Professor Huxley on Agnosticism

by R. H. Hutton
The Spectator (February 9, 1889)

[193] Professor Huxley states in his paper on Agnosticism in the Nineteenth Century, that he is very well aware "that the process of breaking away from old beliefs is extremely unpleasant;" and that remark no doubt represents accurately the keener and stronger elements of Professor Huxley's experiences on the subject. Yet he would hardly deny, we think, that this genuine feeling is, we do not say balanced, but partly counterpoised in minds as strong, as self-confident, and as belligerent as his own, by the satisfaction of saying telling things which will diffuse dismay among those [194] whom he regards as the weaker brethren; and of this – no doubt secondary – state of feeling, the article in the Nineteenth Century appears to bear a good deal more evidence than of the pain of breaking away from old beliefs, which Professor Huxley has doubtless felt more profoundly in earlier days. It is an aggressive paper, justified probably to his own mind by the attack on the word "Agnosticism" as "cowardly," which was made at the last Church Congress. We cannot say that we see anything cowardly in the term. It seems to us to express very fairly a state of mind which "unbelief" would express equally well, but which "infidelity" does not express at all. A man is an infidel who is unfaithful to one to whom he feels that he owes fidelity. A Christian who deserts Christ and acts as if he were ashamed of him, is an infidel. A man who with all his heart has struggled to learn whether or not he owed implicit trust to Christ, and who has either answered this question in the negative, or has not been able to answer it honestly at all, is not an infidel. He is not a believer; he may even be an unbeliever, which implies a shade more of leaning towards the negative answer; but no one has a right to call a man an infidel who has done all in his power to be faithful to the light he has had, but has not arrived at a conclusion satisfactory to his critic. We are not surprised, therefore, to note a certain acrimony in Professor Huxley's tone. It was justified to some extent by Dr. Wace's condemnation of the word "agnostic" as a euphemism for "infidel," and by the Bishop of Petersborough's adjective of "cowardly." Nevertheless, this acrimony of tone injures the article. It completely overshadows, throughout the greater part of it, the pain which Professor Huxley tells us that he has suffered in breaking away from old beliefs, and rather imparts to his disquisition the impression that the writer is thoroughly enjoying his attack on Christianity, and is happiest when he succeeds in being most trenchant.

The really critical point of the argument of Professor Huxley's scornful paper is in effect this: – If we are to trust the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus Christ believed in the possession of the spirits of the insane by other spirits which tyrannized over them, and which were so distinct from them that they could even pass from possessing them into a herd of swine, and drive that herd mad; and if we are not to trust the Synoptic Gospels, we do not know what to believe concerning Jesus Christ at all; – in the former case, Jesus Christ was under a delusion which, to men of Professor Huxley's knowledge and attainments, deprives him of all claim to be a special authority on the realities of the spiritual world; in the latter case, our reports of what he said and did are so untrustworthy, that we can form no sound judgment on the subject. Like all attempts to dispose of a great subject by rushing at and breaking through a chain of conviction at its weakest point, or by driving men between the horns of a very narrow dilemma, this attempt of Professor Huxley's will have its few triumphs over minds that cannot see the full scope of the great question, and will then be forgotten. No scholar of any repute now holds to the verbal inspiration of any part of the Bible. No scholar of any repute denies the noticeable deviations at which Professor Huxley glances between the three different accounts of this healing of a lunatic. No scholar of any repute would admit that if he regarded this story as doubtful, partly because of the remarkable discrepancies between two of the versions, and partly because it is the only destructive act ever attributed to our Lord, – unless the withering-up of the fig-tree be so regarded, – and at all events as of much less authority than the greater pat of the Gospels, he would in any way bound to treat all our evidence as to Christ's nature, life, and teaching as equally doubtful. The sort of evidence on which the account of the Crucifixion and Resurrection rests, reflected as it is from the minds and lives of a great community which could never have arisen at all without belief in those events, and the sort of evidence on which an isolated statement like this rests, even though it reappears (in different shapes) in three of the four Gospels, is different in kind. When Professor Huxley asks what kind of being he is to conceive in Jesus Christ, whether he is to think of him as "the kindly, peaceful Christ depicted in the Catacombs," or as "the stern judge who frowns above the altar of SS. Cosmas and Damianus," or as "the bleeding ascetic, broken down by physical pain;" – as "the Jesus of the second or the Jesus of the fourth Gospel;" – when he asks further, "What did he really say and do; and how much that is attributed to him in speech and action in the embroidery of the various parties into which his followers tended to split themselves within twenty years of his death, when even the threefold tradition was only nascent," we should reply that Professor Huxley is magnifying the difficulty of forming a true picture out of all sense and reason. Is there any reasonable doubt of the main characteristics of the figure of whom we are told that, when carrying his cross to the place where it should be planted and where he should be nailed upon it, he bade the weeping women not to weep for him, but to weep for themselves and for their children; and that when hanging upon it, he prayed for the forgiveness of those who had placed him there, on the ground that they knew not what they did? Could these traits have been invented by any human being? When one Apostle says of his master, "Remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive," and while himself stronger in faith and hope than in love, paints love as the very climax of Christian character; and when another of very different disposition, who had learned of the same teacher, says that "the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy," it is surely hardly questionable whether the Catacombs were right or wrong in representing Christ as an image of the most exquisite benignity. As for "the stern judge," we are not aware that Jesus of Nazareth, during his career on earth, is ever so represented by any of the four Evangelists. He himself is described as imputing to himself, as the future judge of men, some sternness when dealing with those who "work iniquity," though they might appeal to him for mercy on the ground that they had prophesied in his name, and in his name cast out devils, and in his name done many wonderful works; and, again, he is represented as having anticipated a day when he should sternly condemn those who had proved hard-hearted to "the least of these my brethren," just as if they had been hard-hearted to himself in person. But Christ's sternness as an actual judge is not an element in his historical character at all, because historically, as he himself frequently declared, he came not to judge the world, but to save the world. He was stern when he denounced the self-deceptions of those who were severest in rebuking others, and the self-righteousness of those who utterly despised the humility of others; but sternness of this kind does not detract from the beauty of his gentleness; indeed, it greatly adds to it. And why so strictly historical a critic as Professor Huxley should waver between an aspect of Christ's character which never took historical shape at all during his career on earth, and those aspects which did take historical shape, we cannot conjecture. Apparently, he wishes to flourish all the rhetorical doubts as to Christ's character which can be collected together, reasonably or unreasonably, in one impressive cluster, and brandish them over our heads. Where, for instance, is there a vestige of historical foundation for what he calls "the bleeding ascetic, broken down by physical pain," in the Christ who, according to the fourth Gospel, began his public career at a marriage feast, and according to the other three, attended more than one such feast, – one in the house of a tax-gatherer, another in the house of a Pharisee, and a third in the house of a private friend? Is there any pretense at all for rejecting our Lord's own statement that his enemies accused him of being a gluttonous man and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners, because he was not an ascetic like John the Baptist? Is there a single trace of his suffering from loss of blood, except under the scourge of Pilate's soldiers, or his wounds on the cross? The suggestion that Jesus Christ may have been "a bleeding ascetic, broken down by physical pain," is a pure piece of mediæval and Huxleyan rhetoric put in by the Professor to make it appear that the historical Christ might have been anything whatever, and that no sober-minded men can say what.

