Freethought Archives > G.W. Foote > Arrows of Freethought (1882)


(October, 1879.)

The Christian World is distinguished among religious journals by a certain breadth and vigor. On all social and political subjects it is remarkably advanced and outspoken, and its treatment of theological questions is far more liberal and intelligent than sceptics would expect. Of late years it has opened its columns to correspondence on many topics, some of a watery character, like the reality of Noah's flood, and others of a burning kind, like the doctrine of eternal punishment, on all of which great freedom of expression has been allowed. The editor himself, who is, we suspect, far more sceptical than most of his readers, has had his say on the question of Hell, and it is to be inferred from his somewhat guarded utterance that he has little belief in any such place. This, however, we state with considerable hesitation, for the majority of Christians still regard the doctrine of everlasting torture as indubitable and sacred, and we have no desire to lower him in the estimation of the Christian world in which he labors, or to cast a doubt on the orthodoxy of his creed. But the editor will not take it amiss if we insist that his paper is liberal in its Christianity, and unusually tolerant of unbelief.

Yet, while entitled to praise on his ground, the Christian World deserves something else than praise on another. It has recently published a series of articles for the purpose of stimulating faith and allaying doubt. If undertaken by a competent writer, able and willing to face the mighty difference between Christianity and the scientific spirit of our age, such a series of articles might be well worth reading. We might then admire if we could not agree, and derive benefit from friendly contact with an antagonist mind. But the writer selected for the task appears to possess neither of these qualifications. Instead of thinking he gushes; instead of reason he supplies us with unlimited sentiment. We expect to tread solid ground, or at least to find it not perilously soft; and lo! the soil is moist, and now and then we find ourselves up to the knees in unctuous mud. How difficult it is nowadays to discover a really argumentative Christian! The eminent favorites of orthodoxy write sentimental romances and call them "Lives of Christ," and preach sermons with no conceivable relation to the human intellect; while the apologists of faith imitate the tactics of the cuttle-fish, and when pursued cast out their opaque fluid of sentimentality to conceal their position. They mostly dabble in the shallows of scepticism, never daring to venture in the deeps; and what they take pride in as flashes of spiritual light resembles neither the royal gleaming of the sun nor the milder radiance of the moon, but rather the phosphorescence of corruption.

In the last article of the series referred to, entitled "Thou art a God that Hidest Thyself," there is an abundance of fictitious emotion and spurious rhetoric. From beginning to end there is a painful strain that never relaxes, reminding us of singers who pitch their voices too high and have to render all the upper notes in falsetto. An attempt is made to employ poetical imagery, but it ludicrously fails. The heaven of the Book of Revelation, with its gold and silver and precious stones, is nothing but a magnified jeweller's shop, and a study of it has influenced the style of later writers. At present Christian gushers have descended still lower, dealing not even in gold and jewels, but in Brummagem and paste. The word gem is greatly in vogue. Talmage uses it about twenty times in every lecture, Parker delights in it, and it often figures on the pages of serious books. In the article before us it is made to do frequent service. A promise of redemption is represented as shining gem-like on the brow of Revelation, Elims gem the dark bosom of the universal desert, and the morning gleams on the dew-gemmed earth. Perhaps a good recipe for this kind of composition would be an hour's gloat on the flaming window of a jeweller's shop in the West End.

But let us deal with the purport and purpose of the article. It aims at showing that God hides himself, and why he does so. The fact which it is attempted to explain none will deny. Moses ascended Mount Sinai to see God and converse with him, Abraham and God walked and talked together, and according to St. Paul the Almighty is not far from any one of us. But the modern mind is not prone to believe these things. The empire of reason has been enlarged at the expense of faith, whose provinces have one after another been annexed until only a small territory is left her, and that she finds it difficult to keep. Coincidently, God has become less and less a reality and more and more a dream. The reign of law is perceived everywhere, and all classes of phenomena may be explained without recourse to supernatural power. When Napoleon objected to Laplace that divine design was omitted from his mechanical theory of the universe, the French philosopher characteristically replied: "I had no need of that hypothesis." And the same disposition prevails in other departments of science. Darwin, for instance, undertakes to explain the origin and development of man, physical, intellectual and moral, without assuming any cause other than those which obtain wherever life exists. God is being slowly but surely driven from the domain of intermediate causes, and transformed into an ultimate cause, a mere figment of the imagination. He is being banished from nature into that poetical region inhabited by the gods of Polytheism, to keep company there with Jupiter and Apollo and Neptune and Juno and Venus, and all the rest of that glorious Pantheon. He no longer rules the actual life and struggle of the world, but lives at peace with his old rivals in—

"The lucid interspace of world and world,
Where never creeps a cloud or moves a wind,
Nor ever falls the least white star of snow,
Nor ever lowest roll of thunder moans;
Nor sound of human sorrow mounts, to mar
Their sacred everlasting calm." *
* Tennyson: "Lucretius."

