The Mystery of the Sabbath
The Speaker, May 25, 1901
It is one of the most unfortunate facts of modern life that broad theology makes little or no attempt to make a broad appeal. There is no such thing as an enlightened tract: for the tracts compiled by Secular and Ethical societies are about as dull and sectarian as any documents could be. There is, in a certain sense, in these days, a religion that is common to all decent people, a gratitude to the mystery of Creation, a brotherhood with the vast freemasonry of life: but this religion has no priests and no propaganda. The air is full of disembodied religion: but the great paradox still holds its course. It is the narrowest religion that has the widest sweep: the oldest form that has the freshest audacity: the coldest and cruelest creed that has the warmest hold upon the heart.
Mr. Conrad Noel's book is among the few that we have seen that seems to hint at least at the supplying of this want: it is devoted to the denunciation of the dark and petty veneration of the Sabbath, and the assertion of the claim of Christianity to be considered pre-eminentlv as a great emancipation, a reign of liberty and light. But it is written not with the cultivated frigidity so painfully characteristic of most humanitarians, but with something of the clearness, pungency, and moral certitude of one of Mr. Spurgeon's sermons. Mr. Conrad Noel has grasped one of the central secrets of modern religious life: that the victories of Evangelical "otherworldliness" have been due to the fact that it was, with all its dingy decorum, preached essentially by men of the world.
It is certainly a delightful thing, artistically speaking, to see the Sabbatarians confronted with a moral denunciation equal in severity to their own. Mr. Noel evidently considers those who do not play lawn-tennis on Sunday as guilty of the terrible sin of disregarding the Lord's Day. He might found a new Lord's Day Observance Society, by the agency of which open and notorious evil-livers who missed opera after opera on Sunday could be publicly and wholesomely rebuked. Perhaps he would not like to go so far as to publish a series of tracts entitled, "The Horrors of the Strand on Sunday," in which should be vividly described the disgusting sight of scores of public-houses being closed at eleven. But it is quite clear that he feels, deeply and sincerely, and, as it seems to me, truly, the nightmare topsey-turveydom of the fact that religion, which is in its very essence the tracing of the world to an inexpressibly noble origin, should have occupied itself in slandering the world. So eager were men to exalt one manifestation of the divine that they worked themselves into a kind of rage with all the others. Mr. G. F. Watts might be pleased if one asserted that "Jonah" was the best picture he or anyone else had painted, but if the enthusiasm later took the form of tearing all his other pictures out of their frames, his glee might become more controllable.
There can be no question, it seems to me, that the history of one of the blackest calamities that ever befell mankind lies buried in the word "holiday." The calamities of the earth, as they are commonly reckoned, wars, tyrannies, and pestilences, are mere mosquito-bites on the great body of humanity; the real calamities of it are in the gradual corruption or disuse of some of its great organs. If it be really true, for example, as some mystics tell us, that psychic powers once possessed by men have died out with the dying influence of Celts or Hindus, the incident is more important by a hundred times than the fall of Rome. Similarly the word "holiday" stands like a primaeval tower, with an indecipherable inscription. It recalls a time when religion and merrymaking were naturally wedded, even in common custom and language. Dancing, for example, was a religious rite in every nation, Jew and Gentile. If I could only see the Archbishop of Canterbury performing an energetic pas seul in his cathedral I should die happy.
Mr. Noel does not, to my mind, do full justice to the meaning of the Jewish Sabbath. No day is, in a sense, more fitted to be a great universal holiday. It is the day which represents the most colossal and overpowering conception that the mind can entertain, the conception of the inexplicable contentment of God. Without some such abysmal thought in the background there is no merriment, but only levity. There is no joy without a touch of fear: in every festival it is the man with one fresh breath of shyness who enjoys himself most. It must have struck anyone with any knowledge of the world that no man can be genuinely frivolous unless he is serious. And if our modern merriment is to be the expression of anything, the shining foam upon any deep and driving tide, it must be of this sentiment of the secret good of all things. The essence of a holiday is a certain tense and exciting quality. The Sabbath is the Festival of Creation on which the world is made over again. The universe presents the cryptogramic wonder of a detective story; but with this difference, that the secret is not a hidden crime, but a hidden kindness.
But whatever may be said for the spiritual idea behind the Jewish Sabbath, there can be little doubt of Mr. Noel's justification in pleading for a complete repudiation of its detailed claims. It is unnecessary to recapitulate Mr. Noel's clear and well-marshalled arguments. That Christ expended much of his energy in fighting with Sabbatarianism, that the Pauline Christians regarded it as a Jewish prejudice, that the mediaaval Church knew little or nothing of it, everyone of cultivation will admit. That its excesses were frequently censured by the Church, that it was repudiated by the great Reformers, Luther and Calvin, and that it is to this day as unknown among Protestant foreigners, like the Dutch, as among Catholic foreigners, like the French, will come perhaps more freshly to those who study Mr. Noel's facts. In any case I feel that Mr. Noel's argument, so far as it is directed against the final authority of the extreme Sabbatarian view, is victorious.
But Mr. Noel will fall into an error if he imagines that the ordinary sentiment of the British Sabbath, full of compromise and mild amusements, is a mere piece of silliness and social cowardice, for which there is nothing to be said. Like every other far-reaching institution, especially if it be a religious institution, it is the symbol of a certain psychological fact. The fact is one somewhat neglected today. Our literary men are at work with wild ingenuity to show that there are innumerable shapes and colours of pain and ruin; but no one is industrious enough to show that there are innumerable shapes and colours of happiness. And as (to continue the colour simile) there is a green pleasure of nature and rustic frolic, a crimson pleasure of passion, a golden pleasure of success, a blue pleasure of aspiration, so there is a blank white and silver pleasure of empty peace. We are so busy embroidering the heavy gold of fact and feeling on to our life that we hardly take delight in the naked texture of existence. If a busy and strenuous people have set apart a day, not for a violent pleasure to relieve their violent duty, but simply for a chance to sink back upon the simple satisfactions of being, as one sinks back in an arm-chair, we are not sure that they are so entirely without a motive. But Mr. Noel's book is not really touched by this. It is directed against the controversial Sabbatarians, and it is difficult to believe that they ever rest, even on the seventh day.