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The Outlook Of The Church

( Originally Published 1908 )

THE religious world today is confronted by a very curious condition. We discern a general quickening of faith and a renewal of interest in religion on the one side, and a diminution of the influence of the Church on the other. Both these statements may be denied by persons who are not on intimate terms with the thought and tendencies of their own times. The men who are really doing the work of the Church will allow their truth. We are moreover obliged to admit this new and deplorable fact, that many of those who have withdrawn from the Church and who refuse to tread her courts are not the frivolous or the immoral, but men and women as much in love with the person and the purposes of Jesus Christ as we are, and who no longer associate themselves with the Church because they believe they can realize His ideals outside the Church better than through its instrumentality. We are far from affirming that this is always the case with these recusants. Many doubtless are led away, as Jesus foretold, by love of this present world, and because they are so engrossed in material things and sensual pleasures that they no longer care for any-thing that is great. As Goethe said, "When we have attained the good things of this world, it is so easy to regard those of the next as a delusion and snare." Many are deterred from entering the Church by honest intellectual scruples and difficulties, and for these the Church has a heavy responsibility. But it is safe to say that if the Church, which is the natural home of the Christian religion, declines, while humanity itself progresses, such a decline can have but one cause, namely, that the Church is not doing her whole duty. A large and ever-increasing number of intelligent persons feels that the Church has outgrown or is outgrowing her usefulness. Why do they feel thus? Because the Church is no longer indispensable to men. Unquestionably, as we have said more than once, one of the great motives of all human belief is the Practical Motive, — believing because it is good and useful to believe. The good religion has done the world and still is doing is one of the chief reasons why man believes in religion; and the more good any particular religion or church is able to do, the more men will believe in it, and the less visible good the Church does, the less men will believe in it.

The reason why men were swept into the Church by nations and races during the first glorious centuries of its existence was because they found in the Church something which they could find nowhere else, an ardent love, a living faith, the source of innumerable moral regenerations. The Christian religion began its mission to the world with an enormous sense of spiritual power. With the image of Jesus constantly before it, and taking its stand at the very center of the universe, the soul of man, the Church had gifts to bestow, gifts for all. In those days no one touched the religion without being transformed by it. "The Lord added unto the Church daily such as should be saved." He that was in Christ felt himself a new creature. The- watchword was, "Let every one who nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity." It is true, the Church of late, especially the Episcopal Church, has done much to postpone the evil day by a perfectly sincere sympathy with the sorrows and the hardships of mankind, and by an earnest and successful effort to improve the lot of those to whom life has been severe. Although we are thinking of other matters at this moment, we must pause to call attention to the great importance of this social movement. Those religions which have conquered for themselves a following and which have deeply touched the heart of mankind have done so by attacking social evils rather than theological problems. This is as true of the early triumphs of Buddhism as it is true of Christianity. Both religions found themselves confronted with a colossal task in the reclamation of the sunken and in consoling the griefs of mankind, and the love which they elicited and shed abroad has gained for them the undying gratitude of humanity. Persons who prophesy the downfall of the Church would do well to reflect on this fact. So long as the Church is animated by the divine charity of Jesus Christ, it can never fall, for the reason that in this cold and selfish world there is nothing else to take its place. No detective work, no sullen muttering about altruism, can supplant divine love. Yet we affirm that the Church of Christ cannot permanently uphold and propagate itself by anything less spiritual, less comprehensive and tremendous than the Christian religion, and the plain truth is that the Church is not bringing the whole force of the Christian religion to bear upon the lives of the people. Like other men who have seriously labored in the field of social endeavor, we feel its limitations. The people are very willing to accept what we have to give them in the way of fine parish buildings, libraries, gymnasia, music, trade-schools, art classes, and even baths. But the best that the Christian Church has to offer men is the new life in Christ Jesus, and this all our social endeavors do not seem to make people especially anxious to receive at our hands. We have heard many of the ablest and most conscientious clergymen of our Church confess with sorrow that they are doing this work with a sense of humiliation and despondency because they do not feel that they are giving their people the best they have to give. Of one thing we may be very sure: unless we soon find a way to unite faith to charity, that is, to infuse our social work with a more religious spirit, it will be taken from us and given to others. This has happened again and again with the Church's creations and it will take place once more. The Social Settlement and the People's Institute can do this work in many respects better than we can, and unless we possess some prerogative which they do not possess, it will pass to them. The great defect of the social movement in the Church is that it is not sufficiently personal, spiritual, and ethical. It can change the environment, but as yet it seems to have no means of changing the heart. It can help men in the bulk, but it has no direct access to the depth of the individual con-science. We therefore venture to believe that the social movement will soon be supplemented by a psychical movement which speaks in the name of Christ to the soul.

