R.W. Church.

Occasional Papers Selected from the Guardian, the Times, and the Saturday Review, 1846-1890 online

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its extravagant love of theorising, because of its divergences and
variations, because of its negative results. Those who have been so
eager to destroy have not been so successful in construction. Clever
theories come to nothing; streams which began with much noise at last
lose themselves in the sand. Undoubtedly, it presents a very important,
and, in many ways, interesting class of intellectual phenomena, among
the many groups of such inquiries, moral, philosophical, scientific,
political, social, of which the world is full, and of which no sober
thinker expects to see the end. If this vaunted criticism is still left
to scholars, it is because it is still in the stage in which only
scholars are competent to examine and judge it; it is not fit to be a
factor in the practical thought and life of the mass of mankind.
Answers, and not merely questions, are what we want, who have to live,
and work, and die. Criticism has pulled about the Bible without
restraint or scruple. We are all of us steeped in its daring
assumptions and shrewd objections. Have its leaders yet given us an
account which it is reasonable to receive, clear, intelligible,
self-consistent and consistent with all the facts, of what this
mysterious book is?

Meanwhile, in the face of theories and conjectures and negative
arguments, there is something in the world which is fact, and hard
fact. The Christian Church is the most potent fact in the most
important ages of the world's progress. It is an institution like the
world itself, which has grown up by its own strength and according to
its own principle of life, full of good and evil, having as the law of
its fate to be knocked about in the stern development of events,
exposed, like human society, to all kinds of vicissitudes and
alternations, giving occasion to many a scandal, and shaking the faith
and loyalty of many a son, showing in ample measure the wear and tear
of its existence, battered, injured, sometimes degenerate, sometimes
improved, in one way or another, since those dim and long distant days
when its course began; but showing in all these ways what a real thing
it is, never in the extremity of storms and ruin, never in the deepest
degradation of its unfaithfulness, losing hold of its own central
unchanging faith, and never in its worst days of decay and corruption
losing hold of the power of self-correction and hope of recovery.
_Solvitur ambulando_ is an argument to which Mrs. Ward appeals, in
reply to doubts about the solidity of the "New Reformation." It could
be urged more modestly if the march of the "New Reformation" had lasted
for even half of one of the Christian centuries. The Church is in the
world, as the family is in the world, as the State is in the world, as
morality is in the world, a fact of the same order and greatness. Like
these it has to make its account with the "all-dissolving" assaults of
human thought. Like these it has to prove itself by living, and it does
do so. In all its infinite influences and ministries, in infinite
degrees and variations, it is the public source of light and good and
hope. If there are select and aristocratic souls who can do without it,
or owe it nothing, the multitude of us cannot. And the Christian Church
is founded on a definite historic fact, that Jesus Christ who was
crucified rose from the dead; and, coming from such an author, it comes
to us, bringing with it the Bible. The fault of a book like _Robert
Elsmere_ is that it is written with a deliberate ignoring that these
two points are not merely important, but absolutely fundamental, in the
problems with which it deals. With these not faced and settled it is
like looking out at a prospect through a window of which all the glass
is ribbed and twisted, distorting everything. It may be that even yet
we imperfectly understand our wondrous Bible. It may be that we have
yet much to learn about it. It may be that there is much that is very
difficult about it. Let us reverently and fearlessly learn all we can
about it. Let us take care not to misuse it, as it has been terribly
misused. But coming to us from the company and with the sanction of
Christ risen, it never can be merely like other books. A so-called
Christianity, ignoring or playing with Christ's resurrection, and using
the Bible as a sort of Homer, may satisfy a class of clever and
cultivated persons. It may be to them the parent of high and noble
thoughts, and readily lend itself to the service of mankind. But it is
well in so serious a matter not to confuse things. This new religion
may borrow from Christianity as it may borrow from Plato, or from
Buddhism, or Confucianism, or even Islam. But it is not Christianity.
_Robert Elsmere_ may be true to life, as representing one of those
tragedies which happen in critical moments of history. But a
Christianity which tells us to think of Christ doing good, but to
forget and put out of sight Christ risen from the dead, is not true to
life. It is as delusive to the conscience and the soul as it is
illogical to reason.



