Dean Swift: The Satirist and his Faith

A Symposium on Jonathan Swift and Christianity, St Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin, October 19 2002

Swift and Sin

Dr Robert Mahony, Catholic University of America

Subsequent to the Symposium on October 19 2002, this Swift Memorial Discourse was given on Sunday 20 October, in lieu of a sermon, during Evensong in the Cathedral.

It is a most fitting act of historical piety that this Cathedral Church, of which Dr. Jonathan Swift was Dean from 1713 to 1745, should commemorate him with an annual discourse. And it is a great honour that the present Dean, Swift's successor, Dr. MacCarthy, has shown to me by inviting me to deliver that Discourse this year; it is an honour for which I am deeply grateful.

I JUST noted that this is an occasion of historical piety. I didn't say religious piety. Simply because of Gulliver's Travels, one of the greatest works in our Western heritage, Swift is one of the very best-known writers in the world. A pioneer in literary experimentation, one of the greatest satirists of all time, a prolific political propagandist, an Irish patriot - Swift is all these, but as a religious figure, a man of the cloth, he doesn't come to mind so readily. And nobody was more responsible for that obscurity than Swift himself.

On the one hand he was very self-consciously the Reverend Dr. Swift, a clergyman of the Church of Ireland, and he demanded respect for his priestly office from others. He was a very dedicated administrator of this cathedral as well, regularising services and procedures, always taking his turn to preach; and he was just as regulated in his domestic life, calling his household in the deanery - which would be his servants, since he had no family - to prayers twice a day. On the other hand, he often made fun of himself as a foolish-looking bachelor dressed in a gown like a woman. He could also be crude in his references to human sexuality or matters of personal hygiene, in terms which many even today find revoltingly explicit. These are certainly mixed signals, and they fostered the perception that he was an irreligious parson.

Moreover, he could seem very cold in person: though he made a practice of helping beggars, for instance, his beneficence 'was not graced with tenderness', as the great Samuel Johnson put it, 'he relieved without pity, and assisted without kindness.' This kind of behaviour hardly fits our conception of a minister of the gospel. Swift was in fact a very devoted clergyman, but gave the impression that he was more devoted to the Church as an institution than to the souls that institution was intended to serve. Swift's 'affection to the church was never doubted', one of his acquaintances observed, 'though his Christianity was ever questioned'. Indeed, when he was appointed Dean of this Cathedral, there were quite a few who regarded him as an unbeliever. According to a famous story, on the day of Swift's installation here, a rival clergyman had a poem posted on the door of the cathedral which satirised the new dean's lack of faith. If I may quote a verse or two

This Place he got by Wit and Rhyme,
And many ways most odd
And might a Bishop be in time
Did he believe in God.

And now, whene'er his Deanship dies,
Upon his Tomb be graven;
A Man of God here buried lies
Who never thought of Heaven.

Though these verses are only clever doggerel, the reference to Swift's tomb does foreshadow the fact that there is no mention of Jesus, God, or heaven, in the famous Latin epitaph that Swift wrote for himself, and which is inscribed upon a marble tablet near the entryway of this very cathedral; instead he considered that his body would rest where savage indignation would no longer tear his heart. He may have been thinking of heaven, but he was certainly thinking of death as a release from hell on earth, from the human sinfulness that prompted his anger.

Sin fascinated Swift: in all its variety, whether petty vanities, palpable hypocrisy, or complicity in unspeakable crimes, sin was a constant subject of his poetry and prose; and even as it fascinated him it of course also horrified and repelled him.

Economists talk of "push" and "pull" motives, factors which make us want to turn away from something and those which attract us: I think sin was a very strong "push" factor for Swift, making him think of God as its opposite, a relief from the obsessive horrors of sin. With this "push" factor, he did not need a well-founded theological picture of God to "pull" him - the negative reason for believing in God was sufficient. But Christians are not supposed to be drawn to God as the opposite of sin, so much as by the source of love; so it is fair to say, I think, that Swift's contemporaries were accurate in seeing him something other than a conventional Christian.

