This is an attempt at translating a letter written by CJ Langenhoven to his younger brother. Langenhoven was a formidable writer, and it is infinitely better to read the author’s own words, but for the benefit of those who do not read Afrikaans, herewith this translation. The below does not contain the entire letter, as it is too long. It does however, I believe, convey the message that Langenhoven would have wanted it to, albeit in far poorer style as the original Afrikaans. Please accept my apologies for any mistakes, or for any meaning that gets lost in translation.
My dear young friend
Because you are in a religious struggle, I write to you in order to give you the assurance that, whatever mankind will collect from you, the loving God will never collect from you that which is unfair. This assurance is not as redundant as it may seem; it is the principle around which your entire struggle revolves. I only wish that somebody could have given me this same assurance to comfort and strengthen me while I was struggling as you are now.
I am writing to tell you something about that. I have just as little desire as what I have the right, to burden you with my confessions, but it will do you good to realise that your objections in the faith are not new and original. Everyone who is honest and strong in spirit goes through the same fire, but not all of us emerge the same on the other side. Like you, I was also strong and clever, but that is not something to be mourned as I managed to overcome both handicaps.
Like you, I too: “Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and Saint, and heard great Argument
About it and About, but evermore
Came out by the same Door as in I went.”
The abovementioned experts overlap slightly, especially in this day and age, and the poet’s choice of words is limited by the verse. Let us however, for the sake of simplicity, keep these two words: “Saints” for the faithful and “Doctors” for the others.
As it was for Omar Khayyám (or his translator, Fitzgerald), both of these types provided me with precious little clarity through my befuddlement (and I am also not blaming anyone, I am merely telling you how it went with me), but of the two the Saints did me a disservice initially and the Doctors ultimately assisted me. Please, let me repeat with emphasis, that I am neither rewarding nor assigning blame to one or the other. I am confessing, and it behoves me not to hold anything back.
Let’s start with the failure of the Saints. In the student’s lodge where I lived during my college years, I had free access to the library of my roommate, a senior theological student. There, I took the opportunity (to the detriment of my own studies, which I wouldn’t have taken very far anyway) to browse through a wealth of works, and actually read quite a few of them. All those pleas for religion did more to aggravate my objections than what it solved. To me, as young and clever as I was, it seemed that the authors were of the humble opinion that they would never have any readers other than intellectual babies. Not that I saw myself, even then, as an intellectual giant. I just didn’t want to be neglected being given a stone instead of a piece of bread. I was looking for something more than the ability to create empty phrases, to disguise or avoid difficulties, to misrepresent the points of view of opponents and to triumphantly be given conclusive answers to questions I wasn’t stupid enough to ask. The unfortunate, albeit unfair impression I had was that the “faith” couldn’t have been standing in a particularly strong position if its champions couldn’t provide a better defence.
You see, my young friend, my point of view was exclusively “intellectual”. Such a standpoint was foolish, and it would have been foolish even if my intellectual capacity was of a much higher standard. It was however, not as foolish as the standpoint of those efforts that, outside of the apologetic works, was applied to get me to deny my intellect on behalf of my religion.
There were good people in several different relations to me that had only the purest intentions with regards to my eternal salvation. They did not want to reason, not even in the infantile way of the apologist; even less would they allow me to reason. Their plan was to frighten me away from all tendencies to reason by holding forth the flames of hell in the hereafter. (It did not occur to them that a fire which you don’t believe in, does not pose much of a threat in order to force you believe in its existence).
According to this method of faith propaganda, investigation is forbidden and doubt is sin. Doubt is already disbelief, and the punishment for disbelief is eternal damnation. For me to rely on my own puny intelligence already spoilt by sin, was blasphemous vanity and a trap from the evil enemy. I hope, my young friend that this principle of the prohibition of doubt won’t prevent you from searching for light in the darkness out of fear that revealing your doubt might mean the confession of disbelief.
This method of prohibiting reason was even less of a blessing than the others of false reasoning. Could it be that the devil is logical and God not? Never ever, I was convinced. Whatever could be true or not, this had to be blasphemous. All our scientific studies are possible, and only possible because we are, in our studies, step-by-step following the logical reasoning of the Creator. His reasoning is on an infinitely higher level than mine, but it is the same type of reasoning that gives me four if I add two and two together. That very ability to reason, given to me by God, is the one characteristic that raises me higher than His other creatures, and enables me to worship. Who preaches religion amongst dumb animals?
