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Conscience & Christ : six lectures on Christian ethics online

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for the mastery within the wider community, or in
applying the general principles which are so accepted
to the determination of particular cases. Only occa-
sionally does the individual Conscience assert itself to
the extent of criticizing, rebelling against, defying on
some particular point, the accepted ethical code.

This line of thought has been carried by some
Moralists so far that they absolutely refuse to con-
template the case of an individual sitting down to



Moral Philosophy and Moral Authority 19

consider on general philosophical principles how he
ought to act in a particular case. That is one of the
characteristics of Hegelian Ethics. In Hegel himself,
it has been not unjustly said, there is no moral Phil-
osophy, but only poHtical Philosophy. Full as he is of
the idea that Morahty is an expression of Reason, it is
always the social and not the individual Reason that
he has in view. The individual must accept the
established customs, traditions, and institutions of his
time as final authorities. ' ' The wisest men of Antiquity
have given judgement," Hegel tells us, " that wisdom
and virtue consist in living agreeably to the ethos of
one's people." And Hegel avowedly accepts this
judgement of antiquity. Mr. Bradley has gone one
better than Hegel, and pronounced that for a man " to
wish to be better than the world is to be already on
the threshold of Immorality."^ Now it is tolerably
obvious that, if this system is to be carried out
thoroughly, no moral progress would be possible — unless
we choose to adopt the startling position that all past
progress in the ethical standard of communities has been
effected by a succession of private immorahties. Moral
progress has, in point of fact, only been brought about
by the acts of individual men and women who have
had the courage to condemn, to go beyond, and to
defy the existing code of public opinion at a given
time and place. It is true that the development of
moral ideals is effected very gradually and imper-
^ Ethical Studies , p. i8o.



20 Conscience and Christ

ceptibly. Sometimes you may not be able to point
to the particular person or persons whose thought and
action have brought it about. Sometimes the same idea
or tendency seems to seize upon a whole community at
once ; more often it takes possession of some consider-
able minority of persons almost at the same time,
though it triumphs only at the cost of a violent struggle
with the creed of the majority. Even in those cases
the change is really due to the working of individual
consciousnesses, however much they may act and
react upon one another, and however impossible it
may be for the historian to determine who the in-
dividuals were. But that is not always the case.
Many of the great steps and stages in moral progress
are definitely associated with the work of individual
men — actual historical characters, great rulers, great
teachers, great thinkers, reformers, prophets, men of
genius. And among these — especially at a certain
middle period of history intervening between the era
of primitive custom and that of modern civilization —
the most prominent individual workers in this great
task have been the founders or revolutionary reformers
of the great historical religions. Whatever else an
historical religion is, it always represents a certain body
of teaching about right and wrong, a body of ethical
rules, a moral ideal. And one difference between the
influence which is exercised by such great religious
teachers and other personal influences which have con-
tributed to ethical progress is just this — that it is much



Moral Philosophy and Moral Authority 21

more conscious and personal. These men have, of course,
like other contributors to moral progress, influenced
the world by introducing into the tone and traditional
morality of the community changes which go on
operating among those to whom even their names are
unknown : but their strongest influence is dependent
upon the actual knowledge of their words, their lives,
their characters. And this influence is kept alive as a
definite tradition in the societies which they have
founded or reformed or influenced — whether in the
form of sacred books or of traditional rules, customs,
and institutions. To overlook or underrate the in-
fluence which has been exercised upon moral develop-
ment by great personalities has been a too frequent
tendency of philosophical Ethics, especially in the
writers of the Hegelian School. In the ethical region
— men of Science are beginning to say in the biological
region also — nature takes more leaps and longer leaps
than a priori evolutionary thinkers like to admit. And
the form which such leaps assume in the moral region
is most commonly to be found in the appearance of
great personalities.

