Alexander Henry Craufurd.

Recollections of James Martineau: with some letters from him and an essay on his religion online

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Online LibraryAlexander Henry CraufurdRecollections of James Martineau: with some letters from him and an essay on his religion → online text (page 10 of 12)
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wills. Of what use are the very plainest ethical
laws, if the same old law-breaker is to keep them ?
Moral laws cannot by themselves give life to
those half-dead in trespasses and sins. Very
often they tend to exasperate rather than to
persuade or regenerate rebellious sinners. Con-
science may erect sign-posts for us on the road
to moral excellence ; but it cannot create new
energy, and very often it cannot even evoke
energy that is already latent.

This stern Theist's intense ethical zeal some-
times caused him to exaggerate the true doctrine
of Free Will. He assumed that the constitutions
of other men were as good and as free from un-
desirable and abnormal elements as his own was.
He knew not that the vast majority of mankind
is " sore let and hindered in running the race
that is set before us." He vindicated most
powerfully the truth of Free Will as regards
normal and well-balanced specimens of humanity ;
but he forgot the forlorn multitude of the morally
impotent, maimed, and blind, who never really
have any true probation in this world. The full
influence of heredity was never quite adequately


recognised in his writings. To the very last, the
full significance of Evolution was never quite
perceived by him. He ignored the fact that, in
the moral as in the physical world, the many
must be sacrificed for the sake of the more per-
fect development of the few. He knew not how
pitiable is the plight of unwilling sinners. He
argued as if the whole human race were elect now
in this world. In a sermon called " The Soul's
Forecast of Retribution " he actually declared
that " there is indeed no attribute of goodness
placed beyond the reach, or contributed without
the action, of any human will." To me the first
part of this sentence appears untrue to the facts
of life. Most men are more or less shipwrecked
in their long voyage to holiness ; and, if they
escape safe to land at all, they finally arrive in
harbour in a very damaged condition, not in the
stately vessel of a coherent and symmetrical moral
excellence, but on " the boards and broken
pieces of the ship," clinging sorrowfully to
battered and incoherent fragments of nobleness
and beauty, the sorely bruised " disjecta membra "
of a long-lost ideal character.

I think also that this strong athlete of the
moral world scarcely knew how weary most men


grow of the ceaseless moral tension required by
his severe system. He could not sympathise
much with that feeling which makes some of us
inclined to thank God that we are not always
doing either right or wrong. We shrink from
being perpetually under the eyes of our very
exacting task-master.

Perhaps also this austere religion tended a little
too much towards scrupulosity and legalism.
Perhaps it made the schoolmaster more prominent
than the father of our souls, and developed the
spirit of bondage rather than the spirit of con-
fiding sonship. So fine a soul as that of Martineau
could not fail occasionally to perceive this de-
pressing tendency. And so in his admirable
discourse called " Life to the Children of the
Prophets" this religious master wrote thus : "Con-
science also has its narrowness, its scrupulous
microscopic gaze, that looks for the animalcules
of obligation till it grows blind to the stars of
faith, and the free heaven swims dizzily before it.
The anxieties of the merely dutiful mind show
that there is yet a barrier leaving it outside the
union with God. Those cautious steps betray
the deterring fear, and are unlike the free move-
ments of a confiding love." He goes on to speak


of those " whose very faith is therefore a worship
of prohibition, a conservatism of limits, an appre-
hension of the escape of some fugitive desires,
and can never fling itself in pure enthusiasm and
with a fearless trust upon a large career, where
no rule can guide it, but only love impel."

Still, ethical scrupulosity did sometimes com-
bine with his original Deism to make the religion
of this deep thinker rather less attractive than
it might otherwise have been. At times his
religion approached perilously near to legalism.
His intense zeal for the moral law made him often
forget how antinomian man's heart naturally is,
how it clings to persons and is often vexed and
irritated by mere laws. In " The Seat of Autho-
rity in Religion " nothing is much less satisfactory
than the author's mode of dealing with the per-
sonality and teaching of St. Paul. He never
quite understood the full meaning of that great
saying, " Love is the fulfilling of the law." In
his case the doctrine of strict personal responsi-
bility often seemed to keep a jealous watch over
the lawless inroads of unrestrained sympathy.
His moral severity and his Deism might have
made him almost agree with the legalism of the
elder brother in the parable of the prodigal son,