If doubt is sin, and my intellect has been given to me in order to trap me to go to hell, I would have to grab the very first religion I can find, or else, if I could have a choice, I would be my duty the choose the worst of the lot in order to get as far as possible away from my corrupt and pernicious mind. The more I would believe in things that I know is untrue, the closer I would get to my salvation.
No, I reasoned with my sinful mind, a reasonable universe is ruled by a reasonable God. Even more than the general creation is unconsciously reasonable, the Creator must be consciously reasonable. Of all the countless creatures, there is only one blessed with conscious reason and thus in that fashion created in the image of his Creator. Only insofar as he falls short of the perfection of that image, does he fall short in his reason. How then, if he can use the purer part of this to investigate and study creation according to logical methods, can he expect to come closer to his Creator with the impure part along irregular ways?
These statements were then, and are now, simply axiomatic. And yet, exactly these were the rocks upon which my efforts to stabilise my faith got stranded. Was I more to be condemned, or more to be pitied? But more to be condemned or not, I certainly was to be pitied. I was a longing child, who knows that he has a Father, but who is hopelessly unsure about His bidding and His love, and is being condemned because he doubtfully searches for surety.
But, my young friend, I have to tell you of the opposite side of the development of my faith persuasion, or rather, make mention of it. These are years’ worth of struggles compressed into a few paragraphs. After I came out by the same door as in I went from the Saints, and shook the dust off my feet, I visited the opposition school of the unbelieving Doctors, or rather, was gradually exposed to their influence.
Either way, all of the propaganda I could obtain from them, I read. They were certainly “intellectual” enough. They did not sneeze at their own intellect, nor did they require me to rape mine. On the contrary, they gloried in the fact that Reason was their only guideline. Those detractors were my preservation.
The Doctors succeeded even better in pushing me away from their disbelief than what the Saints succeeded in pushing me away from their belief. Their reasoning, those of the Doctors, always came out on one or the other of two hypotheses. The one hypothesis describes an uncreated and ungoverned universe where, everywhere and always, perfect law and order rules without a ruler, and where souls with awareness, like mine, came to be from the composition of dead dust particles, composed through an unaware, and soulless process. Well, it would be easier to swallow Jonah and his whale and still have space remaining for Bileam and his ingenious @ss, than to believe such foolish lunacy.
Then there was another doctoral hypothesis, not atheistic as in the aforementioned, but, in name at least, theistic. This puts forward a God as an algebraic X, as a starting point, an access point, a centre point and the binding together of the forces of nature; an unfeeling, unrelenting intelligence; not a person but a principle; not a ruler, but a slave to his own fate, a necessary assumption like the ether of interstellar space. Such an impersonal intelligence seemed comically unintelligent to me. Why would he keep himself busy maintaining such a tragic oddity and odd tragedy of a purposeless universe? It wouldn’t even be for his own cruel fun or for the oddity of arbitrary almighty despotism – he is without feeling or desires. And I had, according to the first guideline, the right to judge his intelligence according to mine – this was ex hypothesi my only and sufficient guideline.
In what way was the assumption of such a metaphysical abstraction of a higher being better than utter atheism? If my God was not a loving Father so that I could go to him like a child for help and communion, then it doesn’t matter how almighty and all-knowing I might perceive him to be, I might as well be an utter denier of God. From His side, if He has nothing to do with me, He might as well not exist.
From necessity I was forced by the nature of my spirit to reject all forms of disbelief, atheism, agnosticism and scepticism as absurdity. And the reasoning behind my rejection led me back to the essentials of my faith. Doesn’t the craving of a child for his Father originate from the same spirit as the ability to reason?
I was on track. Once I got to the point where I rejected this personal God as I rejected the unreasonable God before, as equally absurd, there was no further reason to allow the voice in my mind to talk but to still the voice in my heart. As I found my Creator with my mind, because it is of the same sort as His, albeit infinitely less, I have also found Him again with my love, because it is also of the same sort as His, albeit infinitely less. Found again, I say, because it is the God of my childhood, of my mother and father. I could call to Him again, and when I called, I felt as if I reached Someone. And from there my faith and salvation are in better hands than mine because it was in His. And since it has been in His hands, He hasn’t expected me to believe that two and two are five.
