What Was Pentecost?
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
PENTECOST, as the Jews knew it, was one of those nature festivals in which the early world expressed at once its poetry and its religion. There is a strong family likeness between this feast of first fruits and the great gatherings for mystic rite and popular rejoicings with which Rome, Greece, and the East hailed the coming of spring and of summer. We do not sneer today at Paganism, any more than we sneer at Judaism. We feel the solidarity of humanity. We have a sympathy born of insight for those who, at Eleusinian mystery or Dionysie procession, sought to exhibit their sense of the mystery of life, their desire to interpret its meaning, their gratitude to the Power that gave it. The world was young then, infantile. We are so much wiser today, and yet with all our knowledge do we not miss something of that early exuberance ? We can understand Keat's elegy over what is gone :
Glory and loveliness have passed away ;
That phase indeed has gone. But the Jewish Pentecost, decaying like the rest of those ancient festivals, was reborn to civilisation in the most startling way. The story given us in the Acts is the story of one of those births of time which introduce a new era, a fresh quality of life. It has been largely spoiled for us by theology. We have to clear away a good many of its conventional interpretations, to see the whole happening in the light which modern knowledge sheds upon it, before we reach its true significance. The account in the second chapter of the Acts is not, as to all its details, taken by the modern critic au pied de la lettre. The earlier chapters of the book are not contemporary history in the same sense as the " travel document " which comes later. There has been time for a certain embellishment. The " Acts " chapter is an Eastern story told us in the Eastern way. In reading it we are irresistibly reminded of another occurrence at Jerusalem three centuries later and of the account given of it by Christian historians. When Julian the Apostate ordered workmen to dig the foundations of a new Jewish temple, Gregory Nazianzen declares there was a whirlwind and an earthquake. There appeared " balls of fire." Sozomen and Theodoret add that crosses, star-shaped, and of blackish hue, appeared on the garments of the beholders. The Eastern imagination, especially in matters of religion, has always been a vivid one.
We have to construct our own theory of what precisely happened. Neander suggests that the external concomitants of the scene were largely subjective impressions. What the gift of tongues amounted to is to some extent interpreted for us by St. Paul's account of the " gift," as exercised in the Church at Corinth, where men and women in a state of high exaltation uttered mysterious sounds unintelligible to the outsider, similar, apparently, to the ululations of the early Irvingite meetings. These outward signs, whatever they were, are reported to us in the narrative as accompaniments of the descent of " the Holy Ghost." We are not so sure today as were our fathers that the conventional theology has properly understood the New Testament writers in their use of this phrase. What we have to remember here is that they did not invent their religious terms. They used those that were already in vogue, and in the sense then currently received. They spoke of the Holy Spirit as the men of the time spoke. In the generation to which Jesus belonged the Spirit was thought of not as an independent personality, but as the power of God, working especially in inspiration and inner purification, It was common amongst the Jews of the time to speak in this sense of the Holy Spirit or the " Spirit of God." Nor was either the term or the conception confined to the Jews. In the ancient Persian cult of Mithras, the initiate, after performing certain rites, prays " that I through the Spirit may be born again, and that in me, purified by sacred rite and delivered from guilt, the Holy Spirit may live and move. When, therefore, the story speaks of the gathered people as being filled with the Holy Ghost," we have room for a less straitened, a less rigidly restricted interpretation of the phrase than theology is accustomed to give.
Looking into our narrative in this modern way, we begin to get an idea of what seems to have happened. A number of Jews, who had been followers of Jesus, at one of their public meetings have a remarkable spiritual experience. There is a great ferment of souls, accompanied by out-ward manifestations not dissimilar to those of a modern revival. The excitement amounted to ecstasy, and there was a confusion which led the bystanders to think the people affected either drunk or crazy. This, be it noted, was the more remarkable since the Jews, compared with other nations, could not be called a neurotic or emotional people. There are races whose temperament lends itself easily to religious frenzy. The Phrygians, from whom sprang the Montanist sect distinguished in the second century for its extravagant enthusiasm, were known before their conversion to Christianity for similar excitements in the worship of Cybele. To-day the Celt shows an emotional susceptibility which is foreign to the Saxon. But the Jew, as we have said, was not of this type, The New Testament is hardly a " revivalist " book. It would be difficult, indeed, to imagine a greater contrast than that between the majestic calm of the Sermon on the Mount and the wild incoherencies of a backwoods camp meeting.
If anyone suspects the genuineness or the depth of the inner movement in this Jerusalem meeting let him attend to what follows. Its immediate effect was the production of a new social order.
