One Man's Advent
Click here for pdf copy

download adobe reader

By Antony Bridge
Contents

Preface
I Genetics and Environment
II Freedom, Uccello and War
III The Ford Jabbok
IV Advocatus Diaboli
V Balaam in Moab
VI What Is Man?
VII The Image of God
VIII The Birth of Images
IX The Image of Birth
X Some Objections
XI The Valley of Baca
XII Conclusion
Sources

'It is time for us to draw the lessons from twentieth-century post-mechanistic science, and to get out of the straitjacket which nineteenth-century materialism imposed on our philosophical outlook. Paradoxically, had that outlook kept abreast with modern science itself, instead of lagging a century behind it, we should have been liberated from that straitjacket long ago.'

Arthur Koestler
The Roots of Coincidence

Preface

One of the difficulties of writing a book about belief and unbelief is that there is a sense in which there is no such thing as belief but only someone who believes something or other, or does not do so. All statements about belief in the abstract diminish the reality of believing or disbelieving, reducing it, in fact, to a set of propositions about belief; and that is a very different and often a very dangerous thing. All Churches have drawn up such propositional tables, pleading practical necessity and arguing that their beliefs have to be precisely defined if anyone is to know what they are; but while in a sense this is true, again and again the results have been disastrous, Christians proving their orthodoxy by signing on the dotted line to one or other set of doctrinal formulations, Orthodox or Monophysite, Protestant or Catholic, and then hurrying away to burn those who disagree with them. Of course, Christians are not the only people who have indulged in this kind of behaviour; the men of Stalin's Russia with their persecution of deviationists and the bloodthirsty mullahs of the Ayatollah's Iran have provided recent examples of the same lethal behaviour.

Yet another reason for remembering that belief is not an abstraction and cannot be separated from the person who believes is the obvious fact that what a man believes is at least partly – and often almost entirely – a product of his time, place and social setting; for example, if I had been born a Chinese peasant, the chances of me ending my life as a priest in the Church of England would not have constituted much of a threat to members of the Chinese bookmaking profession. So any statement about someone who believes something or other, be it that which a Christian, a Buddhist, a humanist or a Communist believes, must start with an account, however minimal, of the believer himself and of the people and the experiences which have helped to make him what he is and have therefore contributed to the formation of his belief or unbelief. So the first part of this book will have to be a brief account of myself and of some of the experiences which seem to me in retrospect to have been both germinal and formative; and indeed the link which binds the book together, for better or for worse, must inevitably be a personal one.

However, the personal factor in belief is by no means the end of the matter. If it were, there would be no means of evaluating the respective beliefs of – say – Hitler, Karl Marx and Christ. Therefore at some point in what follows I shall try to look at the problem of credibility and how it may be established, and this will also involve a look at the contemporary fragmentation of man and the alienation of his intellect from the other departments of his being; the alienation perhaps of the right hemisphere of his brain from the left, and the similar and perhaps partly consequent alienation of man from his natural environment; for one of my firmest convictions is that when the analytical intellect is isolated from other modes of apprehension – artistic, intuitive, emotional and passive – we tend to stop living our lives, assuming instead the role of spectators. In an essay on pornography, D.H. Lawrence said that 'sex in the head kills sex in the bed' or words to that effect, and his aphorism can be extended to cover the intellectualizing of other departments of human experience. Goethe knew this. 'Grey is all theory, green is life's growing tree,' he said, and Coleridge said much the same thing when he insisted that 'Our meddling intellect misshapes the beauteous forms of things.

We murder to dissect.' But this does not mean that I am hostile to the analytical intellect or that I agree with Luther who dubbed reason 'that whore'. On the contrary, I believe what I believe with my intellect, and despite it. But perhaps the heart of my conviction is that the experience of being, art, faith and reason are inseparable parts of the human vision of reality; for as we sit in the solitary chambers of our heads, we have those four windows – being, art, faith and reason – through which that-which-is may reveal itself to us, and only when we use all of them are we likely to get a vision of reality approximating to the whole truth.