Another very significant sign of the times is our weariness of a continued sectarian existence. There remain, of course, stalwart partisans in all churches, but the better men of all denominations have ceased to glory hi the things which separate us, and they are fixing their eyes on the great essentials of religion which unite us. Most of the Protestant churches set out with exclusive claims of enlightenment and excellence. This, however, was the result of passion or of logic and it forms no part of the Christian consciousness which refuses to accept a definition of the true Christian Church that excludes true Christians. Time has cooled our passions, and to-day logic, not to say self-preservation, points us toward unity, not toward division. During the past two years the writer has met perhaps a larger number of clergymen of all denominations than during the preceding fifteen years of his ministry. He has asked a great many of these gentlemen, "Do you look forward to any great future for your church in this country?" and with few exceptions the answer has been: "I can see no future for my church, but I believe that there is a future for Christianity." What is keeping us apart to-day is neither reason nor utility; it is only the tenacious grip of the expiring Traditional Motive which acts in religion precisely as the law, of heredity acts in the domain of nature, i.e., it transmits existing types. Since engaging in our new work, we have been gratified to observe what a powerful solvent this new interest has proved and in what pleasant ties of fellowship it has united Christians formerly estranged. Not only do members of all Protestant churches worship with us freely and constantly, but Roman Catholics and Israelites also take part in our services with the approval of their priests and ministers. This small object lesson indicates how quickly the superficial differences which separate Protestant Christianity will disappear so soon as a new and powerful motive in religion which affects us all equally shall begin to make itself felt. The chief cause of our present condition is not discord and hatred; it is mere apathy due to the general deadness of the churches. When the light and warmth of a new day begin to animate us, then this coating of ice will melt and the waters will flow and mingle.

One cause of our present enfeebled condition is the fact that the Church through timidity, through sloth, through lack of enterprise, through inability to adjust herself to new conditions, has allowed herself to be side-tracked and relegated to a small and secondary r๔le in human affairs. When we look back to the so-called ages of faith, to the days when the Church was everything, what amazes us most is the skill and wisdom with which she spread herself over the whole sphere of human life, entering every domain of human activity, leading every great movement of the human spirit. In those days all religion, knowledge, science, art, philosophy, and even the chief pleasures of life were in her keeping. When people went to the theater it was to witness the mysteries of the Christian religion. When they traveled, it was to go on a pilgrimage to Christ's tomb. From the cradle to the grave, on week-days and Sundays, the Church surrounded human life. Nothing of importance went on outside her borders. Therefore people believed with a devotion and an intensity of faith of which we have no comprehension; and if the Church did much evil in those days, let us also remember that she did much good. In those centuries she brought the noblest races of the new world to maturity. Nor ought the abuses of the Church ever to be mentioned without recognition of the savage and barbarous condition of the society in which she was planted.

The Protestant Churches, however, beginning with but small experience in the great practical art of subduing and subjugating man which the old Church knew so well, and fearful of the corruptions of the past, attempted to cut themselves off from all these things and to establish themselves on dogmas and doctrines. They were all more or less puritanical. They withdrew more and more from the world. They broke with science, art, literature. They created an impossible theory of Scripture, and having struck the manacles of human tradition from their hands they proceeded at once to forge new fetters. Believers regarded themselves as a peculiar people and before long the world regarded them as very peculiar people in which it took but little interest. For awhile the old dogmas, and especially bitter hatred for Rome, united them, and gave them an issue, but as interest in these subsided, the Protestant churches were hard pressed for an issue, and for many years they have been like spirits seeking a body.

