Article from Church & State, No. 76
Brendan Clifford's article, The Bible And Its Consequences (Church & State No. 73), brought a reply from Stephen Richards, "God Will Take The Rap" (No. 75). The following is a reply to that reply. Bibliolatry and Idolatry by Brendan Clifford
Amongst the great many things that I do not understand at all, the most bewildering is the fact that what I write has been for the past thirty years been read within the community in North Antrim that was generated out of the 1859 Revival. The Revival itself is totally incomprehensible to me, but incomprehension is not the same thing as bewilderment.
A century and a half of historical evolution came to an end in 1859. I have written much about, and reprinted much from, that historical revolution. It was cancelled out by the wild eruption of 1859, through which human existence ceased to be social or historical and became something else. I accepted that this something else was something I could know nothing about, other than the times and places at which it happened. The bewildering thing is that, even though I would appear to be the complete negation of all that Revivalist Ulster is—I am "broder Teague" of Lilibulero, a product of the pagan/Gaelic dimension of Catholicism in rural Munster—what I write is somehow readable within the culture of the Revival.
This total lack of the slightest spark of affinity between myself and the Ulster Revival makes it impossible for me to comment on the substance of Stephen Richards' criticism of my article on The Bible and Its Consequences. I can only take up some peripheral points.
When I remarked that the Maccabees were in theocratic rebellion "against Hellenic civilisation—which is to say, against civilisation", I thought I was just stating a fact. Civilisation I could take or leave. I could do without it, if it would let me. But it won't. It has an appalling sense of mission and cannot let people be. So I tolerate and discount it as much as I can. I do not advocate it. The possibility that it is now on course to destroy itself does not make me unhappy. I have always been in sympathy with Euripides' final comment on it—his leaving of it with The Bacchae. But I took it to be a matter of fact that what is usually meant by civilisation is what the Hellenic world was. It is certainly not what the Maccabees constructed.
Euripides fled from Athens to the freedom of Macedonia. But, in the next generation, Macedonia took off and extended the Hellenic world throughout the Middle East, where it became the actual medium of cultural life for many centuries, outliving the Roman Empire though formally incorporated into it. Rome became Greece more than Greece became Rome.
If one must have civilisation—large-scale organised urban living under a state in the medium of a culture in which existence is rendered problematical—better the Hellenic civilisation than another.
Palestine lived more or less contentedly in the civilisation established by Alexander's conquests, and Hellenic culture influenced everything in the region. The Maccabee revolt was a theocratic rejection of civilisation, not an attempt to develop an alternative civilisation.
Herbert Sidebottom of the Manchester Guardian, one of the first propagandists for modern Zionism in Britain, saw that Judaism was not a possible civilisation. He said that the previous Jewish states had been catastrophic for peoples who were not Jews. He therefore advocated the establishment of another Jewish state in Palestine as an attachment to the British Empire, which he saw as the civilisation of modern times. But the new Jewish State broke free and has been behaving much like the old.
I do not know when Christianity ceased to be a tendency within Judaism. In any case, the Judaism within which it was a tendency was not, it seems to me, Maccabbean Judaism—Judaism proper—but a largely Hellenised and confused Judaism. And, whatever Jesus actually said—which seems to be beyond retrieval—the construction of what became Christianity was done within the Hellenic culture.
It is now a generally-accepted truth that the Middle East gave rise to the three universal religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. But Judaism is incapable of being a universal religion. It is monotheistic but does not have the potential of being universal. Judaism is the Jews and their one God is their God only.
Lord Balfour of the Balfour Declaration took part in the founding of the League of Nations, which proclaimed the equality of all the peoples of the world—bar the Japanese, and the Indians, and people like that. It was put to him that the bequest of Palestine to the Jews in preference to the people who actually inhabited it was in breach of the general principles proclaimed by the League. He admitted that this was so but declared that the Jews had special rights above and beyond the general principles that were being established for others. And so it has continued with the United Nations.
And this is entirely in accordance with the Old Testament of the Christian Bible, whose relationship with the New is something about which there is no agreement.
And, while I do not advocate a universal religion any more than I advocate civilisation, I would say that Islam has a much greater potential for becoming a universal religion than Christianity, because it provides for a way of life conducive to human contentment and the reproduction of the race; it has no elaborate theology (i.e. no science of things which, if they exist, are beyond knowledge); and no proclivity in its concern with the after-life to generate existential despair in this life. These features of it make it unacceptable to the form of Christianity which now dominates the world by means of its accumulation of military power, but which has little more potential than Judaism for itself becoming a universal religion.
