Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Religion of Charles Dickens

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, November 3, 2002

In an article in Household Words, a weekly periodical (or miscellany, as they used to call such publications) which he published during the 1850s, Charles Dickens stated his religious creed:
“The truth of life is love,” he wrote, “and all which negatives love is false; and every drop of blood that ever flowed in preservation of any dogma, bore in its necessity the condemnation of that dogma.”
This, more succinctly and less-wordily than we might expect from Dickens, perhaps, was the essential core of his faith: LOVE ONE ANOTHER.
But, of course, there is more to the story than that…
Charles Dickens was born at Landport, Portsea, just outside London, in 1812. He was the second of eight children, in a very poor family: his father and various members of the family spent time in debtor’s prison; Dickens himself worked as a child laborer in a shoe-blacking factory. When he was just five, the family moved to Chatham, near London’s notorious East End. Here, he was, in the words of one biographer, “In essence… an abandoned child, ill lodged, underfed, poorly educated, often aimlessly wandering the streets.”
His parents were nominal Anglicans, members of the Church of England, but they did not attend services regularly. But while living in Chatham, they lived next door to the Rev. William Giles, the local Baptist minister; so they would go to chapel occasionally to hear their neighbor, whom they liked and admired and respected, preach a sermon.
But if his parents were pleasantly disposed towards the Rev. Mr. Giles, young Charles most certainly was not. He hated church; he loathed the experience of being carted off the chapel; he suffered bitterly through sermons which sometimes lasted up to two hours! (And you thought you had it rough…)
Dickens’ biographer, Edgar Johnson, describes the scene:
“Sitting there uncomfortably on a Sunday, he felt as though his mind were being steamed out of him, hating the minister’s ‘big round face’ looking ‘up the inside of his outstretched coat sleeves as if it were a telescope’ and loathing ‘his lumbering jocularity’. Hailed out of chapel, the joy would find himself ‘catechized respecting’ the minister’s ‘fifthly, his sixthly, and his seventhly’, until he ‘regarded that reverend person in the light of the most dismal and oppressive Charade.’”
“These experiences,” writes Johnson, “laid the foundation for his lifelong… revulsion from any formal religious affiliation.”
Late in April of 1836, Sir Andrew Agnew introduced a bill in Parliament that would have prohibited not only all work on the Sabbath, but most recreation as well. Dickens saw red. He believed the proposal ludicrous, repressive, and puritanical. It also exhibited a clear class bias, Dickens believed: the pleasures of the well-to-do went untouched under Agnew’s proposal; they could still have their servants cook their elaborate Sunday dinners; they could still travel all over town in their carriages; private concerts and oratorios at home were allowed. But most of the pleasures of the lower classes were banned: there could be no weekend excursions and picnics to the countryside; the coffee shops and market stalls were all to be closed.
“Writing in a hot rage,” Johnson says, “Dickens tore off a molten political pamphlet, Sunday Under Three Heads… signed with the pseudonym ‘Timothy Sparks’.”
Sunday Under Three Heads gives us a clear picture of how much Dickens loathed the religious and social myopia of his day:
“The iron-hearted man who would deprive… people of their only pleasures, Dickens pointed out, would be doing their best to drive the respectable poor into filth, disease, fornication, and drunken squalor… [It would] deprive them of even the most humble relaxation, the breath of country air, the game of cricket, available to the more fortunate. They had no amusement for the mind, no means of exercising the body. Consequently, they flew to the gin shop as their only recourse, and then, when they lie wallowing in the gutter, ‘your saintly law-givers lift up their hands to heaven, and exclaim for a day which shall convert the day intended for rest and cheerfulness, into one of universal gloom, bigotry, and persecution.”
Agnew’s bill was easily defeated in the House of Commons, but it would not be the last time that Dickens would express his dislike of the evangelical churches and their not-so-reverend shepherds. In the Pickwick Papers, Dickens presents the portrait of the red-nosed, hypocritical Rev. Mr. Stiggins, speaking before an assembly of the United Grand Junction Ebeneezer Temperance Association:
The Rev. Mr. Stiggins no sooner entered than there was a great clapping of hands, and stamping of feet, and flourishing of handkerchiefs, to all of which manifestations of delight, Brother Stiggins returned no acknowledgment, with a wild eye and a fixed smile, at the extreme top of the wick of the candle on the table, swaying his body to and fro… in a very unsteady and uncertain manner.
“Are you unwell, Brother Stiggins?” whispered Mr. Anthony Humm.
“I am all right, sir,” replied Mr. Stiggins, in a tone in which ferocity was blended with an extreme thickness of utterance. “I am all right, sir.”
