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The english poet Thomas Hardy, some time between 1908 and 1910, wrote a poem in which he imagined himself attending God's funeral. It is one of his most extraordinary poems, and it expresses in the most cogent form some of the issues which will be explored biographically in the following pages. It starts -- what a good film-sequence it would make -- with the Wessex pessimist seeing the macabre procession as a 'strange mystic form' is carried to Its, or His, last rest.
And by contagious throbs of thought
Or latent knowledge that within me lay
And had already stirred me, I was wrought
To consciousness of sorrow even as they.
What was being carried away from the people was something which had 'symboled' a 'potency vast and loving kindness strong'. God is seen in this poem as a great projection of human fears and desires.
'Framing him jealous, fierce, at first,
We gave him justice as the ages rolled,
Will to bless those by circumstance accurst,
And long suffering, and mercies manifold.
'And, tricked by our own early dream
And need of solace, we grew self-deceived,
Our making soon our maker did we deem,
And what we had imagined we believed.
'Till, in Time's stayless stealthy swing,
Uncompromising rude reality
Mangled the Monarch of our fashioning,
Who quavered, sank; and now has ceased to be ...'
The 'myth's oblivion' is not a cause for crowing in this poem, nor even particularly for agnostic, lofty point-scoring. Quite the contrary. When 'some in the background', 'sweet women, youths, men' exclaim 'Still he lives to us!', Hardy has nothing but sympathetic feeling for these gallant believers who persist in worshipping a dead God:
I could not buoy their faith: and yet
Many I had known: with all I sympathized;
And though struck speechless, I did not forget
That what was mourned for, I, too, long had prized.
Hardy wonders how 'to bear such loss' and 'who or what shall fill his place'. Unlike many of the high-minded liberals of the previous century, beguiled by a 'religion of humanity', Hardy knew that the first of the Ten Commandments contained an objective truth. Ersatz substitutes for God are not God. 'Thou shalt have no other Gods before me.' Hardy is left merely 'dazed and puzzled' by the funeral.
Perhaps only those who have known the peace of God which passes all understanding can have any conception of what was lost between a hundred and a hundred and fifty years ago when the human race in Western Europe began to discard Christianity. The loss was not merely an intellectual change, the discarding of one proposition in favour of another. Indeed, though many intellectual justifications were offered by those who lost faith, the process would seem to have been, in many cases, just as emotional as religious conversion; and its roots were often quite as irrational. In all the inner journeys which ended with 'God's funeral' for the believer, there was potential for profound agony, whether the intellectual justifications for religious faith-loss were to be found in the fields of science, philosophy, political thought, biblical scholarship, or psychology. This is the story of bereavement as much as of adventure.
Unlike so many European atheists, Thomas Hardy had no hatred of the faith which he discarded. His continued fondness for ritual, music and even for the teachings of the Church, long after faith itself had departed, would have puzzled many a hard-line Continental atheist. When he was elected to an honorary fellowship at Magdalene College, Cambridge he discussed with the dons there the ceremony by which he would be sworn in. The diarist A.C. Benson was one of the Fellows.
The Master was afraid [Benson wrote] that Hardy might dislike a religious service. But Hardy said that he wasn't afraid of a service or a surplice; he used to go to church three times on a Sunday; it turned out that he often went to St Paul's and other London churches, like Kilburn, and knew a lot about ecclesiastical music and double chants. He had ordered a complete set of robes, too -- bonnet, gown and hood. This restored the Master's confidence. We sate and talked and smoked; and the old man wasn't a bit shy -- he prattled away very pleasantly about books and people. He looks a very tired man at times, with his hook nose, his weary eyes, his wisps of hair; then he changes and looks lively again. He rather spoiled the effect of his ecclesiastical knowledge by saying blithely, 'Of 'course, it's only sentiment to me now!'