_Histoire des Origines du Christianisme_. Livre I. - _Vie de Jésus_.
Par Ernest Renan. _Guardian_, 9th September 1863.

Unbelief is called upon nowadays, as well as belief, to give its
account of the origin of that undeniable and most important fact which
we call the Christian religion. And if it is true that in some respects
the circumstances under which the controversy is carried on are, as it
has been alleged, more than heretofore favourable to unbelief, it is
also true that in some other respects the case of unbelief has
difficulties which it had not once. It has to accept and admit, if it
wishes to gain a favourable hearing from the present generation, the
unique and surpassing moral grandeur, depth, and attractiveness of
Christianity. The polemic method which set Christianity in broad
contrast with what was supposed to be best and highest in human nature,
and therefore found no difficulty in tracing to a bad source what was
itself represented to be bad, is not a method suited to the ideas and
feelings of our time; and the sneers and sarcasms of the last century,
provoked by abuses and inconsistencies which have since received their
ample and memorable punishment, cease to produce any effect on readers
of the present day, except to call forth a passing feeling of
repugnance at what is shallow and profane, mixed, it may be, sometimes,
with an equally passing admiration for what is witty and brilliant.
Even in M. Renan's view, Voltaire has done his work, and is out of
date. Those who now attack Christianity have to attack it under the
disadvantage of the preliminary admission that its essential and
distinguishing elements are, on the whole, in harmony and not in
discordance with the best conceptions of human duty and life, and that
its course and progress have been, at any rate, concurrent with all
that is best and most hopeful in human history. First allowing that as
a fact it contains in it things than which we cannot imagine anything
better, and without which we should never have reached to where we are,
they then have to dispute its divine claims. No man could write
persuasively on religion now, _against_ it any more than _for_ it, who
did not show that he was fully penetrated not only with its august and
beneficent aspect, but with the essential and everlasting truths which,
in however imperfect shapes, or whencesoever derived, are embodied in
it and are ministered by it to society.

That Christianity is, as a matter of fact, a successful and a living
religion, in a degree absolutely without parallel in any other
religion, is the point from which its assailants have now to start.
They have also to take account of the circumstance, to the recognition
of which the whole course of modern thought and inquiry has brought us,
that it has been successful, not by virtue merely of any outward and
accidental favouring circumstances, but of its intrinsic power and of
principles which are inseparable from its substance. This being the
condition of the question, those who deny its claim to a direct Divine
origin have to frame their theory of it so as to account, on principles
supposed to be common to it and other religions, not merely for its
rise and its conquests, but for those broad and startling differences
which separate it, in character and in effects, from all other known
religions. They have to show how that which is instinct with
never-dying truth sprang out of what was false and mistaken, if not
corrupt; how that which alone has revealed God to man's conscience had
no other origin than what in other instances has led men through
enthusiasm and imposture to a barren or a mischievous superstition.

Such an attempt is the work before us - a work destined, probably, both
from its ability and power and from its faults, to be for modern France
what the work of Strauss was for Germany, the standard expression of an
unbelief which shrinks with genuine distaste from the coarse and
negative irreligion of older infidelity, and which is too refined, too
profound and sympathetic in its views of human nature, to be insensible
to those numberless points in which as a fact Christianity has given
expression to the best and highest thoughts that man can have. Strauss,
to account for what we see, imagined an idea, or a set of ideas,
gradually worked out into the shape of a history, of which scarcely
anything can be taken as real matter of fact, except the bare existence
of the person who was clothed in the process of time with the
attributes created by the idealising legend. Such a view is too vague
and indistinct to satisfy French minds. A theory of this sort, to find
general acceptance in France, must start with concrete history, and not
be history held in solution in the cloudy shapes of myths which vanish
as soon as touched. M. Renan's process is in the main the reverse of
Strauss's. He undertakes to extract the real history recorded in the
Gospels; and not only so, but to make it even more palpable and
interesting, if not more wonderful, than it seems at first sight in the
original records, by removing the crust of mistake and exaggeration
which has concealed the true character of what the narrative records;
by rewriting it according to those canons of what is probable and
intelligible in human life and capacity which are recognised in the
public whom he addresses.

