The Heterodoxy Oe Genius
WHEN Burne-Jones was asked to undertake the work of filling the four semidomes below the great centre dome of St. Paul’s, London, with mosaic, he, after careful deliberation, declined the commission. “ It’s nonsense,” he writes, “to put mosaic there—nonsense to try to do anything with it but let it chill the soul of man and gently prepare him for the next glacial cataclysm. It wants carpets hung about, and big, huge, dark oil pictures, and hangings of rich stuffs, and the windows let alone, no stained glass anywhere, no color except black and silver, no chilling surplices, Bach always being played, and me miles away — me miles away, if possible, and I ’ll be content with it.” And writing to a friend at this time regarding his impression of the great church, he continues, ” I wonder if it crushed and depressed you as it does me; and if you could pray in it, and to whom ; and if you had any hope that a prayer could get beyond the cornices.”
In this æsthetic sensitiveness of the artist, we have a genuine piece of protestantism illustrating the mood of genius toward organized religion. When he has frankly exposed its limitations and has mourned its faults, one suspects that, were improvements ordered to suit his taste, his aggressive preference would remain as in the case of Burne-Jones, to say his prayers miles away from the renovated temple.
Such are the musings of one who, without presuming to speak intimately of dignitaries, has from time to time, in his experience as an Episcopal parson, cast covetous glances at genius seemingly going to waste outside parochial bounds.
Genius standing aloof—sometimes aggressively so— from confirmation classes and the counsels of the church, is the tempting morsel which generations of churchmen have coveted for the faith. Our inability to lure genius in appreciable numbers into the fold has caused grave searchings of heart and volumes of apologetics. We have felt it to be a silent reproach upon our faith that spiritual food, nourishing to us, the rank and file, should not be good enough for them. This solicitude is altogether commendable, for what loyal churchman can forbear reckoning the prestige which the allegiance of the ablest men of the community might lend to our creeds and churches. It suggests the fascinating picture of George Eliot early making her way to service and demurely finding the places for the clergy, instead of exposing our frailties in those charming causeries at the Priory with Spencer, Rossetti, and the intimates of her salon.
When we contrive to attract genius that tolerates us, we are iikely to be unrestrained in our appreciation, so that the gentle conformity of a Pasteur and the militant loyally of a Gladstone are overcapitalized for homiletic purposes. We treat their good-will and endorsement much like the haberdashers and victualed in England, exhibiting over their shops the gilded approval of some royal customer.
There is an abundance of clinical material in literature for studying the man of genius when in action against organized religion.
Edward FitzGerald is a typical case. The curate at Woodbridge called one day to expostulate with his distinguished parishioner for not appearing at church. The man, doubtless irritating in his assumption of authority, nettled the poet into unvarnished frankness. “ Sir, you might have conceived that a man has not come to my years without thinking much of these things. I believe. I may say, I have reflected upon them fully as much as yourself. You need not repeat this visit.”
One recalls the incident which Henry James relates of the newly settled rector in the parish where Carlyle was living, calling one day upon his “ doughty parishioner.” To avert the calamity, which from an open window he saw descending upon him, Carlyle seizes his stick, dons his coat, and meets the rector on the doorstep. Not to be outdone, this representative of organized religion accepts the neighborly invitation to walk a piece. Part of the conversation along the road is to our purpose. “ It is much, no doubt,” said Carlyle, when the eager parson had ventured on volcanic ground, “ to have a decent ceremonial of worship and an educated, polite sort of person to administer it, but the main want of the world, as I gather just now, and of this parish especially ... is to discover some one who really knows God otherwise than by hearsay, and can tell us what divine work is actually to be done here and now in London streets, and not of a totally different work which behooved to be done two thousand years ago in old Judæa. I much hope that you are just the man we look for, and I give you my word you will strike dissent dumb if such really be the case.”
Something of the same thought must have been in the mind of Emerson when, in the famous Divinity College address, made nearly a century ago in little Holden Chapel, he recalls a preacher who sorely tempted him to go to church no more. “ A snowstorm was falling around us, the snowstorm was real, the preacher merely spectral. The eye felt the sad contrast in looking at him and then out of the window behind him, into the beautiful meteor of the snow. He had lived in vain, he had not one word intimating that he had laughed or wept, was married or in love, had been commended or cheated or chagrined. The capital secret of his profession, namely, to convert life into truth, he had not learned. Not one fact in all his experience had he yet imported into his doctrine. This man had ploughed and planted and taught and bought and sold; he had read books; he had eaten and drunken; his head aches, his heart throbs, he smiles and suffers, yet was there not a surmise, a hint in all the discourse, that he had ever lived at all.”
