A Pilgrimís Regress: George John Romanes and the Search for Rational Faith
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploration
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
In the summer and fall of 1873, George John Romanes lost his belief in God. Of itself, this was nothing unusual. For a young Englishman of the time—particularly one embarking on a career in the sciences—to abandon the faith of his fathers was, if not a universal rite of passage, at least a common trajectory, a well-beaten path traveled by distinguished Victorian intellectuals like Matthew Arnold, W. K. Clifford, Thomas Huxley, John Tyndall, and above all Charles Darwin. And yet Romanes’s case is distinctive both for the care he took to explain the reasons for his loss of faith and for his candid admission of what it cost him to follow, to the best of his ability, wherever the argument seemed to lead.
In the end, it led him where he never expected to arrive.
Unforgotten Ways: 1848-72
Romanes was born in Kingston, Canada in 1848. His father, a professor of Greek at the University in Kingston, received a considerable inheritance in that very year and, finding himself thus relieved of the necessity of supporting his family through labor, moved his wife and children back across the Atlantic, traveling for a time in Europe and settling ultimately in London.
The Romanes children were raised in almost Rousseauian freedom, “shockingly idle,” as his wife would later describe it, “but marvellously happy.” George and his younger sister roamed about collecting botanical specimens and “pets,” and they were never forced to attend to any lessons for which they were not inclined. Under this lax domestic administration, Romanes spent a prolonged childhood, emerging with a fine and sympathetic temper, a love of music, poetry, and shooting, and no academic achievements or visible intellectual promise.
Around the time of her son’s seventeenth birthday, George’s mother suddenly realized that he was nearly grown up and completely unprepared for Oxford. He was accordingly packed off to a tutor who was given the hopeless task of remedying in two years what had been left undone in the preceding twelve. Unsurprisingly, young George made no conspicuous progress. But his great natural capacity for friendship had an unexpected consequence. One of his fellow-students was bound, not for Oxford, but for Cambridge, and he had little difficulty persuading George to abandon his original plan and switch schools. George enrolled at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge in the fall of 1867.
He arrived, as his wife describes him, half-educated, utterly untrained, with no knowledge of men or of books, showing as yet no glimmer of the considerable intellectual power he would wield in years to come. A naturally pious youth, he fell in early with an ardently evangelical group of students. He attended religious services and read his Bible assiduously; he met with like-minded students to read classics of Anglican religious thought such as Richard Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity and Joseph Butler’s Analogy of Religion. But he seems to have had no contact with the higher circles of religious intellectual life at Cambridge, which at that time boasted Biblical scholars of the first rank such as Lightfoot and Westcott.
In the first few years at Cambridge, he read mathematics and seriously considered taking Holy Orders. But chance friendships once again intervened. Some fellow students were studying for the Natural Science Tripos, and George turned his attention from mathematics to science. The subject entirely fascinated him. His dormant mental powers now began to germinate, and he competed successfully for a scholarship in science. But his lack of preparation still retarded his progress. He had not yet read Darwin, and when he took the Tripos in 1870, he could obtain only a Second. One of the questions he was unable to answer was on natural selection.
Perhaps stung by this relative failure, Romanes immediately began to read Darwin’s books. Their effect on his intellectual development was extraordinary, and they began to shape his thinking not only on scientific subjects but also, more subtly but not less powerfully, on religion.
In the fall of 1872, while convalescing from a serious illness, Romanes made an excursion into metaphysics. A prize was being offered for the best student essay on the topic of “Christian Prayer considered in relation to the belief that the Almighty governs the world by general laws.” To while away the hours, Romanes turned his mind to the subject and crafted a brilliant if rather scholastic essay. Assuming the existence of God as given, he argues that the domain of scientific inquiry is limited and that actual, physical responses to prayer might occur without producing any phenomena of the sort of which science must take cognizance. To his complete surprise, his essay won the contest. It was published in 1874, and Romanes himself was celebrated as a young Christian scholar who brought honor to his College and might even be looked to as a model defender of the faith in the rising generation.
