Religion And The Concrete
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
PHILOSOPHY, since Locke's day, has made a prodigious pother over the aphorism of which he, having first borrowed it from the schoolmen, made such use : " Nihil in intellectu quod non prius in sensu " (the intellect holds nothing which did not come first as an appeal to the senses). Kant, starting where Locke left off, and taking his thesis as a challenge, showed how much there was in the intellect beyond the sensuous impression ; how the external fact, on its way to us, took its entire shape and colour from the mental machinery that received it. But the Locke dictum, though, as we now see, it has to be taken under conditions and limitations, is one we all need to study, and especially those whose business is with the problems of religion. Religion is, first of all, a psychology ; to deal with it properly, either in thought or action, we need to know the laws of the realm in which it operates. And one of the chief things to be noted in this region is the relation of the senses to the soul behind. It is to the way in which the different churches have understood this relation, a good deal more than from this or that dogma they have handled, that they owe their success or their failure.
The point is this—that before we can get effectively at a man's reason or his conseience, we have to touch his senses. Our neighbour is a being who first of all sees, hears, tastes and feels. And his inner life consists in largest degree of memories, mental pictures, of things he has seen, heard, tasted and felt. The abstractions of the philosopher are a later development, quite out of range of masses of men, and even to the most cultured-as personal experiment will easily show—far less operative and powerful than the fact that impinges on the senses. Compare the impression on a man of any general proposition you can frame with the announcement to him that he is to be hanged tomorrow, or that some one has left him a fortune, and you will have the measure of the difference in psychical effect between the abstract and the concrete.
It is this simple truth, so obvious when we come to look at it, that opens to us, as by a magic " sesame," the secret of the world's religions. Man, to be impressed, must have first and foremost the concrete. The abstract is the latest term at the other end of the string. The invisible must ere we can do anything with it, be embodied in a visible. It is because of this that philosophy as such can never become a religion. Aristotle himself recognises this when, speaking of treatises on morals, he says : " The truth is they seem to have power to urge on and to excite young men of liberal minds . . . but that they have no power to persuade the multitude to what is virtuous and honourable." Your truth must become a life, be seen visibly walking about, before it can move men. The Baptist theology of the seventeenth century is at present read by no mortal ; or, at least, by very few. But that theology, incarnated in a Greatheart, a Mr. Honest, and the other characters of Bunyan's immortal dream, has been and is the delight of millions. " For truth embodied in a tale, may enter in by lowly doors." But it must be embodied. That is why abstract theisms and other intangible systems have never had, and never will have, any position amongst the religions of the world.
And this brings us to the centre of our theme. Religion, which has to deal with the highest reality, can only in this matter follow the universal law. Its truth must be embodied. But that statement spells Incarnation. It is wonderful to see how, in the twentieth century, the roads of the new science, of the new culture, are found to be leading —all of them—in one and the same direction. The central truth of the New Testament shows, in the new light of this culture, as a truth embedded in the nature of things, as inevitable to the human evolution. God could never be known to man except by a self-manifestation. What He is and means could only, human nature being what it is, be exhibited by a Life. It is curious here to note how, in the view of human spiritual development which modern research is offering us, the old controversies concerning the Divinity of Christ have lost their starting-point. The rival camps are deserted, for the world has moved on. The new conception derived from history and psychology of the whole human movement, gives us at once Christ's Divinity and Humanity as the natural expression of a cosmic process. We are here to know God and to be united with Him. And we could not have reached up to Him unless He had first reached down to us. We could not see Him unless He made Himself visible. God must come into the sphere of the concrete ere he can be apprehended of the human heart. As Ritschl puts it : " The essence of God, as it is Spirit, and Will, and especially Love, can become operative in a human Life, as man in fact is constituted for spirit, will, love." To quote Jacobi's profound word : " Nature conceals God ; man reveals Him." He is in all of us, for there could be no outside revelation unless it appealed to one within. In Christ we see this eternal idea reaching its culmination. As the great Greek Father Theodore of Mopsuestia puts it : " Jesus so perfectly appropriated the Divine as to become one with it." In Him, our 'Avat avopov, our " Divinest Symbol," as Carlyle has it, we have the Divine concreted, as much of God as humanity could contain.
