Saturday, July 23, 2011
Bacon’s Essay on Unity in Religion
Saturday, July 23, 2011 by Faizan Bhatti
Tags: M.A. English
Question: Attempt a critical examination of the ideas in Bacon’s essay, On Unity in Religion, and add a note on its style.
Question: What views about the unity of religion does Bacon express in his essay on the subject and how far do you agree with him? What characteristics of Bacon’s style does the essay illustrate?
The validity of Bacon’s advice:
Bacon begins this essay by pointing out that religion is a binding force in society and that, for this reason, a particular religion should itself maintain its unity. The Christian Church, should accordingly preserve its unity, and should not permit quarrels and divisions. This is certainly a commendable piece of advice which Bacon offers to the followers of Christianity, but this advice is equally valid so far as other religions are concerned.
The harm done by schisms:
Bacon discusses the subject of unity in religion under three heads: the fruits of unity; the bounds or extent of unity, and the means of unity. Taking up the fruits of unity first, Bacon points out that heresies and schisms are the greatest scandals in the sphere of religion. Nothing keeps men out of the Church, and nothing drives men out of the Church, as much as a breach of unity does. There will be complete confusion in the minds of people if one man suggests that Christ should be sought in secret chambers. If a heathen hears Christians talking with several tongues, he will surely think them to be mad. If there are different sects in a religion and they all adopt different postures and attitudes, they will be enacting a kind of “Morris dance” mentioned by the French writer, Rabelais. The fruits of unity for those who believe in their Church are the blessings of peace leading to faith, charity, and piety.
Bacon’s wholesome plea for the avoidance of dissensions:
There is nothing in all this with which any one can quarrel. Unity in religion certainly has enormous advantages. Dissensions in religion are caused only by selfish persons who wish to come into prominence and who wish to grind their own axes Unfortunately there is no religion in the world without its sects. Not only Christianity but Hinduism, Islam and even Sikhism suffer from a multiplicity of sects. The result is that religion, instead of binding people together, has itself become a divisive force.
Fundamental points, and points merely of form and practice:
There are some fanatics, says Bacon, who are not at all interested in peace but who believe in partisanship and conflict. And then there are some lukewarm persons with no true religious meal, who believe in accommodating all points of view in religion and steering the middle course. According to Bacon, both these extremes are to be avoided. It is necessary that fundamental points of religion should be distinguished from points merely of form and practice. In matters of fundamental importance in religion, there should be no divergence of opinion. But differences of opinion in matters of detail or in matters which are trivial do not cause much harm to the cause of religion.
Bacon’s solution to religious strife:
According to Bacon, there is no room for controversy as to the first principles of theology. The basic doctrines of the Church should not be questioned by human reason. Human reason may be employed in deducing what is involved in the text of Scripture, but human reasoning is not to be given the same authority and importance as the positive declarations of Scripture. In other words, Bacon allows to the individuals a certain freedom of judgment, but this freedom must remain subservient to the express words of Bible. It is to be kept in mind that Bacon wrote this essay at a time when Europe was torn by religious division—first between Catholics and Protestants, and then between the various sects of Protestantism itself. Bacon’s solution to religious strife within the same religion is that a distinction should be made between basic issues and subsidiary issues. There should be unity in the basic tenets of religion, while differences may be permitted and tolerated in matters of ritual and Church organisation. Christians, says Bacon, must agree upon essential points. Luke warmness with regard to essential points is unpardonable. But a variety of opinion upon inessential points is permissible. Thus, different forms of Church government and different forms of worship are tolerable because no definite rule with regard to these has been laid down in the Bible. The solution offered by Bacon is not only sensible but practical and feasible. There is nothing quixotic about it.
The seamless coat of Christ:
Bacon illustrates this particular view with reference to Christ’s coat. Christ’s coat was entire; it was seamless and therefore indivisible. The same is the case with the doctrine of Scripture in itself. But the garment of the Queen, who represents the Church, was of various colours. This means that diversity as to matters of detail can be tolerated. The seamless coat of Christ symbolizes the unity of the Church as to essential points. The multicoloured garment of the Church symbolizes the legitimate variety of opinion and practice in minor matters. Bacon’s illustration is so vivid and convincing that no room for doubt is left in the minds of readers.
Artificial unity resulting from ignorance:
Bacon also points out the sad consequence. People may agree in a religious belief simply because the inconsistency of inadequacy of it is not apparent to themselves. a uniformity of this kind is of no value.
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