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   Chapter 2 No.2

The Fair Haven By Samuel Butler Characters: 29955

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05


But it was impossible that a mind of such activity should have gone over so much ground, and yet in the end returned to the same position as that from which it started.

So far was this from being the case that the Christianity of his maturer life would be considered dangerously heterodox by those who belong to any of the more definite or precise schools of theological thought. He was as one who has made the circuit of a mountain, and yet been ascending during the whole time of his doing so: such a person finds himself upon the same side as at first, but upon a greatly higher level. The peaks which had seemed the most important when he was in the valley were now dwarfed to their true proportions by colossal cloud-capped masses whose very existence could not have been suspected from beneath: and again, other points which had seemed among the lowest turned out to be the very highest of all-as the Finster-Aarhorn, which hides itself away in the centre of the Bernese Alps, is never seen to be the greatest till one is high and far off.

Thus he felt no sort of fear or repugnance in admitting that the New Testament writings, as we now have them, are not by any means accurate records of the events which they profess to chronicle. This, which few English Churchmen would be prepared to admit, was to him so much of an axiom that he despaired of seeing any sound theological structure raised until it was universally recognised.

And here he would probably meet with sympathy from the more advanced thinkers within the body of the Church, but so far as I know, he stood alone as recognising the wisdom of the Divine counsels in having ordained the wide and apparently irreconcilable divergencies of doctrine and character which we find assigned to Christ in the Gospels, and as finding his faith confirmed, not by the supposition that both the portraits drawn of Christ are objectively true, but that both are objectively inaccurate, and that the Almighty intended they should be inaccurate, inasmuch as the true spiritual conception in the mind of man could be indirectly more certainly engendered by a strife, a warring, a clashing, so to speak, of versions, all of them distorting slightly some one or other of the features of the original, than directly by the most absolutely correct impression which human language could convey. Even the most perfect human speech, as has been often pointed out, is a very gross and imperfect vehicle of thought. I remember once hearing him say that it was not till he was nearly thirty that he discovered "what thick and sticky fluids were air and water," how crass and dull in comparison with other more subtle fluids; he added that speech had no less deceived him, seeming, as it did, to be such a perfect messenger of thought, and being after all nothing but a shuffler and a loiterer.

With most men the Gospels are true in spite of their discrepancies and inconsistencies; with him Christianity, as distinguished from a bare belief in the objectively historical character of each part of the Gospels, was true because of these very discrepancies; as his conceptions of the Divine manner of working became wider, the very forces which had at one time shaken his faith to its foundations established it anew upon a firmer and broader base. He was gradually led to feel that the ideal presented by the life and death of our Saviour could never have been accepted by Jews at all, if its whole purport had been made intelligible during the Redeemer's life-time; that in order to insure its acceptance by a nucleus of followers it must have been endowed with a more local aspect than it was intended afterwards to wear; yet that, for the sake of its subsequent universal value, the destruction of that local complexion was indispensable; that the corruptions inseparable from viva voce communication and imperfect education were the means adopted by the Creator to blur the details of the ideal, and give it that breadth which could not be otherwise obtainable-and that thus the value of the ideal was indefinitely enhanced, and designedly enhanced, alike by the waste of time and by its incrustations; that all ideals gain by a certain amount of vagueness, which allows the beholder to fill in the details according to his own spiritual needs, and that no ideal can be truly universal and permanents unless it have an elasticity which will allow of this process in the minds of those who contemplate it; that it cannot become thus elastic unless by the loss of no inconsiderable amount of detail, and that thus the half, as Dr. Arnold used to say, "becomes greater than the whole," the sketch more preciously suggestive than the photograph. Hence far from deploring the fragmentary, confused, and contradictory condition of the Gospel records, he saw in this condition the means whereby alone the human mind could have been enabled to conceive-not the precise nature of Christ-but the highest ideal of which each individual Christian soul was capable. As soon as he had grasped these conceptions, which will be found more fully developed in one of the later chapters of his book, the spell of unbelief was broken.

But, once broken, it was dissolved utterly and entirely; he could allow himself to contemplate fearlessly all sorts of issues from which one whose experiences had been less varied would have shrunk. He was free of the enemy's camp, and could go hither and thither whithersoever he would. The very points which to others were insuperable difficulties were to him foundation-stones of faith. For example, to the objection that if in the present state of the records no clear conception of the nature of Christ's life and teaching could be formed, we should be compelled to take one for our model of whom we knew little or nothing certain, I have heard him answer, "And so much the better for us all. The truth, if read by the light of man's imperfect understanding, would have been falser to him than any falsehood. It would have been truth no longer. Better be led aright by an error which is so adjusted as to compensate for the errors in man's powers of understanding, than be misled by a truth which can never be translated from objectivity to subjectivity. In such a case, it is the error which is the truth and the truth the error."