The Sheep that Strays: 1873-78
The next few years were heady ones. A letter that Romanes sent to Nature caught the eye of Charles Darwin, who invited Romanes to call on him. Thus began a lifelong friendship in which Romanes’s admiration, bordering on hero worship, was met by Darwin’s fatherly solicitude for the younger man’s career. Between 1874 and 1876 Romanes was introduced into the circle of the British intelligentsia, including the mathematician W. K. Clifford, the scientist T. H. Huxley, the author Mary Ann Evans, better known to the world by her pen name “George Eliot,” and the philosopher Herbert Spencer, who had coined the term “survival of the fittest”—all of them “freethinkers” who rejected Christianity.
But Romanes needed no encouragement in this direction. His mind was already turning down a skeptical path, and in the very year that his defence of Christian prayer was published he drafted a work in which he repudiated his former position and took a bleakly agnostic stance toward the existence of God. One by one, he surveys the arguments of natural theology and finds them wanting. Does atheism have difficulty accounting for the fact that anything exists at all? So, Romanes argues, does theism. Do our hearts require a God? Perhaps; but such a subjective necessity cannot provide evidence for the objective existence of what we desire, any more than our being hungry can prove that we have bread. For all that we can tell to the contrary, mind may have arisen naturally as the result of wholly unconscious forces; and matter and force appear to be eternal, whereas we have no warrant for supposing that mind is eternal. We are incompetent to pronounce one way or another on the origin of mind, and the general principle that might have helped us to infer an originating mind—that the effect cannot contain what was lacking in the cause—is contradicted by everyday experience. The freedom of the will has been proved to be illusory, and the evidence is overwhelming that our moral sense is the result of a purely natural evolution. Conscience may be accounted for on utilitarian grounds.
The design argument fares no better at Romanes’s hands. The reasoning of Paley’s Natural Theology, he argues, is wholly undermined by evolution; indeed, it never gets off the ground, as it is impossible for us to know, on Paley’s own terms, the relations of the hypothetical Designer to that which is designed. If the theist retrenches and argues for a designer on the basis of the regularity of the general laws of nature, he loses all traction; for if force and matter have been eternal, then every natural law must itself be the necessary consequence of the conservation of energy and the primary qualities of matter. A rational man will suspend judgment, resisting equally the attractions of theism and of atheism. A resolute agnosticism is the best that one can do.
As for the evidence of the Gospels, it passed for common knowledge among the intelligentsia of the time—at least those who were unfamiliar with the scholarship of Lightfoot and Westcott—that Baur and the Tübingen school of New Testament critics had destroyed the conservative position with its early dating and assured authorship of the New Testament documents. The hauntingly beautiful tradition had proved indefensible, like an old cathedral shattered by the guns of accurate German philology.
In 1878, Romanes published his manuscript, A Candid Examination of Theism, under the pseudonym “Physicus.” The secret of its authorship was guarded fairly closely; he shared it with Darwin and a few personal acquaintances, but he kept it hidden from the rest of the world. He was not a happy deconvert, and he made no attempt to palliate the conclusion to which he had come. Indeed, the work ends on a note that comes very close to despair.
And now, in conclusion, I feel it is desirable to state that any antecedent bias with regard to Theism which I individually possess is unquestionably on the side of traditional beliefs. It is therefore with the utmost sorrow that I find myself compelled to accept the conclusions here worked out. ... And so far as the ruination of individual happiness is concerned, no one can have a more lively perception than myself of the possibly disastrous tendency of my work. So far as I am individually concerned, the result of this analysis has been to show that, whether I regard the problem of Theism on the lower plane of strictly relative probability, or on the higher plane of purely formal considerations, it equally becomes my obvious duty to stifle all belief of the kind which I conceive to be the noblest, and to discipline my intellect with regard to this matter into an attitude of the purest scepticism. ... I am not ashamed to confess that with this virtual negation of God the universe to me has lost its soul of loveliness; and although from henceforth the precept to “work while it is day” will doubtless but gain an intensified force from the terribly intensified meaning of the words that “the night cometh when no man can work,” yet when at times I think, as think at times I must, of the appalling contrast between the hallowed glory of that creed which once was mine, and the lonely mystery of existence as now I find it,—at such times I shall ever feel it impossible to avoid the sharpest pang of which my nature is susceptible. For whether it be due to my intelligence not being sufficiently advanced to meet the requirements of the age, or whether it be due to the memory of those sacred associations which to me at least were the sweetest that life has given, I cannot but feel that for me, and for others who think as I do, there is a dreadful truth in those words of Hamilton,—Philosophy having become a meditation, not merely of death, but of annihilation, the precept know thyself has become transformed into the terrific oracle to Oedipus—
“Mayest thou ne’er know the truth of what thou art.”
