Letters on Spiritual Christianity——PERSONAL
My dear ——,
You tell me that you fear your faith is far too roughly shaken to suffer now from anything that may be said against miracles: you are utterly convinced that they are false. As for the possibility of worshipping a non-miraculous Christ, “the very notion of it,” you say, “is inconceivable: it seems like a new religion, and must surely be no more than a very transient phase of thought.” But you would “very much like to know what processes of reasoning led to such a state of mind,” and how long I have retained it.
I think I am hardly doing you an injustice in inferring from some other expressions in your letter, about “the difficulty which clergymen must necessarily feel in putting themselves into the mental position of the laity,” that you entertain some degree of prejudice against my views, not only because they appear to you novel, but because—although you hardly like to say so—they come from a clerical source, and are likely to savour of clericalism. Let me see if I can put your thoughts into the plain words from which your own modesty and sense of propriety have caused you to refrain. “A clergyman,” you say to yourself, “has enlisted; he has deliberately taken a side and is bound to fight for it. After twenty years of seeing one side of a question, or only so much of the other side as is convenient to see, how can even a candid, middle-aged cleric see two sides impartially? All his interests 6combine with all his sympathies to make him at least in some sense orthodox. The desire of social esteem, the hope of preferment, loyalty to the Church, loyalty to Christ Himself, make him falsely true to that narrow form of truth which he has bound himself to serve. Even if truth and irresistible conviction force him to deviate a little from the beaten road of orthodoxy, he will find his way back by some circuitous by-path; and of this kind of self-persuasion I have a remarkable instance in the person of my old friend, who rejects miracles and yet persuades himself that he worships Christ. He has cut away his foundations and now proceeds to substitute an aerial basis upon which the old superstructure is to remain as before. Such a novel condition of mind as this can only be a very transient phase.”
I do not complain of this prejudice against novelty, although it comes ungraciously from one who is himself verging on advanced and novel views. It is good that new opinions should be suspiciously scrutinized and passed through the quarantine of prejudice. And when a man feels (as I do) that he has at last attained a profound spiritual truth which will, in all probability, be generally accepted by educated Christians who are not Roman Catholics, before the twentieth century is far advanced, he can well afford to be patient of prejudice. Even though the truth be not accepted now, it is pretty sure to be restated by others with more skill and cogency, and perhaps at a fitter season, and to gain acceptance in due time. But when you speak of my opinions as a “transient phase,” which I am likely soon to give up, and when you shew a manifest suspicion that any modicum of orthodoxy in me must needs be the result of a clerical bias, then I hardly see how to reply except by giving you a detailed answer to your question about “the processes” by which I was led to “such a novel condition of mind.” Yet how to do this without being somewhat egotistically autobiographical I do not know. Some good may come of egotism perhaps, if it leads you to see that even a clergyman may think for himself, and work out a religious problem without regard to consequences. So on the whole I think I will risk egotism for your sake. A few paragraphs of autobiography may serve as a summary of the argument which I might draw out more fully in future letters. If I am tedious, lay the blame on yourself and on your insinuation that my views must be “a transient phase.” A man who is getting on towards his fiftieth year and has retained a form—a novel form if you please—of religious conviction for a full third of his life may surely claim that his views—so far at least as he himself is concerned—are not to be called “transient.” Prepare then for my Apologia.
