Friday, August 13, 2010

On disappointment

Percy Dearmer! The mere mention of the name quickens the pulse and fills the heart with joy. His Parson's Handbook and Everyman's History of the Prayer Book, both lamentably out of print, are hot tickets on the Anglican used-book market; the former is a liturgiological classic, setting out a standard of churchmanship based on pre-Reformation English models, while the latter is still the best general treatment of the Book of Common Prayer. His work on the English Hymnal (with Ralph Vaughan Williams) set a standard that has yet to be surpassed: the treacly sentimentality and spineless chromaticism of the Victorian period were swept away, replaced by texts of real doctrinal substance (some translated by Dearmer himself) and tunes of real musical merit. The intellectual foundation for the Catholic movement in the Anglican Church was largely laid by other men (including John Keble, Edward Pusey, John Henry Newman, and Eric Mascall), but it was Dearmer who found a way to reconcile Anglo-Catholic ideas with native English traditions, ensuring that the movement had lasting power. If a catholic understanding of the Christian faith had been seen as incompatible with the prose of Thomas Cranmer, the hymns of Watts and Wesley, and the rest of the English heritage, Anglo-Catholics would likely still be marginalized as effete, fussy misfits. But Dearmer's synthesis was successful, and such once-controversial Anglo-Catholic practices as the weekly celebration of the Eucharist, and the reservation of the Sacrament, have become normal. (All of this seems peculiarly prescient today, of course, as we continue to weather one of the most tumultuous periods in liturgical history. Hmmm.)

All of this gives you some idea of how excited I was to find a copy of Dearmer's final book, Man and His Maker, in a Toronto used bookstore. Published in 1936 by the short-lived Student Christian Movement Press, the book does not seem ever to have been reprinted and seems to be quite rare even in large academic libraries. I'm amazed and delighted to have found a copy by pure happenstance, and for only a few dollars!

Which made it all the more disappointing to discover that Man and His Maker is not very good.

Subtitled "Science, Religion and the Old Problems," the book aims to clarify the relationship between science and religion. Using the current state of scientific knowledge and putting it in a theological perspective, Dearmer tries to illuminate longstanding problems about the nature of God, and the problem of evil. These are perennial issues, and a fresh approach to them is always welcome. Unfortunately, three factors make Dearmer's book of limited use to a contemporary reader.

Firstly, the book is unfinished. The preface suggests that Dearmer intended a single additional chapter to conclude the book, but I suspect that far more than this is missing; the ambitiously titled "Part III: God" contains only one very brief chapter, at which point the book simply ends. Even if the material in Parts I and II had been particularly fine, one is bound to be somewhat disturbed by this sudden drop into oblivion.

Secondly, Dearmer doesn't have a particularly strong grasp of science (for starters, ammonia is not an element!), and the scientific facts that he does get right are now obsolete. In one particularly painful passage, Dearmer rhapsodizes about the unique, life-sustaining properties of water, including its high specific heat capacity. "A pot of mercury, for instance, on a stove takes half an hour to become as hot as a pot of water by its side becomes in only one minute." This, of course, is backwards. It's not Dearmer's fault, of course, that transuranium elements had not been synthesized in 1936, or that DNA had not yet been linked to heredity, but now that we know these things it's extremely difficult to read older scientific texts without impatience. One chapter of the book addresses the theory of evolution, but "evolution" in 1936 is wholly distinct from the version of the theory taught now. (Among other things, evolutionists in the 1930s assumed there was no mechanism by which acquired traits could be transmitted from one generation to the next, leading them to repudiate Darwin's theory of natural selection in favour of the idea that evolution was governed by an abstract force.) Because these parts of Dearmer's book are so closely tied to the particular scientific theories of the time, now wholly obsolete, they have limited relevance to a reader today. An object lesson, perhaps, in the dangers of "relevance"; theological problems about the nature of God and the meaning of evil are as pressing today as they were ten thousand years ago, while scientific theories considered correct within living memory are now regarded as wholly ridiculous.

Most problematic, however, is the generally shallow and facile quality to Dearmer's argumentation. The problem of evil is sometimes presented in a superficial way ("if God exists, why didn't the subway arrive on time?"), but understood properly, it's a difficult and complex problem, a real challenge to the complacency of comfortable middle-class Anglicans. It is very difficult to argue for the ultimate goodness of the Creator without abstracting away the suffering of actual people; any argument that suggests that cancer and genocide ultimately "work out for the best" is smarmy and insulting. Dearmer, unfortunately, has more than a bit of this bien-pensant optimism in him:
For there is progress. The good is winning, so far as we can see. Up to the present there has undoubtedly been moral advance: the gain has been neither uniform nor unbroken: there are still backward peoples, there have been eras of marked fruition followed by periods of decline; but no serious student of history would deny the immense achievement. . . [E]ven in periods of great anarchy, when the very foundations of social life seemed to be disappearing, the power of the family has held men together, until the conquerors and dividers had passed in the fury of their own destruction.
Human suffering is not so much justified as simply dismissed as illusory. Deaths from war and disease are regrettable carryovers from our savage past, but our scientific development will end in the "eventual elimination" of disease (p. 43) and our cultural development will likewise result in the elimination of war and injustice. And not only all the problems of humanity, but the flaws in Dearmer's arguments are sure to disappear in time:
At the very least, we can say that [these difficulties] are less obdurate to us than to our ancestors, because we know more. Therefore, we have reason to suppose that as human knowledge increases, these difficulties will increasingly diminish.
Dearmer had no idea, of course, that one of the largest massacres in history was taking place in the gulags of the Soviet Union while he was writing these words, nor could he have imagined the horrors of Auschwitz, Hiroshima, or the killing fields of Cambodia. To you and I, for whom the history of the twentieth century is in large part a grim litany of horrors, the progressivist optimism of the 1930s seems bizarre and perverse.

I don't deny that reading Dearmer's prose again was a pleasure, but there is little else to recommend this volume. The best ideas in the book are familiar from better works of theology, and they do not balance out its many failings.

Even the greatest writer strikes out occasionally. Percy Dearmer wrote many works far better than Man and his Maker. The book should probably not have been published, and is certainly not worth the effort of tracking down today unless you're a diehard collector of Anglo-Catholic theological books.

1 comment:

cnb said...

I'd never heard of Dearmer before. I've just glanced through the books on liturgy that you mention off the top, and they do look good. Anyone who worked on the English Hymnal is a friend of mine. I will stay away from Man and his Maker, though, should I ever come across it.