Percy Gardner.

Evolution in Christian ethics online

. (page 8 of 15)
Online LibraryPercy GardnerEvolution in Christian ethics → online text (page 8 of 15)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

wards the haven of the Kingdom of God.



IT would be a great and a noble task to set
forth in detail how, just as Christian belief
and doctrine have taken on new forms in con-
sequence of modern progress in science, both
natural and human, so Christian ethics need
also to be revised in the clearer light of fuller
knowledge. But such a task would be far
beyond the scope of a little book like the
present one, which is intended rather to pro-
voke thought than to satisfy its demands.
All that 1 can here hope to accomplish is to
take one or two recognised Christian virtues,
and to show how, without losing their Christian
character, they may be adapted to a changed
world. And I hope that it will appear that
often such adaptation, instead of taking them
further from the original and root teaching of
Christianity, will bring them nearer to it.
What is really wanted is to free the Christian



ideals of conduct from the trammels of the
dark ages of the Church.


The first Christian grace or virtue of which
I propose to speak is the greatest and most
distinctive of all charity. This virtue is
beyond dispute one of the greatest of gifts
which Christianity has bestowed on the world.
And, since the corruption of the best is the
worst, it might have been expected that a
misunderstanding and misuse of this most
divine of graces would have been the worst
source of corruption, when the true nature of
charity was misunderstood, and its working
perverted. I am not under the delusion that
the interpretation which I have to maintain is
new to the history of Christian thought, or
cannot be found in the writings of eminent
Christian authors, yet I assert without hesita-
tion that the doctrine of Christian charity, as
taught from many pulpits and as accepted by
the mass of the laity in England, is quite con-
trary to the real spirit of the religion, and by
no means consonant with the teaching, so far
as we can recover it, of the Founder of Chris-
tianity and the greatest of the Apostles,
St Paul. It is full of the corruption which
undoubtedly came upon the Church in the


Middle Ages and even earlier, and it needs a
thorough revision before it can be reconciled
with ethical progress.

The teaching of Jesus in regard to love to
mankind is set forth admirably by many
writers, by none more eloquently and with
more insight than by the author of JEcce Homo.
What the Founder taught, exemplified in his
life, and breathed into his society, was a love
for man, into which the love of God entered
as a transforming force. It was the divine in
man, as distinguished from the characteristics
of individuals, which was the object of the
passion of appreciation and affection lying at
the root of all his utterances in regard to
human beings. All were alike the children of
God, and objects of the love and care of the
Heavenly Father. And thus all were brothers,
and anything in contradiction to this relation
was an offence against the spiritual constitution
of the world. Jesus bade his followers in the
first place to love God with all their soul, and
in the second place to love their neighbours as
themselves. But this clearly implies a lofty
and spiritual standard in the love of one's
neighbour. For no disciple, in so far as he
was a disciple, would merely aim at his own
happiness and worldly prosperity ; rather, as
Wordsworth writes, "would make his moral


being his prime care." So also in the case of
other people, he would wish to promote in them
not what was lower and of the earth, but what
was highest and best.

It is scarcely necessary to cite passages from
the Gospels to establish this thesis. Some of
the precepts of the Sermon on the Mount may
be held to have, in their literal sense, a tem-
porary bearing. But one principle lies at the
base of it all. It implies in every line that
mere temporal and worldly advantage is not
to be compared with a right attitude towards
God. " Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and
his righteousness, and all these things food,
raiment, and the rest shall be added to you."
There is again the parable of the self-satisfied
rich man, "So is he that layeth up treasure for
himself, but is not rich towards God." " Fear
not them that kill the body." But I need not
go on. The whole teaching of Jesus is based
on what would now be called a transvaluation
of values, on looking at all the affairs of life in
the light of eternity.

And we have the golden rule that every
man should behave to others as he would
wish others to behave to him. No follower
of Jesus could wish that others in their con-
duct towards him would flatter his worldli-
ness or gratify his evil desires ; and the same


standard is set up for his reciprocal actions
on others.

