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some early disciple or pupil of a disciple not only attrib-
uted such sayings to Jesus, but found a wide and warm
welcome for his narrative. If Jesus were, as you say,
pre-eminently humble, in our sense of the word, how
do you explain the acceptance by the next generation
of a narrative which ascribes to Him such a saying as
" I and the Father are one " ?

B. I confess I never thought of that.

E. You see there is, as every one admits, a large mystical
element in the discourses contained in the Fourth Gospel.
Sundry critics, biased possibly in favour of the human
view of Christ, have tried to show that those discourses
were not authentic : but written by some one who never
heard Him speak. But the more fictitious the sayings
are, and the more discrepant from Christ's ordinary talk,
the more difficult it is to account for such narratives
being looked on as congruous to the true tradition of
His sayings.

B. Then why were they received ?

E. Because they were not discrepant from the true
tradition. Indeed, there are quite enough claims of a
superhuman kind embodied in the Synoptic records,
and attributed to Christ, to make one infer that though
He preached self-abasement in words of matchless power,
He never spoke of Himself at all in the tone universal
among the most saintlike of His followers. In other
words, unless you concede the dogma of His divinity
you must admit that His example of humility comes to
very little : it is, in short, the example of One Who preached
humility to others, but Himself said and did things far
frbm humble.

B. If that is true, how do you explain that His
character is generally thought to be adorable ?


E. I hope to touch on that question later. Meantime
pardon me if I keep strictly to the question of the power
of Christ's example in this one virtue. As a last objection
to your suggestion of the peculiar potency of that ex-
ample, let me point out that if mere example could work
a change in men's minds and ideas, we should have found
that other examples prior to Christianity had done so ;
such as those of the Jewish prophets, and, among the
Greeks, besides Socrates, that of Aristides perhaps, though
it is true that along with almost total absence of precepts
of humility in Greece we find apparently very little
practice of it. In short, we are not entitled to ascribe
the marvellous change which certainly came about in
ethics after the foundation of Christianity to the mere
example of Christ, when, apart from other reasons, there
had been anticipations of that example which ought
to have yielded fruit proportionate to their power, but
which as a fact yielded none.

B. I have often thought about this subject before ;
but, I must say, there is something in the way you put
it which suggests to me not only new notions but new
difficulties. Once again, then, I would ask of your kind-
ness if you would consent to another adjournment of
our debate, as I wish to resume it after a little thought.

E. Please make no apology for claiming some of my
time. Among the many forms of activity which a
Christian may choose there are two forms of discussion ;
one the most barren and repulsive form of human effort ;
the other not only fruitful, but in every way and at every
stage delightful. The first is controversy with a man
determined to preserve his own limitations who, while
preserving his own, makes you stiffen yours ; the other,
a real inquiry into truth along with one who knows that


all human horizons fade into mystery, a discussion
which brings new light to the answerer even more than
to the questioner. I assure you I feel myself in your

B. Thank you. I will go now, and come back to-
morrow morning.

B went away pondering as before. He was somewhat
bewildered at the turn the exposition had just taken.
For years he had argued with so-called Christians that
the example of Christ gave no warrant for our conception
of Humility : but E's words seemed to him to pierce
deep into some preconceptions of his own which it was
uncomfortable to disturb. If Christ's bare example of
humility was so powerless to effect the change, so dubious
indeed as a pattern before men, what about other virtues ?
He had generally taken it for granted that Christ's
example had taught men love for others, social service,
kindness to children, temperance, fortitude and so on ;
and that though men who worship Him as Divine perhaps
see more in the example than an Agnostic, yet any right-
minded man must be kindled to some extent in his soul
by the story of the Passion ; in no other way could he
account for the almost unstinted admiration with which
Socinians, Jews, materialists even, regarded Him, and
which made them assent to the verdict even of His
enemies that He was sinless ; " Why what evil hath
He done ? " "I have betrayed the innocent blood,"
and so on. But if E is right (thought B) we have
been resting far too much on the power of example ;
and this is true with respect to virtues other than Humil-
ity ; at least I think so, if he is right. I must tackle
him on this question, which is no light or impertinent one.


