AS he lay on his bed day after day slowly recovering, he woke up to the fact which most men arrive at sooner or later, I mean that very few care two straws about truth, or have any confidence that it is righter and better to believe what is true than what is untrue, even though belief in the untruth may seem at first sight most expedient. Yet it is only these few who can be said to believe anything at all; the rest are simply unbelievers in disguise. Perhaps, after all, these last are right. They have numbers and prosperity on their side. They have all which the rationalist appeals to as his tests of right and wrong. Right, according to him, is what seems right to the majority of sensible, well-to-do people; we know of no safer criterion than this, but what does the decision thus arrived at involve? Simply this, that a conspiracy of silence about things whose truth would be immediately apparent to disinterested enquirers is not only tolerable but righteous on the part of those who profess to be and take money for being par excellence guardians and teachers of truth.
Ernest saw no logical escape from this conclusion. He saw that belief on the part of the early Christians in the miraculous nature of Christ’s Resurrection was explicable. without any supposition of miracle. The explanation lay under the eyes of anyone who chose to take a moderate degree of trouble; it had been put before the world again and again, and there had been no serious attempt to refute it. How was it that Dean Alford, for example, who had made the New Testament his specialty, could not or would not see what was so obvious to Ernest himself? Could it be for any other reason than that he did not want to see it, and if so was he not a traitor to the cause of truth? Yes, but was he not also a respectable and successful man, and were not the vast majority of respectable and successful men, such for example, as all the bishops and archbishops, doing exactly as Dean Alford did, and did not this make their action right, no matter though it had been cannibalism or infanticide, or even habitual untruthfulness of mind?
Monstrous, odious falsehood! Ernest’s feeble pulse quickened and his pale face flushed as this hateful view of life presented itself to him in all its logical consistency. It was not the fact of most men being liars that shocked him — that was all right enough; but even the momentary doubt whether the few who were not liars ought not to become liars too. There was no hope left if this were so; if this were so, let him die, the sooner the better. “Lord,” he exclaimed inwardly, “I don’t believe one word of it. Strengthen Thou and confirm my disbelief.” It seemed to him that he could never henceforth see a bishop going to consecration without saying to himself: “There, but for the grace of God, went Ernest Pontifex.” It was no doing of his. He could not boast; if he had lived in the time of Christ he might himself have been an early Christian, or even an Apostle for aught he knew. On the whole, he felt that he had much to be thankful for.
The conclusion, then, that it might be better to believe error than truth, should be ordered out of court at once, no matter by how clear a logic it had been arrived at; but what was the alternative? It was this, that our criterion of truth — i.e., that truth is what commends itself to the great majority of sensible and successful people — is not infallible. The rule is sound, and covers by far the greater number of cases, but it has its exceptions.
He asked himself, what were they? Ah! that was a difficult matter; there were so many, and the rules which governed them were sometimes so subtle that mistakes always had and always would be made; it was just this that made it impossible to reduce life to an exact science. There was a rough-and-ready, rule-of-thumb test of truth, and a number of rules as regards exceptions which could be mastered without much trouble, yet there was a residue of cases in which decision was difficult — so difficult that a man had better follow his instinct than attempt to decide them by any process of reasoning.
Instinct then is the ultimate court of appeal. And what is instinct? It is a mode of faith in the evidence of things not actually seen. And so my hero returned almost to the point from which he had started originally, namely, that the just shall live by faith.
And this is what the just — that is to say reasonable people — do as regards those daily affairs of life which most concern them. They settle smaller matters by the exercise of their own deliberation. More important ones, such as the cure of their own bodies and the bodies of those whom they love, the investment of their money, the extrication of their affairs from any serious mess — these things they generally entrust to others of whose capacity they know little save from general report; they act therefore on the strength of faith, not of knowledge. So the English nation entrusts the welfare of its fleet and naval defences to a First Lord of the Admiralty, who, not being a sailor, can know nothing about these matters except by acts of faith. There can be no doubt about faith and not reason being the ultima ratio.
