Ruskin, as we know from previous posts, had a severe religious crisis in the late 1850s as he was nearing forty. Brought up in a strict Evangelical family, he had deeply internalized the strictures of the creed, regarding, as he had been intensely taught (primarily by his mother, Margaret), every word of and story in the great text as literally true, as a series of revelations which had come directly from the Diety. Then, in his maturity, he determined that the creed was seriously wanting, its logic unsound and the descriptions it gave of the world and its Creation not supported by the new discoveries in natural science that made it more than obvious that–for important instance–a seven-day Creation was a physical impossibility (there is much more to say about all this, but I will save such for later posts.). From the moment of this self-described “Unconversion,” Ruskin would begin referring to himself as a “Pagan,” and, for the rest of his life, would have little to do with formal, organized religion. Despite this, as Michael Wheeler has shown in his fine book, Ruskin’s God (above: cover illustration of Wheeler’s book; caricature of Ruskin in lower right hand corner). Ruskin never relinquished his fundamental belief that what the Bible taught was, in its essence, a rendering, however metaphorical, of what human beings had to learn and abide by if they were to live decent, happy lives. The Bible also specified the proper relationship between people and the Creator of the universe they inhabited. Nor did he ever lose his belief that Christ’s was an example of a perfectly moral and blameless life, and, as such, an enduring symbol for the rest of us to follow. All his works after 1860, until he stopped writing around 1890, whether specifically focused on religion or not, contain passages affirming these enduring beliefs. When one reads these later pages, whether they appear in his lectures on political economy, e.g., The Crown of Wild Olive), his long series of letters to the working people of England (Fors Clavigera), 203: “Fors” “Clavigera”; 202: The Birth of Fors Clavigera or extended theses (The Bible of Amiens), one encounters carefully wrought paragraphs intended to fortify the faith of and/or encourage sound thinking about religious matters in those reading them. The two passages below, selected from many dozens of contenders, demonstrate this continuing faith. The first comes from the fourth volume of Modern Painters (1854); the second from one of the Lectures on Art delivered to his Oxford students in the early 1870s. As always, he presumes his is addressing an audience that would claim itself to be Christian.
From Modern Painters IV:
“May The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the Fellowship of the Holy Ghost, be with you.” (2 Corinthians 13:14). Now, I do not know precisely what sense is attached in the English public mind to these expressions, but I have to tell you positively this: that the three things just mentioned actually DO exist, and can be known if you care to know them, and possessed if you wish to possess them; and that another thing exists besides these of which we already know too much.
First, by simply obeying the orders of the founder of your religion, all grace, graciousness, or beauty and favor of gentle life will be given to you in mind and body in rest and work. The grace of Christ exists, and can be had if you will.
Secondly, as you come to know more and more of the created world, you’ll find that the true will of its Maker is that its creatures should be happy; that he has made everything beautiful in its time (Romans 8:22) and it is chiefly by the fault of men, when they are allowed the liberty of thwarting His laws, that Creation groans or travails in pain (hence earthquakes, floods, plagues). The love of God exists, and you may see it and live it, if you will.
Lastly, a spirit actually does exist which teaches the ant her path, the bird her building, and men, in an instinctive and marvelous way, whatever lovely arts and noble deeds are possible to them. Without it you can do no good thing. To the grief of it you can do many bad ones; and, in the possession of it is your peace and your power.
There is also a fourth thing, about which we already know too much. There is an evil spirit whose dominion is in blindness and in cowardice, as the dominion of the spirit of wisdom is in clear sight and encouragement. And this blind and cowardly spirit is forever telling you that evil things are pardonable, and you shall not die for them, and that the good things of this world are impossible, and that you need not live for them; and this lamentable gospel is now is now the loudest preached in your Saxon tongue. You will find some day to your cost this to be true if you believe the first part of it, But you may never, if you believe the second part of it, find, that also to be true. And therefore, I pray you, with all earnestness, to prove, and know within your hearts that all things lovely and righteous are possible for those that believe in their possibility and for those who determine that, for their part, they will make every day’s work contribute to them.
Always, at the core of Ruskin’s efforts, was his unshakable conviction that we had been given Life so that we might use the powers we possessed to ease the way of others. ALL his works, lectures, and private letters repeat this belief. While many might aver that they live their lives in obedience to this helpful directive, Ruskin actually did live it!, rising each day determined to have done his level best by the time it ended to have done something that would make the world a better place.
From Lectures on Art:
With a child or untaught person, whether of mean capacity or enlarged, it is necessary that communion with their Creator should be possible;; and the admission to such communion must be rested, not on their having a knowledge of astronomy, but on their having a Human Soul. In order to render this communion possible, the Creator has stooped from His throne and has, not only in the person of the Son, taken upon him the veil of our human flesh but, in the person of the father, taken upon him the veil of our human thoughts, and permitted us, by his own spoken authority to conceive him simply and clearly as a loving father and friend – a being to be walked with and reasoned with; to be moved by our entreaties, angered by our rebellion, alienated by our disobedience of His Laws, pleased by our love, glorified by our labor; and finally, to be beheld in immediate and active presence in all the powers and changes of Creation.
This conception of God, which is a child’s, is evidently the only one which can be universal, and therefore the only one for us that can be true. The moment that, in our pride of heart, we refuse to accept the condescension of the Almighty, and desire him, instead of stooping to hold our hands, to rise up before us into His glory, we hoping that by standing on a grain of dust or two of human knowledge higher than our fellows, we may behold the Creator as He rises, God takes us at His Word, rises into His own invisible and inconceivable majesty; goes forth upon ways which are not our ways and thinks thoughts which are not our thoughts; and we are left alone. And presently, we say in our vain hearts, “there is no God!” (Psalm 53)
For anyone interested in reading a significant collection of other passages that might have been selected for today’s post, I recommend the important selection gathered by Mary Gibbs and Ellen Gibbs, The Bible References of John Ruskin (London: George Allen,1895, available at various used book sites on the web: e.g. Alibris.com; Addall.com). for more, see the entry for this book in Post 114, The Ruskin Compendia.
May your spirits remain high as we continue to emerge from a most difficult time!
Until next Post!