In reality what has happened to us is what has happened to other historical religions behind which stands a single great person. As time has passed, the splendor of that personality has been dimmed. His ideals have been forgotten, the gold of his words buried beneath the dust of tradition. And with the obscuring of the person and ideals of the founder, the mighty moral impulse communicated by him to the world has lost itself. A religion so beset has but one chance to re-establish itself, that is, by a return to its founder. If it can find him, and salvation in him, it may yet live. Now in both these respects we are better off than any generation of Christians has been since the Apostolic Age. The greatest discovery of the nineteenth century was the discovery of Jesus Christ. We possess a knowledge of the character and purpose of Jesus which no previous age has enjoyed, and the impression made on us by His amazing image is hardly less than that which it once produced on a certain Saul of Tarsus. It would seem as if all the intervening centuries of growing knowledge, of doubt, of longing for God's face had only increased our desire to see once more the days of the Son of Man. Apparently He possessed and He offered to the world no repellant, difficult dogmas, but He revealed God to man, and man to himself. He united men in the only two points of view in which they can be united — in love and trust of a good God — and in affection to one another. That no one had done before Him; that no one could do after Him, for He had done it. And there is no other way; there is no peace for our souls except the peace of God. No Kingdom of Heaven is possible except the Kingdom of good hearts united by love. In Him Heaven and earth were united in friendship.

When we attempt to ascertain how Jesus expected to realize His sublime dream of the Kingdom of God, we are confronted by this fact: if He gave his heart wholly to God, He gave His life wholly to man. So with the new heaven came a new earth. He did not anticipate that the great ideal could be made actual merely by announcing it. With Immanuel Kant He declared the problem of the universe insoluble to speculative reason, but soluble to practical reason. From morning to night He was surrounded by human beings with human needs, and He shrank from none, not even from the poor prostitute who wished to kiss His feet. Herein is a wonderful thing, a key to the religion of Christ which we have lost. Here was this Being, call Him Son of God or Son of Man as you choose, with His infinite mission to the world and with the haunting sense of impending doom. Here were these few fleeting years which were all He had at his disposal to make the eternal revelation of God, to found His Church, to gather His congregation and to educate His Apostles that they might be able to continue His work. How will He spend them? In lonely retirement from the world, in rapt meditation, in long thought? In looking at His actual life, one would suppose that He had no thought except for the passing day, no care except for the sick, the sinful, the sorrowful, the seeker who claimed His every hour. But this was no accident. It was first the natural, unavoidable expression of the disposition of Jesus Christ, and secondly, such a religion as His could have come into being in no other way. The genius of Christianity is its fidelity to the permanent needs of human nature. Shakespeare, Goethe, Balzac have marvelously exploited human life. Jesus went deeper. Thanks to the peculiar simplicity of His mind, the delicate clairvoyance of His perception and the all-comprehending sympathy of His heart, He has shown us not only what man is, but what under God's fostering care he may become. With more justice than Terence He might have said: "Homo sum; human nihil a me alienum puto"; and such knowledge as He possessed could have been gained in no other way than by the life He led. We are in a position to testify to the effect His consoling, healing utterances have on diseased and distracted minds on which Christ's words fall like dew from Heaven. The reason of this is that Jesus was ever in association with such persons and had them constantly on His mind.