Now to a considerable extent the influence of the
great personality consists simply in making people
more disposed to do what their Consciences already
recognize that they ought to do. It is most im-
portant, of course, to remember that men's actual
morality depends upon many things besides know-
ledge — knowledge of what they ought to do. And we



22 Conscience and Christ

might attach very great value to the influence of
Christ and of His followers and of the Society in which
the memory of His sayings and His character is kept
alive even if we never appealed to His authority to
decide what ought to be done, but only pointed
men to Him as supplying an example which makes
men more willing to do what their own Consciences
enjoin. To a very considerable extent the moralizing
influence which Christ has exerted has been of this
nature. It has stimulated and deepened the moral
consciousness in general. But a recognition of this fact
does not solve the particular problem with which we
are immediately concerned — that is to say, the ques-
tion what and what kind of authority we ought to
attribute to His teaching on particular questions of
conduct. We must go on to ask " how can Christ — how
can any great teacher or great personality — help us
to know what we ought to do in spite of the fact that
we have all got Consciences to tell us ? "

The answer may, I think, be gathered from the
considerations which have already been insisted upon.

(i) In the lirst place men's capacities for ethical
judgement vary enormously ; and average men have
to rely to a very large extent upon the judgement of
the gifted few. The prophet or great personality may
be looked upon as one in whom Conscience has at-
tained an exceptional development.

(2) The moral consciousness can only give ethical
judgements upon the basis of the materials presented



Moral Philosophy and Moral Authority 23

to it. An ideal must be thought of before it can be
approved, and to think of a new ideal of life requires
genius no less than to think of a new tune or a new
scientific hypothesis. The ordinary man can see to
some extent — not always in a moment but in course
of time — the nobleness of a new ideal which has actu-
ally been placed before him ; but he could never have
thought of it for himself. The savage into whose mind
the idea of unselfishness has so little entered that he
finds it easier to believe that the missionary has sprung
from the foam of the sea than to beheve that he has
not come among them to serve some purpose of his
own is nevertheless found quite capable of appreciating
the beauty and the nobleness of self-sacrifice when once
he has been brought to believe in its existence. It
wants some poetic capacity to appreciate Shakespeare,
but not nearly so much as it took to be Shakespeare.
It requires some moral capacity to appreciate the ideal
of a moral genius, but not nearly so much as it takes to
conceive that ideal.

And (3) even when the truth of a moral rule is not
actually seen, it is quite justifiable to accept the
decisions of a moral authority whom we judge to be
more likely to be right than ourselves. We do all of
us begin by accepting our parents' ideals, and then the
ideal of our community. If we come to the conclusion
that a particular individual or some group of men or
a society within the general community is more likely
to be right than we are, it is a quite reasonable and



24 Conscience and Christ

morally justifiable course to accept and act upon the
decisions of this authority, just as we accept the de-
cisions of experts on any other subject. Two reserva-
tions must, however, be made in laying down this
principle, {a) The first is that even this acceptance of a
moral authority implies some exercise of the individual's
own moral judgement : for it implies that he knows
the meaning of right and wrong in general, even if he
accepts another's verdict upon some particular ques-
tion as to what is right or wrong. This notion of right
and wrong in general no external authority could
possibly teach him except by calling into activity the
latent powers of his own soul. And (h), while on details
the wisest of men will always show their wisdom by
trusting the judgement of those who are likely to know
best, yet when we come to the fundamental principles
of conduct, to act in obedience to authority must be
regarded as a lower kind of Morality — one only to be
recommended as a step towards the cultivation of an
independent ethical judgement. We could hardly
imagine a man believing that he ought not needlessly
to injure his neighbour on authority. The man who
could not see that much would hardly be a moral
being at all. It is not so inconceivable that one who
was indisposed to treat a man of another race as his
neighbour might be prepared to do so in obedience to
an authority which he revered.

