War and the Christian Faith/Quia Incredibile

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Quia incredibile

Some time ago I got a letter from a man who was interested in many of the topics which I have treated in this book. He agreed with me here, he differed there; he wrote a very reasonable letter on the whole; and he ended up by quoting as the basis for his opinions the "Secret Doctrine"—which was written by Mme. Blavatsky.

Some time ago I read an article relating to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's conversion to what is called Spiritualism. The writer mentioned one of the crucial instances which had seemed to Sir Arthur Doyle absolutely decisive. Sir Arthur was looking on at a séance, not, I think, joining in it. A message "came over" to the effect that "food is to be preferred before entomology." Nobody knew what this signified; Sir Arthur did not know: till he recollected that, the day before, he had warned his children that though caterpillars were nice beasts, yet it was necessary to kill them, because they were eating up the cabbages. Then, it would appear, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, remembering this dictum of his, was convinced of the spiritual life, and of the life of the world to come.

I do not wish to labour either of these instances. I do not wish to press the fact that Madame Blavatsky was a detected cheat, a clumsy dealer in an absurd thaumaturgy. I will not urge that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "absolute test," as I think he named it, would scarcely have been accepted by the Society of Psychical Research as a convincing proof of mere telepathy—"entomology" will hardly bear the interpretation "love of insects." I neither urge the absurdity of building upon the doctrine of the old Russian charlatan or upon that dubious caterpillar utterance: I urge the importance of the marvellous in the matter of religion.

Once on a time I used to try to argue with dignitaries. I used to try to point out to them that religion—their presumed business—was not primarily concerned with the attendance at four-ale bars, the prevalence of bare-backed acts at the music-halls, nor with the state of Piccadilly Circus between eleven and twelve-thirty p.m. I have long abandoned this injudicious practice; firstly, because arguing with dignitaries is disrespectful; secondly, because it is absurd. I believe that the dignitaries are still worrying about the four-ale bars and Piccadilly Circus, and latterly, the conscientious objector; and they still think that they are concerned with religious problems.

Probably they are not consciously dishonest persons. They do not deliberately say to one another: "the only aspect in which religion will ever appeal to Englishmen is the moral aspect. To Englishmen, religion is morality; and by morality they understand an abstinence from even the weakest beer and from the lighter forms of the drama. And as to conscientious objectors; they are cranks; and good Englishmen have always loved cranks."

I don't think, I say, that our dignitaries put the case to each other in quite these terms; but the attitude of most of them comes to that. But their real error is this: not that they hold this or that opinion about revues or taverns or conscientious objectors; but that they think that their views or any views about these matters constitute religion, or have any reference to true religion. Our divines think that religion must be in the first place and above all concerned with morality, and then that it must be practical and credible. Whereas the truth is that the plain man in the street, the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle type of man, demands of religion, in the first place, that it shall be entirely incredible. I am afraid the enemy might add, not without some justification, "and the sillier the better." Not without justification, I confess, since I remember, with respect to Madame Blavatsky, the Psychical Research people's report as to her feats with cups and saucers; with respect to her successors, a little book issued by the Westminster Gazette called, "Isis Very Much Unveiled." And those caterpillars of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's. . .! I concede the possible point; but I still contend that the first requirement of anything worthy to be called religion in its incredibility.

Yes, but it is so. All the acknowledged joys of life, all its great adventures even in the purely physical world are achievements of the incredible. The doctors of Salamanca proved to Columbus that that wild contemplated voyage of his was against the laws of nature. When I was a schoolboy Jules Verne's submarine amused me as an impossible fantasy. Twenty years ago the airplane and the airship were jokes. Dirigible flight was an acknowledged incredibility. So, climbing higher, with the arts. The great achievements we name, and rightly, creations; here is something where mere void was before, the incredible thing. To the stone-age man, Orestes would have been incredible; to the Athenian of the great period Galahad would have been incredible; and further, the doctrine goes back as well as forward; to the Englishman of 1700 Gothic architecture was incredible, inasmuch as he held it absurd, a barbarous monstrosity. And so again, when the Word of the Lord was delivered through Keats, it was incredible. And if these minor adventures of humanity are to be in the region of incredible things, shall we not expect the supreme adventure of all, which is called religion, to go forth into desperate seas indeed? Our divines and dignitaries are amiable and correct in their anxiety about the four-ale bar and the state of Piccadilly Circus after eleven o'clock at night; but they are bemused when they think that these excellent anxieties have anything to do with the religion of which they are pontiffs.

Pontiff signifies bridgemaker, pathfinder, between this tangible world and the spiritual world, which is rather concealed in it than beyond it. It is the office of religion to unveil for us the incredible mysteries which lie hidden in the visible universe. "Grant, O Lord, that the veils of enigmas which are about these Holy Mysteries may be removed, that they may become gloriously manifest to us"; thus speaks an ancient Rite of the East. This prayer is a part of the Divine Liturgy; but, in a more general sense, all the visible, sensible universe may be comprehended, in the term, "These Holy Mysteries." To remove the veils of enigmas is the office of religion.

When it has done this it may perhaps have leisure to concern itself with excess of four-ale near Whitechapel and defect of underclothes near Piccadilly.