Thoughts On Religion At The Front - Ch. 8
( Originally Published 1917 )
THERE is then little conscious and articulate Christianity at the front, and yet there are profoundly Christian characteristics in what men are and do and endure, who have never known or do not understand or have forgotten the Christian religion. What, then, is this strangely honoured and yet neglected thing ? Does it exist ? Is it there for men were they to awake to it ?
This utterly searching war justifies the critical temper which passes previous allegiances and acceptances under revision and judgment. I may be forgiven, then, for saying that I do not think that Christianity as at present expressed and presented to men in the Church (in the widest sense of the word) is prima facie that which can win and possess them. It would be a big task and unsuited to the conditions under which I write to argue this out. What needs discussion is how much of natural religion has been absorbed into the accumulated deposit from the past which we call traditional Christianity, with the effect of disguising and overlaying in it those specifically Christian elements, which make Christianity not only a salvation from sin or from hell, but from the morbid and even contemptible in religion. Those elements can never be clearly abstracted and used by themselves, for Christianity was not a thing rounded and completed, and deposited upon the world in vacuo, but was as a seed sown, which grows by drawing into itself the nourishment of soil and atmosphere. There always must be elements of natural religion interfused with the Christian religion, for though not evolved out of natural religion, but rather coming to it as a deliverance, Christianity is the crown and fulfilment and corroboration of the good and the true in natural religion. It is not a question of clear separation and abstraction, but of distinction, emphasis, and proportion. I believe that things not characteristically Christian have acquired a disproportionate place in our religion as handed down to us.
I suggest (but will not work it out here) that many of the hymns in use are evidence of this, and that is why so often they do not ring true. I also believe that an unhistorical use of the Bible has proved a distorting influence.
From early Christian days Scripture, which is a story of a process and growth containing many stages and imperfections, has been treated as something timeless and absolute. In particular, the partial answers to the problem of suffering to which the Jews in their development were led, have been made to bear weights heavier than they can sustain. Some of the Psalms, for instance, over-emphasise the connection between righteousness and immunity from misfortune. They can be used to justify a calculating and self - saving religion which is below the level of Christ's religion. A soldier, recently wounded on the Somme, handed to me at a dressing-station a. small copy of the 91st Psalm as his religious handbook. Yet by itself the 91st Psalm, though a wonderful expression of trust in God, promises a security to which our Lord, and others akin to Him in spirit, have not put their seal. He did not ask—He resisted the temptation to ask that no evil should happen unto Him, nor that angels should bear Him in their hands lest He should hurt His foot against a stone. He would not have men set their face in the day of battle in the assurance that, though a thousand should fall beside them and ten thousand at their right hand, the same lot would not come nigh them.
I think, too, that Christianity fails to make its characteristic appeal through the Church, owing to two prevalent " isms " ecclesiasticism and subjectivism both of which may be said to be the being primarily occupied in religion with something other than God. I doubt whether any Church-party advantage can be scored by any one in this matter. Roughly speaking, the weakness of Catholic Christianity is to get involved in the little things of " mint and anise and cummin " whilst the weakness of Protestantism is to become absorbed in the luxuries of one's own religious experiences. The upshot of either is the same, namely, to be very religious, and yet to forget the living God. I remember being very much startled by an eminently pious Anglo-Catholic undergraduate at Oxford saying to me, " The fact is, I am not interested in God the Father."
It is unwise to argue from one instance, but I seem to see there a symptom of a widespread and tragic estrangement of institutional Christianity from the mind of Christ. But I doubt whether things are much better on the other side of the ecclesiastical street, where so often the worship of God has downgraded into sitting and listening to sentimental music on Pleasant Sunday Afternoons.
Single instances are misleading, but I can never dismiss the belief that there is something radically wrong with the world of religion of which the representative was a Chapel, in my old parish at Leeds, that indulged in a " fruit-banquet" on Good Friday.
Right through organised Christianity of all kinds there is, I think, a great absence of the real Christian thing.
But this brings round again the question, "What is this Christian thing ?"
What are the characteristic and specific elements which, though they cannot be nakedly abstracted from other elements, yet have to be kept salient amid everything else ? What is the Christianity which is generally not in the conscious possession of men at the front, and yet receives the seal of their glorious excellences ? What is the Christianity which lies hidden by traditional disguise and contemporary practice ? Where is it to be found ?