Lyman Abbott.

What Christianity means to me; a spiritual autobiography online

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be seen, but scarcely less in the note of human
experience found in such poems as Tennyson's " In
Memoriam "' and Browning's " Ring and the
Book " ; and that this difference is not wholly due
to intellectual development is apparent to any one
who will compare with them the exquisite paganism
of Shelley's verse.

Still more apparent is the influence of Christianity
on music. Professor Edward Dickinson interprets
well this influence in his statement that a new energy
entered the art of music when enlisted in the min-
istry of the religion of Christ, because a new spirit,
unknown to the Greek, the Roman and even to the
Hebrew, had taken possession of religious conscious-
ness. The word music, as it occurs in Greek and
Latin literature, means something very different
from the meaning now attached to that word.
Little is known of the art as it was practiced among
either the ancient Greeks and Romans or among the
Hebrews, but it was certainly of a most primitive
description. The works on music in Greek did not
concern the art as we understand it, and pagan


Rome is not known to have produced a single work
on the subject, nor did it add anything to either
the knowledge of music as a science or the practice
of music as an art. Music as we now know it, with
melody and harmony, did not exist prior to the
Christian era. Its existence is primarily due to an
endeavor to find some fitting vocal expression for
the emotions which Christianity had called into
being. It is a gift of Christianity to mankind.
Thus it is that though the Founder of Christianity
is not known to have written a single verse, or a line
of music, or to have drawn a picture or planned
an edifice, music, poetry, painting, and architecture
were all new born in his birth at Bethlehem.

It may be said with confidence that there would
neither be a commercial credit system, nor a post
office, nor a public school system, nor political nor
industrial liberty if the world had never known the
influence of Jesus Christ, since they never have
existed where that influence has not been known.
Architecture, literature, painting, music, material
progress, political freedom and the social order all
owe an inestimable debt to Jesus Christ, and they
are all witnesses to the life which he has given to


the world. Every material, visible, audible thing in
modern life is Christian in so far as it possesses the
Christian spirit. The Sistine Madonna is no less
truly Christian than the Apostles' Creed; Bach's
Passion music is no less truly Christian than the
Catholic Mass or the Puritan prayer meeting; the
Salvation Army is no less truly Christian than the
church, whatever the history of its orders. There
is no more reason why a Christian congregation
should be confined to the Apostles' Creed or the
Nicene Creed as a statement of its faith than why
it should be confined to the psalms of David in its
praises or to a reproduction in its windows of the
pictures on the walls of the catacombs.

But neither civilization nor ecclesiasticism are
Christianity. It is the spirit of love, service and
sacrifice; love for his fellow man, the service of
his fellow man, sacrifice for his fellow man; the
life inspired by the love of God for his children,
the service of God for his children, the sacrifice of
God for his children. It is the life of God in the
soul of man. It is in the creed but it is more than
all the creeds; in the worship but is more than all
the rituals; in the institutions of a free people but


is more than all their institutions. In all the activ-
ities of the so-called Christian Church as in all the
activities of the so-called Christian State, it is
alloyed with traditionalism, superstition, ignorance
and selfishness. It is power, liberty, life work-
ing its way out in imperfect media and in spite of
conscious and unconscious hostility into its final
and perfect expression. It comes as spring comes,
which melts the ice and sets free the brooks, clothes
the earth with its garment of green, decorates it
with flowers and begins to prepare the summer and
autumn fruits; but spring is more than singing
brooks and growing gras-s and promise-bearing
buds. The Christian life can no more be confined
within a church and its creeds, its rituals, and its
activities than spring can be confined within a
favored garden by a fence. A reverent skepticism
may have in it more of the spirit of Christ than
an irreverent credulity. Voltaire in making war
against a cruel superstition falsely labeled Christian
may have been as truly serving God in France as
John Wesley in preaching the freedom of the Gospel
in England. The passion of philanthropy in our
time — healing the sick, teaching the ignorant,


comforting the sorrowful, and righting the battles
of justice and liberty for the whole world — is as
truly a revival of Christ's religion as any that was
ever nurtured under church roofs. He who, in-
spired by the divine life of love, service and sacri-
fice, is carrying glad tidings to the poor, deliver-
ance to the captive, sight to the blind, and liberty
to the bruised is a follower of Jesus Christ.

