Edward Lyttelton.

Character and religion online

. (page 17 of 19)
Online LibraryEdward LytteltonCharacter and religion → online text (page 17 of 19)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


to take, though men have been irresistibly impelled to do it
homage. It is the doctrine or theory of the Fatherhood of God,
and His guidance of men's lives from day to day. If this doc-
trine be true, then it is most reasonable to pray that man's con-
ception of God's attributes may be holy and true. (" Hallowed
be Thy Name.") Next, that the Kingdom spoken of by Christ
should be speedily established. (" Thy Kingdom come.")
Next that the benignant purpose of the all- wise Creator be fulfilled
by His children on earth, even as we believe it is fulfilled now
by other beings in a more exalted kind of existence. (" Thy
Will be done, as in heaven so on earth ; " but there is little doubt
the last words are to be applied to all the preceding petitions.)
Then as the part man has to play in the fulfilment of these hopes
is important, since indeed it is essential that he brings them
about by his action, not that they should be carried out inde-
pendently of him, the prayer deals with man's primal necessities,
physical (" Give us day by day our bread "), ethical (" forgive us,
etc., and lead us not into temptation"), and spiritual in the
distant future, but beginning now ("deliver us from evil").

Such is the prayer Christ gave us, and it embodies with the
utmost clearness that very view of life and its issues which
millions of professing Christians are disposed to ignore, while
declaring their reverence for the moral teaching of Christ. Let
it be further noted that this pattern-life was lived by One Who
habitually prayed Himself, and obviously must have used peti-
tions breathing the same religious spirit as the Lord's Prayer.
Indisputably that was the secret of His amazing power, His con-
stancy, His utter tranquillity of spirit in the midst of unspeakable
calamities, shame and ruin. 1 So that those who speak confi-

1 It might be thought that it would be safer to attribute these
characteristics of our Lord to His essential Godhead. Doubtless on
such a subject great caution is needed. But we cannot be wrong in
studying our Lord's life on earth with the formula in our minds " Per-
fect God and Perfect Man," and I am assuming the latter clause to
mean that the perfection of Manhood is in its dependence on God.
Man is only perfect when he is perfect in receiving ; and Christ mani-
fested God to us by the perfectness of His receiving and appropriating
the Divine Life " seen in fleshly form on earth." It is, of course,
conceivable that He might have been what He was in Himself on
earth, if He had never shown outwardly any sign that He was in com-
munion with the Father ; but this would have deprived His example
of all that is fundamentally essential for us to imitate.



TEACHING AND EXAMPLE OF CHRIST 215

dently of following the example of Christ are bound to have some
theory as to their practice of prayer. Almost the only thing in
Christ's moral example which any humble follower can at once
begin to adopt is His practice of prayer. But prayer means
prayer on the lines of the Lord's Prayer ; that is, based through-
out on the principle which we call religious : the principle of entire
dependence on God's Will and trust in His Love.

Lastly, if it be said that in this prayer there is emphasis laid
on a moral principle, that of mercifulness to those who wrong
us, I would ask what meaning can be attached to the idea of
forgiveness of each other, unless we are prepared to annex to it
the statement " even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven "
us ? It is of course most difficult to put oneself at the undog-
matic point of view, because one of its characteristics is to be
unformulated. But if it means an indisposition to realize the
divine side of such a conception as that of forgiveness, while
asserting its sufficiency from the moral side only, the question
must be definitely faced, On what does the duty of forgiveness
rest ? Doubtless the unmerciful man, if unchecked by the law
of the land, might make himself a nuisance to society : but that
is only if his vengeful thoughts found expression in action. Christ's
teaching, however, as is well known, emphasized the deadly
evil of wrong thoughts, and every one knows that we are quite
as distinctly forbidden to nourish rancorous thoughts as we
are to do violence to our neighbour. Now, from the moral side
only, what mischief would be expected from the rancorous
thoughts of a well-bred man who thoroughly understood what
society demanded of him ? In the twentieth century it would
be odd if we were not to some extent steeped in Christian Ethics ;
and by this time most of us have discovered that a really for-
giving man is a better companion than one who is given to vin-
dictiveness. But that only means that the vindictive man must
be very careful not to betray his feelings in an intemperate fashion.
Some ways of betraying them civilized society would readily
condemn ; others it would approve. No one for instance would
expect a social ban to be fixed on an injured person who took his
revenge in uttering polished and amusing sarcasms against his
injurer. Yet such conduct would indicate a heart completely
alien from the Christian spirit. But that is because Christian
ethics do not regard the opinion of human society as its first
concern, but the relation between society and God Who allowed
it to be formed. Some may aver that they descry a reason for
recommending the forgiving spirit to young people, servants,



