Chapter 9.

{65} SOME persons fidget at intellectual difficulties, and, successfully or not, are ever trying to solve them. Charles was of a different cast of temper; a new idea was not lost on him, but it did not distress him, if it was obscure, or conflicted with his habitual view of things. He let it work its way and find its place, and shape itself within him, by the slow spontaneous action of the mind. Yet perplexity is not in itself a pleasant state; and he would have hastened its removal, had he been able.

By means of conversations such as those which we have related (to which many others might be added, which we spare the reader's patience), and from the diversities of view which he met with in the University, he had now come, in the course of a year, to one or two conclusions, not very novel, but very important:—first, that there are a great many opinions in the world on the most momentous subjects; secondly, that all are not equally true; thirdly, that it is a duty to hold true opinions; and, fourthly, that it is uncommonly difficult to get hold of them. He had been accustomed, as we have seen, to fix his mind on persons, {66} not on opinions, and to determine to like what was good in every one; but he had now come to perceive that, to say the least, it was not respectable in any great question to hold false opinions. It did not matter that such false opinions were sincerely held—he could not feel that respect for a person who held what Sheffield called a sham, with which he regarded him who held a reality. White and Bateman were cases in point; they were very good fellows, but he could not endure their unreal way of talking, though they did not feel it to be unreal themselves. In like manner, if the Roman Catholic system was untrue, so far was plain (putting aside higher considerations), that a person who believed in the power of saints, and prayed to them, was an actor in a great sham, let him be as sincere as he would. He mistook words for things, and so far forth, he could not respect him more than he respected White or Bateman. And so of a Unitarian; if he believed the power of unaided human nature to be what it was not; if by birth man is fallen, and he thought him upright, he was holding an absurdity. He might redeem and cover this blot by a thousand excellences, but a blot it would remain; just as we should feel a handsome man disfigured by the loss of an eye or a hand. And so, again, if a professing Christian made the Almighty a being of simple benevolence, and He was, on the contrary, what the Church of England teaches, a God who punishes for the sake of justice, such a person was making an idol or unreality the object of his religion, and (apart from more serious thoughts about him) so far he could {67} not respect him. Thus the principle of dogmatism gradually became an essential element in Charles's religious views.

Gradually, and imperceptibly to himself—for the thoughts which we have been tracing only came on him at spare times, and were taken up at intervals from the point at which they were laid down—his lectures and other duties of the place, his friends and recreations, were the staple of the day, but there was this under-current ever in motion, and sounding in his mental ear as soon as other sounds were hushed. As he dressed in the morning, as he sat under the beeches of his college-garden, when he strolled into the meadow, when he went into the town to pay a bill or make a call, when he threw himself on his sofa after shutting his oak at night, thoughts cognate with those which have been described were busy within him.

Discussions, however, and inquiries, as far as Oxford could afford matter for them, were for a while drawing to an end; for Trinity Sunday was now past, and the Commemoration was close at hand. On the Sunday before it, the University sermon happened to be preached by a distinguished person, whom that solemnity brought up to Oxford; no less a man than the Very Rev. Dr. Brownside, the new Dean of Nottingham, some time Huntingdonian Professor of Divinity, and one of the acutest, if not soundest academical thinkers of the day. He was a little, prim, smirking be-spectacled man, bald in front, with curly black hair behind, somewhat pompous in his manner, with a clear musical utterance which enabled {68} one to listen to him without effort. As a divine, he seemed never to have had any difficulty on any subject; he was so clear or so shallow that he saw to the bottom of all his thoughts: or, since Dr. Johnson tells us that "all shallows are clear," we may perhaps distinguish him by both epithets. Revelation to him, instead of being the abyss of God's counsels, with its dim outlines and broad shadows, was a flat, sunny plain, laid out with straight macadamised roads. Not, of course, that he denied the Divine incomprehensibility itself, with certain heretics of old; but he maintained that in Revelation all that was mysterious had been left out, and nothing given us but what was practical, and directly concerned us. It was, moreover, to him a marvel, that everyone did not agree with him in taking this simple, natural view, which he thought almost self-evident; and he attributed the phenomenon, which was by no means uncommon, to some want of clearness of head, or twist of mind, as the case might be. He was a popular preacher; that is, though he had few followers, he had numerous hearers; and on this occasion the church was overflowing with the young men of the place.

