Edward Lyttelton.

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estimate of the favourite subject at the present day, it
is, to me, a serious duty to rectify the popular judgment
as far as I can.

F. I quite see. Now for the other point.

B. It is very simple. Do we not invariably find that
the practice of the Church has been to plant certain


truths and let them work their effect in social life ? I
don't mean that, always and everywhere, Churchmen have
been wise enough to follow out this second part literally,
but where the Church has been at its best those have been
the main principles of its work on earth. Look at the
indisputably strong corroboration of what I say which is
afforded us by the work of Christ ; and afterwards by
that of St. Paul.

F. You mean that whereas the triumphant effect of
Christianity was not only in the elevation of human
character, but in the purifying of social customs, yet we
must recognize that Christ abstained wholly, and St. Paul
to a considerable degree, from preaching social reform.

B. Exactly; and about St. Paul, it is certain that
whenever he gave instructions as to moral conduct he
adopted a very peculiar position which we should nowa-
days be inclined to distrust as being over-dogmatic. It
was this. He never addressed his converts on moral
problems without treating them as members of a Society
which had been divinely illuminated. And further you
know, of course, that the moral portion of his Epistles
comes at the end of each if it comes at all, after a full
exposition of some aspect of divine Grace, and often
introduced by the word " therefore."

F. I think I heard that when I was at the University,
but I had forgotten it.

B. You see also that the inference from it is that our
duty is to plant the truth, not to stimulate by exhortation
the nagging morality of the age, which flags because it
lacks root. To plant the truth, I say, and let the effect
of it be what it may upon the numberless complexities
of modern life.

F. Yes, I think that would perhaps be a fair inference.


But are you right in saying that such has always been
the action of the Church with regard to theology and
moral improvement ? *

B. I don't say theology ; but the handing on of the
main message of our Lord, viz. that God is Love, and
that He Himself, though divine, lived a human life quite
consistently inspired throughout by that religious belief.
His Life and Death and Resurrection have made it possi-
ble for us to do the same.

F. That is, of course, just the point where I fail to
follow. You lapse into mysticism there, and I am fain
to fall back on my conviction that for many of us such talk
is meaningless, and that the best thing we can do is to
confine ourselves to social work and the like, while freely
acknowledging that others do get life and strength from
these dogmas which escape us. I should go further and
say that we ethical people are really living upon a moral
quickening which has in the past been due to the religious
teaching of definite dogmatic Christians. But may we
go back to the Church's practice ?

B. There is much that I could say, but it would take
us into some controversial regions, and after all the
example of Christ in such a matter must be supreme.
How otherwise than on this principle do you explain His
refusal to interfere in the dispute about property which
was brought directly to Him ?

F. Well, I suppose He had set the teaching of religious
truth before Him as His main task, and any dispute of

1 Twenty-five years ago I heard Archbishop Benson say that
St. Gregory of Nazianzus, when asked to what he attributed the
great moral improvement of the town in which he lived, said,
" To the consistent teaching of the doctrine of the Trinity." But
I cannot verify the incident.


this kind would have impeded it. Besides which, would
you not say that He confined Himself to telling people
things which they did not know, but principles which
were understood, like that of elementary fair-dealing, He
left alone.

B. Perfectly true ; and in this He was singularly
unlike the great prophets of the Old Testament. Much
might be said on that unlikeness. They had a revelation
vouchsafed to them of God's Love and a vision of a De-
liverer to come. Yet they preached social reform. Was
not the difference due to this, that Jesus, being Who He
was, was not the recipient of a revelation only, but essenti-
ally the Revelation Itself ; and that His message to man-
kind was not that they should set their house in order,
but that the Love which He exhibited and His tranquil
confidence in the middle of what looked like hideous
collapse and ruin, were attributes of God Himself. Hence
that the pious conjectures of former ages as to God's being
good, in our sense of the word, were borne out and con-

F. I partly understand. But is that thought not
rather away from our subject.

B. You are right. Only there is this connexion. As
our Lord's vision of truth was quite unclouded, and uni-
versal as compared with that of the prophets, on that
very account He was satisfied with stamping it deeply
on the minds of men. So we who have inherited it are
the heirs of His method. We must plant it and let it
bear its own fruit in its own time.

