The Religion of the Plain Man / by Robert Hugh Benson


The Preface

I AM perfectly aware that this book is open to an almost innumerable multitude of criticisms. It will be said, for example, that it is unscholarly and unlearned; because to deal with the subject of the Catholic Church and to omit all patristic literature and its consideration, and, instead, to take refuge in the Penny Catechism, is the sign of one who is afraid to face problems. It will be said that it is rhetorical and inexact, emotional and unintellectual, contemptuous and uncharitable. I shall be told to hold my tongue if I have nothing better to do than to appeal to man's weakness instead of his strength, to his imagination rather than his reason. In fact, so far as the book may be noticed at all by those who do not see with me in religious matters, I foresee quite a quantity of unpleasant remarks.

A book itself is its only defence; and yet it seems to me worth while, in this preface, to emphasize what I shall hope to emphasize again and again in the following pages, and to say that in substance some of those criticisms will be perfectly true.

The book is intended for the "man in the Street," who, after all, has a certain claim on our consideration, since JESUS CHRIST came to save his soul. This man in the street, like myself, is entirely unable to discourse profoundly upon the Fathers, or to decide where scholars disagree in matters of simple scholarship. His religion is composed partly of emotion a good deal of Scripture, partly of imagination and, to a very small extent, of reason. He is competent to say what he thinks a text probably means; and to recognize a few of the plainer facts of history, such as that Rome has always had some sort of a Pope, and that ambition and wickedness may perhaps have characterized certain persons high in ecclesiastical affairs. He is capable also of understanding that oaks grow from acorns, and athletes from babies; and of perceiving a law or two in the development of life; he can grasp that poison has a tendency to kill; and that two mutually exclusive propositions require a good deal of proof before they can be accepted as different aspects of one truth.

Now this kind of intellectual attainment seems a poor equipment for the pursuit of salvation; but it is undoubtedly the only equipment that many of us have, and it is GOD that has made us and not we ourselves. Therefore if we believe in GOD at all -- at least in a GOD of mercy or even justice -- we are bound to acknowledge that this equipment is all that we actually require. To tell me that because I cannot infallibly pronounce upon an obscure sentence of St Cyprian's, I am thereby debarred from making up my mind about the necessary truths of the Christian religion, is to represent my Maker as unjust and capricious. I am only capable of that of which I am capable.

I have attempted therefore in these lectures, delivered, in more or less their present form, in the Church of our Lady and the English Martyrs at Cambridge, to deal with the question of the Christian religion from the standpoint which I have tried to indicate. I have quoted the Penny Catechism rather than St Thomas Aquinas, because the one is more accessible than the other to persons of moderate attainments. In this sense, though I sincerely hope in no others, it is an unscholarly and inexact book.

As regards its rhetorical emotionalism I can only say that a truth is not less of a truth if it is dressed in what may seem to some even a tawdry costume, and may perhaps be more attractive to certain eyes.

As regards the possibility of "contemptuous uncharitableness," I am extremely sorry if I have given any cause for this accusation -- I can only say that I have done my best to avoid it. But I have not attempted to avoid a poor sort of humour now and then; for I do not see why I need do so. There are both funny people and funny things in this world; and we are more and not less Catholic if we acknowledge their existence. But I think that I do not anywhere attribute bad faith or insincerity of any kind to my opponents; and that, after all, is the only unpardonable device in controversy. Nor have I anywhere mocked at any doctrine which has any right to be held as sacred by anybody. I have endeavoured to show that some intellectual theories are absurdly impossible; but never that spiritual experience is anything but holy and reverend.

Again, I have certainly appealed to man's weakness rather than his strength, for we have the best authority for believing that in this God's might is made manifest. As we may argue for the Incarnation on the ground of man's crying need of it, so we may deduce that man's ignorance necessitates a heavenly teacher.

Finally I desire all competent persons to point out to me, if they will kindly take the trouble, the many errors into which I may have fallen; and I submit all those errors unreservedly with the deepest filial piety to the correction and admonition of my Mother the Church.

The Catholic Rectory, Cambridge,
May, 1906.

P.S. -- Perhaps it is unnecessary to remark that I have for the most part followed in my quotations the "Authorized Version" of the Scriptures, for reasons that will be evident from the nature of the book.

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