Let me re-introduce you to Mr. Harold Skimpole. Skimpole lives in the pages of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House; he made his first appearance 140 years ago, yet those who are acquainted with the principal hierophants of New Age spirituality may receive more than a slight shock of recognition:
He was a bright little creature with a rather large head; but a delicate face and a sweet voice, and there was a perfect charm in him. All he said was so free of effort and spontaneous and was said with such a captivating gaiety, that it was fascinating to hear him talk . . . . Indeed, he had more the appearance in all respects of a damaged young man, than a well-preserved elderly one. There was an easy negligence in his manner, and even in his dress (his hair carelessly disposed, and his neckerchief loose and flowing, as I have seen artists paint their own portraits), which I could not separate from the idea of a romantic youth who had undergone some unique process of depreciation . . . .
Harold Skimpole took a bright disdain for the drudgery of adult life—“I am a child, you know!” he frequently reminds us—and delighted in the innocent pleasures around him. Speaking of himself (far and away his favorite topic) he confessed to
two of the oldest infirmities in the world: one was, that he had no idea of time; the other, that he had no idea of money. In consequence of which he never kept an appointment, never could transact any business, and never knew the value of anything! . . . He was very fond of reading the papers, very fond of making fancy sketches with a pencil, very fond of nature, very fond of art. All he asked of society, was to let him live. That wasn’t much. His wants were few. Give him the papers, conversation, music, mutton, coffee, landscape, fruit in the season, a few sheets of Bristol-board, and a little claret, and he asked no more. He was a mere child in the world, but he didn’t cry for the moon. He said to the world, “Go your several ways in peace! Wear red coats, blue coats, lawn sleeves, put pens behind your ears, wear aprons; go after glory, holiness, commerce, trade, any object you prefer; only—let Harold Skimpole live!
Thus we are given a prototype of the consummate pluralist, the besotted lover of all creation, the friend of peace, the man who can tolerate anything but intolerance: with malice toward none, with kindness and caring toward all.
The best insight we have into Skimpole’s character comes from his encounters with creditors and their agents—what would for another man be called “financial embarrassment”—but of course Skimpole has no capacity to blush for any reason. He lives in the house of a wealthy and indulgent friend; even so, he manages to accumulate spectacular bills. On one occasion the narrator, Esther Summerson, is summoned to Skimpole’s room and finds him, to her shock, arrested for debt.
“Are you arrested for much, sir?” I inquired of Mr. Skimpole.
“My dear Miss Summerson,” said he, shaking his head pleasantly, “I don’t know. Some pounds, odd shillings and half-pence, I think, were mentioned.”
The sum turns out to be more than twenty-four pounds—a staggering amount for the time, and it devolves on Esther and her friends to satisfy the officer and the debt.
It was a most singular thing [Esther was afterward to reflect] that the arrest was our embarrassment, and not Mr. Skimpole’s. He observed us with a genial interest; but there seemed, if I may venture on a contradiction, nothing selfish in it. He had entirely washed his hands of the difficulty, and it had become ours.
Drawing on their own savings, carefully accumulated through much ill-paid labor, Skimpole’s acquaintances managed to placate the furious collecting agent, but Skimpole isn’t through with him yet. “Did you know this morning, now, that you were coming out on this errand?” Skimpole asked him. “It didn’t affect your appetite? Didn’t make you at all uneasy?”
“Then you didn’t think, at all events,” proceeded Mr. Skimpole, “to this effect. ‘Harold Skimpole loves to see the sun shine; loves to hear the wind blow; loves to watch the changing lights and shadows; loves to hear the birds, those choristers in Nature’s great cathedral. And does it seem to me that I am about to deprive Harold Skimpole of his share in such possessions, which are his only birthright!’ You thought nothing to this effect?”
He is assured in emphatic terms that this was not the case.
“Very odd and very curious, the mental process is, in you men of business!” said Mr. Skimpole thoughtfully. “Thank you, my friend. Good night.”
Harold Skimpole never quite manages to lose his charm, and yet readers of Bleak House become increasingly appalled by him. He affects unselfishness, but is in reality fanatically, even maniacally, self-centered—existing in the soap bubble of an almost perfect solipsism. He insists in his sunny prattle that he is “a mere child,” while he is fact a grotesque parasite: a colossal tick, a leech, a tapeworm with a taste for Mozart, who, it turns out, is childlike in his pursuit of pleasure, but shrewd and willful in his studied neglect of responsibility. His sensibilities are exquisitely tender, and yet he has a talent for causing pain, for making his benefactors feel slightly soiled by their own honest labor. He professes universal tolerance and sweetness to all, though is willing to put his friends through shame, fear, and harm rather than see his own comfort threatened.