Stephen seems to doubt that Biblical influence in Western civilisation is directly responsible for the present condition of the Middle East. It seems obvious to me that it is. The gentry who in 1917 decided to award Arab Palestine to the Jews were upstart Nonconformists saturated with Old Testament symbolism. (Lady Hamilton has counted them in a 2004 book, God, Guns And Israel, and shown that over half the Prime Ministers of the 20th century came from Nonconformist backgrounds.)
The League of Nations which constructed the Mandate was an alliance of Christian States which had just destroyed the Moslem State in which the peoples and religions of the Middle East had lived contentedly together for centuries. And, while the United Nations which authorised the formation of the Jewish State included some non-Christian states, the decision was carried by the Christian majority with all the non-Christian states voting against, and not just the Muslim states who would have to live alongside an aggressive new neighbour.
I do not think it was merely coincidental that these decisions were taken and enforced by people who were saturated with the mythology of the Books of Moses. I do not think they arose merely out of realpolitik. They were a final, catastrophic, fling of Biblical idealism.
It might be that I got it wrong when I suggested that Anglicanism in Ireland tended towards Calvinism. It is an idea I picked up from Hugh Shearman long ago and various things I noticed along the way tended to confirm it. Many Cromwellians in Ireland supported the Restoration of the monarchy, and some were active in bringing it about, and Anglicanism goes with the monarchy, and Cromwellian Anglicans in Ireland would not have been encouraged by circumstances to soften the hard attitude towards Papists which they had developed as Puritans.
As to the Puritans, I think it would have been a good thing for the world, though not for the Irish, if they had established a lasting regime in England and implemented the programme of reform as set out by Cromwell's chaplain, the Rev. Hugh Peters. If they had succeeded, England would probably have become absorbed in its own affairs and the world would have been saved its destructive activity during the next two centuries.
I read a great deal of the literature of England during the 30 years of the Home Rule conflict. In that era it imagined itself to be a second Roman Empire. Its conduct in 1914 showed that it had been deceiving itself. Rome acted out of a single impulse maintained over many centuries. It did not interfere destructively, from a secure base, in a world outside itself. It reconstructed the world around itself. When it destroyed Carthage, it made it part of Rome.
England declared its Punic War in 1914, having meditated on it for ten years, but when it won and achieved supreme power in the world it did not know what to do next. It fidgeted.
I concluded that it did not know what to do because its Imperialism was utterly different from that of Rome. It was a kind of displacement activity through which two conflicting impulses were reconciled in external action, and there was no coherent purpose to the whole. The opportunistic English Reformation was entirely an affair of state. And the Tudor State made itself absolute by destroying the religion and culture of mediaeval England. The term "revolution of destruction" was applied to Nazi Germany, but I think it is much more applicable to Reformationist England. The Tudor State, when making its breach with Rome, declared itself an Empire,meaning an absolute sovereignty. In the construction of that sovereignty the people of England were reduced to materials of the state. But the absolute state neglected to give them a definite new ideological structure in place of the old. Henry could not make up his mind what they were to be. One day it would be this and the next day it would be that. And the zig-zag continued under Edward and Mary and Elizabeth. Conflicting signals from the state gave rise in the long run to two conflicting theocratic impulses, which led to civil war. Each had a go at suppressing the other and failed. An accommodation was finally made after the Battle of the Boyne under which the state was to be conducted by Anglicans while the Puritans were to have the free run of civil society. The two combined in a Penal Law system against Catholics, while a Toleration Act was passed to accord Puritans their place of privilege in this system. State regulation of the slave trade was ended, giving the Puritans free access to the greatest English industry of the 18th century.
England would no doubt have engaged in some imperialistic activity if an internal settlement had been made. But I think that the demonic, and ultimately incoherent, energy of English imperialism over the centuries had its dynamic in the unresolvable conflict which arose out of its opportunistic, authoritarian Reformation.