What is the secret of the life which Jesus Christ
bestowed upon the world by his teaching, his
example and his person, he tells us in his fourth
definition of his mission. Just before his death
Jesus called his disciples together for a last con-
ference, and he brought that sacred conference to
its close by a prayer which produced so profound
an influence upon his disciples that one of their
number subsequently wrote it down and years
afterward gave it to the world. In the opening
sentences of that prayer Christ pours forth out of
a full heart a solemn thanksgiving to the Father
for the mission with which he has been entrusted,
and thus expresses the very secret of that mission :
" Thou hast given him power over all flesh that he
should give eternal life to as many as thou hast


given him. And this is life eternal, that they might
know thee the only true God and Jesus Christ
whom thou hast sent."

What eternal life means to others, what it should
mean to others, I have neither the ability nor the
ambition to tell. This is simply a narrative of what
it has meant to me in my life, and here I interrupt
the narrative in order to indicate in the next chapter
the message of the Old Testament prophets who
have helped me by their message to understand the
mission of the Christ.



Professor William James in his interesting
volume on " Varieties of Religious Experience,"
thus summarizes his survey of the field of religion:
" The warring gods and formulas of the various
religions do indeed cancel each other; but there is a
certain uniform deliverance in which religions all
appear to meet. It consists of two parts: (i) An
uneasiness; and (2) its solution. The uneasiness,
reduced to its simplest terms, is a sense that there is
something wrong about us as we naturally stand.
The solution is a sense that we are saved from this
wrongness by making connection with the higher

There are then two questions which religion has
to answer: First, What are the higher powers?
Second, How shall we make proper connection with
them? Before considering the answer of Jesus to



these two questions of religion, What are the
higher powers, and How can man make proper con-
nection with them to remedy the present wrong-
ness, it is necessary to consider the answer of
Judaism, which Jesus came to interpret and com-

In studying the life and literature of the ancient
Hebrews as portrayed in the Old Testament the
student should always bear in mind a simple prin-
ciple which has often been ignored, alike by the
critics and the eulogists of that collection. The
Old Testament represents the developing life of a
people through a period of at least a thousand
years. It therefore portrays the crudities, the
errors, and the vices of a people out of which they
have been led, no less than the principles incul-
cated by their leaders. And in the Old Testament
the defects in the national character are depicted
with extraordinary fidelity. But in attempting to
estimate the influence of any people upon modern
thought and life we do not measure that influence
by the ignorances, superstitions, and falsities of the
common people, but by the truths which their great
leaders have interpreted. We do not think the


message of Great Britain has been absolutism be-
cause the Stuarts were absolutists, nor that the
message of America is the righteousness of slavery
because at one time in its history it maintained an
almost pagan slave system. England is interpreted
by its overthrow of the Stuarts and America by its
emancipation of the slaves. The slaughter of the
Canaanites and the imprecatory psalms are not a
part of the message of Israel. They indicate the
native savagery of the people and make more
luminous the message of their prophetic leaders.

And this message itself was a developing mes-
sage. The truth of God grows in the mind of a
race as in the mind of an individual. In measuring
the character and influence of a nation, we have to
consider, not its condition at any one stage of its
progress, but the direction in which it progressed;
not the opinions of its majority, but the ideals of
its leaders.

The Hebrew prophets were not the first monothe-
ists. The great thinkers in all ages of the world
and in all forms of religion have tended toward
belief in one Infinite and Eternal Energy. This
was the philosophy, if it was not the faith, of the


spiritual aristocracy of India and of Egypt in
periods prior to any history of Israel which we
possess. On the other hand, it is quite certain that
in the early history of Israel the people believed in
many gods; they rested content in the conviction
that their God, Jehovah, was superior to the gods
of the peoples round about. And it is by no means
certain that this popular opinion was not for a
time shared by some of their eminent leaders.