During my childhood I was very much left to myself in the matter of religion, and may be almost said to have picked it up in a library. I was never made to learn the Creed by heart, nor the Catechism, nor even the Ten Commandments; and to this day I can recollect being reproached by a class-master when I was nearly fourteen years old, for not knowing which was the Fifth Commandment. All that I could plead in answer was, that if he would tell me what it was about, I could give him the substance of the precept. Having read through nearly the whole of Adam Clarke’s commentary as a boy of ten or eleven, and having subsequently imbued myself with books of Evangelical doctrine, I was perfectly “up,” or thought I was, in the Pauline scheme of salvation, and felt a most lively interest—on Sundays, and in dull moments on week days, and especially in times of illness, of which I had plenty—in the salvation of my own soul. My religion served largely to intensify my natural selfishness. In better and healthier moments, my conscience revolted against it; and at times I felt that the morality of Plutarch’s Lives was 8better than that of St. Paul’s Epistles—as I interpreted them. Only to one point in the theology of my youthful days can I now look back with pleasure; and that is to my treatment of the doctrine of Predestinarianism and necessity. On this matter I argued as follows: “If God knows all things beforehand, God has them, or may have them, written down in a book; and if all things that are going to happen are already written down in a book, it’s of no use our trying to alter them. So, if it’s predestined that I shall have my dinner to-day, I shall certainly have it, even if I don’t come home in time, or even though I lock myself up in my bedroom. But practically, if I don’t come home in time, I know I shall not have my dinner. Therefore it’s no use talking about these things in this sort of way, because it doesn’t answer; and I shall not bother myself any more about Predestination, but act as thought it did not exist.” This argument, if it can be called an argument, I afterwards found sheltering itself under the high authority of Butler’s Analogy; and I still adhere to it, after an experience of more than five and thirty years. To some, this “Short Way with Predestinarians” may seem highly illogical; but it works.
Up to this time I had been little, if at all, impressed by preaching. Our old Rector was a good Greek scholar and a gentleman; but he had a difficulty in making his thoughts intelligible to any but a refined minority among the congregation; and even that select few was made fewer, partly by an awkwardness of gesture which reminded one of Dominie Sampson, and partly by a grievous impediment 9in his speech. Consequently I had been permitted, and indeed encouraged, never to listen, nor even to appear to listen, to the weekly sermon; and as soon as the Rector gave out his text, I used to take up my Bible and read steadily away till the sermon was over. This sort of thing went on till I was about sixteen years old; when a new Rector came to preach his first sermon. That was a remarkable Sunday for me. To my surprise, when he read out his text, and I, in accordance with unbroken precedent, reached out my hand for the invariable Bible, my father, somewhat abruptly, took it out of my hand, bidding me “for once shut up that book and listen to a sermon.” I can still remember the resentment I felt at this infringement on my theological and constitutional rights, and how I stiffened my neck and hardened my heart and determined “hearing to hear, but not to understand.” But I was compelled to understand. For here, to my astonishment, was an entirely new religion. This man’s Christianity was not a “scheme of salvation”; it was a faith in a great Leader, human yet divine, who was leading the armies of God against the armies of Evil; “Each for himself is the Devil’s own watchword: but with us it must be each for Christ, and each for all.” The scales fell from my eyes. After all, then, Christianity was not less noble than Plutarch’s lives; it was more noble. There was to be a contest; yet not each man contending for his own soul, but for good against evil. A Christian was not a mercenary fighting for reward, nor a slave fighting for fear of stripes, but a free soldier fighting out of loyalty to Christ and to humanity.
But what about the doctrine of the Atonement, Justification by Faith, and the other Pauline doctrines? About these our new Rector did not say much that I could understand. He was a foremost pupil of Mr. Maurice, and in Mr. Maurice’s books (which now began to be read 10freely in my home) I began to search for light on these questions. But help I found none or very little, except in one book. Mr. Maurice seemed to me, and still seems, a very obscure writer. Partly owing to a habit of taking things for granted and “thinking underground,” partly (and much more) owing to a confusing use of pronouns for nouns and other mere mechanical defects of style, he requires very careful reading. But his book on Sacrifice, after I had three times read it through, gave me more intellectual help than perhaps any other book on Christian doctrine; for here first I learned to look below the surface of a rite at its inner meaning, and also to discern the possibility of illustrating that inner meaning by the phenomena of daily life. It was certainly a revelation to me to know that the sacrifice of a lamb by a human offerer was nothing, except so far as it meant the sacrifice of a human life, and that the sacrifice of a life meant no more (but also no less) than conforming one’s life to God’s will, doing (and not saying merely) “Thy will, not mine, be done.” If one theological process could be illustrated in this way, why not another? If “sacrifice” was going on before my eyes every day, why might there not be also justification by faith, imputation of righteousness, remission of sins, yes, even atonement itself? Thus there was sown in my mind the seed of the notion that all the Pauline doctrines might be natural, and that Redemption through Christ was only a colossal form of that kind of redemption which was going on around me, Redemption through Nature. This thought was greatly stimulated by the study of In Memoriam, which was given to me by a college friend about the time when I lost a brother and a sister, both dying within a few weeks of one another. I read the poem again and again, and committed much of it to memory; and it exerted an “epoch-making” influence on my life. However, for a long time this notion of the 11naturalness of Redemption existed for me merely in the germ.
