T. H. HUXLEY TEACHES SUNDAY SCHOOL

by James Kincaid

“Mr. Huxley, our Board has met and wishes most cordially to invite you to test the waters of our religion by wading right in, as it were.”

“As it were what, Mr. Patterson-Smythe?”

“My apologies: our Board hopes you will oblige us by engaging directly with the spirit and not just the letter of Christian practice, practice and, I might add, belief.”

“I’m a plain man. Can you tell me more clearly what your Board wishes me to do?”

“Wishes you to do? Oh, Mr. Huxley, we wouldn’t presume to direct your steps. As for wishing you to do something in our line, well yes. But no more than you’ve a mind to, Mr. Huxley. We wouldn’t think of it, not for a minute.”

“I am afraid I must take my leave, Mr. Patterson-Smythe.”

“And I can convey to my Board your favorable response, may I?”

“To what? God, man, put your Christian tongue round words I can understand. What do you want me to do? I swear that if you don’t tell me straight out, I will drive your nose right through the back of your God-fearing head.”

“Teach a class in our Sabbath-School program, Mr. Huxley, just teach a class for our youth. That’s all we had in mind.”

“That’s all you had in mind? The question is, do you have what we might call ‘a mind’?”

“You are a celebrated wit, Mr. Huxley. Turn it loose on our youth, sir; turn it loose.”

“If I turn it loose, you will have no youth left in your Sabbath-Schools, Mr. – ah. . . . .”

“Patterson-Smythe, not that it matters.”

“No, it doesn’t.”

“Very good, Mr. Huxley, very good. Our view is this: if you encounter our youth and their firm grounding in Biblical knowledge and Christian wisdom, not only will they remain unshaken but will win you, yes you, into our very fold, the fold of Christ. A bold venture, certainly, one some might call foolhardy, tempting failure and worse. But we shine with the confidence of Our Redeemer.”

“I’m sure you do. I thought there was to be a debate. That’s what was mentioned, a debate with a representative of your Board or a minister.”

“Yes, there was talk of that.”

“Talk of it? That’s what I agreed to, a debate. Not teaching a class. Teach a class? That’s like asking a member of the Animal Cruelty League along on a hunt.”

“Good one, Mr. Huxley!”

“I’m surprised you have lasted all these years on earth without some friend of man garroting you.”

“Oh my, Mr. Huxley, this promises to be a—-.”

“Look, Mr. Patterson-Smythe, I responded to your Board in the first place only because they touched me in a tender spot. No, don’t say anything until I explain. They said that I was engaged only with the rich and powerful in my public work, that I acted as if Christianity in this country were confined to the wealthy, the Church of England, and as if it’s only representatives were the privileged, such as Bishop Wilberforce. They sug-gested that I engage with representatives of Nonconformity, who, after all, are both more numerous and more in touch with the spirit and teachings of the primitive Church than are High Church leaders. Your Board also suggested, very politely, that I was shooting at easy targets and that I might find much more worthy intellectual opponents among the populace, certainly more robust and deft thinkers than Soapy Sam. I admit that I was stung by this suggestion and forced to grant its justice, which is why I agreed to debate.”

“I see.”

“To debate.”

“Yes sir.”

“So?”

“Well, we were hoping you’d adjust to this new condition, just as Mr. Darwin says superior organisms do.”

“Mr. Darwin didn’t have in mind walking headlong into traps set by religious fanatics.”

“Good one, Mr. Huxley!”

“So, what you propose is a kind of debate with your younger members?”

“Actually, a class you would teach, an open class with you as teacher.”

“You know what you’re letting yourself in for?”

“Ah, Mr. Huxley, do you?”

“So, this is the class, is it?”

“It is, Mr. Huxley. I plan to introduce you and then you may do as you like with the text we’ve set.”

“Let’s dispense with the Introductions.”

“I see. Everyone on equal footing.”

“I wouldn’t go that far. They’ve been victimized by your superstition and I’ve escaped. It’s the free wolf talking to the captive wolves in the zoo.”

“Just as you say.”

“What’s this about a text?”

“Just our routine practice, a Biblical text we use as the basis for our teaching.”

“Your way of poisoning the well. OK. I accept. What’s the text?”

“The parable of the vineyard, as set down in three of the gospels, in Matthew 21: 33-46, Mark 12:1-12; Luke 20:9-19.”

“Why not in John too?”

“I suppose God knew that three times was sufficient.”