What was peculiar to the ancient Hebrews was
their faith in a human God. The pagan nations
with whom they had any acquaintance looked
through nature to nature's god. Nature was to
them the symbol and the interpretation of the
Deity. Nature, therefore, in its various manifesta-
tions, was the object of their reverence. Nature
reverence took on a great variety of forms, from
the worship of the sun to the worship of the sacred
ox or the sacred beetle. Israel from the very
beginning of its history was led elsewhere for its
symbol and interpretation of Deity. Its prophets
looked, not through nature to nature's god, but
through humanity to humanity's God. Signs of
polytheism there are in Israel's history — that is,


the recognition, if not the adoration, of many gods;
but there are no signs of nature worship except in
occasional scathing condemnation of it as a depar-
ture from the faith of the fathers. The philoso-
phers have coined a long word to represent this
faith in a human God; they call it anthropomor-
phism, from two Greek words, meaning in the form
of man. The religion of Israel was frankly

This, their fundamental faith, does not merely
appear in the declaration of the first chapter of
Genesis that God made man in his own image. It
is easy to put too much emphasis on a single text.
That conception of creation might have been, and
perhaps was, borrowed from a foreign and earlier
source. But the whole Jewish conception of God,
life, and duty rested on and was developed out of
this idea — that it is within, not without, in the
intellectual and moral life of man, not in the forms
and phenomena of nature, that man is to look for
his interpretation of the Being whom he is to rever-
ence and obey.

This belief is implied in the visit of the three
angels of the Lord to Abraham in his tent; in


the report that Jehovah wrote the Ten Command-
ments with his finger on the tables of stone; in
the appearance at Jericho of the captain of Je-
hovah's host as a man with drawn sword in his
hand; in the similar appearance of the Lord of
Hosts, in the Temple, to Isaiah; and in the vision
of the Son of God in the fiery furnace with the
three Hebrew children. It is implied in the figures
of prophet and poet, who compare God rarely to
any physical object, habitually to a human life.
Like as a shepherd shepherdeth his sheep ; like as a
king ruleth over his people; like as a father pitieth
his children; like as a mother comforteth her
child — these and such as these figures direct the
thoughts of Israel inward in their search for the
Eternal. The customary prophetic phrase, " Thus
saith Jehovah," inevitably suggests a human God
speaking to his earthly companion.

Nor was this conception confined to the seers and
prophets. It characterized the Temple service. In
the Holy of Holies of all heathen temples a symbol
of the Deity was enshrined. Such a symbol was
enshrined in the Holy of Holies of the Jewish
Temple. But there it was not an image of a phys-


ical object, but a symbol of a human experience.
The symbols of the Deity were the Ten Command-
ments and the Altar' of Mercy. Thus the Temple
repeated the message of the prophets, saying,
Would you know whom to worship ? Look within.
Worship the God who is interpreted by the law
written in your conscience and by the compassion
which you feel for the suffering and the sinful. It
is not power, it is justice and mercy, which make
Jehovah worthy of your reverence and your

As the Jewish religion thus taught its votaries
the humanness of God, it taught also, and by the
same figures, the divinity of man. Man was
made in the image of God; into man God has
breathed the breath of his own life. Man is the
offspring of God. Thus the same fundamental
conception of man's origin and nature, taught the
ancient Jew the approachableness of God and the
dignity of man. And this aspect of man's inherent
worth and dignity is not dependent on a single text.
It is implicit in the whole religious and political
history of Israel. It is involved in the doctrine of
possible fellowship between God and man, which is


perhaps the most distinguishing note of the Old
Testament. God is something' more and other
than a Creator and Ruler concealed behind nature;
he is the Friend and Companion of man, and gives
him law and counsel and comfort. Jehovah, said the
Psalmist, is my shepherd. He leadeth me beside the
still waters. If I stray, he restoreth my soul. If
I come into darkness and the valley of the shadow
of death, he goes with me there. He is my refuge
and my fortress. Unknown he may be; but I can
dwell in the secret place of the Host High: I can
abide under the shadow of the Almighty.