216 CHARACTER AND RELIGION

rustics and so forth, but is it a reason which would for a single
moment elevate this duty to the level on which the Saviour has
placed it ? There is no conceivable doubt that He based it on
the revelation of divine Love which He Himself made to mankind,
and to base it on anything else whatever, such as the welfare of
the community, or the amenities of social life, is to be more dis-
loyal to His teaching than if we disregarded the duty altogether.
Why ? Because if it were frankly and consistently disregarded
we should at least know after a time that the atmosphere in
which we move had been poisoned. But if it is partially and
externally obeyed from any reason but the right one, we are
stupid enough to believe that we secure the social advantages,
such as they are, from a mundane motive. In other words we
break two commandments at once ; the Sixth in thought, and
the First as well, because we set up some earthly god in place
of our Father Who is in Heaven.



The Death of Christ"

It might be supposed that enough instances had been brought
forward at least to illustrate our contention, viz. that a really
high estimate of our Lord's teaching and example presupposes
the Christian " dogmatic " interpretation of the Gospel story.
But the matter cannot be fairly dealt with without some con-
sideration of the Passion and Death of the Saviour.

We pass now to that part of the story which gives us the exam-
ple at its very highest ; that is to say it is the climax of all His
conduct through the three years of the Ministry. It represents
more clearly than any other part of Christ's public career the
depth of the antagonism which He aroused and the heroic
strength with which He faced it. Hitherto we have been con-
cerned mainly with the teaching. Now we have to make up
our minds as to the example of One Who so lived before the public
that after three years He was put to death by the religious leaders
of the day.

In this connexion an important fact is that the shameful close
was deliberately provoked. Now, to all those who persuade
themselves that the human view of Christ is sufficient and satisfy-
ing, or that the " mystic " interpretation is superfluous, or that
outside the moral teaching and moral virtue exhibited to men
every other question as to His Being and Personality is out of
our depth, the following question seems not easy to answer.
If the example of Christ is of supreme value to mankind, on the



TEACHING AND EXAMPLE OF CHRIST 217

human or " undogmatic " hypothesis, how are we to explain
that He threw away His life after so paltry a period of ministering
to His generation as three years ? (The question assumes that
He knew what He was about, and deliberately brought death
on Himself. If, however, it is thought possible to believe that
He did so unwittingly, the form of question would only be slightly
altered, and the argument would remain.) Nothing is more
admirable and impressive than the example of a martyr who
dies for an idea. But what should we say of One Who courted
death, foresaw it, foretold it, made no effort to shun it when the
crisis came, and all the time was possessed with no idea clear
enough for His admirers to discern when He had passed away ?
The difficulty, however, is even greater than this. On the hypo-
thesis we are discussing Christ must have known that the power
of His teaching and the loftiness of His moral example were the
chief means whereby He could hope to elevate mankind. Was He
then more likely to succeed if He restricted His efforts to three
years or allowed them to extend over thirty ? If He faced this
question and answered it in the negative, what becomes of His
judgment ? If He answered it in the affirmative, how can His
conduct be approved ?

In short, if the earthly life of Jesus of Nazareth is rated as
something precious and unique because it affords to us a supreme
example of goodness, wisdom, courage and love, we ought to
explain why He cut it so short. The contention of Christians
is that no explanation is possible which does not draw upon
religious conceptions : i.e. postulate such divine interposition
in human affairs as must be, if true, a fact of overwhelming
importance to any one who can think at all. But such inter-
position is, by the moralists' theory of the Gospel, either denied,
or more strangely still, treated as insignificant.