Christianity supplied for Swift, however, a framework for restraining the common human tendency to sin. He once referred to Christianity in a sermon as the "Scripture system", perhaps an odd way to talk of the gospels, but its systematic qualities appealed to him, and he accepted even the mysteries of religion - subjects like the Trinity or the Virgin birth, which formed part of the structure of Christian belief - as mysteriously fitting for a God from whom our own sinfulness has distanced us. Because we cannot bridge that chasm of sin, we cannot really understand very much about God, and thus it makes sense that some features of God's religion should seem mysterious. This sort of explanation wouldn't work for many modern believers, but it satisfied Swift. He professed not to find the mysteries troubling at all - they certainly trouble a good many believers - and in that sense his attitude toward religion seems to me belief, even conviction, without the flame of faith.

When he delivered sermons, for instance, he thought it sufficient to tell his congregation what they were to believe and how to apply it to ordinary life. Belief and application formed the essence of religious duty; his own and that of others. Christian belief wasn't a matter for investigation; rather, belief would act as a bulwark against the very human tendency to sin. And not only was a simple acceptance of belief fundamental to the life of a citizen, but the form of that unexamined belief should be determined by the state.

It seems genuinely peculiar to those who think of Swift as a champion of liberty that it mattered less to Swift what religion was established by law as the state church, than that there be a state church. He was devoted to the Church of Ireland, and passionate in defence of its spiritual and financial interests, but he was dedicated to it because in those days it was the church of the state. Without a church establishment, people would be left to their own devices to worship God or not; and to Swift that meant they would be very easily tempted away from the path of righteousness.

To him, belief in God makes people good citizens, because a community that worships together is less likely to succumb to sin, and sin is at the very least anti-social behaviour. Since it is the job of the state to restrain anti-social behaviour, the state needs a church to which all citizens are required to give allegiance and support. The root of it all is, for Swift, sin, something much more palpable to him than was God.

Christian believers nowadays would generally find it awkward to square the notion of a state-church with the concept of free will that commonly defines the very essence of personhood. We would probably say that forcing all citizens to support a particular church is hardly moral at all, may even be simply immoral. But that is very much a modern attitude, deriving from the comparatively recent idea that people in the main are basically good; it seems logical to us that they should have the exercise of choice, since they would probably choose the good.

But Swift felt differently: in general, in essence, people tended toward the bad, the selfish, the anti-social; the church, as the social embodiment of belief, was the best available means of restraining the sinfulness to which people in general inclined.

And if the church was fractured, it was less effective than if it were one and comprehensive. The only way to keep the church from fracturing was to have the state, the government, look after the church. Thus there would be only the one Church of England, say, rather than a dozen sects; establishing the church by law is the means he could recognize, to keep the Church solid and whole, and thereby to reduce the opportunity for sin.

His focus on sin led Swift, then, to want to empower the Church. But did he believe in God? I would affirm that he did, but that his belief was more negative than positive he certainly believed in sin, and wanted to believe in something that was stronger, something that would overpower sin. It is a way of believing that Christians in Swift's own day found peculiar, and that many Christians in our own time would consider exceeding strange. It is belief, I have suggested, without the flame of faith - at least not with faith arrived at through love. And since Christians identify God with love, that sort of faith wasn't his.

Yet I hesitate even to venture a reservation about Swift's form of belief, much less any judgment. For all the coldness that we may find in his obsession with sin, it kept him from the sort of self-delusion that allows us often to forget that we are all of us sinners, even those of us who profess a faith informed by love. Swift believed because he was afraid of sin, and I think he distrusted faith because he feared our human tendency to deceive ourselves, to lull ourselves into complacency. Whatever the chilliness of his belief, it was certainly not complacent.

Robert Mahony, Catholic University of America


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