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Doctrine And Life Part 2

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

With the topic opened in this way, we can now proceed to some of the other problems which it offers to the religious thought of our time. One of the lessons of the past which the Church by this time should have thoroughly learned is the folly of claiming for itself a monopoly of doctrine. In earlier ages it aspired to be the universal provider. It was not content with teaching the things it knew. It taught also all the things it did not know. Worst of all, it proclaimed its ignorance as the infallible and final truth, which it was heresy and spiritual destruction to deny. Its arrogance has been boundless. It claimed at one time to have even a special artistic inspiration, which put the painter and sculptor, in their own department, in the second place to the ecclesiastic. There is a Council decree on record which declared that the painter should have to do only with the execution of a picture, the holy fathers guarding it as their province to invent and dictate ! The Church long ago retreated from that position, but it still fails to sea that its right to offer the world a theological cosmogony is equally unfounded. We look to-day with curiosity on a decree such as that of the Council of Carthage, which denounced an anathema on those " who say that man was created mortal, and would have died even though he had not fallen." But in our churches we have it still read out as a reason for keeping Sunday, that " in six days the Lord created the heavens and the earth." That the Church calmly goes on announcing this and similar statements, knowing that nobody believes them, is one of the religious dangers of our time. To stake its authority on declarations which are not true, is surely the best possible way of earning discredit for the part of its teaching which is true and vitally important.

But it is time to turn to some other features of our theme. In studying doctrine and life we discern two opposing positions ; one in which doctrine is above the life, and the other in which life is above the doctrine. It will be worth while to examine them both. Of the former position Christianity offers us some of the most striking examples. It has been one of the constant reproaches against the New Testament that it offers a rule of life which is impossible and unreal. The Sermon on the Mount is, we are told, not " practical politics." It is a dream-legislation, fitted for the other side of the moon rather than for London and New York. But the objection here is not really serious. It ignores a fundamental law of the human spirit. Humanity progresses by a series of anticipatory projections of its highest self, which it then sets itself laboriously to realise. It sees its mountain summit in one glance of the eye. How many thousand thousand movements of its weary limbs will it take to reach it ? Man has ever been flinging out his great ideals ; it is the law of his nature to do so. All the legislators have had them. Plato's Republic and More's Utopia have never been translated into act, but they have been an inspiration from one generation to another. As M. Fouillée puts it : " The ideal is but the deepest sense and the anticipation of future reality." The hitherto seen but unreached is surely coming. That the New Testament life is still floating as a vision above the world's practice is one of its best credentials. It is not the opportunist scheme of a day, but the prophecy and moving force of all time. That is an illuminating statement of Wernle where, dealing with the Early Church, he says : " From the very first there was a sharp distinction between the Christianity that was actually lived in the Churches, and the Christianity which the teachers of the Church postulated in their writings. That which is called worldliness did not make its way into Christianity through decline from some high level of excellence. It came through the mission itself as each new convert brought in a portion of the world along with him." Man's doctrine is to his soul what sun and sky are to his body. Far beyond him in the heavens, it is nevertheless irreversibly linked to his destiny. From its height it is ever his nourisher and inspirer.

But there is another aspect of this disparity about which a different language has to be held. The one just noticed arises from the human limitation and normal rate of progress. But history and contemporary life offer us the spectacle of aberrations which exhibit not so much slowness as perversity ; where doctrine is used not as a helper of right conduct, but rather as a substitute for it. Nowhere has human ingenuity shown itself more vividly or more deplorably than in its exploitation of orthodoxy in the interests of immorality. Man, most amazing of creatures, has concluded an affiance between theft and the creed. Your Sicilian bandit will pistol you in the name of the Church. The most entertaining part of the memoirs of that scoundrel of genius, Benvenuto Cellini, is the description of his pious raptures, preceded and followed, as if in perfect sequence, with the accounts of his assassinations and debaucheries. The fashion here has been a world-wide one. Lord Melbourne, on hearing a sermon which dealt closely with character, is reported to have said, " No one has a more sincere respect for the Church than I have, but things have come to a pretty pass when religion is allowed to invade the sphere of private life ! " Laurence Oliphant, dealing with the financial crash in New York in 1873, writes : " Founders of theological seminaries, secretaries to charitable associations, and the leading elders of various denominations are among the principal defaulters. . . . There is scarcely an instance of a prominent fraudulent bankrupt who has not made a show of piety the mask under which he ensnared his victims " The, theological system which permits this is. near its end. Nay, its day as an effective force is already over; It is not only dead but corrupt, and we may welcome the earthquake which buries it out of sight. How heaven-high above all this is that word of neo-platonist Porphyry, who told the Christians and non-Christians of his time that " it is a man's actions that naturally afford demonstration of his opinions ; and whoever holds a belief must live in accordance with it, in order that he may himself be a faithful witness to the hearers of his words !