The Puritan revolution was aborted by its leader. Cromwell led the Puritans to absolute power, and then he vetoed the implementation of the basic Puritan programme, suddenly discovering that to be a gentleman was the most important thing of all. And then he dithered for five years, leaving it to one of the most able of his Generals to end the misery after his death by inviting the King to come home and rule them, and kill some of them in revenge for the killing of his father. In the whole history of revolutions the greatest fiasco is the English Puritan Revolution—in the admiration of which a couple of generations of the English left in recent times wasted their energy and ruined their brains, with 'advanced' elements of the Irish left in tow.
The Puritan strain in civil society continued, and flourished, under the monarchy, was admitted to the corridors of power a couple of centuries later, and was I think the element chiefly responsible for the catastrophe of the Great War.
That is how I came to see it, having traced it to its origins and followed it through with a degree of sympathy. The culture of Slieve Luacra somehow leaves one open to the appreciation of a wide range of human impulses. I was even able to appreciate the Presbyterian Sunday as I experienced it in Belfast around 1970 and was grateful for the fine disdain of superstition that made it possible for one to go to the cinema on Christmas Day at a time when such a thing was inconceivable in London.
But Calvinism in itself—which I suppose is predestination plus usury—did not appeal to me at all even as something to flirt with. I also participated vicariously for a while in the judiciousness of the judicious Hooker, which sought to blunt the irreconcilable impulses of the incoherent English Reformation into a prudent harmony in which they neutralised each other. But I soon tired of Hooker. And, in any case, his judiciousness failed, and the antagonistic theocratic impulses of the Reformation aggravated each other instead of neutralising each other. And I looked at things for a while from the viewpoint of Bishop Burnet, and of Bishop Hoadley who made conscientious opportunism the operative principle of the Reformation for the Anglican Church-State. But of course I had to side against Hoadley with William Law who provided honey for Charlotte Brooke.
I was, however, never anything but a Jacobite, shaped by a culture whose card games, as well as its songs, were Jacobite—moderating the effectiveness of calculation by a substantial element of luck. I suppose Calvinist religion is rather like the game of Bridge—which I have never played but gathered from the stories of Somerset Maugham that it is a matter of strict calculation. Jacobite Catholicism was rather like the game of 110—a long game in which there was ample scope for strokes of luck, and plenty of time to make tea and discuss the affairs of the world along the way.
Hugh Shearman was the semi-official historian of the old Stormont system, and was the most interesting thing in it. It was from him I got the hint that there was a strong strain of Calvinism in the Anglican Church in Ireland. When I came across the fact that the Cross was banned from the Anglican ceremonies, that seemed to confirm it. I stumbled on a dispute on the issue in the Church of Ireland Gazette. A proposal to relax the ban was angrily rejected on the grounds that the Cross would soon become a Crucifix and Papist idolatry would undo the Reformation.
The following is an extract which I copied over thirty years ago from Shearman's novel, The Bishop's Confession (1943) but never got around to using. I assume that this bit of Bishop Percival McPeake's fictional autobiography is drawn from Shearman's real-life experience:
"The circumstances of past history in Ireland have resulted in denominational cleavages corresponding with social and class cleavages. The Roman Catholic Church was not strong outside the so-called working classes, the small tenant farmers, the freeholders created by the operation of the land acts, and the labourers. The Presbyterian Church was similarly confined very much to one class, the middle class, particularly the lower middle class, in the north. Presbyterianism was the denomination of the farmer and the grocer, the denomination of small-minded conventional respectability. The religious statistics of prisons in Ireland showed very few Presbyterians among the criminal class, which consisted almost exclusively of Roman Catholics and members of the Church of Ireland. The Church of Ireland was the only church in the country that was supported by people from all classes. Although disestablished, it continued to be for some decades the church of the dominant class, the landlords, and the Church of English officials in the country.
"I never came across any middle-class Roman Catholics in my early youth. There were almost none of them in Belfast, though there were some in Dublin and Waterford and other towns in the south. I was told vaguely about the curious things that Roman Catholics believed, particularly papal infallibility. I grew up to regard them as poor, ignorant people, often individually very good people, but led astray by the stupid rather than malignant activities of their priests. I never had a fervent Protestant horror of the Church of Rome such as some Belfast people had, but as a boy I grew up with a mild contempt for the foolish acquiescence of certain members of the lower classes in what seemed to me to be a big, stupid, exploiting machine that was engaged in gravely chasing its own tail. And I naturally thought it reasonable to pray for Roman Catholics for they did 'profess and call themselves Christians'.
