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meaning home to the heart of man, had it not been that
the Divine Spirit of Wisdom and Understanding, the
Third Person of the Holy Trinity, Himself descended
into the arena of the struggle on which angels gaze, and
gives to those who seek Him the things of Jesus.

Then, and not till then, did those special graces of the
Christian character which we think of under the title
of Humility win acceptance and wide recognition among
all nations. They needed the intervention of God to
call them forth, but no sooner were they manifested by
the pioneers of the Gospel, than even the pagans felt
the mysterious correspondence with their deepest in-
stincts, and owned their gentle mastery. For centuries
the germ of them had been lying dominant in the human

Archbishop Temple appealed to Christians thus : 1
" Let us ask ourselves what it is that really binds men
together . . . where shall we find it ? " and from the
teachers of the Far East comes the earnest call that
all thoughtful followers of the Crucified should set them-
selves to state with increasing clearness wherein the
central message of Christianity really lies, that with un-
discordant voice they may proclaim it to the expectant
millions. May it not be said to lie just in the few pro-
positions : that the Life and Death of Christ revealed
once for all to men that the God Who made us, loves us
infinitely ; so that even sin, in some way only partly

1 Onward Steps, Miss Wordsworth, p. 1.


understood, is done away with by His blood-shedding ;
and His mind and character are perpetuated in the
Society of believers vitally and with undiminished power ;
because the Agent by Whom this is brought about and
Who alone enables us to take in the truth so far is the
Holy Spirit Himself ?


There has probably been at all times in the Christian Church
a considerable number of those who are naturally drawn towards
an " undogmatic " view oi Christianity, that is to say, a view
which in the main represents the work of Christ and of the Church
in subsequent centuries from the human side, eliminating at
least by profession all that implies a definitely new revelation from
God, a definite interposition by Divine Power in the normal
routine of the world's history. Nebulous as such a religious
creed seems to others, it may be admitted at once that many
of its votaries are men of the highest character and intelligence.
There is no appeal aginast them on the score of moral weakness, as
if such weakness were more clearly noticeable in their case than
in that of more dogmatic Christians. But it may well be that
there is a special question to be asked of them which refers not,
strictly, to virtuous living but to clearness and consistency of
thought ; and that is whether such a position is not in reality
an abdication of the responsibilities laid upon us as reasonable
beings, which we all agree theoretically in recognizing.

Such an abdication has been made by those who definitely
refuse to make up their minds as to the Christian hypothesis
concerning the work of Christ. The shallowest enquiry into
that work shows it to be a fact in history of quite stupendous
influence on human affairs : on man's fears, hopes and powers.
As such, apart from the tremendous character of its affirmations,
it comes before every one of us with an urgent claim on our
best understanding and most reverent thought. That is to say,
if a man is a being endowed with reason, it is hard to see how any
adequate estimate of that gift is consistent with a refusal to use
it on a matter so unspeakably great ; so infinite in its scope, and
yet so personal and individual in its message.

This affirmation appears to me to be, strictly speaking, unas-
sailable, as long as it is admitted that such a thing as responsibility



for the right use of mental gifts exists. Among those people
who adopt an agnostic attitude towards Christian doctrine
there are very many who are quick and ready to admit this
particular responsibility, and in many departments of life they
discharge it faithfully. I wish particularly to bring the chal-
lenge home to those who would go further than others in definite-
ness, and would willingly allow that, whatever may be said as to
Christ's Person, there can be no doubt about the sublimity and
power of His teaching and example.

The challenge is that they should clearly face the question
how far this teaching and example remains entitled to man's
reverence under the postulate that the Christian hypothesis is
doubtful, or unnecessary, or untrue. More particularly, I am
considering the position of those who have lately banded them-
selves together to promote the training of the young by moral
teaching without religion.