The essence of all this is admitted by the writer in the Christian World; he admits the facts, but denies the inference. They show us one of God's ways of hiding himself. Order prevails, but it is the expression of God's will, and not a mere result of the working of material forces. He operates by method, not by caprice, and hence the unchanging stability of things. While doing nothing in particular, he does everything in general. And this idea must be extended to human history. God endows man with powers, and allows him freedom to employ them as he will. But, strangely enough, God has a way of "ruling our freedom," and always there is "a restraining and restoring hand." How man's will can be free and yet overruled passes our merely carnal understanding, although it may be intelligible enough to minds steeped in the mysteries of theology. According to this writer, God's government of mankind is a "constitutional kingdom." Quite so. It was once arbitrary and despotic; now it is far milder and less exacting, having dwindled into the "constitutional" stage, wherein the King reigns but does not govern. Will the law of human growth and divine decay stop here? We think not. As the despotism has changed to a constitutional monarchy, so that will change to a republic, and the empty throne be preserved among other curious relics of the past.

God also hides himself in history. Although unapparent on the surface of events, his spirit is potent within them. "What," the writer asks, "is history—with all its dark passages of horror, its stormy revolutions, its ceaseless conflict, its tears, its groans, its blood—but the chronicle of an ever-widening realm of light, of order, of intelligence, wisdom, truth, and charity?" But if we admit the progress, we need not explain it as the work of God. Bunsen wrote a book on "God in History," which a profane wag said should have been called "Bunsen in History;" yet his attempt to justify the ways of God to men was not very successful. It is simply a mockery to ask us to believe that the slow progress of humanity must be attributed to omniscient omnipotence. A God who can evolve virtue and happiness only out of infinite evil and misery, and elevate us only through the agency of perpetual blood and tears, is scarcely a being to be loved and worshipped, unless we assume that his power and wisdom are exceedingly limited. Are we to suppose that God has woven himself a garment of violence, evil, and deceit, in order that we might not see too clearly his righteousness, goodness, and truth?

It must further be observed that Christian Theists cannot be permitted to ascribe all the good in the world to God, and all the evil to man, or else leave it absolutely unexplained. In the name of humanity we protest against this indignity to our race. Let God be responsible for good and evil both, or for neither; and if man is to consider himself chargeable with all the world's wrong, he should at least be allowed credit for all the compensating good.

The theory of evolution is being patronised by Theists rather too fulsomely. Not long ago they treated it with obloquy and contempt, but now they endeavor to use it as an argument for their faith, and in doing so they distort language as only theological controversialists can. Changing "survival of the fittest" into "survival of the best," they transform a physical fact into a moral law; and thus, as they think, take a new north-west passage to the old harbor of "whatever is is right." But while-evolution may be construed as progress, which some would contest, it cannot be construed as the invariable survival of the best; nor, if it were, could the process by which this result is achieved be justified. For evolution works through a universal struggle for existence, in which the life and well-being of some can be secured only through the suffering and final extinction of others; and even in its higher stages, cunning and unscrupulous strength frequently overcomes humane wisdom fettered by weakness. "Nature, red in tooth and claw, with ravin shrieks against the creed" of the Theist. If God is working through evolution, we must admit that he has marvellously hidden himself, and agree with the poet that he does "move in a mysterious way his wonders to perform."

The writer in the Christian World borrows an image from the puling scepticism of "In Memoriam," which describes man as

"An infant crying in the night,
And with no language but a cry."

This image of the infant is put to strange use. The writer says that God is necessarily hidden from us because we can grasp "his inscrutable nature and methods" only as "an infant can grasp the thought and purpose of a man." Similes are dangerous things. When it is demanded that they shall run upon all fours, they often turn against their masters. This one does so. The infant grows into a man in due course, and then he can not only grasp the thought and purpose of his father, but also, it may be, comprehend still greater things. Will the infant mind of man, when it reaches maturity, be thus related to God's? If not, the analogy is fallacious. Man is quite mature enough already, and has been so for thousands of years, to understand something of God's thought and purpose if he had only chosen to reveal them. This, however, if there be a God, he has not condescended to do. An appeal to the various pretended revelations of the world serves to convince us that all are the words of fallible men. Their very discord discredits them. As D'Holbach said, if God had spoken, the universe would surely be convinced, and the same conviction would fill every breast.

The reason given for God's hiding himself is very curious. "If," says the writer, "the way of God were not in large measure hidden, it would mean that we could survey all things from the height and the depth of God." Truly an awful contemplation! May it not be that God is hidden from us because there is none to be revealed, that "all the oracles are dumb or cheat because they have no secret to express"?

But, says the writer in the Christian World, there is one revelation of God that can never be gainsaid; "while the Cross stands as earth's most sacred symbol, there can be no utter hiding of his love." This, however, we venture to dispute. That Cross which was laid upon the back of Jesus poor mankind has been compelled to carry ever since, with no Simon to ease it of the load. Jesus was crucified on Calvary, and in his name man has suffered centuries of crucifixion. The immolation of Jesus can be no revelation of God's love. If the Nazarene was God, his crucifixion involves a complicated arrangement for murder; the Jews who demanded his death were divinely instigated, and Judas Iscariot was pre-ordained to betray his master; in which case his treachery was a necessary element of the drama, entitling him not to vituperation but to gratitude, even perhaps to the monument which Benjamin Disraeli suggested as his proper reward. Looking also at the history of Christianity, and seeing how the Cross has sheltered oppressors of mind and body, sanctioned immeasurable shedding of blood, and frightened peoples from freedom, while even now it symbolises all that is reactionary and accursed in Europe, we are constrained to say that the love it reveals is as noxious as the vilest hate.

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