Meantime, as to the miracles I had no doubts at all, or only such transient doubts as were suggested by pictures of Holy Families and other sacred subjects, which exhibited Christ as essentially non-human, with a halo around his head, or as an infant with three outstretched fingers blessing his kneeling mother. As a youth, I took it for granted that God could not become man save by a miracle, and therefore that the God-man must work miracles. Further, I assumed that Moses and some of the prophets had worked miracles, and if so, how could it be that the Servants should work miracles and the Son should not? As I grew towards manhood, such rising qualms of doubt as I felt on this point were stilled by the suggestion (which I found in Trench’s book on miracles) that the miracles of Christ must be in accordance with some latent law of spiritual nature. It was a little strange certainly that these latent laws should be utilised only for the children of Abraham, and it was inconvenient that the miracles of Moses should be, materially speaking, so stupendously superior to those of Christ; but I took refuge in the greater beauty and emblematic meaning of the latter. Even at the time when I signed the Thirty-nine Articles I had no suspicion that the miracles were not historical. Partly, I had never critically and systematically studied the Gospels as one studies Thucydides or Æschylus; partly the miracles had always been kept in the background by my Rector and the books of the Broad Church School, and I had been accustomed to rest my faith on Christ Himself and not on the miracles; and so it came to pass that, for some time after I was ordained, I was quite content to accept all the miracles of the Old and New Testaments, and to be content with the explanation suggested by “latent laws.”
But now that I was ordained, I set to work in earnest (the stress of working for a degree and the need of earning one’s living had left no time for it before) at the study of the New Testament. Of course I had “got it up” before, often enough, for the purpose of passing examinations; but now I began to study it for its own sake and at leisure. While reading for the Theological Tripos I had been struck by the inadequacy of many of the theological books that I had had to “get up.” Especially on the first three Gospels—looking at them critically, as I had been accustomed to look at Greek and Latin books—I was amazed to find that little or nothing had been done by English scholars to compare the different styles and analyse the narratives into their component parts. For such a task I had myself received some little preparation. I had picked up my classics without very much assistance from the ordinary means, mainly by voluntarily committing to memory whole books or long continuous passages of the best authors, and so imbuing myself with them as to “get into the swing of the author.” I had early begun to tabulate these differences of style; and in my final and most important University examination I remember sending up more than one piece of composition rendered in two styles. Though I was never a first-rate composer, owing to my want of practice at school, this method had succeeded in bringing me to the front in “my year”; and I now desired to apply my classical studies to the criticism of the first three Gospels. It seemed to me a monstrous thing that we should have three accounts of the same life, accounts closely agreeing in certain parts, but widely varying in others, and yet that, with all the aids of modern criticism, we should not be able to determine which accounts, or which parts of the three accounts, were the earliest. At the same time I began to apply the same method, though without the same attempt at exactness, to the study of the text of Shakespeare; in which I perceived some differences of style that implied difference of date, and some that appeared to imply difference of authorship.
About this time people began to talk in popular circles concerning Evolution, and alarm began to be felt in some quarters at the difficulty of harmonizing its theories with theology. With these fears I never could in the least degree sympathize. I welcomed Evolution as a luminous commentary on the divine scheme of the Redemption of mankind. That most stimulating of books, the Advancement of Learning, had taught me to be prepared to find that in very many cases “while Nature or man intendeth one thing, God worketh another”; and it was a joy to me to find new light thrown by Evolution on the unfathomable problems of waste, death, and conflict. Death and conflict could never be thus explained—I knew that—but one was enabled to wait more patiently for that explanation which will never come to us till we are behind the veil, when one found that death and conflict had at least been subordinated to progress and development. So I thought; and so I said from the pulpit of one of the Universities in times when the clergy had not yet learned to call Darwin “a man of God.” My doctrine was thought “advanced” in those days; but time has gone on and left me, in some respects, behind it. I should never have thought, and should not think now, of calling Darwin “a man of God,” except so far as all patient seekers after truth are men of God: but I still adhere to the belief that Evolution has made it more easy to believe in a rational, that is to say a non-miraculous, though supernatural, Christianity.