As bearing on the question I will take some of the lead-
ing features of the Gospel teaching, and, on the assumption
that Christianity was somehow stimulative of virtue, discuss
whether such an effect can be attributed to Christ's work on the
purely human hypothesis. It is commonly admitted that Love
and Humility were first recognized as essential to virtue, to
that winning attractiveness of character which is more potent
by far to bring support to a Creed than any amount of logic,
at the time when the work of Christ began to tell on men's minds ;
and the theory now under discussion is that the teaching and
example in conduct and action were the causes of this result,
even though they be interpreted purely from their human aspect.

A passage which claims a foremost place chronologically, as
bearing directly on the subject of Humility, is the Magnificat.
How are the familiar words " He hath scattered the proud in
the imagination of their hearts," " He hath exalted the humble
and meek " and " the rich He hath sent empty away " to be
accounted for ? On the traditional hypothesis the exalting
tone of this sentiment expressed by the Blessed Virgin is paral-
leled by our Lord's words " I thank Thee, Father, Lord of Heaven
and Earth, that Thou didst hide these things from the wise and
prudent, and didst reveal them to babes " ; spoken at a moment
of great rejoicing of spirit. In both passages there is expressed
the j oy of one who sees clearer than before the prospect of a great
deliverance, the help given to Israel, the falling of Satan from
Heaven : the token of a wondrous display of God's love for
man. The knowledge of the nearness of the great event enables


Mary to see that God's scheme of salvation is transcendent in
the power and love which it reveals ; and that in its light man's
much vaunted resources and glory fade into utter insignificance.
This fact in itself is no reason for joy ; but only as an indication
of the greatness of the divine interposition in human affairs.

Now strip off the religious colouring of the Magnificat, and
what remains ? There would be no way of explaining the
reiterated expression of joy at the reversal of human ideals.
Why should any one feel glad at the discovery that all that
mankind had agreed in exalting — the proud, the mighty, the
rich — were abased, scattered and put to shame, unless some-
thing immeasurably nobler and more enduring were put in its
place ? There would be something quite insensate in the folly
of swarms of people gathering together day by day or week by
week, to sing a hymn set to the finest music available, and cele-
brating the downfall of mankind's most prevailing hope, the
utter baffling of his desire for strength and power and glory, and
that the foremost nations of the earth should continue this
singular pastime for 1,800 years is a fact which, without some
religious explanation, would brand mankind with the stigma
of lunacy. There would be nothing surprising or humiliating
in men being obliged, under the stress of experience, to modify
their ideas of the sammum bonum of life as the centuries rolled
on. But imagine a state of things in which a certain set of ideals,
denoted by the words, rich, mighty, etc., were pronounced by a
certain peasant woman in Palestine to be hollow, useless and
outworn ; then that for the 1,800 years following, those ideals
should apparently persist in almost undiminished vigour among
the very people who every seventh day repeat the glad an-
nouncement of their downfall, after having discarded the theory
which first prompted the words to be uttered, and which alone
makes them intelligible ! If this is what is really going on,
there would be no more disputable utterance to be found in any
great writer than Shakespeare's well-known saying : " What a
piece of work is man ! how noble in reason ! how infinite in
faculty i ... in apprehension how like a god ! " Indeed, it
would be difficult to form any idea of the purpose of the
creation of beings who, endowed with faculties of thought and
logic, are yet thus irresistibly impelled to violate them.

It is, however, open to any one to answer this challenge by the
rejoinder that we sing or listen to the Magnificat, without attempt-
ing to yield assent to its sentiments or understand its drift,
merely from old associations, or because it is in a way not unedi-


fying to repeat the utterances of one who spoke under the influ-
ence of what she took to be inspiration nineteen centuries
ago. Or it might be said that whatever the Magnificat may be it
is not part of the teaching of Christ, and so lies outside our proper

Some such answer as this would probably be made, so, leaving
on one side the question whether it is worthy of rational beings,
we pass on to some salient features in the teaching and example
of Christ.

