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


(April, 1894.)

Most of our readers will recollect the controversy that was carried on, more than twelve months ago, in the columns of the Daily Chronicle. Mr. Robert Buchanan had published his new poem, "The Wandering Jew," in which Jesus Christ was depicted as a forlorn vagrant, sick of the evil and infamy wrought in his name, and for which he was historically though not intentionally responsible. This poem was reviewed by Mr. Richard Le Gallienne, a younger poet, who is also a professional critic in the Star, where his weekly causerie on books and their writers is printed over the signature of "Logroller." Mr. Le Gallienne took Mr. Buchanan to task for his hostility to "the Christianity of Christ," the nature of which was not defined nor even made intelligible. Mr. Buchanan replied with his usual impetuosity, declining to have anything to do with Christianity except in the way of opposition, and laughing at the sentimental dilution which his young friend was attempting to pass off as the original, unadulterated article. Mr. Le Gallienne retorted with youthful self-confidence that Mr. Buchanan did not understand Christianity. Other writers then joined in the fray, and the result was the famous "Is Christianity Played Out?" discussion in the Chronicle. It was kept going for a week or two, until parliament met and Jesus Christ had to make way for William Ewart Gladstone.

Mr. Le Gallienne hinted that he was preparing a kind of manifesto on the subject of Christianity. The world was to be informed at length as to the "essential" nature of that religion. Divines and Freethinkers had alike misunderstood and misrepresented it. After a lapse of nearly two thousand years the "straight tip," if we may so express it, was to come from "Logroller." He would soon speak and set the weary world at rest with the triumphant proclamation of the real, imperishable religion of Jesus Christ. Presently it was announced, in judicious puffs, that the manifesto was growing under Mr. Le Gallienne's hands. It would take the form of a book, to be entitled The Religion of a Literary Man. The title had little relation to the Galilean carpenter or his fishing disciples. Nor was it in any sense happy. It smacked too much of the "shop." Sir Thomas Browne, it is true, wrote a "Religio Medici," and gave a physician's view of religion; but he was a man of rare genius as well as quaintness, and allowance was to be made for his idiosyncrasy. Besides, there is a certain speciality in a doctor's way of looking at religion, if he compares his knowledge with his faith. But what is the speciality of a literary man on this particular subject? Other trades and professions might as well follow suit, and give us "The Religion of a Porkbutcher," or "The Faith of a Farmer," or "The Creed of a Constable." Even the "Belief of a Barman" is not beyond the scope of a rational probability.

Mr. Le Gallienne's long-promised evangel "burst upon the town" a month ago. The "Religio Scriptoris"—which a puzzler at Latin might render as "The Religion of a Scribbler"—made a dainty appearance. The title-page was in two colors, with a pretty arabesque border. The type throughout was neatly leaded, with a column for summaries in the old fashion, and a wide margin of imitation hand-made paper. The book was pretty, like the writing, and opposite the title-page was a pretty verse:—

'The old gods pass'—the cry goes round,
'Lo! how their temples strew the ground';
Nor mark we where, on new-fledged wings,
Faith, like the phoenix, soars and sings.

Yes, it is all pretty. There is an air of dilettanteism about the whole production. It will probably be grateful to the sentimentalists who, despite their scepticism, still cling to the name of Christian; but we imagine it will rather irritate than satisfy other readers of more strenuous and scrupulous intelligence.

The book is dedicated to "A. E. Fletcher, Esq.," editor of the Daily Chronicle, who may well be proud (not of this dedication, but) of the high position to which he has raised that organ of Radical principles. Mr. Le Gallienne refers to the old controversy in the Chronicle as "raising an important question—to me the most important of questions—as to whether Christianity was really so obsolete to-day as its opponents glibly assume." "I could not stand by," he continues, "and see the sublime figure of Christ vulgarised to make an Adelphi holiday." For this reason, he modestly says, he "ventured to play David to Mr. Buchanan's Philistine." Mr. Fletcher allowed him a battlefield and "thence sprung [he means sprang] the following pages." Thus much for the origin of the work, and now for its character. "I have condensed in its pages," the writer says, "much religious experience, and long and ardent thought on spiritual matters." No doubt he believes this statement, but is it true? Is not the writer too young to have had "much experience"? and where are the traces of the "long and ardent thought"? Mr. Le Gallienne might reply that his thought has been long and ardent, whatever the value of the result; but, in that case, he is not cut out for a thinker; and, indeed, he seems aware of the fact, for he often prints "thinker" in inverted commas to show his disdain of the article. His "one cure" for "modern doubt" is to "think less and feel more," and some may be tempted to remark that he has certainly followed the first part of the prescription.