The next day B found E, as before, alert, courteous
and acute, but better than all these, full of ideas, and
eager to impart them.

B. On thinking over what you said yesterday I
have been puzzled by this difficulty. Hitherto I have
always thought that ordinary virtues, by which I mean
obviously useful virtues, were recognized by men as
exhibited by Christ, but that Humility was an exception
in being a virtue without use, and so difficult to justify
or understand that, to an inquirer like myself, Christ's
example was not enough to give it the needed warrant.
But from something you said I should gather that you
would include other virtues in this description, and be
inclined to ascribe the general improvement in ethics,
consequent on Christianity, to something different from
example or teaching. If you exclude Christ's example
from the category of the influences which effected this
improvement, not only do you utter a strange paradox,
but a fortiori you exclude also the examples of holy men
like Paul, Ignatius and a host of others.

E. I am glad you have touched on this side of the
matter. To deal with it means to depart for a time
from the exact question before us, the warrant for a high
estimate of Humility, into an inquiry into the place of
Christ's example in reference to all the specifically Chris-
tian virtues, faith, hope, charity, etc. About them
all I would say with conviction that you get no warrant
for any one of them from contemplating the story of
Christ, unless you have consciously or unconsciously in
your mind the presupposition that He was divine, and
came on earth to die for our sins.

B. You amaze me ! Please explain.

E. Take the most obvious characteristic of Christ's


conduct, His heroic fortitude during the Passion, or the
calm strength with which He saw the forces of His
adversaries closing around Him, with the grim certainty
of His approach to an agonizing death. Does this con-
duct inspire us to heroism or does it not ? The answer
to that question depends on what you conceive to have
been the object in view throughout. If there was no
object, the heroism becomes fanaticism, and it is easy
to see that, on the purely human hypothesis, the public
life of Christ is open to an unanswerable indictment.

B. How so ? I am not clear as to the distinction,
though of course there is one, between heroism and

E. Is it not this, that the ardour, the unconquerable
fortitude, the self-forgetfulness and triumphant faith
of the hero, becomes something not far removed from
insanity when the main object of it all is suspected of
being a delusion ? If it be a palpable and ludicrous
delusion the hero becomes a sheer lunatic : but if it be
merely inadequate or partial, we dub him a fanatic.
The hero endures all things, conquers all opposition,
sees a meaning in all disappointments, because his eyes
are set on something universally recognized as eternal
and good. Now take away the purpose of Christ's
earthly career which the dogma of divinity allows us to
discern, and I maintain that what is left is not a noble
human example at all, but a series of actions far too
fragmentary to be useful for imitation and far too aimless
to be admired.

B. Good gracious ! I can make nothing of this.
Do you deny Him courage, for instance ?

E. Courage, my dear sir, ceases to be a virtue if it is
merely a facing of horrors for an unworthy object or for


no object at all. The reason why Don Quixote's charging
of the windmill is not heroism, is that the windmill was
a windmill and not what he supposed it to be. Now it
is becoming increasingly difficult for me to imagine
clearly what Christ was, if He was only human : what
His career really was, if we strip it of the glamour thrown
over it by the presupposition that He was in some sense
divine, and therefore that, however difficult to interpret,
His story was unutterably noble and His example su-
premely inspiring. But I am speaking simple truth
when I say that to any one really convinced that Christ
was mere man, His actions and His teaching become
wholly useless as a guide to good living, and wholly
unintelligible. We must treat it with the respect which
anything momentous claims of us, and look for its purpose.
Why, on that theory, did Christ die ? It is patent to
any reader of the Gospels that He need not have died,
and I say that His death was either the Redemption of
mankind from Sin, or a useless suicide. Is it suggested
that the heroism of it consisted in the unflinching courage
with which He faced pain ? Then I answer that many
a lunatic has slain himself by rushing on death without
the faintest symptom of hesitation, but the more unhesi-
tating the self-sacrifice is, the madder it is, unless you
can discern a purpose which it goes far to attain, or a
principle which it helps to interpret.

