Father & Son: How Religion Split a Family

October 8, 2000


Father and Son: How Religion Split a Family

I am in that delicious time of life (I choose to call it the springtime of my senility) when it becomes possible to start reading favorite books again to see if they speak to heart and mind as vividly as they did the first time we met. Some don’t, of course, because age and experience have proved them to be not nearly so wise or well-expressed as I once thought But sometimes the opposite happens: an old favorite turns out to be even better than I had remembered, and having just experienced that delight, I’m using the cherished freedom offered by this pulpit to share the ways in which a certain book — published a hundred years ago — is as modern as this morning in its poignant story of how religious faith set in concrete wrecked a good man’s life and separated him from a son he dearly loved. I confess to such a high regard for this book that if I were teaching would-be ministers in a seminary, this book would be required reading for every one of them.
Entitled Father and Son , it was written by a brilliant English author named Edmund Gosse about his father, Philip, and the suffocatingly strict church life they shared as the son was growing up. If some of you were brought up up in a fundamentalist Christian home, as I was, with a rigidly literalistic approach to the Bible and far more emphasis on a God of angry judgment than on a God of mercy and forgiveness, this book will remind you repeatedly of your childhood. And if, despite the deep pain of forsaking your parents’ religion, you simply gave up on religion as an adult, or else grew away from their form of faith into one that made better sense, then — either way — this splendidly written book would touch your heart.
Devout members of a small denomination known as Plymouth Brethren, the Gosse family had not a grain of mysticism, imagination, or flexibility in their approach to religious faith. They believed in the absolute historical truth of the Bible. They read every line with astonishing literal-mindedness. For them, there was no such thing as allegory, symbolism, or poetry unless they were clearly identified by the Biblical authors, which, of course, almost never happens This mechanically literal reading led, inevitably to their being amazingly exclusive. They felt that when other churches agreed with them, they were walking in the light, but that when they differed they had slipped into darkness and stood in danger of eternal punishment. As a result, the Gosse lived in a kind of cocoon, isolated from other believers, and warned their son, as my dear parents warned me, that it was unwise even to visit other churches lest they be contaminated by false teaching.
Believing firmly that only a handful of the Elect, who had properly interpreted the Bible, would be allowed to go to heaven, they had no hope for the various Protestant churches who had not yet seen it “their way,” and given the tense religious and political scene in England at the time, even less hope for Catholics. The son, grown up and shuddering at how prejudiced his parents had been, quotes his father as saying he had “no hope of eternal salvation for the inhabitants of Catholic countries” and felt that even the savage natives of Fiji had better shots at heaven than any cardinal in the Vatican. About this narrow-mindedness, the son came to have thoughts similar to my own as I grew up. How could God’s mercy be so limited? he wondered. How could a secret of such stupendous importance — the one and only way to win God’s favor — have been entrusted to a small band of Plymouth Brethren and hidden from millions of others whose lives were quite as decent and good?
If he dared ask his father about the awful disparity between those who would be saved and those who would be lost, the father would simply reply that they wree all incorrect in how they had read the Sacred Book, and no matter how holy their lives, they would have to suffer for this failure through an eternity of torment. This greatly puzzled the son, because his father in other ways was so tenderhearted that he could hardly bear the sight of suffering in those around him, yet he had no problem believing that God would punish millions of human beings forever, simply for failing to read the Book the way he did.
This moment in the novel takes me back to a childhood evening when I asked my father if his mother, a devout Methodist whom I adored, would be in heaven with the few in our church who had gotten it right. It was painful to watch his struggle. He loved his mother so dearly that we had no vacations in those years that did not involve driving a thousand miles to her house. But his illiberal and restrictive religion gave him no choice except to say that unless she converted to our way of worship he could hold out for her no hope. He was as good a man as I have ever known, but as his heart wrestled with what preachers had done with his mind, all he could do was drop his head and say, “God makes no promise of heaven to those who have not found the truth.” He meant, of course, our truth.
In the novel we are talking about, the Gosse’s son recalls the emphasis his childhood church, and especially his own mother and father, placed on the interpretation of prophecy, and how despite the fact that almost all of it is poetry that calls for flexibility and imagination in a reader, they would work at it hour after hour as if it were a completely literal blueprint for the future. Where does this fit? What do these odd numbers mean? And like so many readers of the Bible, they found what they wanted to find, and were convinced by wild poetic imagery that the beast of the book of Revelation, the ultimate evil, was the Catholic Church. Their son would one day be amazed to read in his otherwise gentle father’s diary how his wife’s dying hours were filled with joy at the thought that Catholicism’s death would quickly follow her own.
Now, you miss the real horror of this hatredif you dismiss Philip Gosse and his wife as ignorant rednecks. They were highly intelligent. She read Latin and Greek, a little Hebrew, and enjoyed some success as an author. He was an eminent zoologist , a member of the Royal Academy of Scioence, and the author of several books on natural history. It not stupidity, but religious fanaticism, that had warped them into such hatred. They ignored Christmas because as the father liked to say, “The very word is Popish,” and then — pursing his lips like one who is tasting a sour grape — he would mutter scornfully the words “Christ’s Mass” and go on to talk about how the holiday had derived from heathen feasts and was a soiled relic of the abominable Yule-Tide. The son writes, “He would denounce the horrors of Christmas until it almost made me blush to look at a holly-berry.”