But the restlessness of genius in the pew is not of modern origin. In the books of the Prophets may be found quite as biting denunciation of the whole solemn proceedings of the churches as has ever come from the heated pen of genius. The anarchic spirit surely is rife in the Prophets of Israel. Bernard Shaw never wrote anything more caustic about solemn evensong than he who said, “The new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with. It is iniquity, even the solemn meeting.” It was sheer restlessness of genius in a constricting environment which made Savonarola start bonfires in Florence. The thing must be vitalized by some daring act of nonconformity. St. Francis’s queerness, much of it, — his sermons to the birds, his settlement work among the lepers, his unconventional asperities, — was a safetyvalve for the fidgety spirit of genius under the restrictions of conventional religion. Had he lived in other times, and had he not, besides being a genius, been a saint, he might not have gone to church at all.
But the clergy have a more personal grudge against genius than mere neglect. From Laertes berating the poor priest for doing his official duty by the body of Ophelia, to Ibsen’s Ghosts, the parson has usually been made to act and speak like a fool when presented on the stage. One has the creeping suspicion that that is about the way he really appears to the man of genius and to a considerable minority who suffer us gladly. The smug Anglican type in clerical garb before the footlights, in his guilelessness and bigotry, is the chastisement we are likely to receive at the hands of the playwright unless we choose our theatre-going with discretion. Now, the clergy might bear the rebuke with humility, did they not suspect that Pastor Manders and the Bishop of Lancashire are symbols of the Church’s interpretation of religion, in the mind not only of Ibsen and Charles Rann Kennedy, but of a very considerable company of gifted folk. We may as well face the nauseous fact that we bore the genius, and while, perhaps, he shows a lively sensibility to all sorts of bores among his fellow men, yet he suffers us with a difference. He resents what seems to him our impudence in daring to analyze and define these expansive mysteries with which we deal. The light of the Temple is garish to these highly organized individuals, who imagine they feel more reverently the truths we handle with rough hands. Our blunt appreciation, our jaunty handling of crushing mysteries, our neat tabulating of certainties, all this irritates and shocks their squeamish reverence. They miss in us, too often, that nice restraint which one has a right to expect from those who enjoy an intimate survey of truth. They do not absent themselves from church and appear heterodox because they wish to dispense with religion, but, as Emerson hints, because our religion frequently seems profane to their delicate sensibilities. They seem to catch a false note in some of our garrulous devotion to truth.
Now, the difficulty of studying the attitude of genius toward organized religion is aggravated by the fact that the protests which come from men of exceptional ability, statesmen, artists, scientists, and men of large administrative talent, are as varied as their several temperaments. Sir Oliver Lodge, for example, in writing upon the alleged indifference of laymen to religion, bids the clergy study reality and sincerity; strive to say what they really mean, and to say it in such a way that others may know what they mean. He frankly confesses that he is bored by the length of the Te Deum, the repetitions of the Kyrie; he tolerates the creeds because he finds no reality about the procedure of saying them. Lodge here expresses the mind of a considerable company of men of ability who lack the taste and capacity for corporate worship of any sort. I suspect that no tinkering with the liturgy could conciliate this extreme type of nonconformity.
But running through the testimony of the men who will have none of us, is a single strand of protest which indicates the temperament. It is essentially nonconformist, genuinely protestaut and intolerant. A genius can rarely be held in social groups in such first-hand matters as faith and worship. His directness and intensity of vision are themselves limitations which narrow the field of comradeship. He sees further, but sometimes not so much as common folk. His short cuts to reality make him impatient with the more orderly conventional routes. With less pretense to frequent converse with God, he approaches Him, nevertheless, with a certain ceremony of the spirit after a liturgy of his own. The clear sweep he gets on the outside, unobstructed by the details which belong to the officework of religion, appeals to his romantic temperament. Offensive particulars like heresy trials, the fussiness of dignitaries, and church controversies, fret his spirit. Out he goes to gather his most excellent beauty by the way.