The Temptation

In spite of a great deal that must be mysterious about this
event, we are bound to consider it with all possible attention
since it is one of the very few incidents which apparently must
have been told specially by the Saviour to His followers, else it
could not have been recorded. At this point it may be con-
venient to say that the challenge as to the value of the Gospel
lessons on the " undogmatic " hypothesis is addressed to those
who, in the main, accept the authenticity of the Gospels as they
stand. It is of course, always possible to take refuge in some
crude theory of Gospel reconstruction, which would allow a critic
to put on one side this or that passage if he found it militate
against his theory. But there are many thousands of men and
women who, without any knowledge of such theories, or without
any wish to make any selection from the materials before us,
vehemently assert their firm confidence in the ethical teaching
of the Gospel, and it is only fair to suppose that they mean by
the phrase the lessons to be drawn from the records handed

Moreover, without attempting to be precise as to anything
mysterious, and even if the narrative is simplified as much as
possible, the ethical teaching of this story may be distinctly set
forth. The Saviour is represented in a state approaching starva-
tion directly after His Baptism, and with His mind evidently
dwelling on the work which He was to do. Conscious of power
to supply His physical wants with a fiat of His own He refused
to do so. Why ? If He had succumbed to the inclination, He
would have done no harm to any one, and the imminent collapse
of His plans would have been averted. Now I submit that on
the Christian hypothesis, and guided by the teaching of the New
Testament, we can find an answer to this question, but on any
other hypothesis we cannot. If Christ was the Son of God, we


can faintly imagine His trust in God being so complete that He
could not for one moment place His reliance on any other source
of strength, not even on His own power over Nature ; but He
was bound to act absolutely and always by the divine dictation,
and to assert before mankind the power of a life lived wholly
on spiritual principles, and therefore free from anxiety as to
physical needs, regulated ever from above, never by considera-
tion as to earthly necessities. This is plainly to make the per-
sonal relation between man and God paramount over material
claims, no matter how insistent they be ; and in thousands of
lives lived since, the same power of action in very varying degrees
has been manifested by Christ's followers.

But on the hypothesis that Christ was merely human, that
God does not make His will in these matters clear to His children,
where are we ? In all the three temptations, the choice was, as
far as we can see, between what people call mysticism and com-
mon sense. Judged by common sense, the Saviour's decision
is wholly unintelligible. It would have been expedient for Him
to throw Himself frankly and fully on the one thing left to a
man whose personal trust in God is denied him, viz. his ascend-
ency over his fellow-men. And not only expedient, but necessary
if He was to do anything at all in the world ; for on the " moral "
or " undogmatic " interpretation of the passage there was nothing
else whatever for any one to trust to. In short, by the Christian
interpretation the story is the record of a supreme but quite
characteristic act of self-forgetfulness (or ignoring of self, accord-
ing to Christ's own words), because of the undimmed clearness
with which He perceived His relation to His Personal but unseen
Father. On the other theory, that " dogma " may be wisely
omitted from our explanations of the Gospel story, Christ re-
nounced all reliance on the power of His own self to win ascend-
ency over men, and shape the course of human history as He
wished, with nothing whatever to put in its place. His conduct
was either a sublime self-committal to a Person, or a colossal
and meaningless blunder. A Christian would say that He dis-
played the only form of self-reliance which is ever found to be
unassailably strong and supreme over the baffling vicissitudes
of earthly life : the committal of self to a living, present God.
The moralist on the other hand cannot conceive of any self-
reliance as being other than what the words denote, reliance
on self. Such reliance has often been remarkably successful
in making a great stir among men and doing things whicih have
been subsequently found to be useful ; but be it what it may,



it is the outcome of a theory of man's being, which was contra-
dicted by Christ quite invariably, and with the plainest emphasis
in the incident of the Temptation in the Wilderness.