The burden of this essay is to demonstrate that the Skimpole Syndrome is alive and well today, particularly (though not exclusively) in the world of religion. I want to show that the churches have been victims of parasites, most often quite charming parasites, and that the exhaustion and despair we see in the faces of our pastors can, to some extent, be attributed to the energy sucked out of their veins by cheerful co-religionists who mock their host even as they grow fat on his livelihood, his patrimony. The difficulty before me—no small one—is to convince you that the good things that our modern-day Skimpoles feast on are as precarious, are bought into being with as much pain and toil, as were the amenities of Bleak House.
The villainy of the Skimpole Syndrome does not consist in its choice of goods: papers, conversation, music, mutton, coffee, landscape, fruit, a little claret—few of us would argue that such things are inherently unwholesome. Nor is genial tolerance—“Go your several ways in peace! . . . go after any object you prefer!”—a bad thing in itself. The problem with Skimpolism is that it ignores, and refuses to acknowledge, the sources and causes of its own good fortune: the enormous human enterprise of toil, commerce, and distribution, the attendant fatigue, risk, worry, and vexation, the requisite virtues of foresight, prudence, honesty, and diligence—all of which are necessary for something as ordinary as a peach or a glove to end up in Skimpole’s dining room. For the Skimpoles of this world, the ultimate source of bread is the baker’s van, and there is no need to concern oneself with plowing, sowing, weeding, dunging, cutting, threshing, milling, and baking—not to mention the thousands of mercantile transactions, from mortgages to tire rotations—that must be in place, and continually attended to, so that Skimpole might have his honey on toast.
Skimpole believed himself set apart from other men by the fact that his needs were few. Of course, his needs were no fewer than anyone else’s; rather, he was distinguished by his ignorance of his debt to prosaic necessities, by his confusing desires with needs, and by pretending that his wants were nobler than those of the multitude.
Consider, then, whether the following list of goods brings to mind a recognizable type: openness, sharing, compassion, diversity, dialogue, peace and justice, wholeness, growth. I am skating on thin ice here, and I know it. I should make it clear that I am not sneering at any of these objects, or the pursuit of these objects, as they are properly understood as components of Christian community. They are good things, and noble aspirations, and brave men and women have made heroic sacrifices so that they might be achieved and preserved. All this I insist on. By the same token, unless I am mistaken, this constellation of desiderata belongs in a special way to the Skimpole Syndrome of our own time, precisely comparable to the claret and newspapers and mutton that, to the mind of our perpetual child, simply came into being as gratuitously as sunshine and birdsong and warm breeze. The modern dream is just as illusory as the old, and decidedly more pestilent.
Take a fairly straightforward element in Christian life, the text of the Bible. Unlike the Book of Mormon, which is said to have been delivered on gold tablets by the Angel Moroni to the nineteenth-century copyist, the Word of God was not presented to Christians in final form. As Bible scholar Jon Levenson reminds us, there was in “biblical times” no such thing as a Bible, in New Testament times no such thing as a New Testament. Rather, the Bible was assembled over a number of years for the Church and by the Church—in particular, through liturgical usage and the ratification of bishops, who had already formed an inchoate hierarchy before the New Testament was itself complete.
Consequently, the Bible in the most physical sense—the written words on the page—comes down to us through two enormous efforts that overlap in practice though they are notionally distinct. On the one hand, the enterprise of copying, correcting, translating, and publishing texts—the business of scholarship; on the other, the enterprise of delivering to the Church an intact Old Testament and a New Testament that conforms to the mind of Christ: this involves setting the boundaries of the canon by choosing and rejecting among rival testimonies, selecting the best text of each canonical witness, suppressing additions and interpolations, suppressing mistranslations, and so forth. The human machinery—scholarly, administrative, legal, theological, editorial, custodial—that is engaged by the Church to put a Bible into our hands is beyond reckoning.
Not all of this machinery is especially gratifying to watch in operation. For example, it involves (and has always involved) censorship: the scrutiny of writings, the interrogation of authors of doubtful work, compulsory retraction of opinions found erroneous, and the suppression of those who refuse to recant their errors. Given the nature of their task, it is doubtful whether censors ever enjoyed great public esteem, but it is not doubtful that they cut poor figures today. Even in the civil sphere, the position of censor is not one that is likely to win invitations to fashionable parties or help to make an advantageous marriage. In an age with a warranted suspicion of bureaucracies and an unwarranted faith in the unconstrained intellect, censorship is seen as among the dirtiest of all dirty jobs, and for that reason alone is scorned by the Skimpoles.
