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Doctrine And Life

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

Has modern society a genuine and definable doctrine of life ? Has it, that is to say, a practical creed, which it entirely believes, and by which it seeks to shape its conduct ? The question, it will be remembered, was directly raised in the famous " Do we Believe ? controversy, which occupied the columns of a leading London daily some time ago. In the letter which started the discussion, the writer placed the formulated doctrines of orthodox Christianity in direct and vivid contrast with the maxims by which, as he asserted, modern society regulates its practice. The inference was that a gulf separated the two ; that society's orthodoxy was a pose, if not an hypocrisy ; that the creed which it repeated in church was quite other than the one by which it worked and lived. The public answer to this challenge was of a very varied character, but one thing clearly revealed in it was the confusion on the subject which prevails in the general mind. The same condition is shown in the attitude to religious education. The Englishman met by the question, " What is the religious teaching you wish for your children ? " is puzzled for a reply. He is not quite sure what, on these matters, he believes himself. We do not propose here—that would be too presumptuous—to supply him with his answer. But, as a help in that direction, it may be worth while to study an anterior and closely allied theme. Before we talk of this or that doctrine we need to know something about the nature of doctrine in itself, and its actual relation to life.

The subject, when looked into, divides, we find, into two separate departments. There is, for one thing, the relation of the doctrinal system we profess to our individual life and conduct, and for another the relation of our system, or any system, to life itself as a cosmic process. The two departments, as we shall see, are intimately allied, but the results they offer are entirely distinct.

The doctrinal systems with which we are most familiar are, of course, those of the Christian Churches. As we contemplate these structures—the massive thought-monuments of Christendom, standing up so clear and so majestic out of the mists and the wrecks of the past—we receive an impression of passive and immobile strength. " Semper Eadem" is the motto engraven on their front. Enduring without change, amid the passing of dynasties and kingdoms, they remind us of some Alp or Apennine, lifting its eternal summit in sublime contrast with the hurry and swift wasting of the human crowds below.

The illustration might indeed be used, but its lesson is different from the one we have suggested. The great creed-systems are like the mountains ; but it is not immobility, rather the opposite of it, in which their likeness consists. It is precisely because " the everlasting hills " are everlasting only in appearance that they resemble so closely the theologic ranges which dominate from their heights the thoughts of men. Nowhere than in the mountains, though we call them our monuments of eternity, can we study better the constant flux of all visible things. Your Alp changes from year to year. There is no moment when the winds, the frosts, the rains, the summer heats are not leaving their mark upon it. The Matterhorn, most impregnable apparently of rock fortresses, is really, as Tyndall called it, a huge ruin. Geologists say that our Snowdon is only a remnant of itself. Its original mass, which lifted it once to twenty thousand feet of height, is now strewn over Wales and Western England.

This beat of the elements upon the mountains represents, we say, in some degree, though not entirely, the process which our doctrinal systems are undergoing. These also, while meant by their builders to be final, belong to a sphere where there is no finality. Indeed, the law of change here is more rapid, and more certain in its operations, than upon a Helvellyn or a Mont Blanc. The attack upon the hills is mainly an external one. The thought-hills, on the other hand, while subject to impacts of that kind, are exposed to a process far more rapidly and inevitably disintegrating. They are exposed to a constant movement from within.

To explain that we need now to ask ourselves the question, " What is doctrine ? " It is some-what odd that in the multitude of controversies which rage round this theme, so few seem to have made for themselves that preliminary but all-important inquiry. If we examine the matter scientifically—that is to say, by study of the manner in which doctrine, in the instances known to us, has arisen, and of the manner in which it has assumed its particular form, we reach a formula which seems to cover the entire field. Doctrine, we find, is the answer of the inner spirit to the outside fact. It is the response of the collective consciousness of a given age to its experiences. The doctrines of the Christian Church, for instance, are the echo of the impressions made on the first disciples by the historical Christ, and the circumstances of His life and death. But with these two factors before us, the outside fact and the inner mind, as the builders of doctrine, we at once perceive the opening to vast and inevitable change.