And he is represented as with Israel not only in
his hours of devotion but in his common tasks. It
is he who inspires the artisan to devise cunning
works in gold and in silver, to cut the stone and
carve the timber and embroider the cloths for the
Temple service. It is he who teaches the farmer
how to plow and harvest and sow his fields and how
to thresh his wheat and winnow it. It is he who
enables the warrior to run through an opposing troop
and leap in his flight over an obstructing wall; he
who enables the hunter to scale the dangerous preci-
pice. So close is his companionship with Israel that


to commune with one's own soul is to commune with
him. " Jehovah will hear when I call upon him.
Stand in awe and sin not ; commune with your own
heart upon your bed and be still." * " To the Jew,"
says James Cotter Morison, " God is the Great Com-
panion, the profound and loving, yet terrible, friend
of his inmost soul, with whom he holds communion
in the sanctuary of his heart, to whom he turns or
should turn, in every hour of adversity or happi-
ness." 2 All this implies not only faith in God, it
also implies faith in oneself as being of kin to God
and fitted for companionship with him.

But did not Israel believe that the race had fallen
and in that fall had lost this companionship? No!
There is not the least evidence that the Israelitish
people held any such opinion. There is in the third
chapter of Genesis »a parable of sin and fall, which
truly interprets the individual experience of every
soul when it steps aside from the path of innocency;
but there is nothing in that chapter to indicate that
the writer of it believed that the whole human race
sinned in Adam and fell with him in the great

1 Psalms 23:91; Exodus 31:1-10; Isaiah 28:23-28; Psalms
18 : 29-32, 4 : 3, 4.
2 "The Service of Man," p. 181.


transgression. No such doctrine is to be found,
either expressed or implied, in the religious teach-
ings of the Old Testament. There is not, after
the third chapter of Genesis, from Genesis to
Malachi, any reference to the fall of man; nor any
in the New Testament except incidentally and by
way of suggestion in two of Paul's letters. It is a
curious illustration of the unscripturalness of much
of our theology that this doctrine of a historic fall
and resultant depravity, which has been made one
of the foundation stones of Christian theology, has
nothing in the Bible to support it except a parable
in the Old Testament and a parenthesis in the
New Testament.

It is because man is thus of kin to God that he
can understand the law. That law is addressed
to his reason and his conscience. It is always por-
trayed as a reasonable and a just law, which is
only another way of saying that it appeals to man's
reason and sense of justice. In truth, the law
was not something external given to him; it was
an interpretation to him of his own nature. The
law was the law of his own being; its enunciation
by the prophet was simply an interpretation to him


of himself. He had only to look within to find its
verification and its sanction. Jehovah is portrayed
by the author of the Book of Deuteronomy as
saying to Israel:

For this commandment which I command thee this
day, it is not hidden from thee, neither is it far off. It
is not in heaven, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go
up for us to heaven and bring it unto us, that we may
hear it and do it? Neither is it beyond the sea, that
thou shouldest say, Who shall go over the sea for us and
bring it unto us, that we may hear it and do it? But the
word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy
heart, that thou mayest do it. . . .

This was the fundamental teaching of the
prophets of the Old Testament — that God dwells
with man and dwells in man.

