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A Doctrine Of Echoes

AN echo may, for general purposes, be considered as made up of two main factors, a sound and a reflecting surface. In multitudes of cases it would be difficult to say which of the two has the greater share in the effect. In the world's famous echo spots, such as Killarney, or that at the Castle of Simonetta, in Italy, which repeats a note sixty times, the result is, here as everywhere, in direct proportion to the loudness of the trumpet-blast or pistol-shot. But that is only half the matter. The marvellous repetitions, as well as the quality and volume of sound, depend not so much on the emitted note as on the number and character of the reflecting surfaces. Of all echoes it is true that if we change either of the two factors, the original sound or the substance on which it impinges, we have a corresponding change in the phenomenon. This play of forces in the. dead world of rock and mountain has impressed most of us at one time or another with its strange, startling and often weirdly beautiful results. If we have been in a reflective mood, it has probably set us thinking. As these great sound combinations have rolled round us we lave realised the quickness of Nature's response, and also the variety of it. We see how every substance answers the call made on it according, not simply to the intrinsic nature of that call, but according, also, to its own intrinsic nature. The moment we strike that truth, we are at the centre of life and of history. An illuminating flash gleams over a hundred mysteries, and, if it does not penetrate their secret sets them at' least in a new light. Let us see, in some different directions, what the light seems to reveal.

The true echo realm is, let us premise, not the mountains but the field of human life. Rock and hill give back nothing comparable for variety and mystery with the notes that reverberate through the ages, with human souls for their sounding-boards. Our thought-world is full of deep undertones that roll in upon us from an immemorial past. The commonest words we use are blocks of mind-stuff rolled into their present shape by the attrition of measureless years. The ideas of the antique world are all alive to-day, only yielding new tones as they strike fresh mental surfaces. Continually in history have we the phenomenon of voices that had slumbered for millenniums, waking up suddenly and beginning again to fill the world. So was it at the Renaissance, when Europe, sunk for centuries in medieval scholasticism, listened entranced to the mighty musical note from ancient Greece. Today the hoary East, from an even greater antiquity, is whispering its mystic word into the modern ear. It is wonderful to note the tricks which the echo plays in history ; with what strange and sometimes sinister varieties it throws back the original sound. Luther's gospel rolls on him from one point in the shape of a Peasants' War; the liberalism of a Locke and a Boling-broke, so restrained and ordered at first uttered, striking on the fevered imagination of France, echoes back in wild eighteenth-century revolution; the calm research and cautious affirmations of our English Darwin rebound from answering brains on the Continent as a system of materialism and of no religion.

But our real theme is waiting. What has been said on the natural history of echoes was with a view to its special application to the question of religion. There are points here, obvious enough when we actually face them, but which have been strangely overlooked in average religious teaching. It was seen a moment ago that our echo varies directly, not only according to the character of the producing sound, but also to that of the material it strikes on. Have we fairly considered what this means in its bearing on our theories, of Gospel and Christianity ? An evident first result is that Christianity, as a -received fact, must vary with every race and every individual that it severally touches. For here, as with the mountain and the bugle note, it is not the sound only but the surface it reaches that produces the result. The whole problem is raised in that parable of the sower, the real significance of which is generally so entirely missed. The seed is from one basket and of a like quality throughout. But it falls upon a variety of soils and the results are entirely in accordance with the difference in them. The Gospel as thus conceived is, then, a revelation, not simply of the truth contained in itself, but of the mental and spiritual condition of. those it reaches. The proclamation of it is a kind of judgment-day, in whose light stands revealed the precise height to which its hearer has risen. It seems strange to say that a man's gospel is what his pre-existing disposition makes of it. That, indeed, would not be entirely true, for the message brings something of its own, apart from any qualities of the receiver. But these latter, we repeat, tell, and that decisively, at every point of the result.

But what is the outcome of this ? For one thing, that Christianity, as received by nations and individuals, is never an entirely new thing. It can only reach the soul by mingling with what is already there, and taking on its shape and colour. We teach what we call "the same things " to a cultured, subtle Brahmin and to a cannibal of New Guinea. Are they the same things ? Assuredly not to them. The mental product in these separate minds is different with all the difference of their training and of their past. Evidently we cannot make our Christianity a thing separate and apart from the world's earlier culture. The thing is forbidden by everything in history and by everything in the human soul. There is a Greek Christianity, and a Latin, a Saxon and an Indian as many Christianities as there are races and types, as many, indeed, as there are minds. And these forms owe their speciality to the earlier training which they found. The New Testament religion, so far from being isolated and out of relation with other disciplines, could not, the human mind being what it is, do anything at all except in union with them. To what, in the " sower " parable, is owing the thirty or the sixty fold product of some natures How did the ground in these cases come to be so good? There is only one answer. The Gospel here recognises the goodness of the Gospels that went before it.

