A GENIUS AT ‘SCHOOL’
There is an unfortunate tendency at the present time to depreciate knowledge, which is indeed the chief instrument of education. Bible knowledge especially is discountenanced for several reasons. The utilitarian asks, “What is the use of teaching a child the more or less fabulous ‘history’ of the earlier books and the insignificant later records of one of the least among the nations?” while religious parents are inclined to pick and choose and teach only such parts of the Bible as seem to them likely to give the religious impulse. To-day we are confronted with the new difficulties raised by the Higher Criticism. “How far,” we ask, “is it safe to offer Bible knowledge to a child when we have by no means come to the end of the critical study of the Bible, and he may, later, hear what we have taught him controverted point by point?” If we could only know how such knowledge affects a child; could we know how the critical acumen, with which clever children are endowed, plays of itself round the sacred text; and could we know what is left of solid possession after childish skepticism has had full play!
Goethe offers us precisely such a test case in Aus
Meinem Leben. He gives us the minutest details of his own Bible studies, tells us with what temper he came to these studies, and how, by degrees, his Bible knowledge became the most precious of his intellectual possessions. This is how it came about. As a child of about ten or so he was already embarrassed by the possession of several languages which his father expected him to keep up, so he hit, as we have seen, on the plan of keeping a family diary, the brothers and sisters writing each in the language of knowledge of Juden-Deutsch, and one brother was set to correspond in that tongue.
This brilliant idea, as is the way with ideas, produced after its kind. The boy’s synthetic mind found the Juden-Deutsch fragmentary and unsatisfactory. He must needs add Hebrew to his list of languages, and his father succeeded in securing lessons from Dr Albrecht, the Rector of the Gymnasium. This Rector seems to have been a man of original mind, whimsical, satirical, little understood by his fellow-townsmen. Naturally, he took to the young genius who came to him to be taught.
The Hebrew lessons went delightfully, no doubt, to both master and pupil, and the impression made upon the latter by the Hebrew Scriptures is of singular interest to us to-day when the question of teaching Old Testament history to children is much agitated. The boy was already able to read the Greek of the New Testament, and appears to have been in the habit of following, in the original, the Epistles and Gospels as they were read in church. Of course, a boy of his power, with both a logical and a scientific turn, ferreted out difficulties enough. “For already
the contradictions between tradition and the actual and possible had struck me much, and I had put my tutors in many a corner as to the sun which stood still for Gibeon, and the moon which did likewise in the valley of Ajalon, to say nothing of other improbabilities and inconsistencies. All this was now stirred up again, for while I sought to master Hebrew, I worked entirely with the Old Testament, and this studied through, no longer in Luther’s translation, but in the interlinear version of Sebastian Schmid, printed under the text, which my father had procured for me. Reading, translation, grammar, copying and repeating words seldom lasted half-an-hour; then I began immediately to attack the meaning of the passage; and although we were working at the first book of Moses, I introduced the discussion of many points which I remembered in the later books. At first the good old man tried to dissuade me from such exertions, but after a time they seemed to entertain him. He continued his tricks of coughing and laughing, and however much he coughed, as a hint to me that I might compromise him, I persisted, and was even more insistent in setting forth my doubts than in getting them answered. I became ever more lively and bolder, and he only seemed to justify me by his behaviour. I could get nothing out of him but, now and again, a laugh which shook him, and ‘foolish rascal, foolish rascal.’”
All the same, his master was not blind to the boy’s difficulties, and was willing to help him in the best way. He referred him to a great English ‘Bible-work’ in his library, which attempted the interpretation of difficult passages in a thoughtful and judicious way. The German divines who translated the book
had improved upon it. Various opinions and interpretations were cited, and, finally, a line was taken which preserved the dignity of the Book, made evident the grounds of religion, and gave free play to the human understanding. Now, when the boy brought out his doubts and questions towards the end of a lesson, the master pointed to the Commentary. The pupil took the volume and read while his master turned over the pages of his Lucian, and sagacious comments were answered only by the master’s peculiar laugh. “In the long summer days he let me sit as long as I could read, often alone, and later he let me take one volume after another home with me.”
