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George T. (George Thomas) Ashley.

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Jesus come about, if it was not a real fact? Very simply and quite
naturally. Any one acquainted with ancient history knows that in that
age of the world, and for centuries before, it had been almost a
universal custom, especially in Greece and the Roman empire, to
attribute some supernatural origin to, and deify their
heroes, - sometimes while they were yet alive, but most certainly after
their death. Just so, after the death of this remarkable man, and his
cult continued to gather adherents, time and distance lent perspective,
and he naturally grew larger and greater in their estimation, until,
naturally and inevitably, permeated by the universal thought of the age
in which they lived, they gradually came to look more and more upon
their great master as being something more than ordinarily human, until
this thought gradually ripened into his deification; and of course to
be consistent with this he _must have been_, like all other deified
heroes, supernaturally born. And out of this the legend of Bethlehem,
in both its forms, in Matthew and Luke, somehow grew, - nobody knows
exactly how. It is just like many other myths of past ages. The first
we know of them they are full grown and complete; yet, like all other
things, they _must_ have had a natural and gradual growth.

As to where he was born we do not know, nor is it material. It is by
far the most probable that he was born at Nazareth where his parents
lived. The legend that he was born at Bethlehem was doubtless a pure
conjecture, made necessary by those who accepted him as the Messiah of
Hebrew prophecy, to make it correspond with the prophetic declaration
that the Messiah should be born at Bethlehem of Judah. This fully
accounts for the Bethlehem story as the place of his birth. The fact
is they are all purely conjectural, made to fit into some preconceived
notion of his personality or character. We have no reliable account
whatever of his birth or early life.

We now come to consider the man, - yes, the man Christ Jesus. We have
already said he was a Jew and lived and died one, with apparently no
thought or purpose other than to reform and correct the abuses into
which his people had lapsed, and revive and intensify the deep
spiritual and ethical meaning of religion. Born of the most intensely
religious race of all antiquity, he was the most intensely religious of
his race. He perceived a new conception of God, not as the arbitrary
ruler and vindictive judge of his people, but as the universal Father
of all men, not anthropomorphic, but Infinite Spirit, whose greatest
attributes were love, justice, mercy and truth, expressed in the great
term Fatherhood; and that all men are children of the great Father, and
therefore brothers. This expresses his fundamental philosophy and
working basis of life. Upon it he undertook to build up and establish,
not a new system of religion, but a new order of life. The central
idea in this was man's direct relationship to God. In his own life he
embodied a perfect example of his ideal. He thus became not God
incarnate bodily in human flesh, nor the Son of God in any _different_
sense than all are sons of God - except perhaps in degree and not in
kind - but the most complete reflection and interpretation of God in
terms of human life that the world had ever known before his time, has
ever known since, or perhaps ever will know. But this last statement
is saying more than any man can know for certain. We know not what God
may yet have to reveal to mankind, nor how He will reveal it.

His course of life and teaching naturally brought him into direct
conflict with the prevailing order of his time. We need not discuss
that in detail. It soon led to a violent and tragic death, before he
had fairly begun his work. We cannot form any guess what _might have
been_ the result if he had been permitted to live out a normal life and
continue his teaching. He only met the same fate that many prophets
before him had met, and many more since. If he should appear today
here in America and pursue the same course toward public institutions
and popular beliefs and practices, he would meet with a reception
little different from what he met in Palestine nineteen hundred years
ago. He might not indeed be crucified on a cross; but he would stand a
good chance to be cast into jail and sent to a penitentiary for a term
of years for sedition and attempting to interfere with the established
order. And no persons would be more active in his prosecution than
some of the modern Pharisees who occupy high places in that great
institution that bears his name. If he had appeared in Europe some
four or five hundred years ago, he would have been almost dead certain
to meet the same fate of John Huss, Savonarola and Giordano Bruno. But
now, as then, the poor, down-trodden and oppressed would doubtless hear
him gladly.

There is no reliable evidence that he ever claimed to be the Messiah of
Hebrew prophecy. He is quoted on several occasions as having accepted
the appellation when applied to him by others. On one occasion only is
he quoted as having affirmatively declared himself the Messiah; and
that was to the woman of Samaria, and the whole circumstance of it
renders it incredible. It would certainly be a very unusual course to
take, for the Jewish Messiah to come and announce himself as such, not
to the Jews themselves, but to a very obscure, not to say disreputable
woman, of the most despised race known to the Jews.