Let us imagine an answer to this challenge as complete as we
can make it.

The figure of Jesus in history is that of One Who saw with
wonderful insight into the shallowness and sham of the popular
religion of the time, and exposed its worthlessness with unspar-
ing emphasis. Moreover, He was gifted with such healing powers
and such force of oratory, that His influence over the people might
have been unbounded ; but His ethical position was too high
for them ; and by consistent and most impressive self-denial
He put away from Himself all the glittering delights of fame and
conquest, and preached a religion so pure and lofty that it has
remained the greatest inspiration ever given to mankind ; but



218 CHARACTER AND RELIGION

the line He adopted made His early death inevitable. Doubtless
there was in a character so noble much that we should rightly
term divine ; but to define what the Person of Christ was, is
plainly an overtaxing of human powers of thought and savours
of irreverence : moreover it is needless.

It is possible that any one ready to subscribe to some such
statement as this would assent to an educational programme
which professed to teach Christ's moral example and no more
of what is ordinarily called the Gospel. But the objections to
the statement are very serious. It swerves away from the very
central question of interest and importance. " What was
the pure and lofty religion which brought Jesus of Nazareth
to martyrdom and an immortality of fame ? " If we profess
to reverence His teaching we ought to rate highly what He taught,
and the first thing to do is to see what it was. Likewise, if we
call ourselves followers of His example, we ought to be clear in
our minds whether His death was pure fanaticism, i.e. the heroism
of a visionary, or something undergone for the sake of truth
itself. If the latter, let us press towards the truth. If the
former, let us look for our moral example elsewhere.

Now as soon as we admit that Christ preached an ethical code
too high for the Jews to understand, or a religion which has been
a source of strength and comfort to mankind ever since, it is
impossible to attempt to put into words what that religion was
without entering on topics which moralists at the present day
relegate to the realm of the superfluous. It is open to any non-
Christian to do this if he likes, without plainly contradicting his
own principles ; but it is not consistent with any sincere loyalty
to Christ as an example, to recognize that He taught a
religion too lofty for His contemporaries to understand, and at
the same time to refuse to face the question, what that religion
was ; and the further question, whether we are not all bound
to take it into our own lives and to pass it on to our children.

Supposing the moralists incline to the opinion — as certainly
many do — that they cannot make up their minds on the question
of Christ's claims, or on the central message for which He sacri-
ficed His life. The time came during His Ministry when He had
the opportunity of pronouncing His opinion on a very similar
state of mind. He deliberately forced the Scribes and Pharisees
to face the dilemma about John the Baptist " was he from heaven
or of men ? " and we all know that owing to the unusual mass
of people in Jerusalem it was not safe for the leaders of the
popular religion to say what they thought. This, however, is



TEACHING AND EXAMPLE OF CHRIST 219

but an accident of the position. The important point is that
as soon as they admitted that they could not say yes or no to a
question concerning the greatest experience in their history, He
withheld from them further light on an even greater matter.
They showed themselves moral cowards, and the verdict was
that, on the greatest question which could occupy mankind's
attention, they were unteachable. They were without the
single-mindedness which alone qualifies for advance in religious
truth. But would not Christ utter some similar verdict on those
who, to-day — for whatever reason — decline the Christian chal-
lenge as if it did not concern them ?