"Presbyterians sometimes came to our house, and I grew up to regard them as sometimes very good people; but I knew it was not as gentlemanly a thing to be a Presbyterian as to be a member of the Church of Ireland. The Church of Ireland at that time was full of Calvinist theology, but I was left substantially unaware of this and unacquainted with Calvinist doctrine till I reached the university…
"My mother simply assumed that we acted by free will and that our salvation depended on right living. She believed that even the heathen would be quite safe in the hereafter if they were good as far as they knew how. She believed in eternal damnation, but she said that we ought not to think about it at all, but just be sensible and kind to people and that we should have nothing to fear…"
[At the age of 16 he was taken on a family holiday in Ballintoy in North Antrim, and one Sunday he went to the Meeting House with Mrs. McAlistair.]
"My father suggested that Elizabeth and I should go, as we had never been inside a Presbyterian meeting-house before, and he said it would be a useful experience… He explained that this meeting-house was a very old-fashioned one and that we might think some of the things done at the service in it rather peculiar and even ridiculous. But under no circumstances must we show any surprise or lack of solemnity. Presbyterianism was not a proper religion for a gentlemen, but it was quite a good religion for the lower classes who took it seriously, and we must be careful not to offend the feelings of any of the country people by showing our real attitude towards the extravagances of their religious fanaticism…
"The minister was a very old man with a hard face and a thin white beard. He prayed with great self-confidence and unction, using the old-fashioned Presbyterian pronunciation. He rolled his R;s, prolonged his ion endings, and did other things that were new to us. He talked of justificayshaiyon, redempshaiyon, temptayshaiyon, prrrovocayayshaiyon, and congrrregayshaiyon. Other things in the service were upsettingly new to us. During the long extempore prayers which the minister uttered, the congregation adopted a most extraordinary variety of attitudes of devotion… Some turned their backs to the minister, put a foot on the seat and supported their elbows on their knees. Some stared at the floor, some at the roof. Some shut their eyes and some not. One man evidently attracted Elizabeth's attention very strongly by turning his back on the minister and protruding his bottom towards him in a most extraordinary, strained-looking manner.
"There was no music. They sang through their noses unaccompanied. They sang nothing but the metrical verses of the Psalms of David… My father told me that in practising singing they never used the actual sacred words of the metrical version but sang other profane words to the standard three tunes. My father told me the words of some of these practice verses. They were unexpectedly jaunty…
As I was coming home one night
A strange sight did I see;
A fish was standing on his tail
A-throwing stones at me
"Much praying and a little singing brought us to the main item, the discourse. This was a most extraordinary thing. I have never heard anything else remotely like it. It was delivered in a clear, hard, unemotional voice of great earnestness. Sometimes it was closely argued and like a lawyer's address to a jury. The congregation listened intently and sometimes nodded in agreement, and individuals sometimes murmured, 'Aye! Aye!" The text was from Nahum, 'Ye shall tread down the wicked!' The sermon was about the power of Antichrist which the minister identified in some way not clear to me with the Church of Rome…
" 'What', asked the old minister, 'was the oath that our forefathers swore, the oath they swore and attested with their blood and in writing, …the oath of all Israel against all and every of those damnable and accursed and abominable snares of Antichrist, those Scottish and soul-destroying allurements of the old Whore of the Seven Hills? Our forefathers swore that they abhorred them, that they utterly renounced them… They saw that we men and women are only vile and sinful, only like the little beasts of the dungheap… They swore a great oath against Satan's greatest instrument and servant and creature, the Harlot of Babylon, the Pope of Rome. I shall recite it… The words of the oath, then, are:
"'"We abhor and detest… all kinds of Papistry in general and particular heads… but in special we detest and refuse the usurped authority of the Roman Antichrist upon the scriptures of God, upon the Kirk, the civil magistrate and the consciences of men; all his tyrannous laws made upon indifferent things against our Christian liberty; his erroneous doctrine against the sufficiency of the written word…; his corrupted doctrine concerning original sin…, our justification by faith only…; his five bastard sacraments…; his cruel judgment against infants departing without the sacrament; his absolute necessity of baptism; his dispensation from solemn oaths…; his cruelty against the innocent divorced; his devilish mass; his blasphemous priesthood…; his canonization of men…; his purgatory…; his desperate and uncertain repentance; his general and doubtsome faith…; his justification by works…; his holy water…; his worldly monarchy and wicked hierarchy…; his erroneous and bloody decrees made at Trent…; and finally we detest all his vain allegories, rites, signs and traditions brought into the Kirk without or against the word of God."