“Oh, very well,” rejoined Mr, Anthony Humm, retreating a few paces. “Will you address the meeting, Brother?”
“No, sir,” rejoined Mr. Stiggins. “No, sir, I will no, sir.”
The meeting looked at each other with raised eyelids, and a murmur of astonishment ran through the room.”
“It is my opinion, sir,” said Mr. Stiggins, unbuttoning his coat and speaking very loudly, “It is my opinion, sir, that this meeting is drunk, sir. You are drunk, sir!” With this, Mr. Stiggins, entertaining a praiseworthy desire to promote the sobriety of the meeting… hit Brother Humm on the summit of the nose.”
The “Reverend” Mr. Stiggins would be followed, in turn, by another drunken minister, Melchisedech Howler in Dombey and Son, and then by Rev. Chadbrand in Bleak House, described by one literary critic as “oily” and by another as a “pompous, eloquent humbug”. Indeed, Dickens’ own view of the evangelical clergy of his day is aptly summarized by Kit in The Old Curiosty Shop, when he derides his mother’s habit of going off to chapel:
“Ah, mother,” said Kit, taking out his clasp-knife and falling upon a great piece of bread and meat which she had ready for him, hours before, “what a one you are! There an’t a many such as you, I know.”
“I hope there are many a great deal better, Kit,” said Mrs. Nubbles, “and that there are, or ought to be, “acordin’ to what the parson at chapel says.”
“’Much he knows about it,” returned Kit contemptuously. “Wait till he’s a widder and works like you do, and gets as little, and does as much, and keeps his spirit up the same, and then I’ll ask him what’s o’clock and trust him to being right to half a second.”
As we have seen, Dickens seems to have grown up with a deep aversion to many of the forms and structures of organized religion. Once he was out of his parents’ house and out on his own, he refused to go to church at all, until much later in his life. Then, like so many people who don’t believe in organized religion, Dickens decided to become a Unitarian instead!
During the early 1840s, Dickens was interested to learn that many of his American friends in Boston and Cambridge were members of the Unitarian faith. Before long, he began to correspond with William Ellery Channing, one of the founders of the Unitarian movement in America, and a truly brilliant thinker of his day. When he visited Boston in 1842 while on an American tour, Dickens called upon Channing, and the two became friends. It was Channing, many said, who convinced Dickens that he truly was a Unitarian himself. After his return to London, Dickens began to attend services at several Unitarian chapels there, and became very close to Rev. Edward Taggart, a leading British Unitarian of the day. Around this time, he wrote in a letter to a friend:
“I have carried into effect an old idea of mine and joined the Unitarians, who would do something for human improvement, if they could; and who practice charity and toleration.”
Dickens’ dislike of theological dogma, his skepticism about matters supernatural, and his belief that faith must show itself through good works, all resonated clearly within the Unitarianism of his day, on both sides of the Atlantic. Like Channing and the other early Unitarians, Dickens viewed God as loving Father, and not as the vengeful tyrant implied by Calvinism. Dickens did not believe in the Virgin Birth of Christ, but didrevere and cherish the strikingly human and humane example of Jesus of Nazareth, and the holy nature of his earthy mission. He even wrote a life of Jesus for children, The Life of Our Lord, not published until after his death.
But while Dickens had much in common with the Unitarianism of his day, he was too much of a creative and independent thinker to be pigeonholed in the commonly held ideals of any particular household of faith (even our own). His ideas were a bubbling cauldron, a creative confluence of different influences. So now—and let us hope not in the spirit of boring old Rev. Giles—let me add my own “fifthly, sixthly, and seventhly” regarding the religion of Charles Dickens—and in much less than two hours, I promise!
Firstly, as we have seen, Dickens felt a deep antipathy throughout his life for any religion based upon the trappings of faith alone. He knew very well that some preachers were a bit too righteous, and that they did protest too much. “By their fruits (and not by their words) you shall really know them,” Dickens believed.
Dickens had little patience with longwinded, dry preaching, as well. Church often got in the way of people’s deep, true religious sentiments, he thought. “You will remember that you have never at home been wearied about religious observances or mere formalities,” he wrote his son.
Instead, Dickens proposed a simple, direct religion of the heart, based upon the teachings and example of Jesus—a simple, basic Christianity, founded upon the Golden Rule and the Gospel call to “love one another”.
Secondly, Dickens believed that all people had a religious obligation to do good, and to leave the world a better place than they found it.
“Business!” the ghost of Jacob Marley shrieks to Scrooge, “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business… The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”
All people had a responsibility to do good, Dickens believed, and the higher one’s station in life, the greater one’s share of the responsibility.
