Literature and Dogma/1883 Preface

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Literature and Dogma by Matthew Arnold
1883 Preface



When I praise cheap books and insist on the need for them, people turn round upon me and say, 'Physician, heal thyself! nobody's books are dearer than your own.' Whether his books shall be cheap or not, does not depend wholly upon the author; and I might urge, besides, that in foretelling a success for cheap books, I was thinking of books by authors more popular than I am. A volume of my verse, however, at a comparatively cheap price, has been in circulation for some time, and I have long had the wish to try the experiment of bringing out one of my prose books at a price yet cheaper. That wish I fulfil by the publication of the present volume. The book chosen has been more in demand than any other of my prose writings, and it lent itself to my purpose, further, by admitting of considerable condensation. The argument of the work is more readily followed, and for the general reader it probably gains in force, by the suppression of a good deal of the apparatus of citation and illustration from Scripture which originally accompanied it. The public to which the book was in the first instance addressed was one which expects, with a work of this kind, such an apparatus. But to the general public its fulness is not so well suited, and, for them, its reduction probably improves the book at the same time that it shortens it.

I do not, however, choose for the experiment of a popular edition this book, merely because it admits of being shortened, or because it has been much in demand. I choose it far more for the reason that I think it, of all my books in prose, the one most important (if I may say so) and most capable of being useful. Ten years ago, when it was first published, I explained my design in writing it. No one who has had experience of the inattention and random judgments of mankind will be very quick to cry out because a serious design is not fairly and fully apprehended. Literature and Dogma, however, has perhaps had more than its due share of misrepresentation.

The sole notion of Literature and Dogma, with many people, is that it is a book containing an abominable illustration, and attacking Christianity. It may be regretted that an illustration likely to be torn from its context, to be improperly used, and to give pain, should ever have been adopted. But it was not employed aggressively or bitterly; on the contrary, it was part of a plea for treating popular religion with gentleness and indulgence. Many of those who have most violently protested against the illustration resent it, no doubt, because it directs attention to that extreme licence of affirmation about God which prevails in our popular religion; and one is not the easier forgiven for directing attention to error, because one marks it as an object for indulgence. To protesters of this sort I owe no deference and make no concessions. But the illustration has given pain, I am told, in a quarter where my deference, and the deference of all who can appreciate one of the purest careers and noblest characters of our time, is indeed due; and finding that in that quarter pain has been given by the illustration, I do not hesitate to expunge it.

The illustration, then, disappears; let me add a word or two as to the notion that Literature and Dogma is an attack upon Christianity. It is not even an attack upon the errors of popular Christianity. Those errors are very open to attack; they are much attacked already, and in a fashion, often, which I dislike and condemn; they will certainly be attacked more and more, until they perish. But it is not the object of Literature and Dogma to attack them. Neither, on the other hand, is it the object of Literature and Dogma to contend with the enemies and deniers of Christianity, and to convince them of their error. Sooner or later, indeed, they will be convinced of it, but by other agencies and through a quite other force than mine; it is not the object of Literature and Dogma to confute them.

The object of Literature and Dogma is to re-assure those who feel attachment to Christianity, to the Bible, but who recognise the growing discredit befalling miracles and the supernatural. Such persons are to be re-assured, not by disguising or extenuating the discredit which has befallen miracles and the supernatural, but by insisting on the natural truth of Christianity. That miracles have fallen into discredit is to be frankly admitted; that they have fallen into discredit justly and necessarily, and through the very same natural and salutary process which had previously extinguished our belief in witchcraft, is to be frankly admitted also. Even ten years ago, when Literature and Dogma was first published, lucidity on this matter was, on the whole, not dangerous but expedient; it is even yet more expedient to-day. It has become even yet more manifest that by the sanction of miracles Christianity can no longer stand; it can stand only by its natural truth.

Of course, to pass from a Christianity relying on its miracles to a Christianity relying on its natural truth is a great change. It can only be brought about by those whose attachment to Christianity is such, that they cannot part with it, and yet cannot but deal with it sincerely. This was the case with the Germanic nations who brought about that former great change, the Reformation. Probably the abandonment of the tie with Rome was hardly less of a change to the Christendom of the sixteenth century, than the abandonment of the proof from miracles is to the Christendom of to-day. Yet the Germanic nations broke the tie with Rome, because they loved Christianity well enough to deal sincerely with themselves as to clericalism and tradition. The Latin nations did not break their tie with Rome. This was not because they loved Rome more, or because they less saw the truth as to clericalism or tradition,—a truth which had become evident enough then, as the truth about miracles has become now. But they did not really care enough about Christianity (I speak of the nations, not, of course, of individuals) to feel compelled to deal sincerely with themselves about it. The heretical Germanic nations, who renounced clericalism and tradition, proved their attachment to Christianity by so doing, and preserved for it that serious hold upon men's minds which is a great and beneficent force to-day, and the force to which Literature and Dogma makes appeal. Miracles have to go the same way as clericalism and tradition; and the important thing is, not that the world should be acute enough to see this (there needs, indeed, no remarkable acuteness to see it), but that a great and progressive part of the world should be capable of seeing this and of yet holding fast to Christianity.

