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Conscience & Christ : six lectures on Christian ethics online

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right : had he taken Orders and worked in the slums,
that would have been still better. Had he emerged
from the slums to become a Bishop, that would have
been best of all. But the work of a " mere scholar,"
why, that was to make the worst of both worlds !

Once again then, if we accept this modem view of
Morality, which after all by this time most Christian
people do accept, does it not imply that we are desert-
ing the teaching of Christ ? Most emphatically I
maintain that we are not — under two conditions, two
conditions which practically come to very much the
same thing : (i) In the first place, we must recognize
that these things, which we consider to be elements in
the true good for ourselves, are elements in the true
good for others also ; and that therefore it becomes a
Christian duty to promote them for others as well as
for ourselves — for the many as well as the few — for

The Principle of Development 207

other people, other classes, other races than our own.
Selfish, dilettante, anti-social iEstheticism is, indeed,
hopelessly at variance with the fundamental principle of
Christ's teaching. A specialized devotion of one's life
to Art or Science, to Literature or to learning, can only
be justified from the Christian point of view when in
some way or other the results of such a life-work are
shared by the community in general or some part of
it. For the Christian the intellectual or artistic life
must become a Ministry. (2) Secondly, even for our-
selves moral goodness must be put higher than intel-
lectual excellence of whatever kind. The view of life
which regards Art as a sort of optional alternative or
substitute for Religion and Morality — a view of which
there are traces in the language of many Philosophers
and other writers besides those who would seriously
maintain such a thesis — cannot by any ingenuity
whatever be represented as a legitimate development
of Christ's Morality. The Morality which I have
sketched — that is to say, the Morality practically
accepted by most cultivated Christians of the present
day — is not inconsistent with the fundamental prin-
ciples of Christ's teaching ; but it involves, and it
should be most fully recognized that it involves, a con-
siderable development of what actually was taught by
Christ Himself.

Christ's teaching was world-renouncing, if by that
is meant that He put universal human interests before
self and the spiritual above the carnal : and in that

2o8 Conscience and Christ

sense Christian Morality must always be worid-
renouncing. Christ's teaching was worid-affirming in
so far as He held that there are many good things in life
which should not be renounced, but, on the contrary,
should be promoted for others as well as for ourselves.
In that sense there was for Him no incompatibility
between world-renunciation and world-afhrmation.
Nor need there be for us, though we may recognize
the value of many things which are not explicitly recog-
nized in His actual ideal : and so long as we limit our
o^\^l enjoyment of these good things by the claims of
others to their due share in them.

No doubt when we turn from Christ's own teaching
to the Morality of the Christian Church in the past,
there is more truth in the contrast — more ground for
the complaint that Christian Morality has been world-
renouncing, in a sense in which ours is not and cannot
be. And yet, after all, this is by no means the whole
truth. Up to a certain point the actual development
of the Christian ideal has been towards an increasing
recognition of the value of many things in life from
which Christ's own immediate followers turned aside.
Those very complaints of the " acute secularizing "
of the Church in the post-apostolic age with which
Hamack has made us familiar, testify to the fact that
the development was not all in the direction of in-
creasing renunciation of things in the world which
were harmless or even desirable. Unless Hamack
is really prepared to say that all these things are

The Principle of Development 209

wrong (which it is impossible to suppose), it may be
doubted whether he is justified in speaking of such
"secularizing" as though it necessarily involved a
decline from the true Christian ideal, and whether he
ought not to regard it rather as an evidence of that
work of the Spirit in the Christian Society which the
fourth Gospel had foretold. Even St. Paul himself,
though his ideal was more affected than that of his
Master by the thought of the coming Parousia, found
that an excessive preoccupation with that thought,
an excessive devotion to talking, speculating, medi-
tating about spiritual things, mihtated against true
spirituality. He therefore laid down in a very emphatic
way the paramount duty of earning one's own living,
— and something more that we may have to give to
those who are in need.^ All the industrial virtues to
which Christianity has sometimes been supposed to be
indifferent are enjoined by implication in St. Paul's
precepts to the idle busybodies of Thessalonica. This
so-called secularizing of the Christian ideal may better
be described as a perfectly legitimate and indispensable
development of it.

