Percy Gardner.

Evolution in Christian ethics online

. (page 2 of 15)
Online LibraryPercy GardnerEvolution in Christian ethics → online text (page 2 of 15)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

code of the quietist as the endurance of blows
or persecution. But the man who thus gave
and lent would soon have nothing left. Tolstoi
saw this clearly, and made over his property to
his wife. This was an obvious evasion ; and
to such evasions everyone must be driven who
tries to carry out the quietist principles in the
mid-stream of modern commercial activity. 1
The real quietist, as has been realised in all
ages by those who absorbed the passion for the
life of non-resistance, cannot have a home, or
property of any kind, or a wife, or domestic
responsibilities. All these things belong, by
the constitution of society, to those who are
ready to fight for them ; and those who are in
their hearts purposed never to fight for them
must go without them.

The life, then, of perfect self-surrender and
non-resistance can only be carried out in
small societies which live upon alms, or by

1 See some excellent remarks of Dr Hodgkin in the
'Life of him by Mrs Creighton, p. 24-1.


hermits who trust for needful food to the
offerings of admirers. It is, indeed, not so
much life as a practice of death. The world
has, no doubt, in the past, owed an immeasur-
able debt of gratitude to the ascetic societies
and individuals who have been bitten by fan-
aticism for the life of the spirit, and have for
it given up all worldly possession and enjoy-
ment. If such societies ceased to exist, the
world would be a far poorer and more sordid
place. But it is useless to pretend that one
can literally carry out the principles [of quiet-
ism, of self-suppression and non-resistance,
while living in the world and competing for
the world's goods. These principles are very
simple, and it cannot be denied that their
following has been to many a way of keener
happiness than such could have found in the
world. But to find an ethic more suited to
life in society we must go beyond them.

It is the life of the devoted few which is
the purest embodiment of religion, which in its
fullest development tends to be so spiritual
and so unworldly as to be always at variance
with the arrangements of society.

In another work 1 I have compared the
intense and concentrated religion of the self-
renouncing life to oxygen, the source of life

1 The Religious Experience of Si Paul, p. 238.


and energy among men ; and the natural self-
conservative life of the world to the nitrogen
which is mingled with it in the air we breathe,
and tempers its keenness to the needs of living
beings. If a man breathed pure oxygen, save
for a few minutes as a strong stimulant, he
would perish through over-excitement. If a
man breathed nitrogen only, he would die from
the opposite effect. In the same way the pure
and spiritual religion of the Sermon on the
Mount has served, like oxygen, to temper the
worldliness and selfishness which may easily be
the death of the soul ; and as they have ap-
proached nearer to these ideals men have
grown into the spirit of Christ. But it would
be chimerical to expect that spirit to be spread
through great societies or whole nations.

It has no doubt been the custom of great
religious teachers and reformers to call upon
men to live continually in the intense air of
religion. But this may easily be explained.
They were aware of the enormous dead-weight
of secular care and enjoyment against which
everyone who would raise the tone of society
has to contend, and in struggling against its
depressing force they well might forget that a
perfect victory on their own part would render
all things impossible. They naturally fight
their battle, which is in the cause of goodness


and of God, with all their force, and those who
oppose them appear to be the enemies of the
light. And it is from such struggles that
purity and goodness spread in the world. No
one who is fighting for victory in a good cause
stops to consider whether the result of a too
complete victory may not be practical diffi-
culty and ultimate reaction. None but God
knows the end from the beginning.


So far as we can recover the earliest teaching
of Christianity, the teaching set forth in the
narrative of Mark and the sayings of Matthew,
it seems to deal with the individual only, and
the relation of the individual to the divine
Kingdom. When the family is mentioned, it
is spoken of as a possible hindrance to the
divine call. A man must be prepared to leave
father and mother, wife and children, if they
are in the way of the summons. The relation
to God and Christ is so serious and urgent,
that it must be maintained at any cost of mere
worldly relationship. " He that loveth father
and mother more than me is not worthy of
me." A disciple must not quit the work of
the proclamation of the Kingdom even to
perform the last rites to his father. The man
who cannot come to the great feast because


he has married a wife is shut out from the
divine realm.

