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their fancy, if it fits in with some whim or
prejudice or temperamental weakness of their
own, they adopt it." " It is certainly safe to
say of the majority of Englishmen that, though
their instincts are mainly sound, they have no
principles, because it has been possible for
them to muddle through without thinking of
anything. There is nothing an Englishman
resents more keenly than being asked to find
out what he really believes on any subject, or
why he believes it."

I dare not speak in detail of the want of
intelligence in the direction of public affairs
which has been disclosed in the great war. It
is a theme on which it would be easy to dwell.
But it would require more knowledge of the
actual course of events than I possess. And
it might easily degenerate into mere grumbling
and fault-finding. It is sufficient to say that
the Government itself, in papers published as
to the campaigns in Mesopotamia and Gal-



MODERNITY IN CHRISTIAN ETHICS 105

lipoli, has confessed to a want of wisdom and
foresight, to a lack of power to see clearly the
ends to be aimed at and the means to secure
those ends, which may well cause us all to stand
aghast. And the reports of Parliamentary
Commissions on finance have been appalling
revelations. The extraordinary outburst of
energy in the people, the vast power of self-
devotion in the mass of Englishmen, has been
continually counteracted and made fruitless
by sheer want of knowledge and of wisdom.
What further need is there of witnesses ?

This need for more intelligence, and a more
rational adaptation of means to ends, applies
also, indeed it applies specially, to religion and
ethics. Conservatives have been far too ready
merely to accept the teaching and the morals
of our forefathers. And as a consequence, the
spirits of revolt, those who are determined to
strike out in a new direction and to seek a
new frame of society, have been infinitely
too hasty and unbridled. Because so much
that will not bear the light of day has been
preserved by the framework of the churches
and the customs of society, revolt has continu-
ally seemed to be progress, and a great many
of the young and ardent have been enticed
into ways, and have accepted views, which can
lead only to great catastrophes and to the




106 EVOLUTION IN CHRISTIAN ETHICS

dissolution of society. We have an immense
need of wise and thoughtful men to discern
between good and evil, between the survivals
of what has ceased to be of real use in the
world, and the pillars upon which ordered
society must necessarily rest. It is as if
surgeons, who have found the removal of
the appendix in men to lead to a healthier
and more vigorous life, were to try experi-
ments in removing organs such as heart and
lungs, to see whether they also are unnecessary.
Physiologists tell us that the eye is full of
defects as an organism ; what if oculists were
to begin by removing our eyes in the hope of
providing some seeing apparatus of a more
scientific and effective kind, instead of trying
by spectacles, by microscopes and telescopes,
gradually to improve our powers of sight?
Russia has lately given to the world a notable
example of the practical results of a triumph
of nihilism, of the view that the defective
arrangements of society have only to be
cleared away, and that a better order will
naturally evolve itself. There is in the world
of art and of literature, and to a great degree
in the world of morals and conduct, an almost
complete chaos. Society is drifting blindly
it knows not whither.

If one looks to history in the past, one finds



MODERNITY IN CHRISTIAN ETHICS 107

the record full of warnings. There is no need
to deny the thesis that if God pleased he
might apply a rapid and drastic cure to the
evils from which men suffer. But we know
that he does not interfere, in cataclysmic
fashion, to set things right. He does not
act like a foolish and indulgent parent who
is constantly standing between his children
and the natural fruits of their deeds. But he
acts like a wise and stern father who when
his children have fallen into misfortune
through contravening his commands or his
advice, allows them to taste the consequences.
That is, until they repent, for there is another
side to the matter ; the kindness and mercy
of God are as real as his sternness : as to this
I shall have more to say in the chapter on
forgiveness. But if, having the gift of free-
will, men insist on doing the wrong thing,
they are sure to suffer for a time. And such
punishment, in the fixed order of the world,
falls as often on those who fail through want
of wisdom and care, as on those who err from
desire of evil and contempt for the good.
The moral guilt of the latter may be greater ;
and those who believe in a future life will hold
strongly to the view that the punishment for
involuntary but foolish doing of wrong will
not in the long run be so heavy as the