if they had not been checked and put to shame
by the natural nobleness and delicacy of his
character. These fine qualities, joined to a power-
ful imagination, were needed to prevent him from
sympathising with the hard Pharisaism which
pervaded Mr. Cotter Morison's teaching in his
" Service of Man." He never fully appreciated
the immense regenerating and uplifting power of
pity and love for the unworthy. In him a kind
of moral fastidiousness to a great extent checked
the outpouring of affection over sinners. Justice
tended to get in the way of generosity. The
filthy rags of gross transgressors hid from Mar-
tineau's half-averted eyes their immense latent
potentialities of loyalty and devotion. I some-
times almost fear that Christ's treatment of the
woman taken in adultery and his promise of
paradise at once to the penitent thief may have
slightly jarred on the stainless purity and the
exacting moral sense of this exalted teacher.
Pauline teaching must often have puzzled him,
with its depreciation of law and its doctrines as
to the almost undiscriminating love of God and
the marvellous spiritual functions of Christ. Paul
spoke to astonished and entranced hearers of that
great love with which God loved them when they


were entirely unworthy, when they were " dead in
trespasses and sins " ; and he declared that, what
the normal working of natural conscience could
never effect in the numbed hearts of habitual trans-
gressors, could yet be easily achieved by the glow-
ing enthusiasm of an admiring devotion to Christ.
A strict ethical philosopher might perhaps not un-
naturally suppose that Paul put a kind of disparag-
ing slight on conscience and on law when he declared
so positively that " Christ is the end of the law
for righteousness to every one that belie veth."

In truth it is evident enough that the spirit
of my revered teacher was even to the end of his
life much injured and fettered by that uninspiring
old Deism out of which he had to a great extent
fled. He never entirely shook off its withering
influence. In some measure it tainted his con-
ception of the Infinite with a good many of the
hampering limitations of the finite. He thought
that God has to a considerable extent abdicated
His original omnipotence, that, though He was
once all-powerful, He no longer is ; that, having
once committed Himself to certain lines of action,
He cannot afterwards change or even adequately
control them. Thus the laws of the Creator are
in some ways a hindrance to His free activity.


In certain spheres He has irretrievably bound
Himself, whilst reserving to Himself a vast region
in which His unpledged spontaneities may operate.
In the physical world He is fettered, whilst in the
moral and spiritual world He is comparatively free.
Even there He is not entirely free, since the moral
laws in their relentless working cannot be much
mitigated . God cannot greatly deliver His penitent
children from their rather unsparing vengeance.

This view seems to me Deistic rather than
Christian. Even in the physical world it seems
better to hold that things are governed by God's
living volitions, and not by His spent ones ; that
the steadfast working of natural law is the result
of His ever-present choice and ever-vigilant
selecting activity, rather than a kind of mechanical
product of bygone determinations, a kind of de-
posit of inertness or fixity left by the receding
tide of divine energy. We do not like to think
that God has less to do than in earlier times, that
the sphere of His volitional energy is lessened
in its area. Martineau did not really hold the
Deistic view on this subject ; but, by representing
God as rigidly bound by His initial decisions, he
sometimes came rather near to it. The physical
universe becomes less interesting to us when we


view it as embodying chiefly the Creator's past
thoughts, especially if we are called upon to be-
lieve that these past thoughts have the power to
bar out or repress new ideas. According to such
a theory, the uniformity and regularity of the
Cosmos would be secured to a great extent by
sacrificing much of the freshness and originality
that might otherwise have been possible. God's
history would then in some measure be one of
arrested or petrified development. God would
rest or relax His energies in changeless custom,
and go forth afterwards in search of fresh fields
to conquer and to mould, handing over the
regions of His former activity to the guardian-
ship of fixed rules which He cannot even modify.
Thus it might seem as if God were somewhat
impoverished, as if a large portion of His vivid
spontaneity had been spent or exhausted. And
so the external world would necessarily lose some
of its interest for us, since it would represent the
Creator's frozen or stereotyped ideas, and not
His living and growing ones. God's vesture
would then speak to us of His inner nature in
a remote past ; but it would lose much of its
significance as an expression of His present
thoughts and feelings. It might even serve to


repress or veil much that is richest and most
glorious in that inner nature as it now exists.

