R.W. Church.

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

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originates and produces, and that it is controlled by the numerous
antagonistic influences of the world. Crazy women have founded
superstitions; but we cannot help thinking that it would be more
difficult than M. Renan supposes for crazy women to found a world-wide
religion for ages, branching forth into infinite forms, and tested by
its application to all varieties of civilisation, and to national and
personal character. M. Renan points to La Salette. But the assumption
would be a bold one that the La Salette people could have invented a
religion for Christendom which would stand the wear of eighteen
centuries, and satisfy such different minds. Pious frauds, as he says,
may have built cathedrals. But you must take Christianity for what it
has proved itself to be in its hard and unexampled trial. To start an
order, a sect, an institution, even a local tradition or local set of
miracles, on foundations already laid, is one thing; it is not the same
to be the spring of the most serious and the deepest of moral movements
for the improvement of the world, the most unpretending and the most
careless of all outward form and show, the most severely searching and
universal and lasting in its effects on mankind. To trace that back to
the Teacher without the intervention of the belief in the Resurrection
is manifestly impossible. We know what He is said to have taught; we
know what has come of that teaching in the world at large; but if the
link which connects the two be not a real one, it is vain to explain it
by the dreams of affection. It was not a matter of a moment or an hour,
but of days and weeks continually; not the assertion of one imaginative
mourner or two, but of a numerous and variously constituted body of
people. The story, if it was not true, was not delusion, but imposture.
We certainly cannot be said to know much of what happens in the genesis
of religions. But that between such a teacher and such teaching there
should intervene such a gigantic falsehood, whether imposture or
delusion, is unquestionably one of the hardest violations of
probability conceivable, as well as one of the most desperate
conclusions as regards the capacity of mankind for truth. Few thoughts
can be less endurable than that the wisest and best of our race, men of
the soberest and most serious tempers, and most candid and judicial
minds, should have been the victims and dupes of the mad affection of a
crazy Magdalen, of "ces touchantes démoniaques, ces pécheresses
converties, ces vraies fondatrices du Christianisme." M. Renan shrinks
from solving such a question by the hypothesis of conscious fraud. To
solve it by sentiment is hardly more respectful either to the world or
to truth.

We have left ourselves no room to speak of the best part of M. Renan's
new volume, his historical comment on the first period of Christianity.
We do not pretend to go along with him in his general principles of
judgment, or in many of his most important historical conclusions. But
here he is, what he is not in the early chapters, on ground where his
critical faculty comes fairly into play. He is, we think, continually
paradoxical and reckless in his statements; and his book is more
thickly strewn than almost any we know with half-truths, broad axioms
which require much paring down to be of any use, but which are made by
him to do duty for want of something stronger. But, from so keen and so
deeply interested a writer, it is our own fault if we do not learn a
good deal. And we may study in its full development that curious
combination, of which M. Renan is the most conspicuous example, of
profound veneration for Christianity and sympathy with its most
characteristic aspects, with the scientific impulse to destroy in the
public mind the belief in its truth.




XIII

M. RENAN'S HIBBERT LECTURES[15]


[15]
_Guardian_, 14th April 1880.

I

The object of M. Renan's lectures at St. George's Hall is, as we
understand him, not merely to present a historical sketch of the
influence of Rome on the early Church, but to reconcile the historical
imagination with the results of his own and kindred speculations on the
origin of Christianity. He has, with a good faith which we do not
question, investigated the subject and formed his conclusions upon it.
He on the present occasion assumes these investigations, and that he,
at any rate, is satisfied with their result. He hardly pretends to
carry the mixed popular audience whom he addresses into any real
inquiry into the grounds on which he has satisfied himself that the
received account of Christianity is not the true one. But he is aware
that all minds are more or less consciously impressed with the broad
difficulty that, after all attempts to trace the origin of Christianity
to agencies and influences of well-understood human character, the
disproportion between causes and effects still continues to appear
excessive. The great Christian tradition with its definite beliefs
about the conditions of man's existence, which has shaped the fortunes
and determined the future of mankind on earth, is in possession of the
world as much as the great tradition of right and wrong, or of the
family, or of the State. How did it get there? It is most astonishing
that it should have done so, what is the account of it? Of course
people may inquire into this question as they may inquire into the
basis of morality, or the origin of the family or the State. But here,
as on those subjects, reason, and that imagination which is one of the
forces of reason, by making the mind duly sensible of the magnitude of
ideas and alternatives, are exacting. M. Renan's task is to make the
purely human origin of Christianity, its origin in the circumstances,
the beliefs, the ideas, and the moral and political conditions of the
first centuries, seem to us _natural_ - as natural in the history of the
world as other great and surprising events and changes - as natural as
the growth and the fall of the Roman Empire, or as the Reformation, or
the French Revolution. He is well qualified to sound the depths of his
undertaking and to meet its heavy exigencies. With a fuller knowledge
of books, and a closer familiarity than most men with the thoughts and
the events of the early ages, with a serious value for the idea of
religion as such, and certainly with no feeble powers of recalling the
past and investing it with colour and life, he has to show how these
things can be - how a religion with such attributes as he freely
ascribes to the Gospel, so grand, so pure, so lasting, can have sprung
up not merely _in_ but _from_ a most corrupt and immoral time, and can
have its root in the most portentous and impossible of falsehoods. It
must be said to be a bold undertaking.