Even Euclid, who has laid himself as little open to the charge of credulity as any writer who ever lived, cannot get beyond this. He has no demonstrable first premise. He requires postulates and axioms which transcend demonstration, and without which he can do nothing. His superstructure indeed is demonstration, but his ground is faith. Nor again can he get further than telling a man he is a fool if he persists in differing from him. He says “which is absurd,” and declines to discuss the matter further. Faith and authority, therefore, prove to be as necessary for him as for anyone else. “By faith in what, then,” asked Ernest of himself, “shall a just man endeavour to live at this present time?” He answered to himself, “At any rate not by faith in the supernatural element of the Christian religion.”
And how should he best persuade his fellow-countrymen to leave off believing in this supernatural element? Looking at the matter from a practical point of view, he thought the Archbishop of Canterbury afforded the most promising key to the situation. It lay between him and the Pope. The Pope was perhaps best in theory, but in practice the Archbishop of Canterbury would do sufficiently well. If he could only manage to sprinkle a pinch of salt, as it were, on the Archbishop’s tail, he might convert the whole Church of England to free thought by a coup de main. There must be an amount of cogency which even an Archbishop — an Archbishop whose perceptions had never been quickened by imprisonment for assault — would not be able to withstand. When brought face to face with the facts, as he, Ernest, could arrange them, his Grace would have no resource but to admit them; being an honourable man he would at once resign his Archbishopric, and Christianity would become extinct in England within a few months’ time. This, at any rate, was how things ought to be. But all the time Ernest had no confidence in the Archbishop’s not hopping off just as the pinch was about to fall on him, and this seemed so unfair that his blood boiled at the thought of it. If this was to be so, he must try if he could not fix him by the judicious use of bird-lime or a snare, or throw the salt on his tail from an ambuscade.
To do him justice, it was not himself that he greatly cared about. He knew he had been humbugged, and he knew also that the greater part of the ills which had afflicted him were due, indirectly, in chief measure to the influence of Christian teaching; still, if the mischief had ended with himself, he should have thought little about it, but there was his sister, and his brother Joey, and the hundreds and thousands of young people throughout England whose lives were being blighted through the lies told them by people whose business it was to know better, but who scamped their work and shirked difficulties instead of facing them. It was this which made him think it worth while to be angry, and to consider whether he could not at least do something towards saving others from such years of waste and misery as he had had to pass himself. If there was no truth in the miraculous accounts of Christ’s Death and Resurrection, the whole of the religion founded upon the historic truth of those events tumbled to the ground. “Why,” he exclaimed, with all the arrogance of youth, “they put a gipsy or fortune-teller into prison for getting money out of silly people who think they have supernatural power; why should they not put a clergyman in prison for pretending that he can absolve sins, or turn bread and wine into the flesh and blood of One who died two thousand years ago? What,” he asked himself, “could be more pure ‘hanky-panky’ than that a bishop should lay his hands upon a young man and pretend to convey to him the spiritual power to work this miracle? It was all very well to talk about toleration; toleration, like everything else, had its limits; besides, if it was to include the bishop, let it include the fortune-teller too.” He would explain all this to the Archbishop of Canterbury by-and-by, but as he could not get hold of him just now, it occurred to him that he might experimentalise advantageously upon the viler soul of the prison chaplain. It was only those who took the first and most obvious step in their power who ever did great things in the end, so one day, when Mr. Hughes — for this was the chaplain’s name — was talking with him, Ernest introduced the question of Christian evidences, and tried to raise a discussion upon them. Mr. Hughes had been very kind to him, but he was more than twice my hero’s age, and had long taken the measure of such objections as Ernest tried to put before him. I do not suppose he believed in the actual objective truth of the stories about Christ’s Resurrection and Ascension any more than Ernest did, but he knew that this was a small matter, and that the real issue lay much deeper than this.
Mr. Hughes was a man who had been in authority for many years, and he brushed Ernest on one side as if he had been a fly. He did it so well that my hero never ventured to tackle him again, and confined his conversation with him for the future to such matters as what he had better do when he got out of prison; and here Mr. Hughes was ever ready to listen to him with sympathy and kindness.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:48