Poems and Prose Remains, Vol. I

Notes on the Religious Tradition.1

Arthur Hugh Clough

IT IS impossible for any scholar to have read, and studied, and reflected without forming a strong impression of the entire uncertainty of history in general, and of the history of Christianity in particular.

It is equally impossible for any man to live, act, and reflect without feeling the significance and depth of the moral and religious teaching which passes amongst us by the name of Christianity.

The more a man feels the value, the true import of this, the more will he hesitate to base it upon those foundations which as a scholar he feels to be unstable. Manuscripts are doubtful, records may be unauthentic, criticism is feeble, historical facts must be left uncertain.

Even in like manner my own personal experience is most limited, perhaps even most delusive: what have I seen, what do I know? Nor is my personal judgment a thing which I feel any great satisfaction in trusting. My reasoning powers are weak; my memory doubtful and confused; my conscience, it may be, callous or vitiated.

I see not how it is possible for a man disinclined to adopt arbitrarily the watchword of a party to the sacrifice of truth—indisposed to set up for himself, and vehemently urge some one point—I see not what other alternative any sane and humbleminded man can have but to throw himself upon the great religious tradition.

But I see not either how any upright and strict dealer with himself—how any man not merely a slave to spiritual appetites, affections and wants—any man of intellectual as well as moral honesty—and without the former the latter is but a vain thing—I see not how anyone who will not tell lies to himself, can dare to affirm that the narrative of the four Gospels is an essential integral part of that tradition. I do not see that it is a great and noble thing, a very needful or very worthy service, to go about proclaiming that Mark is inconsistent with Luke, that the first Gospel is not really Matthew’s, nor the last with any certainty John’s, that Paul is not Jesus, &c., &c., &c. It is at the utmost a commendable piece of honesty; but it is no new gospel to tell us that the old one is of dubious authenticity.

I do not see either, on the other hand, that it can be lawful for me, for the sake of the moral guidance and the spiritual comfort, to ignore all scientific or historic doubts, or if pressed with them to the utmost, to take refuge in Romish infallibility, and, to avoid sacrificing the four Gospels, consent to accept the legends of the saints and the tales of modern miracles.

I believe that I may without any such perversion of my reason, without any such mortal sin against my own soul, which is identical with reason, and against the Supreme Giver of that soul and reason, still abide by the real religious tradition.

It is indeed just conceivable that the Divine Orderer of the universe, and Father of our spirits, should have so created these and ordered that, as that the one should be directly contradictory to the other. It may be that the facts which we, by the best force of our intellects, discern, are by His ordinance delusions, intended of a set purpose to tempt us from our highest path, that of His love and the worship of Him. It is conceivable that He has subtly arranged that two and two should be four (by delusion) everywhere, that our faith (the one reality) may be tried when we propose to harmonise it with this fallacy. It is possible that as our senses and appetites would make us believe bad things, because pleasant, therefore good, so also our reason may cheat us to believe wrong things, because reasonable, therefore right. The rule which He has placed to measure all things by, and bid us trust in them implicitly, may be, by His special purpose, false for the highest things. What in our solemn courts of justice we should call false witness, may be in the Church to decide our verdict; what in the exchange would be imposture, may be in the sanctuary pure truth. I say, this thing is conceivable, yet it is conceivable also that sense and mind, that intellect and religion, things without and things within, are in harmony with each other. If it is conceivable that the earth in the natural world goes round the sun, delusively to tempt us from the revealed fact of the supernatural world that the sun goes round the earth, it is also conceivable that the heavens, as astronomically discerned, declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth His handywork.

It is conceivable that religious truths of the highest import may grow up naturally, and appear before us involved in uncertain traditions, with every sort of mere accessory legend and story attached to them and entangled with them.

It may be true that as the physical bread has to be digested and the nutritive portion separated from the innutritive, so may it also be with the spiritual. It may be true that man has fallen, though Adam and Eve are legendary. It may be a divine fact that God is a Person, and not a sort of natural force; and it may have happened that the tales of His personal appearance to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, were the means of sustaining and conveying down to posterity that belief, and yet that He never sat in the tent on the plains of Mamre, nor wrestled with Jacob by night, nor spoke with Moses in the mount.

Where then, since neither in Rationalism nor in Rome is our refuge, where then shall we seek for the Religious Tradition?