It is in some ways paradoxical that so intensely churchy a man as Hardy, whose profession before he wrote novels was that of ecclesiastical architect and whose written work betrays not merely a knowledge but also a love of church services, church music, church gossip, should have suffered a fate which might more fittingly have been reserved for the belligerent blasphemer. His last novel, Jude the Obscure, was burned by a bishop, no less a man than the Bishop of Wakefield, William Walsham How, who wrote the popular hymn 'For all the saints, who from their labours rest'. One of the details about the incident which particularly hurt Hardy (ever the parsimonious countryman) was that, since the Bishop chose the height of summer for his gesture of casting Jude the Obscure into his grate, he must have had to order a fire to be specially (and wastefully) lit for the purpose.
Hardy suggests in his own account of the matter that it was the Bishop's intolerance which drove him out of the Church; that he would have been only too happy to continue with occasional church while keeping his own counsel about the verifiability of doctrine. This position, which came to be known loosely (in the Roman Catholic Church especially) as Modernism, was one which was most vigorously detested, both by the ultra-orthodox and by the bigots of the sceptical view. If one stretches the net wide, it would seem to have been the view of Carlyle, Ruskin, Matthew Arnold, Tennyson ... But those professional seekers after truth who attempted to justify such positions within the churches were vilified (F.D. Maurice, George Macdonald) or in the Roman Church actually suppressed (Abbe Loisy, Father Tyrrell). No wonder, then, that when Hardy confronted 'that terrible dogmatic ecclesiasticism' of the Bishop of Wakefield, he should have decided to define his own religious position in terms of negatives -- 'only a sentiment'. God's funeral pyre, as far as Hardy was concerned, had been stacked by the Church. 'The only sad feature in the matter to Hardy was that if the Bishop could have known him as he was, he would have found a man whose personal conduct, views of morality, and of the vital facts of religion, hardly differed from his own.'
Like many who lost faith (like many who retained it), Hardy was not completely consistent. He was a human being, not an automaton. Anyone who has read his work (think of that other poem of his, 'God's Education') would know what his old friend Edmund Gosse meant when he asked why Mr Hardy should have 'shaken his fist at Providence'. The cumulative effect of watching the characters of his novels being buffeted by misfortune makes some readers weary of Hardy's manipulative pessimism. More sympathetic readers of the Wessex novels, however, would wish to say that, though Hardy's plots are melodramatic, the stories are fundamentally truthful. The lives of many human beings on this planet are indeed scarred by the repeated onslaughts of disease, financial anxiety, unhappy matrimonial entanglements, or a miserable combination of these and other misfortunes. Most readers of Hardy's best-known novel will end the story in love with Tess: and that will affect their feelings about God -- anyway, about Hardy's God. '"Justice" was. done', the narrator tells us, 'and the President of the Immortals, in Aeschylean phrase, had ended his sport with Tess.'
It is the simple unfairness of life which makes this phrase powerful and novelistically appropriate. Hardy depicts suffering which is not so much 'innocent' as pointless. He is more Homeric than Hebraic, closer to the Iliad than to Job. The reader finishes a novel of Hardy's knowing that stoicism is not its own reward; nor will it be rewarded by some sympathetic external agency. Many church Christians, particularly the clergy, must have tried to hide this from themselves when they read Hardy's novels, and seen his 'pessimism' as a distorting lens; they had to wait until they were exposed to the shrapnel and gunfire on the Western Front before their imaginations were exposed to such pitiless Homeric reality, which Hardy could see relentlessly at work in the country villages of Dorset.
The anarchist American writer Morrison I. Swift, arguing against what a great philosopher calls 'the airy and shallow optimism of current religious philosophy', cited a newspaper article which could, with very little alteration, have translated itself into one of Hardy's sadder tales:
After trudging through the snow from one end of the city to the other in the vain hope of securing employment, and with his wife and six children without food and ordered to leave their home in an upper east-side tenement because of non-payment of rent, John Corcoran, a clerk, today ended his life by drinking carbolic acid. Corcoran lost his position three weeks ago through illness, and during the period of idleness, his scanty savings disappeared. Yesterday, he obtained work from a gang of city snow shovellers, but he was too weak from illness and was forced to quit after an hour's trial with the shovel. Then the weary task of looking for employment was again resumed. Thoroughly discouraged, Corcoran returned to his home late last night to find his wife and children without food and notice of dispossession on the door. On the following morning, he drank the poison.
