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THE RESPONSIBILITIES OF UNBELIEF:
A CONVERSATION BETWEEN THREE RATIONALISTS.
"A ND finally," asked Vere, "what do you think is likely to have XX been the result of Monsignore's wonderful sermon?"
He had gone to meet his two friends in the late summer afternoon; and as they walked slowly towards the old farm on the brink of the common, they had been giving him an account of the sermon which they had just been to hear; a sermon probably intended to overcome the last scruples of one Protestant in particular, a lady on a visit to the neighbouring Catholic Earl, but ostensibly delivered for the benefit of Protestants in general—that is to say, of as many countryfolk and stray visitors as could be collected in the chapel of Rother Castle.
"The result," answered Rheinhardt with that indefinable cosmopolitan accent, neither French nor German, which completed the sort of eighteenth-century, citizen-of-the-world character of the great archaeologist; "the result," answered Rheinhardt, " is that Baldwin and I have spent a most delightful and instructive afternoon, and that you would have done so too, Vere, had you not scornfully decided that no Catholicism more recent than that of St. Theresa deserved the attention of the real aesthetic pessimist."
Vere laughed. "What I want to know is, whether you suppose that. Monsignore has succeeded in making another convert?"
"I think he must have succeeded," answered Baldwin; "he had evidently brought that soul to the very brink of the ditch which separates Protestantism from Catholicism; his object was to make the passage quite insensible, to fill up the ditch so that its presence could not be perceived. He tried to make it appear to Protestant listeners that Catholicism was not at all the sort of foreign, illiberal, frog-eating, Guy-Fawkesy bugbear of their fancy; but, on the contrary, the simple, obvious, liberal, modern, eminently English form of belief which they think they have got (but in their hearts must have felt that they have not) in Protestantism. And I really never saw anything more ingenious than the way in which, without ever mentioning the words Catholicism or Protestantism, Monsignore contrived to leave the impression that a really sincere Protestant is already more than half a Catholic. I assure you that, if it had not been for the awful sixpenny chromo-lithographs of the Passion, the bleeding wooden Christs, the Madonnas in muslin frocks and spangles, and all the pious tawdriness which makes Rother Chapel look like some awful Belgian or Bavarian church, I might almost have believed, for the moment, that the lady in question would do very wisely to turn Catholic."
"I wonder whether she will?" mused Vere, as they walked slowly across the yielding turf of the common, which seemed in its yellow greenness to be saturated with the gleams of sunshine, breaking ever and anon through the film of white cloud against which stood out the dark and massive outline of the pine clumps, the ghost-like array of the larches, and the pale-blue undulation of the distant downs.
"She may or she may not," answered Rheinhardt, " that is no concern of mine, any more than what becomes of the actors after an amusing comedy. What is it to us unbelievers whether one more mediocrity be lost by Protestantism and gained by Catholicism? "Tis merely the juggler's apple being transferred from the right hand to the left; we may amuse ourselves watching it dancing up and down, and from side to side, and wondering where it will reappear next; that's all."
Vere was fully accustomed, after their three weeks' solitude together, correcting proofs and composing lectures in this southcountry farm, to Rheinhardt's optimistic Voltairean levity, his sheer incapacity of conceiving that religion could be a reality to any one, his tendency to regard abstract discussion merely as a delightful exercise for the aristocracy of the intellect, quite apart from any effect upon the thoughts or condition of the less gifted majority. He admired and pitied Rheinhardt, and let himself be amused by his kindly sceptical narrowmindedness.
"Poor woman \" replied Vere," it does seem a little hard that her soul should be merely an apple to be juggled with for the amusement of Professor Rheinhardt. But, after all, I agree with you that it is of no consequence to us whether she turn Catholic or remain Protestant. The matter concerns only herself, and all is right as long as she settles down in the faith best adapted to her individual spiritual wants. There ought to be as many different religions as there are different sorts of character—religions and irreligions, of course; for I think you, Rheinhardt, would have been miserable had you lived before the invention of Voltaireanism. The happiness of some souls appears to consist in a sense of vigour and self-reliance, a power of censuring one's self and one's neighbours; and Protestantism, as austere and Calvinistic and democratic as possible, is the right religion for them. But there are others whose highest spiritual bien etre consists in a complete stripping off of all personality, a complete letting themselves passively be swung up and down by a force greater than themselves; and such people ought, I think, to turn Catholic."
Rheinhardt looked at Vere with a droll expression of semi-paternal contempt. "My dear Vere," he asked, "is it possible that you, at your age, can still believe in such nonsense? Ladies, I admit, may require for their complete happiness to abandon their conscience occasionally into the hands of some saintly person; but do you mean to say that a man in the possession of all his faculties, with plenty to do in the world, with a library of good books, some intelligent friends, a good digestion, and a good theatre when he has a mind togo there,—do you mean to tell me that such a man can ever be troubled by the wants of his soul?"
"Such a man as that certainly would not/' answered Vere, "because the name of such a man would be Hans Rheinhardt."
"It is very odd," remarked Baldwin, " that neither of you seem to consider that the lady's conversion can concern anybody except herself; Rheinhardt looks upon it as a mere piece of juggling; you, Vere, seem to regard it in a kind of aesthetic light, as if the woman ought to choose a religion upon the same principle upon which she would choose a bonnet—namely, to get something comfortable and becoming."
"Surely," interrupted Vere, " the individual soul may be permitted to seek for peace wherever there is most chance of finding it?"