M. Renan has always aimed at doing justice to what he assailed;
Christians, who realise what they believe, will say that he patronises
their religion, and naturally they resent such patronage. Such candour
adds doubtless to the literary effect of his method; but it is only due
to him to acknowledge the fairness of his admissions. He starts with
the declaration that there never was a nobler moment in human history
than the beginnings of the Christian Church. It was the "most heroic
episode in the annals of mankind." "Never did man draw forth from his
bosom more devotion, more love of the ideal, than in the 150 years
which elapsed between the sweet Galilean vision and the death of Marcus
Aurelius." It was not only that the saints were admirable and beautiful
in their lives; they had the secret of the future, and laid down the
lines on which the goodness and hope of the coming world were to move."
Never was the religious conscience more eminently creative, never did
it lay down with more authority the law of future ages."

Now, if this is not mere rhetoric, what does it come to? It means not
merely that there was here a phenomenon, not only extraordinary but
unique, in the development of human character, but that here was
created or evolved what was to guide and form the religious ideas of
mankind; here were the springs of what has reached through all the ages
of expanding humanity to our own days, of what is best and truest and
deepest and holiest. M. Renan, at any rate, does not think this an
illusion of Christian prepossessions, a fancy picture of a mythic age
of gold, of an unhistorical period of pure and primitive antiquity. Put
this view of things by the side of any of the records or the literature
of the time remaining to us; if not St. Paul's Epistles nor Tacitus nor
Lucian, then Virgil and Horace and Cicero, or Seneca or Epictetus or
Marcus Aurelius. Is it possible by any effort of imagination to body
forth the links which can solidly connect the ideas which live and work
and grow on one side, with the ideas which are represented by the facts
and principles of the other side? Or is it any more possible to connect
what we know of Christian ideas and convictions by a bond of natural
and intelligible, if not necessary derivation, with what we know of
Jewish ideas and Jewish habits of thought at the time in question? Yet
that is the thing to be done, to be done rigorously, to be done clearly
and distinctly, by those who are satisfied to find the impulses and
faith which gave birth to Christianity amid the seething confusions of
the time which saw its beginning; absolutely identical with those wild
movements in origin and nature, and only by a strange, fortunate
accident immeasurably superior to them.

This question M. Renan has not answered; as far as we can see he has
not perceived that it is the first question for him to answer, in
giving a philosophical account of the history of Christianity. Instead,
he tells us, and he is going still further to tell us, how Rome and its
wonderful influences acted on Christianity, and helped to assure its
victories. But, first of all, what is that Christianity, and whence did
it come, which Rome so helped? It came, he says, from Judaism; "it was
Judaism under its Christian form which Rome propagated without wishing
it, yet with such mighty energy that from a certain epoch Romanism and
Christianity became synonymous words"; it was Jewish monotheism, the
religion the Roman hated and despised, swallowing up by its contrast
all that was local, legendary, and past belief, and presenting one
religious law to the countless nationalities of the Empire, which like
itself was one, and like itself above all nationalities.

