The Gospel Of Law
THERE are few subjects about which people have indulged more in the luxury of confused thinking than that of law in relation to religion. St. Paul has something to do with this, though the blame does not lie at his door. Men have imagined they were following him in opposing law to grace, in making law the antithesis of gospel. That is their mistake and not his. Paul never attempts to get outside law. His gospel is full of it. With him it is a question, not of law or no law, but of higher versus lower law. He rises above the Sinai and Leviticus sphere in the same way that the organic rises above the sphere of the inorganic. The higher life is still one of law. It takes, in fact, the laws of the region from which it has emerged into a higher synthesis, where it exhibits them in new forms, with higher potencies. The apostle sums all this in his one pregnant statement ; " For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death."
The idea of law as being the antithesis of Gospel has, however, in recent thinking, revived under some new forms. It has been declared on high authority, and in more than one quarter, that the great system of law which we designate as Nature contains no gospel for man, and no prophecy of one. Professor Huxley meant this when he affirmed, in his Romanes lecture, that Nature was non-moral, and that human ethics were, in fact, a battle against her methods. Modern poetry, too, has painted her as ruthless, "red in tooth and claw," while there have not been wanting religious teachers who proclam that, apart from the direct revelation in Christ, man finds in the universe no suggestion of grace or love, no hint of a Heavenly Father.
It is worth while examining whether these things are so. Some of us read Nature very differently. That Christ's revelation is the master-key to her problem we entirely believe. But a key, to be of any use, supposes a lock _which fits it. If Nature herself is not full of grace, what is certain is that Christ misread her. He found the world writ all over with the sign-manual of His Father, and taught us that. We are at a far remove from the standpoint of the Deistical Tindal, but his "Christianity as Old as the Creation " contains after all a true idea. Christianity is largely a rendering of what was in Nature, but which man had previously failed to discern there. We designate Nature as feminine, and truly. For she is full of the mother element. On the whole subject Hooker had a wider outlook than some of the moderns, when, at the end of the first book of his "Polity," he gives of law, as discerned in the general system of things, this magnificent description : " Of law there can be no less acknowledged than that her seat is in the bosom of God, her voice the harmony of the world; all things in heaven and earth do her homage, the very least as feeling her care, and the greatest as not exempted from her power."
Law, we say, is full of grace. In its operations, its conditions, its promises, its performances, it suggests everywhere what we understand by Gospel. A man proposes to learn swimming or cycling. He finds himself immediately in contact with certain laws. They say to him, " Believe, obey, and according to your faith it shall be unto you." The neophyte, if he be nervous, imagines that while other men in this matter may be under grace, he is certainly singled out for reprobation. The laws by which a man may keep at the top of the water or in easy equilibrium on the saddle of a bicycle, have assuredly, his fears suggest, a statute of limitations which keeps him out. Let him trust and see. He learns finally that in place of reprobation, of favouritism, of limitation, the law says " whosoever will." To all and sundry, to rich and poor, to gentle and simple, to wise and foolish, to good and bad, it offers without restriction all its largess of service, provided only it is believed in and obeyed.
Granted, we are told ; but then there is the other side. What of the man who disobeys, or who fails to learn P What Gospel is there in Nature's ruthlessness, in her law of gravitation, when it smashes a man at the foot of a precipice, in her blind rage of tempest when the howling sea swallows a shipload of shrieking creatures within sight of land P What forgiveness is there in Nature, what escape from the chain of her iron necessity P Our human societies, faiths and hopes, are they not a protest against her, rather than an inspiration from her ?
Softly, and one thing at a time. Nature, it is true, has her stern, hard side, but is it after all as stern as it is often painted ? Expertis crede. Some of us have actually been as near death by foundering, or by precipice smash as could well be, without the actual experience near enough to know what the immediately previous sensation would be like, and have found it not nearly so bad as the outsider might picture. A famous Alpine climber has described his feeling when, having missed his footing, he found himself dropping from one rock to another down a precipitous descent. He felt certain of being killed, but his one mental occupation during the operation was the calculation as to how many bumps it would take to finish him. Such experiences, be it also remembered, are the great exceptions of life, and they are soon over. "The black minute's at end " before there is time to worry much over it. With animals, where Nature's slaughter is on the greatest scale, both pain and worry are at a minimum. Besides, suffering and death are a part of the scheme of revelation, as well as of Nature pure and simple. If any odium attaches to them it must be shared by one as well as the other.
But Nature, it is said, differs from Gospel in her doctrine of non-forgiveness. We are at a loss to know how this notion arises. Rather should we affirm that Nature forgives royally, unto seventy times seven. Nothing, on the whole, is more astonishing than the way she bears with wrongdoers. Generations of men will go on violating her laws and yet survive. She mothers them and keeps them going some-how, spite of their frightful heresies in food, and air and exercise, and a thousand things. They break each other's bones or spill each other's blood. Straightway the great Nurse is busy with them, working with her vis medicatrix at their wounds, weaving new tissues, deftly joining what has been sundered, and giving up never while a chance remains.
Men talk of the dire inevitableness of heredity. Nature herself makes not nearly so much fuss about it as some modem professors. Gutter children, heirs of generations of vice, who, according to the prevailing doctrine, should be irrevocably damned, body and soul, are daily taken out of the streets of London and put into new conditions, by which their entail of ruin is cut off. Transplanted to Canada or some other region of open air and hard work, they slough off their legacy of heredity and develop into wholesome farmers and citizens. Man's recoverableness from seemingly desperate conditions is, in fact, the wonder and the lesson of history. When we read of the early triumphs of Christianity ; how, out of the inconceivable vileness of the society of the time, there arose, in Rome, in Ephesus, in Corinth, the Divine character described in the letters of Paul or in the Epistle to Diognetus, we think of all this, and rightly, as a marvel of grace. But not less is it a marvel of Nature. Leaven, however good, could not make bread out of a stone. The new force could only operate through the power of response in the raw material. Men became Christlike because they were antecedently capable of becoming so. The greatest spiritual victories the world has known are equally victories of natural law.
Any other theory is, in short, logically unthinkable. The universe has no antinomies of nature and grace. The one works through the other. The humanity which has evolved ethics ómore, which has evolved, because of having first received, Divinity has done and won all this through Nature, and no otherwise. Out of the one force, which fashioned and keeps the visible world, which gives us the blasts of winter and the infinite grace of spring, which evolved from lower types the human form, and lifted us from brute to man, from this has come also the capacity for the spiritual and then the spiritual itself. Revelation in its forms of in-tuition, of Prophet, of Christ, of Spirit, is the working of the One Divinity immanent in every part and portion of the visible as of the invisible universe. The laws of that universe are everywhere permanent, and trustworthy, and good simply because they are God's habits, the expression of His character.
( Originally Published 1903 )
Ourselves And The Universe:
The Soul's Voice
Of Sex In Religion
Of False Conscience
Religion And Medicine
On Being Inferior
Our Contribution To Life
The Gospel Of Law
Of Fear In Religion
Life's Healing Forces
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