Rigorous spirituality

Mar 9th, 2009 | By | Category: Spirituality

Jeremy Paxman’s BBC series telling of the story of the Victorians through their paintings raised a question.  Last night, Paxman told of the 1860 Oxford debate on evolution between TH Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce; Huxley arguing strongly the case for scientific method.  Picking up a handful of books for a fiver at a bookstall last week, one contained a personal note at the front advising the person to whom it was given that the book was worth it for a single quote from Huxley:

Happy Christmas.

Some words from the wise.

Worth it for the first quote on P.22 alone)

The TH Huxley who appeared on page twenty-two of Manual of the Warrior of Light did not seem quite the person whom Paxman described doing battle with Bishop Wilberforce.  Page 22 in its entirety reads:

The warrior always listens to the words of certain thinkers, such as these by TH. Huxley:

‘The consequences of our actions are the scarecrows of fools and the beacons of wise men.’

‘The chessboard is the world; the pieces are the gestures of our daily lives; the rules of the game are what we call the laws of Nature. The player on the other side is hidden from us, but we know that his play is always fair, just and patient.’

The warrior simply has to accept the challenge. He knows that God never overlooks a single mistake made by those he loves, nor does he allow his favourites to pretend ignorance of the rules of the game.

The first quote is the one that is suggested as making the book worthwhile, except that Huxley’s words seem to have been “Logical consequences are the scarecrows of fools and the beacons of wise men”, which is an altogether different proposition than one that suggests that it is our actions that are important.  The only person who seems to record Huxley as using this form of words is Paulo Coelho, the writer of the book.

What about the rest of Page 22? One paragraph is a quote, the other a comment on Huxley.

Huxley’s own words are recorded by RH Hutton at the end of the 19th Century, who was endeavouring to rescue Huxley for the side of Heaven, and are amongst papers at Clark University:

It is a game which has been played for untold ages, every man and woman of us being one of the two players in a game of his or her own. The chess-board is the world, the pieces are the phenomena of the universe, the rules of the game are what we call the laws of Nature. The player on the other side is hidden from us. We know that his play is always fair, just, and patient. But also we know, to our test, that he never overlooks a mistake, or makes the smallest allowance for ignorance. To the man who plays well, the highest stakes are paid, with that sort of overflowing generosity with which the strong shows delight in strength. And one who plays ill is checkmated,– without haste, but without remorse. My metaphor will . . . remind some of you of the famous picture in which Retzsch has depicted Satan playing at chess with man for his soul. Substitute for the mocking fiend in that picture, a calm, strong angel who is playing for love, as we say, and would rather lose than win,–and I should accept it as an image of human life. Well, what I mean by Education is learning the rules of this mighty game.”

Huxley’s argument is altogether more Darwinian than the spiritualised version of Page 22.  The pieces on the chess-board are not the ‘gestures of our daily lives’ but ‘the phenomena of the universe’; an argument one would expect from an exponent of natural selection.

Christians seem often content to withdraw into their own circles of self-affirmation; to shape their perception of reality so that it is in accord with their worldview.  Recruiting TH Huxley, the agnostic, to the side of the angels, is only part of a process in which the church has engaged for centuries.  (In schooldays, our fundamentalist housemaster told us that when NASA were planning space missions, they had to know where stars and planets would be and had to look to the Bible to find missing time; it only was years later that I discovered this story was baseless and dated back decades)

If the recent atheist campaign in Britain has done anything, it should have sharpened the realization that fuzziness is not adequate to the present times.  Mr Paxman would not be happy with misquotes and vague answers.

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