious movement of our day, would be almost droll, if it were not, from the tempers and actions it excites, so extremely irreligious. But what is to be said for men, aspiring to deal with the cause of religion, who either cannot see that what the people now require is a religion of the Bible quite different from that which any of the churches or sects supply; or who, seeing this, spend their energies in fiercely battling as to whether the Church should be a national institution or no? The question, at the present juncture, is in itself so absolutely unimportant! The thing is, to recast religion. If this is done, the new religion will be the national one; if it is not done, the separating the nation, in its collective and corporate character, from religion, will not do it. It is as if men's minds were much unsettled about mineralogy, and the teachers of it were at variance, and no teacher was convincing, and many people, therefore, were disposed to throw the study of mineralogy overboard altogether. What would naturally be the first business for every friend of the study? Surely, to establish on safe grounds the value of the study, and to put its claims in a new light where they could no longer be denied. But if he acted as our Dissenters act in religion, what would he do? Give himself, heart and soul, to a furious crusade against keeping the Government School of Mines!
Meanwhile, however, there is now an end to all fear of doing harm by gainsaying the received theology of the churches and sects. For this theology is itself now a hindrance to the Bible rather than a help. Nay, to abandon it, to put some other construction on the Bible than this theology puts, to find some other basis for the Bible than this theology finds, is indispensable, if we would have the Bible reach the people. And this is the aim of the following essay: to show that, when we come to put the right construction on the Bible, we give to the Bible a real experimental basis, and keep on this basis throughout; instead of any basis of unverifiable assumption to start with, followed by a string of other unverifiable assumptions of the like kind, such as the received theology necessitates.
And this aim we cannot seek without coming in sight of another aim too, which we have often and often pointed out, and tried to recommend: culture, the acquainting ourselves with the best that has been known and said in the world, and thus with the history of the human spirit. One cannot go far in the attempt to bring in, for the Bible, a right construction, without seeing how necessary is something of culture to its being admitted and used. The correspondent whom we have above quoted notices how the lack of culture disposes the masses to conclude at once, from any imperfection or fallibility in the Bible, that it is a priestly imposture. To a certain extent this is the fault, not of the people's want of culture, but of the priests and theologians themselves, who for centuries have kept assuring men that perfect and infallible the Bible is. Still, even without this confusion added by his theological instructors, the homo unius libri, the man of no range in his reading, must almost inevitably misunderstand the Bible, cannot treat it largely enough, must be inclined to treat it all alike, and to press every word.
For, on the one hand, he has not enough experience of the way in which men have thought and spoken, to feel what the Bible-writers are about; to read between the lines, to discern where he ought to rest with his whole weight, and where he ought to pass lightly. On the other hand, the void and hunger in his mind, from want of aliment, almost irresistibly impels him to fill it by taking literally, and amplifying, certain data which he finds in the Bible, whether they ought to be so dealt with or no. Our mechanical and materializing theology, with its insane license of affirmation about God, its insane license of affirmation about a future state, is really the result of the poverty and inanition of our minds. It is because we cannot trace God in history that we stay the craving of our minds with a fancy-account of him, made up by putting scattered expressions of the Bible together, and taking them literally; it is because we have such a scanty sense of the life of humanity, that we proceed in the like manner in our scheme of a future state. He that cannot watch the God of the Bible, and the salvation of the Bible, gradually and on an immense scale discovering themselves and becoming, will insist on seeing them ready-made, and in such precise and reduced dimensions as may suit his narrow mind.