The relation of the votary of Christianity to
the higher units of tribe or city or state is in
the same way set aside as irrelevant to the
higher life. The demands of Caesar must be
complied with ; but they have no relation to
the things of God. The taxes must be paid ;
but the adherent of the new society (not yet
called a Christian) has nothing to do with the
disposal of them. There is no notion of a
possible Christian state. Nor is there any
notion of an organised society or church.
The little band of disciples wandered about
Palestine, having a common purse, meagrely
supplied by the contributions of the wealthier
sympathisers, accepting hospitality when
offered, having no abiding place. No doubt,
in the presence of the Lord and of his twelve
apostles there were the rudiments whence,
in later times, if the society persisted, an
organisation must arise. But at first it was
quite fluid in form.

If we regard the teaching of Christianity as
confined to the preaching of the Founder, we
shall have to confess that by far the greater
part of modern social and industrial life
stands outside it. We shall in vain try to
find in it directions for carrying on professions


or trades, for the bringing up of children, the
education of the young, the care of the old.

This is not fully realised by most Christians,
because they take the New Testament as a
whole, and supplement the sayings of Jesus
with the later teaching of St Paul. In the time
of Paul not merely a large section of the Jews
but many of the Gentiles also had joined the
society, and it had become a matter of utmost
necessity to prescribe the manner of conduct
of the faithful in the life of the family and the
city. So Paul expands and christianises the
ethics of the Jews in regard to these matters.
It is the strength and purity of family life
which has kept alive the Jewish race through
centuries of persecution. And the love of
righteousness in dealing with fellow-men,
chough of course not universal among the
Jews, was dwelt upon and emphasised by the
Prophets and the Psalmists, as it has never
been dwelt upon by the religious teachers of
other races. Religion among the mystic sects
of the East, the only great non-Christian
religious forces of the time, was almost wholly
divorced from morality. The religion of the
Romans consisted mainly in the performance
of ancient and sacred rites, without any rela-
tion to either life or belief. Thus, in spite of
the narrowness and fanaticism of the Jews


at the beginning of our era, they had a
family and social ethic which was well worth
baptising into Christ. And every careful
reader must be astonished at the good sense,
the moderation, the spiritual wisdom with
which St Paul inculcates social righteousness.

I have said that Paul baptised Jewish ethics
into Christ. That means that he transformed
it by bringing to bear on it the contagious en-
thusiasm which inspired the Christian society.
The same great Christian principles which
shine through the words of the Founder,
dominate the disciple. The superiority of
the spirit to the flesh, the dominance of the
visible by the invisible, the sacredness of the
divine will ; when these enthusiasms touch
the morality of every day, they transform it
and translate it to a higher sphere. If St Paul
had been a mere fanatic, he might have re-
garded the Christian enthusiasm as superseding
and making needless the morality of ordinary
life. In this direction some of St Paul's
followers who had not his balance and sanity
soon drifted. But the apostle, in spite of
the marvellous warmth of his Christian in-
spiration, is very seldom drawn by it beyond
the ways of good sense and practical wisdom.

The personal ethics of the first preaching,
supplemented by the family and civic ethics


of St Paul, though varying from place to
place, and supplemented or modified by the
morals of the peoples who successively came
into the Christian fold, served the world until
Christianity became the religion of the state.
Of course, as the fold of the Christian Church
expanded, more and more of worldliness, of
private desire of goods, of reputation, of
honour, was necessarily absorbed into it. The
nitrogen in many places was so dominant that
the life-giving power of the oxygen was greatly
diminished. As the organisation of the society
became harder and more fixed, the highest
places in it became fitter objects of ambition.
But, nevertheless, the early enthusiasm per-
sisted, and, like salt, preserved the corporate
body from destruction. Saints and martyrs
were never wanting in a crisis, and persecution,
at intervals, did an immense service in purging
away the more unstable of the adherents of the
Church. And the rules laid down by St Paul
for conduct in heathen surroundings ever justi-
fied the Christian inspiration and the worldly
wisdom of the great apostle of the Gentiles.

