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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 42

Religious Instruction in State Schools

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Religious Instruction in State Schools.

No. I.

Mr Virtue's recent letter in the West Coast Times but gives expression to a conviction growing pretty general everywhere. The purely secular system of instruction which so many of the colonies have adopted, and which a large proportion of the democracy of the world hanker after, is not believed to be the great success anticipated, in th se countries where it has been tried, and an uneasy feeling grows and spreads, even in the most democratic communities—a feeling of misgiving as to the future welfare of the young, secularly taught. The Melbourne Argus, the Australasian, the Sydney Morning Herald, and other leading organs of public opinion, all, with one exception perhaps, heretofore staunch supporters of secular instruction, are wavering, or are openly dissatisfied with the ends already attained, and with the prospect which the system affords, of advantage to, or of the advancement of, the world, when the present upholders and inaugurators of the system have "had their day and cease to be." Already some of the chief, and staunchest secularists are looking round in an endeavor to discover some plan or method by which a religious instruction, acceptable to all denominations, may be inculcated and combined with secular teaching in the public seminaries, and page 2 many able men—Bishop Moorhouse amongst them—are now directing their thoughts in this direction. And it seems to be conceded on all hands, that a more utterly hopeless task never confronted mortal man.

Before glancing at these difficulties—the tremendous obstacles that we at once encounter the moment we attempt to lay down the lines for a religious instruction that shall be acceptable to all christian sects, and that must, too, meet the views of that large mass of christian mankind who belong to none of them, it may be desirable to recur for a moment or two, to the denominational system, which at once strikes the man anxious to do the right thing, as the best system, taking all the circumstances into consideration. In many colonies this system has had a long and perfectly fair trial. In Victoria it was the state system for many years. It had free scope there. Every settled village or hamlet which could boast of a school at all, had more than one school—had its two, three, or four schools, of ten, fifteen, twenty, thirty, scholars each. The religious instruction of the denomination was rigidly imparted in the denominational school. Those young people, so taught, have grown up now, and have taken their places in society. They may have reaped advantages, in a religious sense, from the denominational teaching imparted. It is certain that the secular instruction was of a very inferior character, and that the teachers—secularly—were inferior men. How could it be otherwise? We do not find even the most zealous, and (in their own eyes) the most godly men, at all desirous of living on small salaries, if their abilities can command, a larger remuneration. Bishop Moorhouse recently admitted as much. Indeed, what the Bishop really did say, amounted to an ad-mission, which went considerably further. At all events, £2 or £3 per week would not pay a good teacher, although it might recompense a good denominationalist. Besides, the article, in sufficient abundance, was not to be had at any price. The result was, that the denominational schools page 3 were found to be very good schools for inculcating narrow sectarianisms, but very bad schools for fitting people for this queer world of ours, with which we all have to battle. There was another, and a more fatal objection, to the denominational system. Children of the large denominational schools, and more especially children of the petty little rural denominational schools, were found, as they advanced in denominational instruction, to be not altogether overpowered with love for the people of the other creeds. They bad no connection with the school on the other side. In other words, the system tended to destroy confidence in the cardinal point of Christ's teaching—the universal brotherhood of the human race. For these, and for other reasons, the system was superseded, and gave place to that later system, which, at all events, aims to secure good secular schools, and good secular teachers and to place rich and poor, Catholic Protestant, Jew, and Gentile, on a perfect footing of equality, in the sight of the rising generation.

In order to obtain this much, Mr Virtue says the "Bible was excluded" from all these schools. I hardly think this is a fair statement of the case. The people who would desire to exclude the Bible, as such, from the public schools, are mere units in thousands. Not one man in a thousand desires to exclude the Bible. But the large majority of colonists desire to exclude the narrowness, the strife, the bitterness, the theological hairsplitting propensities, which the sects exhibit amongst themselves, and towards each other, the moment they enter the schoolroom, with the Bible in their hands. A large proportion of those who came to the conclusión that religion must be excluded from the schools, did so, from the first, most unwillingly, because it was obvious to them, as it is to everybody, that "pure religion and undefiled," when we can find it, is a first essential in training youth, and should be taught, not, as Mr Virtue says, because of the "reward" of "infinite value," which it brings, but because it is in itself good, and good for humanity. I page 4 may here say a word or two on the in tersely selfish aspect which this constant reference to "reward" and "punishment" gives to the christian religion as taught by the sects. Even Mr Virtue cannot write a letter of a few lines without introducing "rewards of infinite value." As soon as ever the sects get to see—what so many reflective men have long seen—that this method presents religion in a selfish, mercantile and repulsive phase, to men, then so toon will there be some better prospect of admitting religion into the schoolroom. If religion is a good thing at all, is a good thing because it is good in itself; because it elevates and advances and refines and subdues human nature. I do sincerely believe that this invariable presentation of religion to us, as a something to be recognised and followed because of the advantages—the "rewards of infinite value—which it is supposed to confer on its votaries, debases religion, and does utter violence to our sense of what religion really is, or should be. As long as we say—Let the Bible into the schoolroom because it right to do so—we are on controversial perhaps, but still on firm ground. When we say, however—Let the Bible into the school room because of a reward of infinite value" which we will receive, then I say we sand not only on controversial ground, but on ground as rotten as a morass and as foetid as a quagmire.