DEDICATION

To the child in the snow

Chapter I

Genetics and Environment

My father was a naval officer with a remarkably good brain and few morals; he passed examinations almost in his sleep, outdoing all his competitors in the process, but he had little or no respect for the conventional bourgeois moral standards of the day. At the age of fourteen or thereabouts, after a number of years at the naval school at Dartmouth, he was despatched to Hong Kong to join the Royal Navy there as a midshipman. He travelled by passenger ship by way of the Suez Canal and India, and although it was customary at the time for boys of his age to begin their naval careers while still so young, it was probably less customary for them to be introduced to some of the other adult delights which came my father's way on the voyage; for during its course he was seduced by a young married woman who was travelling to India to join her husband there, and he spent much of his time at sea in bed with her. He seems to have enjoyed this way of passing the time so much that he became addicted to it, and thereafter he seduced whom he could, when he could and as he could, which was frequently, for he was highly attractive to women; at least, that was my mother's version of events, and I have no reason to doubt that it was substantially true. Personally, I never knew him, and I am not even sure that the one memory I have of him is a genuine memory or the result of being told of the incident later; whichever it may be, it goes back into my earliest childhood. He was standing in front of a mirror in the bathroom shaving and with nothing on, when I toddled in. I think it must be a genuine memory, for I recall coming no higher than his knees. I began to back out again, whereupon he laughed, his face still covered in a white lather of soap, and said, 'Come in! If you see anything you haven't got yourself, you
may hang your hat on it'!

As to my mother, who was born in high Victorian days in 1885, she was ravishingly beautiful in a somewhat patrician way and magnificently irresponsible. Her childhood had not been a happy one; as a result of her birth, my grandmother had had puerperal fever, and thereafter she had never liked my mother while doting on two younger children. Eventually my mother was sent to a large boarding school for girls near the South Coast, from which she promptly absconded, returning home and refusing to go back there in any circumstances; an escapade which did not endear her to her parents or make them any the less strict in their treatment of her. But at the age of about eighteen she began to come into her own and enjoy life; for as soon as she was allowed to appear in public on social occasions she became the centre of attraction for eager young Edwardian suitors who buzzed round her like amorous bees round a nectar-laden blossom. One of them , in something like a caricature of the social mores
of the time, was a Belgian Count, who tried to besiege her bedroom by way of a ladder, only to be pushed down into the garden by an irate Scottish nurse named Maggie, who was devoted to my mother and determined to defend her virtue against all comers. I do not know how many times she became secretly and unofficially engaged, but I believe it was not a rare event, and she was engaged to someone else when she married my father in 1909. As a woman, she had many faults and shortcomings, some of which were due to her volatile temperament and some to her upbringing, background and the society of her time, but as a mother she was unfailingly loving to me, and I cannot remember ever having a serious row with her; indeed, I am not sure that I ever had a row of any kind with her; disagreements galore and momentary flashes of anger, yes, but anything worth calling a row, virtually never. She could be infuriating, but perhaps because I inherited many of her characteristics and could therefore understand both them and her, I seldom found her so. Retrospectively, I am sure that much of her more aggressive behaviour was bluster; the blustering rebellion of the small child inside her, who had never forgotten the rejections and restrictions of her childhood.

In view of many things, however, it is not surprising that my parents' marriage lasted barely seven years. My father's taste for adultery was greatly facilitated by the outbreak of war in 1914, and his understandable and in some ways rather endearing habit of confessing to my mother that he had yet again succumbed to an adulterous temptation, while begging her to forgive him, did not help the marriage; for when she did indeed forgive him, he was able to go happily to sleep, while she lay awake in misery and heartache. Moreover, his disregard for the moral conventions of the day embraced those governing the rights of private property, and this, too, deeply distressed her; for when and if my father thought that someone could afford to go without something, which he himself wanted to have, as long as the object of his desire was something which he regarded as of no great importance, he had no hesitation in taking it. My mother, with a simple and rather black and white moral outlook, was appalled on one occasion when, after a fashionable dance which they had attended together, my father took someone's gold headed cane on the grounds that anyone who could afford to buy such a thing in the first place could well afford to buy another. It was a kind of practical communism with which she could not come to terms and, taken together with many other things, it led them to the divorce courts. It did not do so, however, before they had had three children, of whom I was the second, conceived I believe in a Swedish hotel in the closing days of 1913 before the old world fell apart in war and mud. It was typical of my mother's unconventional candour that, one day after we had both had a couple of drinks before luncheon, she should have told me where I had been conceived.

