Freethought Archives > G.W. Foote > Flowers of Freethought Vol. II (1894)

THE POETS AND LIBERAL THEOLOGY. *

* The Development of Theology as Illustrated in English Poetry from 1780 to 1830.
By Stopford A. Brooke. London: Green, Essex-street.

Unitarianism has had wealth and learning on its side for several generations, it has also enjoyed the services of some men of singular ability, yet it has signally failed to make an impression upon the general public. In all probability it ever will fail. Those who like theology at all, for the most part like it hot and strong. To purge it of its "grosser" features is to rob it of its chief attraction. The ignorant and thoughtless multitude want plenty of supernaturalism. Those who think for themselves, on the other hand, are apt to grow dissatisfied with theology altogether, and to advance beyond the somewhat arbitrary and fantastic limits of the Unitarian faith. For this reason Unitarianism was called by Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather of the great Charles Darwin, a feather bed to catch a falling Christian. Others regard it as a halfway house between Christianity and Atheism, or even as a bathing machine for those who would wade, and fear to plunge, in the waters of Freethought.

Let us not, however, deny the distinction of such advocates of the Unitarian faith as Dr. Martineau and Dr. Stopford Brooke. The latter was once a clergyman of the Church of England, which he left because he no longer held her tenets, and in this he was more honest and courageous than some others who eat the Church's bread and undermine her faith. Mr. Brooke regards himself as a teacher of positive religion, but in our judgment his service to liberalism is really negative. His writings and sermons are a protest, however decorous, against the orthodox theology; and the protest may be all the more effective, with a certain order of minds, because it does not show them the ultimate consequences of freethinking. When they see the preacher aglow with the ardor of his "purified" faith in God and Immortality, they are encouraged to advance as far as he has gone, and thus to leave behind them the worst portions of the creed of their childhood.

Mr. Brooke is well known in the field of literature, and is held to shine as a critic of poetry. Hence it was that the British and Foreign Unitarian Association appointed him to deliver the first lecture of a course "dealing with some aspect of the history and development of Christianity as viewed from a liberal and progressive standpoint." The special subject selected was the development of theology as illustrated in English poetry, and the lecture is now published in a neat little volume for the general reader.

We notice the frequent recurrence of the phrase "liberal theology." Naturally we like everybody to be liberal, but we cannot see the appropriateness of the epithet in this instance. It would sound strange to talk of "liberal geology" or "liberal chemistry." Why then should we talk of "liberal theology"? If theology is anything but an effort of imagination—as we conceive it—it must be a system of ascertained truth. Its propositions are therefore true or false, but they cannot be good or bad, liberal or illiberal. Introduce these epithets, and you make it a matter of taste and preference, or of conformity or non-conformity to the spirit of advancing civilisation. This is indeed what Mr. Brooke appears to mean. He seems to regard theology as liberal or otherwise as it adapts itself to the growth of knowledge and morality. He goes to the length of admitting that secular progress precedes religious progress. "The Church," he says, "has always followed society." The change in theology, which has made it "liberal," or produced that variety of it, could not have appeared "in early Christian times, nor in the middle ages; not as long, that is, as the imperialistic or feudal theory of humanity and its rulers existed." Still more decisively, if possible, he repeats this statement:—"There was no chance then of theology changing until the existing views of human society changed. If theology was to be enlarged, they must first be enlarged." Now this is a truth which we have always insisted on, and the reason of it is destructive to "liberal" and all other kinds of theology. We are told that God made man, but the fact is that man made God, and what he made he is able to keep in repair. The growing idea of God's "love" is not forced upon theologians by a study of nature, nor by a study of scripture. It is forced upon them by the advancing spirit of humanity. God was once a being who loved and hated, and all the "liberal" theologians have done is to minimise his hatred and maximise his love. God has not made any fresh disclosures of himself, as Mr. Brooke teaches; the theologians have simply brought him up to date, and they have done so under the compulsion of secular progress.

Mr. Brooke's conception of the Fatherhood of God is creditable to his feelings. The deity he worships is one who will "effectually call to himself and effectually keep, at last, all his children to whose free-will only one thing is impossible—final division from the sovereignty of his love." But how far is this creditable to Mr. Brooke's intelligence? It is certainly inconsistent with the teaching of Christ, and Mr. Brooke calls himself a Christian. It is no less inconsistent with all we know of Nature, who is supremely indifferent to the fate of individuals. To talk so consumedly of God's love in this age of Darwinism, with its law of natural selection based on a universal struggle for existence, is to fly in the face of common sense. But here, alas, as in so many other cases, the voice of reason is drowned in the chorus of sentimentalism.

