On metaphysics, religion, and Edmund Gosse

I cannot recommend Edmund Gosse’s memoir Father and Son (1907) on the merits of its prose. Gosse is a competent writer with a good vocabulary who describes things precisely, recording their beauty or wit as a scientist would. He is diligent and honest, and so whatever grace his writing achieves is situational.

But I found Father and Son fascinating for its subject matter. Gosse was raised in an incomprehensibly (to me) strict Evangelical family, and his memoir records his slow fall away from that faith. So rather than highlighting Gosse’s language, I want to talk a bit about his topic and some of the reflections it’s led me to have about my own relationship with faith.

I am fascinated by stories of disillusionment. I am not sure where the fascination comes from. I doubt it has much to do with my religious biography, since while I was technically raised Presbyterian, “losing my faith” at age twelve felt less like a crisis and more like a relaxing sigh, a surrender to a skepticism I’d always felt. That skepticism was, and remains, largely metaphysical. Organized religions make a great deal of sense to me as sources of community, heritage, and ethical principles. But I have never been able to dislodge my sense that these communal functions retain relationships to fundamental metaphysical beliefs about the universe, beliefs that members of religious communities must consciously navigate if they are to continue believing. To put it another way: my mind distinguishes “religious” from “not religious” communities by the presence of metaphysics. Because of this, when I ask people about their faith, what I am looking to find out is not historical or ethical, but philosophical in a strict a priori sense.

Jon has told me that this attitude is not typical of people who have grown up in religious households. I think he’s right. I find it almost impossible to place myself in the mind of someone for whom having faith does not, first and foremost, necessitate hammering out the metaphysics. This is a failure of my own imagination—not to mention empathy. I am that asshole at parties who will ask you who your favorite philosopher is, or what you believe about reality. I vividly recall putting the latter question to a friend one day. She replied: “Well, I’m Christian. I believe Jesus died for our sins.” Her response makes sense. But at the time it deeply confused me, because I was looking for a different category of answer. Stories do not fit my definition of an a priori principle. Again, to be clear: this is a failure of imagination, especially for someone who loves literature as deeply as I do, and believes more than maybe anything else in the truth—hazily-defined and not metaphysical—of beauty.

I’ve gotten away from Gosse. To return: given my own weird predilections, what interests me in stories of “losing one’s faith” is the metaphysical, not ethical or communal, revolution. So what I wanted from Father and Son was an account of what it felt like to have your grounding assumptions about reality upended. It’s not what I got. The memoir reflects, rather, the stickier and more profound reaity that faith happens through people. Gosse’s slow fall away from his Evangelicalism, like a lengthening of toffee, is not a break but an expansion: rich, sloppy, lived. What ultimately estranges him from his rigidly puritanical father is Gosse’s inability to constrict his life to shut out joy. It has nothing to do with “truth” and everything to do with beauty. In the memoir’s epilogue, Gosse writes:

I must speak plainly. After my long experience, after my patience and forbearance, I have surely the right to protest against the untruth (would that I could apply to it any other word!) that evangelical religion, or any religion in a violent from, is a wholesome or valuable or desirable adjunct to human life. It divides heart form heart. It sets up a vain, chimerical ideal, in the barren pursuit of which all the tender, indulgent affections, all the genial play of life, all the exquisite pleasures and soft resignations of the body, all that enlarges and calms the soul, are exchanged for what is harsh and void and negative. It encourages a stern and ignorant spirit of condemnation; it throws altogether out of gear the healthy movement of the conscience; it invents virtues which are sterile and cruel; it invents sins which are no sins at all, but which darken the heaven of innocent joy with futile clouds of remorse. There is something horrible, if we will bring ourselves to face it, in the fanaticism that can do nothing with this pathetic and fugitive existence of ours but treat it as if it were the uncomfortable ante-chamber to a palace which no one has explored and of the plan of which we know absolutely nothing.

Gosse’s rejection of his father is a rejection of a temperament rather than of a system of belief. His discomfort with the word “untruth” seems to anticipate readers like myself, who might confuse the metaphysics with their manifestation, or afford the metaphysics more weight than they are due. Gosse means “truth” as I am sure Keats meant it, as an attitude rather than a principle. “Untruth” is not inaccuracy but denial. Gosse’s comments about the afterlife are illustrative here. He rejects his father’s vision of heaven because its promise, taken literally, transforms earthly life into hell—a trial to be endured. Gosse loves life too much to accept this idea. For him, heaven is “untrue” not because it doesn’t really exist (though it doesn’t), but because it denies life.

So, too, Gosse’s loss of faith included metaphysics but did not depend on them. I am grateful to Gosse for showing me this. While Father and Son has not shaken me of my interest in a priori principles, it has helped me begin to understand better why faith need not be metaphysically distillable to be fundamental. The bedrock of our realities, like all the other layers, defies easy categorization. What Gosse understood—and his father, who of course was a geologist, could not—is that the bedrock is sometimes less important than the garden above it.