This is not a historic work, and it is clear
that I cannot sketch the history of the gradual
adaptation of the Christian morality to the world
which surrounded it, and of which gradually it
became a part. My purpose is quite different:


to examine the question whether the Christian
ethics can be expanded and adapted to the new
world, which is so much greater than the old.
I shall therefore not enter in any detail into
such questions as the relation of early Christian
ethics to the existing Jewish ethics, or the
strong Stoic morality which was accepted by
the finer spirits in the Roman Empire.

We must, however, observe that the earliest
teaching of Christianity was individual and
personal, and has no relation to the life of the
family or the state, though of course it regards
as of utmost importance the relations of in-
dividuals to the Kingdom of God. But it
does not definitely exclude the relations of
Christians to smaller societies. It does not,
like nihilism, teach the essential wrongness of
government. I shall even try, later on, to
show that the essential principles of Chris-
tianity, the idea of the Incarnation, may be
applied far beyond the religion of the in-
dividual, and worked into the frame of society.
And indeed in such working lies, according to
this book, the only chance for the future of
the world. But we must allow that the seed
is not the tree, nor the bud the fruit. The
Founder has given us principles, but it rests
with modern men to apply and to expand them.



There is a view widely spread, and one may
almost say generally received, in modern days,
that whereas the literary and historical bases
of Christianity have been largely changed or
undermined by the process of historical criti-
cism, yet the ethics of Christianity are clear,
easily ascertained, and indeed universally re-
cognised. One hears on many sides expressed
a wish that the ethics of the New Testament
could be taught in our schools and our
churches unencumbered by what is regarded
as the clog of doctrinal theory and of church
history. And in discussions in the newspapers
or articles in the magazines the writers are
apt not merely to presume that the sum of
the Christian ethics is well known to all, but
even to assume that in regard to its acceptance
we are all at one. Bodies like the Students'
Christian Union and the Christian Social
Union do not begin by making it clear what
interpretation of the principles of Christianity
they accept, but think it sufficient to appeal
to Christian feeling. Yet the truth is that,
as any careful consideration of the matter
will show, there are many schools of Christian
ethics, and its principles have been interpreted
in many ways in different ages.


In the history of Christianity, in the modern
world, many of the Pagan and the Christian
ideals of conduct have stood side by side un-
reconciled. In modern times another group
of ideals, those of the utilitarian, have arisen
out of the spirit of scientific investigation.
There is about us a complete chaos of con-
flicting ideals of conduct. And there is a
great need of careful and impartial investiga-
tions of the ethics of Christianity, both on the
historic and on the psychologic side.

I propose, then, to consider, in successive
chapters, whether the root-principles of Chris-
tianity, love to God and man, the superiority
of the spirit to the flesh, a desire to do the will
of God in the world, can be applied outside
the field of the inner circle of Christians and
the life of the cloister ; whether they have
sufficient power of expansion to leaven the
morality of life in the material world, the
relations of the sexes and the family, the re-
lations of individuals to the state and of the
states to one another. Is the Kingdom of
God on the earth, which Jesus preached, a
mere optimistic dream ? or is it a state of
society for which wise men may labour and

Everyone speaks of reconstruction after the
terrible war, which has devastated Europe, and


destroyed millions of our brightest and ablest
young men. And unless there be such recon-
struction, ruin gapes before all the states of
Europe. Nowhere, I think, is reconstruction
more necessary than in the ethical foundations
of conduct. How unsatisfactory these founda-
tions have been in modern states, the course
of the war itself has shown, when every nation
has been accusing its opponent of utter want
of principle. Are then the root-principles
of modern conduct worthless ? And is the
Christianity which is acknowledged by the
states of Europe, in theory, as a guiding light,
quite out of date, or inapplicable to a state
of society which grows more and more com-
plicated? I venture to think that though
many received Christian maxims and ways
of conduct have proved untrustworthy and
misleading, there is yet in the essential and
underlying principles of the Christian religion
a power of growth and self-adaptation which
makes them fit to cope even with the newest
developments of personal and of international
morality. But this can only be the case if
they are relieved from close connection with
the conditions of society both in the ancient
and mediaeval world. They need transla-
tion into the thought and the language of
modern life.