B. Well, but surely the good of mankind is a principle
of conduct worthy enough. Common-sense is against
you. The Death of Christ has ever been spoken of as a
tragedy in which all the hope of the human race is stored.
It has done wonders for the softening of civilization,
and in teaching us that true spiritual influence depends in
some degree upon death. If the blood of the martyrs



was the seal of the Church, it was because they imitated
Christ in their deaths. Similarly a man who disbelieves
in His divinity, can imitate His self-surrender and His

E. What ! even without attempting to discern a
purpose in it all ? I venture to say that of all those
who really admire Christ's teaching and career, there is
not one who does not postulate to himself that the purpose
of His life was in some sense a bringing of man nearer to
God. Think of this. If His teaching and example
were everything, why did He cut them short by dying
in the prime of His early manhood ? You will surely
admit that any great man is great because he overcomes
obstacles in pressing towards a worthy goal, a " prize
of his high calling " ; the grand characteristic of great-
ness is that it knows its own aim, and in the midst of
all the will o' the wisps of this deceptive world it holds
on its way steadily, and interprets the purpose of life
with a clearness and consistency which, after some time,
future generations are able to discern, to honour, and
in this case to adore. Now grasp firmly the postulate
of the many modern self-styled Christians who put
their whole trust in a merely human Christ. It comes
to this, that the whole significance of Christ's work lies
not in His Sacrifice, because that was merely the death
of a strong man Who opposed the spirit of His age, nor
in His miracles, because they are thought to be historically
doubtful, nor in His Resurrection because, besides being
deemed doubtful, it cannot be of use for imitation ;
but that it lies solely in His teaching and moral example.
Is not that so ?

B. Yes, I would not dispute that.

E. Very well. Reflect now on the way in which the


hero fulfilled his part in the world. If teaching is to be
of real use it must be heard or read. Jesus of Nazareth
took no pains to secure either one or the other. He
never gave any directions for the preservation of His
discourses, and the result is that we only have fragmentary
accounts of them, varying in their wording. Again,
He evidently shrank more and more from such publicity
as He tolerated at first, and which alone gave any reason-
able prospect of His precepts obtaining a wide vogue.
Again, a most fatal objection to His teaching is that it
possessed a certain charm, very difficult to define, which
except on the divine hypothesis comes to very little more
than charm, because the teaching was so metaphorical
and paradoxical as to be useless as practical precepts
for guidance to men in perplexities : and that is true,
even where the words are not dealing with mysteries
which a modern Socinian quite rightly disregards, but
with practical everyday matters such as the treatment
of beggars in the street, the reception of affronts, the
explosion of a hot temper and the saving against old
age. Once more, even if a loyal reader can find edifica-
tion in these very baffling paragraphs, he must admit
that they profess to touch hardly one of the really pressing
questions of this or any other age. Now you may say
what you please as to the beauty of a man's phraseology
and illustrations, and the wisdom of his instructions, but
you must in all honesty confess it to be disappointing,
when, in ninety-nine out of every hundred of the pressing
difficulties of practical life, you may turn to his teaching
and find not a single hint : and in the hundredth it is
more likely than not that the injunction will be a vivid
paradox wholly impossible to carry out in this or any
period of human history.


B. Very well. Supposing now for the sake of argu-
ment that the divine hypothesis is necessary to explain
the excellence of the effect upon mankind of Christ's
work, why not believe that it was a delusion permitted
by God ? I suppose you and every thoughtful reader
of the Old Testament agree that there was a time when
the slaughter of tribal enemies was universally held to
be an act of duty, and now we equally agree that the
verses in the Psalms which pungently express that senti-
ment are out of harmony with modern ideas. In short
the conception of duty has changed ; that is, according
to your creed, God has told men different things at
different times. If this is accepted in morals, why is it
thought to be impious to suggest that God may have
permitted the human race to have conceived wrongly
about Christ, when the mistake has been productive of
great good ?

