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Letters on Spiritual Christianity——THE WORSHIP OF CHRIST

With Christ My Savior

Letters on Spiritual Christianity——THE WORSHIP OF CHRIST

My dear ——,

Your letter of yesterday raises two objections, which I will do my best to meet. First, if I regard Christ as God, I ought not, you think, to stumble at the miracles, but to welcome, and even to require, them; and secondly, you are not satisfied with my definition of worship. Let me deal first with your first objection, restating it in your own words.

“I admit,” you say, “that Jesus, even without miracles, would be worthy of worship in your sense of the word; but that is not the same thing as regarding Him as the Eternal Son of God, the Creative Word. I agree with Plato that there is nothing more like God than the man who is as just as man may be; but you demand more of me than this; you wish me to regard Him not as being merely ‘like God’ but as ‘being God,’ ‘very God of very God.’ Surely you must therefore admit that Jesus was exceptional, and not ‘in the course of nature;’ and the introduction into the visible world of such an exceptional and supernatural Being surely makes it antecedently probable, if not necessary, that He would bring with Him some quite exceptional phenomena in the way of evidence. The Miraculous Conception and Resurrection of Christ’s Body (if only they were true) would supply just the requisite evidence that Jesus was the Creative Word, Lord over the issues of life and death. If the creative Power of God, no less than the Righteousness and the Love of God, was incarnate in the person of Jesus, it would have been no less manifest in His life and works. But you desire to reduce Him to a being in no way distinguishable from other men except by superior moral excellence. There is, it seems to me, no logical connection between moral excellence and creative power. The two attributes, being generically different, demand different kinds of evidence to substantiate them.

“Again,” you continue, “even if I put aside your contention that Jesus is the Word of God, there remains your assertion that He is sinless. Now a sinless Jesus is, in Himself, a miracle; and if you call on me to believe that Jesus was without sin, you ought to see no antecedent improbability, nay, you ought to see an antecedent probability, that He would work miracles.”

Well, I feel that we are walking in a slippery region—this land of antecedent metaphysical probabilities; but I will try to follow you. Let me take your second objection first. Does it then really seem to you no less antecedently probable that the Word of God, made man, should have the power (say) of walking on water, than that He should be sinless? Surely we see in the best men approximations to sinlessness, but no approximations at all to what spiritualists (I believe) call “levitation”! In proportion as men approximate to our conception of God, in that proportion they are free from sin, but they do not “levitate;” hence, while we are led to believe that the Man who completely represents God (the Word of God Incarnate) will be absolutely sinless, we are led to no such conclusion as to “levitation.” Or will you maintain that the best men shew any germ of any the least power to suspend any the least law of nature? There is no vestige of any such tendency around us; and your only support for such a belief would be found in the miracles of the Old Testament, which you yourself deny, and as to which I shall have something to say in a future letter.

I admit however that there is one seeming argument derived from the “mighty works” of healing undoubtedly worked by the disciples of Jesus as well as by Jesus Himself. Without anticipating a subject that must be deferred to a future letter, I will merely ask you at this stage to distinguish between those “mighty works” on the one hand which were marvellous but not miraculous, and the “miracles” on the other hand which, if true, involved suspensions of the laws of nature. That Jesus may have healed certain diseases through faith, would be acknowledged by the most sceptical physiologists as quite possible in accordance with the laws of nature; and this power would be consistent with such a faith-inspiring personality as we attribute to our Lord. Even from ordinary men and women there “goes out virtue,” we scarcely know how, to the sick and suffering who are imbued with their hopefulness, their cheerfulness, their faith; much more might we suppose that from the Ideal of Humanity “virtue” would probably go forth in unique measure and produce unique results, though always in accordance with those laws of material nature to which He had submitted Himself. But this is no argument for real “miracles”; and—even while arguing—I protest against this method of arguing about facts, from metaphysical “antecedent probability.” I do not object to the argument from “antecedent probability” where you can appeal to experience and argue from what happened in the past to what is likely to happen in the future. But where you can have no such evidence (because the Son of God was not twice incarnate); where the question is, “Did Jesus do this or did He not?” and where we have history and evidence to guide us, as to what He did and said; it seems to me we ought to be guided by evidence and not by “antecedent probabilities,” especially when these “probabilities” are derived from nothing but metaphysical considerations.