IN his interesting autobiographic memoirs, 1
Mr Frederic Harrison writes of the effect
produced on him when a boy by reading
Paley's statement, in his Evidences, of the
contrast between the Christian and the Pagan
ideal of heroism. " I deeply absorbed the
idea," he writes, " and from that moment the
pagan idea of heroism seemed to me narrow,
unworthy, and puerile. The desire of fame, of
power, and of persona] distinction, lost for me
any charm it might have had ; and the idea of
duty and moral character entirely took the
vacant place." " The new idea transformed my
entire notions of right and wrong, a good and
bad life." Some such change has taken place
at puberty in the minds of thousands of young
men brought up in Christianity ; and it has
commonly been called conversion.
1 Vol. i. p. 5.


But when, in after years, one examines more
closely the paths of conduct, one finds that the
matter is not so simple. The great motive of
pagan heroes was not mere love of power or
of fame, but a keen patriotism, a loyalty to
family, to city, and to country. In the best
of them this flame of altruism burned with a
bright light. Such heroes as Leonidas and
Regulus thought little of personal advantage ;
and such statesmen as Solon, Epaminondas,
Aratus, worked their best for the future good
of their peoples. Such men certainly did not
think lightly of duty and moral character,
though sometimes their deeds were such as we
find it hard to approve. In some ways their
ideals are strange to us, yet to many statesmen
and leaders in modern days they have been a
splendid light, a star to which, in the language
of Emerson, the wagon of conduct may be
hitched. In some ages of the world Plutarch
has come next to the Bible as the inspirer of
noble deeds.

The intricate paths of conduct, the nature
of right and wrong, are not so simply discovered,
since an earnest impulse towards duty and
moral character leads men in various directions.
One learns that in the moral world there are
many competing ideals of excellence, that
some men are born to help the world in one


way, and some in another, that the light of
heaven comes into human lives through glasses
of various colours.

And this is notably the case in regard to
Christian ethics. There .have been in all ages
of the Church simple and good men who have
thought that the whole principle of Christian
morality is contained in the well-known pas-
sage in the Sermon on the Mount on non-
resistance of evil. When one is smitten one
should turn the other cheek ; when one is
defrauded one should take it patiently. One
should give freely to all who are in distress,
without nicely inquiring how the distress came
about. And such simple souls do beyond
doubt acquire a profound peace. By the sup-
pression of personal desire and the renunciation
of self-expansion, they pass into another region
of purer and more rarefied air. Though in the
world they are not of it. And the surround-
ing society has generally sufficient ideality to
appreciate them, to regard them as saints, to
protect them from persecution.

But anyone who to any purpose studies
history and the facts of the world soon finds
that there is a reverse to the medal. It is
not only that the material progress of society
depends upon the strivings of individuals to
better their condition ; for it might be said


that after all this material progress is not the
highest good, and perhaps destroys as much
happiness as it produces. The evil results go
far deeper. They have been displayed, for all
to see, in many periods of the world's history.
Human nature is so constituted that it cannot
be raised to, or kept at, a higher level, save by
constant urging. Nothing is easier, for nine
men or women out of ten, than to relax and
become slack. If they know that they can
indulge indolence and love of pleasure without
suffering for it, they will choose the obvious
advantage and dismiss the thought of the
future. It needs the gadfly of necessity to
sting them into activities which are really
necessary to their moral and spiritual health.
If men can procure a passable living without
energy and strife, they will, unless they be
finely tempered personalities, accept it.

