Our Masses And The Bible - Part 4
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Now here, at the beginning of things, is the point, we say, where to apply correction to our current theology, if we are to bring the religion of the Bible home to the masses. It is of no use beginning lower down, and amending this or that ramification, such as the Atonement, or the Real Presence, or Eternal Punishment, when the root from which all springs is unsound. Those whom it most concerns us to teach will never interest themselves at all in our amended religion, so long as the whole thing appears to them unsupported and in the air.
Yet that original conception of God, on which all our religion is and must be grounded, has been very little examined, and very few of the controversies which arise in religion go near it. Religious people say solemnly, as if we doubted it, that 'he that cometh to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of them that seek him ;' and that 'a man who preaches that Jesus Christ is not God is virtually out of the pale of Christian communion.' We entirely agree with them ; but we want to know what they mean by God. Now on this matter the state of their thoughts is, to say the truth, extremely vague; but what they really do at bottom mean by God is, in general : the best one knows. And this is the soundest definition they will ever attain ; yet scientifically it is not a satisfying definition, for clearly the best one knows differs for everybody. So they have to be more precise ; and when they collect themselves a little, they find that they mean by God a magnified and non-natural man. But this, again, they can hardly say in so many words. Therefore at last, when they are pressed, they collect themselves all they can, and make a great effort, and out they come with their piece of science God is a Great Personal First Cause, who thinks and loves, the moral and intelligent Governor of the universe. But this piece of science of theirs we will have nothing to say to, for we account it quite hollow ; and we say, and have shown (we think), that the Bible, rightly read, will have nothing to say to it either. Yet the whole pinch of the matter is here and till we are agreed as to what we mean by God, we can never, in discussing religious questions, understand one another or discuss seriously. Yet, as we have said, hardly any of the discussions which arise in religion turn upon this cardinal point. This is what cannot but strike one in that torrent of petitions principii (for so we really must call them) in the shape of theological letters from clergymen, which pours itself every week through the columns of the Guardian. They all employ the word God with such extraordinary confidence ! as if 'a Great Personal First Cause, who thinks and loves, the moral and intelligent Governor of the uni-verse,' were a verifiable fact given beyond all question ; and we had now only to discuss shat such a Being would naturally think about Church vestments and the use of the Athanasian Creed. But everything people say, under these conditions, is in truth quite in the air.
Even those who have treated Israel and his religion the most philosophically, seem not to have enough considered that so wonderful an effect must have had some cause to account for it, other than any which they assign. Professor Kuenen, whose excellent History of the Religion of Israel ought to find an English translator, suggests that the Hebrew religion was so unlike that of any other Semitic people because of the simple and austere life led by the Beni-Israel as nomads of the desert; or because they did not, like other Semitic people, put a feminine divinity alongside of their masculine divinity, and thus open the way to all sorts of immorality. But many other tribes have had the simple and austere life of nomads of the desert, without its bringing them to the religion of Israel. And, if the Hebrews did not put a feminine divinity alongside of their masculine divinity, while other Semitic people did, surely there must have been something to cause this difference ! and what we want to know is this something
And to this .something, we say, the `Zeit-Geist,' and a prolonged and large experience of men's expressions and how they employ them, leads us. It was because, while other people, in the operation of that mighty not ourselves which is in us and around us, saw this thing and that thing and many things, Israel saw in it one thing only :—that it made for conduct, for righteousness. And it does ; and conduct is the main part of human life. And hence, therefore, the extraordinary reality and power of Israel's God and of Israel's religion. And the more we strictly limit ourselves, in attempting to give a scientific account of God, to Israel's authentic intuition of him, and say that he is 'the Eternal Power, not ourselves, that makes for righteousness,' the more real and profound will Israel's words about God become to us, for we can then verify his words as we use them.