E. Because the two things are not in the same plane.
Consider a child whose whole inspiration of life comes
from the sense of his parents' deep and unchangeable
love for him, which is the normal condition of a healthy-
minded child. Now that sense is based on the evidence
of many loving acts, and its growth is an outcome of
trust. But supposing it were possible for a parent to
arrange so that the loving acts were only loving in appear-
ance, being in reality not evidences of love at all ; but
that he did them knowing they would be misunderstood,
but beneficially and usefully, by the child ; and yet that
after a few years it was quite certain that they would
be understood in their true nature as quite indifferent.
Such an education would be a hollow pretence, subversive
of all trust, all harmony and love, and, in the deepest
things of life, the child would be taught to despair of truth.


B. Yes, but what about the changing of the moral
conceptions ?

E. That is merely the working of a natural law.
We know, all of us, that as the virtue of a child is not
the same as that of an adult, so the rules of conduct
obeyed by a child are outgrown by the man. There
is nothing in this but recognition of a fundamental law
of growth. But for the parent to play fast and loose
with that which is the very centre and mainspring of the
child's moral and spiritual health is to make all per-
manent relation between the two impossible. Translate
this into terms suitable to the matter in hand. Christ
told His followers to be childlike. What could be less
childlike than to conceive of a Father Who for centuries
teaches His children in the very inmost shrine of thought
and feeling to nourish a conviction about Himself which
rests on nothing ? Not about the mysteriousness of
His Being, but the simple vital conviction that He loves
us ? Hence we must subtract from Christ's teaching
all the injunctions as to child-likeness. What are we
to make of the remainder ? If God taught our fathers
to base their whole view of life upon so vast and all
pervading a delusion as that which imagines the Incarna-
tion and Redemption of the world and the victory over
Death and Sin, is there not a presumption that our
modern view of His teaching is as baseless as theirs was,
though it be for the time useful ? Why not, then, treat
it as binding on us only when it humours our inclinations ?
As soon as He tells us anything we did not know before,
we had better ignore it. Indeed as soon as the teaching
is felt to be really inspiring, we ought to suspect it of
£>eing based on falsehood. Now I ask what have the
men of our day done to deserve this tremendous penalty ?


We have been led to find out, have we ? that resolute
and conscientious inquiry leads to the shattering of the
whole fabric of hope and joy built up by men who own
their whole knowledge of it to be based on Christ's work :
that obedience to our reason deprives us of all assurance
of God's Fatherhood, and turns the one guarantee that
Creation is not a failure into a hollow deception. What
have we done to deserve this reward of careful thinking ?

B. (after a pause). Well, let us put on one side the
delusion-hypothesis. How, then, would you deal with
the difficulties of the case, on the hypothesis that Christ's
divinity was a fact ?

E. St ay a moment . I want to deal with the remaining
half of His work — His moral example. The more you
regard it as simply a pattern for imitation the more
useless it becomes. How can we living in England to-
day, with lives conditioned in 10,000 different ways,
follow the outward example of an itinerant preacher in
a remote country 2,000 years ago ? What was that
example ? It was that of a Man Who taught ! But
are all Christians to set about teaching ? He went
about healing. But are we all to do the same ? Suppose
we can't heal, what then ? There is only one department
of His life which could possibly be imitated literally by
a modern follower, and that is His practice of prayer.
But you will observe, unless you hold a lot of theories
which are outside of and beyond the human hypothesis,
that it must be admitted there is no evidence that His
prayers were any more useful than other people's : and,
without the presuppositions, remember that usefulness
to man is the one and only test of value. Moreover, it
simplifies the discussion, if we note that this particular
department of Christ's conduct, that in which He may


be imitated, His followers who think of Him as merely
human have quietly ignored. I mean that, without
libelling them, one may say that they are not distinguished
for any fervent belief in, or practice of, prayer.

