Yeast: a Problem, by Charles Kingsley

Chapter 5

A Sham is Worse than Nothing

At last, after Lancelot had waited long in vain, came his cousin’s answer to the letter which I gave in my second chapter.

‘You are not fair to me, good cousin . . . but I have given up expecting fairness from Protestants. I do not say that the front and the back of my head have different makers, any more than that doves and vipers have . . . and yet I kill the viper when I meet him . . . and so do you. . . . And yet, are we not taught that our animal nature is throughout equally viperous? . . . The Catholic Church, at least, so teaches. . . . She believes in the corruption of human nature. She believes in the literal meaning of Scripture. She has no wish to paraphrase away St. Paul’s awful words, that “in his flesh dwelleth no good thing,” by the unscientific euphemisms of “fallen nature” or “corrupt humanity.” The boasted discovery of phrenologists, that thought, feeling, and passion reside in this material brain and nerves of ours, has ages ago been anticipated by her simple faith in the letter of Scripture; a faith which puts to shame the irreverent vagueness and fantastic private interpretations of those who make an idol of that very letter which they dare not take literally, because it makes against their self-willed theories. . .

‘And so you call me douce and meek? . . . You should remember what I once was, Lancelot . . . I, at least, have not forgotten . . . I have not forgotten how that very animal nature, on the possession of which you seem to pride yourself, was in me only the parent of remorse., . . I know it too well not to hate and fear it. Why do you reproach me, if I try to abjure it, and cast away the burden which I am too weak to bear? I am weak — Would you have me say that I am strong? Would you have me try to be a Prometheus, while I am longing to be once more an infant on a mother’s breast? Let me alone . . . I am a weary child, who knows nothing, can do nothing, except lose its way in arguings and reasonings, and “find no end, in wandering mazes lost.” Will you reproach me, because when I see a soft cradle lying open for me . . . with a Virgin Mother’s face smiling down all woman’s love about it . . . I long to crawl into it, and sleep awhile? I want loving, indulgent sympathy . . . I want detailed, explicit guidance . . . Have you, then, found so much of them in our former creed, that you forbid me to go to seek them elsewhere, in the Church which not only professes them as an organised system, but practises them . . . as you would find in your first half-hour’s talk with one of Her priests . . . true priests . . . who know the heart of man, and pity, and console, and bear for their flock the burdens which they cannot bear themselves? You ask me who will teach a fast young man? . . . I answer, the Jesuit. Ay, start and sneer, at that delicate woman-like tenderness, that subtle instinctive sympathy, which you have never felt . . . which is as new to me, alas, as it would be to you! For if there be none now-a-days to teach such as you, who is there who will teach such as me? Do not fancy that I have not craved and searched for teachers . . . I went to one party long ago, and they commanded me, as the price of their sympathy, even of anything but their denunciations, to ignore, if not to abjure, all the very points on which I came for light — my love for the Beautiful and the Symbolic — my desire to consecrate and christianise it — my longing for a human voice to tell me with authority that I was forgiven — my desire to find some practical and palpable communion between myself and the saints of old. They told me to cast away, as an accursed chaos, a thousand years of Christian history, and believe that the devil had been for ages . . . just the ages I thought noblest, most faithful, most interpenetrated with the thought of God . . . triumphant over that church with which He had promised to be till the end of the world. No . . . by the bye, they made two exceptions — of their own choosing. One in favour of the Albigenses . . . who seemed to me, from the original documents, to have been very profligate Infidels, of whom the world was well rid . . . and the Piedmontese . . . poor, simple, ill-used folk enough, but who certainly cannot be said to have exercised much influence on the destinies of mankind . . . and all the rest was chaos and the pit. There never had been, never would be, a kingdom of God on earth, but only a few scattered individuals, each selfishly intent on the salvation of his own soul — without organisation, without unity, without common purpose, without even a masonic sign whereby to know one another when they chanced to meet . . . except Shibboleths which the hypocrite could ape, and virtues which the heathen have performed . . . Would you have had me accept such a “Philosophy of History”?

