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Past And Present

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

IT is interesting to note how the questions which agitate religious minds to-day are related to certain other questions which lie deeper down. Amongst these " problems of the rear " there is, perhaps, none wider in its reach, or bearing more vitally upon our other solutions, than that of the connection between past and present. Whatever be the immediate controversy in view, whether it be the re-vision of a creed, the observance of Sunday, the authority of a Church, we see how immediately and inevitably the modern mind, on its way to a conclusion, finds itself faced by this prior consideration. For all these matters, we discover, resolve themselves into a mandate of the past to the present. The Church, the creed, the observance are the call of the past on our obedience. But what is our connection with the past ? What do we owe to it ? Why should we obey it ? It is an illustration of the essentially mystical nature of human life that such questions should be possible. How destructive of the commonplace, of the materialistic idea of our existence, if only we come to think of it, that every one of us is at each moment, and at each point of his being, pressed, magically wrought upon, and at times completely enthralled by this invisible something, dead, we say, yet most mysteriously alive, which we call the Past !

One could well linger on that side of the theme, for it is one of infinite suggestion ; but our concern is now with the more practical aspect we have raised. How stand we to-day, in matters of religion and conduct, to the past ? Are we its pupils or its masters ? Is there such a thing as a possible clean slate, an ignoring of what is gone, and an absolutely fresh start ? Or did the world in some bygone age receive its marching orders, which are valid for all time ? We, of course, are not the first to ask such questions. The eighteenth century rang with them. The French Revolution had as one of its watchwords the sovereign rights of the present as against all previous ages. " Death," cries Camille Desmoulins, " extinguishes all rights. It is for us who now exist, who are now in possession of this planet, to give the law to it in our turn." That is the essentially revolutionary idea. It did immense things a hundred years ago, and it will do more yet. How vigorous it is in our time and amongst ourselves is, perhaps, nowhere better evidenced than in these lines of William Watson, written for Christmas Day :

Fated among time's fallen leaves to stray,
We breathe an air that savours of the tomb,
Heavy with dissolution and decay ;
Waiting till some new world-emotion rise
And with the shattering might of a simoom
Sweep clear this dying Past that never dies.

The poet here, undoubtedly, interprets the secret thought of many minds. It is time clearly we all of us, whether believers or non-believers, set ourselves strenuously to the business of ascertaining, if we can, our actual position in regard to this theme. It may turn out that both sides, the revolutionaries and the conservators, have more to say for themselves than we have hitherto imagined, and that to the final solution both will be equal contributors.

On our way to that solution it has to be noted, first of all, that the matter has a transcendental side, which neither party can afford to ignore. The modern mind is a believer in progress, in evolution, and in the consequent superiority of to-day over yesterday. But if we believe in a God, in a pre-existent Absolute Being, from whom all things have come, and in whom all things consist, we realise that our notion of progress must be a purely relative one. For there has always been something better than our best. The past has contained a quality of being which has surpassed infinitely our greatest ideas. If we take the matter on Spinoza's lines, and think of God as Eternal Substance, with the two attributes of extension and thought, the conclusion is the same. It is here, indeed, that we reach that concept of religion which Schleiermacher has so finely developed in the " Reden " : " It is the seeking and finding of the Universal Being in all that lives and moves, in all becoming and change, in all action and suffering. It is to have and to know, in immediate feeling, life itself as the infinite and eternal life." This sense of the transcendency of the Eternal, as including the whole relation of past and present, has possessed certain nations and ages far more than others. It has been the ruling thought of India, with the result that India is full of metaphysics and has no history !

It is not, however, this aspect of our question which chiefly occupies the Western mind today. What men everywhere are demanding, as a matter of immediate practical moment, is a statement of our proper relation, not to the metaphysical but to the historical past, and of our obligations towards it. Have the bygone ages, with their Scriptures, their creeds, their Church institutions, any right to command us ? Must we on the subjects they deal with take their view rather than our own ? Are we necessarily conditioned by what these people did and said ? Are we not as good as they, or better, both for opinion and for practice ? May we not out clear from their tracks, and sail off on a voyage of our own ? Questions of this order, formulated or unformulated, in the front of men's minds, or lying away in their brain's back-chambers, form part of the revolt of our time.

