Sunday, March 17, 2019

Religion, Superstition, and Rationality in Scotland

Book Report: The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg (1824)

Flag of Presbyterian Covenanters, National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh
It's great to find a literary classic that I hadn't known before. Reading all I can devour about Scotland helps me be a better tour guide. This one intrigued me as it was listed as an odd book, a religious-psychological thriller that had served as inspiration to another Scot, Robert Louis Stevenson, in writing Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It has sword fights, murder, mayhem, and a couple of strange games of tennis. What's not to like?

Hogg's novel is in three parts with a fairly rational narrative in third-person, then a first-person memoir of religious zeal to evil, a magical tale of the devil, or descent into madness. It ends with an Afterword that one would hope explains it all but only further disturbs.

Without revealing spoilers (easily found by Googling), I will share some excerpts with Hogg long gone to his reward (?) and copyright long expired.
"We have nothing on earth but our senses to depend upon. If these deceive us, what are we to do?"
The most rational characters are two women who would be shunned by religious society - not unlike some of Jesus's female followers. Another is a simple servant who speaks in wonderful voice. When asked by his master, a minister of the hypocritical persuasion whether the master most resembles Melchizedek "preacher of righteousness" of the Old Testament or the Apostle to the Gentiles of the New, the servant responds:
"Na, na, sir, better nor that still, an' fer closer is the resemblance. When ye bring me to the point, I maun speak. Ye are the just Pharisee, sir, that gaed up wi' the poor publican to pray in the Temple; an' ye're acting the very same pairt at this tim, an' saying i' your heart, 'God, I thank thee that I am not as other men are, an' in nae way like this poor misbelieving unregenerate sinner....'"
OK, one spoiler. This book is a serous criticism of the Calvinist Presbyterian doctrine of predestination. If one is pre-selected by God for Salvation unconditionally, then whatever that one does can be no sin. Of course, this doctrine has its application to any extreme of religious belief:
"Religion is a sublime and glorious thing, the bonds of society on earth, and the connector of humanity with the Divine nature; but there is nothing so dangerous to man as the wresting of any of its principles, or forcing them beyond their due bounds: this is of all others the readiest way to destruction. Neither is there anything so easily done. There is not an error into which a man can fall which he may not press Scripture into his service as proof of the probity of, and though your boasted theologian shunned the full discussion of the subject before me, while you pressed it, I can easily see that both you and he are carrying your ideas of absolute predestination, and its concomitant appendages, to an extent that overthrows all religion and revelation together; or, at least, jumbles them into a chaos, out of which human capacity can never select what is good."
And the extremes of religious justification can lead to the sin of Cain:
"These people are your greatest enemies; they would rejoice to see you annihilated. And, now that you have taken up the Lord's cause of being avenged on His enemies, wherefore spare those that are your own as well as His? Besides, you ought to consider what great advantages would be derived to the cause of righteousness and truth were the estate and riches of that opulent house in your possession, rather than in that of such as oppose the truth and all manner of holiness."
It is revealed that the Devil is a Christian:
"We are all subjected to two distinct natures in the same person. I myself have suffered grievously in that way. The spirit that now directs my energies is not that with which I was endowed at my creation. It is changed within me, and so is my whole nature. My former days were those of grandeur and felicity. But, would you believe it? I was not then a Christian. Now I am. I have been converted to its truths by passing through the fire, and, since my final conversion, my misery has been extreme. You complain that I have not been able to render you more happy than you were. Alas! do you expect it in the difficult and exterminating career which you have begun? I, however, promise you this—a portion of the only happiness which I enjoy, sublime in its motions, and splendid in its attainments—I will place you on the right hand of my throne, and show you the grandeur of my domains, and the felicity of my millions of true professors."
Still, the best critiques of zealotry come from the simple souls in the language of the Scots. Being asked what the local witches were saying about the madman's doppelganger or devilish influence:
"Weel, you see, sir, I says to them, 'It will be lang afore the deil intermeddle wi' as serious a professor, and as fervent a prayer as my master, for, gin he gets the upper hand o' sickan men, wha's to be safe?' An', what think ye they said, sir? There was ane Lucky Shaw set up her lang lantern chafts, an' answered me, an' a' the rest shanned and noddit in assent an' approbation: 'Ye silly, sauchless, Cameronian cuif!' quo she, 'is that a' that ye ken about the wiles and doings o' the Prince o' the Air, that rules an' works in the bairns of disobedience? Gin ever he observes a proud professor, wha has mae than ordinary pretensions to a divine calling, and that reards and prays till the very howlets learn his preambles, that's the man Auld Simmie fixes on to mak a dishclout o'. He canna get rest in Hell, if he sees a man, or a set of men o' this stamp, an, when he sets fairly to work, it is seldom that he disna bring them round till his ain measures by hook or by crook. Then, Oh! it is a grand prize for him, an' a proud Deil he is, when he gangs hame to his ain ha', wi' a batch o' the souls o' sic strenuous professors on his back. Aye, I trow, auld Ingleby, the Liverpool packman, never came up Glasco street wi' prouder pomp when he had ten horse-laids afore him o' Flanders lace, an' Hollin lawn, an' silks an' satins frae the eastern Indians, than Satan wad strodge into Hell with a packlaid o' the souls o' proud professors on his braid shoulders. Ha, ha, ha! I think I see how the auld thief wad be gaun through his gizened dominions, crying his wares, in derision, "Wha will buy a fresh, cauler divine, a bouzy bishop, a fasting zealot, or a piping priest?" For a' their prayers an' their praises, their aumuses, an' their penances, their whinings, their howlings, their rantings, an' their ravings, here they come at last! Behold the end! Here go the rare and precious wares! A fat professor for a bodle, an' a lean ane for half a merk!' I declare I trembled at the auld hag's ravings, but the lave o' the kimmers applauded the sayings as sacred truths. An' then Lucky went on: 'There are many wolves in sheep's claithing, among us, my man; mony deils aneath the masks o' zealous professors, roaming about in kirks and meetinghouses o' the land...."
The ending is mysteriously macabre and somewhat disturbing. Sure, just desserts and all . . . maybe. I'll save that for your reading pleasure.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are welcome. Feel free to disagree as many do. You can even be passionate (in moderation). Comments that contain offensive language, too many caps, conspiracy theories, gratuitous Mormon bashing, personal attacks on others who comment, or commercial solicitations- I send to spam. This is a troll-free zone. Charity always!