A Perpetual Gospel
( Originally Published 1908 )
For I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ.-PAUL.
The beginnings of things are usually small and unpromising. In that company of men and women and children, fleeing out of Egypt by night, an observer could not have seen much prospect of a coming nation whose acts would some time be-come history, and whose literature would become a bible containing precepts and rites which would stamp themselves upon the sons and daughters of thirty centuries. It would have seemed like folly to predict that the simple songs of the Minnesingers or the simple rhymes of a Saxon herdsman would develop into such marvelous results known as Italian and German and French and English literature. At a casual glance there was nothing on board that little storm-buffeted bark which, on a bleak December day, dropped its anchor by the edge of a newly discovered continent, to justify the prophecy that there was present the promise and potency of a republic furnishing an arena upon which liberty should gain many a victory, and the doctrine of human rights should° expand until it had no visible horizon.
It is easy to believe in a thing when its success is fully assured. It is very difficult to espouse a cause when it is weak, when authority and respect-ability are arrayed against it, and its triumph is, of all things, most doubtful. After Columbus had unveiled it, all were able to believe in a western hemisphere; but Europe had scornfully laughed at the adventurous Genoese sailor for harboring such a wild dream. Now that freedom and the rights of the individual conscience have established their claims to existence, we all readily accept them. But we cannot forget that in order that we might hold them in undisturbed possession, countless thousands had to encounter shame and suffering and die without beholding their triumph. Success wears a crown of gold; but those who make success possible for many years must wear a crown of thorns.
"O Faith ! if thou art strong, thine opposite
The wicked and the weak, by some dark law,
Chances have laws as fixed as planets have,
Endurance is the crowning quality,
This kind of faith and patience must have been abundant in the heart of Paul when he wrote his daring words concerning the new religion. It may be recalled that, when he expressed confidence in it, it was without reputation. By far the greater number of those who had noticed it in any way spoke of it either in words of hatred or con-tempt. To some of the Jews, it was a form of blasphemy. To some of the Greeks, it was a form of foolishness. Roman statesmen regarded it as a form of sedition. To the philosophers it was childish; to the politicians it was treasonable ; to the priests it was heretical; to the moralists it was sinful. Tacitus characterizes it as "exitiabilis superstitio"—a pernicious superstition.
In addition to its own apparent inherent lack of power and its real lack of respectability, the difficulty of the problem was increased by the fact that the field into which the new religion came was already occupied by powerful competitors. Into Italy had come much of the material and mental accumulations of the known world.
At intervals, in these modern years, some nation sends out an invitation to all other lands to bring specimens of all that is best and most interesting within their borders to one city. This display becomes a great object lesson for all mankind.
Thus the provinces tributary to Rome had sent thither samples of their art, science, eloquence, and religion. It was a great Exposition of what was best in the world. The adjacent years had produced great poets, great philosophers, great generals and great moralists. Rome was a brilliant center of civilization. No less fluently and no less boastfully than do some of our present rulers, the Emperor Trajan talked of his "enlightened age." Nevertheless, with his face turned toward the city which was so rich and powerful in material and mental splendor, this ardent man experienced no sense of shame in carrying with him only the name and teaching of a young, comparatively unknown Galilean peasant who had been put to death as a criminal.
There may be a zeal that is born of ignorance. Enthusiasm may sometimes be a sign of narrowness,—as where the stream is most restricted its current is most rapid. Experience may lessen hope. Boldness sometimes rises from lack of knowledge. Hence Pope's sarcastic line :
"Fools rush in where angels fear to tread."
But Paul's confidence did not spring from any such cause. He was not ignorant. He had been a pupil of one of Judea's most learned men. He was not narrow. His writings show many signs of acquaintance with the philosophical systems of his day. He quotes the Greek poets as well as the Hebrew prophets. From the fragments of his oratory that survive it is not difficult to connect his fame for eloquence with that of Cicero. It was not the untempered enthusiasm of youth that gave him confidence, for more than half the traditional three-score and ten years had passed when he penned the sentence containing his belief in the transcendent power of Christ's religion. He was no needy adventurer with nothing to lose, if the new movement failed, and much to gain if it succeeded. He belonged to the nobler classes. His mother a Jewess, he inherited the Hebrew loyalty for country and religion. His father a Roman, by his birthright he belonged to that empire which extended from Asia Minor in the east to the Isles of Britain in the west, and from the sands of Africa in the south to the black forests of the north. After comparing the new religion with all other things he found its value undiminished. He was not ashamed to have his jewel set among those which already flashed in the imperial diadem.
Of much more importance to us is the question concerning the standing of this religion in the present age. In passing through a score of centuries, has it irrecoverably lost some of its original merits? Coming into an era that gave Caesar and Pliny and Seneca, and Lucretius, the power of Christianity gradually became apparent. It started a new civilization. But coming into an era that has produced Darwin and Mill and Goethe and Hæckel, does its greatness still stand confessed?