Of my earliest childhood up to the age of about seven, a few unrelated incidents stand out in my memory as though lit up by flashes of summer lightning in the otherwise undifferentiated darkness of that forgotten time; my brother's birth, when I was two and a half, and the remembrance of stepping down a step in a doorway on to a rose-coloured carpet in a white room to be told that he had been born; picking a dark purple and white pansy for a man in a white suit who was sitting on a white-painted garden bench with my mother, also dressed in white, in front, I believe, of a white house; being told by my grandfather's cook, Alice, a rather gaunt old woman with a light moustache, of someone who had caught a chill and had died vomiting excrement; an old wives' tale, I now recognize, to frighten me into being careful not to catch a chill, but horrifyingly real and memorable at the time; later being taken to see old Alice in the local hospital, where she was dying of cancer and looking like a bag of bones in a fine, polished, waxy skin, her eyes alone large, dark, alive and unhappy; watching four men kill a pig, held down on its back by its legs and squealing, and the bubbling noise as one of the men cut its throat with a knife. For some reason, the purple pansy and the man and my mother in white made the biggest impression on me, as though that moment and its white and purple luminescence held a special significance, nearly but not quite breaking through the surface of triviality and revealing its secret to me. It was the first of a number of similar experiences which have punctuated my life, and of which for many years I took little notice while still remembering them. In Janus (1978) Arthur Koestler compared such moments of increased awareness to the experience of falling through a stage trap-door from the trivial plane of existence, upon which we spend most of our time, on to a plane which he called the tragic or absolute plane; 'then all at once our daily routines appear as shallow, trifling vanities; but once safely back on the trivial plane, we dismiss the experiences of the other as phantasms of overstrung nerves.' But are they? It is a question to which I shall return.

As John Donne observed, 'No man is an island, entire of itself', and my family and social environment had already begun to press me into shape and form me, but it was during my school days that the continent of mankind began to increase the pressure, and the forces exerted were those of the Western European world as it was immediately following the First World War, when the old Europe, born somewhere around AD 1500 of the dying medieval world, was in its turn dying; for as the American philosopher William CV. Barrett remarked in his book, Irrational Man, (1977).

The First World War was the beginning of the end of the bourgeois civilization of Europe........ It would be superficial to take the outbreak of that war, as Marxists do, as signifying merely the bankruptcy of capitalism, its inability to function without crisis and bloodshed. August,
1914 was a much more total human debacle than that....It revealed that the apparent stability, security and material progress of society had rested, like everything human, upon the void. European man came face to face with himself as a stranger. When he ceased to be contained and sheltered within a stable social and political environment, he saw that his rational and enlightened philosophy could no longer console him with the assurance that it satisfactorily answered the question, What is man?

The First World War may have revealed this to some people at the time, though I rather doubt that it did so to many, and it certainly did not do so to me or, as far as I can judge the matter in retrospect, to my teachers; although I agree that that is what the war of 1914-18 should have revealed to those with eyes to read the signs of the times correctly. Perhaps people chose to be blind in the face of so dark and frightening a prospect.
Whether this was the case or not, my teachers were at paints to convince me and the other little boys in their charges that the old world had not passed away; on the contrary, it had survived with its attitudes and its self-understanding unchanged and undarkened by even the smallest doubt about its own infinite superiority to all other worlds past or present. In effect, this meant that the two dominant and semi-contradictory ideologies (for want of a better word), which had informed the pre-war western world, were both still valid and true. The first and most popular was the radically optimistic humanism of the nineteenth century, which had under-pinned the works of such men as Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Thomas Huxley; an optimism which still lay behind the ideas of H.G. Wells and even
Bertrand Russell. According to this school of thought, the great enemies of humanity were poverty and ignorance, both of which had for centuries prevented us from controlling our own destiny. Get rid of poverty by creating new wealth by means of newly discovered industrial techniques, and banish ignorance by dispelling the darkness artificially created by the religious obscurantism of the past, flooding the world with the beneficent light of universal education, and the millennium would be round the corner. The other was a curious kind of more or less conventional and vestigial Christianity, which was normally kept in a separate compartment of the believer's mind from that in which instructions governing the conduct of his daily life were stored; instructions mostly dictated by the humanism of the day; the religious compartment was opened on Sundays, occasionally for prayer, and for such events as marriages and deaths in the family. Its contents were not particularly Christian but rather drearily Stoic with much emphasis upon self-discipline, self-reliance courage and self-advancement. The aim of life was success, and achieving it involved the acceptance of competition, hardship, and the adoption of a curious double standard of behaviour; on the one hand, one was encouraged to be modest, kind,
courteous, socially conformist, and either uninterested in sexual matters or, if that was not always possible, in rigid control of one's erotic urges and determined to simulate indifference to them; while, on the other hand, in academic affairs, games and eventually in business and politics, one had to be self-seeking, ruthless, and single-minded in doing everyone else down in the struggle to excel and succeed. You were allowed to be magnanimous to the vanquished; indeed, it was expected of you; but the overriding priority was first to vanquish your opponents. Meanwhile, if you erred by allowing this aggressive standard of behaviour to invade your personal relationships, you were condemned as socially boorish and a cad, while if you were foolish enough to attempt to be 'Christian' in the competitive world of exams, sport and careers, you were written off as spineless and impractical, a dreamer, a fool and a wet. Of course, there were some people who did not conform to these social conventions, but on the whole most people did so to a greater or lesser extent.