It was however quite natural that, after his followers had universally
accepted him as the Jewish Messiah, they should recall some occasional
remarks that he may have made, upon which to base this belief; and that
these remarks would finally take more concrete form, until when
written, fifty to a hundred years after they were uttered, they were
perhaps entirely different from anything Jesus ever said. As a matter
of fact there is nothing in the life or teachings of Jesus, as recorded
in the New Testament, that at all corresponds to the personality or
character of the Messiah of Hebrew prophecy. And may I add here, that
the Messiah of Hebrew prophecy, for whose coming the Jews were looking
at that time, and for which most of the Jews have been looking ever
since, is but a fiction and a myth, born entirely out of the patriotic
devotion and fervid poetic fancy of the Old Hebrew prophets? In the
days of Israel's adversity, when all the really unquestioned Messianic
prophecies were uttered, the mind of prophet and people turned back to
the golden days of David's glorious reign; and in their intense
patriotism and unfaltering faith in Jehovah, they hoped and _believed_
that he would some day raise up a King of the line and house of David
that would restore the ancient glory of Israel; and so they
prophesied - "the wish being father to the thought." And this is all
there is to Old Testament Messianic prophecy. And a great many of the
most intelligent Jews of the Reformed School of today are beginning to
think the same.

But if there was ever a true prophet of God, a man in whom the God-life
in human form was truly manifest, a man supremely divine, - not by
miraculous generation, but by spiritual union with God, whereby God
indeed became manifest in human flesh, - that man was Jesus of Nazareth.
And as such he becomes the eternal example for all mankind after him.
As a man he justly commands the highest homage that the world can give
to man. But make him God, and the chain that connects him with man is
at once broken. If Jesus was God, and therefore incapable of
temptation or sin, the temptation and triumph in the wilderness becomes
a farce, without any meaning to mankind whatever. But as a mortal man
struggling with and overcoming the strongest temptations of life, it
has infinite significance to all mankind. If he overcame as a man, so
may I. As a god, the sweat of Gethsemane and the agony of the Cross
are but mockery - not equal to a single pin-prick in a whole mortal
life. But as a man, struggling with the last enemy, with eternity
before him, a means of escape at hand, but deliberately devoting his
life and his all in the most excruciatingly torturous manner known to
human ingenuity in cruelty, it becomes a spectacle to command the awe
and admiration of angels.

Jesus is indeed the savior of the world, not by having _redeemed_
mankind with the purchase-price of his own blood; but by his life and
words in teaching men how to live, and by his death how to die, if
necessary, for the right.

I know of no more fitting close to this my view of Jesus, than a
quotation from Ernest Renan's Apostrophe to Jesus. Ernest Renan was
called an infidel because he abandoned the church of his fathers, and
with it the deity of Jesus. But he found in Jesus the supreme model of
all human life, the most perfect and complete reflection of the
God-life in mankind the world has ever known.

"Repose now in thy glory, noble founder. Thy work is finished; thy
divinity is established. Fear no more to see the edifice of thy labors
fall by any fault. Henceforth beyond the reach of frailty, thou shalt
witness from the heights of divine peace the infinite results of thy
acts. At the price of a few hours of suffering, which did not even
reach thy grand soul, thou hast brought the most complete immortality.
For thousands of years the world will depend on thee: Banner of our
contests, thou shalt be the standard about which the hottest battle
will be given. A thousand times more alive, a thousand times more
beloved, since thy death than during thy passage here below, thou shalt
become the cornerstone of humanity so entirely, that to tear thy name
from this world would be to rend it to its foundation. Complete
conqueror of death, take possession of thy kingdom, whither shall
follow thee, by the royal road which thou hast traced, ages of
followers."


LIBERTY

_MY NEW CHURCH RELATIONS AND SECOND CALL TO THE MINISTRY_

I have thus outlined, perhaps at greater length than was necessary, the
processes thru which I passed in my religious life from my early
childhood to mature middle life. I have shown how I was born in the
bondage of orthodoxy; and how I was ultimately driven to abandon, not
only it, but religion altogether. I then outlined the processes thru
which I passed that led me to a satisfactory settlement in my own mind,
of the problems embraced in the general and comprehensive term
Religion, which I have tried to describe as "My New Confession of
Faith." From the time I left the church and ministry until I reached
the conclusions herein outlined, was about fifteen years. I reached
them purely by my own investigations, not knowing that there was a
church on earth that would accept me in its fellowship while holding
them. I could not perjure myself by subscribing to a creed which I not
only did not believe, but despised, merely for the sake of the social
prestige or business advantage such church membership might give me, as
I have known some to do, and was often importuned to do myself.
Whatever other shortcoming may be charged to my account, it can never
be said of me that I was untrue to my own moral convictions in these
matters; altho this tenacity to principle, or as it was often called,
"hard-headed stubbornness," has more than once caused me embarrassment,
and put me at some disadvantage in business. I could not "let the
tongue say what the heart denied."