When we carefully consider the salient facts of the case the
answer to this question becomes very plain. It is not possible
for any Christian to give a full and adequate answer to the ques-
tion propounded above, Why did Christ die ? No honest thinker
could acquiesce in any statement on this subject as if it were
complete. But one broad fact is undeniable. The great reason
why Christ was put to death was because all that He revealed
about God to men did concern them so closely that they felt it
would alter their daily lives and upset all their pet prejudices,
not in any one department of living, but in all. It was because
it is always much easier to sing at intervals " God is our hope
and strength " than to believe that He really loves us in spite
of all our pains, suffering and sin. That is why, when the Wise
Men asked the question " Where is He that is born King of the
Jews ? " not only Herod was disturbed, but " all Jerusalem with
him." No routine of ceremonial, no scrupulosity about custom,
diet or Sabbath observance, is nearly so distasteful to man as
being forced to change his whole view of the meaning of life.
But that is exactly what Christ called on His followers to do.
" Except ye change your view permanently " as to life and its
meaning, " ye cannot enter the Kingdom ; " and as a first condi-
tion to fulfilling this injunction He told them again and again
that they must start by believing what He said about Himself,
and about the infinite Love of God for man. If they could not
genuinely do this, they were to pray for the trust which such a
state of mind implies. As to this, He often likened Himself to
the prophets of old, who were put to death because their message
penetrated so deeply, so keenly and so painfully, into the very core
of the conventionalisms and selfishness of their time. After they
were dead, pious hands gathered up the remains of their message,
and built up the martyrs' tombs. It is always easy to honour
a great man for his great sayings ; but people forget that the



220 CHARACTER AND RELIGION

prophet was put to death, not because they refused to listen to
his words, but because they could not bear to have them pushed
home. In the eighth century that application would have
meant a great upset of social life. But the application of Christ's
teaching would have meant a great reversal of public opinion on
all the deepest matters that mankind can conceive ; for it was
concerned with the fundamental relation of God to man.

The above questions constitute only a small part of the chal-
lenge to moralists which the Gospel, as we have received it,
makes. Nothing has been said about some of the greatest and
most signal characteristics of Christ's teaching and conduct.
For instance the words " Blessed are ye when men shall persecute
you " contain a paradox full of difficulty even for the " dogmatic "
Christian. But, for the moralist who professes to guide his life
only by the ethical teaching of Christ, it surely is a fact that not
only this saying but all the Beatitudes are sheer nonsense. Our
Lord's Passion and Death reveal, no doubt, how profoundly
true the words are. But that is only because He exemplified
throughout that drama the power of religious faith, perfect trust
in a Personal Father which marvellously turned the agony into
joy. When we have observed that fact, we have taken just the
first step towards understanding the Lord's life on earth. But
unfortunately it is exactly the step which the moralist debars
himself from taking, under the idea that he is somehow loyal to
his reason in doing so.

It is the same throughout. If the Beatitudes are anything
better than the enthusiastic aspirations of a dreamer, they go
far to explain why Christ rated all things as completely insignifi-
cant on which we habitually set the greatest store, e.g. wealth
and the praise of our fellow-men. But unless the vast yet
penetrating principle, drawn from the facts of the unseen world,
of our relation to God is constantly kept in view and firmly held,
men are perfectly justified in saying what many doubtless txiink,
that these opening sayings of the Sermon on the Mount are not
only worthless but pernicious, in that they turn upside down
the picture of human life as we know it, but somehow by the
beauty of their wording maintain a certain hold on man's beliefs ;
and not only these sayings, but the whole attitude of Christ
towards the affairs of this world, progress, self-assertion, due
insistence on individual rights, provision for old age and so forth,
would be rightly held to be subversive of social life and intolerably
unpractical, if once the religious principle is put out of reckoning.



TEACHING AND EXAMPLE OF CHRIST 221

The Christian contention, therefore, is that as the message of
Jesus of Nazareth to mankind was, from start to finish, a revela-
tion of God's relation to man — that is, a religious revelation — it
is altogether idle to begin to interpret it by dealing with morals
alone ; and that such a way of treating the Gospel is plainly at
variance with reason, on which it professes to proceed. It should
further be observed that the challenge as here stated only touches
on the religious claims which lie on the very threshold of any
honest inquiry into the subject. For instance, in reflecting on
the reasons for the Death of Christ, a Christian would hardly
deign to raise such a question as Why did the Lord apparently
court a death of shame ? but he would unhesitatingly go on to
collect the lessons which have been handed down from the earliest
days of the Church, as to the deep mysteries of the Atonement
and Redemption of mankind wrought by the Death and Resurrec-
tion of the Saviour, and interpreted with increasing clearness to
the mind of the Church by the Holy Spirit. He would begin
by realizing that a revelation from the Almighty and Eternal
God must inevitably deal with truths which the human mind
can only partially and gradually understand ; and throughout
he would shun the danger of trying to make that revelation square
with the narrow range of unassisted human reason.



