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Criticism Of Elsmere

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Robert Green Ingersoll

IF one wishes to know what orthodox religion really is — I mean that religion unsoftened by Infidelity, by doubt — let him read “John Ward, Preacher.” This book shows exactly what the love of God will do in the heart of man. This shows what the effect of the creed of Christendom is, when absolutely believed. In this case it is the woman who is free and the man who is enslaved. In “Robert Elsmere” the man is breaking chains, while the woman prefers the old prison with its ivy-covered walls.

Why should a man allow human love to stand between his soul and the will of God — between his soul and eternal joy? Why should not the true believer tear every blossom of pity, of charity, from his heart, rather than put in peril his immortal soul?

An orthodox minister has a wife with a heart. Having a heart she cannot believe in the orthodox creed. She thinks God better than he is. She flatters the Infinite. This endangers the salvation of her soul. If she is upheld in this the souls of others may be lost. Her husband feels not only accountable for her soul, but for the souls of others that may be injured by what she says, and by what she does. He is compelled to choose between his wife and his duty, between the woman and God. He is not great enough to go with his heart. He is selfish enough to side with the administration, with power. He lives a miserable life and dies a miserable death.

The trouble with Christianity is that it has no element of compromise — it allows no room for charity so far as belief is concerned. Honesty of opinion is not even a mitigating circumstance. You are not asked to understand — you are commanded to believe. There is no common ground. The church carries no flag of truce. It does not say, Believe you must, but, You must believe. No exception can be made in favor of wife or mother, husband or child. All human relations, all human love must, if necessary, be sacrificed with perfect cheerfulness. “Let the dead bury their dead — follow thou me. Desert wife and child. Human love is nothing — nothing but a snare. You must love God better than wife, better than child.” John Ward endeavored to live in accordance with this heartless creed.

Nothing can be more repulsive than an orthodox life — than one who lives in exact accordance with the creed. It is hard to conceive of a more terrible character than John Calvin. It is somewhat difficult to understand the Puritans, who made themselves unhappy by way of recreation, and who seemed to enjoy themselves when admitting their utter worthlessness and in telling God how richly they deserved to be eternally damned. They loved to pluck from the tree of life every bud, every blossom, every leaf. The bare branches, naked to the wrath of God, excited their admiration. They wondered how birds could sing, and the existence of the rainbow led them to suspect the seriousness of the Deity. How can there be any joy if man believes that he acts and lives under an infinite responsibility, when the only business of this life is to avoid the horrors of the next? Why should the lips of men feel the ripple of laughter if there is a bare possibility that the creed of Christendom is true?

I take it for granted that all people believe as they must — that all thoughts and dreams have been naturally produced — that what we call the unnatural is simply the uncommon. All religions, poems, statues, vices and virtues, have been wrought by nature with the instrumentalities called men. No one can read “John Ward, Preacher,” without hating with all his heart the creed of John Ward; and no one can read the creed of John Ward, preacher, without pitying with all his heart John Ward; and no one can read this book without feeling how much better the wife was than the husband — how much better the natural sympathies are than the religions of our day, and how much superior common sense is to what is called theology.

When we lay down the book we feel like saying: No matter whether God exists or not; if he does, he can take care of himself; if he does, he does not take care of us; and whether he lives or not we must take care of ourselves. Human love is better than any religion. It is better to love your wife than to love God. It is better to make a happy home here than to sunder hearts with creeds. This book meets the issues far more frankly, with far greater candor. This book carries out to its logical sequence the Christian creed. It shows how uncomfortable a true believer must be, and how uncomfortable he necessarily makes those with whom he comes in contact. It shows how narrow, how hard, how unsympathetic, how selfish, how unreasonable, how unpoetic, the creed of the orthodox church is.

In “Robert Elsmere” there is plenty of evidence of reading and cultivation, of thought and talent. So in “John Ward, Preacher,” there is strength, purpose, logic, power of statement, directness and courage. But “The Story of an African Farm” has but little in common with the other two.

It is a work apart — belonging to no school, and not to be judged by the ordinary rules and canons of criticism. There are some puerilities and much philosophy, trivialities and some of the profoundest reflections. In addition to this there is a vast and wonderful sympathy.

The following upon love is beautiful and profound: “There is a love that begins in the head and goes down to the heart, and grows slowly, but it lasts till death and asks less than it gives. There is another love that blots out wisdom, that is sweet with the sweetness of life and bitter with the bitterness of death, lasting for an hour; but it is worth having lived a whole life for that hour. It is a blood-red flower, with the color of sin, but there is always the scent of a god about it.”

There is no character in “Robert Elsmere” or in “John Ward, Preacher,” comparable for a moment to Lyndall in the “African Farm.” In her there is a splendid courage. She does not blame others for her own faults; she accepts. There is that splendid candor that you find in Juliet in Measure for Measure.” She is asked:

“Love you the man that wronged you?”