Two of these canons govern the construction of the book. One of them is
the assumption that in no part of the history of man is the
supernatural to be admitted. This, of course, is not peculiar to M.
Renan, though he lays it down with such emphasis in all his works, and
is so anxious to bring it into distinct notice on every occasion, that
it is manifestly one which he is desirous to impress on all who read
him, as one of the ultimate and unquestionable foundations of all
historical inquiry. The other canon is one of moral likelihood, and it
is, that it is credible and agreeable to what we gather from
experience, that the highest moral elevation ever attained by man
should have admitted along with it, and for its ends, conscious
imposture. On the first of these assumptions, all that is miraculous in
the Gospel narratives is, not argued about, or, except perhaps in one
instance - the raising of Lazarus - attempted to be accounted for or
explained, but simply left out and ignored. On the second, the fact
from which there is no escape - that He whom M. Renan venerates with a
sincerity which no one can doubt as the purest and greatest of moral
reformers, did claim power from God to work miracles - is harmonised
with the assumption that the claim could not possibly have been a true

M. Renan professes to give an historical account of the way in which
the deepest, purest, most enduring religious principles known among men
were, not merely found out and announced, but propagated and impressed
upon the foremost and most improved portions of mankind, by the power
of a single character. It is impossible, without speaking of Jesus of
Nazareth as Christians are used to do, to speak of His character and of
the results of His appearance in loftier terms than this professed
unbeliever in His Divine claims. But when the account is drawn out in
detail, of a cause alleged to be sufficient to produce such effects,
the apparent inadequacy of it is most startling. When we think of what
Christianity is and has done, and that, in M. Renan's view, Christ, the
Christ whom he imagines and describes, is all in all to Christianity,
and then look to what he conceives to have been the original spring and
creative impulse of its achievements, the first feeling is that no
shifts that belief has sometimes been driven to, to keep within the
range of the probable, are greater than those accepted by unbelief, in
its most enlightened and reflecting representations. To suppose such an
one as M. Renan paints, changing the whole course of history,
overturning and converting the world, and founding the religion which
M. Renan thinks the lasting religion of mankind, involves a force upon
our imagination and reason to which it is not easy to find a parallel.

His view is that a Galilean peasant, in advance of his neighbours and
countrymen only in the purity, force, and singleness of purpose with
which he realised the highest moral truths of Jewish religious wisdom,
first charming a few simple provincials by the freshness and native
beauty of his lessons, was then led on, partly by holy zeal against
falsehood and wickedness, partly by enthusiastic delusions as to his
own mission and office, to attack the institutions of Judaism, and
perished in the conflict - and that this was the cause why Christianity
and Christendom came to be and exist. This is the explanation which a
great critical historian, fully acquainted with the history of other
religions, presents, as a satisfactory one, of a phenomenon so
astonishing and unique as that of a religion which has suited itself
with undiminished vitality to the changes, moral, social, and
political, which have marked the eighteen centuries of European
history. There have been other enthusiasts for goodness and truth, more
or less like the character which M. Renan draws in his book, but they
have never yet founded a universal religion, or one which had the
privilege of perpetual youth and unceasing self-renovation. There have
been other great and imposing religions, commanding the allegiance for
century after century of millions of men; but who will dare assert that
any of these religions, that of Sakya-Mouni, of Mahomet, or that of the
Vedas, could possibly be the religion, or satisfy the religious ideas
and needs, of the civilised West?