"'That is our covenant with one another and before God against the snares of Popery… This brings me, twenty and seventhly, to our attitude to this same Romish conspiracy of the Antichrist in this present day. You will remember that my earlier headings have traced the workings of Antichrist through all sacred and profane history, from the tempting of Eve through all the history of Israel… and the teachings of our Lord… through the rise of the Romish Harlotry and the Reformation… then I considered under my twenty-sixth heading what the teaching of God's Kirk hath been since those times…
"'Twenty and seventhly, then, I come to this present day…'
"I was dazed when I came out of the meeting-house after the long last prayer. Men in the porch were discussing the points of the discourse, approving in general, but all adversely critical of details. I had never dreamed that anything like what I had just experienced could actually exist under the name of religion. I had read Scott's Old Mortality… but I had taken what I had read to be only the exaggeration of fiction…
"When the family was alone at supper my father asked how we had enjoyed ourselves. We looked at each other and smiled doubtfully.
"'I know just what you think', said my father. 'You see I was right. It's no religion for a gentleman. Of course it does all right for the sort of people you saw at that place this evening.'
"'But, you know, 'said my mother', I'm not quite sure it does do all right for them. I think it's a terrible pity that they can't all have real, true, decent religion taught among them. A whole lot of what they have is not real religion at all. Oh, it can make a great difference in a person's life to have been brought up in the Church'.
"That was what I felt at the moment…
"When I was about seventeen my father told us that a very unfortunate thing had occurred among the working people round his mill. There had been a religious revival. A lot of his workers had taken to gathering together in religious meetings, some of the young women had shown hysterical tendencies and the children went about the streets singing:
"By and by we'll see Him
And crown Him Lord of All
And crow-ow-wn Him Lord of All.
"My mother said that this was a very improper and irreverent song because it represented the Lord as a kind of Queen of the May.
"What particularly stirred my father's regret was the conversion of a very competent foreman called McQuiggerty who had taken to addressing meetings and writing hymns and religious poems… A fortnight later a bulk envelope came for my father through the post. It was a letter from the foreman McQuiggerty enclosing some of his hymns and poems…
"A Call To A Sanctified Life
The howls of the millions
Who struggle and yell
Will vibrate through the gloomy
Dark caverns of Hell.
Through dim dismal spaces
The flames will gleam red
And contort sinners' faces
With anguish and dread.
"O'er holy fields daily,
Above the loud yells,
Will peal, soft and gaily
Fair Heaven's sweet bells
Just ponder—for this is
The core of the matter—
Will ye dwell in the former
Or dwell in the latter?
"An Imitation Of A Psalm Of David
The Lord an hot place for the bad
Hath verily in store,
And there the black sheep of his flock
In pain shall loudly roar
There Satan and his ministers
Their tortures shall apply,
To punish those who wilful break
The laws of God Most High.
There the wicked loud shall yell
And make such doleful moan,
And there the nations sizzle shall,
And sparks be upward blown.
And thus shall suffer all who do
Fall in that iron gin
That waits to snap on naughty men
Who plunge their lives in sin
"The really serious matter, however, was the covering letter which ran as follows:
Cambrai Street, Belfast
"'Dear Mr. MacPeake,
There are many of us on the Shankill that has a great admiration for you and we think you are a very fine upright man. Often some of us that gather together in the Lord has prayed for you and for Mrs. MacPeake and the children. I feel therefore that you will not be offended if I write to you about a most important matter the health and safety of the human soul. Surely there can be no greater happiness than the joy of being saved through the grace of a Master. Therefore sir I earnestly pray that you may see your way to make yourself right with God… I am sir, yours very respectfully, J. McQuiggerty.'
"The letter came on a Saturday and my father read it at the supper table.
"'I'll dismiss that man on Monday', he said.
"'But he means well', said my mother.
"'He ought to know quite well', said my father, 'that he ought to attempt no interference in the religious affairs of his betters. That is an intensely insolent letter. I am not going to have my foreman talking down to me about religion from the height of his imaginary sanctity. He'll easily get another job elsewhere. There are lots of his sort in business, but I'm going to maintain standards that are proper for a gentleman'."
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