And she replies:

“Yes; as I love the woman that wronged him.”

The death of this wonderful girl is extremely pathetic. None but an artist could have written it:

“Then slowly, without a sound, the beautiful eyes closed. The dead face that the glass reflected was a thing of marvelous beauty and tranquillity. The gray dawn crept in over it and saw it lying there.”

So the story of the hunter is wonderfully told. This hunter climbs above his fellows — day by day getting away from human sympathy, away from ignorance. He lost at last his fellow-men, and truth was just as far away as ever. Here he found the bones of another hunter, and as he looked upon the poor remains the wild faces said:

“So he lay down here, for he was very tired. He went to sleep forever. He put himself to sleep. Sleep is very tranquil. You are not lonely when you are asleep, neither do your hands ache nor your heart”

So the death of Waldo is most wonderfully told. The book is filled with thought, and with thoughts of the writer — nothing is borrowed. It is original, true and exceedingly sad. It has the pathos of real life. There is in it the hunger of the heart, the vast difference between the actual and the ideal:

“I like to feel that strange life beating up against me. I like to realize forms of life utterly unlike my own. When my own life feels small and I am oppressed with it, I like to crush together and see it in a picture, in an instant, a multitude of disconnected, unlike phases of human life — a medieval monk with his string of beads pacing the quiet orchard, and looking up from the grass at his feet to the heavy fruit trees; little Malay boys playing naked on a shining sea-beach; a Hindoo philosopher alone under his banyan tree, thinking, thinking, thinking, so that in the thought of God he may lose himself; a troop of Bacchanalians dressed in white, with crowns of vine-leaves, dancing along the Roman streets; a martyr on the night of his death looking through the narrow window to the sky and feeling that already he has the wings that shall bear him up; an epicurean discoursing at a Roman bath to a knot of his disciples on the nature of happiness; a Kafir witch-doctor seeking for herbs by moonlight, while from the huts on the hillside come the sound of dogs barking and the voices of women and children; a mother giving bread and milk to her children in little wooden basins and singing the evening song. I like to see it all; I feel it run through me — that life belongs to me; it makes my little life larger, it breaks down the narrow walls that shut me in.”

The author, Olive Schreiner, has a tropic zone in her heart. She sometimes prattles like a child, then suddenly, and without warning, she speaks like a philosopher — like one who had guessed the riddle of the Sphinx. She, too, is overwhelmed with the injustice of the world — with the negligence of nature — and she finds that it is impossible to find repose for heart or brain in any Christian creed.

These books show what the people are thinking — the tendency of modern thought. Singularly enough the three are written by women. Mrs. Ward, the author of “Robert Elsmere,” to say the least is not satisfied with the Episcopal Church. She feels sure that its creed is not true. At the same time, she wants it denied in a respectful tone of voice and she really pities people who are compelled to give up the consolation of eternal punishment, although she has thrown it away herself and the tendency of her book is to make other people do so. It is what the orthodox call “a dangerous book.” It is a flank movement calculated to suggest a doubt to the unsuspecting reader, to some sheep who has strayed beyond the shepherd’s voice.

It is hard for any one to read “John Ward, Preacher,” without hating Puritanism with all his heart and without feeling certain that nothing is more heartless than the “scheme of salvation;” and whoever finishes “The Story of an African Farm” will feel that he has been brought in contact with a very great, passionate and tender soul. Is it possible that women, who have been the Caryatides of the church, who have borne its insults and its burdens, are to be its destroyers?

Man is a being capable of pleasure and pain. The fact that he can enjoy himself — that he can obtain good — gives him courage — courage to defend what he has, courage to try to get more. The fact that he can suffer pain sows in his mind the seeds of fear. Man is also filled with curiosity. He examines. He is astonished by the uncommon. He is forced to take an interest in things because things affect him. He is liable at every moment to be injured. Countless things attack him. He must defend himself. As a consequence his mind is at work; his experience in some degree tells him what may happen; he prepares; he defends himself from heat and cold. All the springs of action lie in the fact that he can suffer and enjoy. The savage has great confidence in his senses. He has absolute confidence in his eyes and ears. It requires many, years of education and experience before he becomes satisfied that things are not always what they appear. It would be hard to convince the average barbarian that the sun does not actually rise and set — hard to convince him that the earth turns. He would rely upon appearances and would record you as insane.

As man becomes civilized, educated, he finally has more confidence in his reason than in his eyes. He no longer believes that a being called Echo exists. He has found out the theory of sound, and he then knows that the wave of air has been returned to his ear, and the idea of a being who repeats his words fades from his mind; he begins then to rely, not upon appearances, but upon demonstration, upon the result of investigation. At last he finds that he has been deceived in a thousand ways, and he also finds that he can invent certain instruments that are far more accurate than his senses — instruments that add power to his sight, to his hearing and to the sensitiveness of his touch. Day by day he gains confidence in himself.

