On Church Going

“Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious  
And gravitating with it to this ground  
Which he once heard was proper to grow wise in”

Philip Larkin, “Church Going” (1955)

Friends of religion are sometimes found in surprising places.  Likewise, its enemies.  I am not a topsy-turvy fantast who believes that saints are most often found in saloons and brothels, or that men of the cloth are uniquely wicked and prone to vice, but I have learned that there is no more than a probable relation between rectitude and religion.

When a glacier removes a boulder from its parent bedrock and deposits it on alien soil, geologists call that boulder an erratic.  Erratic fragments of Canadian granite are, for instance, scattered over the sedimentary bedrock of western New York, and as a boy I sometime found one of these displaced stones mingled with native slates and shales in the bed of a stream.  Erratic reprobates are likewise found mingled in the choir.

Hubert Bland (1855-1914) was an erratic friend of religion who was often found in surprising places, most notably the beds of women other than his wife.  Bland’s wife was Edith Nesbitt, the author of magical children’s stories who influenced Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia.  When Bland fathered a child by Nisbet’s friend Alice Hoatson, he persuaded his wife to hire Hoatson as their housekeeper, and then to adopt his bastard child as her own.  Having moved his mistress under his own roof, Bland went on to father a second child with Hoatson, and to compel a second adoption.

So Bland seems at first an unlikely friend of religion.

* * * * *

Rosamund was Bland’s first child by Alice Hoatson, and she was the original recipient of the letters that Bland published in a book called Letters to a Daughter (1907).  She was about twenty years old when the letters were written, and each one treats a moral question that a young woman with bohemian parents might be expected to ask.  Many of the letters espouse what I would call Bloomsbury morality (Bland and his wife were both Fabian socialists), but one stands out like an erratic boulder in stream choked with slates and shales.

Bland gave this letter the title “On Going to Church,” and apparently wrote it in answer to Rosamund’s question whether she should do the same.  Bland immediately breaks the question in two.  First there is the social question whether a houseguest of church-goers should accompany those church-goers to church.  Second is the spiritual question whether,

“Is it wise, in order to make the best of life, to cultivate the religious emotions?”

Bland goes on to describe the religious emotions as the “religious instinct,” and defines this as,

“The craving to get into touch with something outside the material world . . .”

Bland answers the first question with an emphatic yes.  To meekly accompany one’s church-going host to worship is “a mere act of politeness.”  Indeed, refusal is rude because,

“To stay away from church when your host and his friends go is to challenge after-luncheon controversy . . . . It is to advertise in the most vulgar and objectionable way possible your irreligion . . . . It is to make yourself prominent and prickly.”

Bland tells Rosamund that the answer to the second question is also yes, but for reasons it will not be so easy to explain.  He begins by asking his daughter to apply what we might call the smell test, because he believes that it is “obvious” that there is something off, or not quite right, about people who lack or do not cultivate religious emotions.

“Who are the nicest people you know . . . the people you like best to talk to; the people whose judgment you most rely on; the gayest people; the people who have the art of treating serious things lightly and light things with a becoming seriousness; the all-round people; the people whose opinion you would most value of a poem, a novel, a symphony, a landscape; the people whose taste you trust? Think now, are they not in almost every case people with some sort of religious belief?”

I am interested by this line of argument because something like it played a part in my return to “some sort of religious belief.”  Lexical innovation has changed the meaning of the words “nice” and “gay,” but in 1907 the word “nice” meant discerning, and the word “gay” meant serenely happy and contented.  Bland is saying that the judgment of those with religious belief is reliable because their eyes are clear (vide Matthew 6:22) and their hearts are not inflamed by worldly illusions (vide Matthew 6:31).

Thus they enjoy a fundamental sanity that makes them “all-round people . . . whose taste you can trust.”

* * * * *

Bland is articulating what we might call the doctrine of the “complete man.”  As another author put it, nature and cultivation has given the complete man “a wide-ranging personality” that is “open to all Reality, from nature up to God, developed in all its ranges, from body up to spirit.”