F. Yes ; those points are worth thinking over. But
still don't forget my difficulty. If ordinary plain-headed
men like myself had been alive in those days, you don't
mean, do you, that He would have taught us doctrine ?


B. Let us consider this. The question you ask brings
me to my second point, the evidence of the New Testa-
ment. By confining myself to the very beginnings of
Church History, I have not strayed beyond the New
Testament so far ; and before I pass on to our Lord's
method of teaching, let me sum up what I have been
trying to say, as follows : —

The work of Jesus Christ as well as His teaching planted
truths in men's minds with unexampled power : truths
which were either new or had become blurred. These
He committed to a Society, which was divinely strength-
ened for the tremendous task of passing them on to man-
kind at large. They did so, and as a result a new type
of character came into being, and great social improve-
ments began to be conceived and started ; but throughout,
and especially when the new life was most vigorous, men's
minds were far more set on the spiritual change which
they had to announce than on the practical changes which
were to follow. I would say also that had it been other-
wise the practical changes would not have followed, or
at least would have been inferior, more earthly, more
superficial than they were. Of course it is possible to
argue ad infinitum over such a statement as that ; but
with your permission I propose to leave it with you as
being worth consideration, and so far unassailable that
it ought to be taken as a principle of conduct for all who,
like you and me, hold that the Christian message is true.

Now may we proceed to some passages in the Gospel
which bear closely upon the matter in hand?

F. Certainly. That is just what I should desire.

B. Well, then, if we ask ourselves what Christ's
general attitude towards His hearers might be expected
to be, on the assumption, that is, that He was primarily


concerned with planting a certain idea of God in men's
hearts, we should expect the answer to be that He esti-
mated men chiefly by their receptivity. And in a sense
how true this is ! How constantly He dwelt on the neces-
sity of Faith, its power in human life, and the impoverish-
ment of all high endeavour without it ! But I would
have you notice that along with this He never failed to
stimulate to the utmost man's faculty of firsthand appre-
hension. I mean that the very last thing Christ wished
any follower of His to become was a torpid holder of un-
digested maxims, a colourless listener to beautiful truths.
The beauty of His teaching — if we except the mere out-
ward qualities — really consisted in its penetrating sug-
gestiveness and unique power of stirring thought.

F. Yes, but wait a moment : thought about what ?
Surely the Sermon on the Mount was a long, practical, or
rather moral, discourse dealing with simple subjects for
simple men. I admit there are a few passages in His
ordinary teaching which might be called mystical, but
apart from the Fourth Gospel, which I suppose we must
put aside, they do not amount to much. Broadly, the
modern view of His work is true. He went about doing
good, and teaching truths full of consolation for suffering
humanity ; then He died a death full of pain and shame,
and, to give us a warrant as to His Divinity, rose again
from the dead.

B. I don't suppose any one could traverse that state-
ment on the score of its being fundamentally untrue;
but incomplete and pitifully jejune it certainly is. We
will take the Sermon on the Mount first. You speak of
it as simple. I say it is unfathomably deep, in that it
places Infinity before us under the aspect of Love. There
is no way of understanding its teaching, unless you dis-


cern the connexion of ideas, all hung upon the one pre-
vading truth that the Creator of this world is our Heavenly
Father Who loves us infinitely. Based on that truth is
a certain view of human life, especially of its anxieties,
which we must try to acquire. It is a view which experi-
ence shows to be profoundly satisfying and suggestive
of hope and progress and growth and of all that is pro-
vocative of joy ; but only if its theological . . . element is
borne in mind throughout. For any one who starts from
the commonplace view that man need not fash himself
about anything mystic, but should just stick to his duty
and vaguely hope for the best, it is a supremely unsatisfy-
ing discourse. It touches upon a few ethical subjects, but
in a most paradoxical fashion, and, broadly, may be said
to leave alone all modern problems altogether. I suggest
to you that all Christ's teaching is of this character. It
is full of profound sympathy with ordinary humanity, so
much so that it is occasionally humorous ; it culls its
illustrations from the most homely objects and actions,
and there is something attractive in it, especially for men
of a somewhat rustic unspoilt habit of mind. But along
with this, it is practically valueless, unless the hearer
allows his soul to be lifted up to a certain view of God,
which it consistently assumes and reveals.