Swift lambasted those contemporary philosophers known as Idealists (figures such as F.H. Bradley and T.H. Green in England, and Josiah Royce in the United States) who dared to say that 'The Absolute' (roughly, their word for an impersonal God-substitute) 'is the richer for every discord, and for all the diversity it embraces'. Swift writes of the philosopher who
means that these slain men make the universe richer, and that is Philosophy. But while Professors Royce and Bradley and a whole host of guileless thoroughfed thinkers are unveiling Reality and the Absolute and explaining away evil and pain, this is the condition of the only beings known to us anywhere in the universe with a developed consciousness of what the universe is. What these people experience is Reality ... These facts invincibly prove religion a nullity. Man will not give religion two thousand centuries or twenty centuries more to try itself and waste human time; its time is up, its probation is ended. Its own record ends it. Mankind has not aeons and eternities to spare for trying out discredited systems ...
It is surely sentiments such as these which underpin Hardy's carefully and gloomily plotted narratives. His love of the cult, country churches, metrical psalms, High Church ritual in the bricky suburban churches of London, surplices, cannot disguise his deep core of scepticism, his fundamental atheism. Hence, we may feel, the appropriateness of a symbolically powerful scene, one with its own reverberations in the History of English Literature, which took place when Thomas Hardy was thirty-five years old. He was summoned (the year was I875) to the house of the editor of The Cornhill Magazine in London.
Leslie Stephen, eight years older than Hardy, is best known today for the two literary monuments which he bequeathed to the world: the Dictionary of National Biography, of which he was the editor, and the novelist Virginia Woolf, of whom he was the father. He had been ordained as a clergyman in the Church of England, lost his faith, and then made his way in the world of journalism and letters. (His first wife was the daughter of Thackeray.)
In the spring of 1875, then, he asked Thomas Hardy to visit him in his study, no matter how late the hour. The evening was far spent when Hardy climbed the stairs to the top of a tall house, to find Stephen pacing up and down the room. The only light was a solitary lamp on the reading-table. 'The dressing-gown which Stephen was wearing over his clothes accentuated his height, so that he looked like a seer in robes as he passed in and out of the shadows, the lamp illuminating his prophetic face each time he passed the table. On it, lay a document.' It was a legal deed, by which Stephen renounced his holy orders, and Hardy had been called to witness his signature. This was years before Hardy wrote Jude the Obscure or 'God's Funeral'; yet, of all Stephen's acquaintance, which must have included many of the more eminent agnostics of the day, Hardy was chosen, surely aptly, to be the witness for the final severing of his links with the Church.
Seventeen years before, Stephen had been ordained priest in Cambridge. True, like many a clever young man who wanted to become a don, he had taken orders because it was a professional requirement. Offered a job as college tutor at Trinity Hall, he needed to become at least a deacon. But it would seem as though Stephen entered upon his priestly life with seriousness and piety, determined to inculcate in young men the principles of 'fearing God and walking a thousand miles in a thousand hours'. In 1860, his mother considered that he read the service in 'an impressive and beautiful manner'. But within two years the Victorian disease, Doubt, had struck. By 1862 he felt quite unable, in conscience, to conduct any services at all.
It is all fairly mysterious -- the life of Stephen to this extent having been completely typical of so many Victorian spiritual journeys. These young men in the Church of England were not in the same position as their Continental counterparts who, in their Catholic seminaries, were kept in genuine ignorance of biblical scholarship or of the developments in modern philosophy which might have been injurious to faith; and who therefore suffered easily explicable crises when, in later life, they started to read books or to think for themselves. True, there were very few men in the Victorian Church of England who had confronted the contradictions in maintaining as strong a loyalty to faith as to reason; and true, Stephen, like many other men in his position, was very young when he was ordained. But it is hard to believe that he was not aware of the difficulties, even if he had not read as much sceptical literature as he was to in middle age.
