Teach Us To Understand The Sinfulness Of Our Own Hearts

“Teach us to understand the sinfulness of our own hearts, and bring to our knowledge every fault of temper and every evil habit in which we have indulged to the discomfort of our fellow-creatures, and the danger of our own souls [1].”  So reads one of the prayers that Jane Austen wrote down as an example of her own Christian piety, and there are several layers of this quote that are worth considering.  Let us take this straightforward and pious prayer and examine several aspects of its importance when it comes to the thinking of Jane Austen as well as its implications for our own times and our own lives.  As is often the case, we find that Jane Austen has layers that our age cannot even fathom or understand because we have departed so far from where she was.

First, let us note that this is an expression of common Christian piety.  Though this particular prayer is very distant from many of our own religious and moral sentiments, it expresses what is an entirely uncontroversial biblical position.  First, let us note that Jane Austen recognizes that humanity (including herself) have faults of temper and evil habits.  Second, she recognizes the implications and consequences of those weaknesses in causing problems for other people and also endangering her own salvation.  Our own age, of course, looks at such matters with far less concern for the evils of our nature or their consequences.  Being consumed with our own feelings and the justification of our own longings has tended to blind us of our duties and responsibilities to other people.  And few people take the faults of their character or the state of their souls particularly seriously if they happen to contradict the longings of the sinful heart.

Obviously, an understanding of Jane Austen as a serious Christian gives a different color to many of her more political stances.  In our age we tend to think of political loyalties as being the most fundamental level of human motivations, but religious motivations are often far more important to believers than politics.  Jane Austen’s hostility to the Prince Regent was at least in part motivated by his immensely immoral conduct, something that comes up in her distaste for Brighton as a suitable place for a young gentlewoman.  This hostility was expressed in her personal correspondence and it was likely of some embarrassment and awkwardness to her that the Prince Regent “invited” Jane Austen to dedicate a book to her, which led her to choose Emma.  Similarly, Austen’s hostility to slavery as well as snobbery seems to have been based on religious grounds and not merely the sort of political radicalism that is ascribed to her by contemporary radicals.  It was, after all, those who took Christianity most seriously that were the most hostile to slavery, because those who recognized their own wickedness and their own freedom from sin as a result of the indwelling presence of God’s Spirit would be particularly disinclined to endorse the sorts of activities that were involved in slavery.

To be sure, Jane Austen’s religious beliefs were not something that she tended to force down the throats of her readers.  In Mansfield Park her opposition to the lively but immoral Crawfords has struck many contemporary readers as somewhat irksome and inconvenient.  Yet the seriousness of Austen’s spiritual beliefs suggests some sort of disillusionment with the corruption of English Anglican religion, where gentry houses (including Austen’s own relatives) held multiple offices and made a living while not taking the seriousness of a religious call very highly.  Austen’s references to private chapels and the importance of religious habits and personal religious commitments might have led her to be particularly critical of those priests whose lack of religious commitment and seriousness brought the faith into disrepute in the mind of others.  This would be exactly opposite the way her faith is viewed by contemporary readers who see her feminism and anti-clerical writing as being a sign of religious radicalism rather than a commitment to Christian egalitarianism, a view that scarcely seems to enter into the imagination of many readers of Austen.

The issue of Austen’s writings, something that is shared as a problem in the Bible’s writings, is that there are so many layers to what is being written that few readers are subtle or complex enough to recognize how many layers there are.  When people whose understanding is shallow encounter texts that are rich in complex layers, the result is that people will not recognize depth that they do not have.  Intimate acquaintance with texts can deepen our understanding by making us more aware of the layers involved than was the case before.  But if we come to texts viewing ourselves as the experts rather than as learners, we will not see anything in the text that is not present in ourselves, and so our interpretation of texts will simply be a revelation of our own views.  And given the wide gulf that exists between the view of the Bible by Austen and her contemporaries and our own time, this does not reflect well on our ability to relate to the seriousness by which Jane Austen viewed the state of her soul and the importance of self-knowledge on her own part as well as those of her most praiseworthy characters.

[1] Jane Austen, The Annotated Pride And Prejudice (New York:  Random House), 2012, 407.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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