It would be good to know all about that Commentary which satisfied so keen a young mind. Anyway, we can commend and imitate the wisdom of Dr Albrecht. Of all ways of attempting to arrive at truth, perhaps discussion is the most futile, because the disputants are bent upon fortifying their own doubts, and by no means upon solving them. The will unconsciously takes a combative attitude, adopts the doubt as a possession, a cause to be fought for; and reason is, as we know, ready with arguments in support of any position the will has taken up. But, give the young sceptic a good book bearing on the questions he has raised, let him digest it at his leisure without comment or discussion, and, according to his degree of candour and intelligence, he will lay himself open to conviction. The silence and the chuckle of this good professor are worth remembering when we are shocked by the daring announcements of the young sceptics who belong to us. So, too, is the wise passiveness which put a solution of his difficulties in the boy’s way, but made no attempt to convince him.
“Man may turn where he will; he may undertake whatever he will; but he will yet return to that road which Nature has laid down for him. So it happened to me in the present case. My efforts with the language, with the contents of the Holy Scriptures, resulted in a most lively presentation to my imagination of that beautiful much-sung land, and of the countries which bordered it, as well as of the people and events which have glorified that spot of earth for thousands of years.”
Those timorous but not unbelieving parents who hesitate to make their children familiar with the Old Testament Scriptures because of the difficult problems they suggest, or of the lax morality they now and then record, or because of a hundred vexed questions concerning authorship and inspiration, will find this episode in the young Goethe’s education very full of interest and instruction. Here was a boy prone to doubt, quick to criticise, whose eager intellect tore the heart out of whatever subject was presented to him, and who appears, from his own confession, to have made merry over certain scientific difficulties which the Bible narrative offered; but what was the net result? This: that nowhere, so far as I know, does there exist a more valuable deference of Bible teaching than Goethe has drawn up from his boyish reminiscences.
“This little spot was to see the origin and growth of the human race; from there, the first and only news of the primeval history of the world was to reach us; a setting was presented to the imagination, simple and easy to be conceived, and adapted to manifold and wonderful wanderings and settlements. Here, between four named rivers, was chosen out of
the whole habitable earth a little, wholly pleasant spot for the youth of man. Here he was to develop his activities, and here meet the fate that was allotted to his posterity—to lose his peace in striving after knowledge. Paradise was closed; men increased and grew more wicked; God, not yet accustomed to the evil deeds of this race, because impatient and annihilated it. Only a few were saved from the overwhelming flood; and hardly had those awful waters gone down, when there, before the eyes of those grateful saved souls, lay the familiar ground of their fatherland. Two rivers of the four, the Euphrates and Tigris, flowed yet in their beds. The name of the first remains, the second is indicated by its course: it could not be expected that exact traces of Paradise would remain after such a catastrophe. Now the new human race began for the second time; it found various means of getting food and work, chiefly by collecting great herds of tame beasts and travelling with them in all directions. This manner of life, as well as the increase of the families, soon made it necessary for the peoples to part. They could not resolve at once to let their relations and friends journey away not to return, so they hit upon the plan of building a high tower, which should from a distance show them the way back. But this attempt, like their first endeavour, failed. They were not to be happy and wise, numerous and united. God sent confusion amongst them; the building was stopped, the people were scattered; the world was peopled, but divided. But our gaze is fixed upon, our concern remains with, this region. At last, the founder of a race goes out again from here who is so happy as to stamp a decided character on his
posterity, and by this means to unite them for all time, a great nation, inseparable through all changes.
“From the Euphrates, not without the divine guidance, Abraham wanders to the west. The desert offers no insurmountable barrier to his journey; he reaches the Jordan, crosses the river, and spreads over the beautiful southern region of Palestine. This land was already in other hands and fairly well populated. Mountains, not too high, but rocky and unfruitful, were cut through by many well-watered, pleasant valleys; towns, encampments, single settlements lay scattered over the plain on the sides of the great valley whose waters flow into Jordan. Though the land was inhabited, built upon, the world was still big enough; and men were not careful as to space, nor necessarily active enough to make themselves masters of adjacent country.