For whatever may be said of the outside fact, the mind of man, which perceives and registers its impression of it, is, we know, constantly on the move. And the interpretation of the fact varies with that movement. Thousands of years ago men looked on the sun, moon and stars that we know. But the theory they formed of them was very different from ours. And the facts whose interpretation constitutes religious belief cannot be divorced from this law of change. The witnesses of nineteen hundred years ago, who give us their impressions of Judaean happenings then, saw them in a light and through mental instruments quite other than the light and mind of to-day. And the question which here thrusts itself on us is as to whether, on the impossible supposition that our instructed mentality had been in Juda a at that time to report, it would have rendered any such account of those happenings as that we now possess ? What, in fact, criticism is now doing, as a kind of second best to a first-hand report of that kind, is to reconstruct those early impressions of the first believers in the light of our modern knowledge.

It is under this process of the mind that the doctrinal systems of the past are wearing down and altering their aspect. They are great and venerable ; but life, that subtle, all-creating force—life, which sends perpetually its new pulses into the human soul, is greater still, and will have its way. What the Church has to do is at last to recognise this simple fact. It has to recognise in its relation to old-world interpretations, the law of the inner spirit which ever expands and ever clarifies its view. Its failure to do this in the past ; its ignoring, in this matter, of one of the ultimate cosmic laws, is at the root of the present confusions, and the explanation of the intellectual bankruptcy of the older Churches. What it has brought Romanism to is pathetically expressed in the lament of Cardinal Guibert, who, as far back as 1870, wrote thus of his Church in France : " We Christians form a society, a people apart, which, no longer being in communion of ideas with the immense society which surrounds us, is becoming disintegrated, and is, in fact, in full process of dissolution. It is a world nearing its end." Surely that world of the Romanist ideas is coming to an end and we can now see the entire rationale of the process !

What, then, is the position and the value of religious doctrine ? Does this element of change invalidate it ? Is there no doctrine which can be spoken of as inspired, as of Divine authority ? Let us, in reply, bear in mind all the elements of the question. In dealing, as we have just done, with the action of the mind, we touch, let us remember, only one of the factors. In addition there remains that other, the outside fact or happening, which first set the mind in motion. The sun, we said, is different to us from what it was to our ancestors. But it is still the sun, and a bigger fact than it was to them. Their view of it also had as much reality in it as was adequate to their mental condition. It was such an approximation to reality as was congruous to their general growth.

In like manner, the facts, the events that form the basis of Christian doctrine are still there ; and assuredly not diminished in their religious significance because of the growth of the percipient mind ! And whatever modification may come to those earlier explanations, there will, we may confidently assert, be no change in the peculiar appeal which the facts themselves make to the human spirit. We find here a correspondence not lightly to be got rid of, whose importance grows the more we consider it, between what has happened in history and certain primal elements of the soul. The soul asks for a moral explanation of the universe, and it is this which Christianity supplies. Its spiritual explanation is, we say, precisely the thing that humanity insistently demands. It asks for a solution which science acknowledges its entire impotence to give. As Sabatier puts it, " Science will never tell us, outside an act of faith, why life is to be lived well." Herbert Spencer is of the same mind. In one of his latest utterances he recognises that religious creeds " occupy the sphere which material interpretation seeks to occupy, and fails the more it seeks." The latest philosophy admits that the intellect alone is incapable of holding or representing the entire truth of life. The deepest things in us are moral and spiritual impulses which cannot be put into an equation or a syllogism.

And corresponding with this attitude and need of the mind, history—and especially the New Testament record—offers us personalities and events through which there gleam suggestions and hints of a transcendental order, behind the phenomenal world, which the soul's highest aspirations leap to recognise. The creeds are the charts and maps of this spiritual realm. The draughtsmen were, if we will, clumsy and ill-informed, but the realm they sketched was there. We may revise their drawings, but the reality they outlined is as big and as rich as ever.

Between doctrine and life there will be ever that sort of antagonism which subsists between greater and less. It is like the battle of sea and shore. We fence in our plot of the idea ; we wall it off from the outside savage and untamed material universe, as men build embankments against the Atlantic. - Again and again man has awaked to find this outer ocean, mute, vast and terrible, invading his defences and sweeping away his structures of granite. For a moment he despairs ; the world is too great, too subtle, too savage as it seems for his soul. But the miracle here is that the Power which deals thus with him will not permit his despair. It tells him that land and sea together are his. Let him build on the one and embark on the other. Each has its treasure for him ; each shall help him to his final kingdom.

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