The point is that the much-maligned structures of authority in the Church are as necessary to transmitting our faith as herdsmen are necessary to providing lamb chops. In the absence of censorship (and the sanctions that go with censorship) we would share no Bible, no prayer, no faith at all with the Christians of the Coliseum. Even the denominations that have minimal hierarchy and recognize no bishops have this reason to be grateful for those churches that do. Christians whose rule of faith is “by Scripture alone” are obliged to admit that the very Scripture they cherish not only produced the Church but was produced by it, and this production involved many of the very structures that they, several centuries later, were to find unscriptural.
And yet, the objection is frequently made, isn’t it the case, once we have a firm and binding document—a genuine letter of St. Paul or a decree of an ecumenical council—that we can simply rely on the plain sense of the text to give us the teaching we need? This intuition is widely held, but the history of the Church shows us that there is no such thing as the plain sense of the text that is universally acknowledged—at least over time. It is simply impossible to lay the flooring of a document so tightly that someone, at some time, will not manage to fall through the cracks.
My favorite illustration of this point is the decree Omnis utriusque sexus of the Fourth Lateran Council, held in 1215. It holds that everyone, of both sexes, is required to go to confession at least once a year. It was, however, interpreted by a monk named William of Newcastle to mean that yearly penitential duty is incumbent only on hermaphrodites. Now Brother William, obviously, needed someone to point out the error of his ways. His Latin, incidentally, was flawless; the problem with his interpretation is that it was insane.
The upshot is that every article of faith we have, no matter how obvious or how arcane it may appear, has run a gamut of fatal threats throughout the centuries, and has been vouchsafed to us, multa inter alia, by bishops and censors and canonists and judges. As Chesterton points out, if you paint a fence post white, and just leave it alone, it will eventually turn black. In the same way the teachings of the Church have to be reappropriated in every generation—unglamorous work!—and protected from contamination, neglect, and the random predations of those Williams of Newcastle that stalk the pages of the history of doctrine in every age like a recurring nightmare.
In the Skimpole mentality, all the effort required to produce his wants is mere affectation, and as such requires no compensation, and no respect. So Skimpole gives us to understand in narrating a conversation with his unpaid butcher:
“Says he, ‘Sir, why did you eat spring lamb at eighteen pence a pound?’ ‘Why did I eat spring lamb at eighteen pence a pound, my honest friend?’ said I, naturally amazed by the question. ‘I like spring lamb!’ This was so far convincing. ‘Well sir,’ says he, ‘I wish I had meant the lamb as you mean the money!’ ‘My good fellow,’ said I, ‘pray let us reason like intellectual human beings. How could that be? It was impossible. You had got the lamb, and I have not got the money. You couldn’t really mean the lamb without sending it in, whereas I can, and do, mean the money without paying it!’ He had not a word. There was an end to the subject.”
“Did he take no legal proceedings?” inquired [Mr. Jarndyce].
“Yes, he took legal proceedings,” said Mr. Skimpole, “But, in that, he was influenced by passion, not by reason.”
In the same way present-day Skimpoles are fond of saying, “I don’t believe in a hierarchical Church. I believe in a God of compassion,” suggesting, of course, that the two notions are mutually exclusive. When we ask, “Now how do you know that God is a God of compassion?” they say, “Why, because it says so in the Prophet Amos and the Gospel of Luke!” When we ask further, “But how do you know that Amos and Luke are reliable witnesses to the truth about God, except in virtue of the decisions made by those same authoritative structures you reject?” they reply, astonished by the question, “Because these books speak about a God of compassion!” And so we will have come full circle, while they walk away, shaking their heads over the fact that the orthodox are still guided by emotion, not by logic.
Let me stress again that I do not for a moment sneer at compassion; it is right to rejoice in the knowledge that God is all-merciful. Skimpole’s worldview is defective not in the things it includes but in the things it leaves out, and the same is true of his contemporary counterparts. They speak of peace and justice and compassion as if the notions themselves were obvious and spontaneous, springing up in the minds of men with no more trouble than the wine and strawberries that appeared on Skimpole’s breakfast tray. What they ignore is the overwhelming struggle, the sheer human sacrifice necessary for the Church to articulate and transmit intact even the most rudimentary truths, as truths.