To understand that the language of the Bible is fluid, passing, and literary, not rigid, fixed, and scientific, is the first step towards a right understanding of the Bible. But to take this very first step, some experience of how men have thought and expressed themselves, and some flexibility of spirit, are necessary; and this is culture. Much fruit may be got out of the Bible without it, and with those narrow and materialized schemes of God and of a future state which we have mentioned; that we do not deny, but it is not the important point at present. The important point is, that the diffusion everywhere of some notion of the processes of the experimental sciences, processes falling in, too, very well with the hard and positive character of the life of 'the people,'—the point is that this diffusion does lead 'the people' to ask for the ground and authority for those precise schemes of God and a future state which are presented to them, and to see clearly and scornfully the failure to give it. The failure to give it is inevitable, because given it cannot be; but whereas in the training, life, and sentiment of the well-to-do classes there is much to make them disguise the failure to themselves and not insist upon it, in the training, life, and sentiment of the people there is next to nothing. So that, as far as the people are concerned, the old traditional scheme of the Bible is gone; while neither they nor the so-called educated classes have yet anything to put in its place.
And thus we come back to our old remedy of culture,—knowing the best that has been thought and known in the world; which turns out to be, in another shape, and in particular relation to the Bible, getting the power, through reading, to estimate the proportion and relation in what we read. If we read but a very little, we naturally want to press it all; if we read a great deal, we are willing not to press the whole of what we read, and we learn what ought to be pressed and what not. Now this is really the very foundation of any sane criticism.
We can hardly urge this topic too much, of so great a practical importance is it, and above all at the present time. To be able to control what one reads by means of the discriminative tact coming, in a clear and fair mind, from a wide experience, was never perhaps so necessary as in the England of our own day, and in theology, and in what concerns the Bible itself.
And to our popular religion it is especially difficult; because we have been trained to regard the Bible, not as a book whose parts have varying degrees of value, but as the Jews came to regard their Scriptures, as a sort of talisman given down to us out of Heaven, with all its parts equipollent. And yet there was a time when Jews knew well the vast difference there is between books like Esther, Chronicles, or Daniel, and books like Genesis or Isaiah. There was a time when Christians knew well the vast difference between the First Epistle of Peter and his so-called Second Epistle, or between the Epistle to the Hebrews and the Epistles to the Romans and to the Corinthians. This, indeed, is what makes the religious watchword of the British and Foreign School Society: The Bible, the whole Bible, and nothing but the Bible! so ingeniously (one must say) absurd; it is treating the Bible as Mahometans treat the Koran, as if it were a talisman all of one piece, and with all its sentences equipollent.
Yet the very expressions, Canon of Scripture, Canonical Books, recall a time when degrees of value were still felt, and all parts of the Bible did not stand on the same footing, and were not taken equally. There was a time when books were read as part of the Bible which are in no Bible now; there was a time when books which are in every Bible now, were by many disallowed as genuine parts of the Bible. St. Athanasius rejected the Book of Esther, and the Greek Christianity of the East repelled the Apocalypse, and the Latin Christianity of the West repelled the Epistle to the Hebrews. And a true critical sense of relative value lay at the bottom of all these rejections. No one rejected Isaiah or the Epistle to the Romans. The books rejected were such books as those which we now print as the Apocrypha, or as the Book of Esther, or the Epistle to the Hebrews, or the so-called Epistle of Jude, or the so-called Second Epistle of St. Peter, or the two short Epistles following the main Epistle attributed to St. John, or the Apocalypse.
Now, whatever value one may assign to these works, no sound critic would rate their intrinsic worth as high as that of the great undisputed books of the Bible. And so far from their finally getting where they now are after a thorough trial of their claims, and with indisputable propriety, they got placed there by the force of circumstances, by chance or by routine, rather than on their merits. Indeed, by merit alone the Book of Esther could have no right at all to be now in our Canon while Ecclesiasticus is not, nor the Epistle of Jude and the Second Epistle of Peter rather than the First Epistle of Clement. But the whole discussion died out, not because the matter was sifted and settled and a perfect Canon of Scripture deliberately formed; it died out as mediæval ignorance deepened, and because there was no longer knowledge or criticism enough left in the world to keep such a discussion alive.