In the Wilderness: 1879-89
If Romanes was appalled by the crumbling of his religious convictions, his personal and professional life did all that could be done to make up for the loss. He became engaged in 1878 to Ethel Duncan, whom he married the following spring; the fact that she was a devout High Anglican does not seem to have disturbed the happiness of their union, which was shortly blessed with several healthy children. In 1879 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, and he enjoyed the company of the cream of the intellectual world of London—the sort of society he liked best.
His correspondence from 1880 onward reveals a man who was swept up in the sort of professional success that most men only dream of. He dined with celebrated professors in Edinburgh, lectured to wild applause in Glasgow, and was appointed to posts of professional prestige. He enjoyed an increasingly intimate correspondence with Darwin, who had dropped the “Mr.” and now addressed him simply as “My dear Romanes.” The older scientist displayed his trust in the younger man’s discretion and judgment by passing on to Romanes some conjectures of which he was himself unsure. Romanes would comment on Darwin’s ideas, always respectfully but sometimes critically, and Darwin took such criticism seriously in revising his own work, particularly on animal intelligence. When Darwin died in 1882, Romanes grieved more even than he had for the loss of his father.
Nor did the aesthetic side of his life suffer. He loved good chamber or orchestral concerts, and his journal is full of references to dinner parties that included some fine singing or other musical entertainment. His youthful fondness for Byron’s poetry had given way to a more mature appreciation of Shakespeare, Milton, and Tennyson, and Romanes discovered that he had a considerable talent for verse himself. His family and close friends began to make requests for his poems, and it was never very long before he would comply, sometimes with a playful riddle, sometimes with a more serious sonnet, sometimes in his own name and sometimes anonymously. One delighted recipient modestly protested his praise of her musical ability, eliciting a note from Romanes assuring her that his praise was perfectly serious: “I make it a point of what may be called aesthetic conscience never to write anything in verse which is not perfectly sincere.”
Romanes was never at a loss for work. A list of his reviews for Nature gives an impressive sense of the scope of his reading. But above all, he loved scientific controversy. If there was an argument going—on the morality of vivisection, on the relative roles of natural selection and environmental pressures, on the development of animal intelligence, or on the geographical distribution of species, Romanes was sure to be in the thick of it, firing off letters to the editors of various periodicals and soliciting data from professional colleagues from around the world to buttress his arguments. He rapidly became the leader of the orthodox Darwinian school, opposed equally to the neo-Lamarckians and to the ultra-Darwinian Weissmanites. Yet his amiable personality enabled him to conduct these controversies without personal rancor, and with only one or two exceptions he managed to stay on friendly terms with his antagonists, several of whom became close friends.
In the course of one of these controversies, Romanes found himself leaning hard on data and arguments supplied by John T. Gulick, an American missionary in Japan, whose thoughtful analyses and information on flora and fauna not readily accessible to most British scientists he found equally useful. Some measure of Romanes’s regard for Gulick can be gleaned from the following brief note which he prefixed to one of Gulick’s articles, published in Nature in the spring of 1890:
I cannot allow the present communication to appear in these columns without again recording my conviction that the writer is the most profound of living thinkers upon Darwinian topics, and that the generalizations which have been reached by his twenty years of thought are of more importance to the theory of evolution than any that have been published during the post-Darwinian period.
His high regard for Gulick is borne out by their extensive correspondence on scientific topics, a correspondence that continued (though with the inevitable time lag imposed by their geographical separation) through the 1890s.
