Thursday, 25 April 2013

MR. GLADSTONE ON EDUCATION, RELIGION, AND FREE THOUGHT.

 Mr. Gladstone adverted to the position of England in the matter of education, and observed that it was lower than Scotland, and lower than Germany. I doubt (he said) if it can be said with truth that the German is superior to the Englishman in natural gifts, or that he has greater or even equal perseverance, provided only the Englishman has his heart in the matter. But Germans have two marked advantages —a far greater number of the educated class are really in earnest about their education, and the Germans are a people who have not yet, as I fear we have, learnt to undervalue, or even in a greater measure to despise, simplicity of life. Referring to the form of unbelief at present so widely manifested, the Premier remarked—1 am not about to touch upon the differences which distinguish and partially sever the Church of England from those communions by which it is surrounded; whether they be of Protestant, Nonconformist, or of those who have recently incorporated in the Christian faith what we must suppose they think a bulwark and not a danger to religion, the doctrine of Papal infallibility. For handling controversies of such a class this is not the time. I am not the person, and my office is not the proper office. It is not now only the Christian Church, or only the holy Scripture, or only Christians which are attacked. The disposition is boldly proclaimed to deal alike with root and branch and to snap the ties which under the still venerable name of religion unite man with the unseen world, and lighten the struggles and the woes of life by the hope of a better land. I will not pain and weary you with a multitude of details. I will only refer by name to one who is not a British writer—to the learned German, Dr. Strauss. He is a man of far wider fame than a British writer who marches under the same banner, and I mention him with the respect which is justly due not only to his ability, but to the straightforward earnestness and to the fairness and mildness towards antagonists in argument with which so far as I have seen he pursues his ill-starred and hopeless enterprise. He has published during the present year a volume entitled " The Old Belief and the New." In his introduction he frankly raises the question whether, considering the progress which culture has now made, there is any longer occasion to maintain religious worship in any form whatever. Why—he asks on behalf of a party in Germany for which he speaks, and for which he claims that it answers to the state of modern thought—should there be a separate religious society at all, when we have already provision made for all men in the State, the school, science, and fine art ? In his first chapter he puts the question—Are we still Christians ?' and, after a detailed examination, he concludes, always speaking on behalf of modern thought, that if we wish our yea to be yea and our nay nay, if we are to think and speak our thoughts as honourable upright men, we must reply that we are Christians no longer. The question and answer, however, he observes, are insufficient. The essential and fundamental inquiry is, whether we are or are not still to have a religion ?
  To this inquiry he devotes his second chapter. In this second chapter he finds that there is no personal God, there is no future state, the dead live in the recollection of survivors. This is enough for them. After this he has little difficulty in answering the question he has put—all religious worship ought to be abolished. The very name of divine service is an indignity to man. Therefore, in the sense in which religion has been heretofore understood, his answer is that we ought to have no religion any more, but proceeding, as he always does, with commendable frankness, he admits that he ought to fill with something the void he has made. This he accordingly proceeds to do. Instead of God he offers to us the all or universum. This all or universum has, he tells us, neither consciousness nor reason, but it has order and law. He thinks it fitted, therefore, to be the object of a new and true piety, which he claims for his universum as the devotees of the old style did for their God. If any one repudiated this doctrine, to Dr. Strauss's reason the repudiation is absurdity, and to his feelings blasphemy. These are not the ravings of a maniac, nor are they the mere dreams of an imaginative high wrought enthusiastic, such as Comte appears to be. They are the grave conclusions after elaborate reasoning of a learned, a calm, and, so far as form is concerned, a sober-minded man who in this very year has been commended to us in England by another apostle of modern thought as one of the men to whose guidance we ought, if we are wise, to submit in matters of religious belief.
 I would not, even if I had the capacity and the time, make an attempt in this place to confute them, for I have no fear that by their exhibition they will beguile. Neither do I search for the hard names of controversy to describe them, for they best describe themselves. Neither can I profess to feel an unmixed regret at their being forced thus eagerly and thus early into notice, because it is to be hoped that they will cause a shock and a reaction, and will compel many who may have too lightly valued the inheritance so dearly bought for them, and may have entered upon dangerous paths, to consider while there is yet time whither those paths will lead them. In no part of his writings, perhaps, has Strauss been so effective as where he assails the inconsistency of those who adopt his premises, but decline to follow him to their conclusions. Suffice it to say, these opinions are by no means a merely German brood; there are many writers of kindred sympathies in England, and some of as outspoken courage. But in preparing yourselves for the combat of life and death, I venture to offer you a few suggestions, in the hope that they may not be without use.
 You will have in your after life much of the duty and delight of following free thought, and, in truth, the man who does not value the freedom of his thoughts deserves to be described as Homer describes the slave—he is but half a man. St. Paul, I suppose, was a teacher of free thought when he told his converts to prove all things, but it seems he went terribly astray when he preached to bid them hold fast that which is good. For he evidently assumed that there was something by which they could hold fast, and so he bade Timothy keep that which was committed to his charge, and another apostle has instructed us to contend earnestly for the truth which was once for all delivered to the saints. But free thought, of which we now hear so much, seems too often to mean thought roving and vagrant more than free, like Delos drifting on the seas of Greece, without a root, a direction, or a home. Again, you will hear incessantly of the advancement of the present age, and of the backwardness of those who have gone before it. And truly it has been a wonderful age. But let us not exaggerate. It has been and it is an age of immense mental as well as material activity ; it is by no means an age abounding in minds of the first order, in great immortal teachers of mankind. It has tapped, as it were, and made disposable for man, vast natural forces, but the mental power employed is not to be measured by the size of the results. To perfect that marvel of travel, the locomotive, has perhaps not required the expenditure of more mental strength and application than to perfect that marvel of music, the violin. In the material sphere the achievements of the age are splendid and unmixed. In the social sphere they are great and noble, but seem ever to be confronted by a succession of new problems which almost defy solution. In the sphere of pure intellect, I doubt whether posterity will rate us as highly as we rate ourselves, but what I most wish to observe is this, that it is an insufferable arrogance in the men of any age to assume what I may call airs of unmeasured superiority over former ages. God who cares for us cared for them also. In the goods of this world we may advance by strides, but it is by steps only and not by strides, and by slow and not always steady steps, that all desirable improvement of man in the higher ranges of his being is effected.
 Again, my friends, you will hear much to the effect that the divisions among Christians render it impossible to say what Christianity is, and so destroy the certainty of religion. But if the divisions among Christians are remarkable, no less so is their unity on the greatest doctrines that they hold. Well nigh 1,500 years— years of a more sustained activity than the world had ever before seen—have passed away since the great controversies concerning the Deity and the person of the Redeemer were after a long agony determined. As before that time, in a manner less defined but adequate for their day, so ever since that time, amid all chance and change, more—aye, many more—than 99 in every 100 Christians have with one will confessed the Deity and incarnation of our Lord as the cardinal and central truths of our religion. Surely there is some comfort here, some sense of brotherhood, some glory in the past, some hope for the times that are to come! On one and only one more of the favourite fallacies of the day I would yet presume to touch. It is the opinion and the boast of some that man is not responsible for his belief. Lord Brougham was at one time stated to have given utterance to this opinion, whether truly I know not, but this I know, it was my privilege to hear from his own lips the needful and due limitation of the proposition. "Man," he said, "is not responsible to man for his belief, but, as before God, and and the same law applies as to opinions and to actions, or rather to inward and outward acts, for opinions are inward acts."

 The Mercury 20 February 1873,

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