F. Well, but what about such a text as " By their
fruits ye shall know them " ? I take it Christ is there
insisting on the cardinal fact that religion without prac-
tical effect on life is a vain thing — which is just what I
have always believed.

B. Yes ; that is true, but note how in the very figure
employed my contention is corroborated. Fruits sug-
gest, or ought to, the root, the soil, the stem and branches
of the tree. It is perfectly true that if the principles of


life are drawn from above, they shall be known by i he out-
ward effect they produce on earth ; but it is equally true
that to consider the fruits as superior or more interesting,
or more important than the other constituents of a tree,
is profoundly and undeniably a wrongheaded way of
going to work. In connexion with the intellectual facing
of deep problems presented to us on earth and recognized
by their vital importance, there is one passage of most
searching significance. Do you remember when the Lord
asked the leaders of the Jews whether the Baptism of
John was from heaven or of men ?

F. To be sure.

B. Why did He ask that question ?

F. Oh, I suppose it was a convenient way out of a
dilemma. They had just asked Him a question to which
there was manifestly no answer, and with startling readi-
ness He propounded one which they were equally unable
to cope with, and so the situation was saved.

B. But, do you mean that any conundrum would
have suited His purpose ? or must it not have been
connected with the subject under discussion ?

F. Well, I suppose it must. Else they would have
refused to be drawn aside from their own question.

B. Certainly ; and if we seize hold of that fact to
begin with, we shall reach a truth of very precious import
to us all. There must have been something not only in-
wardly germane to the main matter in Christ's question
but something which they could feel to be appropriate
and relevant. Under no other conviction could they
possibly have placed themselves in a humiliating position
before the people. The Lord was challenged to declare
His credentials. He could not have done so without
being totally misunderstood by coarse and narrow minds,


and it was one of the occasions when a drawing into the
light of the treasures of the Kingdom would have been
resented by the hearers who understood their preciousness,
but would have increased the guilt of the others who ought
to have understood it but did not ; so with His usual
mastery over the situation, He used a question as a way
of indicating the truth, but only for those who could sink
below the surface.

F. I don't see how He indicated any answer to the

B. Ah ! but think of this. The truth which He indi-
cated to them was not that which they had asked, but
the highest which they were capable of receiving ; that
is to say, He unveiled to them the moral reason why their
growth in knowledge of truth had been arrested, and this
of course it was absolutely vital to them to know.

F. Please explain.

B. You see there had been in their experience a really
critical challenge offered to them, which was sure to mani-
fest in the case of each one of them his readiness, or the
reverse, to lay hold of the divine teaching. Such an event
as the ministry of John the Baptist left no one who heard
of it quite in the same mental condition as before. It
was so startling, so totally unlike anything connected
with the ordinary routine of events, that any one, capable
of interpreting anything, must have felt powerfully drawn
towards the problem of rinding its meaning, and forming
an estimate of it, which would relate it to other events
in human history. Whatever else a sensible man might
safely ignore, this was not to be ignored.

