The Gospel: Old And New Part II
( Originally Published 1912 )
Behold I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people. NEW Testament.
In studying the history of all the nations of antiquity it will be seen that each one made some valuable contribution to civilization. In making this survey the merit of Palestine appears in great clearness. More than any other nation the He-brew, in its early career, enthroned the idea of the unity of the Divine Being, and later, it gave to the world Christ and his gospel of the soul.
It would be a mistake to assume that religion came only through that nation. Humanity, through all its known history, has erected altars of worship. Christ did not create piety; he only added some new meaning, and new beauty to it. There was eloquence before Demosthenes; and patriotism before Leonidas; and art before Phidias; and poetry before Homer; and music before Arion. That which these notable persons did was to exalt eloquence and patriotism and poetry and music and sculpture, so that all mankind might behold their power. Thus there was religion before Christ. This religion was the cause of his coming. It was his reason of being.
Theologians, of former times, made a sharp distinction between a natural and a revealed religion.
Such distinctions are wholly unnecessary. The Christian religion, having grown up from the soul of humanity, is purely natural. If it surpassed the Pagan religions that surrounded it or preceeded it, it was not because the laws of nature were set aside on its behalf, but because the existing facts and laws of nature were employed in a higher way, and under more favorable conditions. The rose is a richer flower than the buttercup ; but both are blossoms ; and both are products of nature. In all its gradations, from sweetness to sublimity, there is only one realm of sound, and whether caused by wind whispering among leaves or thunder rolling along the horizon, it is all natural. So there is only one domain of piety. The Palestine gospel is the gospel of the world exalted and re-fined by coming in contact with a lofty and purified soul. The old harp of nature, under the touch of more skillful and more impassioned fingers sent forth sweeter harmonies.
The effort has been made to represent the natural and the Christian religion as enemies. Some theologians wished to make it appear that salvation could only be obtained within the gates of their own particular church. Thus imprisoned they could not see the great religious landscape lying all around them. On the other hand, there were many who were repelled by the many absurdities and immoralities of doctrine with which the gospel bearing the name of Christ was encumbered. Both classes are partly the victims of error. Theologians should all see that, long prior to the coming of their church, multitudes of devout persons passed over earth with love for man, and passed away from earth with faith in God. Those who have turned from Christianity, because of its foolish or wicked beliefs and practices, should see that these things are no part of the religion of Christ. They should try to see that the gospel of Christ is the gospel of humanity and that, to op-pose it, is to oppose the sweetest and most benevolent of all forces our earth has ever known. It would be like setting up barriers to hinder the coming of summer.
Upon all those teachers in the Christian church, who do anything to shape public thought, these passing years have imposed a great duty. The task is two-fold. One part is negative and destructive; the other positive and building. The first is a protest against the inherited theology that had concealed the person and the philosophy of Christ beneath a mass of irrational and cruel dogmas and free the Christian mind from a slavish and superstitious belief in them. This part of the task is nearly done. The message of bad tidings is fast being repudiated. For a long time there have been those within the churches who questioned the truthfulness of some of their inherited beliefs. With the passing years and their increasing intelligence, the number of those, who first question and then reject the different articles of their creed, is multiplied. It is a rare thing now to find a thoughtful person who gives unqualified approval to all the doctrines upon which his sect is founded. Now, only the second part of the task remains--that of affirming the good news of a spiritual religion and applying its principles and motives to the many sided needs of society.
During the unsettling of belief, accompanying the appeal from tradition to spiritual principles, many persons have been full of uneasiness. The fear has been expressed that, if certain inherited doctrines were banished, religion itself would go into perpetual exile with them. The soul would be bereft of all its trust and hope and joy; no more would it aspire and pray and make its vast predictions. In the evident decline of enthusiasm, at-tending the change of opinion concerning the basis and meaning of the religious sentiment, there may have been some reason for this anxiety. But it may be assumed that each age is equal to itself and can meet all emergencies. Thus we may expect the old poise of nature to reappear and prove that all fears were unfounded. We trust that the arrested fervor over divine things is only temporary. The sails were hanging lifelessly only be-cause the ship of faith was being put upon an-other tack. Soon it will feel the winds of inspiration filling the sails and it will speed away on its new course.