108 EVOLUTION IN CHRISTIAN ETHICS

punishment of those who loved and embraced
sin. And this is the Gospel teaching, " That
servant which knew his lord's will and made
not ready, nor did according to his will, shall
be beaten with many stripes ; but he that
knew not, and did things worthy of stripes,
shall be beaten with few stripes." But not
to find out the lord's will, when it was
ascertainable, was in itself a sin ; indolence
and stupidity which one might have cured
are of the nature of a crime, and fully deserve
punishment. In our law courts ignorance of
the law is no excuse for the transgressor.
And the violation of natural law is punished,
in the constitution of the universe, whatever
excuse there may be for the violator.

I venture to think that, at present, there is
no duty more incumbent upon those who
have acquired some knowledge of moral and
spiritual laws than the duty of trying to raise
the intellectual standard, and to bring in a
clearer sense of law, and a determination to
produce better organisation. Those who make
the attempt must not expect to be popular.
The popular man is he who is kindly and easy-
going, and lets people have what they want.
Yet such an one often tends greatly to lower
the ethical tone of those about him ; while
the man of stricter principle and heart more



MODERNITY IN CHRISTIAN ETHICS 109

hardened, perhaps not by nature but by con-
viction, will probably do far more in the long
run, even for the happiness of the people
among whom he lives.

Biologists tell us that there have been certain
ages in the history of living things, and even in
the history of mankind, when evolution pro-
ceeded more rapidly and effectually than in
ordinary times. Strain and stress prevailed ;
and the classes of living things which were
unequal to the strain, which had not in them
a power to meet rapidly changing conditions,
could only perish. By their loss the world
for a time was no doubt poorer ; but never-
theless a higher level' of development became
possible.

Such a time of stress is the age in which
we live ; indeed, there probably never was an
age of such rapid and fundamental change in
political and social life ; even before the great
war this was clear. And a supreme necessity,
alike for nations and for individuals, is a de-
velopment in the organisation of society and
in the power of intelligence. Good-natured
and easy-going ways, however charming they
may be, will no longer serve. We must take
things seriously. We must improve education,
all the way up from the primary school to the
university. That is the most obvious need ;




110 EVOLUTION IN CHRISTIAN ETHICS

but it is by no means the only one. In science,
in politics, in all the arrangements of society,
we have to rise to a higher level of intelligence;
to use our brains, to study the courses and the
ends of things, to learn what really takes place
in the world, rather than what we would wish
to take place.

No doubt this assertion needs to be guarded,
since superior intelligence may be used either
for good or for evil ; and nothing seems to
us so utterly diabolical as great intelligence
devoted to the harm and not to the benefit
of mankind. But nevertheless, unless all
progress in the world is a delusion, mental as
well as moral improvement is in the line of
divine action among men. Wisdom, as well
as goodness, is a gift from above, a trust to
be made use of. And mere goodness of heart,
apart from wisdom and intelligence, is respon-
sible for much of the evil of the world.

If we had been more familiar with our
Bibles we could not have lost sight so com-
pletely as we have of the fact that alike in
the Jewish and the Christian scriptures the
enlightenment of the understanding, and more
especially wisdom in the practical conduct of
life, is constantly spoken of as a gift of the
Divine Spirit, which is not only a power of
energy but also of illumination. According



MODERNITY IN CHRISTIAN ETHICS 111

to the author of Job, it is the inspiration of
the Almighty which gives men understanding.
According to Isaiah, the Spirit of God is the
spirit of wisdom and understanding. The
Fourth Evangelist teaches that the divine
wisdom was impersonated in Jesus Christ,
and that this is the light which enlightens
not only followers of Christ, but every man
who comes into the world. In the Pauline
epistles the same theme is repeatedly taken
up. Paul urges his converts to pray not only
with the spirit but with the understanding also,
and he declares that he would rather in the
assemblies of the church speak five words with
understanding, to enlighten his hearers, than
ten thousand words in an unknown tongue.
He even places preachers and teachers at a
higher level of spiritual value than workers of
miracles and faith-healers. The widely pre-
valent modern view that religion has to do with
emotion rather than with wisdom in thought
and action is utterly opposed to the teaching
of the great Apostle. I cannot here elaborate
this theme ; but it greatly needs dwelling on.