When M. Renan comes to detail he is as strangely insensible to what seem
at first sight the simplest demands of probability. As it were by a sort
of reaction to the minute realising of particulars which has been in
vogue among some Roman Catholic writers, M. Renan realises too - realises
with no less force and vividness, and, according to his point of view,
with no less affectionate and tender interest. He popularises the
Gospels; but not for a religious set of readers - nor, we must add, for
readers of thought and sense, whether interested for or against
Christianity, but for a public who study life in the subtle and highly
wrought novels of modern times. He appeals from what is probable to
those representations of human nature which aspire to pass beyond the
conventional and commonplace, and especially he dwells on neglected and
unnoticed examples of what is sweet and soft and winning. But it is hard
to recognise the picture he has drawn in the materials out of which he
has composed it. The world is tolerably familiar with them. If there is
a characteristic, consciously or unconsciously acknowledged in the
Gospel records, it is that of the gravity, the plain downright
seriousness, the laborious earnestness, impressed from first to last on
the story. When we turn from these to his pages it is difficult to
exaggerate the astounding impression which his epithets and descriptions
have on the mind. We are told that there is a broad distinction between
the early Galilean days of hope in our Lord's ministry, and the later
days of disappointment and conflict; and that if we look, we shall find
in Galilee the "_fin et joyeux moraliste_," full of a "_conversation
pleine de gaieté et de charme_," of "_douce gaieté et aimables
plaisanteries_," with a "_prédication suave et douce, toute pleine de la
nature et du parfum des champs_," creating out of his originality of
mind his "_innocents aphorismes_," and the "_genre d'élicieux_" of
parabolic teaching; "_le charmant docteur qui pardonnait à tous pourvu
qu'on l'aimât_." He lived in what was then an earthly paradise, in "_la
joyeuse Galilée_" in the midst of the "_nature ravissante_" which gave
to everything about the Sea of Galilee "_un tour idyllique et
charmant_." So the history of Christianity at its birth is a
"_délicieuse pastorale_" an "_idylle_," a "_milieu enivrant_" of joy and
hope. The master was surrounded by a "_bande de joyeux enfants_," a
"_troupe gaie et vagabonde_," whose existence in the open air was a
"perpetual enchantment." The disciples were "_ces petits comités de
bonnes gens_," very simple, very credulous, and like their country full
of a "_sentiment gai et tendre de la vie_," and of an "_imagination
riante_." Everything is spoken of as "delicious" - "_délicieuse
pastorale," "délicieuse beauté," "délicieuses sentences," "délicieuse
théologie d'amour_." Among the "tender and delicate souls of the
North" - it is not quite thus that Josephus describes the Galileans - was
set up an "_aimable communisme_." Is it possible to imagine a more
extravagant distortion than the following, both in its general effect
and in the audacious generalisation of a very special incident, itself
inaccurately conceived of? -

Il parcourait ainsi la Galilée au milieu _d'une fête perpétuelle_.
Il se servait d'une mule, monture en Orient si bonne et si sûre,
et dont le grand oeil noir, ombragé de longs cils, a beaucoup de
douceur. Ses disciples déployarent quelquefois autour de lui une
pompe rustique, dont leurs vêtements, tenant lieu de tapis,
faisaient les frais. Ils les mettaient sur la mule qui le portait,
ou les étendaient à terre sur son passage.

History has seen strange hypotheses; but of all extravagant notions,
that one that the world has been conquered by what was originally an
idyllic gipsying party is the most grotesque. That these "_petits
comités de bonnes gens_" though influenced by a great example and
wakened out of their "delicious pastoral" by a heroic death, should
have been able to make an impression on Judaean faith, Greek intellect,
and Roman civilisation, and to give an impulse to mankind which has
lasted to this day, is surely one of the most incredible hypotheses
ever accepted, under the desperate necessity of avoiding an unwelcome