In religious matters, Romanes found in these years a sort of agnostic via media. He was on friendly terms with a few clergymen, he attended services fairly regularly, and he even insisted that his oldest boy be raised as a Christian and not be told about his father’s doubts until he had reached manhood. But Romanes himself would not consent to receive the sacrament, and as he would later admit, he found it impossible even to attempt to pray. His correspondence from these years reveals a mind still probing at the issues he had pored over so intensely, favoring them like a wound, returning to them without any ability to satisfy his doubts or regain any sense of religious conviction. A letter from Romanes to George Munroe Grant, penned in 1886, shows just how deeply his belief in the theory of evolution had undercut his ability to take seriously the claims and even the categories of Christian theology:
[T]o the last generation there was presented what seemed to be a self-consistent, albeit wholly unintelligible theory of salvation. Man was regarded as an exceptional creature of special concern to the Deity, soon after his special creation he fell, and so required to be redeemed. Then as in Adam all died, so in Christ all were made alive. As by one man’s disobedience, etc., etc.
But to our generation all this is changed, and the theory (which all the prophets, Christ himself and his apostles accepted in a literal sense) can only be saved at all, by reading into it some metaphysical sense. As a matter of fact, we now learn that man is not a fallen creature, but a creature which has continuously risen. Now, what should we think of any scientific theory the very basis of which is thus proved to be erroneous. In fact, we should of course reject such a theory, and try another. If the foundation of the whole structure does not send verification, the structure itself has been found wanting in that stability which alone can make it trustworthy to build upon.
Should you say, it makes no practical difference whether Adam was a real man, or a metaphorical peg on which to hang an imaginary scheme, I answer, that it makes this difference. The question is whether the scheme of redemption, which runs through the Bible, is of a nature of a revelation, or of a natural evolution, whether the end was seen from the beginning by God, or whether the first writer propounded a theory of the Fall, the next writer adopting this theory and adding to it, and so on, till the way was prepared for a redeemer of the world in the manner of a natural sequence. Now, it unquestionably lends countenance to the latter view, that the whole system is found to have been based on an erroneous statement of fact, for there is obviously no conceivable reason why the Deity should have chosen to erect his whole system of revelation on what was to be shown by his creature Darwin a gratuitous falsehood.
Toward the end of the 1880s, there was a slight but perceptible softening of Romanes’s views. His journal for May 20, 1888 contains, as a passing remark, “Very fine sermon from Mr. Scott-Holland on the Evidence of the Gospels.” It must have been around this time that he began to toy with the idea of reopening his inquiry in earnest. But for two years more the painfulness of the subject, coupled with the pressing business of his professional life, apparently deterred him.
The Hand of Mercy: 1890-93
Near the end of 1889 a small cloud appeared on the otherwise clear horizon. Ever since his university days, Romanes had been quite healthy. But now he started to experience headaches, transient but extremely severe, that interrupted both his work and his social life. London began to lose its charms, and his thoughts turned toward Oxford, which seemed to offer the ideal retreat from the press of the city—old friends to welcome him, ample facilities for his scientific work, escape from the responsibility of councils and committees, and ready access to the country for exercise and fresh air. He and Ethel took a three years’ lease on an elegant old house opposite Tom Tower of Christ Church and settled in. The change of scene was most congenial, but the headaches persisted, sometimes accompanied by blindness and even, on one terrifying occasion, a temporary loss of memory. On a visit back to London in the fall of 1890, Romanes was incapacitated for a full day, and he began to suspect for the first time that there was something more than an adverse environment underlying his episodes.
In October of 1890, having promised his wife a sonnet, he opened to her a window on his soul.
I will not disappoint you about the sonnet, which you expect to be in the vein of ‘Weltschmerz,’ and therefore send you the first of the series which I wrote in the small hours, after reading your favourite Psalm. There was only one verse that remained appropriate to me, so I took it as a text. ... I did not intend to send the sonnet even to you when I wrote it, but afterwards thought I ought to have no secrets.
Ethel’s favorite Psalm, as she reveals in a footnote, was Psalm 27, and presumably the only verse he could yet find to apply to himself was verse 7: Hear, O LORD, when I cry with my voice: have mercy also upon me, and answer me.
I ask not for Thy love, O Lord: the days
Can never come when anguish shall atone.
Enough for me were but Thy pity shown,
To me as to the stricken sheep that strays,
With ceaseless cry for unforgotten ways—
O lead me back to pastures I have known,
Or find me in the wilderness alone,
And slay me, as the hand of mercy slays.