Religion hardly brushed off on me at school. As a child, I believed in God in a vague and superstitious way, but this was a legacy of home rather than school. At my first school near Brighton, to which I was sent at the age of eight, we were marched to church on Sundays in crocodile, two by regimented two, there to attend services which, as I remember them, were unsurpassably drab. The church itself was a large, grey, undistinguished, late Victorian, seaside Gothic edifice, and what went on in it was equally undistinguished and colourless, as indeed was what went on later in the chapel of my next school at Marlborough, where I was summoned by the same bells as had plagued the life out of John Betjeman a year or two earlier. In these places of ecclesiastical assembly – I hesitate to call them 'places of worship', for worship did not seem to me to play much part in either of these gentlemanly shrines dedicated to moral uplift and social conformity – the services were taken by infinitely colourless, short-back-and-sides clergymen in infinitely colourless black and white clothes, who, like ham actors in provincial theatres, assumed over-solemn voices in church, and then shed them with their clothing after the services, reverting to normal, smelling of pipe tobacco and tweed, and speaking with whatever social or regional accent they happened to have acquired from the accident of their birth. The performance in church was a social rite, an act through which one passed in portentous or in simulated solemnity, which I did not understand, but which I felt to be in some obscure way important and in the true sense sacred: that is to say, set apart from ordinary life. Everything underlined this separation of church and life; the way in which the officiating clergy put on different clothes and a different voice was symbolic of the deeper truth of this separation, and although I did not think this through consciously at the time (and I am sure that the clergy themselves did not do so either), it communicated itself plainly enough, so that I and all the other small boys treated the two realms of religion and life as distinct from each other.

None of this meant, however, that the ordinary, everyday world was a one-dimensional place, free of mystery or fear; on the contrary, throughout my childhood it remained a frightening place of shadows, in which certain places, objects and actions had to be avoided. There was a particularly lethal picture at the top of my grandfather's stairs; it was a black and white print of a painting depicting Tennyson's Lady of Shalott at the terrible moment when she had brought the curse, which she had always dreaded, down upon her luckless head.

She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces thro' the room,
She saw the water-lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
She look'd down to Camelot,
Out flew the web, and floated wide;
The mirror crack'd from side to side;
'The curse is come upon me,' cried
The lady of Shalott.

And there she was, staring out from the picture with terrifying great dark eyes straight at me as I ran past her, and I could never run fast enough. Another hazard of that time was the nasty possibility that I might grow to be like the person who had happened to sit in the same bus or train seat as that which I subsequently occupied, the warmth of whom I could feel permeating me through my bottom and possibly doing terrible things to me in the process; and so I could go on. But these childish fears and fantasies disappeared as I grew into my teens, as too did what little religious belief I had managed to acquire in my earliest years.