Those who know Jesus know that there is salvation in Him and no salvation without Him. He is the Being, as even David Strauss affirmed, without Whose presence in the heart true piety is impossible. Now one of the proofs of the divine origin of our religion is its indestructible vitality. No sooner does the world dispose of one of the claims of Jesus Christ than Christ presents a new claim of which hitherto the world had not thought, and the disposal of the several claims of the Lord Jesus constitutes the moral education of humanity. The Christianity the world has outgrown is a Christianity which Christ had outgrown long before, rather it is a garment which never fitted Him. The truths of reason, far from obscuring His truths, only make them shine with new luster because they make us better able to appreciate the truth as it is in Jesus. During the past generation the best thinkers of the world have been coming to a new conclusion in regard to man. The substance of this thought is its recognition of the essential unity of human nature. It does not sacrifice the soul to the body like the older materialism. It does not seek to dissipate this compact and marvelous human frame into a mere idea, like Christian Science, nor to represent it as a garment of the soul as does the so-called New Thought. But it regards body and soul together as essential to the integrity of human nature, and it points out the innumerable correspondences and points of contact between the two. While ignoring no fact of biology, chemistry, physics, or sociology, it passes through them and behind them to the eternal and spiritual in man. It recognizes the truth that for every event in the mind there is an event in the body, that the simplest emotion or thought is accompanied by an expenditure of nervous energy, and that no good or evil can come to man which does not affect the whole man, body, soul, and spirit. In short, it proves in a thousand ways not merely how the body affects the mind, but how the mind reacts on the body.

What interests the Christian in these conceptions is their appropriation of the habitual thought of Christ. We remember that Jesus recognized human nature in its entirety, that in His solicitude for the soul He did not forget the body and that in giving peace to the conscience He also gave health to the whole man. This noble truth has long been allowed to drop from the Church's conception of its mission, but it will not be ignored much longer. Everywhere men and women are seeking for this lost truth and hence, as in the days of the Son of Man, we see the same feverish anxiety, the same willingness to follow almost any false Messiah who promises to restore it to them. Everywhere men and women are feeling and apprehending, however dimly, that the religion taught and practised by the churches is not the whole religion of Christ; hence we see, on one side, a wholesale defection to strange cults and institutions which, with all their aberrations, hold up the promise of immediate help to the whole man, and on the other hand we observe a growing apathy and indifference toward the Church. In short, it is plain to the unprejudiced student of religion that one cause of the Church's present weakness is that the Church has mutilated the Christian religion, retaining with some degree of faith Christ's message to the soul, but rejecting with unbelief His ministry to the body. But, as a student of the New Testament, I affirm that if any portion of the Gospel is true and authentic, it is that part of the Synoptic Gospels which describes Christ's healing ministry, His commission to His disciples to heal the sick and to cast out devils, and which portrays His general manner of life. These stories are in themselves so natural, so exquisitely probable, so supported by internal and external evidence and by authentic sayings, that if we surrender them we must surrender with them all real knowledge of Jesus, His life and His teachings. But when to-day, with our own eyes, we see so many of these scenes re-enacted, so many of the same diseases cured by means of faith and the authoritative word, such a spirit of scepticism and incredulity becomes doubly and trebly absurd. The writer ventures to say that within five years contemporary evidence will be offered which will change the attitude of the educated world on the subject of Christ's acts of healing. St. John, or the author of the Fourth Gospel, habitually called these healing wonders " signs" (semeia), that is to say, proofs of a living faith and of a present spiritual power, and it is precisely in this light that we regard them. We do not consider restoration to health as in itself the end and aim of religion, but we do affirm that the face of the Lord is ever set in the direction of the health and happiness of His children, that God does not take pleasure in sickness and suffering, but has means to remove our anguish, that faith and trust in God bring peace to the heart, that the moral life powerfully affects the physical life, and that if these blessings are really contained in our religion it is a pity that we should not enjoy them.