Eternal, thou hast been our refuge from one generation another! If we define the Eternal to ourselves, 'a Great Personal First Cause, who thinks and loves, the moral and intelligent Governor of the universe,' we can never verify that this has from age to age been a refuge to men. But if we define the Eternal, `the enduring Power, not ourselves, that makes for righteousness,' then we can know and feel the truth of what we say when we declare : Eternal, thou hast been our refuge from one generation to another! For in all the history of man we can verify it. Righteousness has been salvation ; and to verify the God of Israel in man's long history is the most animating, the most exalting and the most pure of delights. Blessed is the nation whose God is the Eternal! is a text, indeed, of which the world offers to us the most inexhaustible and the most marvellous illustration.
Nor is the change here proposed, in itself, any difficult or startling change in our habits of religious thought, but a very simple one. Nevertheless, simple as may be this change which is to be made high up and at the outset, it undeniably governs everything farther down. Jesus is the Son of God ; the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth that proceeds from God. What God? ` A Great Personal First Cause, who thinks and loves, the moral and intelligent Governor of the Universe?'—to whom Jesus and the Holy Spirit are related in the way described in the Athanasian Creed, so that the operations of the three together produce what the Westminster divines call ` the Contract passed in the Council of the Trinity,' and what we, for plainness, describe as the fairy-tale of the three supernatural men? This is all in the air, but in the air it all hangs together. There stand the Bible words ! ,how you construe them depends entirely on what definition of God you start with. If Jesus is the Son of `a Great Personal First Cause,' then the words of the Bible, literally taken, may well enough lend themselves to a story like that of the three supernatural men. The story can never be verified; but it may nevertheless be what the Bible has to say, if the Bible have started, as theology starts, with the `Great Personal First Cause.' And the story may, when it comes to be examined, have many minor difficulties, have things to baffle us, things to shock us ; but still it may be what the Bible has to say. However, the masses will get rid of all minor difficulties in the simplest manner, by rejecting the Bible altogether on account of the major difficulty,—its starting with an assumption which cannot possibly be verified.
But suppose the Bible is discovered, when its expressions are rightly understood, to start with an assertion which can be verified : the assertion, namely, not of ` a Great Personal First Cause,' but of ' an enduring Power, not ourselves, that makes for righteousness.' Then by the light of this discovery we read and understand all the expressions that follow. Jesus comes forth from this enduring Power that makes for righteousness, is sent by this Power, is this Power's Son ; the Holy Spirit proceeds from this same Power, and so on.
Now, from the innumerable minor difficulties which attend the story of the three supernatural men, this right construction, put on what the Bible says of Jesus, of the Father, and of the Holy Spirit, is free. But it is free from the major difficulty also; for it neither depends upon what is unverifiable, nor is it unverifiable itself. That Jesus is the Son of a Great Personal First Cause is itself unverifiable ; and that there is a Great Personal First Cause is unverifiable too. But that there is an enduring Power, not ourselves, which makes for righteousness, is verifiable, as we have seen, by experience; and that Jesus is the offspring of this Power is verifiable from experience also. For God is the author of righteousness; now, Jesus is the Son of God because he gives the method and secret by which alone is righteousness possible. And that he does give this, we can verify, again, from experience. It is so ! try, and you will find it to be so ! Try all the ways to righteousness you can think of, and you will find that no way brings you to it except the way of Jesus, but that this way does bring you to it ! And, therefore, as we found we could say to the masses: 'Attempt to do without Israel's God that makes for righteousness, and you will find out your mistake !' so we find we can now proceed farther, and say : 'Attempt to reach righteousness by any way except that of Jesus, and you will find out your mistake ! ' This is a thing that can prove itself, if it is so; and it will prove itself, because it is so.
Thus, we have the authority of both Old and New Testament placed on just the same solid basis as the authority of the injunction to take food and rest : namely, that experience proves we cannot do without them. And we have neglect of the Bible punished just as putting one's hand into the fire is punished : namely, by finding we are the worse for it. Only, to attend to this experience about the Bible, needs more steadiness than to attend to the momentary impressions of hunger, fatigue, and pain ; there-fore it is called faith, and counted a virtue. But the appeal is to experience in this case just as much as in the other ; only to experience of a far deeper and greater kind.