Everywhere; but above all in our own work: in life, in action, in submission, so far as action goes, in service, in experience, in patience, and in confidence. I would scarcely have any man dare to say that he has found it, till that moment when death removes his power of telling it. Let no young man presume to talk to us vainly and confidently about it. Ignorant, as said Aristotle, of the real actions of life, and ready to follow all impressions and passions, he is hardly fitted as yet even to listen to practical directions couched in the language of religion. But this apart—everywhere.

The Religious Tradition—as found everywhere—as found not only among clergymen and religious people, but among all who have really tried to order their lives by the highest action of the reasonable and spiritual will. I will go to Johnson; I will go to Hume, as well as to Bishop Butler. The precepts with which our parents often startle our religious instincts, and our companions revolt our young moral convictions, these also are in some sense to be considered in the religious and moral tradition. Every rule of conduct, every maxim, every usage of life and society, must be admitted, like Ecclesiastes of old in the Old Testament, so in each new age to each new age’s Bible.

Everywhere—to India, if you will, and the ancient Bhagvad-Gita and the laws of Menu; to Persia and Hafiz; to China and Confucius; to the Vedas and the Shasters; to the Koran; to pagan Greece and Rome; to Homer; to Socrates and Plato; to Lucretius, to Virgil, to Tacitus. Try all things, I do not imagine that any spiritual doctrine or precept of life found in all that travel from east to west and north to south will disqualify us to return to what prima facie does appear to be, not indeed the religion of the majority of mankind, but the religion of the best, so far as, we can judge in past history, and despite of professed infidelity, of the most enlightened of our own time.

Whether Christ died upon the cross, I cannot tell; yet I am prepared to find some spiritual truth in the doctrine of the Atonement. Purgatory is not in the Bible; I do not therefore think it incredible.

There is only one theory or precept which must be noticed ere I end. It is said that each of us is born with a peculiar nature of his own, a constitution as it were for one form of truth to the exclusion of others; that we must each look for what will suit us, and not be over-solicitous for wide and comprehensive attainments. What is one man’s food is another’s poison. Climate, parentage, and other circumstances are too strong for us; it is impossible for the Italian to be Protestant, or for the sons of New England Puritans to turn Roman Catholics to any great extent.

I do not doubt that the Protestant has excluded himself (necessary perhaps it was that he should so do) from large religious experience which the Roman Catholic preserves. I am convinced again that the Unitarian is morally and religiously only half educated compared with the Episcopalian. Modern Unitarianism is, I conceive, unfortunate on the one hand in refusing to allow its legitimate force to the exercise of reason and criticism; on. the other hand, in having by its past exercise of reason and criticism thrown aside treasures of pure religious tradition because of their dogmatic exterior.

I do acquiesce in this humble doctrine; I do believe that, strive as I will, I am restricted, and grasp as I may, I can never hold the complete truth. But that does not the least imply that I am justified in shutting the eyes of my understanding to the facts of science, or its ears to the criticisms of history, nor yet in neglecting those pulsations of spiritual instinct which come to me from association at one time with Unitarians, at another with Calvinists, or again with Episcopalians and Roman Catholics.

I cannot see beyond the horizon; but within the natural horizon am I to make an unnatural new horizon for myself? I cannot be in two places at once; shall I therefore refuse to visit them at different times?

This doctrine may indeed lead to one conclusion; but it can lead justly to one only, and that I think is a very harmless one, namely, that when we have done all, we are unprofitable servants; when we have tried all things, what we hold fast is not the entire truth; when we have seen all we can, there is still more that we cannot do.

Thus far I am most content to accept it. But it is no excuse to the Italian for refusing to study the religious views of Englishmen, nor to the Unitarian for believing that Calvinism is nonsense; nor to any one for refusing to think.

It is very true that, speaking generally, to a certain extent, we must all of us be of the religion of our fathers; we are so whether we like it or not; whether we say we are, or say we are not. It is very true, nevertheless, that we cannot refuse to know, when we are told it on good authority that there are many more Buddhists in the world than Christians.

And it appears to me that it is much more the apparent dispensation of things that we should gradually widen, than that we should narrow and individualise our creeds. Why are we daily coming more and more into communication with each other, if it be not that we learn each other’s knowledge and combine all into one? I feel more inclined to put faith in the currents of the river of things, than because it runs one way to think I must therefore pull hard against it to go the other.



1. In the MS. Mr. Clough has written the first five stanzas of the poem entitled ‘Through a glass darkly’, at the head of this fragment. Though there is no date to the MS., it may with safety be referred to the last period of his life.    [back]

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