Fearless himself, he could not understand the fears felt by others; and this was perhaps his greatest sympathetic weakness. He was impatient of the subterfuges with which untenable interpretations of Scripture were defended, and of the disingenuousness of certain harmonists; indeed, the mention of the word harmony was enough to kindle an outbreak of righteous anger, which would sometimes go to the utmost limit of righteousness. "Harmonies!" he would exclaim, "the sweetest harmonies are those which are most full of discords, and the discords of one generation of musicians become heavenly music in the hands of their successors. Which of the great musicians has not enriched his art not only by the discovery of new harmonies, but by proving that sounds which are actually inharmonious are nevertheless essentially and eternally delightful? What an outcry has there not always been against the 'unwarrantable licence' with the rules of harmony whenever a Beethoven or a Mozart has broken through any of the trammels which have been regarded as the safeguards of the art, instead of in their true light of fetters, and how gratefully have succeeding musicians acquiesced in and adopted the innovation." Then would follow a tirade with illustration upon illustration, comparison of this passage with that, and an exhaustive demonstration that one or other, or both, could have had no sort of possible foundation in fact; he could only see that the persons from whom he differed were defending something which was untrue and which they ought to have known to be untrue, but he could not see that people ought to know many things which they do not know.

Had he himself seen all that he ought to have been able to see from his own standpoints? Can any of us do so? The force of early bias and education, the force of intellectual surroundings, the force of natural timidity, the force of dulness, were things which he could appreciate and make allowance for in any other age, and among any other people than his own; but as belonging to England and the Nineteenth Century they had no place in his theory of Nature; they were inconceivable, unnatural, unpardonable, whenever they came into contact with the subject of Christian evidences. Deplorable, indeed, they are, but this was just the sort of word to which he could not confine himself. The criticisms upon the late Dean Alford's notes, which will be given in the sequel, display this sort of temper; they are not entirely his own, but he adopted them and endorsed them with a warmth which we cannot but feel to be unnecessary, not to say more. Yet I am free to confess that whatever editorial licence I could venture to take has been taken in the direction of lenity.

On the whole, however, he valued Dean Alford's work very highly, giving him great praise for the candour with which he not unfrequently set the harmonists aside. For example, in his notes upon the discrepancies between St. Luke's and St. Matthew's accounts of the early life of our Lord, the Dean openly avows that it is quite beyond his purpose to attempt to reconcile the two. "This part of the Gospel history," he writes, "is one where the harmonists, by their arbitrary reconcilement of the two accounts, have given great advantage to the enemies of the faith. As the two accounts now stand, it is wholly impossible to suggest any satisfactory method of uniting them, every one who has attempted it has in some part or other of his hypothesis violated probability and common sense," but in spite of this, the Dean had no hesitation in accepting both the accounts. With reference to this the author of The Jesus of History (Williams and Norgate, 1866)-a work to which my brother admitted himself to be under very great obligations, and which he greatly admired, in spite of his utter dissent from the main conclusion arrived at, has the following note:-

"Dean Alford, N.T. for English readers, admits that the narratives as they stand are contradictory, but he believes both. He is even severe upon the harmonists who attempt to frame schemes of reconciliation between the two, on account of the triumph they thus furnish to the 'enemies of the faith,' a phrase which seems to imply all who believe less than he does. The Dean, however, forgets that the faith which can believe two (apparently) contradictory propositions in matters of fact is a very rare gift, and that for one who is so endowed there are thousands who can be satisfied with a plausible though demonstrably false explanation. To the latter class the despised harmonists render a real service."

Upon this note my brother was very severe. In a letter, dated Dec. 18, 1866, addressed to a friend who had alluded to it, and expressed his concurrence with it as in the main just, my brother wrote: "You are wrong about the note in The Jesus of History, there is more of the Christianity of the future in Dean Alford's indifference to the harmony between the discordant accounts of Luke and Matthew than there would have been even in the most convincing and satisfactory explanation of the way in which they came to differ. No such explanation is possible; both the Dean and the author of The Jesus of History were very well aware of this, but the latter is unjust in assuming that his opponent was not alive to the absurdity of appearing to believe two contradictory propositions at one and the same time. The Dean takes very good care that he shall not appear to do this, for it is perfectly plain to any careful reader that he must really believe that one or both narratives are inaccurate, inasmuch as the differences between them are too great to allow of reconciliation by a supposed suppression of detail.