On these principles there is ample room for the
exercise of great influence over the moulding of moral



Moral Philosophy and Moral Authority 25

ideals by ethical authorities of various kinds — living
teachers, the recorded sayings of teachers in the past,
traditional systems, organized societies. And if we
could find any human being of supreme ethical insight,
we should have on these principles a sufficient reason
for placing him in a supreme position among our
ethical authorities. Indeed, it might seem that, if
only we could be sufficiently sure that his insight was
of such a unique character, we might have a sufficient
warrant for the most absolute surrender of ourselves
to his authority. And this is precisely the position
which much traditional Theology would assign — some-
times to the Bible as a whole, sometimes to the New
Testament only, sometimes to the Bible and the
Church (in whatever relation they may be supposed to
stand to each other), sometimes to Christ alone. I
will confine myself for the present to the authority of
Jesus Christ Himself.

And here, when we approach the central question,
" What kind of ethical authority are we prepared to
recognize in Jesus ? " everything turns upon the grounds
upon which we suppose that He is supremely likely to
be right in his ethical judgements. The old way of
defending the authority of Christ was something of
this kind. First it was established by historical evi-
dence that Jesus said certain things, and that He worked
certain miracles. The miracles were held to prove
that what He said must be true. Then it was either
directly inferred that all His ethical teaching must be



26 Conscience and Christ

divinely inspired, and therefore fully and eternally
true ; or else the same conclusion was indirectly
inferred from the premiss that He taught the doctrine
of His own Divinity. Now even supposing that both the
miracles and the sayings could be sufficiently attested
by historical evidence, and supposing it were certain
that the events commonly called miracles were in the
fullest sense violations of the laws of nature, it is an
immense leap from the fact that a human being was
able at some point to suspend the laws of nature to
infer that all that he said was true. Moses, according
to the traditional conception, worked miracles : yet
Christians have always believed that certain parts of
his teaching were contradicted and set aside by Christ,
and therefore could never have been altogether true.
Elijah is said in the Old Testament miraculously to have
brought down fire from heaven to consume the captains
and their fifties ; yet this very miracle was treated as
an indication of an ethical temper deserving of severe
condemnation by One whom Christians have accepted
as a higher authority than Elijah. If we make the
inference indirectly — through the supposed fact that
Jesus claimed to be God — the inference to His ethical
infallibihty might be better justified. Even then we
should really be making a good many other assump-
tions, though they might be reasonable assumptions.
But fortunately we are dispensed from the necessity
of answering so abstract a question. A critical study
of the Gospels makes it certain that Jesus never did



Moral Philosophy and Moral Authority 27

claim to be actually God. The doctrine of Christ's
Divinity rests rather upon the sense of His unique
religious value entertained by His followers than upon
any direct claim of His own. It is due to the reflective
consciousness of the Church and not to the actual
teaching of Jesus. ^ That He claimed to be the Son
of God or the Messiah, to speak with authority, to
have a divine message to deliver, is true. But the
other prophets had claimed to have a divine message
and that with obvious bona fides, and yet we do
not regard all their words as final and infallible revela-
tions of moral truth. If it is admitted that revelation
or inspiration admits of degrees, a mere claim to be an
inspired revealer, or even to be the promised Messiah of
Jewish expectation, will not prove ethical infallibility.
But the supreme difficulty in the way of this old
Paleyan conception of Christianity as a body of super-
naturally guaranteed truth attested by historical
evidence, lies in the doubtfulness of the miracles them-
selves — the doubt, as to some of the events, whether
they actually occurred, and as to others whether they
cannot be accounted for without supposing anj^ actual
violation of the laws of nature, however much they
may imply unusual and abnormal degrees of that
control of physical processes by mental influence which
in lower degrees is a matter of everyday experience.

1 This of course implies that we do not regard the fourth Gospel
as a record of the ipsissima verba of our Lord — a conclusion which
would now be admitted even by scholarly defenders of its Johannine
authorship.



