Sunday, September 14, 2014

CHRISTIANITY MIGHT BE A GOOD THING IF ANYONE EVER TRIED IT

Derek McGovern has recently sent an email that was forwarded to me asking for the source of an elusive quotation, one "of those quotations that pops up everywhere, and yet no one ever provides the source:"

"Christianity might be a good thing if anyone ever tried it."

Indeed, many dictionaries of quotations include this statement in the Shaw section, but everybody seems to have forgotten to provide a source.


George Bernard Shaw at desk with book
My database does not contain the exact words in this quotation, so for the time being I'll have to put it in the "Apocryphal" folder. However, there are a few passages that may have originated the paraphrase we've been looking for.

To begin with, as other ISS members have suggested, the preface to Androcles and the Lion contains a section entitled "Why not Give Christianity a Trial?" that sums up the spirit Shaw's alleged words:

"This man" [Jesus] has not been a failure yet; for nobody has ever been sane enough to try his way.

A similar notion was reported in The Shaw Society Bulletin 48, in an article summarizing "an address given to the Society by Dan Laurence on November 21st, 1952." In it, we can read that 

"It was suggested that Shaw had considered Christianity im­practicable, but Mr. Laurence disagreed. Christianity, Shaw had clearly stated, was impracticable only in the sense that it had never been tried."

Perhaps Laurence was thinking of the preface to Misalliance ("A Treatise on Parents and Children"), where Shaw literally states that Christianity has never been "put into practice:"

"It is true that the Bible inculcates half a dozen religions: some of them barbarous; some cynical and pessimistic; some amoristic and romantic; some sceptical and challenging; some kindly, simple, and intuitional; some sophistical and intellectual; none suited to the character and conditions of western civilization unless it be the Christianity which was finally suppressed by the Crucifixion, and has never been put into practice by any State before or since."

George Bernard Shaw by William Strang 1907

This does not necessarily mean that Shaw thought that really trying Christianity for the first time would be something good. In the preface to Getting Married, Shaw puts it in classic Shavian style: 

"There is no more dangerous mistake than the mistake of supposing that we cannot have too much of a good thing. The truth is, an immoderately good man is very much more dangerous than an immoderately bad man: that is why Savonarola was burnt and John of Leyden torn to pieces with red-hot pincers whilst multitudes of unredeemed rascals were being let off with clipped ears, burnt palms, a flogging, or a few years in the galleys. That is why Christianity never got any grip of the world until it virtually reduced its claims on the ordinary citizen's attention to a couple of hours every seventh day, and let him alone on week-days. If the fanatics who are preoccupied day in and day out with their salvation were healthy, virtuous, and wise, the Laodiceanism of the ordinary man might be regarded as a deplorable shortcoming; but, as a matter of fact, no more frightful misfortune could threaten us than a general spread of fanaticism."

Therefore, it is clear that the idea was put forward by Shaw on several occasions, and it was processed by the Shavians of this world - perhaps to the extent of choosing a deliberately "Shavian" wording, however inaccurate. All in all, however, I think I prefer Shaw's choice of words when, during one of his lectures, a clergyman in the audience rose and asked him: "Are you a Christian?" He responded: "Yes, but I often feel very lonely." (As quoted in Vivian Elliot's Dear Mr Shaw: Selections from Bernard Shaw's Postbag, pp. 269-70).


4 comments:

  1. There have been no comments here, and that is unfortunate. You have written a concise and useful essay on a topic that has bothered me over the years. That quotation, "Christianity might be a good thing if anyone ever tried it.", never sounded quite right. The lack of source citations in many quotation books and websites is a constant font of confusion, and wrong information persists seemingly forever on the internet.

    Another oft-misstated adage applies ...
    "Falsehood will fly, as it were, on the wings of the wind, and carry its tales to every corner of the earth; whilst truth lags behind; her steps, though sure, are slow and solemn, and she has neither vigour nor activity enough to pursue and overtake her enemy…"
    http://quoteinvestigator.com/2014/07/13/truth/

    Thank you for taking the trouble to provide such an entertaining and informative post. Regards, RJP.

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  2. Why, thank you for your kind words. They mean a lot, especially because my blog has a rather narrow scope (although Shaw by himself is a vast field of study concerning quotations) and it receives attention from fellow Shavians mostly. Still, it is nice to hear that something you do just for fun actually interests someone. Thanks!

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  3. Interesting how quotes get paraphrased and then popularized. The way I heard this one is "Christianity is not a failure. It has never been tried." which seems to be conflation of Shaw & Chesterton: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for your comment. I think you may be on to something with the Shaw-Chesterton thing.

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