Let us come now to the opposite position ; the one, namely, where the life is above the professed doctrine. There are few conditions more suggestive than this, or that contain more singular problems. What society continually offers us is the spectacle of people owning a creed whose crudity in parts revolts us, but whose nature reflects none of this crudity ; whose life throughout is high and beautiful. Christianity has abounded in these characters. What notions have haunted the sweetest souls ! We think of Aquinas, as noble a man as the middle ages produced, actually writing that the joys of the saints would be augmented by watching the tortures of the damned ! And in our own time Greg's complaint that " the Churches have too generally proclaimed a hell too horrible to be believed in, and a heaven too dull to be desired," has had too abundant foundation. The ideas and the life have been so oddly associated ! Mr. Moncure Conway, in his autobiography, tells of a negro woman, " Becky," " whose humour, humility, and simplicity and indefinable qualities that I never knew in any white person, made her to me a revelation." Becky " was a devout Methodist, with theological views that, stated on paper, would have been regarded by Mr. Conway as narrow indeed. But her religion, he assures us, was delightful.

What account have we to give of this anomaly ? Much might be said, for half the history and the mystery of human nature is here. What these stories show for one thing is that the unconscious in us is so much greater than the conscious, that the unformulated—or shall we say the soul behind the formula ?—transcends the formula to so infinite a degree. And it is the soul, so essentially divine in us, working behind the mere brain-reasonings, that from out of the written creed has, with infallible instinct, selected and absorbed the essential, and left the accidental and the inferior to lie on the rubbish-heap outside. Men have found their religion as a treasure hid in a field. The field is wide and weedy, its soil largely a poor soil. But the treasure makes it an invaluable acquisition. Schopenhauer had all manner of criticisms of Christianity. But when he declared that " it was reserved for Christianity to theoretically formulate and to expressly advance loving-kindness, not only as a virtue, but as queen of all, and to extend it even to enemies," he had touched the spot. There was the treasure. The Emperor Julian, in his sneer at the Gospel, said, " What folly to erect fishermen into theologians 1 " But there was one thing about the Galilean fisher-theology which confounded him. After his attempt to produce a charitable movement in the paganism he favoured, he exclaimed, " It is a scandal that the Galilaeans should support the destitute, not only of their religion, but to ours ! "

There the murder was out ! The creed of the fishermen contained endless material for attack. But this something behind, which filled the people's hearts and set them on every deed of nobleness and sacrifice, where was the weapon that could reach that ? Thus has it ever been. The body of religion may change and decay, but its soul ever lives, and immortally renews itself. Men formulate their theory of Calvary, of Atonement; they form and reform it. Meanwhile, amid all the varying presentments of it, the Cross draws men ; until at last it is dawning upon us that it is not the theories at all that have been the attraction, but the treasure that is hid deep in the wood of Calvary's tree, even the love of God which passeth knowledge.

The subject, as thus passed under review, has now yielded us its main results. The soul has been in every age the organ of Divine revelation, and it is still performing its function. The spiritual universe enlarges continually to our eye with the growth of our power of vision. And as in the physical cosmos, so in the spiritual, the change of view produced by our wider knowledge is a change not from greater to less, but ever from more to more.

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