“Between their possessions lay great spaces, by which grazing herds could easily pass up and down. In such spaces Abraham and his ‘brother’ Lot encamped, but they could not stay long on these pastures. The very condition of a land whose population fluctuates, and whose resources are never in proportion to its needs, brings unexpected famine, and the immigrant suffers with the native, whose own supplies he has lessened by his chance presence. The two Chaldean brothers went to Egypt; and thus the stage is brought before us on which for some thousands of years the most important events of the world took place. From the Tigris to the Euphrates, from the Euphrates to the Nile, we see the earth peopled; and in this spot a man, known and loved of Heaven, and already hounoured by us, goes up and down with his herds and possessions, and in a short
time increases abundantly. The brothers come back, but, compelled by necessity, decide to part. Both indeed journey on to southern Canaan; but while Abraham remains at Hebron, near the plain of Mamre, Lot goes to the valley of Siddim, which—if our imagination is bold enough to give the Jordan an underground outlet, so that we should have dry ground where the Dead Sea at present lies—must appear to us a second Paradise; so much the more so because the inhabitants and surrounding nations, notorious for their effeminacy, lead us to the conclusion that life to them was comfortable and merry. Lot lived amongst them, but was not of them. But Hebron and the plain of Mamre appear before us as the important spots where the Lord spoke with Abraham and promised him all the land as far as his eyes could see in four directions.
“From these quiet dwellings, from these shepherd people who walk with angels, entertain them as guests and converse with them, we must turn our eyes again to the East and think of the settlement of the neighbouring tribes, which was probably like that of Canaan. Families held together, they united, and the manner of life of the tribe was settled by the locality which they held or had seized. On the mountains which send down their waters to the Tigris we find the war like peoples who already very early foreshadow the brigands and war-lords of the future, and who give us in a campaign, stupendous for those times, a foretaste of wars to come. . . .Now the prophecy of unending heirs was renewed, a prophecy ever enlarged in scope. From the waters of the Euphrates to the river of Egypt the whole extent of land is promised; but as Abraham has no heir,
fulfillment seems doubtful. He is eighty years old and has no son. Sara, with less trust in the gods than her husband, becomes impatient; she desires, according to oriental custom, to have offspring by a maid. But scarcely is Hagar given over to her lord and there is hope of a son when division enters the house. The wife treats her own substitute ill, and Hagar flees in order to find a better position with another tribe. By divine guidance she is led back and Ishmael is born.
“Abraham is now ninety-nine years old; the promise of numerous posterity is again and again repeated, and at last both husband and wife begin to be contemptuous; and yet to Sara comes the hoped-for good and she brings forth a son, who is called Isaac. The history of the human race rests on a regulated growth. The most important world-events must be traced to the domestic life of the family, and therefore the marriage of the father of the race gives us pause for reflection. It is as if the Godhead which loves to guide the fate of man wished to set forth as in a picture every aspect of marriage. Abraham having lived so long with a beautiful and much-sought-after but childless wife, finds himself in his hundredth year the husband of two wives, the father of two sons, and at this point his domestic peace goes. Two wives together, as well as two sons of two mothers in opposition, make matters impossible. The one who is less favoured by law, by descent, by disposition must yield. Abraham must sacrifice any feeling for Hagar and Ishmael; both are forsaken, and Hagar is compelled against her will to set forth again upon the road she had taken in her willful flight, at first, as it seems, to the destruction of herself
and her child; but the angel of the Lord, who had before sent her back, saves her again, this time that Ishmael may become a great people, and that the most improbable of all promises should be more than fulfilled. Two parents far on in years and a single late-born son: surely here, indeed, is cause for domestic peace and earthly happiness! But no. Heaven is preparing for the patriarch the hardest trial yet. But we cannot enter upon this without many previous considerations.
“If a natural universal religion were to rise, and a special revealed religion were to develop from it, these lands in which our imagination has lingered, the manner of life, the very people themselves, were the most entirely suited for it; any way, we do not find in the whole world anything more favourable.
“If we assume that the natural religion rose earlier in the mind of man, we must grant the clearness of perception which belongs to it, for it rests upon the conviction of a universal providence which rules the whole world. A particular religion leads belief to a special providence which the Divine Being extends to certain favoured men, families, tribes and peoples. This could hardly be developed from the human spirit. It implies tradition, descent, custom, carried forward from the oldest times. . . . The first men seem closely related, but their divers occupations soon part them. The hunter was the freest of all, and from him the warrior and ruler is developed. Those who wielded the plough and devoted themselves to the soil built dwellings and barns to hold their possessions, and could think well of themselves, because their circumstances promised permanence and safety. The shepherd at his post seemed to have the most
limited and yet boundless possessions. The increase of flocks went on for ever, and the land on which they fed extended its boundaries on all sides. These three callings seem at first to have looked at each other with contempt and suspicion; and because the shepherd was hated by the townsfolk, he kept his distance from them. The hunter disappears from our eyes into the mountains, and only appears again as the brigand. The first fathers belong to the shepherd ranks. Their mode of life in the wide stretches of desert and pasture gave their minds breadth and freedom; the vault of heaven under which they lived, with its stars at night, gave them a sense of awe and dependence, and they were more in need than the active, resourceful hunter, or than the secure, careful home-keeping ploughman, of the unshaken belief that a god went beside man, that he visited them, took their part, guided and saved them.