But it is time to turn to the other side.
We may venture to feel confident that though
classes of the community had become slack,
yet the nation had not become effeminate.
To begin with, there are in every country pur-




EVOLUTION IN CHRISTIAN ETHICS

suits so arduous that those engaged in them
are kept hard. The battle with the ground
and the weather for the fruits of the earth
keeps the peasantry strong and healthy. The
sea remains stormy and treacherous, and this
has served to keep our sailors and fishermen
from effeminacy. The custom of primogeni-
ture which has exposed the younger sons of
well-to-do families to the battle of life, and
the growing poverty of the clergy, have given
us a supply of adventurous youths, with their
way to make in the world. India has been a
field in which the manly virtues of Englishmen
have readily flourished ; and the strenuous life
forced on emigrants to the British Dominions
beyond the seas has saved many of our roving
youths.

Even our enemies must allow that England
is not effete. But at the same time, in the
severe and trying days which are coming upon
us, we shall need great changes in the national
life if we are to keep our place among the
nations. We shall need more seriousness, a
diminished love of pleasure, and better social
organisation. And above all, we shall need
a clearer realisation of the dominion of law in
the universe, that men reap as they sow, and
cannot avoid the consequences of carelessness
and folly. As man gains more and more



MODERNITY IN CHRISTIAN ETHICS 118

control of nature and society, God commits
to him more and more responsibility for the
conduct of affairs. He has to put away
childish things and consider in a manful spirit
the consequences of his actions.

However the war may end, we are only at
the beginning of a great struggle. Burdened
by enormous debts, deprived of a great pro-
portion of their ablest men, the nations of
Europe have to reconstruct not only national
wealth but the very framework of society.
And it can only be done by a better and more
thorough knowledge, and a more complete use
of it in social construction. But knowledge
and organising power will fail unless the
peoples accept more worthy principles of con-
duct than have usually prevailed in the past.
Secularist ideals of life, and the conventional
Christian ethics of the Churches, must both
give way to a new application of the great
principles of Christianity combined with clearer
perception of moral law in the world.

Ill

I will pass on to notice one or two other
tendencies in ethics which have become more
prominent in consequence of the changed ways
of thought. I can only treat of them very
slightly, but even that may be worth while.

8




114 EVOLUTION IN CHRISTIAN ETHICS

It seems to me that in the ethics of the coming
age two ideas, both of them very prominent
in the early Christian teaching, must have more
vogue than they have had in the past.

The first is the idea that morality is not
merely an individual thing, but social. Men
are not at bottom detached units, but members
of the human race, and they belong also to
smaller units, a church or a nation. Collec-
tive morality is, it must be confessed, not
conspicuous in the Gospels, but it has by no
one been taught more brilliantly than by St
Paul. He tells us that we are all members
of one body, having need one of another, that
when one member suffers all the others suffer
with it, that one blood runs through the whole,
and each man reaches his own highest develop-
ment in correlating his activity with that of
others. St Paul, of course, is speaking of the
Church, of the corporation of which Christ is the
head. But the same principles may be, by a
legitimate extension, applied to each of us as
a member of a society or a country or a city.

This idea of social ethics has in some coun-
tries, and especially in England and Scotland,
been too much lost sight of. Individual
morality and individual religion have been
overdone. Hence the widely-spread notion
that a man's conscience is to him an infallible



MODERNITY IN CHRISTIAN ETHICS 115

guide ; and that, in following it, he is re-
sponsible only to God. We are ready enough
to condemn the German writers who teach
the absolute dominance of the State, that the
State is above morality, and has only to con-
sider its own interests. But we often fall into
the opposite fault of denying to any community
the right of dictating the conduct of indi-
viduals. As to this I shall have something
to say in future , chapters.

To dwell on all the unpleasant fruits of our
own exaggerated individualism would take me
too far. I can only say that everyone who
loves his country or his church must be glad
to see the current setting in the other direc-
tion. Whether or not we consider ourselves
as belonging to the socialists, at all events a
certain leaven of socialism is everywhere work-
ing and fomenting. And no new scheme of
ethics is likely to attract the younger genera-
tion which does not treat man in society as
well as man in isolation as the unit.