My views of the church itself had also necessarily changed with my
changed views of its theology. I no longer looked upon it as an
institution of supernatural sanctity and authority. To me it is simply
The Assembly. Any assembly of people gathered together for the worship
of God is a true church. It does not depend upon any particular form
of organization, the maintenance and administration of any particular
ordinances, or so-called sacraments. It does not depend upon
"Succession," - Apostolic, Baptismal, Ordination, organization or
otherwise. "Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there
am I in the midst of them." This is all that is essential to a true
church. It depends upon unity of purpose, rather than uniformity of
belief. Hence, any assembly of people, anywhere, united together for
the worship of God, striving to live better lives themselves, and to
help others to do the same, and thus make this world better and human
life happier, meets all the essentials of a true church of God,
regardless of any form of organization, ordinance, sacrament, creed,
belief or ecclesiastical pedigree.

But for years, - as will presently appear, - I did not know that any
church existed, that would come any way near meeting this definition.
I naturally supposed that any organization calling itself a church was
based upon belief in the Bible as the infallible word of God, and the
sole source of authority in all matters of religion. This I had
completely abandoned and could never go back to it. In fact I did not
trouble myself to inquire for a possible church fellowship. I supposed
I was forever barred from any church membership whatever, except that I
felt a welcome in attending the Reformed Jewish synagogue, where the
preaching was on a high intellectual plane, sane and rational, dealing
with modern problems instead of ancient creeds and dogmas; and I liked
this. But I was not a Jew; and I knew I could never accept their
theology. All I could ever expect was to be a welcome visitor, "a
stranger within the gate."

However, I must go back a little. Some few years after I left the
ministry of the Methodist Church, and while still living not far from
the last church I served, a friend one day asked why I had left the
Church and ministry. I told him very briefly a few of my doctrinal
difficulties; to which he replied, "Ashley, you are a Unitarian." I
thought but little of it. I was not really interested in churches any
more anyway. But he handed me a pamphlet to read and told me he was a
Unitarian back in Ohio where he came from. I read the pamphlet at his
request. I do not now remember what it was, or just what it was about.
But I was impressed with the fact that the views therein expressed were
very similar to my own; and if that was Unitarianism I was also
probably a Unitarian. But still it aroused no special interest as
there was no Unitarian church anywhere about. If there had been, I
might then have been led to investigate further. But years went by,
and all the perceptible effect was that I would occasionally think how
nearly I must be a Unitarian, until I finally determined that if I ever
had an opportunity I would investigate the matter further.

In the summer of 1912, business relations led me to move to Dallas,
Texas. Passing on the street one day, I noticed the sign, First
Unitarian Church. A new inspiration came to me. I now had an
opportunity to investigate just how near my religious convictions
coincided with those of this church. When the church opened after the
summer vacation I began to attend its services, only occasionally at
first, reading in the meantime much of its literature kept at the
church for free distribution. I became intensely interested and by the
spring of 1913 I was a regular attendant. The more I read the more I
found myself in substantial accord with what I understood to be the
salient points of twentieth century Unitarianism. I found especially
these points that impressed me very deeply: It had no creed. It had no
specific statement of beliefs. It had no doctrinal standard or test of
religious faith as a condition of church membership. It not only
permitted, but encouraged the greatest freedom of thought and the most
searching investigation of all subjects presented for consideration,
believing firmly that truth had nothing to fear from such a course. I
found it had no test of membership but that of human character. I
found a man was judged by what _he is_, and not by what he thinks or
believes. I found its service to be reverent and dignified, but free
from useless ceremonial. The preaching by Rev. George Gilmour, its
minister, I found to be profound and scholarly, yet deeply spiritual
and inspiring, dealing primarily with present-day religious and social
problems rather than creeds, dogmas or beliefs. I was profoundly
surprised and much gratified to find a church and people and minister
so broad, so liberal and so fraternal as I found this First Unitarian
Church in Dallas. I soon found that whether I agreed with all other
Unitarians or not, I at least had here a free and cordial fellowship
for the worship of God and the service of man, without any
ecclesiastical harness to put on, or any strings to limit me to
prescribed bounds. A new light dawned upon me. The bondage of
orthodoxy I had broken years ago. But I wandered for years in the
desert of agnosticism, famishing and unfed. I had found in my own
heart the bread of life; but I had no table at which to spread it - and
man being a social animal as well as a religious one, cannot live alone.