F. Was that so ?

B. Undoubtedly. Think of the special character of
the Baptist's claims. After centuries of quiescence, the


prophetic voice had waked again, not timidly or with
hesitation, but with all the old fire and confidence, ringing
through Palestine the quintessence of the Old Testament
message — sin and repentance, judgment to come, and
the cleansing of social life. But more : he, a single
teacher, had warned the whole people to abase themselves,
an intolerably uncongenial summons, one would have
thought ; but so masterful, so penetrating was that voice,
that thousands flocked to hear him, and receive the sym-
bolical cleansing at his hands. Yet he only claimed to be
a preparer of Another's way, a herald. Now both in what
he taught and what he foretold, he was a great figure, " a
burning and a shining light," according to many; and
those who took the opposite view, were bound to denounce
him as an impostor and a braggart without credentials.
Now please notice. Mediocre men may be neglected. We
are not called upon to pass any sentence upon them ;
indeed, we are forbidden to do so. But no sooner does
any man's moral stature rise plainly above the ordinary,
no sooner does his message claim to come from " no
earthly pole," than it is incumbent on every thinking
man to form a judgment, and instead of the highest
obedience to Christ lying in silence, it becomes the plainest
disobedience not to speak. That was the disobedience
of which the rulers of the Jews were then guilty.

F. Yes, but you forget the awkwardness of their
position. The Temple was full of high-spirited Galileans
who had gathered for the Festival, and if the Scribes had
uttered their real thoughts, they would have raised a
tumult and lost all their influence, probably, with the

B. In other words, they turned from their first duty
because they were afraid to be honest. But observe : I


am not indicting them so much for their refusal to speak
out on this particular occasion, as for being totally un-
able, at the beginning, either to gainsay or to divert the
current of popular feeling about John. There must have
been a time when the people were undecided and looked
to the Scribes for guidance ; when the latter did what they
could to damp the ardour of the masses for the wonderful
Prophet, but finding they could not prevail, they stifled
their feelings, or at least kept them secret, gave no lead,
expressed no opinion, though they scorned and detested
the man who spoke unflinchingly of them, of their false-
ness, cowardice and bigotry. From the very beginning
they feared the people. In other words, they missed
their great opportunity of becoming learners, because
they were morally cowards. Truth often comes to the
human soul in pain, and these men to avoid the pain
turned away from her.

F. How do you mean " pain " ?

B. Why, the pain of recognizing their own sinfulness.
As of yore in the wilderness, and again during the opu-
lent days of Jeroboam II, and at other times, the Jews
were besotted with self-satisfaction, and the great preacher
came to rouse them from deep spiritual torpor. The
heart of the people was so far sound that his reverberating
tones found an echo there. But all that the religious
leaders of the nation could make of it was that the teaching
of repentance was unworthy of the chosen people, or
at least of themselves, who knew the law and were
scrupulous in its practice. So, on some pretext or
other, we know not what, they condemned the Baptist
and his message, but were afraid to take up a position
of open hostility to him ; they left the question unre-
solved, never considering it fairly and squarely : "Is


this man a preacher of righteousness sent by God, even as
the prophets of old whose tombs we have built ? If
not, why not ? "

F. Dear me ! I never thought of that part of the
story. It must of course have been difficult for them.
Yet in some ways they were good men. They were
zealous about what they thought to be important.

B. True enough. Men as a rule prefer to take abun-
dant trouble of a routine kind rather than sit down and
resolutely think whether it isn't all misdirected. The
Scribes having lost the idea of a living God, had lost also
the true ideal of conduct. Hence they had nothing
whereby to compare their ordinary lives, and so were
debarred from any feeling of penitence. It is the most
commonplace story imaginable, except that the appeal
to their better selves was astonishingly vivid, and so their
spiritual sloth must have been all the deeper. In their
refusal to accept individual responsibility for sin we can
see their impenetrability to the teaching of Ezekiel.

F. Well, but was there any particular punishment
for this conduct ?

B. The punishment, which perhaps seemed to the
worldly hearted of the day as nothing, is contained in the
terrible sentence " Neither tell I you by what authority
I do these things." Jesus refused to give further light
to men of darkened hearts, when the first illumination had
only made them afraid. A misuse of the great opportu-
nity of learning obviously unfitted them for further teach-
ing. They could not have understood the simplest an-
swer to their own hypocritical question. Just as the
reward of faithful service is enlarged responsibility, so
the punishment for refusing to think is a withholding of


