Friday 29 November 2013

The pain of uncompromising religious beliefs

Strongly-held religious beliefs are supportive for individuals but can have distressing consequences within families, especially when differences of view drive wedges between parents and children. A very public airing of such a difference was made by Edmund Gosse in Father and Son,1 initially published anonymously, nineteen years after the death of his father.

                                                         Edmund Gosse

                                                     Philip Henry Gosse

Philip Henry Gosse was a Natural Historian with a marvellous talent for communication in books, illustrations, lectures and field courses. Always a Christian, Henry became a member of the Brethren and he was convinced of the imminence of the Second Coming.  With this came belief in the literal truth of The Bible and complete acceptance that the whole Book was the Word of God, something which came up many times in his writing and in his contacts with people. Even though he was by nature a shy man, Henry would waste little time in engaging those he met in conversation about his Christian beliefs, although he also maintained scientific contacts and correspondence without introducing this subject.

Edmund was Henry’s only child and his mother died when the boy was only 7 years old, an event that drew father and son closely together. They moved to Torquay and Henry spent much time collecting marine life (with Edmund in support), observing organisms using his aquarium tanks and microscope, writing, painting and illustrating, and becoming the leader of his own group of local Brethren. He was quite immovable in his faith and it is difficult to see where any change might come, as he was effectively isolated, although he did follow world affairs and maintained his contacts with friends and colleagues. As the Second Coming could happen at any moment, it was important that Edmund should also be “saved” and he was; this joyful event was marked by his adult baptism at the age of ten. Everything was now complete and ready.

As Edmund grew up, he began to question the strict limits of Henry’s religious views and, when Edmund moved to London as a seventeen-year old, the separation of the two men inevitably resulted in Edmund developing his own path in life. It was to result in disappointment for Henry, and Edmund’s visits to Torquay were marked by the anguish caused by the differences between the two men. One visit caused Henry to write Edmund a letter that he kept and from which he quoted in Father and Son. Here is a part:

Nothing seemed left to which I could appeal. We had, I found, no common ground. The Holy Scriptures had no longer any authority: you had taught yourself to evade their inspiration. Any particular Oracle of God which pressed you, you could easily explain away; even the very character of God you weighed in your balance of fallen reason, and fashioned it accordingly. You were thus sailing down the rapid tide of time towards Eternity, without a single authoritative guide (having cast your chart overboard), except what you might fashion and forge on your own anvil, – except what you might guess, in fact.

Do not think I am speaking in passion, and using unwarrantable strength of words. If the written Word is not absolutely authoritative, what do we know of God? What more then can we infer, that is, guess, – as the thoughtful heathens guessed, – Plato, Socrates, Cicero, – from dim and mute surrounding phenomena? What do we know of Eternity? Of our relations to God? Especially of the relations of a sinner to God? What of reconciliation? What of the capital question – How can a God of perfect spotless rectitude deal with me, a corrupt sinner, who have trampled on those of His laws which were even written on my conscience?...

This dreadful conduct of yours I had intended, after much prayer, to pass by in entire silence; but your apparently sincere inquiries after the cause of my sorrow have led me to go to the root of the matter, and I could not stop short of the development contained in this letter. It is with pain, not in anger, that I send it; hoping that you may be induced to review the whole course, of which this is only a stage, before God. If this grace were granted to you, oh! how joyfully should I bury all the past, and again have sweet and tender fellowship with my beloved Son, as of old.

Just as the letter was awful for Edmund, so, too, it was for Henry. The sadness of the position is plain to see and Edmund’s last word on the topic in Father and Son has done much to gain Henry Gosse the reputation of a religious bigot, although Edmund certainly also recognises his father’s extraordinary talents and his warmth and kindness during their times together in Torquay.

The unfortunate truth is that the evangelical Christianity of Henry Gosse was exclusive and he could not accept that there could be any other acceptable views. He had also grown into a position where there was no possibility that any outside influences could cause him to change. It is all such a pity because he was a wonderful man in so many ways and one cannot doubt his honesty and sincerity. Could he have taken on board just a little of Edmund’s point of view, without compromising his faith or his principles, if less imprisoned by his isolation?

Having written about both men, and felt rather close to Henry as a result, 2 I found their conflict made me sad. Unfortunately, the religious antagonism shown by Henry and Edmund is far from unique and it is not just a matter between individuals. As we know well, strongly-held and immovable religious views create modern-day conflicts beyond those of families.

1 Edmund Gosse (1907) Father and Son. London, William Heinemann.

2 Roger S Wotton (2012) Walking with Gosse: Natural History, Creation and Religious Conflicts. Southampton, Clio Publishing.

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