With respect to democracy, which is a kind of John the Baptist to Mr. Brooke's form of Christianity, there can be little doubt, we think, that it has been chiefly indebted to science, which has in three centuries, since the days of Copernicus and Galileo, done more to advance the brotherhood of man than has been done by religion from the "first syllable of recorded time." Mr. Brooke does not concern himself with science, however; but he nearly agrees with us in the matter of chronology. A vast alteration in thought, due to whatever causes, had been going on for centuries. It was a change "from exclusiveness to universality," and it "took a literary and philosophical form in the eighteenth century writers in France, and finally emerged a giant in the French Revolution." In that mighty upheaval "the whole of the ideas of the old society perished for ever and ever," and what seems to be left of them is "but their ghosts, a host of pale-eyed, weary phantoms."

This is true and well expressed, but it should be added that most of the eighteenth century writers in France, particularly those who may be called philosophical, were vehemently opposed to Christianity, as were most of the eminent actors in the Revolution. Several of them were downright Atheists, who would have regarded the "liberal theology" of Mr. Brooke as a sign of mental feebleness.

Out of the Revolution sprang the vivid conception of the Brotherhood of Man, and it was this, Mr. Brooke says, that made possible "the conception of God's universal Fatherhood." In other words, a change in human ideas rendered necessary a change in theology. Still, we have Mr. Brooke's word for it, the Churches and sects were the last to move. "In England," he declares, "the resistance offered to these ideas by the religious bodies has been always steady and often rancorous." It was another class of men who seized upon them. These were the Poets, the "most emotional, the most imaginative, the most prophetic, and the most clear-sighted of men." Sometimes they kept the name of Christians, but more often they were called "heretics or infidels, blasphemers or atheists." Occasionally they were Atheists, as in the case of Shelley, though it could hardly be expected that Mr. Brooke would emphasise the fact.

After some pithy criticism on William Blake, who was a forceful protestor against the old theology, Mr. Brooke passes on to Burns and Cowper. Of the exquisite satire of Holy Willie's Prayer, despite its "irreverence and immorality," which are after all but matters of opinion, Mr. Brooke says that it "weakened the worst doctrines of Calvinism far more than ten thousand liberal sermons have done." Cowper weakened Calvinism too, though he did so unintentionally. The pathos and horror of some of his poems, written under the heavy shadow of this awful creed, did a great deal to discredit it amongst thoughtful and sensitive readers. The poet was asked how he felt when dying. His answer was, "I feel unutterable despair." These terrible words prompt Mr. Brooke to write as follows:—

"They are words which all the good deeds of the professors of Calvinism will never get over. 'He was mad,' they say; but what drove him mad? Did Jesus teach in order that men might become insane? for Cowper is one among millions whom this doctrine of God has ruined morally, intellectually, or physically. But they have perished, unknown, unheard. This man was a poet, and his words have told. His personal acceptance of the horror revealed, as the mockery of Burns did not, the idolatrous foulness of this doctrine concerning God."

Coleridge's one specific contribution as a poet to a wider theology, in the opinion of Mr. Brooke, was the closing verse of the Ancient Mariner—which, by the way, is not the closing verse, but the antepenultimate.

He prayeth best who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us
He made and loveth all.

Mr. Brooke holds that Wordsworth did a far ampler work by his doctrine of immanence, which is perilously near Pantheism. Understood, however, in the spirit of "liberal theology," it will not only finally govern, but also "bring about at last the complete reconcilement of science and religion." But we must remind Mr. Brooke that this is sheer prophecy. It is simple enough to utter the counter prophecy that Wordsworth's doctrine will do nothing of the kind.