The Finding in the Temple

On the human hypothesis this event was an act of disobedience
on the part of a boy of twelve explained by Him in meaningless
language. Yet one would be loth to believe that artists, poets
and commentators have all been wrong in regarding the incident
as a precious illumination of the Saviour's boyhood, and a strik-
ing anticipation of His mature life on earth. The mere moralist's
view is that, on His first visit to the Temple since His infancy,
not only was He profoundly impressed by what He saw and
heard around Him, but for the first time found an opportunity
of learning from the best instructed men in Jerusalem at an
age when He could understand their teaching ; and the fascina-
tion of this early lesson made Him forget His parents' wishes.
In this there is nothing mystical. But the words with which
He answers His mother's remonstrance show us that already
He was beginning to interpret His work on earth as a definite
commission from God His Father. As such, the excuse is sub-
lime, but only on the assumption that it was not an outburst
of misguided enthusiasm, harmless in a child, but certain to
grow into something dangerous later. It was sublime if it was
true ; that is, if He felt the premonition that He was to fulfil
the yearning aspirations of the Old Testament and complete
what the long line of prophets had centuries before foretold ; and
if this premonition was definitely imparted to Him by the Eternal
God. But let us be quite clear about the matter. If the young
Jesus only imagined that God had called Him to some special
work, too wonderful to be interfered with for a moment even
by the claims of home life, then He was the victim of a tragic
hallucination, and the more intensely He believed in it the more
certain was He to meet His end in utter ignominy as a fanatic.
Again, it seems that a choice must be made between the two
views. In the human view, if a boy disregards his parents'
orders and pleads a commission from the Almighty, he is either
a mere dreamer or an egoist of the most pronounced type, hardly
sane. Clearly there is nothing so far in the mere human Example
of Christ to inspire His followers to the self-forgetfulness of
" true and laudable service."


The Sermon on the Mount

The versions of this discourse as given by St. Matthew and
St. Luke, though differing in some important respects, agree
completely in one characteristic. The precepts recorded are
sublime and inspiring if the view they suggest of God the Father
is true. But if for any reason the relation between man and
God, which they assume, is ignored or put out of account, the
exhortation is wholly valueless except as a specimen of successful
popular oratory. Take the passage which, perhaps more than
any, has touched our imaginations, the appeal to men not to be
absorbed in anxiety about material needs, supported by the in-
stances of the lilies of the field and the birds. If, as it may be
suspected is often thought, the words merely touch some common
emotions and are not meant to be pondered on and practised,
then they are far less effective than much poetry and rhetoric
which has been poured out on similar topics for many centuries.
But if they are to be taken as enforcing a truth, viz. that God is
continuously and personally concerned with each one of us hav-
ing enough to live on, they at once become sublime, because they
are so vastly above all prudential maxims of ordinary common
talk. But it follows that the truth indicated of God's Love and
Fatherhood comes to us from Christ's teaching with a tremendous
urgency and an authority which it would be insanity to resist.
To trust God in times of severe trial is no doubt hard. But to
try to do so is reasonable, when once it is admitted that Christ's
words express a truth. On the other hand, to hold that they
do express a truth, and then to affirm that the truth may be
ignored in the view of life to which we give ourselves, is a gross
violation of the reasoning faculty with which we have been
endowed. The affirmation about God is either like a tinkling
cymbal, or it is the greatest truth by far of any to which men
have ever tried to give their minds.

Another great passage is concerned with sincerity of conduct :
the warning against practising what is considered virtue for the
sake of men's applause. Here again it is open to us to recognize
the grand underlying principle of Godwardness of service ; or
if we choose to believe that that principle is unimportant, or
dubious, or untrue, then we are bound to show some reason for
admiring the teaching ; in other words to indicate some rival
principle on which the precepts are based, as large and compre-
hensive as the one we have rejected. This is not easy to do.
" Take heed that ye do not your alms before men." On the