The history of the first four Christian centuries is
to a large extent a record of the gradual absorption
into Christian life of what was best in pagan Literature,
Art, Philosophy, even Ethics and Theology. From
political life Christians were necessarily excluded,
though they had politics of their own within the Church

^ 2 Thess. iii. 6-14 ; Rom. xii. 11 ; Eph. iv. 28. Cf. i Tim. v. 13.

210 Conscience and Christ

which afforded a sphere for great statesmen and
administrators and for much social activity of a
highly democratic kind. When the Christianization
of the Empire threw open political office to Chris-
tians, the work of Government came to be recog-
nized as a possible sphere of Christian service ; and
much of what we may call the political morality
of the ancient world was embodied in the current
conceptions of Christian duty. Though the old
sharp distinction between the Church (now very
largely identified with the clergy and the monks)
and the world to a large extent survived, the mere
fact that the writings of Cicero were highly popular
with the Fathers, and the Ethics and Politics of
Aristotle with the Schoolmen, shows how much of
the ancient ideal of life was absorbed into the current
teaching of the Church. Hundreds of pages of St.
Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica are little more than
a reduction to scholastic form of the Ethics of Aristotle.
The highest Ethics of the ancient world were, to use
Professor Gardner's happy expression, " baptized into
Christ " ; and that means that the ideal practically
accepted by the Christian world absorbed considerable
elements of the best pagan thought. Protestantism
has still more fully and unreservedly recognized all
kinds of public office and all lay callings as possible
spheres for the exercise of the highest Christian
virtues. The very Theology of the Church represents
a fusion of ancient Philosophy with the Theology of

The Principle of Development 211

Judaism and the teaching of Jesus and His Apostles.
After a long struggle, pagan literature was accepted
as part of the training of Christian youth; and the
pretence that Grammar and Rhetoric were cultivated
only as conducive to the understanding of Holy Scrip-
ture was laid aside. In the later Middle Ages it is not
too much to say that the promotion of Culture was
recognized as one of the duties of the clergy — even of
the Friars, although there was still a disposition to
justify secular knowledge either (as in the case of Law
and Medicine) on account of its practical utility to the
commonwealth, or (in the case of liberal studies) to
regard them as in some way preparatory and con-
ducive to the all-important study of Theology. The
Renaissance led to a still further relaxation of the
ancient Christian austerity and a still further recog-
nition of Culture — even in the Catholicism of the
Counter-reformation, still more so in Protestantism.

But, of course, there was another side to this matter.
Side by side with this broadening and expansion in the
Christian conception of life — this absorption into it
of the best elements in the pagan world which it had
killed — there was a continuous narrowing of it ; an
increase of Asceticism, anti-intellectualism, other-
worldliness. The tendency began to assert itself very
early. Even the Apostolic Church never quite ac-
quiesced in Christ's refusal to enjoin fasting ; the
post-apostolic Church began to tamper with the text
of the New Testament to conceal the fact, although

212 Conscience and Christ

even in the Pastoral Epistles it is recognized that
" bodily exercise [i.e. Asceticism] profiteth little."^ The
severer Asceticism was at first a characteristic rather
of heresy than of the Church. But even within the
Church there was an increasing tendency both toward
Asceticism in its ordinary sense and towards the
devotion of life to religious observances and religious
contemplation. And this gradually hardened into
Monasticism. It is important to note that the
tendency to exalt contemplation, asceticism, and
celibacy was a tendency of the times by no means
peculiar to Christianity. Neo-platonism had more
to do with it than the teaching of Jesus or of His
Apostles. It is not improbable that definite Monasticism
was an imitation of paganism. And the introduction
of Monasticism implies that the collision between the
two kinds of development which we have seen going
on in the Christian Church has now become so marked
that the Church has split up into two sections.
There is now an increased toleration of " worldly "
pursuits, amusements, culture for the many ; while
the renunciation of these things which is demanded
of the few — of those who aim at a perfect fulfilment of
the Christian ideal — has become more extreme. More-
over, the doctrine of original sin and the whole system
of thought which is associated with it — the idea that
the world is wholly under the dominion of the wicked
one — though its influence has, I think, been exag-

* I Tim. iv, 8. Some translate " for a little time."

