Tuesday, August 9, 2011

“...Else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable.”

I recently finished The Language of Bees, the ninth Mary Russell novel and one of only two Mary books that my library has.  It was my first full foray into that universe.  It was… okay.  It was a fairly fun read—Mycroft was adorable and fantastic.  On the other hand, Sherlock did not have as large a role as I wished he could have (I hope this book was the exception rather than the rule).  The sexual morality of many characters was nonexistent (and a note to Ms. King: you actually can write a good book without ever once making a reference to sex).  I also didn’t… appreciate the usage of the Baring-Gould idea that Holmes and Irene Adler had an affair and a son (although King’s handling of Holmes as a father is masterful).

But do you know what really bothered me?  It’s a common-enough misrepresentation of Sherlock Holmes’s character, certainly in fanfiction:

Holmes is depicted as being atheistic and averse to Christianity.

How is that a misrepresentation, you say?  Surely Holmes’s logical mind would naturally be averse to religion?

Well, that’s what a lot of people seem to think.  Either that, or they think that Holmes was more interested in Eastern religions than Christianity, thanks to his description of the Great Hiatus and a couple of other little bits in the Canon.

However, neither idea is true.  Actually, both ideas must needs ignore no fewer than a dozen passages throughout the Canon that, altogether, form a very clear picture of Holmes’s spiritual beliefs.  In fact, it would appear that Holmes’s rational mind strengthens his faith rather than weakens it (allow me to submit C. S. Lewis to you as a real-life example of such a man).

The avid Sherlockian will no doubt recall the rose soliloquy of “The Naval Treaty,” the closing words of “The Cardboard Box,” and Holmes’s patriotic little speech at the end of “His Last Bow.”  These three passages alone can build a credible case for some sort of theism on Sherlock’s part.  But it’s everything else altogether that makes the case concrete (emphasis mine).

A Higher Court than Man

The first inkling we have that at least one of 221B’s tenants believes in a judgment after death is Dr. Watson’s own narrative in A Study in Scarlet, when he says of the late Jefferson Hope:

A higher Judge had taken the matter in hand, and Jefferson Hope had been summoned before a tribunal where strict justice would be meted out to him.

And in one of the earliest short stories, Holmes himself echoes this view to a man guilty of a similar crime:

“You are yourself aware that you will soon have to answer for your deed at a higher court than the Assizes.”

Sherlock Holmes never speaks idly and, in such moments, never falsely.  In the hour of judgment, his words come straight from his soul.

Familiarity with the Bible

At least, Holmes knew his Scriptures, even if he sometimes forgot them.  At the end of “The Crooked Man,” he berates himself for not remembering a certain Biblical record sooner:

“There’s one thing,” said I as we walked down to the station. “If the husband’s name was James, and the other was Henry, what was this talk about David?”
“That one word, my dear Watson, should have told me the whole story had I been the ideal reasoner which you are so fond of depicting. It was evidently a term of reproach.”
“Of reproach?”
“Yes; David strayed a little occasionally, you know, and on one occasion in the same direction as Sergeant James Barclay. You remember the small affair of Uriah and Bathsheba? My Biblical knowledge is a trifle rusty, I fear, but you will find the story in the first or second of Samuel.”

Acknowledgement of Satan as a Literal Person

The central figure of The Hound of the Baskervilles is the titular canine, merely the latest reincarnation of a popular mythological element, the hellhound.  Holmes, of course, doesn’t buy the idea that the hound is supernatural, but he when he speaks of the Devil, he does so as one who is already convinced of the reality of such a person:

“I have hitherto confined my investigations to this world,” said he. “In a modest way I have combated evil, but to take on the Father of Evil himself would, perhaps, be too ambitious a task.”

“Yes, the setting is a worthy one. If the devil did desire to have a hand in the affairs of men– –”
“Then you are yourself inclining to the supernatural explanation.”
The devil’s agents may be of flesh and blood, may they not?

Note that he doesn’t just say the Devil in that first passage, but uses a Biblical title for Satan.  And, in the second passage, he refers to Satan as an actual, existing person.

Catholic Sympathies

It is actually possible, based on HOUN, that Holmes was a Catholic (as Doyle himself was).  Another option, based on the quote below, is that Holmes’s French heritage (he was one-quarter French) instilled in him a respect for Catholicism:

“I must thank you,” said Sherlock Holmes, “for calling my attention to a case which certainly presents some features of interest. I had observed some newspaper comment at the time, but I was exceedingly preoccupied by that little affair of the Vatican cameos, and in my anxiety to oblige the Pope I lost touch with several interesting English cases. This article, you say, contains all the public facts?”

His anxiety to oblige the Pope?  Usually, the people who are anxious to “oblige the Pope” are monarchs and other political leaders, people who “suck-up,” and Catholics.  Holmes is obviously not in the first or second category, and, though he may not be Catholic, it is difficult to conceive an atheistic Sherlock as giving a care for the Pope, much less anxiety.

God-given Abilities

That’s a term you come across in Christianity.  The talents you possess are the talents God gave you, because He made you.  Holmes agrees with this idea in “Lady Frances Carfax”:

“What time was the funeral? Eight, was it not?” he asked eagerly. “Well, it is 7:20 now. Good heavens, Watson, what has become of any brains that God has given me? Quick, man, quick! It’s life or death–a hundred chances on death to one on life. I’ll never forgive myself, never, if we are too late!”