One of the formative influences on Stephen as an undergraduate was Henry Fawcett, destined much later in the century to become Postmaster-General in Gladstone's government of 1880. Fawcett, an out-and-out radical, was a Utilitarian, a follower of John Stuart Mill and, even more, a follower of Mill's father James, and of his great mentor Jeremy Bentham.
The influence of Bentham and the Mills and of the system of thought known as philosophic radicalism we will return to in the pages which follow. It was through Fawcett that Stephen began to read philosophy -- Hobbes, Locke, Kant, Berkeley, Hume -- all writers whose works had been in print for decades (centuries, in the case of Hobbes) before Stephen learnt to read. Hume's overt scepticism had been generally known for the better part of a century. Utilitarianism and philosophic radicalism had been discussed for decades before Stephen's crise. 'The average Cambridge don of my day', Stephen wrote,
was (as I thought and think) a sensible and honest man who wished to be both rational and Christian. He was rational enough to see that the old orthodox position was untenable. He did not believe in hell, or in 'verbal inspiration' or the 'real presence'. He thought that the controversies on such matters were silly and antiquated, and spoke of them with indifference, if not with contempt. But he also thought that religious belief of some kind was necessary or valuable, and considered himself to be a genuine believer. He assumed that somehow the old dogmas could be explained away or 'rationalized' or 'spiritualized'. He could accept them in some sense or other but did not ask too closely in what sense. Still less did he go into the ultimate questions of philosophy. He shut his eyes to the great difficulties and took the answer for granted.
We for our part probably take for granted the idea that this position was inevitable, that intellectual honesty compelled Stephen and his generation to avoid the intellectual cowardice of the position he describes. Distinctively of his time, place and generation, Stephen was unable to distinguish between religious life and experience, and the intellectual positions advanced at certain periods of human history either to bolster or destroy metaphysical assertions. His biographer Lord Annan attributes Stephen's loss of faith to a relentless need to apply the strictest Utilitarian factual principles of verifiability to the Bible stories. When he had done so, he discovered that he had never had any 'faith' to give up.
Those born at different periods, or in different traditions, can afford to be aghast at such a crude definition of 'faith'; but this is a battle, broadly speaking, which was fought in and out of the churches throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, often with the most surprising results. 'The Oriental style misled certain minds inclined to seek before all things scientific rigour, or too much accustomed to logical formalism. They failed to distinguish between parable and history; they thought they saw astronomical and geological theses in pages destined to develop the religious and moral life of the soul.'
If the literalism and the idolatrous (to a mind of a later generation) attitude to 'science' are characteristic of the Victorians who lost their faith, so too is their terrible, pitiable unhappiness, their sense of metaphysical isolation. Since we are aware of how she met her own end, there is something chilling about the footnote added to this unhappy period of Leslie Stephen's life by his daughter, Virginia. According to the testimony of his friends, she tells us, they feared Leslie Stephen would commit suicide. His 'state of mind was such that Fawcett entertained serious fears that he might cut his throat during the night'. Read Mrs Humphry Ward's Robert Elsmere; or the diaries of Arthur Clough; or the mental agonies chronicled in Edmund Gosse's Father and Son. The story of God's Funeral drifts continuously between the disciplines of psychology and philosophy. Scepticism in the nineteenth century was, as often as not, allied not with the sunny good cheer of Gibbon or Hume, but with profound depressions, self-hatred and melancholy.