When we turn from external Nature to man,
the insufficiency of Martineau's lingering Deism
becomes far more apparent. Here we cannot be
satisfied with a partially inert God. Our pressing
necessities are too great. We need a God who
can save to the uttermost those who come to Him.
But alas ! my teacher's lingering Deism to a great
extent impoverished his idea of God in His
relation to His children. He represented our
Creator's wish to help us as being far greater than
his power to do so. God had parted with much
of His power in the earlier stages of creation,
before His self-conscious children came into exist-
ence. Nature, we might almost say, had come
before us, as a jealous elder brother, and destroyed
a part of that rich blessing which might other-
wise have been ours. And so our Eternal Father
is obliged to give us what He can, and not what
the promptings of His heart would make Him
wish to give us. Thus, on Martineau's theory,
for Nature's sake God has put limits to His
original generosity. We might, if reverence per-
mitted, almost say that the Creator has acted
thoughtlessly or precipitately, according to this


theory ; that He has not sufficiently kept in view
the final stage of development ; that He has
sacrificed a magnificent future for the sake of
a comparatively commonplace present ; that He
has not kept in mind the fundamental motto of
Evolution, " The elder shall serve the younger."
Dr. Martineau's teaching as to God's forgive-
ness of sins seems to me far too Deistic in some
ways ; and its depressing unhopefulness was in-
creased by the unsparing demands of his very
exacting conscience. He sometimes appears to
have thought that God could not, and perhaps
ought not, to be profusely generous to returning
prodigals ; as if a somewhat leaner calf and the
second-best robe must of necessity suffice to
express the Father's joy at the safe return of
his erring son. God felt inclined to forgive re-
pentant sinners fully and freely ; but the tyranny
of natural laws restricted the range of His tender-
ness ; and conscience played the part of the
grudging elder brother in the parable, or acted
as a kind of Shylock stickling for his bond.
Martineau believed firmly in reconciliation with
God, but not — in any adequate sense — in the
remission of sins. He thought that the sinner
must in every case drink to the very dregs the


cup of suffering ; that the past is entirely irre-
parable ; that none of the effects of bygone
transgression can be changed or even greatly
mitigated. God's tenderness towards the peni-
tent exhausted itself in receiving him back into
His arms, and was powerless to diminish his
punishment. In a sermon called " Divine Justice
and Pardon Reconciled " he wrote thus concerning
the returning sinner and his father : " Free as
our soul is to come back and cry at the gate, so
free is He to open and fold us gently to His heart
again. Weak indeed from the waste of all our
strength, lame with our many wounds, in peril
from our dim sight, and in pain from treasured
agonies, we must still be ; and God can only say,
' My poor child, I cannot help thee here ; this
burden must thou carry to its end.' But still
the penitent lives no outcast life ; the light of
reconciliation is upon him."

This teaching is certainly more Deistic than
fully Christian ; and I also believe that it is quite
unnecessarily discouraging and repellent. Men
in general are only too likely to be confirmed and
hardened in a kind of ethical fatalism, from whose
palsying grasp it is one of the main objects of
Christianity to deliver them. Forgiveness is less


likely to be sought and valued, if it is to bring
with it no lessening of punishment. On such a
theory, ordinary men are likely to become careless.
If God is to be feared in the best sense, there must
be some really adequate forgiveness with Him.
Hopefulness is the very nerve of true repentance.

It also seems to me that this unhopeful view
of God's power to help the penitent sinner is
rather derogatory to God as well as discouraging
to man. On this theory the Lord's arm is indeed
so shortened that it cannot thoroughly save.
Natural laws grievously limit God's higher possi-
bilities. It is almost as if in His earlier days God
had unwisely mortgaged some of His most glorious
powers, so that, on the Deistic theory, we might
almost declare that " It repented God that He
had established rigid natural laws which hindered
the operation of His boundless love." This ima-
ginary and rather futile Deistic God might almost
exclaim, " Oh that / could rend the heavens ! "

I firmly believe, however, that the actual facts
of the moral and spiritual world are far less rigid
and saddening than this stern religion supposes
them to be. Nature is not quite so unbending
a moralist as austere teachers think it to be. The
initial stages of the Creator's work are not wholly


at variance with any of the requirements of finer
and more developed life. God does not ignore
the end whilst arranging the beginning. John
the Baptist's preaching is only preliminary, and
is not inconsistent with the later arrival of a more
gracious messenger from the Eternal Pity.