And so things went on till the Renascence, when criticism came to life again. But the Church had now long since adopted the Vulgate, and her authority was concerned in maintaining what she had adopted. Luther and Calvin, on the other hand, recurred to the old true notion of a difference in rank and genuineness among the Bible books. For they both of them insisted on the criterion of internal evidence for Scripture: 'the witness of the Spirit.' How freely Luther used this criterion, we may see by reading in the old editions of his Bible his prefaces, which in succeeding editions have long ceased to appear. Whether he used it aright we will not now inquire, but he used it freely. Taunted, however, by Rome with their divisions, their want of a fixed authority like the Church, Protestants were driven to make the Bible this fixed authority; and so the Bible came to be regarded as a thing all of a piece, endued with talismanic virtues. It came to be regarded as something different from anything it had originally ever been, or primitive times had ever imagined it to be. And Protestants did practically in this way use the Bible more irrationally than Rome practically ever used it; for Rome had her hypothesis of the Church Catholic endued with talismanic virtues, and did not want a talismanic Bible too. All this perversion has made a discriminating use of the Bible-documents very difficult in our country; yet without it a sound criticism of the Bible is impossible; and even, as we say, the very word Canon, the Canon of Scripture, points to such a use.
But, indeed, there is hardly any great thing perverted by men, which does not in some sort thus indicate its own perversion. The idea of the infallible Church Catholic itself, as I have elsewhere said, is an idea the most fatal of all possible ideas to the concrete, so-called infallible Church of Rome, such as we now see it. The infallible Church Catholic is, really, the prophetic soul of the wide world dreaming of things to come; the whole human race, in its onward progress, discovering truth more complete than the parcel of truth any momentary individual can seize. Nay, and it is with the Pope himself as with the Church Catholic That amiable old pessimist in St. Peter's Chair, whose allocutions we read and call them impotent and vain,—the Pope himself is, in his idea, the very Time-Spirit taking flesh, the incarnate 'Zeit-Geist.' O man, how true are thine instincts, how over-hasty thine interpretations of them!
But to return. Difficult, certainly, is the right reading of the Bible, and true culture, too, is difficult. For true culture implies not only knowledge, but right tact and justness of judgment, forming themselves by and with knowledge; without this tact, it is not true culture. Difficult, however, as true culture is, it is necessary. For, after all, the Bible is not a talisman, to be taken and used literally; neither is any existing Church a talisman, whatever pretensions of the sort it may make, for giving the right interpretation of the Bible. Only true culture can give us this interpretation; so that if conduct is, as it is, inextricably bound up with the Bible and the right interpretation of it, then the importance of culture becomes unspeakable. For if conduct is necessary (and there is nothing so necessary), culture is necessary.
And the poor require it as much as the rich; and at present their education, even when they get education, gives them hardly anything of it. Yet hardly less of it, perhaps, than the education of the rich gives to the rich. For when we say that culture is, To know the lest that has been thought and said in the world, we imply that, for culture, a system directly tending to this end is necessary in our reading. Now, there is no such system yet present to guide the reading of the rich, any more than of the poor. Such a system is hardly even thought of; a man who wants it must make it for himself. And our reading being so without purpose as it is, nothing can be truer than what Butler says, that really, in general, no part of our time is more idly spent than the time spent in reading.
Still, culture is indispensably necessary, and culture is reading; but reading with a purpose to guide it, and with system. He does a good work who does anything to help this; indeed, it is the one essential service now to be rendered to education. And the plea, that this or that man has no time for culture, will vanish as soon as we desire culture so much that we begin to examine seriously our present use of our time. It has often been said, and cannot be said too often: Give to any man all the time that he now wastes, not only on his vices (when he has them), but on useless business, wearisome or deteriorating amusements, trivial letter-writing, random reading; and he will have plenty of time for culture. 'Die Zeit ist unendlich lang,' says Goethe; and so it really is. Some of us waste all of it, most of us waste much, but all of us waste some.
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More from Matthew Arnold
- English poet and cultural critic
- Born on December 24th, 1822 and died on April 15th, 1888