Psychology as a discipline cannot explain belief or unbelief; nor can a vague appeal to the Zeitgeist, though this somehow inevitably, and not always unhelpfully, must be made. Which came first? The sense of lassitude and misery, the belief that the universe is godless and without purpose, the generalized sense, expressed so forcefully by Morrison I. Swift, that God had been given the benefit of the doubt for long enough and that the hour demanded the discarding of creeds? In The Diary of a Writer, in I876, Dostoevsky wrote:
In truth, we do observe a great number of suicides (their abundance is also a mystery sui generis) strange and mysterious, committed not by reason of poverty or some affront, without any apparent reasons and not at all because of material need, unrequited love, jealousy, ill-health, hypochondria or insanity -- but God only knows why. In our day, such cases constitute a great temptation, and since it is impossible to deny that they have assumed the proportions of an epidemic, they arise in the minds of many people as a most disturbing question. Of course, I am not venturing to explain all these suicides -- this I cannot do -- but I am firmly convinced that the majority of suicides in toto, directly or indirectly, were committed as a result of one and the same spiritual illness -- the absence in the souls of these men of the sublime idea of existence.
Nineteenth-century unbelief seldom limits itself to an expression of specific uncertainty about, let us say, the literal truth of the Bible, or the existence of angels. It accompanies wider symptoms of disturbance, a deep sense (personal, political, social) of dissolution. Dostoevsky is only one of the most eloquent proponents of the idea that society had lost, not merely its sense of the sublime, but also a hold on morals, a common purpose, a cohesion and unity. For him, the Death of God was a symptom of a sickness which had infected Russia as a result of espousing Western materialism and the scientific outlook. In his later years he blamed the liberalizers, the Westernizers, the St Petersburg radicals, and allied himself, not always with convincing ease, with the conservative, slavophil believers in the Orthodox Church. But what had happened to the nineteenth-century mind if it was forced to choose between giving up intellectual honesty, or abandoning that spiritual and religious dimension to life which, as far as we can discover from the historians and anthropologists, is so fundamental a part of all previous human experiences? Was it really enough, as Dostoevsky said it was, to denounce science and progress and liberalism and come to kneel at the feet of Jesus? In some moods he thought it was. But the dramas of all his novels, as of his own life, reveal him to have been truly an exemplar, a thermometer of his age, an underground man cut loose from the old roots and staring despair and emptiness in the face. The Possessed, as it is known in the West (more accurately, The Devils), sees society as in demonic possession, the idiotic liberals merely leading the way over the Gadarene cliff. Without God, there was none to help them.
As Dostoevsky made so clear in that terrible prophecy, and as Thomas Hardy and Leslie Stephen and Morrison Swift would probably all in their different ways have agreed, the nineteenth century had created a climate for itself -- philosophical, politico-sociological, literary, artistic, personal -- in which God had become unknowable, His voice inaudible against the din of machines and the atonal banshee of the emerging egomania called The Modern. The cohesive social force which organized religion had once provided was broken up. The nature of society itself, urban, industrialized, materialistic, was the background for the godlessness which philosophy and science did not so much discover as ratify.
After a hundred years, a century in which the human race has done more damage to itself and to the planet than in any previous aeons, we still seem no nearer to an understanding of the implications of what the Victorians passed through. Discussions of religion, its meaning and truth, would seem in the close of the twentieth century to be as loud and as ill-informed as they were a hundred years ago. The spiritual hunger of men and women does not merely disappear because so many, in the churches and the universities, seem incapable of understanding what is really at stake. That is why it seems appropriate, as our century comes to an end, to revisit the Victorian experience of faith and doubt.
Chou En-lai famously thought it was too soon to say what the effects of the French Revolution had been. Perhaps, by the same token, it is too early to gauge the effects of nineteenth-century religious scepticism on the history of the twentieth century. Has it been a story of religious people continuing to practise their faith while the majority were, in Ivy Compton-Burnett's phrase, 'perfectly sensible agnostics'? Not so. Religious institutions, and in particular the Christian churches, have been enormously affected by the Victorian crises of faith. So, too, has that part of the secular world which for the first time in European history has been untouched by any overt religious dimension.
In any generation, individuals will move in this direction or that, just as in any human life there will be phases of greater or lesser piety, greater or lesser sympathy with the things of the spirit. Perhaps there are fewer men and women now than in the last century who make the mistake of supposing that 'Religion' is primarily a theory to explain the origin of the Universe. Factorem coeli et terrae never was, nor could have been, a rival to the Big Bang Theory set to Gregorian chant. But many Christians, including popes, thought that it was, which was why so much effort was expended on both sides to defend literally nonsensical positions. 'Science', equally, could no more explain the Universe than a clock, left to itself, could tell the time.