There was a redistribution of property. When we reflect on the tenacity with which the Israelite, from father Jacob down to his descendant in Houndsditch, holds on to his personal belongings, we arrive at some sort of idea of the force which was operating on these minds and consciences to compel them to this great renunciation. A modern critic makes the somewhat cynical observation that the Jerusalem enthusiasm which gave up everything, so impoverished the congregation that they were obliged, as Paul's letters show us, to sue for help from their Gentile brethren. That may be so. Their communism was premature, and its first form did not subsist. But the principle that was started in that room, under the influence of this primal emotion—the principle that humanity is a family, every member of which is entitled to the household love and succour—is to-day the principle to which international society by one path or another is everywhere laboriously pushing its way.
What, then, was the power which, working on these strong self-contained souls, stirred them so mightily ? The modern psychologist, arguing on purely natural lines, would explain it as a kind of " burst upwards " of the disciples' subliminal consciousness. They had been living and brooding together, possessed with one idea, the tragic death of their Master, and the mysterious events that had followed. In this way had been accumulated in the storehouse of their emotional nature quantities of combustible material, a material which in the excitement of the Pentecost gatherings and of this special meeting had reached explosion point. These " explosion points " of nations and societies are continually met with in history. They are a feature of the human evolution. The Renaissance, the Reformation, the French Revolution are illustrations. There is in each case a long hoarding of material, a long silent work of the human sub-consciousness upon it ; then some fact or circumstance comes as torch to the fuel, and all goes up in thunder and flame.
There is no doubt much in this statement, but it is incomplete. In human spiritual evolution, as in the natural evolution, we trace the operation of the eternal laws. But law here is not every-thing. Before law can work it must have some-thing to work upon. The sun's action comes before the laws of the sun's action. Man's move upwards has endless natural concomitants, which we can more or less distinctly trace. But behind all that is ever the mystery of the power that moves him. Pentecost in its innermost meaning exhibits to us one of those spiritual overflows which mark every stage of the human ascent. But high tides and overflows represent a pull somewhere from an outside force. The sea is urged by the moon ; the soul's wave-movement has also its lunar laws. The immense human response of Pentecost was in pro-portion to an impulse from behind. The disciples personalised that energy. Peter, in the story, declares that the power poured upon them was an influence diffused by their crucified Master from His place in the Unseen. Why should we not accept that statement ? Philosophy, which only a short while ago jeered at the personal in these matters as a mere anthropomorphism, is to-day in a new attitude. It finds that materialism is just an anthropomorphic as is the New Testament, only in another way. Philosophy has, in fact, to-day no valid argument against the doctrine that the spiritual force that is transforming man is a personal force.
Can we repeat Pentecost ? There is nothing more doleful than attempts at spiritual repetitions. The soul knows its hour and will not be coerced. Moreover, to propose to repeat a thing is to deny the law of progress. To-day is greater than yesterday. It has its own work and its own revelation. What we learn from Pentecost is not to hark back to the old, but to push on courageously to the new. For amongst other things this Jerusalem event was an immense break with the past. It inaugurated a revolution. At bottom it meant the substitution of the religion of the spirit for a religion of form. We are only at the beginning as yet of all that this meant. For to-day we are carrying this evolution into a vaster sphere. Precisely as Pentecost meant a religion which transcended Judaism, so the movement now going on means a religion which transcends mediaevalism. The Christianity we have inherited was set in a framework which is visibly falling to pieces. Our task is to build its vital elements into a new and larger synthesis. The Jerusalem Christians in their Pentecost message were the supreme heretics of their time. All the same they were God's appointed workers. The Power which moved them is the Power which in our time is carrying Church and world into another and yet higher phase of thought and life.
The Jerusalem Pentecost drove the early Church into a great propaganda. Our Pentecost will in like manner have its propaganda. It will carry with it all the spiritual elements, the love, the sympathy, the human brotherliness which belonged to that first phase. But it will take with it something more. The Church's missionary effort is, before our eyes, developing an entirely new element. We cannot better describe it, or complete what we have here had to say, than by quoting Professor Seeley on this point in his " Natural Religion." " The children of modern civilisation are called to follow in the footsteps of Paul, of Gregory, of Boniface, of Xavier, Eliot and Livingstone. But they must carry not merely Christianity in its narrow clerical sense, but their whole mass of spiritual treasures to those who want them. Let us carry the true view of the universe, the true astronomy, the true chemistry and the true physiology to polytheists still wrapped in mythological dreams ; let us carry progress and freewill to fatalist nations and to nations cramped by the fetters of primitive custom ; let us carry the doctrine of a rational liberty to the heart of Oriental despotisms. In doing all this. we shall admit the outlying world into the great civilised community, into the modern city of God.