The Principle of Development 213

gerated, undoubtedly deepened the cleavage between
those ideals of life which we commonly associate with
the ancient Greeks and the ideal which was set before
Christians. Thus there was a tendency all through
the patristic and medieval periods to an ideal of
life which was gloomy, austere, intensely other-
worldly. Even in the austerest Religionists of these
periods there are, indeed, to be found many sayings
and ideas which are quite inconsistent with the view
that the world lay under a curse, that all its good
things were created by God simply to give men the
opportunity of earning merit by renouncing them.
St. Augustine admits that there is some good in all
that exists. The patristic writings — those of St.
Chrysostom, for instance — show an appreciation of
the beauty of Nature of a kind which we are accus-
tomed to think of as peculiarly modern, and which
we certainly should find it hard to parallel in the
classical writers of Antiquity. The doctrine of original
sin in its Augustinian form was not universally held,
nor the view of the Universe which was associated
with it.

Ascetic as they are in their attitude towards all
bodily pleasures, there is no anti-intellectualism in the
great Alexandrians, Clement and Origen ; and in
the Greek Church generally there was much less of it
than in the West. On the whole even the Latins do
not condemn intellectual activities, though their
attitude towards the pagan classics was hesitating and

214 Conscience and Christ

uncertain. Art, too, was never condemned (except in
so far as it involved Idolatry), though it was largely
consecrated to the service of Religion. Immense
qualifications must be introduced before the epithet
** world-renouncing " can be accepted as a true
account even of the patristic and medieval ideals.
On the whole, however, it must be admitted that the
ideal of other-worldliness — the ideal which made it
the chief object of the present life to escape the pains
of Hell and to win the joys of Heaven largely by the
renunciation of all joy in the present — does represent
the predominant tone both of the later patristic and
of the medieval Church.

And it is true also (as has recently been contended
by Professor Troeltsch) that Protestantism — as judged
by its formal expressions, by its official professions,
and by the vein of sentiment prevalent in some of its
religious circles — has not wholly thrown off this other-
worldhness. By abolishing purgatory, by the em-
phasis which it laid on the Augustinian doctrines of
election and arbitrary decrees, by withdrawing to
a great extent the encouragement which medieval
Christianity practically conceded to Art under cover
of an often merely nominal enlistment of it in the
service of Religion, it has even in some ways em-
phasized the austerity of the ecclesiastical ideal, and
diminished the joy of human existence. On the other
hand, in other ways it has enormously mitigated the
antagonism between ecclesiastical Christianity and

The Principle of Development 215

the best elements of the old Hellenic ideal in more,
and more direct, ways, I think, than Troeltsch is dis-
posed to admit. Protestantism has never favoured
the more extreme kinds of Asceticism. Its doctrine
of salvation by faith only, anti-moral as its tendency
has often been, did at least put a stop to all devices
for winning Heaven or escaping Hell by self-torture
or mere ecclesiastical observance. It abolished the
hard-and-fast distinction between the religious and
the secular life, and discouraged all monastic with-
drawal from the world. It peremptorily refused to
recognize any moral superiority in the celibate life.
It has always acknowledged, fully and ungrudgingly,
the possibility of leading the most religious life in the
most secular caUings. If the clergy of Protestantism
have sometimes claimed a control over life which, if
conceded, would have been injurious to liberty and
intellectual progress, they have claimed it rather as
exponents and interpreters of a divine law, than as
having any jus divinum to rule men's consciences :
and consequently Protestant pastors have seldom been
able effectively to exercise this control except where
they have really represented the moral consciousness
of the community for the time being.