This truth is dramatically illustrated in the
experience of Elijah. Disappointed by the failure
of his attempted reformation of religion, finding
the worship of Baal very much alive although many
of the priests of Baal had been slain, his life
threatened by the Queen, himself deserted by the
people, depressed and hoping for death, he was sum-
moned by Jehovah for an interview at Mount
Horab. The great convulsions of nature which he


witnessed fitted his mood but brought him no mes-
sage. A tempest swept through the valley and
broke in pieces the rocks, but Jehovah was not in
the wind; an earthquake followed, he was not in
the earthquake; volcanic fires flamed from the
ground, he was not in the fires. But when all had
passed by, and a great quiet followed, a still small
voice spake to him. And the still small voice was
the voice of his God and brought him God's mes-

This truth that God dwells with man and in man
is interpreted in Israel's declaration that he whom
the heaven of heavens cannot contain dwells in the
man of a humble heart and a contrite spirit. And
it interprets the universal presence of God as ex-
pressed in such a passage as the 139th Psalm:

Whither shall I go from thy spirit?

or whither shall I flee from thy face?
If I climb up into heaven, thou art there,

or if I make Hades my bed, lo, thou art there.
If I lift up the wings of the dawn,

and settle at the farther e»d of the sea,
Even there shall thy hand lead me,

and thy right hand take hold of me.
And if I say, " Let deep darkness screen me,

and the light about me be night,"


Even darkness is not dark with thee,
but the night is clear as the day —
the darkness is equal to the light. 1

God's presence is intimate, continuous, inescap-
able. Man cannot escape from God because God
dwells in man and man cannot escape from himself.

This faith of the Hebrew prophets that God is a
human God we must comprehend if we would com-
prehend the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth
as they were seen, understood and interpreted by his
disciples after his death. To an interpretation of
that life and teaching I invite the reader in the
next chapter.
1 F. Cheyne's translation.



In the Episcopal version of the Psalter occurs
this sentence: " Thou, O Lord God, art the thing
that I long for: Thou art my hope even from my
youth." That sentence expresses what has been
my longing from my youth, and that longing is
satisfied by Jesus Christ.

When I began my systematic studies in the life
of Jesus of Nazareth I had an imaginary conception
of God as an always just and sometimes merciful
king, sitting on a great white throne, ruling the
universe, to whom I might send my prayers by a
kind of wireless telegraphy, though wireless teleg-
raphy was not then known, and from whom I might
get responses chiefly through either the church or
the Bible. I really worshiped an idol, though
made of imagination, not of wood or stone. As I
pursued my studies in the life of Jesus, his life and
character more and more inspired my reverence and



love. Long since that spiritual idol has disappeared
from my temple, and its place has been taken by
the God who has been revealed to me in the earthly
life and character of Jesus of Nazareth. No char-
acter that I can imagine, no character that I can
build up out of the scattered fragments furnished
by history and literature, can for a moment com-
pare in my thought with what James Martineau
has well called " the realized ideal " which that life
and character furnish to the world. Discussions
between the Unitarians and the Trinitarians have
been largely upon the question what is the meta-
physical relation between Jesus Christ and the
Father of whom every family in heaven and earth
is named. I do not know what that metaphysical
relation is. I do not care to know. It is enough
that to me Jesus Christ is the supreme manifesta-
tion of the eternal God, not the manifestation of
one part of him or of one office which he performs in
the world, not more the manifestation of his mercy
than of his justice, not more the manifestation of
his tenderness than of his authority, but the mani-
festation of the truth that God is Immanuel — that
is, God with us.


To state an experience in the terms of philosophy
is always difficult, yet my philosophy and my experi-
ence are so intermingled that I cannot separate
them. I may perhaps express them thus: The
veiled, invisible figure, that is always walking
through life, always judging, befriending, forgiv-
ing, helping men, was for one moment made so
clear that human eyes could see him and human
hands could handle him; then hidden from human
eyes and escaping from human touch, he has become
the nearer to us because he is invisible and in-

Jesus came to a people trained through centuries
of religious teaching, alike by the instructions of
their prophets and by symbols in their temple, to
believe that God had made man in his own image
and therefore in man men were to look for the
image of God. In his teaching Jesus assumed this
Jewish point of view. He did not attempt to con-
duct his disciples through nature to nature's God;
he endeavored to conduct his disciples through
humanity to humanity's God. He assumed that
God has made man in his own image and that
in the experiences of human nature we are to


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Online LibraryLyman AbbottWhat Christianity means to me; a spiritual autobiography → online text (page 5 of 10)