There is in the life of the individual, as in the life of the race, a period of credulity, when not only appearances are accepted without question, but the declarations of others. The child in the cradle or in the lap of its mother, has implicit confidence in fairy stories — believes in giants and dwarfs, in beings who can answer wishes, who create castles and temples and gardens with a thought. So the race, in its infancy, believed in such beings and in such creations. As the child grows, facts take the place of the old beliefs, and the same is true of the race.

As a rule, the attention of man is drawn first, not to his own mistakes, not to his own faults, but to the mistakes and faults of his neighbors. The same is true of a nation — it notices first the eccentricities and peculiarities of other nations. This is especially true of religious systems. Christians take it for granted that their religion is true, that there can be about that no doubt, no mistake. They begin to examine the religions of other nations. They take it for granted that all these other religions are false. They are in a frame of mind to notice contradictions, to discover mistakes and to apprehend absurdities. In examining other religions they use their common sense. They carry in the hand the lamp of probability. The miracle of other Christs, or of the founders of other religions, appear unreasonable — they find that they are not supported by evidence. Most of the stories excite laughter. Many of the laws seem cruel, many of the ceremonies absurd. These Christians satisfy themselves that they are right in their first conjecture — that is, that other religions are all made by men. Afterward the same arguments they have used against other religions were found to be equally forcible against their own. They find that the miracles of Buddha rest upon the same kind of evidence as the miracles in the Old Testament, as the miracles in the New — that the evidence in the one case is just as weak and unreliable as in the other. They also find that it is just as easy to account for the existence of Christianity as for the existence of any other religion, and they find that the human mind in all countries has traveled substantially the same road and has arrived at substantially the same conclusions.

It may be truthfully said that Christianity by the examination of other religions laid the foundation for its own destruction. The moment it examined another religion it became a doubter, a skeptic, an investigator. It began to call for proof. This course being pursued in the examination of Christianity itself, reached the result that had been reached as to other religions. In other words, it was impossible for Christians successfully to attack other religions without showing that their own religion could be destroyed. The fact that only a few years ago we were all provincial should be taken into consideration. A few years ago nations were unacquainted with each other — no nation had any conception of the real habits, customs, religions and ideas of any other. Each nation imagined itself to be the favored of heaven — the only one to whom God had condescended to make known his will — the only one in direct communication with angels and deities. Since the circumnavigation of the globe, since the invention of the steam engine, the discovery of electricity, the nations of the world have become acquainted with each other, and we now know that the old ideas were born of egotism, and that egotism is the child of ignorance and, savagery.

Think of the egotism of the ancient Jews, who imagined that they were “the chosen people” — the only ones in whom God took the slightest interest! Imagine the egotism of the Catholic Church, claiming that it is the only church — that it is continually under the guidance of the Holy Ghost, and that the pope is infallible and occupies the place of God. Think of the egotism of the Presbyterian, who imagines that he is one of “the elect,” and that billions of ages before the world was created, God, in the eternal counsel of his own good pleasure, picked out this particular Presbyterian, and at the same time determined to send billions and billions to the pit of eternal pain. Think of the egotism of the man who believes in special providence. The old philosophy, the old religion, was made in about equal parts of ignorance and egotism. This earth was the universe. The sun rose and set simply for the benefit of “God’s chosen people.” The moon and stars were made to beautify the night, and all the countless hosts of heaven were for no other purpose than to decorate what might be called the ceiling of the earth. It was also believed that this firmament was solid — that up there the gods lived, and that they could be influenced by the prayers and desires of men.

We have now found that the earth is only a grain of sand, a speck, an atom in an infinite universe. We now know that the sun is a million times larger than the earth, and that other planets are millions of times larger than the sun; and when we think of these things, the old stories of the Garden of Eden and Sinai and Calvary seem infinitely out of proportion.

At last we have reached a point where we have the candor and the intelligence to examine the claims of our own religion precisely as we examine those of other countries. We have produced men and women great enough to free themselves from the prejudices born of provincialism — from the prejudices, we might almost say, of patriotism. A few people are great enough not to be controlled by the ideas of the dead — great enough to know that they are not bound by the mistakes of their ancestors — and that a man may actually love his mother without accepting her belief, We have even gone further than this, and we are now satisfied that the only way to really honor parents is to tell our best and highest thoughts. These thoughts ought to be in the mind when reading the books referred to. There are certain tendencies, certain trends of thought, and these tendencies — these trends — bear fruit that is to say, they produce the books about which I have spoken as well as many others.

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