“Figured even the dullest of the faithful would absorb it after that many times, right? Or maybe John didn’t think Jesus actually said it? Or maybe whoever cobbled together what is called ‘John’ didn’t have access to this particular folk-tale?”

“The writers of the Gospels simply record the Word, as given to them by God.”

“Of course. So, it’s not John’s fault but the Almighty’s.   He forgot to mention it to John or maybe got bored with the same story, reached the limits of divine patience?”

“Good one, Mr. Huxley.”

“So, you want me to teach the parable of the vineyard?”

“Exactly. That parable found in Matthew 21: 33-46, as well as. . . .”

“Of course. And that other parable of the vineyard in Matthew 20:1-16. It’s OK to teach that too?”

“Well, that’s not. . . .”

“It’s another parable of the vineyard, Jesus having a pedagogical fix on vineyards. It’s also called ‘the parable of the vineyard,’ if I’m not mistaken. Am I mistaken?”

“No, you are not, Mr. Huxley. I am warmed that you know the Bible so well.”

“Hard to escape it in this country. I hope to help change that. At any rate, I will keep to my bargain, like the overseer in the parable of which I speak.”

“Well, we had in mind the other parable.”

“That because the one I favor only appears in Matthew? You figure maybe Matthew made it up, slipped it in as an improvement?”

“Good one, Mr. Huxley.”

“I take it that I am free to teach Matthew 20:1-19 then.”

“Well, the Sunday scholars are not prepared to. . . .”

“You mean you haven’t told them what to think. So, you take your vineyard and I’ll take mine. Agreed?”

“Never let it be said that we stood between you and any passage of Christian authority you might choose to teach.”

—————————————————————————————————

“Class, this is Mr. Huxley, a famous agnos—-.”

“I thought we agreed that there’d be no introductions. Class, I am an agnostic, not Satan. I have no quarrel with those who wish to believe anything at all, in a risen God or flying frogs. I object only to the pressures certain of these believers put on others, particularly on young people, to bypass their own rational faculties and hold to a set of stories for no better reason than that certain threats and authorities are marshaled behind them. I am a friend of reason; it’s a simple as that. I will fight as vigorously as I am able against authoritarianism and affable bullies.”

“Thank you, Mr. Huxley. Now class. . . .”

“I have not finished. I will finish shortly, but I need to explain my position and not have it explained for me by one hostile to or incapable of understanding it. My young friends and I shall get along famously. If you choose to stay, please do not interrupt.”

“Good one, Mr. Huxley.”

“Thank you. Let me put it simply: I think it is wrong for a man to say that he is certain of the objective truth of any proposition unless he can produce reasons which support that certainty. I do not think there are propositions which men ought to believe without reasons, nor do I think approbation ought to attach to the profession of disbelief in inadequately supported propositions. One of your own number has spoken with glowing self-approval of his “faith,” defining that faith as the God-given power of believing things which are incredible. For me, no matter what God or Gods are bestowing such powers, faith, in that sense, is an abomination. I just wanted to make myself clear. Now to our teaching. Are there any questions before we begin?”

“Mr. Huxley, sir, are you attempting to win us all to your atheism?”

“Young man, I am not an atheist. I demand only the right to ask for rational support for propositions. I am quite uninterested in propagating any certainty at all, including the certainty that there is no God. I am not interested in forcing any position on you, though I would like to lay before you the attractions of the open, exploring mind.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Our text for today, young friends, is Matthew 20: 1-16. I am tempted to summarize the story or ask one of you to do it, but perhaps such paraphrasing would be open to objection, so let’s have one of you read it out for us. Who will do it? Yes, you there in row three:”

“For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, who went out early in the morning to hire labourers into the vineyard. And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the marketplace. And said unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give unto you. And they went that way. Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise. And about the eleventh hour, he went out, and found others standing idle, and saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle? They say unto him, Because no man hath hired us. He saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive. So when even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the labourers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first. And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny. But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny. And when they had received it, they murmured against the Goodman of the house. Saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us which have borne the burden and heat of the day. But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst thou not agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.”

“Thank you very much. You read uncommonly well. I will not say you have talents in speaking better practiced on more worthy texts, not wanting to subject this Bible verse or any other to easy ridicule. So, class, what does it mean?”

Silence.

“Come now. Let’s look at this interesting tale, attributed to Jesus, a personage said to be part and parcel of your God. It is known as a parable, a fable with a point. Perhaps we should examine the details, hoping that the point will thereby become manifest.”

Silence.