We may, however, see at least the traces of
a line of distinction. The conduct of the
disciples one to the other was not to be the
same as their conduct towards those outside
the society. To the outer world a disciple was
to appear as a perennial source of gentleness,
kindness, and consideration. He was to be
like the sun which shines on the evil and the
good, like the rain which falls as much on the
lands of unjust men as on those of the just.
He was to imitate the ways of the Father in
Heaven in being to all around him a source of
gladness. On this line stand the wonders of
healing which are so marked an element in the
synoptic gospels, and the reality of which,
after allowance for inaccurate tradition, can
scarcely be denied. Pain and sickness were to
the Master as clearly evils as was sin, though
of course in an infinitely less degree. To set
them right was to carry out in the world the
will of God. Jesus holds in high value hap-
piness, so long as it is in accord with nature,
and not harmful to the soul.

But in the discourses more directly dealing
with conduct towards other members of the
little society we may find a higher and a
sterner tone. " If thy right eye causeth thee


to offend, pluck it out and cast it from thee."
And the corollary is clear : if thy brother's eye
cause him to offend, help him to cast it out.
For him also it is better to enter into life
having one eye than to die having two.
The man who is willing to lose a limb in
order that his life may be saved, is naturally
anxious that the same mutilation should take
place in others, if the same end may be at-
tained. But Jesus, with the sweet reason-
ableness which is so marked a feature in his
teaching, sees clearly the dangers which may
attend such a reading of the love of one's
neighbours. He sees that it may lead to a
harsh and censorious spirit, combined with self-
righteousness. Therefore he adds a caution,
that those who see a mote in a brother's
eye, which it would be a kindness to remove,
must beware lest there be a worse defect in
their own eye, which may interfere with clear
vision. Everyone must feel how necessary is
the caution, how easy it is to be blinded by
prejudice and partiality in judging what is the
best and highest for one's neighbour. The
best corrective is the sinking of the individual
or subjective point of view in that of the
society as a whole. The first impulse of the
Apostles when they left all worldly goods to
follow their Master, was to invite their friends


to do the same. The society was one in heart ;
what applied to one applied to all. The self-
surrender of each man was a part of the self-
surrender of all. It is the common feeling of
all, the relation of all to the life of the society,
which is the basis and the essence of Christian
charity, as it makes its first appearance in

The word charity (aydirrj) occurs in the
synoptic gospels ; but it is in the sense of love
of God, or love of mankind in general. The
only exception is in Matt. xxiv. 12, in a phrase
which probably does not come from Jesus
himself. 1 As is often pointed out, it is in the
writings of St Paul that the term is appropri-
ated to the special affection which Christians
feel, or should feel, one for another. It was
natural that, when the outline of the society
was hardening, and it was becoming more
distinct from the world outside, the special
tie binding believers together should be more
clearly recognised. To St Paul, charity is the
queen of all virtues, the essential impulse
without which a man cannot be a Christian.
It is the superhuman gift to the Church, the
connection of disciple with disciple, and of the
disciples taken together with their Master in
heaven. It is an impulse towards gentleness,

1 " The love of many shall wax cold."



kindness, self-sacrifice. The hymn in which
St Paul sings its praises is a reflection and
an embodiment of the spirit which conquered
the world, and ushered in a new condition of

No doubt, when the Christian Church ceased
to be a small society of devoted believers and
became a world-wide institution, charity in the
Pauline sense necessarily became an ideal to
be aimed at rather than a virtue which might
be grasped. By expanding so as to include
the whole community, good and bad, faithful
and faithless, charity necessarily lost its first
fervour and waxed comparatively cold. The
ardent love of which St Paul speaks might
possibly exist in small societies of believers
who felt that they were united as one soul
against a hostile world, but as a matter of
history it never has existed in large and mixed
communities. The Pauline ideal is high, and
we cannot attain to it ; though the few who
have in a measure exemplified it in their lives
shine like the stars in heaven.