Mr. Le Gallienne is a long time in coming to "the sublime figure of Christ." He has a considerable ground to cover before he undertakes the cleaning and painting of the old idol. First of all, he has to establish his native superiority over the common herd. He divides the world into "natural spiritualists and materialists." The first have a Spiritual Sense (capitals, please), while the second have not; and "it is obvious that the large majority of mankind belong to the latter class." Mr. Le Gallienne, of course, belongs to the former. He is a member of Nature's (or God's) aristocracy. It is for them that he writes, although on his own supposition the task is superfluous. The common herd of materialists are warned against wasting their time in reading him—which also is somewhat superfluous. The fault of materialists—or rather their misfortune, for they are born that way—is that they are such sticklers for facts, and have "no conception of aught they cannot touch and handle, eat, or see through a microscope." Not, indeed, that Mr. Le Gallienne objects to eating, for instance; he speaks of it with wet lips, and looks down upon the Vegetarian as a person whose "spiritual insight" is not "mercifully intermittent," especially at meal times. But barring meal times, and other fleshly occasions when the spiritualists join the materialists, the former habitually see facts as "transitory symbols" of "transfiguring mysteries," so that the whole world (and perhaps the moon) is "palpitating with occult significance."

For instance. A materialist eats rook-pie, and cares for nothing else but a sound digestion. The spiritualist also eats rook-pie, but after the repast he will sentimentalise over dead rooks, without losing his belief in an all-merciful Providence. He will assure you, indeed, and try to convince you, that the shooting of rooks and the pulling off their heads to prevent the rook-pie from tasting bitter, is simply one of the "terrible and beautiful mysteries" which make the world so interesting—especially to gentlemen of comprehensive natures, who combine a taste for rook-pie with a taste for optimistic theology.

When we come to test Mr. Le Gallienne's conception of mystery, we find it to be nothing but muddle. The whole mystery of life, he says, may be found in a curve: as thus, Why isn't it straight?

"Color in itself is a mystery, and are there not trance-like moments when suddenly we ask ourselves, why a colored world, why a blue sky, and green grass, why not vice versa, or why any color at all?"

Mr. Le Gallienne is evidently prepared to stand aghast at the fact that twice two make four. Why always four? Why not three to-day and seven to-morrow? Yea, and echo answers, Why?

Here is another illustration of "mystery"—

"Science can tell us that oxygen and hydrogen will unite under certain conditions to produce water, but it cannot tell us why they do so; the mystery of their affinity is as dark as ever."

Mr. Le Gallienne has a whole chapter on the Relative Spirit, yet his "long and ardent thought" does not enable him to see that he is himself a slave of metaphysics. All this "mystery" is nothing but the "meat-roasting power of the meat-jack." He question of why oxygen and hydrogen form water is a prompting of anthropomorphism. Intellectually, it is simply childish. It could only be put by one who has not grasped the great doctrine of the Relativity of Knowledge. Man can no more get beyond his own knowledge—which is and ever must be finite—than he can get outside himself, or run away from his own shadow.

"The sacred mystery of motherhood," of which Mr. Le Gallienne speaks, is a pretty expression. It may pass in the realm of poetry, with the "everlasting hills" and the "eternal sea," which are but transient phenomena in the infinite existence of the universe. The "mystery" of human motherhood is no greater than the "mystery" of any other form of reproduction, while its "sacredness" depends on circumstances; the term, in short, being a compendium of a great variety of personal and social feelings, which may or may not be present in any particular case. What becomes of the "sacred mystery of motherhood" when a poor servant girl brings her child into the world unaided, and casts it into the Thames? What becomes of it when violation takes the place of seduction, and a woman bears a child to a man she loathes and hates?