What went on in church and school chapel still remained separate from everyday life, but it lost its sacredness, remaining strictly separate only in the sense that what was said in ecclesiastical buildings and what was done outside them was – or anyway seemed to me to be – a different thing altogether. Schoolmasters spoke of love and forgiveness in chapel and beat you in school; you were encouraged to trust in God in chapel and to rely on yourself in the wider world outside; in chapel, too, you were forced to listen to stories of the world being created in sever days, of Noah and his ark and the great flood, of miracles and virgin births and the dead being raised to life, while in school you discovered that the universe was thousands of millions of years old, that the world had never been drowned by flood waters, and that parthenogenesis was largely confined to insects. In other ways, however, I began to see that what went on in chapel and outside it were not as different as I had hitherto thought them to be, for in both places you were subject to the same school rules and discipline, and in both places you were lectured and expected to attend to what was said or risk being punished. Meanwhile, what went on in chapel was no longer so much numinous, if unintelligible, as boring, hypocritical and nonsensical, so that I listened only to mock or to be irritated or both. Curiously enough, I still believed in God at this time, but it was a belief of a primitive, unformulated and fragile nature, and it did not long survive the vigorous materialism of the whole of the rest of my education, which was shot through and through with late nineteenth-century materialism and optimistic humanism.

I was, I think, unpopular at school, and although at the time I could not understand why this should have been so, I am no longer surprised; for in retrospect I can see that I was large, ready to be aggressive when provoked, and addicted to swimming against the stream. I was also bad at games, resentful of authority, and endowed with a dangerous command of words with which it was both easy and often irresistibly enjoyable to sting people. I alienated many of my contemporaries by not conforming to their ideas and conservative ideals while at the same time failing to fit neatly into the accepted nonconformist mould of the time; thus I thoroughly enjoyed running about the downs, naked whenever the weather and the emptiness of the landscape allowed, with my heterosexual, rugger-playing friends, with whom I kept young sparrow hawks and kestrels which we had taken from their nests and tried unsuccessfully to tame and train until such time as they escaped and flew away to fend for themselves; but I also spent as much time as I could in the Art Room with those of my less conventional friends who were classified as 'aesthetes' and who were therefore much distrusted and disliked by the staff. Some of these were homosexual, but since most of us at the time were to a greater or lesser degree bisexual and not in the least particular as to what aroused us erotically, almost anything being sufficient to awaken our loins and fill our heads with dreams, the nature of my friends' tastes in this respect did not seem to me to be important.

Meanwhile, if the other boys found me difficult to classify, with very few exceptions the masters at the school gave the impression regarding me as an unmitigated disaster, and my taste in painting, poetry and music made things worse. For my first sight of Van Gogh's paintings, though only in reproduction, was almost like the vision given to St Paul on the Damascus road: a revelation of unexpected and surpassing glory. It is difficult today to recall how revolutionary and startling his paintings were in the 1920s, for they have been reproduced and admired for so long that nowadays they are rightly treated with the respect due to masterpieces; but in those far-off days they still had the power to astonish and to shock, so that while they took my breath away and excited me even more, I think, than any blossoming girl in the high street or flowering boy under the shower, almost to a man my mentors considered them ugly vulgar daubs, garish, unskilled and artless. Matters were made worse by the fact that I was equally excited by the discovery of T.S. Eliot's poetry; the
Waste Land and his 'damp souls of housemaids sprouting at area gates' together with such poems as 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock' opened up a new vision of the world to me in much the same was as Van Gogh's paintings, though the two worlds revealed were very different from each other; but Eliot, too, was deeply distrusted and disliked by the majority of my teachers, who were convinced that his poems were ugly, absurd, revolutionary and therefore subversive and dangerous. Plainly, I could not really like them or see any value in them, for none existed, and therefore I must be lying with some ulterior motive and expressing an admiration for them as a demonstration of my dumb insolence and rebellious intent. In a way, of course, they were right; for while I genuinely loved Eliot's poetry, as I still do, I was also delighted that my taste for it gave me an opportunity to offend and annoy as many members of the school staff as possible against whom I did, indeed, feel intensely rebellious and full of insolence, both dumb and sometimes not so dumb. They also disliked my taste in music. As far as I can remember, there was little opportunity to hear much music at school, but I came from a musically barren family, I may have failed to take what opportunities existed; but at the age of about fifteen or sixteen I became excited by the more way-out jazz of the period, banned at school and heard surreptitiously on a portage gramophone in a water meadow, where the sounds made by such men as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington mingled with the cry of coots and the buzzing of insects; and this occupation of mine, too, was regarded as a proof of my depravity.