About one part of the answer there is no doubt. So far as the facts of the past are concerned, there is no room for revolt. The facts are there, and not Omnipotence itself could put them out of the way. And in certain respects these facts are all-powerful. That the world has come about in such a way as it has ; that history has taken the course it did take ; that such a thing as Christianity, with its Founder, its institutions, the beliefs to which it has given rise, is actually there—these are a piece of the past which no dialectic, no iconoclasm can get rid of if it would. And none of us, whatever our mental attitude, can for a moment disassociate ourselves from the influence these facts exert That we are in the twentieth century means there are nineteen Christian centuries behind us, every one of which is living in our pulses to-day. When our revolutionaries talk of their " clean slate," they need to be reminded of these elementary points. It is no good quarrelling with our universe. It has conducted its business after this fashion, and will go on doing it without asking our leave. And a part of its method clearly is the enforcement upon the present of this tremendous energy of the actual past.

But here, upon the other side, comes in a consideration which restores to our revolutionist a great deal of what he seems to have yielded. For while the past thus acts on us, we with not less energy, react upon the past. The facts, the things that have happened are there. But the human spirit has this quality, that it can change to an indefinite degree its views of them, the use it makes of them, its whole attitude towards them. As illustration of what we mean, take the facts involved in our modern geology. They were there precisely as they exist to-day through all the generations of our forefathers. Yet when we consider the elements involved here—these strata, with their formations, their fossils, the story they contain in their relation to the human mind, may we not say that the rocks themselves, so hard and stubborn, have to-day changed before our eyes ! Certainly they are no longer to us what they were to our fathers. They are fitted into a new frame ; they recite a new history ; they offer to us a thousand suggestions of which our fathers never dreamed. Thus in this sphere the past changes as the mind changes. The present is here seen to control the past by touching it with instruments which open new meanings.

It is on precisely analogous lines that the mind of to-day is proceeding, in dealing with that other past, of the facts which constitute religious history. It is along this line we discover that the religion of the future, while absolutely faithful to everything in the spiritual sphere that has happened on our planet, will, nevertheless, undergo as complete a transformation as geology has wrought in our science of the rocks. In both instances we have a concrete mass—of solid rock here, of solid history there. In both instances we have brought to bear on this concrete a magic of research, of the mind's better insight, which in the one as in the other makes all things new. In both realms the whole question is, we see, of the interpretation of our facts, of the use we make of them, of the cosmic framework into which we fit them.

It is at this point we have finally to recognise, with our revolutionary, that the present is, indeed, master of the past, and not its slave. The prophetic minds have ever gone on this assumption. It was the attitude of Jesus. He was crucified for being a Revolutionary, for believing that there was a greater inspiration living then in His soul than was to be found in any old-world writings. The orthodoxy of the day pored over the scrolls of the synagogue as the only authentic message from the heavens. The Man of Nazareth, with His " But I say unto you," instead proclaimed for ever the rights of progressive revelation. It is precisely as men have followed Him here, precisely as they have caught the new note for their time, and fearlessly uttered it, that they have become of use to their generation. They were here witnessing to that supremest of all truths for us, that God's book of life is for ever in the making, and is by no means finished yet.

It is on this view of the right relations of past and present that our whole religious thought in the future must proceed. When Pascal declared that the human race was, in its totality, as an individual, ever growing and ever learning, he uttered a truth whose implications went further probably than even he himself perceived. For it proclaims the newest mind as ever the oldest and the most experienced mind. The race is older with each generation, and knows more. And its new knowledge is always a fresh chapter of the human Scripture. When men generally have perceived this there will be surcease for ever of the pitiful spectacle of religious minds tormenting themselves and others with notions of God, man and the future derived from the childhood of the world. It will be seen that we are on an ascending scale of height and vision, and that the view open to us is more trustworthy than that of men for their time truly inspired, but who historically and evolutionarily were lower down on the road. The past is ours not for our enslavement, but for our use, for our learning, for means of conquering a vaster future. No less than this is involved in our belief in God the Living Spirit. With Vinet we hold that " the Reformation is ever permanent in the Church even as Christianity. It is Christianity restoring itself by its own inherent strength. So that even to-day the Reformation is still a thing to be done, a thing ever to be re-commenced, and for which Luther and Calvin only prepared a smoother and broader way."

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