If the church, by virtue of being a social organism, is inherently conservative, it must take the snail’s pace in adjusting itself to new conditions; but genius, on the other hand, is irritable and impatient with dilatory, palliative methods. Imagine Darwin compelled to sit in a pew and listen to a generation of the harmonizing of science and revelation, or Wendell Phillips to bide his time while the clergy are mired in Biblical exegesis in getting at the mind of God on the slave question. But what a horrid protestant over-emphasis! There are the sacraments! Yes, but here again is the temperament of genius with its own sacramental relationship to God! One recognizes that happy distinction between the prophetic and priestly function of the ministry, and in seeming to give undue prominence to the irritation of genius over our leanness of prophetic gifts, we would not excuse him for neglecting our priestly ministrations. But the romantic element in genius has rendered him no more plastic in the hands of the priest than of the prophet.
Is there a catholicity obtainable which can keep this energy of spirit from kicking over the traces ? I do not believe it. The eternal “ antithesis of the conventional and romantic ” types, neither fully comprehending the other, prevents the two temperaments from keeping house comfortably together. We are a bit too aggressive, I believe, in our ideal of catholicity, and we worry ourselves needlessly over the clever folk who will have none of our ministrations. Why not leave these exceptional persons to get to heaven in their own way, accepting in good faith their service to the Kingdom of God ? If there is a goodly company of virtuous and able folk who do not want to say our creeds, why worry about it? Why not leave them in peace as members of the great Invisible Church, where no one is asked to define his beliefs or talk about them to his neighbor, or say them over and spell them out on Sunday mornings, or sing them if he does not like to sing them, or pray them out in words if he does not choose to pray in words ? We might leave these men and women to their broad pastures, and, without malice, bury them if they ask it, or burn them if the public good demands it; but let us not harass our nerves, forever angling after the men who seem able to get to heaven without our help, and are annoyed by our importunity.
I am certain that any setting of things to rights will not win over the class to which Sir Oliver Lodge belongs. To them, organized religion will always remain stupid and uninspiring. The minority who are grieved at this or that in the churches, and contend that if things were different they would find themselves in hearty accord, are frequently selfdeceived. Their explanation seldom reveals the real cause of their impatience. Bernard Shaw would like to go to church if the services would stop and give him an opportunity to worship. George Eliot can retain her spiritual integrity only by staying away. Carlyle wants a church that assails contemporary devils. Lincoln once wrote, “ Whenever any church will inscribe over its altar, as its sole qualification for membership, the Savior’s condensed statement of the substance of both law and gospel, that church I will join with all my heart and all my soul.”
It was doubtless measurably harder in Lincoln’s day to find a relaxed theology than it is to-day, when one may select from the menu of the various churches a sufficiently genial diet; but I do not believe Lincoln, were he living, would be found heart and soul in accord with any of the easy-going creedless churches. Not every genius is so frank as Burne-Jones to admit that, while he likes to tinker with ecclesiastical decorations, even the carrying out of his scheme of color would not induce him to go to church. Genius has not fled in numbers to churches with an unoffending theology. It is not primarily a question of creed or liturgy, but incompatibility of temperament, which divorces a goodly number of persons from organized religion.
But the romantic temperament, insisting upon the free air of the Invisible Church, is frequently unjust to other spiritual climates, in which his brothers thrive. He forgets that conventional religion interprets the vision to the rank and file. When we are told with fervor that religion is not a creed or church attendance, but an expansive something else, we, who belong to the great middle class of the spirit, and go to church and say our prayers in uninspired fashion, may say that we have long known that; but why overlook the psychology of the ordinary man, who, without a creed and a prayerbook, would perhaps have no religion at all.
It is, after all, not the business of the church to adjust itself to these unusual types. There is a certain carnal satisfaction to smaller minds in seeing a genius like Tolstoi, when he attempts, in My Religion, to organize his religious experience into a creed, nodding at times like ordinary laymen. The common man, when decently mellowed with humility, and willing to be conventional in his faith, is quite as likely to avoid saying foolish things about the mysteries of religion as these exceptional persons.
The average man has no wish to be niggardly with his creed. To believe more than is barely necessary to salvation, and to spread before the Lord a bountiful profession of faith, is his harmless indulgence in works of supererogation. Were we to cut him down to the meagre necessities of faith, we should cramp his willing spirit and rob him of the innocent pleasure of a generous gift of orthodoxy on Sunday mornings.