Even as regards the bodily effects of a past life
of sin, it is quite possible to use exaggerated
language. Some of these evil effects are often
modified, though never wholly cancelled. The
mind often greatly influences our physical health.
By inspiring men with peace of mind, serenity, and
hopefulness we often in some measure minister to
bodies diseased, and so give back to penitent trans-
gressors some measure of that corporeal health
which they had forfeited by riotous living. Thus to
some extent we really release men from their sins.

Dr. Martineau's teaching as to none of the effects
of past sin being in any degree altered by repent-
ance is not entirely consistent, when we look
at it practically. Objectively the penal effects
remain unchanged for the penitent ; but subjec-
tively they are very considerably mitigated. The
burden to be borne or lifted is equal in weight ;
but the strength with which to carry it is greatly
increased for the returning prodigal. God does


not diminish the burden, nor does He bear it for
the forgiven wanderer ; but He infuses into the
weak and depressed soul a large supply of fresh
strength and energy which it could not otherwise
have obtained ; and thus the burden becomes
very much less oppressive than it would have
been without divine aid. Thus God, even on
Martineau's theory, does very much modify the
pressure of an evil past on an aspiring present life.
And the outlook for one who thinks of returning
to the Father is assuredly rather brighter than
Deistic religion considered it to be.

Nor are other sources of consolation wanting.
In the moral and spiritual realm it is plain that
sin is often utilised in a way that it cannot be
in the physical world. As Martineau's friend,
Francis Newman, taught, a man is often per-
manently the better for some fall into gross sin,
which reveals to him the hatefulness of evil and
his own deplorable weakness. The humiliating
sense of past vileness often goads men on to
loftier heights of goodness. As Miss Cobbe
teaches, in hearts ploughed by contrition there
often bloom fairer spiritual flowers than are ever
found in the hard unbroken soil of placid respecta-
bility and self-satisfaction. Probably St. Peter's


fervent devotion to his master was stimulated
and increased by the sad realisation of his former
meanness in forsaking him. Humility and tender-
ness towards the faults of others are sometimes
most conspicuous in souls saddened by prolonged
moral failure. Out of moral wrecksGod sometimes
fashions the truest Sons of Consolation. Jean Val-
jean's profound pity and love for his fellows were
all the greater by reason of his bygone crime. St.
Augustine's bygone heresies made him, as he him-
self tells us, far more gentle than he otherwise might
have been to those wandering in unbelief and error.
Those who are " scarcely saved," " saved, though
as by fire," are usually the world's most eloquent
preachers. Those born in the storm of mightiest
elemental strife are ever the most impressive
guides to the mass of mankind. Their strange
Titanic force moves the world irresistibly. Com-
pared with these, the power of untempted good
men is small indeed. St. Paul, Augustine, Luther,
Bunyan, and Burns have shaken the inmost
hearts of men as they never were shaken by any
Pusey or Keble. The most powerful preachers
are those who come from the wild Edom of
Nature's tempestuous lawlessness with garments
red with blood. These are they who have


" trodden the wine-press alone," and therefore
speak with imperious and penetrating power,
" speak in righteousness, mighty to save." Men
sometimes save others just because they fail ade-
quately to save themselves. In " The Scarlet
Letter " Nathaniel Hawthorne shows that the
secret sinfulness of the minister, Arthur Dimmes-
dale, whilst ruinous to himself, was yet in some
ways highly beneficial to his hearers. "It kept
him down on a level with the lowest, him, the
man of ethereal attributes, whose voice the angels
might else have listened to and answered. But
this very burden it was that gave him sympathies
so intimate with the sinful brotherhood of man-
kind, so that his heart vibrated in unison with
theirs, and received their pain into itself, and sent
its own throb of pain through a thousand other
hearts in gushes of sad persuasive eloquence."
The deep distress of his own realised sinfulness
and weakness often humanises a man's soul as
scarcely anything else can humanise it. By being
"numbered with the transgressors" we learn to
bear their burdens and cure their infirmities.

