Vincent van Gogh on clergy

Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh, Etten, September 1881

Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh, Etten, September 1881

A few months ago, I happened across a most enjoyable wee read by Anton Wessels called Kind of Bible: Vincent Van Gogh as Evangelist. It was one of those wonderful finds that are ‘given’ to you when you’re eyes are scanning the library shelves for something else. Wessels’ basic thesis is that van Gogh’s work following his, so-called, fall into atheism, continued to ooze with evangelistic thrust. That that which spilled from his brush finds some continuum with that which flowed from his pen is evident in a number of his letters wherein he is – in fashion remarkably reminiscent of Kierkegaard – scathing of the clergy. One gains the clear impression that van Gogh thinks too highly of Jesus to take Christianity’s ‘men of the cloth’ too seriously. Many of the Dutch painters’ letters can now be read online and they really are a lot of fun to read. Anyway, here’s a few passing comments about clergy, written between 1881 (when Vincent was 28 years old) and 1884 (when he was a much-more mature 31 year old):

‘There really are no more unbelieving and hard-hearted and worldly people than clergymen and especially clergymen’s wives (a rule with exceptions). But even clergymen sometimes have a human heart under three layers of steel armour’. – Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh (23 November 1881)

‘I do not remember ever having been in such a rage in my life. I frankly said that I thought their whole system of religion horrible, and just because I had gone too deeply into those questions during a miserable period in my life, I did not want to think of them any more, and must keep clear of them as of something fatal’. – Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh (29 December 1881)

‘In case Father refers to my saying that, ever since I have acquired so much dessous les cartes, I haven’t given two pins for the morality and the religious system of the clergy and their academic ideas, then I absolutely refuse to take that back, for I truly mean it. It is just that when I am in a calm mood, I don’t talk about it, although it is a different matter when they try to force me to go to church, for instance, or to attach importance to doing so, for then I naturally tell them that it is completely out of the question’. – Letter from Theo van Gogh/Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh (5–8 January 1882)

‘Clergymen often introduce “things of beauty” into a sermon, but it’s dismal stuff and dreadfully stodgy’. – Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh (1–2 June 1882)

‘In point of fact, clergymen are among the most unbelieving people in society and dry materialists. Perhaps not right in the pulpit, but in private matters’. – Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh (3 June 1883)

‘I believe you will approve of this feeling, even more so if you knew exactly what happened between him and me years ago, when I was very skeptical about the plan of studying, whether the promise to carry it through was sincere and well considered. I then thought that they had made the plan rashly and that I had approved of it rashly. And in my opinion it always remains an excellent thing that a stop was put to it then, which I brought about on purpose and arranged so that the shame of giving it up fell on me, and on nobody else. You understand that I, who have learned other languages, might have managed also to master that miserable little bit of Latin – which I declared, however, to be too much for me. This was a blind, because I then preferred not to explain to my protectors that the whole university, the theological faculty at least, is, in my eyes, an inexpressible mess, a breeding place of Pharisaism’. – Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh (c. 22 September 1883)

‘Oh, I am no friend of present-day Christianity, though its Founder was sublime – I have seen through present-day Christianity only too well. That icy coldness hypnotized even me, in my youth – but I have taken my revenge since then. How? By worshipping the love which they, the theologians, call sin, by respecting a whore, etc., and not too many would-be respectable, pious ladies. To some, woman is heresy and diabolical. To me she is just the opposite’. – Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh (October 1884)

And on theologians:

Today I have again been attacking a certain “bête noire” of mine, to wit, the system of resignation; I believe this “bête noire” is of the race of the hydra – that is to say the more serpent’s heads you cut off, the more spring up again. And yet there have been men who have succeeded in killing off such a “bête noir.” It is always my favorite occupation, as soon as I can find a spare half-hour, to resume the fight against this old “bête noir.” But perhaps you do not know that in theology there exists a system of resignation with mortification as a side branch. And if this were a thing that existed only in the imagination and the writings or sermons of the theologians, I should not take notice of it; but alas, it is one of those insufferable burdens which certain theologians lay on the shoulders of men, without touching them themselves with their little finger. And so – more’s the pity – this resignation belongs to the domain of reality, and causes many great and petites misères de la vie humaine. But when they wanted to put this yoke upon my shoulders, I said, “Go to hell!” And this they thought very disrespectful. Well, so be it. Whatever may be the raison d’être of this resignation, it – the resignation, I mean – is only for those who can be resigned, and religious belief is for those who can believe. And what can I do if I am not cut out by nature for the former, i.e. resignation, but on the contrary for the latter, i.e. religious belief, with all its consequences? – Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Anthon van Rappard (21 November 1881)

Life itself, too, is forever turning an infinitely vacant, dispiriting blank side towards man on which nothing appears, any more than it does on a blank canvas. But no matter how vacant and vain, how dead life may appear to be, the man of faith, of energy, of warmth, who knows something, will not be put off so easily. He wades in and does something and stays with it, in short, he violates, “defiles” – they say. Let them talk, those cold theologians. – Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh (October 1884)

Comments welcome here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.