But when we come to speak of charity
as now regarded among us, what a terrible
bathos ! The word is used mainly in two
senses. First, it is applied to the giving of


alms, the contribution of money to various
philanthropic agencies. And second, it is
applied to a broad toleration of notions and
of customs which we disapprove. In order
to measure the depth of the degradation to
which the word has fallen, we must investi-
gate the relation of these two uses to the
primitive teaching of Christianity.

St Paul is guarded in his precepts as to alms-
giving. He made collections for poor members
of the Church at Jerusalem. And at a time
when every member knew the circumstances
and character of every other member it was
easy to avoid abuses. But he also writes a
command which goes to the root of the matter.
" If a man will not work, neither shall he eat."
In spite of that injunction, almsgiving in the
Church became an abuse, and we find in the
Didache very sensible cautions against giving
indiscriminately. " If," it says, " the teacher
ask for money, he is a false prophet." And
again, " Let thine alms sweat into thine hands
till thou know to whonTthou givest."

To what abuses the giving of indiscriminate
alms led in the Middle Ages, all who know
anything about those times are aware. The
systematic pauperisation of the people was
regarded by the monasteries and the clergy
in general as the carrying out of a divine law.


The popular feeling in regard to almsgiving
was expressed in the saying, " It takes away
the holy use of charity to examine wants." 1
The obvious self-denial in giving was the one
thing thought of; and the harm done to the
recipients was not considered. Charity of
this kind is a refined form of selfishness. Not
only in the Middle Ages did it often cor-
rupt and demoralise the people, but it did
not even produce gratitude in them. " It is
false to suppose that, because the religious
houses were bound to distribute alms liberally,
they were popular with their neighbours and
tenants." 5 The very contrary was the case.
This reckless almsgiving is a hydra of which
it seems useless to cut off the head, for it has
an infinite power of self-renewal. One would
have thought that the great Report of the
Poor Law Commission in the last generation
would have scotched the mischief for a century
at least ; but it is still at work. Pauperisation
is still going on ; and the result is now, as in
the Middle Ages, to provoke not a friendly
gratitude but anger and contempt. No one
speaks more angrily of popular " charity " than
some of the labour leaders.

There is one phrase in the Pauline doctrine

1 Fletcher's Pilgrim, Act I., Sc. i.

2 Trevelyan, England in the Age of Wycliffe, p. l6l.


of charity which is often overlooked, " Charity
worketh no ill to its neighbour" 1 arid it is
very certain that a great deal of the money
now given in ways which are termed charit-
able does great and irreparable harm to our
neighbours, in encouraging idleness and
thriftlessness, and destroying manly independ-
ence. To people constituted as we are now,
and having money enough to meet all urgent
needs, it is far easier to give small doles to any-
one who seems to be in want than to refuse.
And the result of the giving of doles, as has
been proved a thousand times in history, is
the production of a class of feckless and
demoralised wanderers, averse to work of any
kind ; whose lives alternate between want
of necessaries and coarse indulgence. It is
also greatly to be feared that many of the
more guarded and systematic kinds of charity
produce in a more insidious way the same
evil results. All this would be allowed by
anyone who had considered the working of
fact and tendency. That the words of the
experienced are so little regarded by the
general public is a cause of widespread de-
moralisation. The name of Christian charity
is used to excuse conduct which is utterly op-
posed to the essential teaching of Christianity.

1 Romans xiii. 10.


The art of writing begging letters has become,
as I know from personal inquiries, a means
of earning a considerable income for a
number of years. The recipients of such
letters, in place of making inquiry, send
money whenever their feelings are touched.
And it is not only the writers of the letters
who are thus helped on the downward road,
but a multitude of others, who are trying to
make an honest living, but are tempted into
the ways of deceit and demoralisation. Few
people realise what great and growing harm
may be wrought by the reckless giving of even
a few pounds. And the number of societies
all working independently of one another, and
often started by ladies who merely want some-
thing to do, tends directly to the encouragement
of pauperism and of vice.