This rediscovered faith means to me, as a humble thinker and world watcher, that the universe is not a desert where I look out from the petty planet to which I’m chained, over bottomless chasms and arid infinity. My life is not a coincidence that may, or may not have been, a moment between nothing and nothing. I do not have to concern myself about the secrets of my being and destination, the hour of my death or what will happen thereafter, as it is in the hands of my Father who is infinitely better equipped to deal with it than what I could ever wish.
My young friend, I am not writing this to preach about sin. The Lord will need all His love to forgive mine, more than His other children, but it lies in path of this discussion that even the most unworthy of us have recognition of virtue. This recognition of what is good and pure and correct, is the third characteristic of a human that forms part of the likeness of God according to which we were made. The Reasonable, Loving and Holy has given to His human creations, albeit infinitely less, the ability to be reasonable, loving and holy.
So now I come back to the division of the soul, according to the psychology of my study years, into the Intellect, the Feeling and the Virtue. We almost go back to the threefold ideal that the ancient Greeks, groping in the dark, saw as twilight: The True, the Beautiful, the Good, the Reason, the Love and the Virtue. The threefold creature can therefore not err too far from his faith, if it flows from this triune Godly-human inspiration, and goes back to its Source to find strengthening and conciliation of his existence. Without all three the image according to which he was created crumbles, and then his faith bothers him because he considers his God wanting.
But we are dealing with infinitely limited human speech and understanding, and we are looking for something concrete to touch, like a savage makes an idol of wood or stone so that his worship isn’t completely impossible for his poorly equipped spirit. Thus, driven by fear and need, we establish theological dogma and tie our faith to formularies. God knows how infinitely incomplete these dogmas and formularies are to give expression and form to the Eternally Unfathomable, but He sees past these earthly aids to the spiritual urge in the hearts of His children to be closer to Him.
How did this ultimate conclusion lead me to Jesus? It didn’t. Jesus led me to the conclusion, because I was with Him before I was with the Doctor or the Saint. In my early youth the bread of the gospel was cast on the water for me, and I finally noticed it, after a long time.
You must have noticed, my young friend, or else I’m writing in vain, that this letter is only a skeleton, for you to add the flesh and blood, and to breathe a soul into it.
The reasonableness of Jesus I don’t have to point out to you. Whether communicating with friend or foe, disciple or opposition, learned scholar or fishermen, study, I beg you, his method of persuasion. He doesn’t rely on His authority, He refuse to perform miracles to bolster what He said. To the soldier who punched Him, He says: “If I have said anything wrong, tell me what it was. But if I have told the truth, why do you hit me?” He is willing to give that man a chance to reason with Him. He reasons with the sceptical Sadducee, He sets no faith test. He doesn’t ask about the formularies, not even at the final judgment. Instead of looking for His method in specific examples, let’s examine His outlook. He has given our entire existence and destination, our relationship with God the Father, a reasonable meaning, like the laws of nature are reasonable to the researcher.
This brings me to the second of the three aspects: The Feeling. With the sublime intellectuality of His lessons, delivered with simplicity a child could understand, but with wisdom far above that of all philosophy, where has there ever, through the pen of an author, or the mouth of an orator, ever been expressed such a depth of pure and correct feeling. The dead print, on the dead pages of the gospels burns with a wonderful glow of love. Here, at this height, we see that the heart and the mind are one.
Thirdly, we come to His moral teaching. All forms are swept aside. He strips the soul bare to see himself and to make his own judgement. Let’s call hostile witnesses. Not the recklessly indifferent, but thinkers, earnest and dignified, the eminently unfaithful, non-Christians, sceptics and agnostics. What do they think of the life rules laid down by Jesus?
As far as it is possible for our human understanding, Jesus has painted the threefold image according to which we were created in unmistakably bright colours.
And now my young friend, I can close. I did not intend to make myself out as a defender of the faith. Had I tried, then you would also “Came out by the same door as in I went”. Even less did I want to make propaganda for a faith of my own, because then you would have come out of a worse door as in you went. The good God knows that there is enough heresy around the world without me having to add more.
What I had in mind however, is if you took cognizance of the bumps and hurdles encountered by your older brother, it might give you the courage not to take fright of those you might encounter on your path. They won’t be the same, and it is left to each of us to find a path to his destination, and what might provide clarity for one, might provide confusion for the other. But if I made myself clear, then I didn’t find my way, but I found Someone to show me the way, safer and surer than any of us can be to his brother.
And that way, shown by Him, is not a way of dogmatic confession, neither is it a way of conventional piousness, but it is a way of service, of happiness through sacrifice, of victory through submission.
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