B. Well what do you say to this ? I remember
reading in years gone by in the Church Quarterly an
article which contended that Christ's example was useless
not for the reasons you give, but because it was un-
approachably sublime. Now is it conceivable that the
same Man can be truly spoken of in such very different
tones ?

E. Anything in this way is conceivable if we remember
man's almost infinite power of holding contradictory
theories together in his mind. The volume of belief
in His divinity which has gathered force throughout the
nineteen centuries makes it difficult for the quickest-
witted pamphleteers and lecturers to divest themselves
wholly of the beliefs in which they were brought up>
and which are still permeating the atmosphere round
them. Doubtless an immense majority of European
Christians find it easier to contemplate the outward
aspect of Christ's story, since a continuous and exacting
effort is required to keep hold of the conception of the
Incarnation and Redemption throughout. We all of
us constantly fall back exhausted on to the moral con-
ception, thinking we have abandoned the other. But
we have not. We are far too muddle-headed to notice
it, but under our appreciation of Christ's example is
an assumption that He was something ineffably great.

B. This is still very strange to me. Let us take an
example. One of the most winning and gracious things
He ever did was the blessing of the little children, coupled
with the immortal words that He spoke then. Am I to


be debarred from admiring that unless I hold to the
Nicene Creed ?

E. You could hardly have chosen a better example.
It was indeed a gracious action if the Son of God spoke
and acted so towards the little barefooted peasant children
of that out of the way land. But if He were merely an
itinerant peasant teacher Himself, where is the special
graciousness ? What right had He to say " of such is
the kingdom of heaven " ? I maintain that any one of
His hearers might, with quite as much right, have flatly
denied it. But viewed as a Christian views it, the action
is ineffably great because ineffably humble and loving,
and redolent of that wholly indescribable depth and
breadth of view of life and its issues, which characterized
all that He said and did.

B. On my word ! this is true : and how much hangs
upon it ! But let us look all round the question if we
can. It is a commonplace among orthodox people that
Christ revealed God. If so, it must have been by His
actions and His words. Being divine they must have
been perfect. Being a revelation of God, their perfection
must be recognizable by man, something man can see to
be perfection. Now are you not engaged in showing
that the teaching was abortive and the actions, not trivial
or indifferent but, humanly viewed, downright wrong ?
What, then, becomes of your revelation ? How do you
explain the origin of the belief that He was divine ? His
career on earth suddenly began to be public. The people
did not know Him to be divine, but the effect of His
actions and words was that they gradually thought Him
to be so. But that could only have been because there
was something transcendent in His personality and
unimpeachably virtuous in His dealings with life's pro-


blems. On your showing, how could there have been
any such result ? You see I am taking for the nonce the
orthodox view and trying to show how it conflicts with
your statements as to Christ's actions, humanly viewed,
being imperfect or wrong. If people began by thinking
Him divine, it would have been a different story. But
they did not : and apologists are often concerned to show
that they did not.

E. First let me correct one statement. The people
in Palestine did not conclude Christ to be divine merely
because His actions were good. Something very much
more wonderful took place, which is connected, not with
His outward example, but with the unspeakable fact of
the giving of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost.
You remember that at the eve of Christ's ministry the
number of believers were computed at " about 500 " :
now on the day of Pentecost " 3,000 were baptized " ; and
of these a large number could have known little or nothing
of His actions and words. There is no hint of their being
converted by any recital of His virtuous actions. If your
statement were a complete statement of what took place,
we should have found that the men and women, who were
nearest to Him, formed the nucleus of believers, and that
their number grew steadily during the three years. But
the facts are otherwise. Nor could your picture give
any explanation of the growth of the Church. It would
follow from it that the further men were from the facts

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Online LibraryEdward LytteltonCharacter and religion → online text (page 8 of 19)