We find here, in fact, a recognition of what a study of the nature of things, especially as seen in the laws of the mind, makes inevitable —that Christianity can only be properly under-stood as forming part of a great redemptive world-process, embracing all nations and all -ages, and working as certainly beyond as within the sphere of its own direct influence. This truth was indeed recognised in earlier ages of the Church more clearly than it is in some places to-day. The Alexandrian fathers were emphatic in their acceptance of what Clement calls the " dispensation of paganism " ; in their admission that the Greek philosophy was a Divine teaching, and that the whole earlier world was taught of God. What a fine breadth, at once of faith, of insight and of charity, have we in that utterance on this point of Clement in the " Stromata ": " Wherefore His are all men ; some actually knowing Him, others not as yet; some as friends, others as faithful labourers, others as bond servants. He it is who gives to the Greeks their philosophy for He is the Saviour, not of these or those, but of all. . Dispensing in former times His word to some, to some philosophy, now at length by His own personal coming He has closed the course of unbelief ; Greek and barbarian being led for-ward by a separate process to that perfection which is through faith."

The New Testament religion, then, as offered the world is not, nor was intended to be, in. itself an absolute. It is a relative, avowing, in its very terms a dependence for its results on the cultures which had preceded it. But to leave the matter here would be to leave it in halves ; we should have, in fact, precisely one of those half truths which make a whole falsehood. To get the entire truth we need now to look at the other half of our echo. We have seen some of the things included in the reflecting surface. What now of the producing voice ? There are laws on this side as well as the other. When, in the same surroundings, coming back from the same mountain side or cliff formation, we have at different times a different echo, we know the difference here must be in the originating sound. Variation of tone, of quality, of intensity, will be according to what is found in that. It is when we apply to the Gospel this other side of an echo-doctrine that we can re-make the Christian affirmations that our earlier study seemed to question. Innumerable other voices have, be-fore and since Christ, thrown themselves against this mountain mass of humanity. The mass was the same, but what of the response?

It is here that the consideration comes in with such effect that Harnack has urged in his latest work, "Das Wesen des Christentums." We cannot, as he says, judge a great personality simply by himself ; we cannot measure him merely by his own words, his own deeds. To approximate to his full size we must study the effect he has produced on others. And where we cannot hear the voice itself, we can measure it by its echo. When we carry this method to our estimate of Christ there is no doubt about the result. The most merciless critic of the New Testament must recognise that it represents what the first generation of believers thought and felt about Jesus. This is the echo of His personality in human hearts. Was there ever such an one, before or since ? Imagine Luther's or Wesley's most enthusiastic followers using language about them such as is used of Christ in the gospels and the epistles ! And the echo is not in language only, but in lives. Let any one read the account of early Christian living and character in the Apology of Aristides, and ask himself what force must have been operating to produce such effects upon the dissolute and degraded humanity of the Roman Empire ? The Divine life in man as here depicted, be sure, had Divinity for its origin.

What is here written is the merest fragment on our doctrine of echoes. All life and history could indeed be presented in terms of it. Our truest art is ever an echo. It is the reproduction of a pattern in the Mount, the reflection of an Eternal Beauty subsisting before the worlds. And music also. Our Beethovens and Mozarts are none of them inventors or creators. The music was there, with all its laws, its inmost essence and meaning, before they came or humanity was. They are only explorers of what was waiting to be found. Like St. Cecilia, they are listeners to a harmony that floats down from heaven. Our world is indeed full of echoes from that better country. Were our faculties more attuned we should hear them sooner. A saintly life makes a man an auditory nerve of the eternal. That others hear nothing is no disproof of his message. The deniers are simply asserting that they are deaf. The men who have seen do not contradict the blind. They pity them. Says Erasmus of Sir Thomas More : " He discourses with his friends of the life to come in such a way that one cannot fail to recognise how much his mind is in it, how good a hope he has of it." " A reporter of echoes," say you? Yes, but the echoes imply a voice.

( Originally Published 1903 )

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