Has it, in fact, been universally obvious that our God is a God of compassion? Not to those whose religious experience regards forgiveness as weakness—to the Nazis, for example. Jon Levenson has pointed out that, for the Nazis, what they prized as the “Nordic type” was “not only a physical characteristic but a matter of fundamental spiritual posture.” “According to them, the true Nordic practices an ethic that is the polar opposite of the ideal of humility, subservience, and nonviolence that has so long been enforced by reference to the authority of Jesus.” Their solution was to exalt the book of the Bible they found least offensive as communicating the “true faith” while pruning and cleansing the other parts of Scripture of false ideas. For Nazi theorist Alfred Rosenberg, the Gospel of Mark provided the true writ, other books having been contaminated by “womanish exaggerations” and “Syrian-African superstition.”
More recently, Levenson suggests, feminists have begun to cleanse the Bible in precisely the same manner, based on the same appeal to religious intuitions—although these intuitions are, on the surface, at variance with those of the Nazis. Feminist thealogian Carol Christ sees the God of the Bible as a “God of war [who] stands for too much that I stand against.” With regard to Drs. Christ and Rosenberg, Levenson has remarked, “It’s hard to escape the conclusion that both are missing something.”
Today’s Skimpole is more likely to be a feminist than a Nazi, but both are indeed missing something—and not just a balanced picture of God. Both refuse to grow up; both insist on remaining “a mere child.” Both have made the move “from the experience of religious authority to the authority of religious experience”; and to appeal to “the authority of religious experience” is a roundabout way of saying, “I like what I like because I like it.”
Feminist Skimpoles are able to bring much of the heavy artillery of biblical scholarship to bear on their targets. In their lectures and articles and efforts to sift and winnow the Bible so as to expose the contaminations of patriarchy they may appear very sophisticated; yet once we blow away the smoke we will find that, at bottom, they are in the same intellectual position as a pouting child at the breakfast table picking the raisins out of the bran flakes. “I like what I like because I like it. I hate what I hate because I hate it.”
Am I being too harsh? Bring to mind for a moment the people you have seen who conduct New Age weekends, or feminist workshops, or Peace Studies institutes, those who take glee in having “cut the knot” connecting them to patriarchal institutions, to structures of authority, to the unglamorous business of orthodoxy. Then recall the words in which Dickens first lets us glimpse the figure of Harold Skimpole: “He had more the appearance, in all respects, of a damaged young man, than a well-preserved elderly one . . . there was an easy negligence in his manner . . . which I could not separate from the idea of a romantic youth who had undergone some unique process of depreciation.”
Skimpoles are, to my mind, a genuine threat to the integrity of the Church today. Their potential for harm comes in large part precisely from the good things in which they take delight. Let’s face it: they’re more attractive people than most of us, and certainly more attractive than the Vatican inquisitors—at least while the latter are at their tasks. They charm; they enliven; they amuse and provoke. They speak the sweet words of dialogue, tolerance, and innovation, while the authorities are obliged to talk of limits and penalties. They proclaim themselves on the side of freedom, and portray the curiales as friends of ignorance, violence, and repression. They fire the popular imagination, while I would venture the claim that never, in the entire history of journalism, has there been a sympathetic “human interest” profile done on a man who suppresses books for a living. Because they engage so many of our wholesome affections, because they have a media monopoly on the consolations of Christianity, because they are chary of speaking the hard truths of our faith, Skimpoles continue to win support from inside and outside the Church. And just as their prototype had a knack for making his benefactors feel guilty about their earned wealth, so the moderns predictably work to turn their sympathizers against the Church.
Skimpoles are incapable of gratitude toward authority because they can conceive of no error they need to be protected from; like spoiled children—precisely, in fact, like Damaged Young Men—they see all discipline as condemnatory and all condemnation as wicked. And, after all, who is more likely to despise and disparage his father’s work: the teenager who bags groceries to supplement the money his father can spare him, or the coddled heir who draws all the cash he needs from a bottomless teller machine?
To stress the necessity of authority is not to say that it hasn’t been abused in the past—it has, sometimes hideously—or that it will not be abused in the future. A man is not disqualified from objecting to another man’s discharge of some office simply in virtue of the fact that he regards that office indispensable. That a father provides well for his son does not in itself sanctify the conduct of his business. The point of this essay is not to silence criticism, but rather to reawaken the recognition that when we do criticize the ancient structures of authority, we are speaking with our mouths full, and our plates have been piled high by the labors of hands not our own. For a believer to remain “a mere child” may add to his charm, but it deprives him of a prime lesson of adulthood: orthodoxy is no servility; gratitude, no indignity.
Paul V. Mankowski, S.J., is a frequent contributor to First Things.