Perhaps a greater evil than that to which allusion has been made is the weakening and conventionalizing of all our religious conceptions. For this the Church is not particularly to blame. It is the fate of all noble ideas to lose their nobility and to be shorn of their glory when they are generally accepted by common minds. Yet how many conscientious and faithful ministers are doing their work to-day with a sense of depression and of failure because their people will not accept at their hands the best and highest they have to give? How many able and religious young men are deterred from entering the ministry because they perceive that they can serve God better and find freer employment of their higher faculties in some other profession? Many persons like to go to church and they are glad to cultivate pleasant social relations with their clergymen, but the idea that there is any power in the Church to save them, or in the minister as the representative of Christ, does not occur to them. If they are ill, they send for their physician, if they desire advice on important matters, they consult their lawyer; but the clergyman is as a rule excluded from the serious and great events of life which require special knowledge, higher wisdom or peculiar ability to help, and this through no discourtesy, but through a tacit assumption that there is no help in him. He has even been banished very largely from the sick-room which used to be his peculiar domain, because he is associated in the minds of the sick with the thought of death, not of life. "So 'a cried out God, God, God, three or four times. Now I to comfort him bid him 'a should not think of God; I hoped there was no need to trouble himself with any such thoughts yet." The chief satisfaction we have found in the work which we are attempting to describe is that it has indefinitely increased our usefulness. Instead of sustaining merely conventional relations with people, our relations have been sacred and delightful. For we have been called upon to help and permitted to help in the real and serious business of life. We have passed through the deep waters with hundreds upon hundreds of men and women. We have stood between them and temptation, between them and despair, between them and death. We have had the supreme satisfaction of using constantly our highest faculties and of exerting our utmost power in behalf of our people in their hour of need. The response to our invitation has been overwhelming, altogether beyond our expectation or merit. The mere knowledge that disinterested clergymen and physicians are willing to be consulted in regard to the conduct of life and as to life as a whole has brought persons to us in such numbers that although our staff numbers eight men, we are unable to see one person in four who wishes to come to us, even for a single conversation. If there is so great a demand for spiritual guidance and moral help, it would seem as if there ought to be clergymen at least in every large city who are able and willing to bestow it, that we should not be overwhelmed, and that people ought not to be obliged to travel hundreds of miles to attend the simplest of services and to obtain the aid they might just as well receive at home. To be sure clergymen are busy, but after all, in what can a clergyman occupy his time to greater advantage than in reproducing the life of His Master and in saving not merely souls, but men and women and also children? Ill-informed persons have expressed apprehension that the work we are doing may obscure the purely spiritual ideal of the Gospel, but what has charmed us in it is that it has enabled us to communicate spiritual life and a living faith in God and Christ to hundreds of persons who had remained untouched by religion and whom we could have reached in no other way.

Perhaps I can express what I mean by our conventional attitude toward religion by an old Oriental legend I once read in regard to Alexander the Great. A barbaric king once made Alexander a present of three great dogs of ancient family and of priceless merit. One day Alexander was amusing himself in his park and, wishing to test the mettle of these animals, he set one of them in pursuit of a stag. To the king's great disgust, the noble dog looked at it, yawned, and lay down to sleep again. Alexander, being angry, had him killed. He then tried the second and the third dog which behaved in exactly the same manner and accordingly they, too, were put to death. After a few days the barbarian chieftain came to inquire after the welfare of his favorites and Alexander told him what he had done, and the chieftain, moved to tears, cried out: "Oh! Alexander, you have done a great wrong. You set free a stag and a deer, and they paid no heed, but if you had let loose a lion and a tiger you would have seen what dogs I had given you." The Christian religion is a great social institution. It despises no under-taking, no matter how humble, that is intended to benefit man, but its quarry is the soul, it concerns itself only with great things. Like Lao Tze, the Founder of Christianity might have said: "My religion is to think the unthinkable thought, to speak the ineffable word, to do the impossible deed, to walk the impassable way." His religion is not less than when He delivered it. Spiritual truth cannot die. It is our faith that has failed, our apprehension of the power of our religion that has grown weak. If we should bring our deepest wounds to Christ to be healed, our most inveterate habits to be corrected, our saddest griefs to be consoled and our worst sins to be forgiven, we should soon learn what a religion we have. What the world craves to-day is a salvation that really saves and that begins now. What men desire is a creed that does justice to soul and body. What men are looking for is a faith which lifts them not merely above sin but above temptation. We are tired of renunciation, we are tired of sheltering evil impulses and of resisting them after they have emerged into consciousness, and we desire a heart that is free from evil, a will that is one with God. If we can attain this we shall find in it new life for the Church and for the world, a practical reconciliation between jarring sects, between real religion and genuine science, peace for the soul and health for the body. To simplify religion is not to destroy it; almost always it is to strengthen it. The question is, can we find this in Christ ?