Thirdly, Dickens believed in the interdependence of all living creatures, and that each and every person had his or her important role to play in the unfolding of our common human drama. The French critic Andre Maurois believed that the insistence of Dickens upon details—details—details—in writing down every aspect of a given situation in his work—all of the turkeys, sausages, stuffing—everything anyone could ever want to know about the plum pudding, the mistletoe, the holly—all of these long, detailed, descriptive passages that seem so “typically Dickensonian”, that drove us to distraction when we had to read Dickens in high school, perhaps—arose from a deep sense within Dickens—a spiritual sense, really—that everything was criticial to the existence of everything else.
Likewise, in the works of Dickens, people are shown to be deeply and intricately interrelated, too—and their actions are shown to reverberate in the lives of others, even more deeply than they realize. Everything—everyone—is connected and related, it seems. Sometimes, we grasp the reality of our interdependence only suddenly, violently—through coincidence, perhaps—or in the apparent workings of providence, or fate, or grace. But it is not “mere fate” at work here, Dickens would seem to say, and there are, truly, no coincidences. It is, rather, our own choices finding their consequences; seeds planted perhaps in the far distant past, finally coming to fruition, in ways never imagined possible.
Fourthly, Dickens believed that most people were basically good most of the time, and that evil was perpetrated by a tiny fraction of society at the expense of all others. Looking around at the great mass of humanity, Dickens saw people who were basically decent, honest, and fair. But Dickens also allows that those with a depraved view of reality can impose their skewed sense of right and wrong upon those weaker than they are. The worst scoundrels in the Dickens universe are those who stunt a child’s experience of joy and wonder and creativity, and so sew seeds of evil and despair where natural goodness and happiness should arise instead.
Fifthy, Dickens believed that the social code of his day failed to respond adequately to human need. For his, this was a religious question as well as a social one. To fail to respond to poverty and injustice was, in fact, a denial of the very Christian faith which the leaders of the society claimed to be following.
There is a clear equation in Dickens’ work between the poverty and depravity of the slums and a deeper vision of Hell. Abject, hopeless poverty was hell to Dickens—a hell he had experienced in his own life. Poverty flew in the face of the abundance nature intended for all. In the words of one critic, Dickens believed that “the atoms of the physical world were impregnated with moral aptitude,” and when one person held another in bondage, in slavery, in ignorance, in hopelessness, the very physical world recoiled in judgment.
But there was always hope, even for the most wicked. Sixthly, Dickens believed that even the most despicable, self-centered, loathsome creatures could change; that a change of heart—a conversion experience—was always possible. Perhaps the most famous conversion experience in the work of Dickens is Scrooge, of course. But while it might be the most famous, it may in other ways be the least typical. While a great and profound change of heart is at the center of a number of Dickens most important works—A Tale of Two Cities; Great Expectations; David Coppefield; Hard Times—only in the case of A Christmas Carol does it take place in a supernatural, mysterious sort of way. In most other cases, it occurs when the characters use their own experiences and sensibilities to shed new light of the path down which they ought to be traveling, and decide to change course in their lives. What we choose is what we are, Dickens believed; and we are free to choose who we will be.
Seventhly (and lastly—praise the Lord!) in his work and in his life, Dickens exhibited a philosophy that might be described as “stoicism”-- simply put, a “grin and bear in” view of human existence. “Mankind, in the midst of a hostile universe, should be like Mr. Micawber [in David Copperfield] beset by his creditors and face the future with confidence” secure in the faith that all will be well.
Dickens, no doubt, would have agreed with Woody Allen, who once said, “Life is full of miserableness, loneliness, unhappiness, and suffering—and it’s all over much too quickly.” Dickens, like Blake before him, knew that we human ones “were made for joy and woe”, and he is truly masterful in portraying the tragedy amidst the joy and the joy amidst the tragedy, wherein lies the true essence of spirituality, it seems to me.
We sons and daughters of a later, no less conflicted best of times and worst of times, could do worse than heed these words of that great man, Charles Dickens:
The timid hand stretched forth to aid
    a brother in his need;
A kindly word in grief’s dark hour
    that proves a friend indeed;
The plea for mercy softly breathed
    when justice threatens high,
The sorrow of a contrite heart—
    these things shall never die.
Let nothing pass, for every hand
    must find some work to do,
Lose not a chance to waken love—
    be firm and just and true.
So shall a light that cannot fade
    beam on thee from on high,
And angel voices say to thee—
    “These things shall never die.”
Perhaps this is the religion of Charles Dickens, purely and simply: “The truth of life is love.”
And perhaps, just maybe, that is enough. 

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