Project Canterbury

Some Defects in English Religion and Other Sermons

By John Neville Figgis

London: Robert Scott, 1917.
Milwaukee: The Young Churchman, 1917.

[29] III


"The prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests bear rule by their means; and what will ye do in the end thereof?" JER. v. 31.

COWARDICE is no vice of the Englishman: in the ordinary meaning we cannot ascribe it to the English Church nor to her ministers, nor to the members of any other religious body. Yet there is a cowardice specifically religious which may be shown by people otherwise full of courage. It is of that which I wish to speak.

First of all, we are afraid of our religion. No well-bred person likes to talk about it. "Don't talk about religion, it is not proper," it is said. Partly this a good trait. We don't want to wear our heart upon our sleeve. Certainly we do not want to emulate the gush of some convert to "new thought." No one understands the English who has no sympathy with the strange ________ which takes the [29/30] pose of carelessness just when we are most deeply concerned.

Yet even allowing for that, I think we are afraid of our religion. We clergy, for instance; we can talk about it in the pulpit, and lay bare our inmost soul. But most of us find it precious hard to do so anywhere else. I don't mean arguing about some controversial topic. People say that when we visit the poor we make a mistake if we speak only of general topics. They expect us to say something about God. We dare not; and we think ourselves tactful. Years ago a priest said to me: What we call tact is nine times out of ten only cowardice. That is why we get conventional.

Afraid of direct speech and flame-bearing words we riot in abstractions or pompous periphrasis. It is hard to talk of Jesus or our Saviour. It is easier to wrap it up, and we end by wrapping up ourselves, so that the Church appears to many people at this moment to be swathed in the garments of a day gone by.

When we want to talk about penance we are afraid of the word. To speak about opening one's grief, or, the ministry of reconciliation, is nicer and more refined.

This National Mission, will it do any good? It seems to be making some outsiders very angry. That is excellent so far. But the real test will [30/31] be the number of first confessions it brings about. Many motives keep people back from this. Cowardice is the most common, at least among such as are not ignorant about it.

German idealism, more especially Hegel, produced the effect on many of thinking that Christianity had its value, but that it was mainly secondary. True philosophy (that is, his own) was more ultimate. The Christian Creed was a crude and figurative expression of what there was absolute. Since that time many people have been ashamed of the more distinctively Christian doctrines even where they do not disbelieve them.

This began with regard to the Atonement; now it has attacked the Incarnation. It was said of the head of a college, not now living, that he shuddered if any preacher was so indelicate as to mention our Lord by name. Yet Christianity without its concreteness and colour is not Christianity. It may be a very good thing, but it is something else. Even more people shudder if you talk of the blood of Jesus or of His sacred heart.

Only a religion fixed on the Cross will be courageous. Christ on the Cross is its differentia, its meaning. Christianity is unique or it is not worth having. No good is done by trying to make it to be something else. It must be itself. It is not merely philosophy in a pictorial form, [31/32] a sort of Hegel for children, or even Bergson, to take a name more in fashion.

So with the supernatural. Victorian religion was afraid of it. Men found fault with the term. What was worse, they disliked the thing. They did not want to have to believe in a live God, and they do not now, many of them. The distinctly supernatural and other-worldly nature of Christianity was ignored. People thought of it, as I have said, as a form of idealism, or else they thought of it as philanthropy, social enthusiasm. Professor Santayana says somewhere that all modern religion is only social reform, whatever its nominal creed. That is not true. Yet in some places it is sufficiently nearly true to be disquieting.

Here lies the strength of Rome. Rome has never lowered the flag. She stands for the supernatural order. Against all the trend to pantheism and mere immanence she sets high the transcendence of God; that is why she attracts. People who have religion know by instinct that it cannot survive if it be confined to this world. All efforts to defend Christianity by withdrawing to the second or purely naturalistic line of trenches will end in its annihilation.

The strange hesitancy of English religion, what Newman complained of when he talked about the safe man who was sailing between [32/33] the Scylla and Charybdis of "Aye" and "No," seems to make it doubtful how far any other body but the Roman will resist the tendency. I do not say it is doubtful, but some people feel it so, and they are tempted, therefore, to seek safety in Rome. They are wrong. That solution is one of cowardice too. Cowardly though it be to capitulate to the leaders of reduced Christianity, it is cowardly also to adopt the ostrich policy of pretending that modern inquiry has made no changes. That is not true, and we know that it is not true. Clear though we may be as to the imperishable creed of Christendom, we cannot wisely ignore the efforts of critics or students of comparative religion and history. We must face these things, take them into account. Two recent books, Mr. Will Spens' Belief and Practice, and Mr. Osborne's book, Religion and the World Crisis, attempt to do this on thoroughly Catholic lines. We have a grand faith just as we have a glorious country. We now know that we must fight if we are to keep either. But many people still hold up horrorstricken faces on hearing of an unbeliever. They are like an old-fashioned country squire at the thought of Radicals. How dare such people exist! I once asked an eminent dignitary what was the condition of a certain university in regard to the conflict between faith and unbelief. [33/34] He hummed and hawed and then replied, "I am afraid there is a certain amount of more or less aggressive agnosticism."