In this direction, then, my thoughts went forward and, so far, found no stumbling block. Guided by the poets and analytic novelists, I was also learning to find in the study of the phenomena of daily life fresh illustrations of the Pauline theology, confirming and developing my notion (now of some years’ standing) that the Redemption of mankind was natural, nothing more than a colossal representation of the spiritual phenomena that may be seen in ordinary men and women every day of our lives; just as the lightning-flash is no more than (upon a large scale) the crackling of the hair beneath the comb. Good men and women, I perceived, are daily redeeming the bad, bearing their sins, imputing righteousness to them, giving up their lives for them, and imbuing them with a good spirit. This thought, as it gained force, was a great help towards a rational Christianity.
But now my feet began to be entangled in snares and pitfalls. I had begun the study of the Greek Testament, believing that it would bring forth some new truth, and assuming that all truth must tend to the glory of God and of Christ. “Christ,” I said, “is the living Truth, so that I have but, as Plato says, to ‘follow the Argument,’ and that must lead me to the truth, and therefore to Him.” But I was not prepared for the result. After some years of work I found myself gradually led to the conclusion that the miraculous element in the Gospels was not historical. A mere glance at the Old Testament shewed that, if there was not evidence enough for the miracles in the New Testament, much less was there for the miracles in the Old.
Before me rose up day by day fresh facts and inferences, not only demonstrating the insufficiency of the usual evidence to prove that the miracles were true, but also indicating a very strong probability that they were false. Often, as I studied the accounts of a miracle, I could see it as it were in the act of growing up, watch its first entrance into the Gospel narrative, note its modest beginning, its subsequent development: and then I was forced to give it up. Worst of all, that miracle of miracles which was most precious to me, the Resurrection of Christ, began to appear to be supported by the feeblest evidence of all. I had not at that time learned to distinguish between the Resurrection of Christ’s material body and the Resurrection of His Spirit or spiritual body. Christ’s Resurrection seemed to me therefore in those days to be either a Resurrection of the material and tangible body or no Resurrection at all. Now for the Resurrection of the material body I began to be forced to acknowledge that I could find no basis of satisfying testimony. I had heard an anecdote of the Head of some College of Oxford in old days, how he fell asleep after dinner in the Combination Room, while the Fellows over their wine were discussing theology, and presently made them all start by exclaiming as he awoke, “After all there is no evidence for the Resurrection of Christ!” I realized that now, not with a start, but gradually, and with a growing feeling of deep and wearing anxiety. If the Resurrection of Christ fell, what was to become of my faith in Christ?
Amid this impending ruin of my old belief I saw one tower standing firm. It was clear that something had happened after the death of Christ to make new men of His disciples. It was clear also that St. Paul had seen something that had induced him to believe that Christ had risen from the dead. That which had convinced St. Paul, an enemy, might very well convince the Apostles, the devoted followers of Christ. What was this something? It seemed to me that I ought to try to find out. Meantime, I determined to adopt the advice I gave you in my last letter—to stand upon the old ways and look around me and consider my path before taking another step. Circumstances had placed me in such a position that I was not called on to decide whether a clergyman could entertain such views as were looming on me, and remain a clergyman. I was not engaged in any work directly or indirectly requiring clerical qualifications; and as far as my affections and sentiments were concerned, I went heartily with the services of the Church of England.
So I resolved to put aside all theology for two or three years and to devote myself, during that time, to literary work of another kind. Meantime, I would retain, as far as possible, the old religious ways of thought, and, at all events, the old habits. None the less, I would not give up the intention of investigating the whole truth about the Resurrection. That there was some nucleus of truth I felt quite certain; and even if that truth had been embedded in some admixture of illusion, what then? Were there no illusions in the history of science? Were there no illusions in the history of God’s Revelation of Himself through the Old and New Testaments? Might it not be God’s method of Revelation that men should pass through error to the truth? This line of thought seemed promising, but I would not at once follow it. I would wait three years and then work out the question of the influence of illusion on religious truth.