"Mystery," like other words we inherit from the theological and metaphysical stages, is only fit for use in poetry; it is out of place in science or philosophy; and we advise Mr. Le Gallienne to get a comprehension of this truth before he takes fresh excursions in the "realm of long and ardent thought." The subjective ideas of poetry cease to be admirable and stimulating when they are projected into the external world, and become our masters instead of our servants.

Mr. Le Gallienne follows the beaten track of theology in talking about "mysteries," which are only subterfuges to cover the retreat of a nonplussed debater, or a warren for the fugitive game of the hounds of reason. He also follows the beaten track in arguing—or rather assuming—that the elect spiritualists have a "sense" which is lacking in the reprobate materialists. There is nothing like a good lumping assumption for begging the question at issue. It settles the discussion before it opens, and saves a world of trouble. But even an assumption may be looked in the face; nay, it is best looked in the face when you suspect it of being an imposture.

According to Mr. Le Gallienne, the religious sense—or, as he also writes it, the SPIRITUAL SENSE, with capital letters—is not after all a special faculty, but a special compound, or interaction, of common faculties. He does, indeed, treat these common faculties as "tribautaries" of the Spiritual Sense; but it is very evident that the tributaries make the stream, which is merely a name without them. First, there is the Sense of Wonder, which is nothing but the positive side of ignorance; second, the Sense of Beauty, which "is not necessarily a religious sense," but may be pressed into its service; third, the Sense of Pity, which really originates, as we conceive, in parental affection, and has even been noticed in rats as well as in religionists; fourth, the Sense of Humor, which is a peculiarly "candid" friend of religion, so that Mr. Le Gallienne is obliged to give its devotees an impressive warning against running into Ill-nature and Sacrilege; fifth, the Sense of Gratitude, which in religion, so far as we can see, appears to consist in a lively sense of favors to come, through the medium of prayer, to which thanksgiving is only a judicious preliminary, like the compliments and flatteries that are addressed to an oriental despot by his humble but calculating petitioners.

Now all these senses are perfectly natural. Every one of them is found in the lower animals as well as in man. How then can there be anything supernatural, supersensible, or "spiritual,", in their combination? Is it not evident that Religion works, like everything else, upon common materials? Chiefly, indeed, upon the unchastened imagination of credulous ignorance. We may prove this from Mr. Le Gallienne's own testimony.

"Are there not impressions borne in upon the soul of man as he stands a spectator of the universe which religion alone attempts to formulate? Certain impressions are expressed by the sciences and the arts. 'How wonderful!'—exclaims man, and that is the dawn of science; 'How beautiful!'—and that is the dawn of art. But there is a still higher, a more solemn, impression borne in upon him, and, falling upon his knees, he cries, 'How holy!' That is the dawn of religion."

Mr. Le Gallienne does not see that this is all imagination. "The heavens declare the glory of God," exclaims the Psalmist. On the other hand, a great French Atheist exclaimed, "The heavens declare the glory of Copernicus, Kepler, and Newton."

Mr. Le Gallienne does not see, either, that man did not exclaim, "How holy!" when he first fell upon his knees. His feeling was rather, "How terrible!" The sense of holiness is a social product—a high sublimation of morality. Man had to possess it himself, and see it highly exemplified in picked specimens of his kind, before he bestowed it upon his gods. Deities do not anticipate, they follow, the course of human evolution.

Mr. Le Gallienne is an Optimist. He is young and prosperous, and, judging from his poetry, happily married. He is therefore satisfied that all is for the best—if properly understood; just as when an alderman has dined, all the world is happy.

