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Of Religious Union

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

RELIGIOUS union has a psychology and a history. To see our way into it, to understand the true conditions of spiritual association, we need to study both. The psychology of the matter is comparatively simple. The facts of our nature on which it rests are patent and obvious. The religious feeling, like other feelings, is, as we all speedily discover, subject to enormous augmentation by association and fellowship. A thousand souls thrilled by a common sentiment or emotion become, as it were, an electric power-station, which sends its accumulated force through each component. Each who helps to form the whole receives the full current generated by the whole. The symptoms shown by a crowd would not be felt by the individuals composing it if they stood alone. The influence here is not a merely physical one. When men sing and pray together it is not only the volume of sound that produces the combined effect. The voice of a solitary singer will often thrill an audience more than the thunder of the chorus. The augmented feeling results most of all from a fusion of soul. The one utterance has set a thousand interior organs throbbing, whose unseen vibrations fill the atmosphere, stirring it into psychic waves which roll with cumulative effect upon each separate mind and heart.

We have here a natural cause of religious union, inherent in the human constitution, and which we find at work, producing similar results, throughout the whole period of history. Next comes the tribal system, derived originally, some sociologists think, from the herd organisation of animals. Each tribe, with its totem symbol, had its religion, and modern researchers trace the peculiar intensity of the odium theologicum, of religious intolerance, to the fact that in primitive times for a man to disavow the ancestral faith was the same thing as to break with his tribal fealty, to them the first and fundamental law of the social life.

To come now to what concerns us more closely, religious union as related to Christianity. We have here an extraordinary history, crowded with enigmas, which we have by no means solved as yet. Christianity began as a break-off from the religious unity of the nation in which it was born, and the formation of a new centre of fellowship. This centre was a Person, and the principle of union was attachment to that Person. The whole genius of Christianity as a new spiritual departure lay in that fact. Had the Church in later ages correctly interpreted it, what troubles, what cruelties, what unspeakable miseries had been spared the world ! The Christianity of the group that gathered round Jesus was a Christianity of admiration and love. It was an immense feeling, as yet undefined. Imagine the astonishment of these peasants had an Athanasian Creed or a Westminster Catechism been offered them as a correct exposition of their Galilean faith ! The thing that dominated them, that held them together, was what Renan has called " the Divine lovableness " of their Master. And that, after all, is the true Christian bond. It is the tie of a subtle, untranslatable spiritual affinity. Christ was the new term in religious evolution round which the higher Iife of the world instinctively gathered. His voice woke a hitherto unheard music in the soul. Christ still creates that music. The present writer remembers, as if it were yesterday, and will remember to his dying day, the thrill which passed through his being when, as a mere boy, he realised that the Sermon on the Mount was addressed to him, that of this spiritual feast he was invited to partake ! What were all the books of evidences, all the theological arguments, as instruments of conviction, compared with that stir of the deepest nature ! It is that same thrill, that inmost essence of the heart of Jesus, as it exhales in word and touch and deed, that ever since has been converting the world.

This, we say, was the Church's first bond of union. But it did not last long. In the first century of our era there were other things in the world besides the new Gospel—things full grown and mighty, which, as events showed, were to play a huge and sinister part in the Church's evolution. And the greatest of these was the Roman dominion, with its military power and its perfect organisation. We talk often of Christianity as conquering the Roman Empire. Let us not forget the extent to which, in return, the Roman Empire conquered Christianity. Nothing, to the student of the human movement, is more instructive than to see the way in which in those early centuries the original Gospel energy was captured by the old Roman military idea, and turned into its, moulds. The Catholic Church of the early and middle centuries was the old Empire reappearing under an ecclesiastical form. The Roman bishop was its Pontifex Maximus ; the dioceses, with their spiritual heads, re-produced the ancient provinces with their prefects ; monks and priests were the new style of legionaries. The imperial idea of unity maintained by force was carried over undiminished to the Christian society. Augustine frankly taught it ; and the popes, with an ever-increasing severity, applied his teaching. Gregory the Great, one of the noblest of them, writing to his agent in Sicily, tells him " he will allow no Manichaeans on the Church estates " ; he is to persecute them and reclaim them to the Catholic faith." How the Church proceeded to " reclaim " heretics is seen in a course during which, in Lecky's words, "She shed more innocent blood than any other institution that has ever existed among mankind." The greatest saints were amongst the greatest persecutors. Fénelon approved the Dragonnades ; St. Charles Borromeo recommended the murder of Protestants.

The great break-up of the Reformation brought many changes and many improvements, but it made small advance towards a true theory of religious union. Force, exerted this way or that, was regarded by Protestants as a legitimate instrument for its promotion. Calvin allowed Servetus to be burned, though he by no means deserves the greatest blame attaching to that transaction. Luther would have no terms with Zwingli for his difference on the sacraments. The smaller sects were as bad. The Munster Anabaptists did not hesitate to put to death any who did not agree with their views. It is, strangely enough, from Catholicism that we obtain in that time the suggestion for a better way. " I would not make violence and bloodshed my means to assert the Gospel," says Erasmus. And what a really wonderful thing, considering the time and all the circumstances, is that utterance of Catholic Sir Thomas More, where in the " Utopia," written, remember, under the nose of Henry VIII., he declares, " This should surely be thought a very unmeet and foolish thing, and a point of arrogant presumption, to, compel all others by violence and threatening to agree to the same that thou believest to be true ! " But these men were before their time. The real basis of fellowship had still to wait its hour.

What has helped towards the true solution has been science rather than theology. A new cosmic conception has dawned upon the human mind, which throws everything, Church and theology included, into a fresh perspective. We discover that there is a biology of the sects as well as an ecclesiology, and that the former is likely to chase the latter out of the field. In this view the differences which have exasperated theology and lit its persecuting fires are seen to be nature's effort after variety and individuality. She flatly refused, at Church or any other bidding, to be shut up to one type or species of religious man. She went out of her way to produce fresh specimens and to secure their perpetuation. We are beginning now to see the futility of crossing her great design. We no longer propose to stay the ocean with the mop of Mrs. Partington.

The religious union of the future—it all comes to this—will have to recognise to the full the rights of individual liberty and development, including the right of difference. Spiritual association will be a fellowship of faith, love and service. But the faith will be an instinct rather than a definition. Its inquisition will be a judgment faculty in the interior of each man's soul, not an institution for the ex-communication of his brother man. Its union will be for help and cheer, not for coercion and bondage. It will include all who seek truth and yearn for goodness. Its forces will be precisely those which filled the first disciples—the forces of a great love and an immortal hope. This union, in its largeness and freedom, will not impoverish theology. It will enrich it. Precisely as our instruments of observation and of measurement become more penetrating and more accurate, will be the range of the spiritual realm they discover, and the quantity and value of the products they draw from it. With the higher life of this society will come the forms which best express it. Its level will be the high-water mark of humanity, its growth the highest human progress. And the relation of each to all in it will be that of the noble apostolic word : "Not as having dominion ova,' your faith, but as helpers of your joy."



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