Monday 7 January 2008

Historical Liberalism

I have a moderate library of books, many of which are theological or related. I have some more on the way, a bit of after-Christmas indulgence that I can hardly afford.

As a result I forget I have books, which then fall off overstuffed shelves, and I remember only then that I have it. One book I acquired has recently reappeared - and one obtained from a then Humberside Library sell-off, a book issued in 1927 but from 1886. They ruined it with sell-off stamps, so I put neat compatible labels over it to hide the stamps. I hate the way books are ruined. The Hull Central Library also had a book on The English Presbyterians written by Bolam etc., and they never sold this while I was going in and out and borrowing it. Well it is now eighteen years later. I have always wanted to get hold of it. Last year I was able to buy a newly reproduced Yesterday's Radicals (1971, reprinted 2002) by D. G. Wigmore-Beddoes, about the interactions between Unitarians and Broad Church Anglicans, but it comes to a frustrating dead stop at the end of the nineteenth century (when James Martineau died) - the English Presbyterians book did get to the early twentieth century development of Free Catholicism and movements towards humanism, if briefly.

Charles Beard was a broad Free Christian Unitarian. He tackles the Reformation in some detail - and it's a good book for that - and does not neglect the liberal side as so many do. According to this book, the Bible is, in both Testaments, a document showing faith evolving from the more primitive to the more enlightened, and this process continued after the book.

He runs through the fact that Reformers acted to make their Protestant creeds when scholarship was still searching, natural science had hardly begun, philosophy was before fresh flight, antiquity was misunderstood: and since when there has been biblical criticism, a more accurate philology [languages] about scripture, biblical history has been reread, history of humanity is no longer contained within the Bible's chronology, Israel's place is not as it once thought, patriarchal stories are but primaeval history, miracles are out of place under universal law, and nature demands modification of nature's God (Beard, 1927, 404).

In brief, we are called upon to make the ancient affirmations of the Churches, in an age when the evidence on which they were based has either changed or must be estimated by other canons of judgment. We cannot read the Bible, or interpret history, or look upon nature, as the Reformers did. If we are to accept their creeds at all, it must be by boldly putting our own meaning upon their phrases, or by resolutely shutting our eyes to the best knowledge of our time.

(Beard, Charles (1927, first published 1886), The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century in its Relation to Modern Thought and Knowledge, Hibbert Lectures, introduction by Ernest Baker, London: Constable and Company, 404-405.)

His conclusion is beyond that, however, and demonstrates the belief at the time (1886) in evolutionary faith.

A new element has been introduced into the controversy between old modes of belief and new scientific ideas by the doctrine of evolution which, first published in Darwin's "Origin of Species" twenty four years ago, has so rapidly gained acceptance. The whole cycle of ideas put forward in that celebrated book were presented at first as one of those hypotheses in which the scientific imagination seeks to anticipate the results of minute enquiry, and which investigation may either confirm or modify or reject. But with quite unexampled rapidity the idea of evolution has established itself, not only in biology, but in almost every other department of human thought. What was a few years ago a daring supposition in one branch of investigation, has risen to the dignity of a general method: it is a doctrine of slow and minute changes, each brought about by natural forces, each surviving and perpetuating itself in proportion as it is adapted to the environment of the organism in which it takes place. In biology we call it the struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest: in geology, it reveals itself as the theory which abolishes cataclysms in favour of the constant operation of ordinary forces through long periods of time: in history, it seeks to explain change and growth, by tracing each successive state to its origin in that which preceded it: in morals, it educes the conscience of a civilised age from the gregarious instincts of savage men, or the apes from which they grew. Whether, itself developed into a world philosophy, the theory of evolution will account for everything, as its devotees claim for it, may be gravely doubted: [about how far back to a germ?] still much more a brilliant escapade of the imagination that a sober feat of reason. [And about how many millions of years] ...But the fact remains that if evolution will not account for everything, it indisputably explains much; that it can never again be left out of their reckoning, not only by biologists, but by historians, by moralists, by theologians; and that at almost every point it has opened up new questions as to God's relation to the world, and man's place in it, which imperatively ask reply.

Beard, Charles (1927, first published 1886), 392-393.

It shows the thought of the time, and is a primary document for such. There is another part to highlight:

But the Prayer-book prescribes the form of daily worship, and any serious or devout spirit must come to some kind of intellectual reconciliation wiht its thoughts and phrases. And I suppose that this is what many laymen and some clergymen, who are touched by the spirit of the newer time, habitually do. They pour the new wine into the old bottles, without waiting or greatly caring for any specific result. They have many ways of satisfying themselves - ways which I shall not pause to criticise - that whatever evils may attend this course, do not outweigh its benefits. I do not imagine that if they had the opportunity of compiling the Prayer-book or enacting the Articles over again, they would make them what they are; and if so, I am justified in inferring that they look forward to a time at which the forms of belief and worship will receive some accommodation to the necessities of modern knowledge. But they take no steps towards that end, and in the meantime they put a meaning upon the formularies satisfactory to themselves, considering that they might have done all that is necessary if in public and private explanation they make their position clear to others.

Beard, Charles (1927, first published 1886), 410-411.

How much of this is still relevant! Of course the Church of England did add to its Prayer-book afterwards, but without any doctrinal alteration: it relaxed the nature of subscription to historic formularies, and its creeds are now variously understood.

A friend of mine at the church got hold of Robert Winston's (2005) The Story of God, Bantam Press (arranged with the BBC) and it has, he says, an evolutionist perspective regarding God. It is one approach I don't accept: a developing society does not equate with one God, a rationalistic society does not mean no God, as there is monotheism, polytheism and no God all around. It is much more complex. Evolution does not explain all, at all. It is interesting that if you do not consider the Bible as an evolutionary document, and you consider that the New Testament was written by using the Hebrew Bible and Septuagint, that way around, just whether it has an overall narrative at all. Of course it does not, not in time's one way arrow. When people look forward, they look back (for legitimacy and authority), and so did the New Testament writers: and in its very different culture, the nineteenth century had new, naturalistic, objective knowledge to go upon by which to look back and forward; now we are not so sure - we just observe and analyse and write creatively.

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