“The laborers begin at different times throughout the day, are rounded up as needed and are set to work, some, we are led to understand, though perhaps from a biased source, as it is the aggrieved laborers speaking, through the burden and heat of the day. Others work only an hour. Am I more or less right thus far? We do have evidence before us, so correct me if I am wrong.”

“No corrections? Then let us proceed to what may be the core of the parable: the reported fact that every worker receives the same wage, one penny, which my researches tell me is roughly equivalent to a modern sixpence. Their wages, in other words, are equal, though the length of their employment is very different, one group to the other. Am I right?”

Silence.

“Don’t agree out of the mistaken notion that I possess authority. I have none, less than none, in Biblical interpretation. More importantly, authority should have no place in determining truth. So, on to the next troubling detail. Workers complain, not all the workers, but those whose labor had been day-long. Right? They seem to feel that wages should be proportional to hours worked or something on that order, right?”

“Right, sir,” said one student, who immediately retreated behind his Bible.

“Thank you, friend. Now we come to the fascinating response of the householder, a response which seems to have several parts. First, he tells the complaining laborers that he has satisfied the terms of the contract. “What cause have you for complaint?” he asks. This seems to be what one might call a top-heavy economic theory, or a top-down theory, correct? It is no worker’s right to know what wages other workers are receiving or to lodge complaints on the ground of comparative wages. That’s what he’s saying, no?”

“If you please, sir. I don’t think the parable is about economic theory. With respect, sir.”

“No respect needed. Error does not deserve respect. Fire away.”

“I believe, sir, that the point of the parable is yet to come.”

“Well, then, let us see what is yet to come. The husbandman goes on to say that he has the legal right to do what he wants with his own, that is, what he takes to be the absolute prerogative of capital. But you will be telling me that this is reducing a divine moral fable to worldly economic terms, and I will yield without causing you the trouble of raising the point. So, finally, we hear, “The last shall be first and the first last; for many are called, but few chosen.” I will agree with you that this statement doesn’t seem as if it is an item in an economic theorem. But what is it, then?”

Silence.

“Come, now, what is the capitalist or husbandman saying?”

“If you please, sir, we don’t know that it IS the husbandman speaking. It isn’t clear, is it, the identity of the speaker, I mean?”

“That’s a fine point, young man. Who else might be speaking?”

“Jesus.”

“My, my. I see. That could be. Yes, I see. It could be. That does change things, as if he’s standing back, Jesus is, having told what looks like a story of labor and capital and then comments on it. That’s very shrewd, young man. And what, in that case, is Jesus saying?”

“That all shall be saved, all shall enter the kingdom of heaven.”

“My, my. Really?”

“Yes. It doesn’t matter what you do. Grace isn’t earned, sir. It’s a free gift.”

“Really? So, this is a parable telling us it doesn’t matter what we do?”

“Yes.”

“My goodness. I must say I haven’t met a Christian who seemed to hold to those views.”

“Possibly, with respect, you haven’t met any Christians, sir.”

“If not, I am glad I met you, at any rate. What is your name, if I may ask?

“Peter, sir.”

“Hello, Peter. And what does that mean about many being called and few chosen, Peter?”

“Ah, there perhaps others should comment, sir.”

“OK, others?”

Silence.

“Would you say it seems to counteract the hearty hospitality of what you said earlier? If all are welcomed into the kingdom of heaven, no matter what, what does it mean to say few are chosen?”

Silence.

“Peter, help us out here. I know you don’t want to put yourself forward, but I am eager to hear what you have to say. After what you taught me about this parable, I am ready to sit at your feet. So, tell me, what does this mean about many called but few chosen?”

“I haven’t any idea. I choose to ignore that sentence myself, Mr. Huxley, knowing that some things are beyond my ken.”

“That’s very candid, Peter. So you ransack the Bible to take what fits what you want to believe or profess.”

“Yes, Mr. Huxley. If I could make that sentence fit, I would, but it almost seems awful to me, that few should be chosen, so I assume I do not understand.”

“So you work with what you understand, what fits, what you feel accords with your notion of divine goodness?”

“Just so, as do you with Darwin and Darwin with nature. We all work inside what you would call hypotheses.”

“Lying about things that don’t fit, Peter?”

“Not seeing them in the first place.”

“Peter, I take my hat off to you. I won’t join your Bible Club, not right now, but I’d like to talk with you about natural selection.”

“Thank you, Mr. Huxley. The last shall be first after all.”

 —

James Kincaid has published many non-fiction and academic books, several short stories, and two novels, one of them co-authored with Percival Everett.  He taught for years at South-ern Cal and is now at Pitt.
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