My name was soon on the membership roll of this church, where I hope it
will remain until I am translated, no matter where else I may serve and
place it. It was here that I first found my bearings and placed my
feet on the solid rock of rational religion. The supreme satisfaction,
the peace of mind, serene content, and supernal joy of this situation I
shall not attempt to describe. Those that were born in a liberal faith
and have never known anything else can neither understand nor
appreciate it. It is indeed a new birth, a new light, a new life of
freedom, fellowship and fraternity in a common service for God and
humanity.


THE NEW CALL TO PREACH

I have before described what I once interpreted as a "divine call to
preach." It was the new-born enthusiasm of one who felt himself "a
brand snatched from the eternal burning" to proclaim the same
deliverance to what he believed to be a lost and ruined world; to warn
sinners to "flee from the wrath to come." It was then the consuming
passion of a soul on fire with zeal for the salvation of all mankind
from what he believed to be an overwhelming and eternal destruction
that awaited them, and might come upon them at any moment without
warning.

And now, having tasted of the sweets of liberty, I desired "to proclaim
liberty thruout the land to all the inhabitants thereof," the same
liberty to those yet in the bondage of fear from which I had escaped
and to those who were still wandering in the deserts of doubt, looking
for a haven of rest, and not knowing that it was so near. I knew that
the great masses were inside of the houses in which they were born,
with the doors all bolted and the windows fastened down. Not a ray of
light is permitted to enter there, because a new thought might explode
their delusions and disturb their repose. For these there is little
hope.

But I knew there were yet thousands - I had met and talked with many of
them - who, as I was for years, were wandering in the deserts, hungering
for the bread of life, looking for a fellowship where they might have
freedom of thought and conscience, and yet join with others of like
minds in the free worship of Nature's one great God.

I would address myself to these. I was so long one of them, I thought
my experience might be of benefit. It would aid me in helping them. I
would tell my story of bondage, of deliverance, of wandering in the
deserts of doubt, of the dawning light, of the full blaze of the sun of
liberty, of freedom and fellowship in the worship of God and the
service of mankind.

I have now spent five years in this service, the happiest and best
years of my life. They have been crowned with some degree of success.
I am not yet old. I hope to be able to devote at least a score of
years yet to this happy service. Having escaped from Bondage to
Liberty myself, my only ambition now is to carry the message of
deliverance to others, until they shall likewise find freedom in The
Fatherhood of God, The Brotherhood of Man, The Leadership of Jesus,
Salvation by Character instead of Creed, and the hope of the Progress
of Mankind Onward and Upward Forever. My only regret is that I did not
discover this way of light and liberty long before, so that I might
have had more years to devote to this happy service.


AN AFTERWORD

Dear reader, my story is finished. I have had but one motive in
writing it: A hope that I may in some way help others who are still in
the meshes of ecclesiastical bondage, or disturbing doubts, to find the
way of light and liberty in a rational religious faith. To what extent
I have succeeded or failed, only the future and my readers can
determine. If you have derived any benefit from it; if I have been
able to cast any ray of light along your pathway; if it has helped you
to solve any problem that has perplexed you, I am fully repaid for the
labor of writing it. I have not said nearly all that is in my heart,
nor all I would like to say, but all the compass of this work would
permit. But if I have stirred up in the mind of the reader a desire to
know more of the questions so briefly discussed herein, and to press
his investigations further for this purpose, I have little doubt as to
what will be the ultimate result.

And just one more thing, dear reader: If this book has been of any
benefit to you; if it has helped to clear up any doubts in your mind,
and point the way toward light and liberty in your own life and
experience, may it not do as much for others? It may be the saving of
a life from Bondage to Liberty; to that "peace that passeth
understanding," in a rational religious faith, based, not upon dogma or
creed, but upon man's fundamental nature and need, interpreted and
applied by that highest and best light that man has, ENLIGHTENED
REASON, for the same God who is the Author of Religion is also the
Author of Reason.













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Online LibraryGeorge T. (George Thomas) AshleyFrom Bondage to Liberty in Religion: A Spiritual Autobiography → online text (page 11 of 11)