"This, though not said so clearly as it should have been, is yet virtually implied in the admission that no sort of fact which could by any possibility be admitted as reconciling them had ever occurred to human ingenuity; what, then, Dean Alford must have really felt was that the spiritual value of each account was no less precious for not being in strict accordance with the other; that the objective truth lies somewhere between them, and is of very little importance, being long dead and buried, and living in its results only, in comparison with the subjective truth conveyed by both the narratives, which lives in our hearts independently of precise knowledge concerning the actual facts. Moreover, that though both accounts may perhaps be inaccurate, yet that a very little natural inaccuracy on the part of each writer would throw them apparently very wide asunder, that such inaccuracies are easily to be accounted for, and would, in fact, be inevitable in the sixty years of oral communication which elapsed between the birth of our Lord and the writing of the first Gospel, and again in the eighty or ninety years prior to the third, so that the details of the facts connected with the conception, birth, genealogy, and earliest history of our Saviour are irrecoverable-a general impression being alone possible, or indeed desirable.

"It might perhaps have been more satisfactory if Dean Alford had expressed the above more plainly; but if he had done this, who would have read his book? Where would have been that influence in the direction of truly liberal Christianity which has been so potent during the last twenty years? As it was, the freedom with which the Dean wrote was the cause of no inconsiderable scandal. Or, again, he may not have been fully conscious of his own position: few men are; he had taken the right one, but more perhaps by spiritual instinct than by conscious and deliberate exercise of his intellectual faculties. Finally, compromise is not a matter of good policy only, it is a solemn duty in the interests of Christian peace, and this not in minor matters only-we can all do this much-but in those concerning which we feel most strongly, for here the sacrifice is greatest and most acceptable to God. There are, of course, limits to this, and Dean Alford may have carried compromise too far in the present instance, but it is very transparent. The narrowness which leads the author of The Jesus of History to strain at such a gnat is the secret of his inability to accept the divinity and miracles of our Lord, and has marred the most exhaustively critical exegesis of the life and death of our Saviour with an impotent conclusion."

It is strange that one who could write thus should occasionally have shown himself so little able to apply his own principles. He seems to have been alternately under the influence of two conflicting spirits-at one time writing as though there were nothing preciou

s under the sun except logic, consistency, and precision, and breathing fire and smoke against even very trifling deviations from the path of exact criticism-at another, leading the reader almost to believe that he disregarded the value of any objective truth, and speaking of endeavour after accuracy in terms that are positively contemptuous. Whenever he was in the one mood he seemed to forget the possibility of any other; so much so that I have sometimes thought that he did this deliberately and for the same reasons as those which led Adam Smith to exclude one set of premises in his Theory of Moral Sentiments and another in his Wealth of Nations. I believe, however, that the explanation lies in the fact that my brother was inclined to underrate the importance of belief in the objective truth of any other individual features in the life of our Lord than his Resurrection and Ascension. All else seemed dwarfed by the side of these events. His whole soul was so concentrated upon the centre of the circle that he forgot the circumference, or left it out of sight. Nothing less than the strictest objective truth as to the main facts of the Resurrection and Ascension would content him; the other miracles and the life and teaching of our Lord might then be left open; whatever view was taken of them by each individual Christian was probably the one most desirable for the spiritual wellbeing of each.

Even as regards the Resurrection and Ascension, he did not greatly value the detail. Provided these facts were so established that they could never henceforth be controverted, he thought that the less detail the broader and more universally acceptable would be the effect. Hence, when Dean Alford's notes seemed to jeopardise the evidences for these things, he could brook no trifling; for unless Christ actually died and actually came to life again, he saw no escape from an utter denial of any but natural religion. Christ would have been no more to him than Socrates or Shakespeare, except in so far as his teaching was more spiritual. The triune nature of the Deity-the Resurrection from the dead-the hope of Heaven and salutary fear of Hell-all would go but for the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus Christ; nothing would remain except a sense of the Divine as a substitute for God, and the current feeling of one's peers as the chief moral check upon misconduct. Indeed, we have seen this view openly advocated by a recent writer, and set forth in the very plainest terms. My brother did not live to see it, but if he had, he would have recognised the fulfilment of his own prophecies as to what must be the inevitable sequel of a denial of our Lord's Resurrection.