One hundred and eight years ago Friederich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher addressed his celebrated Discourses on the Christian Religion to the Educated among its Contemners. Without presuming for an instant to compare myself with that illustrious man, I venture to address this appeal to the educated, to the scholarly among the friends of Christ who see and deplore the present condition of His Church. Again and again in the course of the long history of our religion the Church has wandered from the living way, the way her Founder not merely commanded but which He declared Himself to be. She has been encrusted by superstition, seduced by worldly and carnal policy, corrupted by sensuality, withered by rationalism, and at times she has borne few of the lineaments of her heavenly origin. But she has revived and has taken up again her divine mission, and this revival has invariably come in a return to her divine Master. In the person of her incomparable Founder, the Church has a treasure which the world did not give her and which it cannot take away. But within that Personality are contained the germs of ten million moral regenerations and renewed life for the world. From time to time men have arisen like Augustine, Dominic, Francis of Assisi, Wycliffe, Savonarola, Martin Luther, Boehme, Tauler, Fox and his Friends, Wesley, Schleiermacher, Newman, Keble, Fechner, Harnack, who, as the author of John Inglesant, says, "have shaken the earth to its foundations and have drawn thousands into the ranks of Christ," and they have done so by returning to Jesus, by revealing Him anew to their contemporaries and by interpreting His mighty purposes in terms of modern life. For Christianity, and I believe for the world, there is no other way, for it would be impossible for any man now living to draw the faint imaginary outline of the third religious teacher who should be able to follow Moses and Jesus.

For nearly a generation the cry has been raised, "Back to Jesus." The difficulty is that no one has yet appeared who can show us the way. Yet we may be sure the way to Jesus is a living way, the way He declared Himself to be. By this I mean Christ can be found, Christ can be given again to the world, not by antiquarian study, but only by visibly reproducing His actual life in our midst and by the fulfilment of the purpose He set Himself in the sense in which He undertook it. For this the strength of no single man would suffice. But is there not a sufficient number of friends of Christ now living to attempt this task by united effort? I ask this question of the Christian community with the utmost seriousness. Never perhaps since the first century have the opportunities for such an undertaking been so favorable as they are to-day. We are confronted with these two conditions — a general dissatisfaction with our present religious state and a knowledge and appreciation of the past greatness of our religion such as no previous generation has possessed. For more than a century the necessary preliminary studies have been prosecuted by the greatest scholars of the world. Shall we make no practical use of the splendid material which they have bequeathed to us? Is it likely that the results of the great critical move-ment, one of the noblest achievements of the human mind, shall serve no other purpose than to satisfy the curiosity of the inquisitive? May we not hope that here as else-where, the facts and principles having been discovered, the practical application will follow ? In any case, such an attempt to reproduce the character, purposes, and methods of the Divine Redeemer, if it were seriously, and honorably made, could be productive only of incalculable good. In saying this I do not of course dream of attempting to restore the temporal conditions of Jesus' life or of reviving a past that is forever passed away. Such an attempt would be childish; the hand of the heavenly clock cannot be turned backward. Since the time of Christ the world has advanced not merely in worldly knowledge and in all the arts of life, but in the sanity of thought which springs from a rational interpretation of the phenomena of the universe. All these things we thankfully retain. There is, however, in Christ something which we have lost and for which all our worldly knowledge is no compensation, an eternal truth which is as applicable to this age as to any other, a knowledge of God, a life in God for which we thirst .and hunger, a single-hearted desire to serve God and man with the necessary strength to do it, the simplicity of a life which is satisfied with the one thing needful, an abyss of saving love which is able to take away the sin of the world. This timeless element in the Gospel is what we might recover if a sufficient number of fearless and good minds would lend themselves to the task. But whether or not any general movement shall be made to reproduce the life of Jesus, this I know, that no human being can come into His presence, or act in His Spirit, without a blessing. We have shown what can be done in one single direction in our own humble venture. We have proved that this small attempt to follow Him more closely and to obey His command has made life and religion a different thing to ourselves and to others. One such practical demonstration as this is worth a library of argument and discussion. What then might be done if a sufficient number of abler and better men should be willing to consecrate their lives to this purpose, if they would take up the infinite problem of Jesus Christ and show the way?

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