The Christ Of Today
THE title, without explanation, might seem almost an impertinence. Is the Christ of to-day, then, different from the Christ of yesterday or of tomorrow ? Is not the doctrine of His unchangeableness the centre of Christian orthodoxy ? That may be, and yet our title holds. For it is an expression simply of the relativity of our knowledge. In a sense Christ is the creation of each fresh generation, because each generation creates the world it lives in. The universe is to a worm what the worm can make of it. We cannot get an absolute knowing, because we cannot out ourselves loose from the variableness of our knowing faculty. The universe grows with our growth. It is bigger with every addition to our own mental height. And this law of relativity holds equally in our religious knowledge. The difference between the perception of Christ which recognised Him simply as " the carpenter's son," and the perception of the writer of the fourth gospel marked, let us remember, no difference in the object, but only a difference in the perceivers. And the point of view which gives us our vision is one which, apart from our will and apart from our moral condition, is perpetually changing. The twentieth century cannot see the Christ, if it would, with the eye of the middle ages. It sees with its own, and the later view will carry in it something different from the earlier, We may not quarrel with this fact, far less reproach ourselves because it is so. It lies in the nature of things. It is God's way with us.
What we want, then, is to discover the content of the consciousness of to-day concerning Christ and to reach some conclusions about it. And the first point we note is that our age brings to this study some fresh measuring instruments. By its new scientific process, and especially- by its all-comprehending formula of evolution, it proposes to reinterpret all the phenomena of life, and amongst them all the Christian phenomena. The historical facts are studied in the light of a new science of history, including a science of the growth of legends and myths. The New Testament literature has in our time been put under the microscope and every line of it critically examined. All the facts, all the historical material of that first century, all its mental and moral conditions, all the sources from which light, from however distant a point, could be thrown upon the central story of the Christian origins, have been investigated with a patience and an accuracy to which no earlier time offers a parallel. A great theological school, the Ritschlian, to which modern Christian thought is, in many ways, so much indebted, declares that only along this line of historical investigation is the truth to be reached, and discards accordingly what it calls the metaphysics of religion. In other directions there is exhibited a similar tendency to strip off from Christianity its element of mystery. The emphasis is put on the moral teachings of Christ. The splendid analysis of these teachings by a Wendt and a Bernard Weiss has given the world a new sense of the supreme equality of the Gospel ethic. A Tolstoi, cutting himself loose from the conventional orthodoxy of the Church, finds in these teachings alone what he considers a complete theory of living.
The historians and the critics have, indeed, laboured hard to give us the real Christ, and, especially in their work upon the teaching, it must be said not without fruit. And yet when we examine the Christian consciousness of to-day, where, at least, it is to any adequate degree developed, we are struck to find to how small an extent the external, visible history of Christ enters into the totality of its possession in Him. The history makes Him tangible to us as a human personality, fixes Him firmly upon the ground, gives Him a date in time and a place in nationality. He is there as visible and actual as Tiberius or as Tacitus. And yet, compared with what He stands for in the inner life, this purely personal story is as a, cloud that forms upon a corner of the sky compared with the infinite blue beyond.
If one might speak of final causes in this connection, it could be said that from the beginning it seemed fore-ordained that Christ's external history should play only a subordinate part in His total representation. We seem ever unable to reach Him that way. A man travels over Palestine, studies the topography of Jerusalem and Nazareth, and feels as he comes away that he is not nearer but infinitely further from his quest. The world contains no monument of Christ, no authentic picture. The early fathers who venture descriptions of His personal appearance fall into hopeless contradiction. Apart from the doubtful correspondence with the King of Edema, we have not a line from His hand. We know Shakespeare by Hamlet and Goethe by Faust, but Christ published no book. Even that part of His career of which alone we have any written details, the period of from one to three years of His public service, we do not know how coherently to piece together. All we can say is, there is a personal history, but as compared with the totality of our Christ of today it is a fragment, a suggestion.