28 Conscience and Christ

Even those who beheve in the Gospel miracles in the
most uncompromising manner as actual violations of
physical law do not usually at the present day rest
their proof of Christ's Divinity chiefly upon the miracles.
They believe in the miracles because they already
believe in the Divinity rather than believe in the
Divinity because they beheve in the miracles. And in
their proof of the Divinity they rely very largely
indeed upon the impression made upon the Conscience
by our Lord's moral teaching and character. They see
a supreme revelation of God in His character and
teaching because they can conceive none higher or more
capable of satisfying the demands of their own moral
consciousness. And therefore it would be absolutely
suicidal to invite us to accept the moral teaching merely
on the strength of the miracles, or on the strength of
any claims which are proved by the miracles. To argue
that Jesus was divine because His moral teaching
appeals to us as supremely true, and then to contend
that His teaching must be true because He was divine,
is to argue in a circle. If we once allow the self-evi-
dencing truth of His moral teaching to occupy a
prominent place in the argument for His Divinity, we
are trusting to the validity of our own moral conscious-
ness ; and when we have done this, we can no longer
profess ourselves willing to accept any and every moral
precept of Christ, without any criticism of its contents,
on the strength of the historical evidence that He
uttered the words.



Moral Philosophy and Moral Authority 29

And this consideration sets strict limits to the extent
to which a Christian can be asked to accept a precept
in bUnd obedience to Christ, regarded as an external
moral Legislator or an external Revealer of truth
otherwise inaccessible to the human mind. We can
accept the revelation only because, and in so far as,
it appeals to the moral consciousness as true : it is
because it does make such an appeal to us that we
believe it to be a revelation. That holds, I should
contend, of other than the ethical aspects of the
Christian revelation, but with those other sides of
Christ's teaching we are not immediately concerned.
It holds still more clearly with regard to His ethical
teaching. No doubt it will remain possible to treat
Christ's dehverances on particular points with pro-
found reverence : it may even be quite reasonable for
an individual to accept Christ's verdict on particular
questions, and to act upon it even when he fails
on the fullest reflection to see the ground of that ver-
dict. That is the principle on which we accept the
judgement of the expert on any subject. We defer to
him beyond the limits within which we can see clearly
because we have tested his insight, and seen it to be
superior to our own, within the limits within which we
can judge for ourselves. But there must be a point
beyond which such blind submission cannot go : we
submit without judging in a detail just because we
have judged and approved the ideal as a whole. If the
colhsions between our own moral judgement and his



30 Conscience and Christ

were too frequent or too fundamental, that would under-
mine all the grounds which we have for trusting his
judgement. And then, when we do accept the validity
of authority against our private judgement, it will not
commonly be a case of the individual's solitary judge-
ment being pitted against that of the authority to
which he defers. The judgement of the solitary
teacher — be it Christ or some other great ethical
teacher — will commonly be supported by that of the
community generally, or some large section of it. If
it were not merely our own individual judgement but
that of our whole community, including its best and
wisest, that were in coUision with the judgement of the
great teacher, then we could hardly contend that the
ipse dixit of any authority, however justly venerated,
ought to prevail against the voice of such a collective
Conscience.

The conclusion to which all I have said points is
that the kind of authority which we can attribute to
the teaching even of Christ Himself, and the limits of
that authority, must be determined by the impression
which His teaching actually makes upon the moral
consciousness of the present. And therefore we cannot
in the old-fashioned way first examine the credentials
of the Master's authority ; and then, having done so
and found them satisfactory, profess ourselves willing
to accept and act upon His precepts blindly, no matter
what the actual character of the acts commanded.
We cannot pronounce on the authority justly to be



Moral Philosophy and Moral Authority 31

claimed by the teaching of Jesus till we have examined
what that teaching is, and asked how far it appeals to
our moral consciousness. In the following lectures I
shall contend that the authority which Christ's ideal
of life can still justly claim is based upon the fact that
it does, in its essential principles, appeal to and satisfy
the demands of our moral consciousness in the present.
But meanwhile I will add one or two further remarks
on this general question of submission to authority in
Ethics.