It is in relation to Byron and Shelley that Mr. Brooke really comes to the point of his essay. Wordsworth and Coleridge turned their backs upon the Revolution. They were disenchanted. They failed to see that the throes of birth were not the end of the progressive process. One sought refuge in Toryism, modified by benevolence; the other in metaphysical moonshine and esoteric theology. Byron, on the other hand, while not in the least constructive, or enamored of the more advanced ideas in religion, politics, and sociology, was filled with a bitter hatred and satiric contempt for the old order of things, with its lies, hypocrisies, and oppressions. He embodied what Mr. Brooke calls "the destroying element of the Revolution," which in him was "directed by great mental force and a reckless daring." Among other things, he struck at "the ancient, accredited doctrines of theology, and he struck savagely." Mr. Brooke is of opinion that the poet "brought free inquiry on theology to the surface of society." But we think the critic is mistaken. Free inquiry on theology had been going on in England for more than a century, and it culminated, on the popular side, in Paine's Age of Reason. How far Byron aided the movement is easy of estimation. To tell the truth, he hinted disbelief, and scattered doubt over his pages; but he did no more, he never faced any question manfully; on the problems of religion his mind was chaotic to the very end. It is this phenomena which leads Mr. Brooke to infer that Byron believed in the arbitrary, vengeful God whom he depicted in Cain. "He believes," Mr. Brooke says, "hates what he believes, stamps with fury on his belief, and yet clings to it." Such a conclusion, however, is one we cannot accept. Byron did not believe; his prose, and his letters, prove that conclusively. But he had not the courage to disbelieve and to proclaim his disbelief boldly like Shelley, who had a hundred times more real courage than his attitudinising friend, Manfred is terrible posing; Mr. Meredith calls it "an after dinner's indigest"; and Cain is rather skimble-skamble stuff, though Mr. Brooke calls it "the most powerful, the most human, the most serious thing he ever wrote, and the most effective"—which is surely a most inept criticism. Byron rarely succeeded as a serious poet; when he did so it was only in short flights. He found the proper field for his genius in Don Juan. His province was satire, and the Vision of Judgment is at the top of English achievement in this direction, A creative imagination he did not possess, any more than a profound intellect; and it was the perception of this fact which prompted his impertinent sneers at Shakespeare. But he had imagination enough to give wings to his satire, and an inexhaustible wit which played like lightning around the objects of his indignation or contempt. Never did he reason like Shelley, and it is clear that he was afraid to; he attacked in his own way what he felt to be false and despicable, and the sword he wielded was ravishingly (or terribly) brilliant, though it never cut deep enough. One loves to think of him at last, however, laying down his life, as he gave his substance, for the freedom of Greece. With all his faults, no pious or cowardly fear of death ever haunted his mighty spirit. How gloriously he would have died on the battle-field, fighting desperately for the cause of the people! The last verses he ever wrote showed the troubled stream of his life running pure at its close. Noble and sincere in its language, it was a fitting farewell to the world; and although the poet did not find his "soldier's grave," he died none the less for the cause to which he had pledged his fortune and the remnant of his strength.

"Shelley did also a work of destruction," says Mr. Brooke, "though in a very different way from Byron." We should think so indeed! The "also" is singularly weak in this instance, for Shelley attacked the Christian superstition directly, and Queen Mab had far more readers than Cain, the cheap, pirated editions being circulated extensively among the working classes.

"He began," says Mr. Brooke, "by being an Atheist, he ended by being what we call an Agnostic." But is this any more than a verbal distinction? It appears to us that Shelley's principles are the same in Prometheus Unbound as in Queen Mab. The change is in their presentation; the passionate vehemence of youth is succeeded by the restrained power of manhood. It is true that Shelley sang the praises of Love—"immortal" Love if you choose to call it so; but Mr. Brooke has to admit that he did not "give it a personal life." Shelley also "thinks Immortality improbable," yet, Mr. Brooke says, he "glides into words in his poems which continually imply it." But this we deny. Allowing for personification and emphasis, without which there can be no poetry, we venture to affirm that there is not a single passage, line, or phrase in Shelley's later poems which is not in essential harmony with his belief in the mortality of man and the practical immortality of the race. It is one of the offences of theologians ("liberal" or otherwise) in relation to Shelley, that they try to turn metaphors into logical propositions, in order to make the poet give evidence against himself.

In one respect, however, we quite agree with Mr. Brooke. "Liberal theology" has not yet "reached the level of Shelley's thought," nor can it ever do so until it ceases to be Theology and becomes simple Humanity. Mr. Brooke may flatter himself that he has "a higher faith than Shelley had," but we think he is mistaken. Substitute "blinder" for "higher" and the expression would be more accurate. Shelley did believe that Love—not alone, but co-operating with Knowledge—would achieve the salvation of mankind; but he resolutely refused to talk about man's "destiny in God the Father," which seems to afford such comfort to the devotees of "liberal theology." For this he deserves the gratitude of all scientific Humanitarians, who should protest with all their might against the attempt to emasculate him into a prophet, or even an advance agent, of some new form of Godism. "Liberal theology" should beget its own poet, if it can; it should not try to steal the poet of Humanity.


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