But you tell me that you see “no logical connection between moral excellence and creative power;” and another passage in your letter says that “we have no reason for thinking that the best men shew any tendency to approximate, in creative power, to the co-eternal Word.” What do you thence infer? Apparently this, that, as Christ revealed God’s righteousness and love by His own righteousness and love, so He must have revealed God’s creative power by His own creative acts. I, too, believe that. But by what creative acts? By changing water into wine, or seven loaves into seven thousand loaves, or three fishes into three thousand fishes? Think of it seriously. Do these two or three abrupt and dislocated achievements appear to you adequately to represent the quiet, gradual, orderly, creative power of the true Word of God, by whom the heavens were made? For my part I see a noble meaning in your words, but the meaning I see in them is not what you mean. It was necessary—so far I agree with you—that the Incarnate Word should manifest God’s creative Power as well as His Love and Righteousness. But how? Can you not answer for yourself without my prompting? Does not your own conscience suggest to you what is the highest effort of creative power? Are we not taught—and do not our hearts respond to the teaching—that God is a Spirit? And, if God is a Spirit, must not the highest kind of creation be, not material, but spiritual?

Now I maintain that it is a greater, more sublime, and more God-like act to create righteousness in accordance with God’s spiritual laws than to create loaves and fishes and wine against God’s material laws. And I maintain also—in opposition to your opinion—that “the best men” do manifest “a tendency to approximate in creative power to the co-eternal Word,” so far as concerns this, the highest kind of creation. It is hard, very hard, for us to realize—in spite of the teaching of the prophets in old times and of the great English poets in our own days—that the creation of the heaven and the earth is “a very little thing, a drop of a bucket,” as compared with the creation of righteousness. It is a desperate struggle, this battle of the spirit against matter, of the invisible against the visible, before we can believe, with all our being—with our minds as well as our hearts—that the creation described in the first chapter of the Fourth Gospel was more divine than that described in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis. But it was so. The first creation of orderly matter was but a shadowy, unsubstantial metaphor, predicting the second creation of orderly spirit. “All things were made by him, and without him was not anything made that was made:” so writes the Evangelist, describing the first, and proceeding to describe the second, creation: and he continues thus, “In him was life, and the life was the light of men.” To the same effect writes St. Paul: “The first Adam became a living soul. The last Adam became a life-giving spirit.” Is it not possible, on the testimony of one’s own conscience, and on the testimony of history present and past, and on the testimony of the Apostles and Evangelists—even when critically reviewed and disencumbered of the miraculous element—to acknowledge that Jesus has been indeed “a life-giving Spirit” to mankind, and to worship Him as representing the Creative Word who has moved on the face of the material and of the spiritual waters, creating order alike in the matter of the Universe and in the minds and consciences of men?

And now to deal with your second objection (directed against my definition of worship) which I will repeat in your own words:—“You define worship as consisting of the sentiments of love, trust, and awe. I confess this does not express all my notion of worship. Such sentiments I have felt towards my teachers, whether dead or living, but I do not consider that I worship them. When we apply the word to God, we mean by it a direct act of communion—or at least a real effort after communion— between two minds. When I pray to God, I believe myself to be directing my thoughts towards a Being with whom I am spiritually in direct and immediate relation—the Maker of all, my Maker and Father. But I cannot persuade myself that I stand in a like relation to Jesus of Nazareth. We do not pray to Paul or Plato, and I do not see any such difference in the historical manifestations of Jesus as should lead me to believe that I, and millions of other believers, can make my thoughts known to him, and can receive back impressions from him, when we cannot do so to other minds which have helped to change the world’s history and have been revealers of the Father.”

Are you not here confusing a state of mind with an action resulting from that state of mind? We have been speaking, not of lip-worship, but of heart-worship, defining it as a state of mind. Now is not prayer the result of worship, rather than identical with worship, as we have defined it above? A child feels love, and trust, as well as reverence, for its parents; and, in consequence he asks them to grant his desires, or he thanks them for kindnesses; but yet the asking and thanking are not identical with the feelings of the children towards their parents, but spring from those feelings. Similarly we, feeling a trust and an awe for the Maker and Father, far beyond what we can feel for Paul or Plato, impart to Him our petitions for our highest needs, or offer Him our thanks: but this asking and this thanking are not identical with, but the results of, the feelings we entertain towards God. What you really mean is that your love, trust, and awe towards God so far transcend those corresponding feelings when entertained by you for your fellow-creatures, that you ask from Him things which you would never dream of asking from them. Moreover you consider (rightly or wrongly) that a dead or absent man cannot enter into communion with you, but that God is superior to death and to the limitations of space, and that He alone can always hear and always answer; and this you appear to think a non-miraculous Christ cannot do.