‘And then I went to another school . . . or rather wandered up and down between those whom I have just described, and those who boast on their side prescriptive right, and apostolic succession . . . and I found that their ancient charter went back — just three hundred years . . . and there derived its transmitted virtue, it seemed to me, by something very like obtaining goods on false pretences, from the very church which it now anathematises. Disheartened, but not hopeless, I asked how it was that the priesthood, whose hands bestowed the grace of ordination, could not withdraw it . . . whether, at least, the schismatic did not forfeit it by the very act of schism . . . and instead of any real answer to that fearful spiritual dilemma, they set me down to folios of Nag’s head controversies . . . and myths of an independent British Church, now represented, strangely enough, by those Saxons who, after its wicked refusal to communicate with them, exterminated it with fire and sword, and derived its own order from St. Gregory . . . and decisions of mythical old councils (held by bishops of a different faith and practice from their own), from which I was to pick the one point which made for them, and omit the nine which made against them, while I was to believe, by a stretch of imagination . . . or common honesty . . ., which I leave you to conceive, that the Church of Syria in the fourth century was, in doctrine, practice, and constitution, like that of England in the nineteenth? . . . And what was I to gain by all this? . . . For the sake of what was I to strain logic and conscience? To believe myself a member of the same body with all the Christian nations of the earth? — to be able to hail the Frenchman, the Italian, the Spaniard, as a brother — to have hopes even of the German and the Swede . . . if not in this life, still in the life to come? No . . . to be able still to sit apart from all Christendom in the exclusive pride of insular Pharisaism; to claim for the modern littleness of England the infallibility which I denied to the primaeval mother of Christendom, not to enlarge my communion to the Catholic, but excommunicate, to all practical purposes, over and above the Catholics, all other Protestants except my own sect . . . or rather, in practice, except my own party in my own sect. . . . And this was believing in one Catholic and Apostolic church! . . . this was to be my share of the communion of saints! And these were the theories which were to satisfy a soul which longed for a kingdom of God on earth, which felt that unless the highest of His promises are a mythic dream, there must be some system on the earth commissioned to fulfil those promises; some authority divinely appointed to regenerate, and rule, and guide the lives of men, and the destinies of nations; who must go mad, unless he finds that history is not a dreary aimless procession of lost spirits descending into the pit, or that the salvation of millions does not depend on an obscure and controverted hair’s breadth of ecclesiastic law.

‘I have tried them both, Lancelot, and found them wanting; and now but one road remains. . . . Home, to the fountain-head; to the mother of all the churches whose fancied cruelty to her children can no more destroy her motherhood, than their confest rebellion can. . . . Shall I not hear her voice, when she, and she alone cries to me, “I have authority and commission from the King of kings to regenerate the world. History is a chaos, only because mankind has been ever rebelling against me, its lawful ruler . . . and yet not a chaos . . . for I still stand, and grow rooted on the rock of ages, and under my boughs are fowl of every wing. I alone have been and am consistent, progressive, expansive, welcoming every race, and intellect and character into its proper place in my great organism . . . meeting alike the wants of the king and the beggar, the artist and the devotee . . . there is free room for all within my heaven-wide bosom. Infallibility is not the exclusive heritage of one proud and ignorant Island, but of a system which knows no distinction of language, race, or clime. The communion of saints is not a bygone tale, for my saints, redeemed from every age and every nation under heaven, still live, and love, and help and intercede. The union of heaven and earth is not a barbaric myth; for I have still my miracles, my Host, my exorcism, my absolution. The present rule of God is still, as ever, a living reality; for I rule in His name, and fulfil all His will.”

‘How can I turn away from such a voice? What if some of her doctrines may startle my untutored and ignorant understanding? . . . If she is the appointed teacher, she will know best what truths to teach. . . . The disciple is not above his master . . . or wise in requiring him to demonstrate the abstrusest problems . . . spiritual problems, too . . . before he allows his right to teach the elements. Humbly I must enter the temple porch; gradually and trustfully proceed with my initiation. . . . When that is past, and not before . . . shall I be a fit judge of the mysteries of the inner shrine.

‘There . . . I have written a long letter . . . with my own heart’s blood. . . . Think over it well, before you despise it. . . . And if you can refute it for me, and sweep the whole away like a wild dream when one awakes, none will be more thankful — paradoxical as it may seem — than your unhappy Cousin.’