"I don't see at all why the individual soul should have a right to seek for peace regardless of the interests of society at large, any more than why the individual body should have a right to satisfy its cravings regardless of the effect on the rest of mankind," retorted Baldwin. "You cry out against this latter theory as the height of immorality, because it strikes at the root of all respect for mine and thine; but don't you see that your assumed right to gratify your soul undermines, what is quite as important, all feeling of true and false? The soul is a nobler thing than the body, you wdl answer. But why is it nobler? Merely because it has greater powers for good and evil, greater duties and responsibilities; and for that very reason it ought to have less right to indulge itseK at the expense of what belongs not to it, but to mankind. Truth"
"Upon my word," put in Rheinhardt, "I don't know which is the greater plague, the old-fashioned nuisance called a soul, or the newfangled bore called mankind." And he pushed open the gate of the farm-garden, where the cats rolled lazily in the neatly gravelled paths, and the hens ran cackling among the lettuces and the screens of red-flowered beans. When they entered the little farm-parlour, with its deep chimney recess, curtained with faded chintz, and its bright array of geraniums and fuchsias on the window-ledge, they found that their landlady had prepared their tea, and covered the table with all manner of home-baked cakes and fruit, jugs of freshly cut roses and sweet peas.
"It is quite extraordinary," remarked Rheinhardt, as he poured out the tea, "that a man of your intelligence, Baldwin, should go on obstinately supposing that it can matter a jot what opinions are held by people to whom opinions can never be anything vital, but are merely so many half-understood formulae; much less that it can matter whether such people believe in one kind of myth rather than in another. Of course it matters to a man like Monsignore, who, quite apart from any material advantage which every additional believer brings to the Church of which he is a dignitary, is fully persuaded that the probable reward for Protestants are brimstone and flames, which his Evangelical opponents doubtless consider as the special lot of Papists. But what advantage is it to us if this particular mediocrity of a great lady refuses to be converted to the belief in a rather greater number of unintelligible dogmas? Science and philosophy can only gain infinitely by being limited strictly to the really intelligent classes; the less all others presume to think, the better"
"Come now/' objected Vere, " you are not going to tell me that thought is the privilege of a class, my dear Rheinhardt."
"Thought," answered Rheinhardt, "is the privilege of those who are capable of thinking."
"There is thinking and thinking," corrected Baldwin; "every man is neither able nor required to think out new truths; but every man is required, at least once in his life, to take some decision which depends upon his having at least understood some of the truths which have been discovered by his betters; and every man is required, and that constantly, to think out individual problems of conduct, for which he will be fit just in proportion as he is in the habit of seeing and striving to see things in their true light. The problems which he has before him may be trifling and may require only a trifling amount of intellect; but of such problems consists the vast bulk of the world's life, and upon their correct decision depends much of the world's improvement."
"The world's improvement," answered Rheinhardt, "depends upon everything being done by the person best fitted to do it; the material roads and material machinery being made by the men who have the strongest physical muscles and the best physical eyes, and the intellectual roads being cut, and the intellectual machinery constructed, by the men who have the best intellectual iniscle and sight. Therefore, with reference to conversions (for I see Baldwin can't get over the possible conversion of that particular lady), it appears to me that the only thing that can possibly concern us in them is, that these conversions should not endanger the liberty of thought of those who can think; and this being gained (which it is, thoroughly, nowadays), that they should not interfere with the limitation of thought to those whose it is by rights. That religious belief is the best which is most conducive to complete intellectual emancipation."
"But that is exactly why I am sorry that Monsignore should make any converts!" cried Baldwin.
"And for that reason," continued Rheinhardt, fixing his eyes on Baldwin with obvious enjoyment of the paradox, "I think that we ought to hope that Monsignore may succeed in converting not only this great lady, but as many ladies, great and small, as the world contains. I beg, therefore, to drink to the success of Monsignore, and of all his accomplished, zealous, and fascinating fellow-workers!" And Rheinhardt drank off his cup of tea with mock solemnity.
"Paradoxical as usual, our eighteenth-century philosopher," laughed Vere, lighting his pipe.
"Not paradoxical in the very least, my dear Vere. Look around you, and compare the degree of emancipation of really thinking minds in Catholic and in Protestant countries: in the first it is complete—confession, celibacy of clergy, monasticism, transubstantiation, Papal infallibility, Lourdes water, and bits of semi-saintly bones in glass jars, as I have seen them in Paris convents, being too much for the patience of an honest and intelligent man who reads his Voltaire and his Renan. With your Protestant your case is different, be he German or English: the Reformation has got rid of all the things which would stink too manifestly in his nostrils; and he is just able to swallow (in an intellectual wafer which prevents his tasting it) the amount of nonsense the absorption of which is rewarded by a decent social position, or perhaps by a good living or a professorship; meanwhile he may nibble at Darwinism, Positivism, materialism, be quite the man of advanced thought; for, even if he be fully persuaded that the world was not created in six days, and consider Buddha and Socrates quite as divine as Christ, he will yet allow that the lower classes must not be too rudely disturbed in their belief of the story of the apple and its fatal consequences. And this merely because a parcel of men of the sixteenth century, without any scientific reasons for doubt and up to the ears in theology, chose to find that certain Romish dogmas and practices were intolerable to their reason and conscience; and therefore invented that disastrous modus vivendi with Semitic and mediaeval notions which we
VOL. XLIir. 3 A