This may all be true, and is partially true; but how did that hated and
partial Judaism break through its trammels, and become a religion for
all men, and a religion to which all men gathered? The Roman
organisation was an admirable vehicle for Christianity; but the vehicle
does not make that which it carries, or account for it. M. Renan's
picture of the Empire abounds with all those picturesque details which
he knows so well where to find, and knows so well, too, how to place in
an interesting light. There were then, of course, conditions of the
time more favourable to the Christian Church than would have been the
conditions of other times. There was a certain increased liberty of
thought, though there were also some pretty strong obstacles to it. M.
Renan has Imperial proclivities, and reminds us truly enough that
despotisms are sometimes more tolerant than democracies, and that
political liberty is not the same as spiritual and mental freedom, and
does not always favour it. It may be partially true, as he says, that
"Virgil and Tibullus show that Roman harshness and cruelty were
softening down"; that "equality and the rights of men were preached by
the Stoics"; that "woman was more her own mistress, and slaves were
better treated than in the days of Cato"; that "very humane and just
laws were enacted under the very worst emperors; that Tiberius and Nero
were able financiers"; that "after the terrible butcheries of the old
centuries, mankind was crying with the voice of Virgil for peace and
pity." A good many qualifications and abatements start up in our minds
on reading these statements, and a good many formidable doubts suggest
themselves, if we can at all believe what has come down to us of the
history of these times. It is hard to accept quite literally the bold
assertion that "love for the poor, sympathy with all men, almsgiving,
were becoming virtues." But allow this as the fair and hopeful side of
the Empire. Yet all this is a long way from accounting for the effects
on the world of Christianity, even in the dim, vaporous form in which
M. Renan imagines it, much more in the actual concrete reality in
which, if we know anything, it appeared. "Christianity," he says,
"responded to the cry for peace and pity of all weary and tender
souls." No doubt it did; but what was it that responded, and what was
its consolation, and whence was its power drawn? What was there in the
known thoughts or hopes or motives of men at the time to furnish such a
response? "Christianity," he says, "could only have been born and
spread at a time when men had no longer a country"; "it was that
explosion of social and religious ideas which became inevitable after
Augustus had put an end to political struggles," after his policy had
killed "patriotism." It is true enough that the first Christians,
believing themselves subjects of an Eternal King and in view of an
eternal world, felt themselves strangers and pilgrims in this; yet did
the rest of the Roman world under the Caesars feel that they had no
country, and was the idea of patriotism extinct in the age of Agricola?
But surely the real question worth asking is, What was it amid the
increasing civilisation and prosperous peace of Rome under the first
Emperors which made these Christians relinquish the idea of a country?
From whence did Christianity draw its power to set its followers in
inflexible opposition to the intensest worship of the State that the
world has ever known?

To tell us the conditions under which all this occurred is not to tell
us the cause of it. We follow with interest the sketches which M. Renan
gives of these conditions, though it must be said that his
generalisations are often extravagantly loose and misleading. We do
indeed want to know more of those wonderful but hidden days which
intervene between the great Advent, with its subsequent Apostolic age,
and the days when the Church appears fully constituted and recognised.
German research and French intelligence and constructiveness have done
something to help us, but not much. But at the end of all such
inquiries appears the question of questions, What was the beginning and
root of it all? Christians have a reasonable answer to the question.
There is none, there is not really the suggestion of one, in M. Renan's
account of the connection of Christianity with the Roman world.


II[16]

[16]
_Guardian_, 21st April 1880.

M. Renan has pursued the line of thought indicated in his first
lecture, and in his succeeding lectures has developed the idea that
Christianity, as we know it, was born in Imperial Rome, and that in its
visible form and active influence on the world it was the manifest
product of Roman instincts and habits; it was the spirit of the Empire
passing into a new body and accepting in exchange for political power,
as it slowly decayed and vanished, a spiritual supremacy as unrivalled
and as astonishing. The "Legend of the Roman Church - Peter and Paul,"
"Rome the Centre in which Church Authority grew up," and "Rome the
Capital of Catholicism," are the titles of the three lectures in which
this thesis is explained and illustrated. A lecture on Marcus Aurelius,
at the Royal Institution, though not one of the series, is obviously
connected with it, and concludes M. Renan's work in England.