“The complete man is open to the small and the great, the commonplace and the unique, the naïve and the cultured.”*

The complete man is contrasted with what we might call the truncated man who is, again by nature and cultivation, closed and insensible to some aspect of reality.  This gives him an imperfect (i.e. incomplete) understanding of his real predicament, and indeed throws his limited understanding into a dangerous imbalance.  A truncated man is mentally unbalanced, fundamentally insane, and thus subject to freakish fears and morbid manias.

In the novel Brideshead Revisited (1945), Evelyn Waugh made the character Rex Mottram an example of the truncated man.  He puts these words in the mouth of Mottram’s wife, Julia, who saw her husband’s insanity only after they were married.

 “He wasn’t a complete human being at all.  He was a tiny bit of one unnaturally developed . . . . I thought he was a sort of primitive savage, but he was something absolutely modern and up-to-date that only this ghastly age could produce. A tiny bit of a man pretending he was the whole.”

Julia says these words to her paramour Charles Ryder, an artist who only later recognizes that he is also a truncated product of the ghastly modern age.

“I remained unchanged, still a small part of myself pretending to be whole.”

* * * * *

Given that Bland was a philanderer and a libertine, it is hardly surprising that he did not make any strong connection between going to church and moral rectitude.  Indeed, he was more than willing to concede that severely truncated atheists were often the athletes of moral endeavor.  Indeed, severely truncated atheists were often the athletes of money-making (Rex Mottram), power-grabbing (ibid), and even artistic production (Charles Ryder), but this was because truncation unbalanced their minds and permitted insane monomanias.

Bland told Rosamund that the fruit of religious belief was not rectitude, but that it was, rather, the magical power to bestow delight.

“Or, to put it otherwise, have you ever met a really delightful Atheist, man or woman? You have met many worthy Atheists, I know, persons whose moral code was as conspicuous as a red nose, whose admirable qualities stuck out of them like hat-pins, persons you are almost bound in common decency to respect; but have they been delightful? Were you not always conscious of a want in them somewhere . . . ”

What did Bland mean by delightful?  Fortunately, he explained what he meant in another missive that he included in Letters to My Daughter.  He titled this letter “On Being Delightful,” and in it explained that a delightful woman seeks to give pleasure and so makes an agreeable gift of herself.  The same is true of a delightful man, although Bland insists that the sexes differ greatly in the means by which they give pleasure and make themselves into agreeable gifts.

But the essence of Bland’s doctrine of delight is that the pleasure must be freely given as a gift.  It is not delightful to give pleasure with an eye to personal advantage.  It is ingratiating, manipulative, and very often simple prostitution.

“If you are going to practice the art of being delightful you must do it for the sake of being delightful, not with any arriére pensée [ulterior motive], not with an eye to the best partners at dances or invitations to the mansions of the affluent.”

Bland does not explain why “some sort of religious belief” is necessary to be delightful (he was not so foolish as to say it is sufficient), but we must suppose it has something to do with the mental imbalance that is caused by truncation.

* * * * *

The poet Philip Larkin was an atheist, but in my epigraph he acknowledges Bland’s “religious instinct” as what he calls “a hunger in himself to be more serious.”  And in the epigraph, Larkin admits that even he, an atheist, is drawn by this hunger into churches where he hopes it will be fed.

“And gravitating with it to this ground
Which he once heard was proper to grow wise in”

Larkin’s hunger is not fed, so he grows sad rather than wise, but gravitating to a ground reputed proper to grow wise in is what Bland meant by “going to church.”  It is “to church” that men go to satisfy and develop their natural “craving to get into touch with something outside the material world.”

Thus it is as natural for men to “go to church” as it is for bison to go to a waterhole.

“The religious instinct . . . is born in us just like any other instinct.”

Just like the sexual instinct, for instance.  And in the case of the sexual instinct, philandering Bland evidently opposed any program of discipline or repression.  I have found no evidence that he was a disciple of Freud, but his permissive argument for instinctual gratification certainly resembles that of the psychologist.

“To suppress an instinct, then, or to allow it to atrophy by disuse, is to shut oneself off from an opportunity of pleasure, to narrow the range of one’s emotions and one’s intellect, to diminish the number of one’s sensations; it is to be incomplete, and if you are incomplete, you cannot be delightful . . .”