The charge has been made that what is called the Liberal Church has no gospel. The accusation is often heard that it is wholly destitute of religion. It is conceded that it has some scholarship, some regard for ethics, some respectability ; but the vital thing is entirely lacking. Faith in those spiritual realities which, in some of the historic periods, had power to move humanity as the stars sway the tides, which made the sense of 'Duty as imperative as the voice of God, which not only gave a true and exalted significance to earthly existence, but was the sole pledge of life eternal, this, it is said, they do not have.
If this charge were true, we should all act the part of wisdom by renouncing allegiance to such an organization. A church founded upon skepticism cannot long exist. If it expend all its energy in hostility to other organizations, it is not of much use in the world. If its prevailing attitude toward spiritual principles is that of indifference or. suspended judgment, it cannot hope to confer any great and enduring benefits upon mankind. If we cannot receive something from a church that we cannot find in a school-house or a university or a literary club, its absence from the world would not be a great misfortune. No one can doubt that society needs the results of scholarship. But experiences come to all human beings in which scholar-ship is powerless to render the assistance most needed. The heart has wants which no intellectual superiority, no commercial prosperity, no social distinction can satisfy.
"It is strange how, even when most secure
Many and great are the conquests of science. But there are still immense territories whose boundaries it has barely touched. The abysses of being are still unfathomed. It would be folly to speak in slighting terms of what it has done: or what it yet may do. Glorious in its achievements, it is still more glorious in its promises. Coming full orbed, it will be a complete revelation of the Divine laws. Its ultimate purpose does not consist merely in collecting the facts of the material world and classifying them. Its true mission is only fulfilled when it employs facts as steps by which it ascends to the realm of being and there finds the ultimate spiritual Cause from which all laws and phenomena emanate, as mists go forth from the ocean and heat and light fly out from the sun. But, whatever its triumphs in the past and in the present, it has not been able to answer all the questions the soul can ask. Changing from the Ptolemaic to the Copernican theory of the world did not change the heart of mankind. In our day the philosophy of special and sudden creation, to account for the universe, has given way to the philosophy of evolution. This change is very great; but, because of it, no great change has come to the essential nature and desires of humanity. Man is guilty of the same old follies with their attendant shame; guilty of the same old sins with their attendant remorse. He is still a creature of disappointments; still a creature of hopes. He laughs and weeps, by turns, as did his forefathers who believed that the universe was made of nothing in the , space of six days. His origin is as mysterious as ever it was and meditation over his destiny still makes him wonder and lays the finger of silence upon his lips.
In like manner, we have heard much about ethics as . a substitute for the religious sentiment. Doubt-less there have been times when practical ethics were overlooked by the church. The emphasis placed upon conduct in our day should escape all criticism. But ethics should have -a foundation deeper than custom and prudence and selfish calculation. There is an ethical culture that may be merely superficial. It may improve conversation and manners and leave character untouched. One may have all the outward display without having the inner instincts of a gentleman.. So it. is possible to conform to a conventional morality, for prudential reasons, while, within, the heart may be-immoral. External morality is much better than no morality of any kind, but it cannot be a substitute for that kind of high conduct which springs from a heart that is all on fire with love for truth and goodness and beauty. The only ethics that can supplant any religion must itself be a religion.
"Man must be fed with angel's food
Thus, while the churches should be scholarly', representatives of the highest culture, and the ardent and uncompromising friends of all forms of morality, they should be something more than this. They should insist that scholarship is a means and not an end. Science is one step in the stairway by which the soul mounts to its rightful throne. Skepticism must be only a prelude to faith. After the denial of errors, should come the affirmations of truths. To instruction, inspiration should be added. Love should follow knowledge. Reverence should equal reason. The laws of conduct should come with all the authority of a divine command. Respect for the true, the good, and the beautiful should become a flaming passion, a sacred fire, like that kindled by the vestals, burning perpetually in the temple of the soul.
