This commonly quoted line was first written by that Victorian poetic titan Alfred, Lord Tennyson. I imagine that most people who use it today are ignorant of the highly significant following lines, so I shall provide them:
‘The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And God fulfills himself in many ways
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world’.
The lines are taken from ‘The Passing of Arthur’, a part of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. In the hope that everyone will not now stop reading instantly I should perhaps follow the practice of Alcoholics Anonymous and insert into the verse the words ‘God as however you understand him’ although in suggesting this I am aware that AA itself has been criticised for being too Christian, or not Christian enough, or gender intolerant for using the pronoun ‘him’, or in breach of the US Bill of Rights for including any reference to God whatsoever. Frankly, whatever his personal beliefs, there is simply no way in which Tennyson could have substituted for God ‘the fundamental creative reality which may lie outside the universe of matter, energy, and space-time’ and made it scan, even if he had wished to do so. So I shall stay with ‘God’ just now.
Why am I raising this subject at all? Well I want to understand why it is that at present people are being beheaded, executed and abused all over the middle-east by ISIS Sunni Muslims, not for being non-Muslims (although non-Muslims have been appallingly mistreated as well) but for being the wrong type or flavour of Muslims. I ask myself why it is so vital to some groups to narrowly define an orthodox series of beliefs and then to savagely punish any deviation from those beliefs. This characteristic is by no means restricted to Muslims of course. Each Christmas you hear the hymn O Come! All Ye Faithful. This contains the line, describing Jesus, ‘very God, begotten not created’. I cannot now remember the name of the heresy involved but suffice it to say that in medieval Byzantium if you believed that Jesus was created by God, and the crowd believed he was begotten, it might well mean your life.
Tennyson’s poem is notionally devoted to the last hours of King Arthur’s existence on earth. It is evidence of the poet’s genius that he chose the person of an entirely mythical king to express some very real and painful ideas concerning human existence. Arthur is unable to believe that the behaviour of his fellow human beings reveals any evidence of divinity:
‘I found Him in the shining of the stars,
I marked Him in the flowering of His fields,
But in His ways with men I find Him not‘.
Tennyson is one of many to note that the world, with all its ugliness and cruelty, can hardly be the completed product of a wise and merciful creator. The reality of things appears to be: 'As if some lesser god had made the world, But had not force to shape it as he would'. I assume that these lines were behind the title of the play and film 'Children of a Lesser God'. Notoriously we see the world not as it is, but as we are. Tennyson is way before us with this concept:
‘Or else as if the world were wholly fair,
But that these eyes of men are dense and dim, And have not power to see it as it is'.
The words by which Arthur describes his failure to preserve a peaceful kingdom could have been chosen to describes today's political situation: 'all my realm reels back into the beast, and is no more'. The poem, which you must read for yourselves, goes on to describe that 'last dim, weird, battle in the west' in which Arthur defeats Modred but gains as a result only the 'moans of the dying, and voices of the dead'. The severely injured Arthur famously persuades Sir Bedivere to return his sword Excalibur to the Lady of the Lake, and is finally carried off in a barge by three queens to the Isle of Avalon. It is from the barge that he speaks the lines with which I began. The barge slowly takes Arthur off westwards, in a scene later shamelessly plagiarised by JRR Tolkein in the concluding paragraphs of Lord of the Rings, leaving Bedivere to find a new place to dwell with 'new faces, other minds'.
I find Tennyson's concept of an established orthodoxy corrupting the world a very attractive and accurate one. In the first place everyone has a human right to his or her personal beliefs, or disbeliefs, about the nature of God. In the second the world is changing and evolving and it is perfectly understandable that people wish to re-examine and re-interpret their beliefs in accordance with such changes. I see no reason at all why the last word on religious revelation should have been said 1500, or 2000, or 3000 years ago, but I would far sooner consider and learn from new understandings. Is it now possible to bring this state of affairs about without violence? I am full of apprehension since even Tennyson's genius could not devise an outcome for Arthur other than a murderous battle in which there was:
‘Confusion, since he saw not whom he fought.
For friend and foe were shadows in the mist, And friend slew friend not knowing whom he slew'.