There is of course another side to the
matter. One may merely shut up one's heart
and one's pocket, and decline to give to all
charities because one has found some to be
pernicious. Many people go from one of
these extremes to the other. The true line
of conduct, in this as in other social matters,
can only be found by taking trouble, and
"letting the alms sweat into the hand." To
give without doing harm is difficult, but it
is not impossible. And those who wish to


acquire the art can find advice in the writings
of those who have long laboured at it. What
I wish at present to emphasise is the truth
that reckless giving may be a sign of worldly
good-nature, but it is entirely opposed to the
principle of Christian charity as laid down in
the original teachings of Christianity. It is
only by looking rather at words than at
principles that the custom of reckless giving
can be held to be really Christian.


The other misinterpretation of the principle
of charity which I have mentioned is quite
as great an evil. There is a notion abroad
that a wide and almost unlimited toleration
is Christian in principle. Not only in specula-
tive opinions, but even in principles of action,
to be indifferent, to think that one view is
probably almost as good as another, to allow
everyone to go undisturbed his own way, is
often regarded as a mark of charity and
Christian feeling. People say, " It will be all
one a hundred years hence," and so dismiss
questions of right and wrong, of good and
bad ways of action. What could be a grosser
caricature of a religious teaching which insists
upon the enormous importance of right and
wrong action, and their results for good and


evil? If a man plucks out his right eye to
avoid offending, surely it matters to him to
the end of his days. And if that was really
the better alternative, the results of the action
to avoid which he plucked out his right eye
must also be permanent.

It is often regarded as an instance of charity
to tolerate any form of opinion which is not
immediately inconsistent with recognised
morality. If a man preached polygamy or
the free use of opium, it would hardly be
regarded as a part of charity to be indifferent
to his views ; but short of such extremes, it
is often thought that we should let anyone
advocate any views in religious and social
matters without thinking the worse of him.

In matters of knowledge and science, this
attitude may be a good one. Science requires
the open mind, the white light, and any
suspicion of prepossession is distrusted by
those who have the true scientific spirit. But
in the case of all beliefs and opinions which
have any close relation to life and action,
indifferentism is not a worthy frame of mind.
It is of course very difficult in these days to
find out how far a man really believes the
views- which he expresses. The desire to talk
smartly, and to amuse, is so generally prevalent
in conversation, that men often profess even


radically immoral opinions from the mere love
of novelty and paradox. They would be
shocked at the notion of carrying them into
practice. It does not do to take too seriously
the light effervescence which is a help to social
intercourse. But if we look at matters de-
liberately it cannot in principle be denied that
one's words should correspond with one's real

Outside the domain of science and purely
intellectual views, there is in the nature of
things, and there should be manifest in a
really healthy society, a close relation between
thought and action. If a belief is worth hold-
ing, it is bound to lead to certain kinds of
conduct. And if it is worth holding, it is also
worth advocating, and if need be suffering for.
If then a belief is when carried into action
injurious to society, its expression cannot be
indifferent to those who care about the good
of society. To tolerate it is not charity, but
a sign either of indifference to good and evil
or of cowardice. No doubt a man who sets
himself up to judge and condemn all the
beliefs which he does not share may easily
make himself ridiculous. In this case, as in
others, tact and moderation are needful if
social intercourse is to be maintained. But
one may have a very strong sense of what is


good and what is evil without being ready
always to criticise and attack. And this is
the true procedure of charity.


I have spoken negatively of Christian charity,
of the abusive use of the term, and the spirit
which wrongly claims to be that of charity.
Cannot one venture to be in turn somewhat
more constructive, and to sketch the true line
of the charitable life ? I will venture in all
modesty to make the attempt, speaking first
of charity as a feature of all true religion, and
then of Christian charity in particular.