We must not retire into our fortress and look at one another and say that all is well, or that there are no real difficulties felt by men. We know very well that we feel them ourselves.

Still worse is that Olympian attitude about the ethical problem. How can people go about taking it for granted that whatever men may think about the creed they are all agreed about morals? Christian morals are attacked on all sides. When Tennyson's "Promise of May" was produced by Herman Vezin, Lord Queensberry made a scene at the Globe. He said it was monstrous to trace a connexion between unbelief and non-Christian morals; now, however, it is the proud boast of the unbelievers. You should read an article about Samuel Butler which appeared a week or two ago in the New Statesman. There the writer says plainly that the quarrel has shifted from one about dogma to one about sex questions.

This facing-both-ways of English religion is a weakness. But it has this defence. We are in an age of unsettlement, and things cannot be settled at once. The results of modern inquiry cannot really be sifted just at present; it will take long. But some things have changed. [34/35] No religious revival will restore the old view of the Bible or make people credit the literal accuracy of the early narratives or the Book of Jonah. All that has yet to be assimilated throughout the Church. Small wonder that some should throw overboard too much in the hope of saving the rest, or that others should retire into the ancient lines, refusing to consider any of the new knowledge.

Yet both these things are cowardly. They come from seeking sight instead of faith, and faith is the essential power in religion. We must live dangerously, Nietzsche said. That is the meaning of faith and the call of Christ; but nine people out of ten are trying for absolute sight. First they thought they had got sight by an irresistible, demonstrative proof of Christianity. Then they gave that up and thought they had at least got such proof of God. They gave that up, and thought that they could get not demonstrative proof but historical certainty, which should convince everybody, or ought to do. There many of them remain.

You cannot do without faith. You can establish no principles of any value in regard to anything, not even the presuppositions of natural science, without faith.

Still more disastrous has been our cowardice in regard to practical problems. Here is the [35/36] great spectacle of our individualist, capitalist world: Rockefeller at one end, slums at the other, and organized labour in between, and everything in a mess! Germany maybe very bad, but she has no scandal like our slums. What is most deeply resented is not lack of money, but the denial of the rights of personality to the majority of those who really are the great industrial society. You will see this put well by Mr. Temple in his recent Paddock Lectures.

Now what have we done, we good Christian people of England, whether we are Anglican, Roman, or Nonconformist? Are we satisfied? Can anybody be satisfied who looks about him, in view of the appalling facts of child labour, prostitution, disease, avoidable accident, ruined lives, which are the basis of the fortunes of the rich and the comfort of us all? Here and there some one has raised a protest, only to be treated as a crank. I do not mean that we are to have a political or economic programme because we are Christians. I only say, Why, if we are going to make errors, should these errors always be errors on the side of the rich, so that people think of the Church as "the Conservative party at prayer"? If we must make mistakes, let us do so on the side of the disinherited. Yet most of us, even those who think of these things, hardly dare to lift up our voices. Why? We do not [36/37] want to lose support. Mr. Bernard Shaw has said that all religious organizations are sold to the rich. That may be unfair. Yet there is more grief in the circles of the Church over one rich man that departeth than over ninety and nine poor persons who never come near to be baptized.

True, we are not concerned with economic details. But we are with the Gospel of fellowship. No wonder they think us insincere. Here you are, they say, preaching that the Church is a society, that we are members one of another, that there is neither Jew nor Greek, but Christ is all and in all. Yet you lift no finger against the evils which make fellowship impossible; you are mainly concerned to denounce those who do lift their finger. "Dividends in danger" is the one cry that unites people.

People say they want the churches filled and all the workers there. They don't. "Why, he is filling the church with shop girls," said a woman to me once, in complaint of a certain clergyman. Our nicely sheltered congregations in the South of England would be shocked if the real artisan population came bursting in. They like a few, like the gardener's boy, but the miners, the mill-workers, and the foundry men! "Odi profanum vulgus et arceo," are pagan words, but they fit many Christian people.

[38] For us there is no excuse. We call ourselves Catholics. Our faith is in a religion above all things corporate. We cannot stop. When you have adopted a principle you cannot make it stop where you like. It is all very well for people with a purely individualist outlook to take that line, but men have a right to ask that we who believe in fellowship should carry it out in other places than in regard to ecclesiastical politics. Yet even at this moment people are writing to the papers in frantic dread lest any taint of sympathy with labour should mar the futility of the National Mission.

I do not say that I have any programme. I only say that we ought to think about these things. People are thinking about them on all hands in quarters where it might not have been expected. Is this nation to be a more real fellowship after the war than it was before, or is it still to be divided by a great fissure?

After all, I take that merely as an instance of our religious cowardice. Christianity is the great adventure, the most risky and wonderful career, the strangest gamble ever known; and it rests upon faith, not upon sight. Yet the popular impression of the Church of England is that it is a comfortable body of comfortable people for ministering to one another the things that make life to them a little more agreeable. [38/39] All that comes largely from our cowardice and our unwillingness to think. The lines have fallen to us in pleasant places, and we have a goodly heritage. So we think we need not trouble, and that everything will come right as a matter of course. Now, at last, people have begun to see that they have gone all wrong. May God grant to all of us a brave heart and an enduring will that we may take the cross in earnest and not in sham.

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