God's funeral was not, as many in the nineteenth century might have thought, the end of a phase of human intellectual history. It was the withdrawal of a great Love-object. Why is this an important story, a story of reverberant significance to us, to the men and women of the late twentieth century, whose inner lives and perspectives, whose personal and political aspirations, seem so different from those of our nineteenth-century forebears? Perhaps its importance is found in two spheres especially: no doubt in many others, too, but in these two most significantly.
First, it must be of importance to individuals whether or not they pray and, in turn, whether those prayers are part of an ages-long conversation between humanity and the Deity, or whether they are, as Hardy suggests in his poem, mere projections of our own private fears, aspirations, longings. Is our personal religion that which links us to the ultimate reality, or is it the final human fantasy, the most pathetic demonstration, in a spiritually empty, spatially limitless universe, of human aloneness? Is prayer the last existential pathos? No system of thought, no philosopher, no theologian will ever solve this question for individuals. It is a question they must answer, each and every one, for themselves. The ways in which our nineteenth-century forebears confronted this, the most basic of questions, will, however, always have implications and echoes in our generation. They were not so very different from us.
If the first sphere of importance is intensely personal -- is there anybody there? -- the second is of general application. Many human beings, both sceptics and believers, wish that the great metaphysical question were cut and dried. 'Is He there', or isn't He? Is 'religion' true, or false? Is there a world of value outside ourselves, or do we, collectively and individually, invent what we call The Good? Is there an objective transcendent truth in these areas, as we believe there is in physical science, or is there only an inner mystical 'truth', where inverted commas are always to be needed if we are not to proclaim lies?
This remains one of the most important areas of human inquiry in the modern world. And if war is too important a matter to be left to the generals, then this metaphysical inquiry is certainly too important to be left to the theologians and metaphysicians.
When religion becomes unbelievable or untenable, intelligent and sensitive human beings will reject it. Ecrasez l'infame! was Voltaire's rallying-cry, to wipe out the iniquity of superstition and mumbojumbo together with the unjust aristocratic system which the Church had supported. But would Voltaire himself have wanted the Terror; would the agnostic liberals who are lampooned in Dostoevsky's The Devils have been able to believe the accuracy of his ferocious and immoderate prophecy of a future dominated first by atheist anarchy, then by something worse? If some religion, or all religion, is 'just a projection' ('our making soon our maker did we deem'), then would it not be the projection of the most fundamental of our concerns? Would not the discarding of this projection have calamitous psychological effects? And what if the analysis was in any event wrong? What if the literalists or the fundamentalists of both sides were the false guides, and the truth lay elsewhere, in those mysterious and linguistic areas which the simple-minded would like to dismiss as wishy-wash or fudge? In the Roman Catholic Church, for instance, what if Pius X had been ludicrously wrong, and those whom he condemned for 'modernism' right, to dismiss early Christian history as mythology while continuing to revere Le Grand Mystere? 'Let us seek to fathom those things that are fathomable, and reserve those things which are unfathomable for reverence in quietude.'
The words are Goethe's, but Wittgenstein is famous for articulating a similar submission of silence. Yet there is a different silence -- and that is part of the drama. It is the silence of God Himself. The Bible is full of it, so the Victorian doubters were not the first to wonder at the difficulty of apprehending the Divine. What they were especially good at, however, was articulating their bereavement. The individual journeys of modern men and women show that none of the compelling questions raised by the Victorian crisis of faith received finished answers -- else the matter would not continue to haunt us today. Modern believers tread warily, knowing that the ground can easily open before them, revealing only emptiness and darkness.
Yet it is a long pursuit,
Carrying the junk and treasure of an ancient creed,
To a love who keeps faith by seeming mute
And deaf, and dead indeed.
Excerpted from God's Funeral by A. N. Wilson Copyright © 2000 by A. N. Wilson. Excerpted by permission.
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