But the concrete in religion is far more than a doctrinal question. It enters in the most intimate way into the Church's whole method of presenting religion to the world. As we study the history of this matter and observe the different methods of appeal to the various religious bodies, we wonder continually whether it ever occurred to their leaders that there was such a thing as a psychological law in this region, whose observance or non-observance spelt success or failure ? Where they have hit on the law seems so often to have been by sheer chance rather than by insight. It is clear, for instance, that the enormous and continued power of Rome, notwithstanding the immense and ever-growing forces against her, has been owing more than anything else to an apparently unconscious following of our law. She has held men by giving them, in every direction, the concrete. It was she who introduced the picture into the churches. Her creed, however faulty we may consider it, was at all events a concrete creed, full of clear-cut statement. What has been the fascination of her Mass ? Has it not been in the belief she created that here, in view of the humblest soul, was the God so thirsted after, made present and visible ? The problem she sets before all competing religious bodies—a tough one, it must be confessed—is to follow her method while avoiding her impossibles ; to offer a religious appeal as vivid as her own, but whose basis shall be fact and not fiction.
The Reformation Churches have been Churches of speech rather than of sign ; they have sought the soul through the ear rather than the eye. But here again we have to notice that this appeal has been effective or otherwise just in proportion as the principle of the concrete has been observed or neglected. Any one who takes the trouble to study Church eloquence—the utterances of the religious orators of all ages and their effects upon men—will always find that their power has rested largely on obedience to our law. The addresses that tell are stuffed with the concrete ; they are not abstract discussions, but live facts, live experiences, live picture. The truth they wanted to enforce had always hands and feet ; it lived and breathed before men. The early Fathers had abstractions enough, but always at one end of them there was some homely, earth-born fact. Take, for example, as one out of a thousand, this extract from Alexander of Alexandria : " They suspended Him on the tree who stretches out the earth ; they transfixed Him with nails who laid firm the foundations of the world ; they circumscribed Him who circumscribed the heavens ; they bound Him who absolves sinners ; they gave Him over to the tomb who raised the dead to life." The words remind us of Hooker, who more than a millennium later speaks thus of the sacrament : " These mysteries do as nails fasten us to His very cross ; that by them we draw out astonishing efficacy, force and virtue, even the blood of His gored side ; in the wounds of our Redeemer we there dip our tongues, we are dyed red both within and without ; our hunger is satisfied, and our thirst for ever quenched." We are discussing here, be it remembered, not the doctrine but the method. The words quoted may easily offend our taste or our philosophy, or both. The point is that they offer in religious speech the example, followed by all the great pleaders from Chrysostom to Spurgeon, of discourse in which spiritual truth is clothed in concrete forms that appeal to every man's senses and imagination.
The lessons from all this are tolerably obvious. The religion of to-day must in all its departments fill itself with the concrete. The preacher must have his grasp upon facts, upon experiences, upon life. His business is with the invisible, but unless he can turn his invisibles into visibles—condense his cloud into rain—he is of no use in the pulpit. In like manner the Church, in its collective operations, has to master the same art. It must learn to embody its aspirations, its enthusiasms, its faith, into institutions and organisms which catch the world's eye and compel its attention. The engineer builds his creed into his bridge. The Church must build hers into something as evident and as useful.
But the greatest of all concretes is man himself. He is full of mysteries, of invisibles, the secret of which he cannot fathom. The end of all the ages is there hidden within him. Could he but under-stand himself he would understand God and the Universe. He is a vast embodied idea. But the idea needs clarifying, unifying. The supreme effort of religion is to accomplish this for him. It seeks to incarnate its own spirit in him. Christianity in the creed, Christianity in the institution, are nothing in effective force compared with Christianity alive in the man. Darwin found in the South Sea Islanders, transformed by missionary effort, an argument for Christianity such as he had met nowhere in books. The Church, whatever its name be called, which succeeds best in making the New Testament faith and love concrete in human lives, will be the Church of the future.