There are such people, however, as Pessimists, and Mr. Le Gallienne hates them. Schopenhauer, for instance, he rails at as a "small philosopher." whose ideas were only the "formulation of his own special disease, the expression of his own ineffably petty and uncomfortable disposition." At which one can only stare, as at a mannikin attacking a colossus. Spinoza too can be treated jauntily if he does not fall into line with Mr. Le Gallienne. George Meredith is treated with abundant respect, but he is wronged by being enrolled as a facile optimist, and "the strongest of the apostles of faith." He is certainly nothing of the kind, in Mr. Le Gallienne's sense of the words. He has faith in reason and humanity, but this is a very different thing from faith in the idols—even the greatest idol—of the Pantheon.

"There is too much pain in the world," said Charles Darwin, who knew what he was talking about, and always expressed himself with moderation. In the moral world, pain becomes evil; and the problem of evil has ever been the crux of Theism. It cannot be solved on Theistic grounds, and accordingly it has to be explained away. Pain, we are told, is the great agent in our development; in the ethical sphere, it is the "purifying fire," which purges the gold in us from its dross. All of which sounds very pretty in a lecture, and looks very pretty in a book; but is apt to excite disgust when a man is suffering from incurable cancer, or utter destitution in the midst of plenty; or when a mother stands over the corpse of her child, mangled in some terrible accident, or burnt to a cinder in a fatal fire.

Certainly, pain subserves a partial purpose. It is sometimes a warning, though the warning is often too late. But its function is immensely overrated by Mr. Le Gallienne and other religionists. It is all very well to talk about the "crucible," but half the people who go into it are reduced to ashes. Mr. Le Gallienne will not accept Spinoza's view that "pain is an unmistakable evil; joy the vitalising, fructifying power." But the great mystic, William Blake, said the same thing in, "Joys impregnate, sorrows bring forth." George Meredith has expressed the same view in saying that "Adversity tests, it does not nourish us." Even the struggle for existence does not add any strength to the survivors. It sometimes cripples them. By eliminating the unfit—that is, the weak—it raises the average capacity. But what a method for Infinite Wisdom and Infinite Goodness! There was more sense, and less cruelty, in the ancient method of infanticide.

Mr. Le Gallienne seems to feel that his theory of pain is too fantastic, so he falls back on "mystery." "We can form no possible conception," he says, "of the processes of God." Why then does he talk about them so consumedly? Ignorance is a good reason for silence, but none for garrulity.

We must be "humble," says Mr. Le Gallienne, and recognise that we only exist "to the praise and glory of God." We are his servants and soldiers, and the pay is life!—"Had he willed it, this glorious gift had never been ours. We might have still slept on unsentient, unorganised, in the trodden dust." Very likely; but who could lose what he never possessed? It is a small misfortune that can never be realised.

Mr. Le Gallienne leaps the final difficulty by exclaiming that "Man has no rights in regard to God." He shakes hands with St. Paul, who asserts the potter's power over the clay. Yes, but man is not clay. He lives and feels. He has rights, even against God. The parent is responsible for his child, the creator for his creature. The opposite doctrine is fit for cowards and slaves. It comes down to us from the old days, when fathers had the power of life and death over their children; it dies out as we learn that the first claim is the child's, and the first duty the parent's.

Mr. Le Gallienne's god is the old celestial despot of theology in a new costume. On the question of a future life, however, we are pleased to find a vein of heterodoxy and common sense. Mr. Le Gallienne asks, with respect to the "hereafter," whether we "really care about it so much as we imagine." We talk about meeting our old friends in heaven, for instance, but do we not "meet them again already on earth—in the new ones"! It is said that if fine, cultivated personalities do not survive death, they are wasted, and have existed in vain. Mr. Le Gallienne's reply to this objection is clear, sufficient, and well expressed:—

"But how so? Have they not been in full operation for a lifetime? 'Tis a pity truly that the old fiddle should be broken at last; but then for how many years has it not been discoursing most excellent music? We naturally lament when an old piece of china is some sure day dashed to pieces; but then for how long a time has it been delighting and refining those, maybe long dead, who have looked upon it.—If there were no possibility of more such fiddles, more such china, their loss would be an infinitely more serious matter; but on this the sad-glad old Persian admonishes us:—

.... fear not lest Existence, closing your
Account and mine, should know the like no more;
The Eternal Saki from the bowl has pour'd
Millions of Bubbles like us, and shall pour.

