Religio Laici Or A Laymans Faith

John Dryden (1682) John Dryden spent years in self-debate regarding his religious beliefs. His conversion from Anglicanism to Catholicism at the time James II, a Catholic, rose to the throne in 1686 provoked much criticism from those who believed it simply an expedient move. Dryden remained a Catholic, however, after the exile of James II and his replacement by his Protestant daughter, Mary, and her husband, William, although to do so could have meant imprisonment. But in 1682 Dryden was still Protestant, and Religio Laici; Or a Layman's Faith, acted as his Anglican confession. In its 457 lines he examines the conflict many felt regarding religious divisions within England, leading him to write in lines 10-11, "so pale grows reason at religion's sight, / So dies, and so dissolves in supernatural light," with that light referring to faith. He expressed the opinion that reason could never replace faith and saw as man's error the use of logic in the choosing a suitable religion to follow.

The search for a religious authority troubled many as they groped to understand and distinguish between various religious beliefs. Dryden examined three approaches in his poem, that of deists, Catholics, and those who exercised private judgment, apart from any creed. He finally deems the Anglican Church to be superior to all three.

Many believed the deists to be excessive in their rationalization, a thought Dryden expresses as his speaker muses, "But what, or who, that UNIVERSAL HE" (15) who created earth might be. He proposes two possibilities. First he writes of what later would be called the "clockmaker theory," in which God was characterized as a power that created earth, set it in motion, then abandoned it, surveying its development but not interfering to right wrongs. Dryden writes, "Whether some soul encompassing this ball, / Unmade, unmov'd, yet making, moving all:" (16-17), then adds the deist approach as a second possibility: "or various atoms' interfering dance / Leap'd into form (the noble work of chance)" (18-19). Dryden personally found repugnant the belief that no ultimate power controlled the combining of atoms into the matter of earth and man, and he adopts an incredulous tone as he expresses that possibility. As always Dryden dresses his thoughts in admirable expression, using alliteration and repetition, as well as antithesis, to engage readers.

The traditional choice for worship was Catholicism, but the scandal and corruption within that church bothered many. Dryden points out that the tradition offered by the Catholic Church should be desirable, providing stability in its recorded historical precedent, when he writes in lines 350-353,

Tradition written therefore more commends Authority than what from voice descends; And this, as perfect as its kind can be, Rolls down to us the sacred history.

However, the Church did not revere its own tradition. Newer splinter divisions, to whom Dryden refers as "partial Papists," wandered from the church's original values. in so doing, they convinced themselves they were the "whole" church, rather than just one faction:

The partial Papists wou'd infer from hence Their church, in last resort, shou'd judge the Sense.

But first they wou'd assume, with wondrous art, Themselves to be the whole who are but part. (355-359)

Dryden also has harsh words for those who claimed to be traditionalists within the church. He took to task Catholic leaders for abusing their sacred duties. Because certain individuals imagined themselves the only worthy communicators with God, the "Mother Church did mightily prevail: / She parcel'd out the bible by retail" (377-378), and, far worse, kept "it in her power to damn and save" (379) so that "Poor laymen took salvation on content, / As needy men take money, good or bad" (381-382). The judgmental nature of the church obviously bothered Dryden, while the commercialism introduced through purchased penance he found disgusting. Although he would later decide the Catholic Church represented the least of the evils, offering traditional ideals promoting stability needed in unstable political times, he had not yet arrived at that belief when he wrote those lines.

As for those who would decide themselves capable of making their own judgments about religion instead of remaining within the fold of a church, Dryden had great concerns. He presented that approach as one of a mob that has broken away from civil law. Without formal guidance, chaos would prevail:

The Book thus put in every vulgar hand, Which presum'd he best cou'd understand, The common rule was made the common prey And at the mercy of the rabble lay. (400-403)

Although he may have admired their "great zeal," the "little thought" (416) supporting it he found anathema. His revulsion produced one of his century's great extended conceits. Dryden characterized the independent approach as a decay of decency, comparing its results to that of rotting meat in lines 417-420:

While crowds unlearn'd, with rude devotion warm,

About the sacred viands buzz and swarm, The fly-blown text creates a crawling brood And turns to maggots what was meant for food.

Dryden's summary makes clear his belief that every individual man's developing his own creed was far more dangerous than organized religion. He continued in his personal search for an answer, as evidenced in the question he poses in lines 276-277, "'Oh,' but says one, 'tradition set aside, / Where can we hope for an unerring guide?' " Dryden did not yet feel certain that "truth in church tradition must be found" (281); however, he would within a few years reach that certainty.

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