Charity is, in fact, thought, feeling, and
action in accord with the true relation of men
one to another as members of a spiritual realm
and children of a divine parent. Such a rela-
tion exists, whether we recognise it or not.
But when we are enabled to see it, we learn
that it drives us to adopt certain courses of
conduct. And those who by the divine spirit
feel within them a glow of brotherhood, adopt
those courses with joy and gladness. There
then arises within the enthusiasm of humanity.
Those who are most fully inspired by that
enthusiasm find their happiness in spending
their lives in the pursuit of some great good
for the sake of their brethren.


But the good of our neighbour may be
sought in various ways. It may be sought
by what may be called the way of secular
benevolence. We may look around us and
see what men do actually desire and work for,
and try to promote these ends with all our
power. Almost all men have some kindly
feeling ; he who has none is a monster. And
by the very constitution of our nature, the
promotion of happiness in others is the surest
way of attaining happiness for ourselves.
The man who is in this sense an altruist is
beloved by all, is honoured in his lifetime
and lamented when he dies. He does not
make any demands upon his neighbours, but
is always helping them towards the things
which they desire to reach. He is sure, in
some measure, to attain the end which he
sets before him. If men could be made
permanently happy by an improvement of
outward conditions, if by securing for all
more of the things they desire the level of
life could be definitely raised, then there
would be no more to be said. The benevolent
altruist would be the true saint, the man
most fully in accord with the purposes of
the Maker of the world.

But a mere experience of the world, quite
apart from definite religious belief, soon shows


that it is a misreading of the facts of human
nature to suppose that the world can be made
happy by mere human kindness. We know
that spoiled children are not in the long run
benefited by the spoiling. We know that those
who have most of this world's goods are not
the happiest people. We know how many
of the things which men ordinarily desire are
like apples of Sodom, which turn to ashes in
the mouth. We know how the way to
higher happiness often lies through suffering,
and how far more perfect a thing blessedness
is than mere enjoyment.

This, then, is the result of the experience
of life. And Christianity by a divine intui-
tion advocates the same truth, which is set
forth for all time in the paradoxes of the
Sermon on the Mount, which define the true
nature of blessedness, and show at what a
height it stands above the attainment of mere
material good. If a man were an ox, he would
reach the highest bliss of which he is capable
through skilful crossing of breeds, combined
with the best pasture and the finest stables.
But the spiritual element in him is fatal to
so easy an attainment of happiness, which
he is obliged to seek by longer and more
difficult courses.

It is benevolence towards mankind added


to and pervaded by a sense of spiritual
relations which makes up Christian charity.
Charity implies a higher and a lower level
of life, the existence of a happiness which
cannot be attained by indulgence of desire,
either one's own desires or those of others.
It implies an ideal element in life as the
purpose and end of man's existence. It
implies a love for man as man, but especially
for the higher and divine element in man.

It must be added that charity implies
agreement of the will of man with that of
God. For if there be any meaning in
creation, if the long history of evolution,
beginning with a nebula in space and lead-
ing up to civilised man, is not a purposeless
phantasmagoria, then God wills and greatly
desires the improvement and spiritualisation
of man, to which the whole process of the
ages leads up. We can take our place in
the spiritual world only by doing the work
assigned to us at birth, and helping others
to do the work assigned to them. In thus
realising the brotherhood of souls and the
need for bringing every soul nearer to the
source of all souls* we accomplish the true
law of charity.

The Christian Church is a society built
upon this foundation. It is, as the author


of Ecce Homo insisted, primarily a great
ethical society, the object of which is to
promote the doing in the world of the will
of God. In the course of time it has been
strangely warped from this object in one
direction and another, but it has never wholly
lost sight of the original end. At present
in England there is very prevalent a notion
that the external comfort and well-being of

1 2 3 4 5 6 8 10 11 12 13 14 15

Online LibraryPercy GardnerEvolution in Christian ethics → online text (page 8 of 15)