The second notable tendency in modern
ethics is to dwell rather on the positive than
the negative aspect of goodness. This also is
thoroughly Christian. It is as prominent in
the teaching of the Synoptic Gospels as the
idea of the Church is in the Pauline Epistles.
We need but remember the discourse of the



116 EVOLUTION IN CHRISTIAN ETHICS

Saviour with the rich young man, who had
been keeping the commandments from his
youth up, had been perfect on the negative
side of morality, but was not ready to hear the
injunction " Sell all thou hast, and follow Me."
Islam teaches more completely than Chris-
tianity the duty of acquiescing in the will of
God ; but Christianity lays most stress not
on abstaining from evil, and accepting the will
of God, but on active and enthusiastic co-
operation with it for the service of men. The
respectable people, the cultivators of regular
schemes of conduct, come off in the Gospels
very badly compared with the repenting
sinner, the returning prodigal, the woman
whose sins were forgiven because she loved
much.

I suppose that in times of prosperity and
peace the negative virtues have more vogue ;
and that, when there is a strong call to action,
and passions, good and bad, are awaked in the
hearts of the people, positive and active virtue
comes by its own. There arises among those
writers who appeal most strongly to the general
feeling, a tendency to lay more stress on en-
thusiastic forms of goodness. The soldiering,
in which every man depends for life on the
constancy and courage of his neighbours, has
given a stimulus alike to social and to active



MODERNITY IN CHRISTIAN ETHICS 117

morality, as contrasted with mere blameless-
ness and individual virtue.

It must be confessed that in our English
Prayer Book too much stress is laid on merely
negative virtue. To go no further than the
General Confession and Absolution, which we
are supposed to repeat twice every day, we
find these negations in almost exclusive pos-
session. " That we may hereafter live a godly,
righteous and sober life." "That the rest of
our life hereafter may be pure and holy."
This is good in its way ; but it is scarcely the
highest note ; and its perpetual iteration is
somewhat wearisome. Might we not some-
times pray for a more active, a more devoted
life, instead of for one which is merely
righteous ? We must remember the saying
of Jesus, " Except your righteousness shall
exceed the righteousness of the Scribes and
Pharisees, ye shall in no wise enter into the
Kingdom of Heaven." Yet the Pharisees
were at the time the most " godly, righteous,
and sober " of all the Jews.

In a very instructive book, The Church in
the Furnace, we read how the ordinary prayers
of the Church seem to lack emotion, point,
actuality, when recited among the scenes of
war. The spirit of mere abstention seems
there to be inadequate. And if we turn to




118 EVOLUTION IN CHRISTIAN ETHICS

nonconformist religion, we shall see how that
too, in a different way, lays too much emphasis
on mere abstention, on refraining from drink,
and from bad language and the other vices into
which ardent and impetuous youth is apt to
fall. Not of course that those vices are to be
condoned ; but that by far the easiest and best
way to overcome them is to drive them out
by a higher purpose and ethical enthusiasm.

The intellectual basis for a more active
tendency in ethics is not wanting, has indeed
been working in the world of thought for
some time past, especially in the writings of
men like William James and Bergson, who
have laid stress on the one side on the impor-
tance of that general ground of human society
which we call the unconscious, and who on
the other side have insisted that in men the
active and conative side is primary, the re-
flective and intellectual secondary. It is a
phenomenon which we often note in history,
and which is a clear proof of the doctrine of
Providence, that when a demand comes for
particular qualities in a people, or men of a
certain type, it is found that deep-seated
movements in the unconscious substratum of
life, often reflected in the brains of great
thinkers, have already made preparation for
the production of such qualities in the people,



MODERNITY IN CHRISTIAN ETHICS 119

or such types of men. Thus the dynamic and
positive, as contrasted with the static and
negative view of goodness, comes in to fill a
space which had already been prepared for it
by the writings of great thinkers, who dis-
covered fundamental principles, and made
ready, as it were, a concrete platform, on
which the great guns could rest.