The accusation that the more intellectual and more ethical churches have no gospel for mankind has been largely made by those who are hostile to them. Perhaps the charge is much more grave than is warranted by the facts. But it is worthy of inquiry whether there may not be enough of truth in the charge to furnish some foundation for it, and enough to cause some solicitude on the part of their friends. It may be true that the habit of criticism has too much ,hidden the real meaning for which churches exist. Too long denial may have weakened the power of affirmation. Perhaps the winter solstice of coldness, of indifference, of suspended faith has lasted too long. What beams of love, of enthusiasm, of sacrifice which, in former summers of the race, the sun of religion threw down upon the earth ! Now they seem very weak. Striking obliquely they do not penetrate beneath the surface of our commercial and political and social life. They glitter for a moment, then glance off into space and are lost. If this be so, then we may well long for the coming of a new spring and summer of religion to make the fields of use wave and the gardens of beauty bloom.
Sometimes surprise is expressed, by those who have long since thrown off allegiance to them, that the older churches, holding such irrational dogmas, should be able to survive. The answer to the problem is not very difficult. They survive because there is still need for them. Such is the economy of nature, that when they cease to be needed, they will cease to exist. They are a standing illustration of the law, that as man cannot live by bread, neither can he live by reason alone. He is fully as much a creature of emotion as of intellect. He needs a religion to inspire, as much as an education to instruct them. So strong is this need that, rather than be deprived of it entirely, he consents to have some superstition mingled with his religion.
It may be confidently declared that the great Catholic and Protestant sects do not exist and perpetuate themselves because of the errors they hold and teach. Nothing can live wholly upon falsehood. They live because they contain some valuable truths. When certain mistakes are pointed out there is a momentary relief and satisfaction; but the religious heart soon begins to look for something that is not a mistake. When the scholars tell us that the Eden story is a fragment of Persian mythology ; that it is doubtful whether Abraham was a historical or legendary character ; that the story of Sampson is a survival of a Sun myth ; that Genesis contains two different accounts of creation ; that the book .of Isaiah was written by different authors': that Paul was not the writer of the book of Hebrews ; and that a part of the story of Jesus' life is highly colored poetry instead of accurate prose, something of value is accomplished. But not everything is done. That for which the Bible was written and for which Jesus lived and died has been omitted by the scholars. It must, therefore, be because the Catholic and Protestant orthodox sects have preserved in part, beneath all their errors, some of the vital meaning of religion, that they are able to survive.
Alexander once said : "The sole end of conquest is not to do what the conquered have done, but something greatly superior." Thus the most effective way of displacing evil is by putting something better on the ground it once occupied. Hence if any institution is to take the place now held by the great historic churches, it will not be accomplished by destroying the religious sentiment they possess, but by adopting it and refining it from its grossness and employing it for higher ends.
There seems to be no reason why this may not be done. There are many thrilling truths of man and God waiting to be declared. The broad and deep lines of thought run in the last century give ample room and reason for all the heart's great beliefs and prophecies. These magnificent outlines need only be filled with a certain spiritual earnestness and made to glow with righteousness and reverence to become as real and as inviting as a summer landscape.
There came a time when, under the lead of a certain school of philosophers, human thought seemed to have reached its limit in the direction it had been going. Some mental confusion ensued. Then other thinkers came and said that before there could be an advance there' must be a retreat. They must fall back upon German philosophy; and, having comprehended and adopted its method, a new advance might be undertaken.
Perhaps that is what is needed in the religious field. The churches should fall back upon the spiritual philosophy of Palestine. But, as the doctrines of Kant were changed to meet the new conditions, so the spiritual gospel may be adapted to the demands of the twentieth century. There is now a wide-spread tendency to deny the infallibility of the Old and New Testaments and to neglect the irrational doctrines formed by the more ignorant and more cruel ages. The disposition of nearly all thoughtful persons is to regard the Old Testament as a purely human history of a nation that had a peculiar genius for religion and the New Testa – ment as the history of one of the divinest characters that ever came to earth. In this new freedom of thought may be found the opportunity for the exaltation of a few great, fundamental religions principles. Finding their best illustration in the teaching and example of Him of Nazareth and Calvary, these principles may bear his name. Made active in society, they would become powerful forces in moulding the destiny of mankind.