We have now got as far, just, as the starting point—the admission of the bible into the school. Here we are met by still more insuperable difficulties, which I propose to refer to in a future paper.

No. II.

It is a pity, I think, that Mr Virtue cannot discuss a question of this kind, without suggesting inferences, and applying epithets, meant to be offensive to particular persons. I shall carefully avoid following such a course myself, and I would advise anyone having anything to say on the subject, to do the same. We page 5 are all groping, very much in the dark I confess, to discover a path leading to the truth, and there is no occasion for us to knock our heads together, as the trackless hush we are in at present is particularly wide. Besides, an "outsider" if his language is calm, and spoken from conviction, has just as much right to be heard as any one else. Who, I may also ask, are "outsiders," and what are they outside of? Every little Bethel has an idea that the countless millions of Gods creatures who do not and cannot, hear the tinkling of its trumpery, twopenny, and tinpot bell, are lost "outsiders." Christ, in his day, encountered many whom the "good people" of those times considered "outsiders." We are told that he treated them with all gentleness. He was himself considered a very degraded "outsider" by the Pharisees. And it was for these same Pharisees that he reserved his strongest condemnations.

I resume the remarks so abruptly broken off, in your issue of Friday. The demand for the admission of the Bible into the public schools is the subject before us, and I have said that not one man in one thousand would desire to exclude such a Book, provided always that it can be found, written; that there can be no question as to its authenticity and genuineness; that the laity and children, as well as theologians, (if the latter can do so) can understand and interpret its meaning, and that, as a text-book it is calculated to advance, edify instruct and improve the young, as assuredly would be the case, if its claims to be regarded as a message and revelation from God to man, are true claims a together, or even in part.

Now, with regard to the first point, I find there are two books, both called the Bible, and loth claiming to be the authentic Book that we are in search of. Perhaps they are the same, or very similar books? No; they are not the same; they are hardly very like each other; and when examined, there is a great divergence between them. The question as to which of them—if either—is an authentic copy, of an authentic original, is a question of evidence. Let us waive all that for the page 6 present, and take one of them—say the Bible we find most universally diflused—and examine it ever so cursorily.

Well, then, what is this Book we call the Bible? Is it to be regarded, altogether as an inspired volume, or uninspired; or is it partly inspired and partly uninspired? If the latter, who is able to speak with authority as to where the inspiration begins and ends; and is there a verdict agreed to on the subject amongst the denominations. Is its meaning clear and plain; or if dubious, can the doubts be authoritatively removed? Is its language literal or figurative, or both; and, if the latter, who is to say where the one ends and the other begins? Is it matter of fact prose, or fanciful poetry, or both, and, if the latter, does it tell us—or can any one with authority tell us—where the fact, and where the fancy, are recorded? Is any one able to say—"this portion is stern reality; but that part is poetic imagery; this is the record of an allfaithful reporter, but here poetic license has play?" These are matters, not of opinion, but of evidence. Again, as to the translation. Is the translation invariably reliable, or partly reliable, and partly unreliable; or is it true that some of the most momentous passages in the Book and many of the most momentous words in the Book, are mistranslations—acknowledged errors? Will its chronology; its record of facts, and such matters of science as it refers to, bear investigation? It has been said—been said, too, by theologians—even by bishops—that on these points grotesque blunders can be indicated—is this true or untrue? All these points can be settled, only by evidence. A man,—a homo—brings me a printed book, and calls it the Bible. I claim to treat the man, and the book, just as I treat any other man and book, and to investigate the claims made by either, for this particular book, precisely in the same way. I desire to treat the man with every respect, and I am even willing and anxious to believe that the book he brings is the real Book it professes to be. But, certainly, if it is the page 7 Book, it will bear examination. We open the volume. Here are marginal notes, without end, trying to explain the meaning of the book, and giving various readings for the same passages. We pursue our inquiry further, and we find commentaries, big as merchants ledgers, trying to explain the book, and trying to account for inconsistences in it; trying to explain away some of its manifest contradictions; trying to smooth over acts and words, said to be Divine, but looking strangely human; trying to excuse cruelty; to excuse an alleged divine sanction of human slavery, and in one instance to palliate a human slaughter, which can only be correctly described as human butchery. Do all these many commentators agree in their explanations and commentaries? No indeed, they do not agree. How could they? They are mere men, and their commentaries are mere opinions. They differ widely and irreconcilably. I have myself seen a cart-load of commentaries on the Bible, and yet there are not sufficient. A revised revision of the Bible is now going on, which fact in itself is a remarkable commentary on the commentaries of the last century, and the present one.