For such reasons, the societies which have
started with a real and profound desire for the
higher life have usually in fact shortly become
degenerate, inert, useless. And the societies
which have ceased to be kept in health by
competition and external pressure have become
effete and decayed. Those who have visited
the monasteries of Mount Athos have learned
what an attraction a life of assured tranquillity
exercises over the peasantry of Greece and


Russia. In some cases it may be a real
religious call which entices men to those
houses of peace, but more often it is a shrink-
ing from the need to show energy, to do
battle with the world. It was not much more
than a century after the time of St Francis
that WyclifFe had occasion bitterly to attack
the degeneracy of the order of Friars which he
had founded. Within a short time of the death
of Loyola the Jesuits had become a menace
to Europe, everywhere making their way and
opposing all that was manly and honourable.

Wycliffe first sounded the note of revolt
against the Catholic system which had en-
slaved Europe. He called in question, not
only the discipline and doctrine of Rome, but
also the generally accepted Catholic views on
most of the points afterwards taken up by
the founders of Protestantism. He boldly
maintained that a life of active well-doing
was more pleasing to God than the never-
ending services of the cloister: he set up a
positive ideal of morality in the place of the
merely ascetic and self-denying ideal which
was at the base of the monastic idea, although
he tenaciously adhered to the principle that
poverty was the right condition for those who
accepted the spiritual life.

Before the Reformation, at the time of the


Renaissance, the virtues of the pagan heroes
of antiquity, which had been almost forgotten,
were once more publicly proclaimed. The
Lives of Plutarch became almost a rival to
the Bible itself as a reflex of the traits of
noble and manly life. And in the lives of
the heroes of the Elizabethan age we may
see much of this influence, as well as of
the surviving spirit of pagan forefathers of
Scandinavian and Teutonic race. There was
a period of splendid all-round widening of
conduct, marked in some directions by aber-
ration, but on the whole tending to make
our western race more manly, chivalrous, and
efficient. It was indeed a spacious time, an age
of sudden expansion and glorious achievement,
fitly recognised by historians as the time of pass-
ing from mediaeval to modern conditions.

What we call the Reformation was in many
respects a reaction from the Renaissance to
mediaeval ideas. The loose morality and
frivolity which had spread over Italy, France,
and other countries in consequence of the
revival of pagan ideals, caused men to revert
to Christianity, but a Christianity too much
like that of the Middle Ages. Alike in the
countries dominated by the Reformation and
in those swayed by its complement the
Counter-Reformation, there was a revival of


Christian as opposed to pagan ideas. So far,
of course, it was well. But it would have
been better if, at the same time, what was
best in the glorious legacy of Greece and
Rome had been preserved, and piety had
revived without an eclipse of reason. 1

However well the classics held their place in
education, their tendencies affected only the
leisurely and well-to-do. The mass of the
people had changed but little, compared with
the change which had come over the advanced
spirits. England in particular, as Matthew
Arnold has well said, was thrust into the
dungeon of Puritanism and locked in there
for two centuries. Humanism floated on the
surface of literature ; but in the depths of the
national consciousness, the pagan virtues were
little accounted of, and the ethics popularly
accepted in the countries which accepted the
Reformation varied between the stern and
harsh fanaticism of the later Judaism and the re-
formed and spiritual view of life and duty to be
found in the Gospels and the Pauline Epistles.
No doubt this was greatly modified by the
tendencies inherited from Saxon and Danish
ancestors, adventurous, manly, and craving
physical stimulants and boisterous pleasure.

1 This is worked out with insight and wisdom in Bartlet
and Carlyle's Christianity and History, 1917, part iv.


In some respects the ethics of the Middle
Ages were as remote from the original teach-
ing of Christianity as were the mediaeval
doctrines of the nature of the sacraments or
the supremacy of the Papal See. And, in
fact, the Reformers proceeded in the same
way in the matter of doctrine and in the
matter of ethics. Some of the mediaeval
doctrines, especially in relation to the sacra-

2 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15

Online LibraryPercy GardnerEvolution in Christian ethics → online text (page 2 of 15)