The old and the new gospel are the same. They are nothing less than a recognition of God and the soul and the intimate relation existing between them. This is what Christ saw and taught; and this is what modern Christianity should see and teach. From this recognition many benefits would flow. To Jesus, God was a Being of only goodness, a friend of all mankind. To him, the human race was one great family in which the interests of each were regarded by all. To him, all things were sacred. What he saw he so wrought into life that he seems divine. His power over the human heart was great and varied. Not only while he moved around in bodily form in Judea, for a few brief years, but, in an idealized form, through many lands and many centuries, to millions of human beings this power has been displayed. He has furnished inspiration and life motives to unnamed multitudes. Friend to the friendless, comfort to the bereft, hope to the despairing, savior to the sinful, to the dying he has come as a resignation or as a victory. He taught that God is in His world as a kind and protecting Providence. Nothing fell outside of His care. This is a part of the old Gospel, but the new Gospel means the same thing when it speaks of the all-embracing all-sustaining laws of the universe. The word Duty means the same thing in modern America that it meant in ancient Palestine. Its re-wards and penalties are unchanged. Everywhere it is decreed that disobedience to the divine 'laws brings pain, obedience brings peace. Everywhere there is need for repentance, the deep regret and sorrow over wasted opportunities, and, everywhere, after repentance and the beginning of a new career, there is partial reparation for the wrong doing. There is always need of forgiveness, that gracious inflowing of pity and love which follows all contrition for sin. Salvation, the supreme health of body and soul that ensues when we live in harmony with nature's laws, is as much a human need now as ever it was. Worship, arising from reverence after realizing that there is something vast and measureless in the universe, the strange mingling of humility and trust and joy, the voluntary or unconscious effort to draw nearer to the source of his being, is a necessity for modern no less than it was for ancient man. Under the new, as under the old order of things, man dies. So, under the new as under the old, he needs to be consoled and cheered with the trust that there is something in his mysterious personality that is superior to mortality and the tomb is only a flower decked gate through which life passes on its triumphal march. Thus, when freed from the local surroundings among which it was proclaimed, freed, also, from limitations imposed upon it by a hundred narrow sects in past and present times, the religion of the first may well become the religion of the twentieth century. The old gospel of Christ may become the new gospel of nature and the soul of humanity.
There are those who tell us that the age is unfavorable to religion. Commercialism abounds. There is great practical materialism. The habit of criticism has fastened itself upon our age. There is much skepticism concerning the validity of all spiritual, claims. We trust the rumor. is exaggerated. But, if the condition is as bad as reported, it cannot be permanent. As in nature, after night comes day, so the order of history bids us hope that after a spiritual slumber comes a spiritual awakening. Whether it will come in our day we cannot tell; but we may confidently predict the coming of a company of those who will accept the spiritual verities of our world and become their heralds. Ideals of truth, of beauty, of good will be restored to the ,heights from which our days have permitted them to fall. Quenched altar fires will be rekindled. Seeing the sovereignty of the moral law, they will speak with authority. True teachers, they will turn many to righteousness and shall shine as the stars forever and ever.
With this old, new gospel of the supremacy of the soul in full force, churches would regain their lost power over society. Among all the many human institutions they would be the best beloved. No longer would they maintain a merely formal and purposeless and precarious existence as now; no; but energized by a motive wide as the wants of earth and lofty as the heights of ,heaven, they would seem to be a necessary accompaniment of nature and history; they would fit their place as do forests and rivers; they would be as firmly fixed in society as are mountains in the granite foundations of our globe. Their walls would again be called righteousness, their gates salvation, and all generations would call them blessed. Oh, that this church might be one of the, first to merit such high praise!