Organized religion, like organized education, must be democratic in its adjustment to the requirements of the majority. It prays as the average man would pray, worships as he would worship, and formulates its creed for his instruction, — else how should we explain the evolution of liturgies ? Should we reorganize religion to key it up to the pitch of the rare spirits, we might divorce the rank and file, whose sorrows, burdens, and moral perplexities are reached by the evenly sustained tone of conventional worship. If the great majority find a congenial home in the churches, we may safely disregard the welfare of this distinguished remnant, who can be trusted to find God in their own unconventional way. The dream of including all humanity in one fold of orthodoxy is a high catholic ideal ; but perhaps in the interim before the coining of the millennium we ought not to irritate our nerves because certain gifted persons do not require our ministrations.
Nevertheless the genius has a place in the economy of organized religion. We owe to his spiritual irritability and sturdy protestant temper that “ variety ” which, evolutionists tell us “ is the indispensable element in progress,” His insistent demand for freedom has developed, as it did with Isaiah, St. Paul,and Luther, new types of religion. Shall we complain that we cannot put the ecclesiastical bit into his mouth and harness his solid talents to drag our guilds, vestries, and diocesan conventions ? The millennium would probably be no nearer were all nonconformists suddenly to become docile pewholders, accepting the doctrine as the church hath received it. The genius, from the militant type of the reformers down to their kinsmen who administer the large affairs of the world, will ever remain the bulwark of protestantism to save us from sterile orthodoxy.
While we are solemnly debating Canon 19, the rubric and validity of orders, — all vital, no doubt, to social religion, — it is not for naught that this gifted company stand without, rebuking us by silence or disdain, and refusing to glorify our folly by sharing the debate. There is a tonic in the sight of able men holding critically aloof, abstaining from mental reservations, and telling us how it all looks to them. Were it notfor them, religion again and again would have been sapped of its native vigor, and the reformation halted. Their protests in time become articulate in new creeds. Voltaire served us better laughing at us than paying dues to Peter’s pence. No sham is secure while he is in Europe. The eviction of organized religion, in the person of the curate of Woodbridge, from FitzGerald’s doorstep that day, though ungenerous and uncatholic in the seer and damaging to the pride of the man who believed he was speaking the whole mind of God, may have borne good fruit in after years in that Suffolk parish. For the rest of his ministry, perhaps, the curate struggled to fit the poet’s view into his scheme of salvation, an exercise by no means profitless to the clerical mind.
While we are affirming how “ this church hath received the same,” the genius dares to ask, “ What of it? I happen to be interested, just now, in how my church hath received the same. Correlating the two revelations brings us a sane working basis for the average man.
This querulous foisting of a big ideal upon the priest’s and prophet’s vocation is not lost upon the cause. It curbs the arrogance of the priest, and stimulates the prophet. Perhaps the weekly sermon finds its highest incentive to excellence and reality in the protest of the man outside who refuses to hear it. He is the audience sometimes we try hardest to reach. I dare say we find that those five or six hyper-critical beings who are doing some of the world’s best work, loyal men of the community, but who will have none of our sermons, have quite as much influence in keeping us to the right pitch as the receptive saint in the front pew who cherishes our very helpful discourses. This spiritual irritability, and this withal honest yearning for reality, are the solvent of much folly and uncritical certainty.
While we are militantly guarding our precious deposits of truth, it is good to think of the man who sits outside our doors, holding converse with the Father and from time to time reporting rapturous interviews with the God of things as they are. It is wholesome to be told that, for some wise and good men, our liturgies are not the final idiom of worship, that the creeds and prayer-books are only imperfect phrasings of faith; and that the church of to-day is not the sole agent of Christ in bringing in the Kingdom of God.
There is a place in the economy of the church for the man outside, with his insistent cry for reality, yet reverently conscious of human inability to attain it. Standing aloof, he goads us on till the thing we say is constant to the thing we mean; the symbol adequate to the fact; and the faith within us becomes articulate in creed, liturgy, canons, and organization, commensurate to the mystery and dignity of religious truth. Perhaps, as the church tries to satisfy this demand for reality, even though it fail to attain a catholicity which will include every temperament, it may divorce from its ranks only a minimum of gifted minds, while burnishing the faith for the rank and file