For those whose birth and training have fallen within a church unquestioned allegiance to it seems natural. In some families, for generations, its claims were never doubted. Belief has acquired all the force of habit. But how is it with those whose lives have fallen outside of the active influence of a church? If in its present form, as held and administered by the churches, Christianity were making its appearance now, for the first time, would its right to command be acknowledged? Many great stars are in the firmament overarching these years. A religion which is not outshone by science, by the million applications of power, by gigantic projects for the enlargement of national wealth must be great indeed. Nothing but a star of the first magnitude can stand the test. Is organized Christianity able to endure it? It cannot be concealed that there are thoughtful minds which answer this question in the negative.
Many are perplexed over the failure of their denomination to grow. Others are more troubled about the slight hold the churches in general are keeping upon the thoughtful and most responsible persons outside of the denominations. There can be no doubt that a great and increasing portion of the moral worth of society lies outside of the formal religious organizations. Perhaps this condition is due, not so much to the inherent Godlessness of those without the churches, as to the evident fact that the theology which was once held so firmly and taught so earnestly has no attraction for the awakened public mind of to-day. The modern man no more lives in the mental and moral atmosphere in which that theology, in former times, had its birth and being. He is not so much directly opposed to it as indifferent to it. It is simply ignored because it is so far unrelated to his actual life.
A little reading and discriminating reflection will reveal that the historic hostility to Christianity has never been so much directed against its fundamental principles as against its minor doctrines and foolish or cruel practices. That Emperor Julian, to whom church historians gave the title of "apostate," did not hate the gospel of Christ. He only despised the wranglings of the sects over things of no importance. He was fond of literature and philosophy ; and he instinctively turned away from the rude asceticism, gloomy piety, and senseless janglings of the monks to the cheerfulness, refinement, and intellectual meditativeness of the great Pagan philosophers. Compared with some of the so-called Christian emperors, his rule was just, liberal and humane. Voltaire denounced the cruelties and follies of the church. He justly called the inquisition an infamy. In a moment of indignation he cried out: "Ecrassez L'Infamie!" "Crush the infamous thing." But he never ridiculed religion itself. To a friend he wrote a poem in which he said of Jesus: "His example is holy, his morality divine. The hearts he enlightens, in secret he consoles. In our greatest sorrows he is the one support." Thomas Paine has been often represented as an enemy to Christianity. This is a misrepresentation. His opposition was all con-fined to unreasonable doctrines. When he said : "I believe in one God," he expressed an enduring principle of a religious life. This confession is also a fundamental truth of Christianity. Jesus believed "in one God and no more." When the author of The Age of Reason wrote: "I believe in the equality of man and that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow creatures happy," he gave a condensed statement of the Sermon on the Mount. He felt that there is a Being to be revered, and that there is a religious chord in the heart that ought to vibrate in wonder when it thinks of God and in love when it thinks of humanity. Thus, by far the greater part of that which has popularly passed for enmity to Christianity has been wrongly named.
When, in the present day, reading and reflecting persons are told that, in order to accept Christ they must accept all the church opinions concerning him, it is not strange that many decline. If to be a Christian one must believe in the infallibility of a book; must believe that God is pleased with bloody sacrifices and the death of Jesus was an offering to satisfy the divine justice; must believe that Adam's sin was imputed to the race and eternal pain is the just desert of all by nature; must believe in the essential need of sacraments in the plan of salvation; then, it is not only a mark of good-sense, but it may be also a mark of a more devout soul to refuse the invitation to become what is called a professing Christian. One might well be ashamed of such a religion.
Of course we are often reminded that this kind of religion is very seldom taught by any of the churches. This may be true. Nevertheless, the fact remains that these absurd accompaniments of Christ's gospel lie unrepealed on the statute books of many of the sects and the ordained preachers of these sects have all professed faith in them. Why they have professed to believe them and do not teach them it is not for us, but for them to explain.
If any one will study the gospel, as enunciated in the life and teaching of Jesus, nothing seems clearer than that they contain none of the characteristic and distinctive doctrines of the self-styled orthodox sects. Every scholar knows that the doctrine of the person of Jesus forming the second part of a trinity was never taught by Christ himself. It came from Greek philosophy. He never said that the Jewish writings are infallible. That idea originated in the sixteenth century when the Protestants denied the authority of the Pope. Wise minds will draw the line between that which is accidental and that which is essential in religion. When we are asked to believe that Christ is responsible for the many absurd rites and doctrines that bear his name, let us not act like children or persons who have lost their reason. We can all read and a copy of the gospels can surely be found. When a picture of the church in the middle ages rises into view with its complex creeds and gorgeous ceremonies, and we are told that it is Christianity, we may turn to the New Testament and read that the Kingdom of heaven comes not in external pomp and splendor. There we read that the Kingdom of God is within. When we are told that Christianity is in confessions and catechisms, we may hear Christ saying: "The letter killeth; the spirit alone giveth life." The many sects are not found in the gospel of Christ, for his last prayer was that all his followers might be one. The warring classes into which society is separated find no standing ground in the ethics of the Son of Man. For all those who transgress the law of common justice, the Golden Rule is a perpetual rebuke. In the name of Christ no army of conquest would ever march. Could so-called Christian nations hear and heed the words : "Blessed are the merciful," and : "Blessed are the peace-makers," armies would sheathe their swords; would bind up the wounds they had made; and would help nature turn fields made desolate by trampling squadrons into harvest to sustain and flowers to cheer mankind.