I ask not for Thy love; nor e’en so much
As for a hope on Thy dear breast to lie;
But be Thou still my shepherd still with such
Compassion as may melt to such a cry;
That so I hear Thy feet, and feel Thy touch,
And dimly see Thy face ere yet I die.
With this prayer—it is scarcely possible to read it otherwise—Romanes reopened the question of God’s existence. On Christmas day that year, he took a second step, closing a letter he was writing to Gulick with an incongruous, half-embarrassed request:
For a long time past I have been meditating upon the possibility of putting to you a question which I have feared you might deem unpardonably impertinent, and this in both senses of the word. But on this Christmas day I cannot avoid the ‘cumulative’ temptation. My only excuse is the twofold statement that the question is not put from any merely idle curiosity, and that it is put on account of the very great value which I attach to the extraordinary analytical powers of your thought.
The question which—for my own benefit alone—I want to ask is, How is it that you have retained your Christian belief? Looking to your life, I know that you must have done so conscientiously; and, looking to your logic, I equally know that you cannot have done so without due consideration. On what lines of evidence, therefore, do you mainly rely? Years ago my own belief was shattered—and all the worth of life destroyed—by what has ever since appeared to me overpowering assaults from the side of rationality; and yours is the only mind I have met with, which, while greatly superior to mine in the latter respect, appears to have reached an opposite conclusion. Therefore I should like to know in a general way how you view the matter as a whole; but if you think the question is one that I ought not to have asked, I hope you will neither trouble to answer it, nor refuse to accept in advance my apology for putting it.
Gulick faithfully replied to Romanes’s request, and he did so in terms calculated to appeal to the latter’s scientific side. A process of development can be traced, he argues, not only in the sciences, but also in the history of societies. A very large share of the moral advancement of societies has been due to Christianity, which takes man as he is, in any and every land, and sets him on a new course. Science reveals to us the means to achieve our ends; but Christian love and wisdom reveal the ends worth achieving. In the sciences we act on the assumption that every part of the universe is constructed on principles that will yield an ever-expanding meaning to our search for unity, law, and order; and we find the assumption justified by the result. In the same way, we may act on the assumption that power, wisdom, and love underlie the foundations of the universe. And the great power of Christianity in elevating the lives of men provides the confirmation that this assumption is correct.
The character of Christ himself, Gulick argues, lies at the heart of this power. The assumption that the Gospels are all or even largely mythic will not do:
[I]t is entirely incredible that myths and subjective delusions should originate a character on a wholly new range of thought, and then give it power to transform, first the original subjects of the delusion, making them consistent and persistent witnesses and martyrs, and then through them the whole structure of society.
In biological evolution, Gulick points out, a new type has influence only as its offspring multiply to the exclusion of other types; but in rational evolution, a new character may be propagated by transforming other types into conformity with itself. Thus does Christ, the new type of man, succeed in transforming the brutish elements of ordinary human nature into a closer approximation to His own character of complete devotion to others and to the kingdom of God.
Gulick’s reply, however, did not produce any immediate effect. Romanes wrote back with the same objection he had expressed five years earlier to Grant: had not Darwinian science undermined the very foundation of Pauline theology? With the removal of the “first man”—Adam—what need was there for the “second man” to restore us from a hypothetical fallen state? The central historical claim of Christianity, the incarnation, could not, Romanes urged, be squared with thoroughgoing Darwinism. There the matter rested between the two friends, who turned their correspondence back to scientific matters.
One of the new friendships Romanes developed at Oxford was with the Anglican high churchman Charles Gore. Perhaps he was attracted by the fact that Gore was, in his own way, something of a maverick, too liberal for the traditional party and too conservative for the liberal one. Gore accepted without demur the results of higher criticism applied to the Old Testament, and he questioned openly whether Jesus while on earth was omniscient. But on the point of the supernatural element in the Gospels and the fact of the resurrection, Gore was intransigently traditional. When he was asked to preach the Bampton Lectures for 1891—a lecture series inaugurated “to confirm and establish the Christian Faith”—he framed his work as a vindication of the rationality of the Christian faith in Jesus Christ as God incarnate, arguing on historical grounds that “it is those who deny and not those who affirm the traditional belief, who do violence to the evidence.”