But, strangest of all, we find words introduced into the text, which learned theologians declare, in 1878, should never have been there at all, after having been printed, for hundreds of years. Amongst these—most wonderful to relate!—are the very words of most solemn and momentous import in the whole record. The words "eternal," "everlasting," "damnation," "hell," "resurrection," and others, which I may refer to by-and-bye, are examples. Just look at this word "resurrection"—it is a word conveying the most beautiful idea; and in certain moments of our lives it was a word we would not have parted with, for all the rewards of "infinite value" that could be offered to us. For there are times when even the worst of us is able to put this miserable "myself" and "my soul" away from us for awhile, and to think, not of ourselves or our own happiness, but of the happiness of our kindred. page 8 Perhaps we experience this feeling most when we stand around the grave listening to the thud of earth upon the coffin, and deeply impressed with the grand church burial service. For myself, I have in distant days, derived a consolation I could not express, from some of the passages in which the word, or the idea "resurrection" occurs. There was, at all events, hope for our kindred; hope for our friend lying there dead. I may especially mention the verse from the Book of Job:—"I know that ray Redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand, in the latter day, upon the earth; and though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God, when I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another." These words have removed the gnawing from many a heart, at the deathbed side, and in the churchyard, and have been a balm to that intense grief which most of us have felt, at one time or another, in our lives. I hear them now, and they seem to mock me. There is no hope in them. The beautiful passage is simply made beautiful by the translator. I say so on the authority of Froude, the most competent authority now living. The original, when faithfully rendered, is vague, meaningless, and unintelligible. The words "resurrection," as applied to the body after death, of "everlasting damnation" as applied to the soul; of "eternal," as applied to a future life; of "hell" as a place of eternal punishment, are no where to be found in the original text. In short, if we look through this text, faithfully rendered by competent scholars, and not theologians, we hardly get the faintest glimmer of a hope of immortality at all, try we ever so strenuously, to find such a hope. And yet all is not utter darkness! Although we have no Bible which we can introduce into the schoolroom with unerring confidence, we are not left altogether as children without a father, to grope and grovel as we will, in the wildernesses of the world. Although we fail to discover real Christianity at all, and least of all amongst its most self-assertive professors, we can always discern Christ, and discover, under all page 9 circumstances, the rule of rectitude, in the sermon on the Mount. Although the written word is still for us a mystery, the Book of Nature—Gods firmament, the everlasting hills, and valleys; the foliage of a fern; the billows of the ocean—lie before us.

No. III.

I unreservedly admit that there is force in the objection raised by "Censor" to the observations I made in my last paper, relative to the wrangling, jangling, "bells, of the little Bethels." I spoke metaphorically, and meant to say no more and no less than this—that the greatness of "pure religion and undefiled" is completely lost in the petty sectarian differences, and trumpery distinctions to which the sects, severally, attach such infinite importance. When sectarianism, and I might say too, when secularism, is cast adrift from the churches, there may be a hope of agreement on the outlines of religious teaching to be imparted in the schools of the State. Until this happens—and there is not the slightest indication of such an agreement—there is no prospect of teaching religion to the youth of all creeds, assembled together.