“One more consideration before we go on with the history. However human, beautiful, and cheering the religion of these first fathers appears, there are traces of savagery and cruelty out of which men rise, or into which they may again sink. That hatred should be avenged by the blood, by the death of the defeated enemy is natural; that a peace should be concluded between the rows of the dead is readily imagined; that man should think of confirming a covenant by the slaughter of animals is a natural consequence; also, there is nothing to wonder at in the fact that mankind should try to appease and win over by sacrifices the gods, who were always regarded as taking sides, as their opponents or helpers. . . .”
Here follows a very interesting disquisition upon the ideas which men expressed by means of sacrifices,
to introduce the story of the supreme sacrifice demanded of Abraham, the final test of his faith.
“Without a shudder Abraham blindly sent himself to carry out the command; but, to God, the will is enough. Now Abraham’s trials are over, for they cannot be heightened. But Sarah dies, and this gives opportunity for Abraham, as in a figure, to take possession of the land of Canaan. He must have a grave, and this is the first time he looks round for the possession of land on this earth. A double cave towards the grove of Mamre be may have already sought for. Be buys this, with the adjoining field, and the legal forms which he observes show how important this possession is for him. It was more so than perhaps even he could imagine, for he, his sons and grandsons, were to rest there, and the claim to the whole land, as well as the ever-growing inclination of his descendants to settle here, were thus founded in the most special way.
“From this time the manifold scenes of domestic life come and go. Abraham still keeps himself isolated from the inhabitants of the land; and even if Ishmael, son of an Egyptian woman, has married a daughter of the people, Isaac must marry with his own kin and one of equal birth.
“Abraham sends his servant to Mesopotamia, to his kin whom he had left behind. The wise Eleazer arrives, unrecognised; and in order to take the right bride home, he tests the serviceableness of the girl at the well. He asks for water, and, unasked, Rebecca waters also his camels. He makes her a present; he offers for her, and she is not refused to him. So he takes her to his master’s house and she is betrothed to Isaac. Here also heirs were long expected.
Rebecca is only blessed after some years of trial, and the same division which resulted from the two mothers in Abraham’s double marriage springs here from one. The two boys, of opposite characters, already strove beneath the mother’s heart. They reach the light of day, the elder lusty and strong, the younger delicate and wise; the former his father’s darling, the latter his mother’s. The strife for precedence, begun already at birth, continues. Esau is calm and indifferent as to the birthright which fate granted him, but Jacob does not forget that his brother forced him back. Watchful for any opportunity of gaining this longed-for advantage, he trades with his brother for the birthright, and is beforehand in getting his father’s blessing. Esau, in a rage, swears he will kill his brother. Jacob flees, in order to try his fortune in the land of his ancestors.
“Now, for the first time in so noble a family, appears a trait which hardly bears dwelling upon—that of gaining by cunning and strategy the advantages denied by nature and circumstances. It has often been remarked and discussed that the Holy Scriptures do not in any way set forth our first fathers and other man favoured by God as models of virtue. They also are men, various in character, with many deficiencies and failings, but there is one special quality in which men after God’s own heart may not be wanting—it is the unshaken belief that God hears and cares for them and theirs.
“A universal, natural religion requires no special belief; for the conviction that a great governing, ordering, ruling personality hides behind nature in order to make it possible for us to comprehend Him—such a conviction forces itself upon everyone; even,
indeed, if a man drop the clue which leads him through life, he will be able to pick it up again at any time. Quite otherwise it is with a particular religion which tells us that this Great Being distinctly interests Himself for one person, one family, one nation, one country. This religion is founded on faith which must be unshaken if the religion is not to be entirely destroyed. Every doubt is fatal: a man may get back to conviction, but not to faith. This is the reason of the endless trials, the tardy fulfillment of oft-repeated promises, by which the living faith of the patriarchs is brought into play.