Romanes attended Gore’s lectures and wrote copious notes on them for his own private use, by no means always agreeing with his friend but engaging with the argument vigorously. His native honesty—one of his friends would later describe it as his righteousness—made him distrust his own instincts; he dared not lightly believe what he so much wished to be true.
The best clue we have to the state of Romanes’s thought at the time comes from the closing lines of his scientific masterwork, Darwin and After Darwin, which was finally published in 1892. Evolution, he argues, affords us no grounds for belief in the existence of a benevolent deity; if there is evidence of design at all, it is evidence that animals were designed to be subject to a gradual process of evolution rather than that nature was designed for their enjoyment or well being. There is nothing attractive, from the standpoint of the individual, about the process of evolution. But this, Romanes says, is not a new problem; it is simply the old problem of evil brought home to us in a new form. Faith has, in the face of this problem, the same answer as she has always had before: “Verily thou art a God that hidest thyself.”
Meanwhile, Romanes’s physical condition worsened, not all at once but in a gradual downward trend punctuated by periods of relative relief. It was impossible to hide all of the outward symptoms from his friends, and word spread outward from Oxford. One of the effects, however, was less visible to the casual eye and was perhaps known with certainty only to Ethel. Although he could and did continue with his scientific writing and work, he found that one gift had been taken away from him. He was no longer able to write poetry.
In the summer of 1892, Canon Scott-Holland, who had been transferred out of Oxford, heard of Romanes’s declining health and wrote him a note of sympathy. The opening lines are warm and sincere, as one might expect from a close personal friend:
I hear sad news of you through Philip Waggett. You have passed under the sorest trial perhaps that could have been laid on your courage, your hopefulness, your peace.
I trust, indeed, that there is much to look for yet of recovered power and renewed work, but, for the moment, there must be anxiety, and the bitter strain of disappointment, and the rough curb of pain. You are assured of the deep sympathy of many warmhearted friends to whom you have always shown most generous kindness, and I venture to rank myself among them. We shall remember you often and anxiously.
But then, unexpectedly, Scott-Holland moves into deeper waters:
It is a tremendous moment when first one is called upon to join the great army of those who suffer.
That vast world of love and pain opens suddenly to admit us one by one within its fortress.
We are afraid to enter into the land, yet you will, I know, feel how high is the call. It is as a trumpet speaking to us, that cries aloud—‘It is your turn—endure.’ Play your part. As they endured before you, so now, close up the ranks—be patient and strong as they were. Since Christ, this world of pain is no accident untoward or sinister, but a lawful department of life, with experiences, interests, adventures, hopes, delights, secrets of its own. These are all thrown open to us as we pass within the gates—things that we could never learn or know or see, so long as we were well.
God help you to walk through this world now opened to you as through a kingdom, regal, royal, and wide and glorious. My warmest sympathies to your wife.
The imagery here is as striking as the intimacy that alone could explain it. Though we do not have Romanes’s reply, we know that the note affected him deeply. It was still on his mind at the last.
Till Sight Needs Not to Prove: 1893-94
On July 11, 1893, Romanes suffered a hemiplegic stroke on his left side. The paralysis gradually receded, but the shadow of death did not; from that day forward he knew that his time was running out. Two days after the onset of the stroke, at Romanes’s request, one of his ecclesiastical friends came to his room and gave him Holy Communion. During his long convalescence he listened to the Psalms being read aloud, and when they came to Psalm 84, he said, “I can hardly bear that psalm; I have longed so much.”
His bodily strength never fully returned. Some days he could do a little reading and handle a bit of correspondence; on others, he kept his restless mind active by having others read to him. He heard Gore’s Bampton Lectures read aloud and liked them even better than when he had heard Gore deliver them the first time. He read Pascal’s Pensees through carefully. Could the great French polymath have been right? Might the heart have reasons that reason did not know? Could our longing for righteousness be a clue to the nature of the universe, a clue that science, by its very nature, was not competent to interpret? The questions that had seemed forever closed were now opened in full earnest, and Romanes found that his earlier arguments no longer carried conviction. He had overlooked something, had taken too much for granted; his agnosticism, as he expressed it, had not been pure enough.