It looks simple enough, too, to arrive at a perfect concord in such a matter. We are told, in a few consise words, what true religion really is, and it seems very easy to instruct children to compassionate the fatherless and widows, and ail that are desolate and wretched; all those that suffer, that are oppressed, and that are born to trials and misery. The next point—I am dealing now with the definition of religion in the New Testament—is to learn them to keep themselves unspotted, from the world. If we put these definitions into other words, I think we get at this result—that true religion is a total self-abnegation, and an unfathomable love for our fellow creatures. It is utterly vain to expect to find such a creed in any school whatever, even supposing the only text book there used was the Bible itself. page 10 Look round the wide world, and ask yourself have you ever met such a sect anywhere? Call to mind all the people—all the most constant churchgoers and Bible champions—you have ever known, and inquire whether the basis of their religion was this? I have met with a different experience at all events. "Myself" and "my soul," my creed, my belief, my salvation—these are the anxieties of all the professing Christians, I have come across, and in every year, and in every country, I find them exactly the same. I find no fault with them—I do not pretend to express a judgment upon them—I merely state a tact, and so long as the fact is so, so long must there be, either many public schools with different creeds and Bibles, or one State School with no Bible at all.

Why, we find unutterable discord, even amongst the members of each sect, and the disagreement becomes absolute disorder and confusion, when we compare the teachings of the Christian sects with each other. Just take any two doctrines, as test points—say the doctrine of the resurrection of the body, so consoling to the good, and the doctrine of an endless and never ending torment, so appalling to the wicked. On the first I have said something already. An English Churchman quotes a passage from the Book of Job, as a proof of this doctrine, and this is the passage as quoted by him:—"I know that my Redeemer liveth, aud that He shall stand in the latter day upon the earth, and though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet, in my flesh, I shall see God." 'That is the way the passage stands in the Bible. But another Churchman says that there is really no such passage in the whole book. Another Churchman—a learned fellow of Oxford says:—"The words in italics have nothing answering to them in the original—they were added by the translators to fill out their interpretation; and for in my flesh, they tell us themselves in the margin that we may read (and, in fact, we ought to read, and must read) 'out of,' or 'without' my flesh. It is but to write out the verses, omitting the conjectural additions, and making that one page 11 small but vital correction, to see how frail a support is there for so large a conclusion: 'I know that my Redeemer liveth, and shall stand at the latter upon the earth; and after my skin destroy this; yet without my flesh I shall see God.' If there is any doctrine of a resurrection here, it is a resurrection precisely not of the body, but of the spirit. And now let us only add, that the word translated Redeemer is the technical expression for the 'avenger of blood and that the second paragraph ought to be rendered—'and one to come after me (my next to kin, to whom the avenging my injuries belongs) shall stand upon my dust,' and we shall see how much was to be done towards the mere exegesis of the text. This is an extreme instance, and no one will question the general beauty and majesty of our translation; but there are many mythical and physical allusions scattered over the poem, which, in the sixteenth century, there were positively no means of understanding; and perhaps, too, there were mental tendencies in the translators themselves which prevented them from adequately apprehending even the drift and spirit of the composition." Then, as to eternal torment. In Mr Manson's shop, the other evening, I fell across a little book called the "Catechism of the Wesleyan Methodists for children of tender years." This is what the catechism says, to "children of tender years," concerning hell:—

Q.—What sort of a place is hell?

A.—Hell is a dark and bottomless pit, full of fire and brimstone.

Q.—How will the wicked be punished there?

A.—The wicked will be punished in hell by having their bodies tormented by Are, and their souls by a sense of the wrath of God.

Q.—How long will these torments last?

A.—The torments of hell will last for ever and ever.

At the same time we find Canon Farrar (author of the Life of Christ) declaring from the pupit of Westminster Cathedral, that such an eternal hell does not exist; page 12 that there is nothing in the Bible, when properly and accurately translated, to warrant such a doctrine, and that it is in itself a gross and wicked misrepresentation of the character of the benign Author of the Universe. In this view, and in his interpretation of the original words on which this doctrine is erected. Canon Farrar has the concurrence of the scholarly, and genial, and genuine portion of the churchmen of Europe, Asia, Africa, America, Australia, and New Zealand. It is only the frigidly good and rigidly righteous theologians of the church that take delight, in these days, in picturing the burnings and torments, never ending, of erring men and women, when they have done with the toil, and struggle, and sorrows, and sins, and sadness, of this incomprehensible world.

The subject is one on which volumes might be written, but on it I have no more to say just now. Such discussions can but end in leaving us in the obscurity it found us in. It is easy to prove that we know nothing whatever of these things. We can prove nothing more:—

We know not whether Death be good; But
Life, at least, it will not be:
Men will stand, sorrowing, as we stood,
Watch the same fields, and skies as we,
And the same sea.

That's about all we know for certain about it. And so to all, farewell.

Printed by Reid and Co., Weld-street, Hokitika.