Churchmen have tried to make sharp distinctions between a natural and a revealed religion. This seems unnecessary; for a wider survey shows that, in their essential qualities, a natural and revealed religion are identical. Long before the Bible was written man believed in God. Long before the Hebrew prophets and bards had caused the Palestine air to tremble with their eloquence and poetry the race at large had discovered the value of righteous conduct. Ages of experience had brought the lesson that vice inevitably leads to individual and national ruin and that virtue is the only path to permanent success. The ethics of the Bible were forged out of human experience. The great word "Love," that Jesus uttered as the fulfilling of life, everywhere is echoed in nature, from the birds in the woods caring for their young up to the human mother who would give her life for her child. The hope of continued existence is a Christian possession; but the same hope has been present in the heart of universal humanity. Thus the gospel of Christ and the gospel of mankind are one. Each is the echo of the other. Both try to arrest mortals and guide them toward the highest good. Of many diverse rays, there is but one light. Composed of many notes, there is only one realm of sound. So religion has but one source. Its many colors are only deflected beams of the one central radiance. Its variations proceed from one central theme. The Gospel of Christ is the richer coloring given to the June prairies and the October woods. It is a grander symphony composed on the never failing theme of love to man and God.
One of the most urgent tasks laid upon the church, in these days, is to free the gospel from the many trammels that have hindered it. It must be shown that Christ belongs, not to those alone who accept the doctrines of some special sect, but to all those who believe in goodness, who aspire to live worthily, whose motive is spiritual progress, and who are seeking salvation through the unfolding and refining of all their nature. It is no longer possible to make belief in a purely denominational doctrine the test of one's fitness to be called a Christian. It is no less absurd than it would be to make belief or non-belief in Protection or Government ownership a test of one's patriotism. It is encouraging to know that many churchmen are recognizing this. Many are saying that to be a Christian consists in the choice of Christ as a moral and spiritual example and in trying to follow whither he may lead. This is well, indeed, but it seems strange that the discovery was not made much earlier. So evident a thing ought not to have been overlooked for an instant. Perhaps some of our more advanced theologians may stumble upon the fact that the sun shines by day and the stars by night; that a rose is fragrant and the oriole's song is sweet!
Could religion throw off all its burdens of unessential doctrines it would advance more rapidly. Seen as an indwelling divine influence in the soul; as giving existence a boundless outlook ; teaching that love is a high and undying motive; that mental and moral possessions are the only imperishable riches ; that the doing of duty is the only road to honor and success; and that, for us, Christ is the standing illustration of it,—such a religion seems so reasonable that the intellect is powerless to overthrow it and so rich in exalted sentiment that the heart gladly opens to receive it. By what name it is known is unimportant. Universal religion, Christian religion, Natural religion, Revealed religion,—it is all one perpetual gospel of humanity. Its principles are unassailable by logic, because they are not founded upon the demands of some special sect. They are builded upon the experience and defended by the eloquence of countless generations of mankind. Its prayers are all the diviner, its hymns all the more touching, because they are utterance of the needs and aspirations of the universal human heart. Building temples, inspiring bibles, inner meaning of picture and poem and music, refining and exalting the heart, teaching mankind to be brothers, leading to usefulness and happiness here and boundless scenes and opportunities hereafter,—it should be the most prized of all man's great possessions.
As this gospel has come from all the past, so it goes toward all the future. Its triumph is assured. When present schemes and theologies shall have faded from memory ; when present states and churches shall have crumbled into ruins and new states and churches shall stand where they once stood ; when from the commingling of many races upon these western shores shall have sprung a new race bearing, modified, the characteristics of its many diverse ancestors, and works out its destiny,—then will this religion, fair and strong as in its youth, be present to rebuke, to inspire, to strengthen and console the sons and daughters of time. Then, as now, every one who, having seen its divine meaning makes it the motive and guide of his life, like the brave saint from Tarsus may say : Of this gospel I am not ashamed, for it is, indeed, the power of God unto salvation to every one who believes in it.
Sermons By Reed Stuart:
Nature As A Means Of Grace
A Perpetual Gospel
The Palestine Philosophy Of Life
A Twenty Years Pastorate
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