The Gosses believed in what is now called the Rapture, sure that at any moment the Lord might return to catch up True Believers and take them to heaven — a small handful which, the Gosses expected, would surely include them. The father would calculate from obscure prophecies the exact date of that event, and wait. When the date passed quietly, he would be more than disappointed — he would for a while be angry. Then he would conclude that he must have made some slight error in his calculations, and the joy of anticipation would begin to build all over again. His son, immersed in all this apocalyptic hope, writes poignantly of how he finally lost it.
One glorious summer evening, sitting alone and deeply influenced by hope of the Rapture, the young boy gazed out a window toward the sea while the setting sun bathed the tops of trees in a rich, warm glow. “There was,” he says, “an absolute silence below and around me; a magic of suspense….Over my soul there swept an immense wave of emotion. Now, surely, now the great final change must be approaching. I gazed up into the tenderly-coloured sky, and I broke irresistibly into speech. ‘Come now, Lord Jesus,’ I cried, ‘come now and take me to be for ever with Thee in Thy Paradise. I am ready to come. My heart is purged from sin, there is nothing that keeps me rooted to this wicked world. Oh, come now, now, and take me before I have known the temptations of life….. And I raised myself on the sofa, and leaned upon the window-sill, and waited for the glorious apparition.
“That was the highest moment of my religious life, the apex of my striving After holiness. I waited awhile, watching; and then I felt a faint shame at the theatrical attitude I had adopted, although I was alone. Still I gazed and still I hoped. Then a little breeze sprang up and the branches danced. Sounds began to rise from the road beneath me. From far below there rose to me the chatter of [schoolboys] returning home. The tea-bell rang, — last word of prose to shatter my mystical poetry. ‘The Lord has not come, the Lord will never come,’ I muttered, and in my heart the artificial edifice of extravagant faith began to totter and crumble. From that moment forth my Father and I…..walked in opposite hemispheres of the soul….”
I have saved until now the strangest event of all in this Victorian novel, what is probably the most curious thing ever to happen in the long, sad history of the war between science and religion. As Charles Darwin and others piled up massive evidence that the earth was millions of years old, that countless species had become extinct over the ages, and that slow, gradual evolution was responsible for the incredible diversity of life, most scientists found it impossible to deny the evidence. Philip Gosse, a man with impeccable scientific credentials, at first greeted the new theories with enthusiasm, but it was not long before he faced an agonizing dilemma.
As a fundamentalist Christian who read the creation story literally, how could he reconcile that story with an ancient earth and with animal life modified by a long, slow process of evolution? After agonizing struggle, he finally thought he had found a way. With high hope and excitement, he published a little book called Omphalos that would settle a controversy which after a hundred and fifty years is still not settled. The word omphalo is the Greek word for navel , and it is key to understanding the odd theory he was offering the world. It was based on a problem painters had to face when they portrayed Adam and Eve: should they be shown with or without navels?
Some opted for no navels since, according to the creation story neither had been born in the usual way. Gosse decided they would have had navels, arguing (and this requires close listening) that God actualized his idea of Adam and Eve only when they had reached maturity, but included in their bodies the marks of earlier stages of growth through which they had passed only in His mind. So God gave them navels, even though they had not actually existed until their creation as fully grown human beings. In this strained and peculiar argument, Mr. Gosse saw his chance to harmonize science and scripture. Why not view the earth as bearing in its body, like Adam and Eve, the signs of a pre-existence in the mind of God? That way, despite its being only a few thousand years old, at the moment of its creation God gave it the look of a planet that had existed for aeons in his mind.
Break it down and it comes to this: those fossils Darwin and others had found were real — can’t deny that! — and they appear to be millions of years old — can’t deny that! — but they are only present as a record of stages the earth passed through ion God’s mind while he waited to materialize it. How all this could possibly make sense was something Gosse simply ignored in his eagerness to save both his science and his faith. And so, with the true believer’s conviction that he alone had the truth, he offered this odd solution to the British public and waited for their gratitude.
The reception broke his heart. The public read this tortured argument, laughed, and threw the book away. The press ridiculed the idea that the earth was bearing false witness to past processes which had never actually taken place, and had fun with the notion of a God who hid fossils in the rocks to tempt geologists into scepticism. I am reminded of the day when I sat in a Christian college classroom and heard the professor declare that the fossils embedded in a famous Texas boulder had been put there by God to confuse people lacking in simple, trusting faith.
As for Gosse’s fanciful theory, his friend and colleague Charles Darwin, always the gentleman, simply avoided making any comment. Even the famed preacher Charles Kingsley, Chaplain to Queen Victoria, from whom Gosse had expected instant agreement, wrote that he could not “give up the painful and slow conclusion of five and twenty years’ study of geology, and believe that God has written on the rocks one enormous and superfluous lie.” My father’s dream, the son writes, had turned into a nightmare from which he never fully recovered.
The son lived to become famous as author, poet and literary critic, but regretted all his adult life the stern Biblical literalism which came between him and his father. It’s a sad story still being played out so often that the son’s closing words stand as a poignant indictment of religion gone wrong: “What a charming companion, what a delightful parent, what a courteous and engaging friend my Father would have been….if it had not been for this stringent piety which ruined it all.”
I have used this sensitive story of tragic separation to remind you that dogmatic religion still tears the world apart, and that it is part of your calling to express a better way of honoring God.
First, last and always, gracious God, keep us mindful that you
do not love us more than you love others who sincerely seek
to know and do your will. Amen.