Nature ruthlessly tears up her replicas age after age, but she is slow to destroy the plates. Her lovely forms are all safely housed in her memory, and beauty and goodness sleep secure in her heart, in spite of all the arrows of death."

Without saving what they are, or which of them he considers at all convincing, Mr. Le Gallienne observes that the arguments as to a future life are "probably stronger on the side of belief"—which is rather a curious expression. But, whichever theory be true, it "does not really much matter." Very likely. But how does this fit in with the teaching of Christ? If he and his apostles did not believe in the "hereafter," what did they believe in? "Great is your reward in heaven," and similar sentences, lose all meaning without the doctrine of a future life, about which the early Christians were intensely enthusiastic. It was not in this world, as Gibbon remarks, that they wished to be happy or useful.

Mr. Le Gallienne argues that Christ taught in parables. He promised heaven, and threatened hell, but he spoke in a Pickwickian sense. However he used such phrases, it is "certain" that the evangelists "have distorted their importance out of all proportion to the rest of his teaching." By "certain" we are not to assume that Mr. Le Gallienne has access to occult sources of information. We are only to infer that he deals with the gospels arbitrarily; accepting them, or rejecting them, as they accord or disagree with his preconceptions. Indeed, this is what "essential Christianity" must always be. What each picker and chooser likes is "essential." What he does not like is unessential, if not a positive misrepresentation.

Short and easy is Mr. Le Gallienne's criterion for deciding when Christ is literal and when parabolical. "It is only Christ's moral precepts that are to be taken literally"—"all the rest is parable." What a pity it is that the Prophet of Nazareth did not give us a clear hint to this effect! The theory is one of admirable simplicity. Yet, for all that demure look of his, Mr. Le Gallienne is not so admirably simple as to work it out in practice. Accepting the moral precepts of Christ literally, a Christian should hate his father and mother, take no thought tor the morrow, live in poverty to obtain the kingdom of heaven, and turn his left cheek to everyone who takes the liberty of striking him on the right. Mr. Le Gallienne does not ask us to do these things; he does not say he performs them himself, He would probably say, if pressed, that allowance should be made for oriental ways of speaking. But, in that case, what becomes of the "literal" method of reading the "moral precepts" of Christ?

Mr. Le Gallienne, who despises "thinkers," is all at sea in his chapter on Essential Christianity. He does not know his own mind. He declares that Christ "combined" in his own person and teaching "the intense spirituality of the Hebrew, the impassioned self-annihilation of the Hindoo, the joyous naturalism of the Greek." Yet he also remarks that there is something beautiful in "such presences as Pan, Aphrodite, and Apollo," which we do not find in Christianity; though he is careful to add that there is not "actually any strife between them and the sadder figure of the Galilean." "All the gods of all the creeds," he says, "supplement or corroborate each other." Perhaps so; but what becomes of that "masterful synthesis," in which Christ gathered up the "joyous naturalism of the Greek," no less than other ancient characteristics? It is well to have a good memory (at least) when you are setting the world to rights.

Christianity has been historically a failure. Mr. Le Gallienne more than admits the fact; he emphasises it, and tries to explain it. In the first place, he says the priests have been too many for Christ; they got hold of Christianity, and turned it into the channel of their interests. In the next place, the world was not ready for "essential" Christianity; an argument in flat contradiction to the doctrine of "preparation," which has placed so important a part in Christian apologetics ever since the time of Eusebius. In the third place, "essential" Christianity is an idealism, and "a throng of idealists is an impossibility." The horde of earthly-minded people have simply trodden upon the precious pearls of Christ's teaching. It is not true that the world has tried the Gospel of Christ and found it wanting; the world has never tried it at all, and "in this nineteenth century of the so-called Christian era, it has yet to begin."