Who and what, then, is the Christ of today? First of all, He is the Power behind the New Testament. Not, to the modern mind, so much visibly in it as behind it. Just as science finds in all phenomena the manifestation of an unseen, ever-present Force, so the investigator today, turning over the Christian records, feels himself at every point in contact with the mystery that made them possible. Here, to the scientific mind, is the real question. For to whatever extent the inaccurate or the legendary may have crept in to the New Testament, there is one thing in which its absolute reliability can never be questioned. It represents, with the accuracy of a hair balance, the impression made upon its writers ' by Christ's personality. The fourth gospel is the echo from the soul of its writer of the heavenly voice that had spoken to it. The Pauline Epistles show us what one of the deepest minds the world ever produced felt about Jesus. The different reports of these manifold collaborateurs vary with all manner of individual idiosyncrasy and standpoint. But not one of them fails to make us understand that the One whom he wrote about had made on the writer the impression of something heavenly, mighty, beautiful beyond all that was human, of One who had opened new powers in, and disclosed new horizons to, his own soul. But, by the law of dynamics, a given impression requires an adequate cause. If this was the impression, what of the cause P Thus is Christ to us of to-day for one thing, the Power, the radiant mystery behind the New Testament.
But the Christ of to-day is something more, in a sense we may say, something much greater even, than the Christ of the New Testament. There we behold Him in the restrictions of bodily life. But now we see Him, as a sheer spiritual Power, traversing and transforming the ages. Psychological facts are just as real as any other more so, indeed, for they are the only ones we really know. And the candid inquirer upon our theme has now to investigate the meaning of that Christ of the inner man of whom the subsequent ages are full. We have here to step beyond the bounds of Judea and of Galilee, beyond the bounds of A.D. 30, and to discover the significance of the Christ in St. Paul, in Augustine, in. Bernard, in Wesley. We have to compute here the whole content and quality of that stream of spiritual life which from the first century has been flowing in upon human souls and producing such wondrous experiences. What is the force that, in an Ignatius, condemned to a torturing death, impels him rapturously to welcome fire, cross, and wild beast if only he may "attain unto Jesus Christ"? That is one of a million of the inner testimonies. But they are all to the same effect. It is the simple fact to say that to all ages and conditions Christ has been the life of the soul. In this view the Christ of today is an invisible world power, whose operations are in the interior of human hearts. And the force seems as continuous, as persistent, and as penetrating as that of gravitation.
If the facts are thus, or anything like this, what is the explanation P There is an early one that, so far as we know, has never yet been bettered, and the full significance of which we have perhaps scarcely yet fully grasped. It is that given us in the history of St. Paul. No human being probably has ever been more profoundly under the power of Christ, and yet he had never seen Christ in the flesh, and he scarcely ever refers to the facts of His earthly career. Yet he was persuaded of Christ as yet living and as the very centre of man's unseen world. His own inward life and the resulting external career were made, he unceasingly declared, by His touch from the invisible. Paul's assurance here is the more remarkable as he has nothing to say of the birth stories and nothing about what Harnack calls the Easter stories. What he knew was his own soul and the power on it of this unseen Christ.
What we have reached, then, as our Christ of to-day is, a human history, a personality and a power behind. A cloud in the heavens, shall we say, and the infinite blue beyond, from out of which the cloud has drawn itself ? And the cloud and the blue are one. The mystery is beyond words, and yet this is finally how it shapes itself : The Infinite to be the Infinite must contain the element of personality. It contains more than force ; it contains, also, truth, love, purity, holiness. But these to have their true effect in the human sphere must personalise. The Infinite here must take shape. The limitless blue must yield its cloud. And it has done so. W hen in the secret place of our soul we build our God, we form Him not out of cosmic forces, not out of gravitation and chemical attraction, but out of holiness and love. And, lo ! as we look, the form is as of the Son of Man ! The Absolute as Absolute is not enough for the religious life. Man must have some fixed, visible point, some crystallisation, as it were, of the All on which his love and reverence may rest. That is where the New Testament story meets him. Here he finds the humanising and personalising of the Infinite Goodness. In the study of this Life he tastes eternity. And as he believes, the power to be good flows into him.
Therefore knows he today the Christ, not only as human, but also as Divine ; not only as a figure in history, but as the eternal Now.
God may have other Words for other worlds,
( Originally Published 1903 )
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