John Toland (born 1670, died March 11, 1722) was a philosopher most famous for his book Christianity Not Mysterious (1696). In that book, Toland scores some good points against obscurantism and mystery-mongering, but he gets greedy about it, puts God into his Locke-box, and demands that the Deity can’t reveal anything but what will submit itself to proof at the bar of enlightenment reason. When somebody praised Toland as a “Candid Free Thinker, and a Good Scholar,” John Locke replied that “if his exceeding great value of himself do not deprive the world of that usefulness, that his parts, if rightly conducted, might be of, I shall be very glad.”
Yes, Toland was cocky, and his high estimate of himself demanded a low estimate of religion. Refusing to accept the idea that “we must adore what we cannot understand,” he preferred his Christianity in a highball glass, heavily diluted with rationalism. By the time he got all the mystery out of Christianity, it wasn’t worth having. And that might have been the point: the reading public could never decide if the author of Christianity Not Mysterious was an atheist, a liberal, a heretic, a deist, or, to use an English word Toland apparently coined, a pantheist. Toland’s argument wasn’t so much mysterious (God forbid!) as ambiguous and cagey.
Christianity Not Mysterious is the book Toland is famous for, but decades later he composed another work which is much more interesting: The Pantheisticon, or Form of Celebrating the Socratic Society.
This strange work is a script for a liturgy of a Pantheist club –which raised the question (never adequately answered), were there actually Pantheist clubs meeting and performing these rituals? It’s in the form of an Anglican liturgy, but with all the Jesus taken out and a lot of abstract nouns and quotes from Cicero put in his place. I’m not sure what the moral is: maybe that if you starve yourself of real religion, you’ll end up doing very silly things by way of compensation? Toland went on to found an order of Druids, which survived a lot better than the Pantheist club. I suppose anything can make a comeback, but as liturgies go, this Socratic Society one is a real stinker.
No commentary can match the bizarre glory of the Pantheisticon itself. You can read it all online here, or enjoy these best bits:
THE First Part OF THE FORM
Of Celebrating the SOCRATIC-SOCIETY;
Containing, The Morals and Axioms of the SOCIETY.
The President fpeaks,
May all Happinefs await our Meeting.
The reft anfwer,
We inftitute a Socratic Society.
May Philofophy flourifh.
And the politer Arts.
Attend with Silence. Let this Affembly, and all that is to be thought, fpoke, and done therein, be confecrated to Truth, Liberty, Health, the triple Wish of the Wise.
Both now and for evermore.
P R E S.
Let us be called Equals and Brothers.
R E S P.
Companions too, and Friends.
Let us banish Strife, Envy, and Obstinacy.
Let us harbour Sweetness, Knowledge, and Politeness.
Let Jokes and Mirth be our Pleafures.
R E S P.
May’ the Mufes and Graces be propitious.
We muft not be bigotted to any one’s Opinion.
No, not even to that of Socrates himfelf:
And let us deteft all Prieft-craft.
To make all Things, notwithftanding, the more authentic, by the Sanction of proper Authors, and the beft of Men, (without intruding though, at the fame time, upon the Rights of Liberty) hearken unto, beloved Companions, the Words of the moft grave Cenfor Marcus Percius Cato, related by Marcus. Tullius Cicero, that renowned Father of his Country, in the thirteenth Chapter of the Book De Senectute.
We are therefore Votaries of Truth and Liberty, that we might refcue ourfelves from Tyranny and Superftition.
(insert long quote from Cicero about how fun parties are)
Let Socrates and Plato be praifed, And Marcus Cato, and Marcus Cicero,
P R E S.
Let us difcufs every Thing ferioufly,
And fill up the Chafms of Difcourfe
with diverting Stories.
R E S P.
Wittily, modeftly, facetioufly.
P R E S.
Let us fearch out, diligently, the Caufes
of Things, that we might live
pleafantly, and die peaceably.
R E S P.
That free from all Fear,
Neither elated by Joy, nor deprefled by
Sadnefs, we might always maintain
an unfhaken Conftancy.
That we may alfo laugh to Scorn the
Bugbears of the filly People, and the
Inventions of crafty Knaves; let
us sing an Ennian Strain.
(Okay, here comes the hymn. Are you sure you’re ready for it? I warn you, it includes the phrase “ignorant pack of boobies,” words which I am sure I have never sung to any tune in my own mystery-mongering church. Don’t trust my transcript, go look it up yourself!)
PRES. & RESP:
I value not a Straw the Augur Marfus,
Nor ftrolling Quacks, nor strolling Fortune-tellers,
Nor Isiac Soothfayers, nor Dream-Expounders:
They are all an ignorant Pack of Boobies,
Superftitious Prophets, shamelefs Conjurers,
Idle, crazy, poor Vagrants. â€” What they themfelves
Have no Faith in, others forfooth muft believe;
From thofe, they promife riches to, they crave a Groat,
Let them, then, from thefe Riches fubftract the Groat,
And reftore the Remainder.
(Whooo, that’s good stuff. Okay, I’m going to have to get some friends together and stage one of these services. The second and third parts of the Pantheisticon are considerably less silly than this first part, but there are some howlers scattered throughout the whole thing. I leave you with one last line from Part I:)
Let us greatly feed our Minds but sparingly our Bellies.