F. What, then, do you exactly infer from this story
as to the subject of our talk ?

B. Clearly this : that in our religious and moral ex-
perience things occur which are intended to evoke from
us renewed efforts after truth, clearness of vision, self-
abasement, and, in short, a drawing nearer to God. If
we are faithful in our answer to the challenge, then we go
through a preparation for another challenge, more search-
ing and larger in scope, but similar in its demand on the
conscience, and in its stern claim that we must not, in
the presence of the Eternal God, trust in our own right-

F. I begin to see. You would, in short, use the inci-
dent in order to press home the requirement made upon
me, and those of like temperament, not to be content with
a service of outward action while refusing to think and
study and pray. It may be, you mean, that our outward
zeal is only a cloak for the overmastering spiritual indo-
lence, and, for us, involves less effort in reality.

B. Less effort and far less self-abasement. But con-
sider the a fortiori aspect of the case. In our religious
experience we have witnessed a Greater than John the
Baptist ; and if the melancholy punishment I have men-
tioned fell upon a generation which turned from the task
of interpreting the Forerunner, what will happen to those
who when asked about the Master Himself can only say :
We cannot tell ?

F. I confess there is much to think over in what you
say. But let us take some further teaching in the Gos-
pel to speak about.

B. There is so much, that the difficulty is to know
where to begin. But we may generalize to this extent
that our Lord was especially emphatic against the very


common tendency to draw the line in the matter of spiritual
endeavour and say " thus far and no further ; if I reach
this point I have done enough." There are many indi-
cations that He regarded this habit of mind as quite fatal.
So, no doubt, did St. Paul when he spoke of " forgetting
the things that are behind," etc., and the poet who sang
" they will go from strength to strength." Perhaps
one of the most telling is the incident of the rich young
man. It would be difficult to imagine a plainer verdict
upon the tone of mind which refuses to face principles,
or rather, to think out bravely whither they lead. Both
in this case and in that of the Baptist, we are reminded
that there is a kinship, so to speak, between the righteous-
ness of the Old Testament and that of the New Testament.
The teaching of the Baptist was meant to make men
ready for Christ. So " all these have I kept from my
youth up." Those words are not contradicted nor set
aside, but their issue is pointed out. Obedience to Moses,
in other words, was meant to prepare for the life of faith,
by encouraging the sense of need, the conviction of weak-
ness, and other feelings which Christ required before He
could speak uplifting words. If that obedience had
wrought its full effect on the young man, he would have
recognized that now the life of conformity to God's Law
was to be enriched by the renunciation of a personal devo-
tion. " Sell, give, and follow Me." Here we have the
very opposite of the spirit which asks " Lo, we have left all
and followed Thee : what shall we have therefore ? "

F. Interesting, no doubt ; but I don't quite see the
application to the difficulty before us.

B. Well, we must grasp the principle on which Christ
acted, leaving on one side what is peculiar to the indi-
vidual. The man had adopted a certain standard of con-


duct and fulfilled it adequately, as he supposed. The point
of the story is, not whether the standard was adequately
or inadequately fulfilled, but the nature of the standard
chosen, which was briefly that of the less thoughtful and
more conventional people of the time. Similarly a man like
yourself is almost bound, if he has generous impulses, to
adopt a standard, which is necessarily that of convention,
and which holds out a hope of adequate fulfilment ; be-
cause he has made up his mind that some peculiarity of
temperament, is required if a more spiritual or less human
standard is to be preferred. Just as the young ruler
could say truly " All these have I kept," so you can say
truly, " In default of anything higher or richer, I set
before myself the idea of benefiting my countrymen, in
a sphere too much neglected in the past, viz. that of link-
ing the various Dominions of the British Empire together
in a grand league of self-defence, and as a bulwark against
the horrible devastation of modern warfare for all time.
I have done the work as well as a man can. What lack
I yet ? "

F was silent for a moment, and then said, Wait a
bit : my aim has not been conventional, because as you
justly say this particular sphere of work has been neg-

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Online LibraryEdward LytteltonCharacter and religion → online text (page 12 of 19)