EXCURSUS II
THE INFLUENCE OF GREEK PHILOSOPHY

The question which demands a brief investigation is as follows :
— Granting the main thesis to be sound, that somewhere between
the time of Aristotle and the foundation of the Christian Church,
there sprang into existence a vivid recognition of certain qualities
which we now see to be absolutely essential to anything like
greatness of character, can it be contended that an extra-Christian
influence, such as that of Greek philosophy, was entirely, or in
part, the cause of this recognition ? There is no dispute nowadays
as to the fact of this influence. Opinions may differ as to the
time at which it began, or when it was at its height. But let
us grant all that is necessary, viz. that from the greatest Greek
teachers from the days of Xenophanes, Parmenides and Hera-
cleitus down to Aristotle, the inspiration began which can be
traced in its working through the subsequent ages, through
Alexandrian, Roman and Byzantine time, only to be renewed
in Western Europe at the Renascence, and that it is by no means
exhausted yet ; and this is no meagre concession ; let us then
consider how far it can be truly said that there was in the utter-
ances of those wonderful minds any plain teaching as the funda-
mental virtue of Humility, or any encouragement to its practice.

For the limitation here indicated is plainly reasonable. If the
Greek philosophers were not responsible for the result, it seems
almost certain that Christianity was. At least, one grand
counter-claimant must first be put out of court. Now the claim
of Greek philosophy to this or any other result is only counter
to Christianity if it can be shown to be justified by evidence
taken before Christian teaching began. For instance, Seneca
and M. Aurelius and Epictetus may be taken as exponents of
Greek ethical teaching blended with Roman ideas ; but it is
far from certain that they were not affected by Christian ideas,
and what is more, by the manifestation of what is called the
specially Christian type of character. Therefore, they ought



THE INFLUENCE OF GREEK PHILOSOPHY 223

not to be called as witnesses to the development of pure Greek
teaching. But the case would be different with a man like Cicero
who was certainly influenced by Plato. If it could be shown
that the Roman orator, either by teaching or example, fostered
the idea of humble-mindedness among his countrymen, that
aspiration after self-forgetfulness which is found and to a great
extent realized in St. Paul, then there would be a prima facie
reason for supposing that the Platonic teaching was powerful
enough to make men turn away from the worldly ideal of enlight-
ened selfishness, to the " ignoring " of self which was preached
and practised by Christ.

Cicero, however, as a faithful disciple of a teacher of Humility,
may be dismissed. There were certain fine points in his charac-
ter, but it could not be claimed for him by his warmest admirer
that he was forgetful of himself. If Aristotle's sketch of the ideal
man in his Ethics may be taken as a proof of Humility being
alien to the Greek philosopher's mind, so Cicero's famous letter
to Lucceius 1 sets the question at rest as regards the Roman mind.
When the orator found that fame in his lifetime was only going
to be his in a sadly curtailed measure, he sighed all the more
deeply after a posthumous renown, and took every step he could
think of to secure it. Even if this estimate may seem to require
some qualification, it must be remembered that we are consider-
ing Cicero not only as he was in himself, but in his qualification
to be a teacher of others as to this particular virtue. The idea
that this orator could possibly have been responsible for the
growth either of Humility itself, or of its recognition among
mankind, is nothing short of grotesque. Else it would have been
necessary to have included the Porch among the possible explan-
ations of the phenomenon under discussion.

But, before considering the effect of Greek philosophy, a word
should be said as to a possible blending of the teaching of the
Old Testament with that of the Aristotelian schools. Here,
again, an effort should be made to see clearly the question at
stake. Humility is a virtue which, however highly estimated
nowadays in certain communities, must have always been, as
it now is, profoundly uncongenial to the natural man, who is
an egoist to the heart's core. Is it then conceivable that men
like Epicurus or Chrysippus or Zeno who derived their principles
from Aristotle could have been successful in planting this par-


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 17 19

Online LibraryEdward LytteltonCharacter and religion → online text (page 17 of 19)