Of course, there is much more justification for the question whether the Jesus of the second or the fourth Gospel is the true Jesus; only, in our belief, there is no real chasm between the two, and whatever chasm there may seem to be, is bridged over by the reflection of Jesus contained in the first and third Gospels. Professor Huxley's reading is wide, but he does not do much justice to that section of the recent German criticism which has convinced some of the sanest and least credulous [195] critics of the day that Baur's theories were radically unsound, and that the assumption of a serious or final breach between the Judaic and Pauline schools of Christians, is utterly untenable. Least of all can there any doubt of the one unique characteristic of our Lord, his constant life in God, which gave him that singular and tranquil presence of mind,–"recollection," the Roman Catholics usually call it,–in the midst of trial, danger, suffering, agony, because for him the centre of the universe was God, not man. This characteristic, so unwelcome to agnostics, is reflected in every Gospel, and most of all in that life of the early Church which was Christ's immediate legacy to it.

But, after all, the real hinge of Professor Huxley's article is our Lord's assumption of demoniacal possession as the leading characteristic of some species of insanity; – the writers in the New Testament certainly do not consider it the universal characteristic of all species of insanity, as they distinguish between ordinary lunatics and men possessed by evil spirits, enumerating both classes as brought to Jesus to be healed. Whilst the present writer at least would carefully distinguish between the general assumption of our Lord's, and the special story of the destruction of the herd of swine, which is certainly unlike any other act of his, he would assert that no one who has studied what are now called, euphemistically, the phenomena of hypnotism, and the various states of distinct personal consciousness which the French physicians elicit in their hypnotic patients, should doubt that the old doctrine of one spirit overriding another in the same organism, is as good an explanation of the facts as any other which can be suggested; indeed, a great deal better, in his opinion,–he speaks only for himself,–than Mr. Myers's theory of different "strata of consciousness." When you find a girl of respectable and self-governed character passing suddenly into a phase of utter disreputableness and evil passions, and keeping up alternately the two separate phases of personality, it does seem to the present writer that the old explanation of such phenomena is a great deal more scientific than the new. And surely it is a remarkable instance of the liability of a brilliant thinker and a keen logician to jump at the conclusion he desires to reach, without the smallest warrant for doing so, that Professor Huxley seriously argues that if there be cases of insanity which can be properly described as cases of possession, the whole procedure of the witch-finders and witch-prosecutors may be justified as right and not wrong. We should like to know what conceivable connection there is between the two assumptions. Did our Lord justify the tormenting of the insane? Did he set the example which the witch-finders and witch-prosecutors followed? Professor Huxley is quite certain that most mental aberrations can be traced back to physical causes. Very likely. It does not in the least follow that because physical causes must have injured the brain before these mental phenomena could have developed themselves, therefore the brain injury is the sole explanation of the phenomena. A physician might just as well say that because a blow often develops cancer, the blow is the full explanation of cancer, a doctrine which Professor Huxley would, we are sure, reject with scorn, in common with all the great men of his profession. Deterioration of the physical organism may be an essential condition of the power of inferior natures to influence and override it, – a state of things of the reality of which we have ample evidence without travelling into the region of super-terrestrial phenomena at all.

Professor Huxley admits that his great difficulty in acting up to his ideal of agnostic virtue, lies in "suffering fools gladly," and we dare say that in the case of the present writer Professor Huxley will fail again, as he has often failed before, in living up to his ideal, if even he should read what we have written. But though the writer speaks only for himself in saying what he does,–the present generation has, in his opinion, ample and absolute evidence, if it will only bear patiently with fools and knaves and impostors of all kinds in seeking it, that alien intelligences not acting through any human body,–and sometimes intelligences of a very mean order,–do produce definite physical effects on this world, and do sometimes induce aberrations of mind in men and women which rise to the point of virtual insanity. No doubt one has to suffer many fools, whether gladly or sorrowfully, in order to master this evidence; but amongst those who, though very wide men in other respects, are so far imperfect agnostics that they cannot endure the humiliation of suffering such fools, not a few are men of great scientific attainments, high intellectual gifts, and credulous scorn for credulity,–amongst whom Professor Huxley is one of the most distinguished by genius and strength.


C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University