M. Renan is willing to adopt everything in the Gospel history except
what is miraculous. If he is difficult to satisfy as to the physical
possibility or the proof of miracles, at least he is not hard to
satisfy on points of moral likelihood; and he draws on his ample power
of supposing the combination of moral opposites in order to get rid of
the obstinate and refractory supernatural miracle. To some extent,
indeed, he avails himself of that inexhaustible resource of unlimited
guessing, by means of which he reverses the whole history, and makes it
take a shape which it is hard to recognise in its original records. The
feeding of the five thousand, the miracle described by all the four
Evangelists, is thus curtly disposed of: - "Il se retira au désert.
Beaucoup de monde l'y suivit. _Grâce à une extrème frugalité_ la troupe
sainte y vécut; _on crut naturellement_ voir en cela un miracle." This
is all he has to say. But miracles are too closely interwoven with the
whole texture of the Gospel history to be, as a whole, thus disposed
of. He has, of course, to admit that miracles are so mixed up with it
that mere exaggeration is not a sufficient account of them. But be bids
us remember that the time was one of great credulity, of slackness and
incapacity in dealing with matters of evidence, a time when it might be
said that there was an innocent disregard of exact and literal truth
where men's souls and affections were deeply interested. But, even
supposing that this accounted for a belief in certain miracles growing
up - which it does not, for the time was not one of mere childlike and
uninquiring belief, but was as perfectly familiar as we are with the
notion of false claims to miraculous power which could not stand
examination - still this does not meet the great difficulty of all, to
which he is at last brought. It is undeniable that our Lord professed
to work miracles. They were not merely attributed to Him by those who
came after Him. If we accept in any degree the Gospel account, He not
only wrought miracles, but claimed to do so; and M. Renan admits
it - that is, he admits that the highest, purest, most Divine person
ever seen on earth (for all this he declares in the most unqualified
terms) stooped to the arts of Simon Magus or Apollonius of Tyana. He
was a "thaumaturge" - "tard et à contre-coeur" - "avec une sorte de
mauvaise humeur" - "en cachette" - "malgré lui" - "sentant le vanité de
l'opinion"; but still a "thaumaturge." Moreover, He was so almost of
necessity; for M. Renan holds that without the support of an alleged
supernatural character and power, His work must have perished.
Everything, to succeed and be realised, must, we are told, be fortified
with something of alloy. We are reminded of the "loi fatale qui
condamne l'idée à déchoir dès qu'elle cherche à convertir les hommes."
"Concevoir de bien, en efifet, ne suffit pas; il faut le faire réussir
parmi les hommes. Pour cela, des voies moins pures sont nécessaires."
If the Great Teacher had kept to the simplicity of His early lessons,
He would have been greater, but "the truth would not have been
promulgated." "He had to choose between these two alternatives, either
renouncing his mission or becoming a 'thaumaturge.'" The miracles
"were a violence done to him by his age, a concession which was wrung
from him by a passing necessity." And if we feel startled at such a
view, we are reminded that we must not measure the sincerity of
Orientals by our own rigid and critical idea of veracity; and that
"such is the weakness of the human mind, that the best causes are not
usually won but by bad reasons," and that the greatest of discoverers
and founders have only triumphed over their difficulties "by daily
taking account of men's weakness and by not always giving the true
reasons of the truth."

L'histoire est impossible si l'on n'admet hautement qu'il y a pour
la sincerite plusieurs mesures. Toutes les grandes choses se font
par le peuple, or on ne conduit pas le peuple qu'en se prétant à
ses idées. Le philosophe, qui sachant cela, s'isole et se
retranche dans sa noblesse, est hautement louable. Mais celui qui
prend l'humanité avec ses illusions et cherche à agir sur elle et
avec elle, ne saurait être blamé. César savait fort bien qu'il
n'était pas fils de Vénus; la France ne serait pas ce qu'elle est
si l'on n'avait cru mille ans à la sainte ampoule de Reims. Il
nous est facile à nous autres, impuissants que nous sommes,
d'appeler cela mensonge, et fiers de notre timide honnêteté, de
traiter avec dédain les héros qui out accepté dans d'autres
conditions la lutte de la vie. Quand nous aurons fait avec nos
scrupules ce qu'ils firent avec leurs mensonges, nous aurons le
droit d'être pour eux sévères.

Now let M. Renan or any one else realise what is involved, on his
supposition, not merely, as he says, of "illusion or madness," but of
wilful deceit and falsehood, in the history of Lazarus, even according
to his lame and hesitating attempt to soften it down and extenuate it;
and then put side by side with it the terms in which M. Renan has
summed up the moral greatness of Him of whom he writes: -

La foi, l'enthousiasme, la constance de la première génération
chrétienne ne s'expliquent qu'en supposant à l'origine de tout le
mouvement un homme de proportions colossales.... Cette sublime
personne, qui chaque jour préside encore au destin du monde, il
est permis de l'appeler divine, non en ce sens que Jésus ait

Online LibraryR.W. ChurchOccasional Papers Selected from the Guardian, the Times, and the Saturday Review, 1846-1890 → online text (page 13 of 31)