It will be seen therefore that he was in no danger of being carried away by a "pet theory." Where light and definition were essential, he would sacrifice nothing of either; but he was jealous for his highest light, and felt "that the whole effect of the Christian scheme was indefinitely heightened by keeping all other lights subordinate"-this at least was the illustration which he often used concerning it. But as there were limits to the value of light and "finding"-limits which had been far exceeded, with the result of an unnatural forcing of the lights, and an effect of garishness and unreality-so there were limits to the as yet unrecognised preciousness of "losing" and obscurity; these limits he placed at the objectivity of our Lord's Resurrection and Ascension. Let there be light enough to show these things, and the rest would gain by being in half-tone and shadow.

His facility of illustration was simply marvellous. From his conversation any one would have thought that he was acquainted with all manner of arts and sciences of which he knew little or nothing. It is true, as has been said already, that he had had some practice in the art of painting, and was an enthusiastic admirer of the masterpieces of Raphael, Titian, Guido, Domenichino, and others; but he could never have been called a painter; for music he had considerable feeling; I think he must have known thorough-bass, but it was hard to say what he did or did not know. Of science he was almost entirely ignorant, yet he had assimilated a quantity of stray facts, and whatever he assimilated seemed to agree with him and nourish his mental being. But though his acquaintance with any one art or science must be allowed to have been superficial only, he had an astonishing perception of the relative bearings of facts which seemed at first sight to be quite beyond the range of one another, and of the relations between the sciences generally; it was this which gave him his felicity and fecundity of illustration-a gift which he never abused. He delighted in its use for the purpose of carrying a clear impression of his meaning to the mind of another, but I never remember to have heard him mistake illustration for argument, nor endeavour to mislead an adversary by a fascinating but irrelevant simile. The subtlety of his mind was a more serious source of danger to him, though I do not know that he greatly lost by it in comparison with what he gained; his sense, however, of distinctions was so fine that it would sometimes distract his attention from points of infinitely greater importance in connection with his subject than the particular distinction which he was trying to establish at the moment.

The reader may be glad to know what my brother felt about retaining the unhistoric passages of Scripture. Would he wish to see them sought for and sifted out? Or, again, what would he propose concerning such of the parables as are acknowledged by every liberal Churchman to be immoral, as, for instance, the story of Dives and Lazarus and the Unjust Steward-parables which can never have been spoken by our Lord, at any rate not in their present shape? And here we have a remarkable instance of his moderation and truly English good sense. "Do not touch one word of them," was his often-repeated exclamation. "If not directly inspired by the mouth of God they have been indirectly inspired by the force of events, and the force of events is the power and manifestation of God; they could not have been allowed to come into their present position if they had not been recognised in the counsels of the Almighty as being of indirect service to mankind; there is a subjective truth conveyed even by these parables to the minds of many, that enables them to lay hold of other and objective truths which they could not else have grasped.

"There can be no question that the communistic utterances of the third gospel, as distinguished from St. Matthew's more spiritual and doubtless more historic rendering of the same teaching, have been of inestimable service to Christianity. Christ is not for the whole only, but also for them that are sick, for the ill-instructed and what we are pleased to call 'dangerous' classes, as well as for the more sober thinkers. To how many do the words, 'Blessed be ye poor: for your's is the kingdom of Heaven' (Luke vi., 20), carry a comfort which could never be given by the 'Blessed are the poor in spirit' of Matthew v., 3. In Matthew we find, 'Blessed are the poor in spirit: for their's is the kingdom of Heaven. Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God. Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for their's is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.' In Luke we read, 'Blessed are ye that hunger now: for ye shall be filled. Blessed are ye that weep now: for ye shall laugh. . . . But woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation. Woe unto you that are full! for ye shall hunger. Woe unto you that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep. Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you! for so did their fathers to the false prophets,' where even the grammar of the last sentence, independently of the substance, is such as it is impossible to ascribe to our Lord himself.