“Jacob also had his share of this faith; and if he does not gain our respect by his strategy and deception, he wins it by his lasting, unbroken love for Rachel, whom he wins for himself as Eleazer had won Rebecca for his father. In him is the promise of a numerous posterity first fulfilled; he was to see many sons around him, but his heart suffered many pangs on their account and that of their mothers.
“Seven years he served for his loved one, without impatience or any hesitation. His stepfather, like him in cunning, like-minded in thinking the end justifies the means, deceived him, serving him just as he had served his brother. Jacob finds a wife whom he does not love in his arms. It is true that in order to pacify him Laban gives him also the one he loves, but on the condition of seven more years of service; then follows disappointment after disappointment. The unloved wife is fruitful, the loved one has no children, and she, like Sara, desires motherhood by a maid; but the first wife grudges her even this advantage, and she also gives a maid to her husband; and now the good father of the race is the most
persecuted man in the world; four wives, children by three, and none by the beloved wife! But she at last is favoured and Joseph comes into the world, a late-born child of sorrowful love. . . . There is strife. Jacob flees with all his possessions and encounters the pursuing Laban, partly by luck, partly by cunning. Now Rachel presents him with another son, but she dies at his birth; the son of sorrow, Benjamin, lives; but the old father is to suffer yet greater pain at the apparent loss of his son Joseph.
“Perhaps someone may ask why I set forth here in such detail this universally known history, so oft repeated and expounded. This answer may serve: that in no other way could I show how, with the distractions of my life and my irregular education, I concentrated my mind and my emotions in quiet activity on one point; because I can in no other way account for the peace which enveloped me, however disturbed and unusual the circumstances of my life. If an ever-active imagination, of which the story of my life may bear witness, led me here and there, if the medely of fable, history, mythology, and religion threatened to drive me to distraction, I betook myself again to those morning-lands, I buried myself in the first books of Moses, and there, amongst the widespreading shepherd people, I found the greatest solitude and the greatest company.”
Here we have set forth a full and sufficient reason for giving children a profound acquaintance with the Old Testament Scriptures. It will be said that in Goethe’s case such an acquaintance did not result in religion. No, he was never religious in the usual sense of the word; and at the time when he recites the above confession of faith—the faith acquired in his childhood,
and probably little affected by after events—he had paid that momentous visit to Italy, had returned to the classicism of his earliest years, and classic paganism had become so strong in him that he practically ceased to be a believer in God as we understand the phrase. But religion has two aspects. There is the attitude of the will towards God, which we understand by Christianity: in this sense Goethe was never religions, any more than he was moral in the accepted sense. How to set his will right towards the relations of life, whether human or divine, formed no part of his manifold culture. But religion has another aspect: that conception of God which comes from a gradual slow-growing comprehension of the divine dealings with men. This repose of the soul, this fresh background for the thoughts, Goethe tells us he got from his study of the books of Moses; tells us he got from his study of the books of Moses; tells us, too, that he could have got it in no other way (and, indeed, he tried all ways); and in all the errors of his wilful life this innermost repose appears never to have left him. “His eyes were tranquil as those of a god,” ways Heine; and here is revealed the secret of that large tranquility. Here Goethe unfolds for us a principle of education which those who desire their children to possess the passive as well as the active principle of religion would do well to consider; for it is probably true that the teaching of the New Testament, not duly grounded upon that of the Old, fails to result in such thought of God—wide, all-embracing, all-permeating—as David, for example, gives constant expression to in the Psalms.
Let us have faith to give children such a full and gradual knowledge of Old Testament history that they unconsciously perceive for themselves a panoramic
view of the history of mankind—typified by that of the Jewish nation—as it is unfolded in the Bible. And we need not be frightened off this field by the doubts and difficulties that clever children will raise. Let us, as did that good Dr Albrecht, not try to put down or evade their questions or pretend to offer them a final answer, but introduce them to some thoughtful commentator (what, we wonder, was that ‘big English book’ to which Dr Albrecht referred his pupil?) who weighs difficult questions with modesty and scrupulous care. if we do this, difficulties will assume their due measure of importance; that is to say, they will be lost sight of in the gradual unfolding of the great scheme whereby the world was educated.