Well, here I confess there is a vast difference between us; for I feel sure that Christ can do this. You say, I do not “pray to Paul and Plato:” I do not, though I sometimes think that it would be better to pray to Paul or Plato than to the sun or moon. But I do not find Paul, I do not find Plato, claiming power to forgive sins; or declaring that he came to die for mankind and that his blood was to be shed for the remission of sins; or predicting that he should be slain and that he should rise from the dead; or promising that whatsoever his disciples asked from the Father in his name should be performed; or promising to give his disciples, after his death, a spirit, the Holy Spirit of the Father, which should enable them to resist all adversaries after he had left them; or, in other words, making a manifest preparation to prepare his disciples for his death on the ground that after death he would still be present with them and still their guide and helper. Now even when I set aside the Fourth Gospel, and eliminate all miraculous narrative from the first three Gospels, I find myself in the presence of One who, I am convinced, both said these things, and made them good in deeds. I am penetrated with the conviction that He said them and had a right to say them; and that this is proved by literary and historical evidence, and by the history of the Church, and by my own experience. The miracles I can easily disentangle from the life of Christ; but His divine claims to be our Helper and Saviour after death and to all eternity, I cannot. Accepting them, I can neither deny Him worship nor myself the right of access to Him in prayer.

Christ’s whole life and doctrine, His plan (so to speak) for the establishment of spiritual empire over the hearts of men, appear to me imbued with divinity; but if I were forced to choose some one particular discourse or incident in His life as a reason for my adoration of Him, I should not choose any of His mighty works of healing, nor any of His parables or discourses, nor even His death upon the cross: I should point to the institution of the Lord’s Supper. As the years pass over my head, the picture of that mysterious evening becomes more and more powerful and vivid with me and more and more inexplicable unless Jesus was verily the Life of the world. It is ten times more vivid and more powerful now than it was when I believed in a miraculous Jesus. When I kneel down at the altar-rails there rises up through the distance of eighteen centuries that strange scene in the guest-chamber at Jerusalem, where Jesus portioned out His flesh and blood, bequeathing Himself to His disciples for ever. Then follows the thought of the countless myriads of souls who have derived spiritual strength from this rite and have lived again in Christ, and I say to myself, “Truly God was in the self-doomed man who thus gave us His flesh and blood for mankind. A mere man devise so strange a rite! So (at first) repellently strange! so profoundly simple! so perfectly and spiritually successful!” I solemnly protest to you that the inexpressible depth of the divine intuition which found utterance in the Lord’s Supper, impresses me more and more—far more than all the miracles put together—as a proof that we have in Christ a Being in initial and fundamental harmony with the very source of our spiritual life; and, rationalist though I am, I find myself, nevertheless, praying naturally and spontaneously after this fashion: “Master, my only true Lord and Master, grant that I may feed on thy body and be quickened by thy blood, and live in thee a new and spiritual life! Thou One Forgiver of sins, thou Bearer of all the burdens of mankind, bear Thou the burden that I cannot bear, and blot out all my offences; Thou who sittest at the right hand of the Majesty on high, lift me in thyself even to the throne of heaven, and present me to the Father as His child! Thou who didst die in the flesh and rise again in the spirit never to die, rise thou in my heart and soul; take my whole being into thyself and cause Me there to die unto sin and to live with thee unto righteousness! Grant me eternal life, thou Lord of Life! Say within my soul, ‘Let there be righteousness,’ and there shall be righteousness! Create me anew, O Lord, thou ever-living, co-eternal Word of the Creator.”

You may object that many of these prayers, with slightly different wording, might equally well be addressed to the Father through the Son. They might, and, as a rule, they probably would be so addressed. But in moments of unusually deep emotion prayers of this kind go forth I think, more naturally to the Father in the Son than to the Father through the Son; and surely your very objection, and my answer to it, shewing that prayers may be indifferently addressed to the Father or to the Son, constitute a strong argument for the unity (in the heart of the person praying) of Son and Father. And if I can pray like this, do I not worship, must I not worship, Christ as the Creative Word, the Eternal Son of God? And is there anything to prevent me from praying like this in the fact that He to whom I pray, when He received our humanity, received it in truth and honesty, with all its material limitations?

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