An old college acquaintance, an agnostic, whom I met about this time, was not a little startled when I told him my thoughts. He frankly informed me that, though I was “placed in a painful position,” I was “bound to speak out.” I also thought that I was “bound to speak out”; but I did not feel bound to obtrude immature views upon the world, with the result perhaps of afterwards altering or recanting them. So I took time, plenty of time; I looked about me, on life as well as on books; I formed a habit of testing assumptions and asking the meaning of common words, especially such words as knowledge, faith, certainty, belief, proof, and the like. Believing that theology was made for man and not man for theology, I began to test theological as well as other propositions by the question “How do they work?” Meantime I tried my utmost to do the duties of my daily life without distraction and with the same energy as before, hoping that life itself, and the needs of life, would throw some light upon the question, “What knowledge about God is necessary for men who are to do their duty? And how can that knowledge be obtained?”
By these means I was led to see that a great part of what we call knowledge does not come to us, as we falsely suppose it does, through mere logic or Reason, nor through unaided experience, but through the emotions and the Imagination, tested by Reason and experience. Even in the world of science, I found that the so-called “laws and properties of matter,” nay, the very existence of matter, were nothing more than suggestions of the scientific Imagination aided by experience. A great part of the environment and development of mankind appeared to have been directed towards the building up of the imaginative faculty, without which, it seemed that religion, as well as poetry, would have been non-existent. So by degrees, it occurred to me that perhaps I had been on the wrong track in my search after religious truth. I had been craving a purely historical and logical proof of Christ’s divinity, and had felt miserable that I could not obtain it. But now I perceived that I was not intended to obtain it. Not thus was Christ to be embraced. There must indeed be a basis of fact: but after all it was to that imaginative faculty which we call “faith,” that I must look, at least in part, for the right interpretation of fact. That Christ could be apprehended only by faith was a Pauline common-place; but that Christ’s Resurrection could be grasped only by faith, and not by the acceptance of evidence, was, to me, a new proposition. But I gradually perceived that it was true. I might be doubtful whether Thomas touched the side of the risen Saviour, yet sure that Christ had risen from the dead in the Spirit, and had manifested Himself after death to His disciples. My standard of certainty being thus shifted, many things of which I had formerly felt certain became uncertain; but, by way of compensation, other things—and these the most necessary and vital became more certain than ever. I felt less inclined to dogmatize about the existence of matter; but my soul was imbued with a fuller conviction of the existence of a God; and deeper still became the feeling that, so far as things are known to me, there is nothing in heaven or earth more divine than Christ.
Thus at last light dawned upon my darkness; and when the sun rose once more upon me, it was the same sun as before, only more clearly seen above the mists of illusion which had before obscured it. The old beliefs of my youth and childhood remained or came back to me, exhibiting Jesus of Nazareth as the Incarnate Son of God, the Eternal Word triumphant over death, seated at the right hand of the Father in heaven, the source of life and light to all mankind. Like Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress, I found myself suddenly freed from a great burden—a burden of doubts, and provisos, and conditions which, in old days, had seemed to forbid me from accepting Jesus as the Lord and Saviour of mankind unless I could strain my conscience to accept as true a number of stories many of which I almost certainly knew to be false. In order to believe in Christ, it was now no longer needful to believe in suspensions of the laws of Nature: on the contrary, all Nature seemed to combine to prepare the way to conform humanity to that image of God which was set forth in the Incarnation. I did not, as some Christians do, ignore the existence of Satan (and almost of sin) which Christ Himself most clearly recognized; but I seemed to see that evil was being gradually subordinated to good, and falsehood made the stepping-stone to truth.
Through evil to good; through sin to a righteousness higher than could have been attained save through sin; through falsehood to the truth; through superstition to religion—this seemed to me the divine evolution discernible in the light that was shed from the cross of Christ. No longer now did it seem impossible or absurd that the Gospel of the Truth might have been temporarily obscured by illusions or superstitions even in the earliest times.
I think it must be now some ten years since I settled down to the belief that the history of Christianity had been the history of profound religious truth, contained in, and preserved by, illusions; an ascent of worship through illusion to the truth. A belief that has been fifteen years in making, and for ten years more has been reviewed, criticized, and finally retained as being historically true and spiritually healthful, you must not call, I think, “a transient phase”. But I forgive you the expression. A dozen pages of autobiography are a sufficient penalty for three offending words.