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- Religious Reality - 2/25 -
for little in their lives.
GOD, if He exists at all, must obviously be important: and it is conceivable that He prefers the dogmatic atheism of a man here and a man there, or the serious agnosticism of a slightly larger number, to the practical indifference of the majority. "There are two attitudes, and only two, which are worthy of a serious man: to serve GOD with his whole heart, because he knows Him; or to seek GOD with his whole heart, because he knows Him not."
The ordinary Englishman is in most cases nominally a Christian. As a rule he has been admitted in infancy by baptism into the Christian Church. But he is ignorant of the implications of his baptism, and indifferent to the claims of a religion which he fails to understand. These pages are written with the object of explaining what, in the writer's judgment, the faith and practice of the Christian Church really is.
THE THEORY OF THE CHRISTIAN RELIGION
THE MAN CHRIST JESUS
It is best to begin with a study of the teaching and character of Christ. Scholars for about a hundred years have been studying the Gospels historically, "like any other books." It is now reasonably certain that the first three Gospels--those which we know as the Gospels according to S. Matthew, S. Mark, and S. Luke--though not, of course, infallible or accurate in their every detail, reflect nevertheless in a general way a trustworthy portrait of Jesus as He actually lived. The sayings ascribed to Christ in their pages bear the marks of originality. The outline of the events which they describe may be taken as being in rough correspondence with the facts. The Gospels as a whole represent pretty faithfully the impression made by the life and character of Jesus upon the minds and memories of those who knew Him best.
We are very apt to regard the Gospels conventionally. An inherited orthodoxy which has made peace with the world takes them for granted as "a tale of little meaning, though the words are strong." An impatient reaction from orthodoxy sets them aside as incomprehensible or unimportant. It is worth while making the effort to empty our minds of prejudice, and to allow the Gospels to tell their own tale. We shall find that they bring us face to face with a Portrait of surprising freshness and power.
It is the portrait of One who spent the first thirty years of His life in an obscure Galilaean village, and who in early manhood worked as a carpenter in a village shop. He first came forward in public in connexion with a religious revival initiated by John the Baptist. He was baptized in the Jordan. What His baptism meant to Him is symbolized by the account of a vision which He saw, and a Voice which designated Him as Son of GOD. He became conscious of a religious mission, and was at first tempted to interpret His mission in an unworthy way, to seek to promote spiritual ends by temporal compromises, or to impress men's minds by an appeal to mystery or miracle. He rejected the temptation, and proclaimed simply GOD and His Kingdom. He is said to have healed the sick and to have wrought other "signs and mighty works": but He set no great store by these things, and did not wish to be known primarily as a wonder-worker. He lived the life of an itinerating Teacher, declaring to any who cared to listen the things concerning the Kingdom of GOD. At times He was popular and attracted crowds: but He cared little for popularity, wrapped up His teaching in parables, and repelled by His "hard sayings" all but a minority of earnest souls. He gave offence to the conventionalists and the religiously orthodox by the freedom with which He criticized established beliefs and usages, by His championship of social outcasts, and by His association with persons of disreputable life. Unlike John the Baptist, He was neither a teetotaller nor a puritan. He was not a rigid Sabbatarian. He despised humbug, hypocrisy, and cant: and He hated meanness and cruelty. He could be stern with a terrible sternness. His gaze pierced through all disguises, and He understood the things that are in the heart of man. He saw things naked. He has been called "the great Son of Fact." He was never under any illusions.
He faced the hostility of public opinion with unflinching courage. He expected to be crucified, and crucified He was. He warned those who followed Him to expect a similar fate. He claimed from men an allegiance that should be absolute: the ties of home and kindred, of wealth or position in the world, were to be held of no account: anything which stood in the way of entire discipleship to Himself, however compelling its immediate claim, was to be sacrificed without hesitation for His sake. He saw nothing inconsistent between this concentration of men's allegiance upon His own person, and His insistence upon GOD as the one great Reality that mattered.
The motive of His whole life was consecration to the will of GOD. He was rich towards GOD, where other men are poor. The words were true of Him, as of no one else, "I have set GOD always before me." His mission among men He fulfilled as a work which His Father had given Him to do. "Lo, I come to do Thy will, O GOD." He loved men, and went about doing good, because He knew that GOD loved men, and meant well by them, and desired good for them, and not evil. He was pitiful, because GOD is pitiful. He hated evil, because GOD hates it. He loved purity, because GOD is pure.