As is usually the case, the popular literature
of the time grasps the view which underlies
the tendency of thought, and magnifies it into
caricature. Writers like H. G. Wells and
Bernard Shaw pour unmeasured scorn on
mere respectability, on abstention from trans-
gression of the rules of society. Passion and
resolve which lead men and women to defy
their surroundings and to pursue at any cost
the impulses which surge up from unconscious
depths of the spirit, are by them eagerly justi-
fied. They make the reader feel that mere
inhibition of impulse, based on respect for
propriety, is a base and poor thing. William
James, in a notable, and very bold, passage,
ventures to defend, in a degree, even hard
drinking, as a triumph of the active energies
over mere prudence and respectability, a victory
of conation over inhibition. All this is an ex-
aggeration and caricature, but at least it shows
that in the minds of readers there is a general



120 EVOLUTION IN CHRISTIAN ETHICS

feeling against such restraints of convention and
custom as dwarf and deaden the active spirit.

And the war has, beyond doubt, had a
driving power in the same direction. Soldiers
have found that the men who force upon them
admiration and confidence are most usually
those who may have many faults, but have
also a great and active power of self-devotion.
The virtues of the battle-field are of a very
active and stirring kind. After all, is not this
only a new illustration of the great Christian
saying, " Her sins, which are many, are for-
given, for she loved much " ? It is time that
the thick crust of convention and respectability
which had covered Christian ethics should be
violently broken up.

The three principles which 1 have men-
tioned : the recognition of law and order in
the ethical and spiritual world ; the social and
corporate nature of virtue ; the predominance
of active over mere passive or abstentional
goodness, these seem to me to be the most
notable features of modernist Christian ethics.
I do not mean that they are the only import-
ant features, but they seem to have a primacy.
But there is a practical question to be con-
sidered.

Can an intellectual study of the divine will
and a determination to love and follow it be



MODERNITY IN CHRISTIAN ETHICS 121

treated as separate matters ? Must they not
be closely related ? To put the matter in
more concrete form : can the impulse to the
Christian life of devotion to the divine will be
transferred, with the progress of knowledge,
from one religious atmosphere to another?
Can the ethics of Christendom be transformed
while the life of Christendom goes on with
undiminished energy ? Can we keep the
sanctions and the enthusiasms of Christianity,
while altering the whole scale of Christian
thought in relation to God and man, and the
incarnation of God in man ? Can the life of
Christ in the Church and in individuals be
carried on with energy and happiness under
the intellectual conditions of the new age ?

This question has not only to be thought
out, but also to be lived out. It rests with
Christians who are convinced modernists to
prove that their modernism is consistent with
Christian hope, faith, and conduct. The ex-
periment is being tried, day by day and hour
by hour. The world and the future await the
result. If a new Reformation is possible, it
must be attained by courage, self-devotion,
and self-suppression. If it is not possible,
we are in presence of an internecine struggle
in the Christian world between science and
faith, between what we know and what we



122 EVOLUTION IN CHRISTIAN ETHICS

would fain believe. In that case we shall
undoubtedly have in the future many revivals
of Christianity, but they will more and more
take the form of reversions to old types.
Their gaze will necessarily be turned towards
the past rather than towards the present and
the future. This has been the case with the
Roman Catholic revival on the Continent,
and with the Anglo-Catholic revival in this
country. So great is the power of the essen-
tial Christian faith over the heart of man,
that no mere enlightenment of the intellect
will take its place, or reconcile many classes
of the people to its loss. They will be willing
to accept the most unsatisfactory mental com-
promises rather than give it up.

But if, on the other hand, there turns out
to be a possibility of combining Christian faith
and hope and an, active Christian life in the
world with the fullest growth of intellectual
clarity, and a hearty acceptance of the idea of
evolution in all the phases of human life, then
there will come such a reinforcement of the
power of the Church that she will dominate
life as she has not dominated it since the
thirteenth century. Her sails will be full at
the same time that her rudder is steady in
wise hands, and she will sail victoriously to-


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Online LibraryPercy GardnerEvolution in Christian ethics → online text (page 7 of 15)