It is possible, of course, to suggest (as has been done
by Professor Troeltsch) that the contribution of
Protestantism to intellectual progress and emancipa-
tion has been due rather to its accidental association
with the Renaissance than to its own official prin-

2i6 Conscience and Christ

ciples. But the Renaissance had so large a share in
producing Protestantism that it becomes a very
speculative enquiry to ask how much was due to
Protestantism, and how much to the Renaissance.
Protestantism without the Renaissance is a mere
abstraction. Protestantism without the Renaissance
would certainly not be the Protestantism that we
know. Doubtless there was from the first an inherent
inconsistency between some of the ideas which Protes-
tantism took over from medieval CathoUcism and other
ideas which it owed to the New Learning, or to that
New Testament which the New Learning had given
back to the Church. And the change which has taken
place in the ethical development of Protestantism
since the days of the Reformers and of the Puritan
Revolution in England may be said to be due to a
gradual triumph of the Renaissance-element in Protes-
tantism over its medieval element. But, whether we
put it down to a direct or to an indirect effect of
Protestantism, there can be no doubt that the ideal
which most modern Christians in their hearts accept
does involve a very considerable departure from the
ideals either of the Middle Ages or of early Protestant-
ism. There is then a certain, but only a certain,
measure of truth in the now somewhat hackneyed
assertion that Christianity in the past has been " world-
renouncing," while, in the form in which most modern
Christians accept it, it has become " world-affirming."
Of course, it may be contended that, in so fai- as this

The Principle of Development 217

is so, modern Christianity is wrong. There are people
who will be prepared to contend that the world-
renouncing medieval ideal was right, that it alone is
faithful to the spirit of the Master's teaching, and that,
if it differed in any way from that teaching, it was the
legitimate development of it. This view is sufticiently
often asserted — sometimes in real earnest, more often,
I think, in a spirit of sentimental admiration for a past
which the critics know cannot be revived and have no
intention of imitating even at a discreet distance — to
make it worth while for us seriously to ask ourselves
whether we are really prepared to accept this world-
renouncing interpretation of Christianity. Few, I sup-
pose, will quarrel with my taking the " Imitatio Christi"
as a representative of the old medieval ideal on its
monastic and world-renouncing side. It is by no means
an extreme representation of that ideal. It emanates
from that religious movement of the later Middle Age
in Germany and the Low Countries which was largely
a movement towards a more spiritual Christianity, and
which culminated in the Reformation. There is in it
little advocacy of austerities. It is full of moral
maxims which go straight home to the most modern
conscience — maxims about the control of temper,
charity towards individuals, abstinence from severe
judgements of others, patience, humility, self-examina-
tion, penitence. But most of us do not really think
that the highest kind of life is to renounce all liberty or
responsibility for one's own acts, to be under complete

2i8 Conscience and Christ

obedience to another human being, to be alone and
in a cell for as many hours a day as possible, and to
occupy nearly the whole day in religious services, prayer,
or meditation. The main theme of the "Imitatio"
is the disparagement of all worldly affairs, of business
as well as pleasure, of all secular joys, of all secular
learning and literature — even of sacred learning
beyond what is absolutely required for instructing the
individual soul how to get to heaven. There is singu-
larly little about works of charity or philanthropy
even in their most conventional forms, or about being
useful to other people even in the most directly
spiritual ways. We do, indeed, know that Thomas
a Kempis sometimes preached and taught ; and the
mere fact that he wrote his reflections down for the
benefit of others shows that he wcls by no means an idle
or useless or spiritually selfish person. But even this
measure of altruistic work seems almost a deviation
from the ideal which he sets before his readers. Most
modem Christians outside the Roman Cathohc Church
and many of those within it would regard the ideal of
Thomas a Kempis, taken seriously and literally, as at
the best a very one-sided ideal. Even those who would
defend it as an ideal life for some persons would wholly
refuse to follow him in condemning or at least dis-
paraging, as he would actually have done, the life of
the pohtician, of the lawyer, the merchant, the crafts-
man, the scholar, the artist. If we do reject it, we
have to admit that the ideal of modern Christianity

