The Way of All Flesh

by Samuel Butler

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Christian Themes

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The Way of All Flesh testifies to Butler’s abiding interest in Christianity. By the time Ernest Pontifex is ordained as a cleric, he has learned (as have we) to distinguish between high and low Anglicanism, between Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism, and between ritualism and evangelicalism. Although anti-Anglican, The Way of All Flesh is by no means anti-Christian. To the contrary, the novel celebrates Christianity—of a certain type—as the best of all religions.

The celebration, however, is subdued. What most concerns Butler in The Way of All Flesh is not exaltation of his own version of Christianity but condemnation of another version: Anglicanism. As presented in Butler’s work, Anglicanism is arrogant in its demands and contemptuous in its offerings, demanding absolute faith while offering only a mishmash of unscientific and self-contradictory teachings. While all religions require faith (“faith” is another word for “religion”), Anglicanism, in Butler’s view, requires a faith so childish and complete as to be a form of abject credulity. In effect, the Anglican Church requires adherents to eschew rationality, accepting even those Church teachings contrary to science or logic. How old is the earth? Geologists, Ernest learns, say many millions of years. Despite this, the Anglican Church posits the earth as mere thousands of years old—with believers told to take this on faith. Here, as elsewhere, Church doctrine is unscientific, and so is, for Butler, unreasonable in the most literal sense. The Anglican Church features in The Way of All Flesh as a hive of unreason. Worst of all, the Church not only generates much nonsense but also conflates acceptance of the nonsense with moral goodness.

However, The Way of All Flesh is not anti-Christian. Scattered through the novel are passages characterizing another Christianity, a rational, humble, and life-affirming creed. To call this Christianity “rational” is to highlight both its commitment to coherence and its grounding in the physical sciences. Beliefs must not only fit together but also be compatible with the findings of geologists and paleontologists. Also characterizing this unorthodox Christianity is humility, evident in a willingness to rethink matters in the light of new information. Finally, this Christianity—Ernest’s Christianity—is life-affirming, counseling people to embrace pleasure and reject suffering.

Cohering around Ernest Pontifex’s journey as a Christian, The Way of All Flesh charts its hero’s intellectual pilgrimage from youthful disinterest to adolescent orthodoxy to middle-aged heterodoxy.

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