Supposing all this to be true, what does it prove? On the theory that Christ was God, or sent by God, it proves either that Providence interfered too soon, or that it is incapable of making any real impression upon the stubborn inhabitants of this planet; either alternative being a reflection on the wisdom or the power of the deity. On the theory that Christ was only a man, it proves that he taught an impossible gospel. After all these centuries it is still contested and still to be explained. Would it not, after all, be better to put aside this source of confusion and quarreling, and to rely upon reason and the common sentiments of humanity? Mr. Le Gallienne admits that in some respects "such a book as Whitman's Leaves of Grass is more helpful than The New Testament—for it includes more." Why then all this chatter about Christ? Can we ever be united on a question of personality? Is it not absurd, and worse than absurd, to thrust this object of contention into the arena where the forces of light should be fighting, like one man, the strong and disciplined forces of darkness?

All this talk about "the sublime figure of Christ" is a reminiscence of his faded deity. We do not indulge in heated discussions as to the personality of any other man. We speak of other "sublime" figures, but the expression is one of individual reverence. We do not say that those who do not share our opinion of Buddha, Socrates, Mohammed, Bruno, Cromwell, Danton, or even Plato or Shakespeare, are grovelling materialists and candidates for perdition. No, the chatter about Christ is only explicable on the ground that he was, and still is by millions, worshipped as a god. The glamor of the deity lingers round the form of the man.

It is impossible for persons of any logical trenchancy to remain in this stage. Francis Newman gave up orthodox Christianity, and also the equivocations of Unitarianism, but he clung to "the moral perfection of Christ." In the course of time, however, the scales fell from his eyes. He had been blinded by a false sentiment. Letting his mind play freely upon the "sublime figure" of the Prophet of Nazareth, he at length perceived that it had its defects. No mortal is endowed with perfection. Such monsters do not exist. Indeed, the teaching of Christ is as defective as his personality, Its perfection and sufficiency can only be maintained by those who never mean to incur the perils of reducing it to practice. Who really tries to carry out the Christianity of Christ? Only one man in Europe that we know of, and his name is Count Tolstoi; but he is saved from the worst consequences of his "idealism" by the more practical wisdom of his wife, who will not see him, any more than herself and her children, reduced to godly beggary.

Mr. Le Gallienne seems to us to belong to the sentimentalists, though we hope he will grow out of their category. He appears to dread accurate thinking, and to imagine that knowledge destroys the charm of nature. "Which," he asks, "comes nearest to the truth about love—poor Lombroso's talk about pistil and stamen, or one of Shakespeare's sonnets?" The root, he says, is no explanation of the flower.

This may be fine, but it is fine nonsense. Lombroso and Shakespeare are both right. The physician does not contradict the poet. And if the root is no explanation of the flower, what will happen if you are careless about the root and the soil in which it is planted? Does a gardener act in that way? Is it not the horticulture of Fleet-street sentimentalists?

Mr. Le Gallienne is great on what he calls the "root" fallacy. Wishing to keep the "irreligious instinct" in mystery, or at least obscurity, he objects to anthropological "explanations." He cannot tolerate talk about ancestor-worship, and other such "rude beginnings of religion," although it comes from the lips of his intellectual superiors, such as Tylor, Lubbock, and Spencer. Even if they are right, he falls back upon his old exclamation, "What does it matter?" If the flower began as a root, he says, that is no argument against "the reality of the flower." But this is a shifting of ground. The reality of the flower, the reality of the "religious instinct," is not in dispute. The question is, What is its explanation? No one denies that man idealises and reveres. The question is, How did he come to let these faculties play upon ghosts and gods? And the explanation is to be found in his past. It cannot possibly be found in his present, unless we take him as a savage, in which case he is an embodiment of the past of our own ancestors, from whom we derive every vestige of what we call our "religion."

Man's nature, like his destiny, is involved in his origin. However he may be developed, he will never be more than "the paragon of animals." And it is the recognition of this unchangeable truth which makes all the difference between the evolutionist, who labors for rational progress, and the sentimentalist, who fritters away his energies in cherishing the delusions of faith.

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