theory that God is our Personal Father who stirs our sluggish
hearts to service in gratitude for His revelation of Love to all
mankind, it is intelligible that the performance of service, either
to Him or our fellow-men, rendered in order to win applause is
an act of disloyalty to God ; a symptom of the double-minded-
ness condemned by St. James, and of the attempt to serve God
and Mammon which Christ has pronounced an impossibility.
It is indisputable that the singleness of heart which Christians
believe to be essentially acceptable to God as it certainly is to
men, the sinking of self, the victory over inclination, the shrinking
from self-assertion, all of which virtues appeared in vigour, and
were for the first time recognized, in the early Church, are based
upon the principle of a certain relation between God and man ;
and that this relation, if it is a fact at all, is a fact before which
all others, unconnected with it, sink into insignificance, and
the ignoring of which is a treason to our own minds. If it is
ignored, what are we to make of the warnings against seeking
men's praise ? A very common view is that the reward of public
favour, titles, promotion, etc., is necessary to induce men to over-
come their native sluggishness of purpose and mental indolence.
Is it not far better that we should give alms mainly because we
enjoy the commendation which we reap therefrom, than not
give at all ? The approval of good and wise people, one would
think, is a reward worth working for. This is common sense
as it is called ; but unfortunately, it contradicts flatly the pre-
cepts of Christ. Those of us who hold that Christ had the power
of revealing the true relation in which we stand to God, are per-
fectly prepared to explain how this is. The one thing we cannot
explain is how admiration for the precepts is consistent with a
denial of the principle on which they rest, and with a loyal adhe-
sion to the opposite principle which contradicts them.

The Preaching of Repentance

One of the most prominent characteristics of Christ's teaching
was the continual assertion of the need for man of a new view
of life and its meaning. Here is a claim which cannot be gain-
said without definite denial of the truth of His conception of
the deepest things. But unfortunately we have most inade-
quately translated the word fxtravoia, which expresses this new
view, by the narrower word Repentance, and therefore, some of
the greatest sayings have failed of their effect. Yet the well-
known words " except ye be converted," etc., express the same.


injunction as fxtravouTt, and it certainly is most astonishing
how prevailing is the power of ignoring this command and of
continuing to profess loyalty to the Gospel teaching. " Change
your view of life permanently." Such is the plain rendering
of fjL€TavoeLT€. But change from what ? Clearly from the
conventional view which dominated men's minds at that time,
not only in respect of ethical principles but of all deep matters.
Life is a totally different thing if Christ's teaching about the
nearness of the Most High God to each one of us is true. If
it is not true, then the Jews did right to put their Messiah to death,
for He was then the most powerful preacher of falsehood and
builder up of baseless hopes that the world has ever seen. If it
is true, it is lunacy to speak of it as insignificant, and still greater
lunacy to begin by denying it, and go on to profess admiration
for the teaching which assumes it. If true, it furnishes us with
a theory of life which has been able to produce characters so
noble as to compel reverence from all who have learnt to know
them. If it is either untrue or insignificant, then our only sen-
sible course is to go on as if we had never heard of it, indulging
our inclinations whatever they may be, just so far as not to
incur the displeasure of our contemporaries.

The Lord's Prayer

When Christ was definitely asked by His followers to teach
them how to pray, He gave them the prayer which we call after
His name. It is reasonable to expect that it contains a state-
ment, in the form of a petition, of that new view of life alluded
to above. At any rate the principles assumed in the prayer
can hardly be at variance with those which underlie the main
lessons taught by Christ to mankind.

There is no need to travel outside the simple structure of the
petition ; that is to say the order of the clauses and the order of
the words. But let us remind ourselves first of the point under
discussion. The question is whether a merely moral view of
Christ's teaching and example is not a wholly false view. Whether
the disposition freely manifested in modern times to discard all
that deals with the relation of God to man, called " dogma,"
does not threaten to leave nothing behind of any value at all ;
and is not utterly inconsistent with any fair interpretation of
the teaching.

We find then that the prayer consists of separate clauses,
the first five of which emphatically assume that very view of


life and its issues which mankind has often found it most difficult

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Online LibraryEdward LytteltonCharacter and religion → online text (page 16 of 19)