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Aberglaube Reinvading - Part 6

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



So false, so astoundingly false (thus one is inclined to say by the light which the `Zeit-Geist ' is beginning to throw over them) are both popular and learned science in their criticism of the Bible. And for the learned science one feels no tenderness, because it has gone wrong with a great parade of exactitude and philosophy; whereas all it really did was to take the magnified and non-natural Man of popular religion as God, and to take Jesus as his son, and then to state the relations between them metaphysically. No difficulties suggested by the popular science of religion has this learned science ever removed, and it has created plenty of its own.

But for the popular science of religion one has, or ought to have, an infinite tenderness. It is the spontaneous work of nature. It is the travail of the human mind to adapt to its grasp and employment great ideas of which it feels the attraction, but for which, except as given to it by this travail, it would have been immature. The imperfect science of the Bible, formulated in the so-called Apostles' Creed, was the only vehicle by which, to generation after generation of men, the method and secret of Jesus could gain any access; and in this sense we may even call it, taking the point of view of popular theology, providential. And this rude criticism is full of poetry, and in this poetry we have been all nursed. To call it, as many of our philosophical Liberal friends are fond of calling it, ` a degrading superstition,' is as untrue, as it is a poor compliment to human nature, which produced this criticism and used it. It is an Aberglaube, or extra belief and fairy-tale, produced by taking certain great names and great promises too literally and materially ; but it is not a degrading superstition.

Protestants, on their part, have no difficulty in calling the Catholic doctrine of the mass `a degrading superstition.' It is indeed a rude and blind criticism of Jesus Christ's words : He that eateth me shall live by me. But once admit the miracle of the `atoning sacrifice,' once move in this order of ideas, and what can be more natural and beautiful than to imagine this miracle every day repeated, Christ offered in thousands of places, everywhere the believer enabled to enact the work of redemption and unite himself with the Body whose sacrifice saves him? And the effect of this belief has been no more degrading than the belief itself. The fourth book of the Imitation, which treats of The Sacrament of the Altar, is of later date and lesser merit than the three books which precede it ; but it is worth while to quote from it a few words for the sake of the testimony they bear to the practical operation, in many cases at any rate, of this belief. ' To us in our weakness thou hast given, for the refreshment of mind and body, thy sacred Body. The devout communicant thou, my God, raisest from the depth of his own dejection to the hope of thy protection, and with a hitherto unknown grace renewest him and enlightenest him within; so that they who at first, before this Communion, had felt themselves distressed and affectionless, after the refreshment of this meat and drink from heaven find themselves changed to a new and better man. For this most high and worthy Sacrament is the saving health of soul and body, the medicine of all spiritual languor ; by it my vices are cured, my passions bridled, temptations are conquered or diminished, a larger grace is infused, the beginnings of virtue are made to grow, faith is confirmed, hope strengthened, and charity takes fire and dilates into flame.' So little is the doctrine of the mass to be hastily called `a degrading superstition,' either in its character or in its working.

But it is false ! sternly breaks in the Evangelical Protest-ant. O Evangelical Protestant, is thine own doctrine, then, so true? As the Romish doctrine of the mass, `the Real Presence,' is a rude and blind criticism of, He that eateth me shall live by me; so the Protestant tenet of justification, pleading the blood of the Covenant,' is a rude and blind criticism of, The Son of Man came to give his life a ransom for many." It is a taking of the words of Scripture literally and unintelligently. And our friends, the philosophical Liberals, are not slow to call this, too, a degrading superstition, just as Protestants call the doctrine of the mass a degrading superstition. We say, on the contrary, that a degrading superstition neither the one nor the other is. In imagining a sort of supernatural man, a man infinitely magnified and improved, with a race of vile offenders to deal with, whom his natural goodness would incline him to let off, only his sense of justice will not allow it; then a younger supernatural man, his son, on the scale of his father and very dear to him, who might live in grandeur and splendour if he liked, but who prefers to leave his home, to go and live among the race of offenders, and to be put to an ignominious death, on condition that his merits shall be counted against their demerits, and that his father's goodness shall be restrained no longer from taking effect, but any offender shall be admitted to the benefit of it on simply pleading the satisfaction made by the son ;—and then, finally, a third supernatural man, still on the same high scale, who keeps very much in the background, and works in, a very occult manner, but very efficaciously nevertheless, and who is busy in applying everywhere the benefits of the son's satisfaction, and the father's goodness ;in an imagination, I say, such as this, there is nothing degrading, and this is precisely the Protestant story of Justcation. And how awe of the first of these supernatural persons, gratitude and love towards the second, and earnest co-operation with the third, may fill and rule men's hearts so as to transform their conduct, we need not go about to show, for we have all seen it with our eyes. Therefore in the practical working of this tenet there is nothing degrading; any more than there is anything degrading in the tenet as an imaginative conception. And looking to the infinite importance of getting right conduct,—three-fourths of human life,— established, and to the inevitable anthropomorphism and extra-belief of men in dealing with ideas, one might well hesitate to attack an anthropomorphism or an extra-belief by which men helped themselves in conduct, merely because an anthropomorphism or an extra-belief it is, so long as it served its purpose, so long as it was firmly and undoubtingly held, and almost uni versally prevailing.

But, after all, the question sooner or later arises in respect to a matter taken for granted, like the Catholic doctrine of the Mass or the Protestant doctrine of Justification : Is it sure? can what is here assumed be verified? And this is the real objection both to the Catholic and to the Protestant doctrine as a basis for conduct;—not that it is a degrading superstition, but that it is not sure; that it assumes what cannot be verified.

For a long time this objection occurred to scarcely any-body. And there are still, and for a long time yet there will be, many to whom it does not occur. In particular, on those 'devout women' who in the history of religion have continually played a part in many respects so beautiful but in some respects so mischievous,—on them, and on a certain number of men like them, it has and can as yet have, so far as one can see, no effect at all. Who that watches the energumens during the celebration of the Communion in some Ritualistic church, their gestures and behaviour, the floor of the church strewn with what seem to be the dying and the dead, progress to the altar almost barred by forms suddenly dropping as if they were shot in battle, —who that observes this delighted adoption of vehement rites, till yesterday unknown, adopted and practised now with all that absence of tact, measure, and correct perception in things of form and manner, all that slowness to see when they are making themselves ridiculous, which belongs to the people of our English race,—who, I say, that marks this can doubt, that for a not small portion of our religious community a difficulty to the intelligence will for a long time yet be no difficulty at all? With their mental condition and habits, given a story to which their religious emotions can attach themselves, and the famous Credo quia ineptum will hold good with them still. To think they know what passed in the Council of the Trinity is not hard to them ; they could easily think they even knew what were the hangings of the Trinity's council-chamber.

Arbitrary and unsupported, however, as the story they have taken up with may be, yet it puts them in connexion with the Bible and the religion of the Bible,—that is, with righteousness and with the method and secret of Jesus. These are so clear in the Bible that no one who uses it can help seeing them there; and of these they do take for their use something, though on a wrong ground. But these, so far as they are taken into use, are saving.





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