Letters on Spiritual Christianity – INTRODUCTORY
My dear ——,
I am more pained than surprised to infer from your last letter that your faith has received a severe shock. A single term at the University has sufficed to make you doubt whether you retain a belief in miracles; and “If miracles fall, the Bible falls; and with the fall of the Bible I lose Christ; and if I must regard Christ as a fanatic, I do not see how I can believe in a God who suffered such a one as Christ thus to be deceived and to deceive others.” Such appear to be the thoughts that are passing through your mind, as I infer them from incidental and indirect expressions rather than from any definite statement.
Unfortunately I understand all this too well not to be able to follow with ease such phases of disbelief even when conveyed in hints. Many young men begin by being taught to believe too much, a great deal too much. Then, when they find they must give up something, (the husk of the kernel) their teachers too often bid them swallow husk and all, on pain of swallowing nothing: and they prefer to swallow nothing. An instance of this at once occurs to me. Many years ago, a young man who wished to be ordained, asked me to read the Old Testament with him. We set to work at once and read some miraculous history—I forget precisely what—in which I thought my young friend must needs see a difficulty. So I began to point out how the difficulty might be at least diminished by critical considerations. I say “I began”: for I stopped as soon as I had begun, finding that my friend saw no difficulty at all. He accepted every miracle on every page of the Old and New Testament on the authority of the Bible; just as a Roman Catholic accepts every ecclesiastical doctrine on the authority of the Church. This seemed to me not a state of mind that I ought to interfere with: I might do more harm than good. So I stopped. But I have since regretted it. Circumstances prevented me from meeting my friend for some weeks. During that time he had fallen in with companions of negative views, against which he had no power to maintain his position: and he had passed from believing everything to believing nothing. That is only too easy a transition; but I hope you will never experience it. Surely there is a medium between swallowing the husk, and throwing the nut away. Is it not possible to throw away the husk and keep the kernel?
Now I have no right (and therefore I try to feel no wish) to extract from you a confidence that you do not care to repose in me. I have never tried to shake any one’s faith in miracles. There may come—I think there will soon come—a time when a belief in miracles will be found so incompatible with the reverence which we ought to feel for the Supreme Order as almost to necessitate superstition, and to encourage immorality in the holder of the belief: and then it might be necessary to express one’s condemnation of miracles plainly and even aggressively. But that time has not come yet: and for most people, at present, an acceptance of miracles seems, and perhaps is, a necessary basis for their acceptance of Christ. In such minds I would no more wish to disturb the belief in miracles than I would shake a little child’s faith that his father is perfectly good and wise. But when a man says, “the miracles of Christ are inextricably connected with the life of Christ; I am forced to reject the former, and therefore I must also reject the latter”—then I feel moved to shew him that there is no such inextricable connection, and that Christ will remain for us a necessary object of worship, even if we detach the miracles from the Gospels. Now I cannot do this without shewing that the miraculous accounts stand on a lower level than the rest of the Gospel narrative, and that they may have been easily introduced into the Gospels without any sufficient basis of fact, and yet without any intention to deceive; so that the discrediting of the miracles will not discredit their non-miraculous context. In doing this, I might possibly destroy any lingering vestige of belief which you may still have in the miraculous; and this I am most unwilling to do, if you find miracles a necessary foundation of Christian faith.
I do not therefore quite know as yet how I ought to try to help you, except by saying that I have myself passed through the same valley of doubt through which you are passing now, and that I have reached a faith in Christ which is quite independent of any belief in the miraculous, and which enables me not only to trust in Him, but also to worship Him. This new faith appears to me purer, nobler, and happier, as well as safer, than the old: but I do not feel sure that it is attainable (in the present condition of thought) without more unprejudiced reflection and study than most people are willing to devote to subjects of this kind. And to give up the old faith, without attaining the new, would be a terrible disaster. Hence I am in doubt, not about what is best, but about what may be best for you. Do not at all events assume—so much I can safely say—that you must give up your faith in Christ, if you are obliged to give up your belief in miracles. At the very least, wait a while; stand on the old paths; keep up the old habits, above all, the habit of prayer; pause and look round you a little before taking the next step. I do not say, though I am inclined to say, “avoid for the present all discussions with people of negative views,” because I fear my advice, though really prudent, would seem to you cowardly: but I do unhesitatingly say, “avoid all frivolous talk, and light, airy, epigrammatic conversations on religious subjects.” You cannot hope to retain or regain faith if you throw away the habit of reverence. With this advice, farewell for the present.