He delighted in friendships both with men and women: but you could not imagine anything unclean in His friendships. He was not married, but He looked upon marriage as an utterly pure and holy thing, taught that a man should leave father and mother and cleave unto his wife so that they twain should be one flesh, and recognized no possibility of divorce except--and even this is not quite certain--on the ground of marital unfaithfulness. He had one and the same standard of purity for men and women.
He loved children, the birds and the flowers, the life of the open air: but He was equally at home in the life of the town. He went out to dinner with anybody who asked Him: He rejoiced in the simple hilarity of a wedding feast. He was a believer in fellowship, and in human brotherhood. He was everybody's friend, and looked upon no one as beyond the pale. He loved sinners and welcomed them, without in the least condoning what was wrong. He looked upon the open and acknowledged sinner as a more hopeful person from the religious point of view than the person who was self-satisfied and smug. He said that He came to seek and to save those who knew themselves to be lost.
He chose twelve men to be in an especial sense His disciples--learners in His school. To them He sought to reveal something of His deeper mind. He tried to make them understand that true royalty consists in service; that if a man would be spiritually great he should choose for himself the lowest room, and become the servant of all; that the privilege of sitting on His right hand and on His left in His Kingdom was reserved for those for whom it was prepared by His Father; the important thing was whether a man was prepared to drink His cup of suffering, and be baptized with His baptism of blood. But He did speak of Himself as King, He accepted the designation of Himself as the Christ of GOD, and spoke strange words about His coming upon the clouds of heaven to judgment. He held that by their relation to Himself and to His ideals the lives of all men should be tested, and the verdict passed upon their deeds. For making these and similar claims He was convicted of blasphemy and put to death.
His disciples failed to understand Him. The Gospels are full of the contrast between their minds and His. Of the chosen Twelve who, as He said, had continued with Him in His trials and to whom He promised that they should eat and drink at His table in His Kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel, one betrayed and one denied Him when the time of crisis came, and the rest forsook Him and fled. The fact that their faith and loyalty were subsequently re- established--that the execution which took place on Calvary was not the complete and summary ending of the whole Christian movement--that, in the days that followed, the recreant disciples became the confident Apostles, requires for its explanation the assertion in some form of the truth of the Resurrection.
With regard to the precise form which the Resurrection took there may be room for differences of opinion: the accounts of the risen Jesus in the various Gospel records cannot be completely harmonized, and the story may here and there have been modified in the telling. The fact remains that apart from the assumption as a matter of historical truth that Jesus was veritably alive from the dead, and that He showed Himself alive to His disciples by evidences which were adequate to carry conviction to their incredulous minds, the origins of historical Christianity cannot really be explained.
In the Gospel according to S. John it is stated that the crowds said of Jesus, "This is of a truth that Prophet that should come into the world": and so much, at the least, the average Englishman is ready to admit: for to call Jesus Christ a Prophet--even to call Him the supreme Prophet--is to claim for Him no more than a good Mohammedan claims for Mohammed.
The word "prophet" in itself means one who speaks on behalf of another: and a prophet is defined to be a spokesman on behalf of GOD. He is essentially a man with a message. In so far as he is a true prophet he is one who by an imperious inner necessity is constrained to declare to his fellows a word which has come to him from the Lord. And the prophet's word is urgent: it brooks no delay. It is impatient of conventionalisms and shams. It breaks through the established order of things in matters both social and religious. It is dynamic, vivid, revolutionary. It goes to the root of things, with a startling directness, a kind of explosive force. It disturbs and shatters the customary placidities of men's lives. It forces them to face spiritual realities, to look the truth in the face.
All this is true in a pre-eminent degree of the words of Christ. There is a force and directness, an energy and intensity about His teaching, which is without parallel in the history of the world. It might have been thought impossible for His utterances, in any age or under any circumstances, to become conventionalized: but the miracle has been achieved. Christianity is to the average Englishman an established convention and nothing more.
"Blessed are the poor in spirit," said Jesus: but _we_ say rather, "Blessed are the rich in substance."
"Blessed are they that mourn": but that is not the general opinion.
"Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth"--but who amongst us really believes it?
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