Of True Religion and John Milton.
February 7, 2010
In 1673, a year before his death, John Milton published a pamphlet entitled “Of True Religion, Heresy, Schism, Toleration, and what the best means may be used against the Growth of Popery.” His great poems were all behind him, death before him. Oddly, this pamphlet is little known to the general reader of Milton. After looking through a number of textbook collections of Milton for university courses, published during the last several decades, I was surprised to discover none of them contained “Of True Religion,” yet it was the last piece the man ever wrote. All the more startling is that “Of True Religion” presents a portrait of John Milton significantly at variance with the Puritan caricature of him that is often promoted by scholars in the university. All too often Milton is torn out of his historical time and not seen to be in fact the liberal that he was, clearly headed toward the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which further limited the monarchy and prepared the way for the modern efflorescence of individual liberty and freedom. To distort Milton into a one-dimensional Puritan suppresses the complexity of his actual thinking and life.
Since I visited last summer Milton’s home in Chalfont St. Giles, where he had lived fleeing the London plague of 1665, he was on my mind in the fall, and I was browsing online to see what I could turn up about him. I stumbled onto “Of True Religion” when I had downloaded a 19th Century edition of Milton’s prose, published in 1826, from Google Books. There it was in the table of contents. I suppose it was still possible back then for “true religion” to exist. How curious. I looked in my 1977 college edition of Merritt Y. Hughes’ Complete Poems and Major Prose, first published in 1957. Apparently, not major. In his opinion. After transferring it to my Sony Reader, to my surprise, I found Milton talking about toleration, leaving alone the “Lutherans, Calvinists, Anabaptists, Socinians” and Arminians, instead of persecuting them, harrying them out of the land, emphasizing what is held in common, versus sectarian. And how far should they be tolerated? “Doubtless equally, as being all Protestants.” He further stressed they should be allowed to preach and argue in their assemblies, public writings and printing. From our perspective, one might say, of course, but Milton was progressive and on the advancing edge of his day. To fail to recognize that fact obscures who he was.
Milton’s qualification is Protestantism. It’s fair to say Milton does not have much warmth of feeling for “popery,” or Catholicism in general, tending to vehement and even feverish denunciation. He’s concerned, like many in his time, with the grasping for “usurped” ecclesiastical and political power. He calls to mind for his readers England’s history under Catholicism when he writes that the pope “was wont to drain away the greatest part of the wealth of this then miserable land . . . to maintain the pride and luxury of his court and prelates.” Milton was not the kind of man to take lightly the “Babylonish yoke” of popery, or anything else for that matter. My English genes cannot but thrill in agreement and admiration for his spirited defense of liberty. However, it’s safe to say, I suspect, that while Milton was willing to extend freedom of conscience to fellow Protestants, which many of the time were not, he probably would have thought differently when it came to Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, and people of other persuasions, lumping them all in there somewhere with popery—“idolatrous.” The ruined abbeys all over England stand witness to both the extent of Catholic exploitation and the fierce backlash it inspired. Milton is tame by comparison. But no universality for him. Milton was convinced he had the exclusive truth in Protestantism.
Similarly, some today, trying to revive or return to Christianity, as a dominant social organization, celebrate Milton, thinking he is the way back to an idealized past. But the past is past because it is past. There’s no going back in that direction. Why would one want to? The democratic pluralism of our time is much more dynamic and exciting, and, here’s the important fact, true. True religion, in our time, must recognize the non-exclusivism of religious truth—that all peoples, religions, and traditions taught and held, still hold and teach, to the degree they’re not atrophied or undermined by the nihilism of modernity, the same universal, spiritual insights, ideals, virtues, and truths. Far from exclusivism, far from the historicism and nihilism that attempted to discredit all religions and wisdom traditions, I aver, not that all religions are false, but that they’re all true.
With a nod to the long line of both Croatian Catholics and persecuted Huguenots that I also come from, I would say the great religions all provide a vision and understanding of the purpose of life, what it means to be a human being, that is deeply profound, non-utopian, non-quixotic, when properly understood, of how and why one journeys through this world. We need to know as much about the Unknowable Essence as possible, from every angle, every insight into Divine Mystery, that we might come to understand Him or Her or It, just a little bit more. I’m not willing to settle for anything less than the fullness of Being, striving for It. To relinquish the thousands of years of human meditation on the Divine Being would be too great a loss. What then the point of life? The Exclusive Truth is beyond all attempts to understand Him. I also argue for retention of all the nay-sayers, atheists, agnostics, and nihilists. They have an important part of the truth to tell, while having no more the exclusive truth than anyone else. Relax, there’s no reason to burn them at the stake or blow them up. Nor anyone.
While Milton urges Protestants, “who agree in the main,” to show forth “forbearance and charity one towards the other,” I would urge forbearance and charity for all, all the great religions and traditions, for this is what the logical, rational, reasonable development of modern democratic pluralism has already done, though we do not, I think, recognize and celebrate it for the highly significant achievement that it is. Too often, global society continues, in a sense, to think and act in terms of exclusivism, whether religious or secular, while more often in its lived experience rightly recognizing and respecting the multifarious ways and paths through life. To make our achievement more conscious and acknowledged, indeed, more than mere toleration, celebrated, is one of the challenges and goals of the 21st Century, all times, and a path toward universal peace and understanding. Understandably, the countervailing fear is usually about organization. But in the modern world people have increasingly come to realize that true religion is merely an “attitude toward divinity,” a frame of mind, a reverence for life, not an organization, best manifested as a distinctive quality of the individual.
Putting aside organizations and institutions, Milton writes, “True religion is the true worship and service of God, learnt and believed from the word of God only.” Unfortunately drawing from Paul of Tarsus, Milton embraces some of Paul’s more personal ideas and interpretations, and of the early Christian church, “to reject all other traditions,” instead of universality. Similar to the harm Paul’s teachings on misogyny have caused throughout the centuries, Paul’s bifurcation of humanity, into the “elect” and the “wayward,” has caused incalculable suffering and misery, all in the name of putative truth. All of the various forms in various traditions that have approached human nature in a similar manner have resulted invariably in analogous distortions and social dislocations, though his many good acts and writings conducive to cultivating love and community are timeless. Milton is at his best when he’s following what is universal in the Christian tradition.
Milton’s other prose writings helped disenfranchise the church from the state. He and the time understood well the threat and result of fanatical exclusivity in power, or grasping for it, as we do living now, as a result of the fanatical exclusivism of Islamist terrorism, reminding us of how serious all these issues really are. Separation of church and state is one of the undeniably great achievements of civilization, even, I would say, the Will of God. From lived experience, life just goes better when matters of conscience and belief are balanced with different viewpoints, consultation, people of various religious outlooks, and no religious faith or belief, the full range of human thought and belief; the great pool of humanity, swirling around, trying to make sense of it all, no one shoving the exclusive truth down anyone else’s throat, over the barrel of a gun, or with a bomb. What could be more obvious about our actual experience of what works, what produces a peaceful, harmonious society, or, at least, as close as we can get to one in this world? Even for John Milton, the great fear was slipping back into popery or anything oppressive and tyrannical. Not liberal by our standards today, but he was, by those of his own time, and headed in the right direction.