(i) Whatever professions may have sometimes been
made to the contrary, submission to authority in
matters of conduct has never been absolute. There
has been, of course, much — often too much — submis-
sion to authority in such matters. Without a certain
amount of it no community could hold together for a
year ; in its excess such submission has been respon-
sible for some of the greatest crimes in history. All
the great reUgious persecutions have been justified by
the precepts of the Old Testament or of the Koran.
But with good men this submission has always had
limits. In his famous controversy with Mr. Gladstone
Cardinal Newman frankly admitted that, if a collision
arose between a Pope who should command him to
be disloyal to his Sovereign and the Conscience which
bade him obey that Sovereign, he would put Con-
science above an authority which he theoretically
regarded as infaUible in all matters of faith and
morals. Enlightened divines still frequently talk as



32 Conscience and Christ

though they would be prepared to obey a dictum of
Christ, no matter what they themselves thought of
its morality. Some of them are even willing to obey
Him (as I shall point out hereafter) on the strength of
a conjectural emendation of His recorded language — a
deference to Criticism which they do not always display
in other directions. But let us suppose not merely that
Criticism had detected an adventitious gloss in a par-
ticular text, but that a first-century MS. of the second
Gospel were discovered from which it appeared that
the true text of the passage about Divorce was this :
** thou shalt not put away thy wife in case of adultery
but thou mayest take two others," can we suppose
that any one of those Anglican ecclesiastics who are
so irreconcilably opposed to the remarriage of the
innocent divorcee on the strength of a saying of Christ
would be prepared to act upon the recommendation ?
Of course they would not. It is open to them to say
that what they believe to have been the actual com-
mand of Christ appeals to their conscience, or at least
is not opposed to its dictates, whereas the hypothetical
injunction would not make that appeal. But on that
view it is really because they approve that they obey.
Whether they approve or disapprove, they are equally
sitting in judgement. These divines could not condemn
others for rejecting on a particular point a dictum of
Christ which should not commend itself to the modern
Conscience. Whether there are any dicta of Christ
Himself which fail to appeal to the modern Conscience,



Moral Philosophy and Moral Authority 33

I shall examine in future lectures. It is enough to
insist that no one really makes his submission even to
the teaching of our Lord Himself absolute and un-
limited except in so far as the actual injunctions of
that authority commend themselves to his conscience.
As a rule, of course (where people are naturally in-
clined to disagree with some authoritative command),
an open colhsion is avoided by interpreting the com-
mand of their authority in a way which does not
contradict the deliverances of the present-day Con-
science. Such interpretations always have been, and
always will be discovered, in these cases.

(2) And, secondly, it is important to insist that our
Lord Himself does not claim any such absolute sub-
mission to Himself as to a merely external authority.
He always addresses Himself to Conscience. He
assumes that His hearers, too, have some of that power
of judging about questions of right and wrong which
He possessed Himself in a supreme degree. I shall
return to this point hereafter. Meanwhile it will be
sufficient to remind you that, even when He appealed
to the works which are commonly called miraculous,
He appealed not so much to the power exhibited by
the works (which He admitted might quite conceivably
come from Satan), but to their goodness. It was the
merciful character of His healings which showed that
they came from God, and that would be no evidence
at all if we had no power of judging for ourselves that
mercy is more divine than malice. His language about



34 Conscience and Christ

the sin against the Holy Ghost — whatever were the
exact words He used and whatever their precise meaning
— impHes at least that His Pharisee opponents were
struggling against their own conviction that His teach-
ing came from God — a conviction which could only be
based on the witness of Conscience. " The lamp of
the body is the eye : if therefore thine eye be single,
thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye
be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If
therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how
great is the darkness."^ There we have an exphcit
testimony to Jesus' belief in a light which, in greater


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Online LibraryHastings RashdallConscience & Christ : six lectures on Christian ethics → online text (page 3 of 23)