"The 'upper' classes naturally turn to the version of Matthew, but the 'lower,' no less naturally to that of Luke, nor is it likely that the ideal of Christ would be one-tenth part so dear to them had not this provision for them been made, not by the direct teaching of the Saviour, but by the indirect inspiration of such events as were seen by the Almighty to be necessary for the full development of the highest ideal of which mankind was capable. All that we have in the New Testament is the inspired word, directly or indirectly, of God, the unhistoric no less than the historic; it is for us to take spiritual sustenance from whatever meats we find prepared for us, not to order the removal of this or that dish; the coarser meats are for the coarser natures; as they grow in grace they will turn from these to the finer: let us ourselves partake of that which we find best suited to us, but do not let us grudge to others the provision that God has set before them. There are many things which though not objectively true are nevertheless subjectively true to those who can receive them; and subjective truth is universally felt to be even higher than objective, as may be shown by the acknowledged duty of obeying our consciences (which is the right to us) rather than any dictate of man however much more objectively true. It is that which is true to us that we are bound each one of us to seek and follow."

Having heard him thus far, and being unable to understand, much less to sympathise with teaching so utterly foreign to anything which I had heard elsewhere, I said to him, "Either our Lord did say the words assigned to him by St. Luke or he did not. If he did, as they stand they are bad, and any one who heard them for the first time would say that they were bad; if he did not, then we ought not to allow them to remain in our Bibles to the misleading of people who will thus believe that God is telling them what he never did tell them-to the misleading of the poor, whom even in low self-interest we are bound to instruct as fully and truthfully as we can."

He smiled and answered, "That is the Peter Bell view of the matter. I thought so once, as, indeed, no one can know better than yourself."

The expression upon his face as he said this was sufficient to show the clearness of his present perception, nevertheless I was anxious to get to the root of the matter, and said that if our Lord never uttered these words their being attributed to him must be due to fraud; to pious fraud, but still to fraud.

"Not so," he answered, "it is due to the weakness of man's powers of memory and communication, and perhaps in some measure to unconscious inspiration. Moreover, even though wrong of some sort may have had its share in the origin of certain of the sayings ascribed to our Saviour, yet their removal now that they have been consecrated by time would be a still greater wrong. Would you defend the spoliation of the monasteries, or the confiscation of the abbey lands? I take it no-still less would you restore the monasteries or take back the lands; a consecrated change becomes a new departure; accept it and turn it to the best advantage. These are things to which the theory of the Church concerning lay baptism is strictly applicable. Fieri non debet, factum valet. If in our narrow and unsympathetic strivings after precision we should remove the hallowed imperfections whereby time has set the glory of his seal upon the gospels as well as upon all other aged things, not for twenty generations will they resume that ineffable and inviolable aspect which our fussy meddlesomeness will have disturbed. Let them alone. It is as they stand that they have saved the world.

"No change is good unless it is imperatively called for. Not even the Reformation was good; it is good now; I acquiesce in it, as I do in anything which in itself not vital has received the sanction of many generations of my countrymen. It is sanction which sanctifieth in matters of this kind. I would no more undo the Reformation now than I would have helped it forward in the sixteenth century. Leave the historic, the unhistoric, and the doubtful to grow together until the harvest: that which is not vital will perish and rot unnoticed when it has ceased to have vitality; it is living till it has done this. Note how the very passages which you would condemn have died out of the regard of any but the poor. Who quotes them? Who appeals to them? Who believes in them? Who indeed except the poorest of the poor attaches the smallest weight to them whatever? To us they are dead, and other passages will die to us in like manner, noiselessly and almost imperceptibly, as the services for the fifth of November died out of the Prayer Book. One day the fruit will be hanging upon the tree, as it has hung for months, the next it will be lying upon the ground. It is not ripe until it has fallen of itself, or with the gentlest shaking; use no violence towards it, confident that you cannot hurry the ripening, and that if shaken down unripe the fruit will be worthless. Christianity must have contained the seeds of growth within itself, even to the shedding of many of its present dogmas. If the dogmas fall quietly in their maturity, the precious seed of truth (which will be found in the heart of every dogma that has been able to take living hold upon the world's imagination) will quicken and spring up in its own time: strike at the fruit too soon and the seed will die."

I should be sorry to convey an impression that I am responsible for, or that I entirely agree with, the defence of the unhistoric which I have here recorded. I have given it in my capacity of editor and in some sort biographer, but am far from being prepared to maintain that it is likely, or indeed ought, to meet with the approval of any considerable number of Christians. But, surely, in these days of self-mystification it is refreshing to see the boldness with which my brother thought, and the freedom with which he contemplated all sorts of issues which are too generally avoided. What temptation would have been felt by many to soften down the inconsistencies and contradictions of the Gospels. How few are those who will venture to follow the lead of scientific criticism, and admit what every scholar must well know to be indisputable. Yet if a man will not do this, he shows that he has greater faith in falsehood than in truth.

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