To assist those called to such an endeavour, is the object, I repeat, of Literature and Dogma. It is not an attack upon miracles and the supernatural. It unreservedly admits, indeed, that the belief in them has given way and cannot be restored, it recommends entire lucidity of mind on this subject, it points out certain characters of weakness in the sanction drawn from miracles, even while the belief in them lasted. Its real concern, however, is not with miracles, but with the natural truth of Christianity. It is after this that, among the more serious races of the world, the hearts of men are really feeling; and what really furthers them is to establish it. At present, reformers in religion are far too negative, spending their labour, some of them, in inveighing against false beliefs which are doomed, others, in contending about matters of discipline and ritual which are indifferent. Popular Christianity derived its power from the characters of certainty and of grandeur which it wore; these characters do actually belong to Christianity in its natural truth, and to show them there should be our object. This alone is really important.

And shown they can be. Certainty and grandeur are really and truly characters of Christianity. Theologians and popular religion have given a wrong turn to it all, and present it to us in a form which is fantastic and false; but the firm foundation for human life is to be found in it, and the true source for us of strength, joy, and peace. Sine viâ non itur, and Christianity can be shown to be mankind's indispensable way. The subject of the Old Testament, Salvation by righteousness, the subject of the New, Righteousness by Jesus Christ, are, in positive strict truth, man's most momentous matters of concern. The command of the Old Testament, 'Fear God and keep his commandments,' put into other words, what is it but this: 'Reverently obey the eternal power moving us to fulfil the true law of our being;'—and when shall that command be done away? The command of the New Testament: 'Watch that ye may be counted worthy to stand before the Son of Man,' put into other words, what is it? It is this: 'So live, as to be worthy of that high and true ideal of man and of man s life, which shall be at last victorious.' All the future is there.

Jesus himself, as he appears in the Gospels, and for the very reason that he is so manifestly above the heads of his reporters there, is, in the jargon of modern philosophy, an absolute; we cannot explain him, cannot get behind him and above him, cannot command him. He is therefore the perfection of an ideal, and it is as an ideal that the divine has its best worth and reality. The unerring and consummate felicity of Jesus, his prepossessingness, his grace and truth, are, moreover, at the same time the law for right performance on all men's great lines of endeavour, although the Bible deals with the line of conduct only.

Even those corrections, and they are many and grave, which will have to be applied to popular Christianity, are to be drawn from Christianity itself. The materialistic future state, the materialistic kingdom of God, of our popular religion, will dissolve 'like some insubstantial vision faded.' But they will dissolve through the action, through the gradually increasing influence, of other and profounder texts of Scripture than the popular texts on which they base themselves. Using the language of accommodation to the ideas current amongst his hearers, Jesus talked of drinking wine and sitting on thrones in the kingdom of God; and texts of this kind are what popular religion promptly seized and built upon. But other profounder texts meanwhile there were, which remained, one may say, in shadow. 'This is life eternal, to know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent;'—'The kingdom of God is righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.' These deeper texts will gradually come more and more into notice and prominence and use, as it becomes evident that the future state built on the language of accommodation has no reality. The teachers of religion will more and more bring these texts forward and develope them. And as, from being everywhere preached and believed, the illusory future state gained power and apparent substance, so too, by coming to be more and more dwelt upon and to possess men's minds more and more, the true ideal will acquire, in its turn, a fulness and force which no isolated endeavours can give to it.

This is but another way of saying, what is perfectly true, that not only is Christianity necessary, but the Church also. The Church is necessary, the clergy are necessary; the future of Christianity is hardly conceivable without them. But as lucidity is a condition from which the Christianity of the future cannot escape, so is it a condition from which the Church and the clergy cannot escape either. At present they seem scarcely to comprehend this. Archdeacon Norris labours with all his might to clear the author of the so-called Athanasian Creed from the reproach of over-harshness, not seeing that the really fatal defect of that document is not its over-harshness but its futility. The Guardian proclaims 'the miracle of the Incarnation' to be 'the fundamental truth' for Christians. How strange that on me should devolve the office of instructing the Guardian that the fundamental thing for Christians is not the incarnation but the imitation of Christ! In insisting on 'the miracle of the Incarnation,' the Guardian insists on just that side of Christianity which is perishing. Christianity is immortal; it has eternal truth, inexhaustible value, a boundless future. But our popular religion at present conceives the birth, ministry, and death of Christ, as altogether steeped in prodigy, brimful of miracle;—and miracles do not happen.