And Lancelot did consider that letter, and answered it as follows:—

‘It is a relief to me at least, dear Luke, that you are going to Rome in search of a great idea, and not merely from selfish superstitious terror (as I should call it) about the “salvation of your soul.” And it is a new and very important thought to me, that Rome’s scheme of this world, rather than of the next, forms her chief allurement. But as for that flesh and spirit question, or the apostolic succession one either; all you seem to me, as a looker on, to have logically proved, is that Protestants, orthodox and unorthodox, must be a little more scientific and careful in their use of the terms. But as for adopting your use of them, and the consequences thereof — you must pardon me, and I suspect, them too. Not that. Anything but that. Whatever is right, that is wrong. Better to be inconsistent in truth, than consistent in a mistake. And your Romish idea of man is a mistake — utterly wrong and absurd — except in the one requirement of righteousness and godliness, which Protestants and heathen philosophers have required and do require just as much as you. My dear Luke, your ideal men and women won’t do — for they are not men and women at all, but what you call “saints” . . . Your Calendar, your historic list of the Earth’s worthies, won’t do — not they, but others, are the people who have brought Humanity thus far. I don’t deny that there are great souls among them; Beckets, and Hugh Grostetes, and Elizabeths of Hungary. But you are the last people to praise them, for you don’t understand them. Thierry honours Thomas a Becket more than all Canonisations and worshippers do, because he does see where the man’s true greatness lay, and you don’t. Why, you may hunt all Surius for such a biography of a mediaeval worthy as Carlyle has given of your Abbot Samson. I have read, or tried to read your Surius, and Alban Butler, and so forth — and they seemed to me bats and asses — One really pitied the poor saints and martyrs for having such blind biographers — such dunghill cocks, who overlooked the pearl of real human love and nobleness in them, in their greediness to snatch up and parade the rotten chaff of superstition, and self-torture, and spiritual dyspepsia, which had overlaid it. My dear fellow, that Calendar ruins your cause — you are “sacres aristocrates”— kings and queens, bishops and virgins by the hundred at one end; a beggar or two at the other; and but one real human lay St. Homobonus to fill up the great gulf between — A pretty list to allure the English middle classes, or the Lancashire working-men! — Almost as charmingly suited to England as the present free, industrious, enlightened, and moral state of that Eternal City, which has been blest with the visible presence and peculiar rule, temporal as well as spiritual, too, of your Dalai Lama. His pills do not seem to have had much practical effect there. . . . My good Luke, till he can show us a little better specimen of the kingdom of Heaven organised and realised on earth, in the country which does belong to him, soil and people, body and soul, we must decline his assistance in realising that kingdom in countries which don’t belong to him. If the state of Rome don’t show his idea of man and society to be a rotten lie, what proof would you have? . . . perhaps the charming results of a century of Jesuitocracy, as they were represented on a French stage in the year 1793? I can’t answer his arguments, you see, or yours either; I am an Englishman, and not a controversialist. The only answer I give is John Bull’s old dumb instinctive “Everlasting No!” which he will stand by, if need be, with sharp shot and cold steel — “Not that; anything but that. No kingdom of Heaven at all for us, if the kingdom of Heaven is like that. No heroes at all for us, if their heroism is to consist in their being not-men. Better no society at all, but only a competitive wild-beast’s den, than a sham society. Better no faith, no hope, no love, no God, than shams thereof.” I take my stand on fact and nature; you may call them idols and phantoms; I say they need be so no longer to any man, since Bacon has taught us to discover the Eternal Laws under the outward phenomena. Here on blank materialism will I stand, and testify against all Religions and Gods whatsoever, if they must needs be like that Roman religion, that Roman God. I don’t believe they need — not I. But if they need, they must go. We cannot have a “Deus quidam deceptor.” If there be a God, these trees and stones, these beasts and birds must be His will, whatever else is not. My body, and brain, and faculties, and appetites must be His will, whatever else is not. Whatsoever I can do with them in accordance with the constitution of them and nature must be His will, whatever else is not. Those laws of Nature must reveal Him, and be revealed by Him, whatever else is not. Man’s scientific conquest of nature must be one phase of His Kingdom on Earth, whatever else is not. I don’t deny that there are spiritual laws which man is meant to obey — How can I, who feel in my own daily and inexplicable unhappiness the fruits of having broken them? — But I do say, that those spiritual laws must be in perfect harmony with every fresh physical law which we discover: that they cannot be intended to compete self-destructively with each other; that the spiritual cannot be intended to be perfected by ignoring or crushing the physical, unless God is a deceiver, and His universe a self-contradiction. And by this test alone will I try all theories, and dogmas, and spiritualities whatsoever — Are they in accordance with the laws of nature? And therefore when your party compare sneeringly Romish Sanctity, and English Civilisation, I say, “Take you the Sanctity, and give me the Civilisation!” The one may be a dream, for it is unnatural; the other cannot be, for it is natural; and not an evil in it at which you sneer but is discovered, day by day, to be owing to some infringement of the laws of nature. When we “draw bills on nature,” as Carlyle says, “she honours them,”— our ships do sail; our mills do work; our doctors do cure; our soldiers do fight. And she does not honour yours; for your Jesuits have, by their own confession, to lie, to swindle, to get even man to accept theirs for them. So give me the political economist, the sanitary reformer, the engineer; and take your saints and virgins, relics and miracles. The spinning-jenny and the railroad, Cunard’s liners and the electric telegraph, are to me, if not to you, signs that we are, on some points at least, in harmony with the universe; that there is a mighty spirit working among us, who cannot be your anarchic and destroying Devil, and therefore may be the Ordering and Creating God.’

Which of them do you think, reader, had most right on his side?

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 21:44