In April of 1894 with less than two months to live, Romanes began to write. Not science, now; though he kept up his scientific correspondence to the end, he had to give up his experiments and set aside his notes on “Physiological Selection,” seven years in preparation but still unfinished, which were to have been his own scientific masterwork. Instead, he began to write on theology and religious belief—a hundred scattered notes, some fleshed out, some so terse as to be barely comprehensible. Racing against time as his strength failed, he grappled with his own arguments, tracing backward along his own path into skepticism and finding it inadequately justified, his reasoning insufficiently rigorous, his negative conclusions unforced. He returned to The Analogy of Religion, this time not only recognizing the truth of Butler’s observation that our state of probation requires an honest use of our reason but extending it, adding that we must also use honestly “those other ingredients of human nature which go to determine our beliefs on this most important of all matters.” Seen in this light, Gulick’s argument now made more sense to him than it had before. For if Christianity speaks to all the higher needs of man—if it is the only religion adapted to meet them—is not this, too, a fact that demands explanation?
His former assumption that “Christianity was played out” he now calls inexcusable, particularly in the light of modern research; the powerful biblical scholarship of Lightfoot and Westcott, which he had ignored in his youth, finally reached him through the medium of Scott-Holland and Gore. The candor of the Gospel writers forbids a theory of legendary accretion. An honestly pure agnosticism, reading the records on their merits, must leave open the question whether they are true as history. And the evidence, impartially viewed, would leave no doubt if it were not for the miraculous nature of the events recorded. In the face of such evidence, and without the crutch of a priori naturalism, skepticism can no longer pretend that it is the result of dispassionate biblical criticism. “I have now come to see,” Romanes said to his wife, “that faith is intellectually justifiable.” A bit later he added, “It is Christianity or nothing.”
He was still working on the book that was to serve as the antidote to his youthful skeptical treatise when his time ran out. And he knew that he would not live to complete it. One day, while scribbling down some notes, he said to his wife, “If anything happens to me before I can work them up into a book, give them to Gore. He will understand.” And so it was that these unfinished Thoughts on Religion were passed on to Gore, who selected all of them that were sufficiently finished to be intelligible, placed them in the context of Romanes’s earlier religious thought, and published them. It was Romanes’s last literary work, a curious crown to a career cut short, a mind vibrantly alive, and an extraordinary intellectual journey. Gore closes the volume with a single page in his own voice, noting that Romanes
returned before his death to that full, deliberate communion with the Church of Jesus Christ which he had for so many years been conscientiously compelled to forego. In his case, the ‘pure in heart’ was after a long period of darkness allowed, in a measure before his death, to ‘see God.’
Fecisti nos ad te, Domine; et inquietum est cor nostrum donec requiscat in te.
In passion week of 1894, at the end of March, Romanes fell very ill and doubted that he would live till Easter. But this passed, and Easter Day itself brought a period of relief from suffering that proved a double gift. That evening he gave Ethel a poem he had written, taking for his inspiration the text of Hebrews 2:10, which is one of the readings for the visitation of the sick in the Book of Common Prayer: For it became him, for whom are all things, and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons unto glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings. It is a testament to the impact of Canon Scott-Holland’s compassionate note that its themes are woven deeply into the last of Romanes’s finished literary works:
Amen, now lettest Thou Thy servant, Lord,
Depart in peace, according to Thy Word:
Although mine eyes may not have fully seen
Thy great salvation, surely there have been
Enough of sorrow and enough of sight
To show the way from darkness into light;
And Thou hast brought me, through a wilderness of pain,
To love the sorest paths if soonest they attain.
Enough of sorrow for the heart to cry
“Not for myself, nor for my kind, am I:”
Enough of sight for Reason to disclose,
“The more I learn the less my knowledge grows.”
Ah! not as citizens of this our sphere,
But aliens militant we sojourn here,
Invested by the hosts of Evil and of Wrong,
Till Thou shall come again with all Thine angel throng.
As Thou hast found me ready to Thy call,
Which stationed me to watch the outer wall,
And, quitting joys and hopes that once were mine,
To pace with patient steps this narrow line,
Oh! may it be that, coming soon or late,
Thou still shalt find Thy soldier at the gate,
Who then may follow Thee till sight needs not to prove,
And faith will be dissolved in knowledge of Thy love.