If the tenor of my life was changed by the impact of the arts, which led back from Eliot through through the Oxford Book of English Verse to the discovery of a host of other poets, and similarly from Van Gogh to Cezanne, Modigliani, Picasso and Matisse, and through them to a great treasury of older masters, it was at about the same time that the subliminal materialism of my education, never openly avowed by my teachers but washing away like a tidal sea at the submerged banks of my being, gradually produced a revelation as stimulating and important as that vouchsafed by Eliot and Van Gogh; namely, that there was no God, and religion was either social hypocrisy or intellectual obscurantism or or both. The atheism of men like Bertrand Russell shone out like the light of the sun dispelling not only the darkness of my childhood's innocent night but also the morning mists of my adolescent respect for the solemn and sacred things, which, though unintelligible to me, I had taken on trust from my elders in the belief that they knew more than I did about the mysteries of life. My rejection of the religious odds and ends upon which I had hitherto been force-fed, and my decision to count myself an atheist, not an agnostic, was enormously exhilarating and liberating.

So I avowed myself an atheist, and in doing so I felt that I had emerged from a dim, smoke-filled room, stale and drab and airless, into a bright and bracing world, blue and salty with the smell of sea breezes and as full of light as a Norfolk sky. I was about sixteen at the time, and I had not yet come across the ideas of the logical positivists of the so-called Vienna Circle but I tried to read Nietzsche with, I fear, more enthusiasm than understanding, and I discovered A.N. Whitehead's book, Adventures of Ideas, which enraptured me. It was at about this time, too, that I was introduced to that sacred writ of traditional unbelief of the day, The Thinker's Library, published by the Rationalist Press Association. To crown it all, as I have already briefly said, I devoured all the simpler and more popular works of that urbane, brilliant and supremely lucid 'idiot's guide' to polite atheism, Bertrand Russell, and the more I read the more convinced I became that I had been right to reject belief in God and become an atheist.

At the time, I was convinced that this decision of mine was an intellectual one taken on purely rational grounds, and so to a certain extent it was; but in retrospect I realize that it was also partly an aesthetic and partly a moral decision; aesthetic because the atheism I embraced at this time was clearer, more economical and more satisfying than the old mixture of vestigial Christianity, covert materialism and optimistic humanism served up with Stoic sauce upon which I had been fed since childhood, and moral because atheism seemed to me to be infinitely more honest and intellectually more courageous than the religion I had been taught at school. Looking back, however, I am sure that I also rejected the version of Christianity which I had hitherto accepted because with it I could reject, too, a number of what seemed to me to be unnecessarily restrictive rules and conventions, together with those people – school-masters and others – who had forced them upon me and all that they stood for. In other words, my 'intellectual' decision was also a vehicle for revolt against much else.

However, what the world, my family and I myself were going to do with me as my schooling drew to its welcome if undistinguished close was a problem. To everyone's surprise including my own, I had managed to pass the various examinations which took the place at that time of today's O and A levels, but I was basically uninterested in further academic education, and the idea of sending me to a university never arose; not that going to a university necessarily had anything much to do with further education in those days; the father of three boys I knew sent them all to his own old college at Oxford on the strict understanding that they were not being sent there to do any work, but to 'learn to behave like gentlemen'. My only accomplishment was that I could draw and paint slightly better than most of my contemporaries, and I had won various prizes and cups reserved for boys good at such useless pursuits; so without bothering to refer to my family I decided to enter for a scholarship for the Royal Academy School of Art, not so much with the intention of going there, let alone of becoming a professional artist, as to discover whether I could win a scholarship or not, rather as I might have tried to win a prize in a competition to solve a crossword puzzle. In the event, I got my scholarship, and thus I found myself bound for an art school almost by accident.

I received the news of my success four days after leaving school, and I started work at the RA a few days later, not really knowing my arse from my elbow, as they say, and indeed knowing even less about the fascinating anatomical details of the various ladies who now posed naked for me to draw; a spectacle which, to my surprise, paralysed me for no longer than about three days, after which I found that I could begin to breathe again in their presence at something like the normal rate of respiration despite their almost magical opalescence and beguiling pulchritude.

Antony Cyprian Bridge