He began his sermon by observing, that it was not a little remarkable that there were so few good reasoners in the world, considering that the discursive faculty was one of the characteristics of man's nature, as contrasted with brute animals. It had indeed been said that brutes reasoned, but this was an analogical sense of the word "reason," and an instance of that very ambiguity of language, or confusion of thought, on which he was {69} animadverting. In like manner, we say that the reason why the wind blows is, that there is a change of temperature in the atmosphere, and the reason why the bells ring is, because the ringers pull them; but who would say that the wind reasons or that bells reason? There was, he believed, no well-ascertained fact (an emphasis on the word fact) of brutes reasoning. It had been said, indeed, that that sagacious animal, the dog, if, in tracking his master, he met three ways, after smelling the two, boldly pursued the third without any such previous investigation; which, if true, would be an instance of a disjunctive hypothetical syllogism. Also Dugald Stewart spoke of the case of a monkey cracking nuts behind a door, which, not being a strict imitation of anything which he could have actually seen, implied an operation of abstraction, by which the clever brute had first ascended to the general notion of nut-crackers, which perhaps he had seen in a particular instance, in silver or in steel, at his master's table, and then descending, had embodied it, thus obtained, in the shape of an expedient of his own devising. This was what had been said: however, he might assume on the present occasion, that the faculty of reasoning was characteristic of the human species; and, this being the case, it certainly was remarkable that so few persons reasoned well.

After this introduction, he proceeded to attribute to this defect the number of religious differences in the world. He said that the most celebrated questions in religion were but verbal ones; that the disputants did not know their own meaning, or that of their opponents; {70} and that a spice of good logic would have put an end to dissensions, which had troubled the world for centuries—would have prevented many a bloody war, many a fierce anathema, many a savage execution, and many a ponderous folio. He went on to imply that in fact there was no truth or falsehood in the received dogmas in theology; that they were modes, neither good nor bad in themselves, but personal, national, or periodic, in which the intellect reasoned upon the great truths of religion; that the fault lay, not in holding them, but in insisting on them, which was like insisting on a Hindoo dressing like a Fin, or a regiment of dragoons using the boomarang.

He proceeded to observe, that from what he had said, it was plain in what point of view the Anglican formularies were to be regarded; viz., they were our mode of expressing everlasting truths, which might be as well expressed in other ways, as any correct thinker would be able to see. Nothing, then, was to be altered in them; they were to be retained in their integrity; but it was ever to be borne in mind that they were Anglican theology, not theology in the abstract; and that, though the Athanasian Creed was good for us, it did not follow that it was good for our neighbours; rather, that what seemed the very reverse might suit others better, might be their mode of expressing the same truths.

He concluded with one word in favour of Nestorius, two for Abelard, three for Luther, "that great mind," as he worded it, "who saw that churches, creeds, rites, persons, were nought in religion, and that the inward spirit, faith," as he himself expressed it, "was all in {71} all"; and with a hint that nothing would go well in the University till this great principle was so far admitted, as to lead its members—not, indeed, to give up their own distinctive formularies, no—but to consider the direct contradictories of them equally pleasing to the divine Author of Christianity.

Charles did not understand the full drift of the sermon; but he understood enough to make him feel that it was different from any sermon he had heard in his life. He more than doubted, whether, if his good father had heard it, he would not have made it an exception to his favourite dictum. He came away marvelling with himself what the preacher could mean, and whether he had misunderstood him. Did he mean that Unitarians were only bad reasoners, and might be as good Christians as orthodox believers? He could mean nothing else. But what if, after all, he was right? He indulged the thought awhile. "Then every one is what Sheffield calls a sham, more or less; and there was no reason for being annoyed at any one. Then I was right originally in wishing to take every one for what he was. Let me think; every one a sham ... shams are respectable, or rather no one is respectable. We can't do without some outward form of belief; one is not truer than another; that is, all are equally true ... All are true ... That is the better way of taking it; none are shams, all are true ... All are true! impossible! one as true as another! why then it is as true that our Lord is a mere man, as that He is God. He could not possibly mean this; what did he mean? {72}

So Charles went on, painfully perplexed, yet out of this perplexity two convictions came upon him, the first of them painful too; that he could not take for gospel everything that was said, even by authorities of the place and divines of name; and next, that his former amiable feeling of taking every one for what he was, was a dangerous one, leading with little difficulty to a sufferance of every sort of belief, and legitimately terminating in the sentiment expressed in Pope's Universal Prayer, which his father had always held up to him as a pattern specimen of shallow philosophism:—

"Father of all, in every age,
    In every clime adored,
By saint, by savage, and by sage,
    Jehovah, Jove, or Lord".

Chapter 1-10

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