The Principle of Development 219

is not the same as that of the Middle Ages. The
'^Imitatio" does, indeed, represent only one of the
numerous ideals which express themselves in the Ufe of
the patristic and the medieval Church. It is far more
world-renouncing, for instance, than the vigorous and
highly intellectual ideal of St. Thomas Aquinas. But
it does represent a type of life which it has been the
general tendency of the Christianity of the past to
put highest. There is, as I have so often said, no
arguing about ultimate ideals. I can only say that
most of our contemporaries — most of the very best
men in instructed Christian circles — do fully recognize
the value in different degrees of many things which
Thomas a Kempis treats as contemptible vanities.
And I believe that the modern world is right. A
development has taken place, and a development in
which I for one am prepared to recognize the work of
God's Spirit. In so far as the austere religionists are
still disposed to the disparagement of Art and Science
and Literature and Learning, I beheve them to be
wrong, and I recognize the necessity for a still further
development of the Christian ideal in this direction.

But in this development are we moving further and
further away from the Christianity of Christ ? Most
emphatically I believe we are not. The ideal of
Thomas a Kempis was very unlike the ideal of Jesus —
much more so than the ideal of the best modern
Christianity. The view of God's character which
Christ taught was quite unlike that of those who made

220 Conscience and Christ

all life an anxious striving to escape from Hell. The
idea of God's Fatherhood is scarcely to be detected in
the meditations of Thomas a Kempis. The God of
Jesus promised forgiveness of sins on the one condition
of sincere repentance : a life of solitary meditation —
to say nothing of self-torture — was not required as
the price of forgiveness. The Christ of whom we hear
so much in the " Imitatio " has not very much in
common with the Christ of the Gospels. The historical
Christ did not live in a cell, but did go about doing good.
That solitary, world-renouncing absorption in one's
own soul which commended itself to Thomas a Kempis
would have seemed to Him mere selfishness, and not
at all the way to enter the Kingdom.

It will no doubt be thought by some that the element
of Christ's teaching which we have left standing, if
we fully accept this principle of Development, is a
very small one. It comes, it may be said, to little
more than this — that Morality consists in the unsel-
fish pursuit of the good for all men, and in the recog-
nition of the supreme value of moral goodness as the
highest and most important element of that good.
And that, it may be urged, is a very small element in
a moral system — one which might be equally accepted
by those who in practice would adopt very different
maxims of conduct and recognize very different ideals
of life. I should reply. Yes, if you compare the sheer
bulk of these precepts with the mass of detailed rules
which are required in practice for the guidance of our

The Principle of Development 221

complicated modern life, their bulk is, indeed, small ;
but ethically speaking it is the one thing needful. And
no one has ever taught this supremely important
truth with the same clearness, consistency, and force
as Jesus, or illustrated it so forcibly by the whole of
the life and character. And, therefore, in spite of all
the enormous development which has taken place in
the past, and which doubtless will take place in the
future in our conception of the good in detail, and in
the rules which we recognize as necessary to the
promotion of it, those who accept this principle of
universal love as the supreme and all-important ethical
command — with all the corollaries and implications of
it taught by none so penetratingly as by Him — are
true disciples of Christ. And, in so far as the modern
Church is getting rid of so many elements of the eccle-
siastical ideal which were inconsistent with this
supreme principle, we may claim that it is only going
back to Christ — to the very heart of Christ's own
teaching. From one point of view the difference
between the moral standard (say) of the Middle Age
and that of the best modern Christianity is undoubtedly
a development which owes much to other sources than
the actual teaching of Christ and His Apostles — the
teaching of ancient Greece and Rome, of the Renais-
sance, of modern teachers and modern movements
which have not been avowedly and at all points
Christian ; but from another point of view it has been
a real return to the Christianity of Christ. In its

222 Conscience and Christ

broader philanthropy, in its tolerance, in the rejection
of immoral devices for getting rid of punishment
without getting rid of sin, in the more systematic
effort not merely to cure existing evils, but to prevent
their recurrence, in the attempt to remould all social
life in accordance with the ideal of human brother-

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Online LibraryHastings RashdallConscience & Christ : six lectures on Christian ethics → online text (page 16 of 23)