Dr. Martineau's God stood in real need of an
incarnate mediator in order to move and save
mankind. His Christ, to a great extent, made


amends for the deficiencies of his God. Christ
bore away the defects of the Deistical God,
though forbidden by the Deists to bear away the
sins of men. Owing to his partial escape from
his old tyrant, and still more owing to the extra-
ordinary beauty and power of his own imagina-
tion, Martineau found many mediators between
God and man. The whole universe at times
spoke to him of its maker and sustainer; and
the somewhat pallid spiritual splendours of the
far-off Creator received a most welcome acces-
sion of vividness and brightness when they were
brought nigh, gathered together, and condensed
into the warm glowing brilliancy of that marvel-
lous soul which was at once Son of God and Son
of Man, a revelation of the highest and a home
for the lowest, a living and speaking reconciliation
of absolute purity and absolute pity, the ethical
real of God and the ethical ideal of man, " of
one substance with the Father," and yet in very
deed the brother and the loving friend of publicans
and sinners.

We may safely say that, without his Christ,
James Martineau's religious teaching would have
been well-nigh inoperative and powerless as
regards the great mass of our race. His primal


Deity was not very attractive in some ways ; but,
as this deep thinker well observes, " God's sternest
law, mellowed by the voice of Him who bare our
woes, is turned from the crash of Fate into the
music of Love."

But alas ! I have not come to the end of the
deficiencies of Deistic religion. It not only im-
poverished the conception of God ; it also im-
poverished the conception of man and of his
relations to his fellows. It was essentially an
unsocial and solitary religion. Unsocial in its
roots, it was also unsocial in its manifestations.
The limitations of its God were reproduced in
the limitations of His creatures. In both alike
the powers of sympathy were " sore let and
hindered " in running their course. A kind of
Atomism pervaded and depressed the philosophy
of this school of religionists. This religion never
learnt the truth that humanity is an organism,
that we are members one of another, that " the
branch cannot bear fruit except it abide in the
vine." It dreaded Pantheism too much, and
exaggerated the doctrine of strict personal re-
sponsibility. It impoverished individuality by
guarding it too zealously from outside influences.
It set each man to save his own soul by his


individual efforts alone, not knowing that to
achieve this feat is impossible for us. A sort of
Judaic solitariness pervaded the earlier forms
of English Unitarianism ; and to Martineau's
severely ethical nature this was congenial or at
least necessary. At times he almost seems to
have been afraid that in " bearing one another's
burdens " we might impair men's keen sense of
personal responsibility. To him the doctrine of
vicarious suffering was morally objectionable. To
this conscience-intoxicated Unitarian our great
Angel of the Agony sometimes appeared to be
a lawless emissary from the Evil One. That
vehement and penetrating form of sympathy
which pierces through all barriers of opposing
individuality, and diffuses itself through the inti-
mate structure of another soul, this unspeakable
gift from God, was taken for an immoral intruder
by our stern philosopher. He thought that a
sympathy so vehement must needs bring with it
the germs of a destroying irresponsibility, or at
least corrode the very roots of orthodox ethics.
It was but a kind of moral Satan assuming the
form of an angel of light. Salvation was neces-
sarily a lonely process. He agreed with the
despondent psalmist when he declared that " No


man may deliver his brother, nor make agreement
unto God for him."

To Martineau sympathy was a child or hand-
maid of morality, and not its proper source, or
sanction, or motive. God and his own conscience
were to him sufficing without the stimulus
afforded by our fellow-creatures. He did not at
all agree with a saying of mine, that to an un-
related being, cut off entirely from all human
fellowship, there might well seem to be neither
right nor wrong for him. In his opinion, Duty
or the Categorical Imperative, as the voice of
God, would suffice for motive. I never could get
him to understand what Broad-Church religious

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Online LibraryAlexander Henry CraufurdRecollections of James Martineau: with some letters from him and an essay on his religion → online text (page 10 of 12)