God-given Health

It’s a vow, a vow made in “Five Orange Pips”:

“That hurts my pride, Watson,” he said at last. “It is a petty feeling, no doubt, but it hurts my pride. It becomes a personal matter with me now, and, if God sends me health, I shall set my hand upon this gang. That he should come to me for help, and that I should send him away to his death– –!” He sprang from his chair and paced about the room in uncontrollable agitation, with a flush upon his sallow cheeks and a nervous clasping and unclasping of his long thin hands.

And it’s a pretty dead-serious vow.  It’s also worth noting that the only time Holmes ever uses God’s name in vain is twice in as many minutes in “Three Garridebs” (“For God’s sake, say that you are not hurt!” and “By the Lord, it is as well for you.”).

Not Chance

Holmes himself struggles with the senselessness of tragedy but, at the same time, can’t reconcile himself to the idea that chance rules the universe and thus life is ultimately purposeless:

“What is the meaning of it, Watson?” said Holmes solemnly as he laid down the paper. “What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must tend to some end, or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable. But what end? There is the great standing perennial problem to which human reason is as far from an answer as ever.”

The Existence of an Omnipotent God

Sherlock Holmes never lays out a string of deductions for the existence of an omnipotent God, though he does say that deduction is necessary in religion.  Instead, he acknowledges the existence of a Creator God and goes so far as to deduce a characteristic of God, rather than His existence:

What a lovely thing a rose is!”
He walked past the couch to the open window and held up the drooping stalk of a moss-rose, looking down at the dainty blend of crimson and green. It was a new phase of his character to me, for I had never before seen him show any keen interest in natural objects.
There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion,” said he, leaning with his back against the shutters. “It can be built up as an exact science by the reasoner. Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its colour are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers.

Note that he doesn’t say, “We can deduce the existence of God from the flowers.”  Instead, he says, “We can deduce the goodness of God from the flowers.”  He’s working on the acknowledgment that God exists, and he’s deducing a characteristic: God is good.  Later in the story (“The Naval Treaty”), we discover that his fascination with the rose was a decoy; nevertheless, when Holmes spouts philosophy, he’s always shooting straight from his head.

The Grace of God

“God help us!” is not an uncommon ejaculation for the age, but it sounds like Holmes means it.  Not only that, but he makes a quote about God’s grace and means it, apparently because he realizes that it’s only God’s grace that keeps him from such a sad fate as John Turner’s in “Boscombe Valley”:

“God help us!” said Holmes after a long silence. “Why does fate play such tricks with poor, helpless worms? I never hear of such a case as this that I do not think of Baxter’s words, and say, ‘There, but for the grace of God, goes Sherlock Holmes.’”

This idea is repeated in “The Empty House”:

“I scrambled down on to the path. I don’t think I could have done it in cold blood. It was a hundred times more difficult than getting up. But I had no time to think of the danger, for another stone sang past me as I hung by my hands from the edge of the ledge. Halfway down I slipped, but, by the blessing of God, I landed, torn and bleeding, upon the path. I took to my heels, did ten miles over the mountains in the darkness, and a week later I found myself in Florence, with the certainty that no one in the world knew what had become of me.”

Torn and bleeding Holmes may be, but he’s alive, and he acknowledges it as the work of God.

The Supremacy of God

Early in his life, Holmes acknowledges an omnipotent God.  After a Great Hiatus, he still acknowledges an omnipotent God.  And as an older man, he still recognizes God as being in control over all, even wars:

“Good old Watson! You are the one fixed point in a changing age. There’s an east wind coming all the same, such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it’s God’s own wind none the less, and a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared.”

The date is August 2nd, 1914.  In two days, the First World War will commence; Holmes knows that it will be the most devastating conflict the planet has yet seen.  And yet he firmly believes that God has a plan and is ultimately in control, that He can use even the worst experiences for good.  It would seem that Sherlock Holmes has at last come to settle on the answer to his own question, some three decades previous:

“What is the meaning of it, Watson? What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear?”

The answered:

“But it’s God’s own wind none the less, and a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared.”


A Study in Scarlet
“The Boscombe Valley Mystery”
“The Five Orange Pips”
“The Crooked Man
“The Adventure of the Cardboard Box”
“The Naval Treaty”
The Hound of the Baskervilles
“The Adventure of the Empty House”
“The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax”
“His Last Bow: The War Service of Sherlock Holmes”
“The Adventure of the Three Garridebs”

And a big shout-out to Steven Doyle, author of Sherlock Holmes for Dummies, who not only pointed out twice in said book that Holmes holds Christian beliefs but also shot down three different anti-Christian ideas about Holmes’s spiritual worldview.  I highly recommend reading his top-notch deductions about Holmes’s beliefs, as well as just reading the entire book—it’s excellent!

Disclaimer: The words regarding Laurie King’s works are the disappointed opinions of a Sherlockian.  The quotes are all from the Canon in their originality, save the emphasis of certain phrases, and are the original intellectual property of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  The commentaries are my own; the deductions are elementary.  No part of this post, even the review of The Language of Bees, is intended to offend any person of any belief or background.  The body of the post merely lays out the facts.

1 comment:

  1. Wow!

    What a thoroughly thought out, awesome Post! This was so much fun and absorbing to read.

    I whole-heartedly agree with all your points, about Holmes' beliefs and your review of the book (which I haven't read).

    Fantastic job!