Like the sexual instinct, the religious instinct of normal men and women must be given expression.  If it is not, the result will be the pinched and neurotic insanity of truncated men and women.

* * * * *

Bland was an aesthete rather than a philosopher, so he naturally proved his argument with religious feelings, most specifically with what he described as “the eupeptic tranquility that follows” going to church.  “After all,” he asks, “the proof of the pudding is in the eating, isn’t it?”  Whether one should go to church must, therefore, surely depend on whether going to church satisfies the hunger of the religious instinct.  Jesus told Peter to “feed my sheep,” and we can only suppose that Peter is not doing his job if those sheep are always hungry.

Having asserted the empiricist axiom that “the proof of the pudding is in the eating,” Bland urged Rosamund to undertake this experiment.

“Go, sit as much by yourself as you can in some great church—a cathedral for choice, of course; choose some corner where the light is broken by a stained-glass window. . . and stay there quietly until after the service ends.  Let the music of the organ, the clear voices of the choir boys, the penetrating odor of the incense, work their will upon you. Surrender yourself wholly, uncritically, to the influence of the place, and then . . . write again and ask me again, if you can, ought you to go to church.”


*) E. Ellsworth Shumaker, Philosophy of the Higher Life (1909), pp. 198, 178.

8 thoughts on “On Church Going

  1. Pingback: On Church Going | Reaction Times

  2. Joris-Karl Huysmans began as a pure aesthete, as does his thinly disguised autobiographical protagonist in the tetralogy of La-Bas, En route, La cathedral, and L’oblat, which tell the story of his gradual conversion from self-indulgent decadence to genuine Catholic devotion. One might also attribute “aesthetic devotion” to Charles Baudelaire — and even to T.S. Eliot.

    Happy New Year to you!

  3. Likewise to you. The Reformation yanked Christianity into Puritan moralism, and then the Counterreformation yanked it back to baroque aestheticism. It seems we have been incapable of proper balance ever since.

  4. Happy New Year!
    Will be attending Church today with the Bride and Mother-in-Law.
    Holy Day of Obligation – Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God
    Church attendance for myself is sporadic, but I find that I should attend Sunday services more often.

    You mention in this post that you grew up in WNY. I have this blog bookmarked and scroll through it on regular basis. Anyway, curious, what part of WNY you grew up in? Bride and I have made our home and raised our children in Kenmore, NY. Buffalo, NY is where Bride and I were born and raised.

    • Glad to have you as a reader. I grew up in Brockport, now an outer suburb of Rochester on the Buffalo side. I got my undergraduate degree at Geneseo, and then my graduate degrees from Syracuse. So, although I was born in Wisconsin, I was a western N.Y. guy until I moved to Texas in 1989. It’s now close to twenty years since I’ve been back, but my parents and brothers moved away and it’s a long trip. Good luck with the churchgoing. I am in a hiatus myself, owing to banality fatigue, but intend to bite the bullet and return soon.

  5. By all means, gentlemen, go back. I regret the years my wife and I spent talking about going back to church. If the homily or sermon is spiritual junk-food, ignore it and meditate on the Scripture readings for the day. Let the Holy Spirit speak to you, even if the minister seems to have nothing to say. I grew up Baptist, but have since taken a sacramental view of Holy Communion, so I couldn’t stay Baptist. We’ve become Methodist, but I still miss good, expository, exegetical preaching. The good news is that the Spirit is with us, to guide us into all truth.

  6. Church is wherever believers get together. Cathedrals are awesome architecturally, but with their towering columns and vaulted, stratospheric ceilings they make God seem rather dour and standoffish. But a pristine white weatherboard church beside a verdant, cow-dotted meadow in a small country town is another thing entirely. If you want to meet a welcoming God with a radiant smile on his face and a loving sparkle in His eyes, that’s where you’ll find Him.

  7. Pingback: Cantandum in Ezkhaton 01/05/20 | Liberae Sunt Nostrae Cogitatiores


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