Except the brilliant bits of writing which, judging from the full
abstracts given in translation in the _Times_, appear to have been
interspersed, and except the undoubting self-confidence and _aplomb_
with which a historical survey, reversing the common ideas of mankind,
was delivered, there was little new to be learned from M. Renan's
treatment of his subject. Perhaps it may be described as the Roman
Catholic theory of the rise of the Church, put in an infidel point of
view. It is Roman Catholic in concentrating all interest, all the
sources of influence and power in the Christian religion and Christian
Church, from the first moment at Rome. But for Rome the Christian
Church would not have existed. The Church is inconceivable without
Rome, and Rome as the seat and centre of its spiritual activity.
Everything else is forgotten. There were Christian Churches all over
the Empire, in Syria, in Egypt, in Africa, in Asia Minor, in Gaul, in
Greece. A great body of Christian literature, embodying the ideas and
character of Christians all over the Empire, was growing up, and this
was not Roman and had nothing to do with Rome; it was Greek as much as
Latin, and local, not metropolitan, in its characteristics.
Christianity was spreading here, there, and everywhere, slowly and
imperceptibly as the tide comes in, or as cells multiply in the growing
tissues of organised matter; it was spreading under its many distinct
guides and teachers, and taking possession of the cities and provinces
of the Empire. All this great movement, the real foundation of all that
was to be, is overlooked and forgotten in the attention which is fixed
on Rome and confined to it. As in the Roman Catholic view, M. Renan
brings St. Paul and St. Peter together to Rome, to found that great
Imperial Church in which the manifold and varied history of Christendom
is merged and swallowed up. Only, of course, M. Renan brings them there
as "fanatics" instead of Apostles and martyrs. We know something about
St. Peter and St. Paul. We know them at any rate from their writings.
In M. Renan's representation they stand opposed to one another as
leaders of factions, to whose fierce hatreds and jealousies there is
nothing comparable. "All the differences," he is reported to say,
"which divide orthodox folks, heretics, schismatics, in our own day,
are as nothing compared with the dissension between Peter and Paul." It
is, as every one knows, no new story; but there it is in M. Renan in
all its crudity, as if it were the most manifest and accredited of
truths. M. Renan first brings St. Paul to Rome. "It was," he says, "a
great event in the world's history, almost as pregnant with
consequences as his conversion." How it was so M. Renan does not
explain; but he brings St. Peter to Rome also, "following at the heels
of St. Paul," to counteract and neutralise his influence. And who is
this St. Peter? He represents the Jewish element; and what that element
was at Rome M. Renan takes great pains to put before us. He draws an
elaborate picture of the Jews and Jewish quarter of Rome - a "longshore
population" of beggars and pedlars, with a Ghetto resembling the
Alsatia of _The Fortunes of Nigel_, seething with dirt and fanaticism.
These were St. Peter's congeners at Rome, whose ideas and claims,
"timid trimmer" though he was, he came to Rome to support against the
Hellenism and Protestantism of St. Paul. And at Rome they, both of
them, probably, perished in Nero's persecution, and that is the history
of the success of Christianity. "Only fanatics can found anything.
Judaism lives on because of the intense frenzy of its prophets and
annalists, Christianity by means of its martyrs."

But a certain Clement arose after their deaths, to arrange a
reconciliation between the fiercely antagonistic factions of St. Peter
and St. Paul. How he harmonised them M. Renan leaves us to imagine; but
he did reconcile them; he gathered in his own person the authority of
the Roman Church; he lectured the Corinthian Church on its turbulence
and insubordination; he anticipated, M. Renan remarked, almost in
words, the famous saying of the French Archbishop of Rouen, "My clergy
are my regiment, and they are drilled to obey like a regiment." On this
showing, Clement might almost be described as the real founder of
Christianity, of which neither St. Peter nor St. Paul, with their
violent oppositions, can claim to be the complete representative; at
any rate he was the first Pope, complete in all his attributes. And in
accordance with this beginning M. Renan sees in the Roman Church,
first, the centre in which Church authority grew up, and next, the
capital of Catholicism. In Rome the congregation gave up its rights to
its elders, and these rights the elders surrendered to the single ruler
or Bishop. The creation of the Episcopate was eminently the work of
Rome; and this Bishop of Rome caught the full spirit of the Caesar, on
whose decay he became great; and troubling himself little about the
deep questions which exercised the minds and wrung the hearts of
thinkers and mystics, he made himself the foundation of order,
authority, and subordination to all parts of the Imperial world.

Such is M. Renan's explanation of the great march and triumph of the
Christian Church. The Roman Empire, which we had supposed was the
natural enemy of the Church, was really the founder of all that made
the Church strong, and bequeathed to the Church its prerogatives and
its spirit, and partly its machinery. We should hardly gather from this
picture that there was, besides, a widespread Catholic Church, with its
numerous centres of life and thought and teaching, and with very slight
connection, in the early times, with the Church of the capital. And, in
the next place, we should gather from it that there was little more in
the Church than a powerful and strongly built system of centralised
organisation and control; we should hardly suspect the existence of the
real questions which interested or disturbed it; we should hardly
suspect the existence of a living and all-engrossing theology, or the
growth and energy in it of moral forces, or that the minds of
Christians about the world were much more busy with the discipline of
life, the teaching and meaning of the inspired words of Scripture, and
the ever-recurring conflict with perverseness and error, than with
their dependent connection on the Imperial Primacy of Rome, and the
lessons they were to learn from it.

Disguised as it may be, M. Renan's lectures represent not history, but
scepticism as to all possibility of history. Pictures of a Jewish
Ghetto, with its ragged mendicants smelling of garlic, in places where
Christians have been wont to think of the Saints; ingenious
explanations as to the way in which the "club" of the Christian Church
surrendered its rights to a _bureau_ of its officers; exhortations to
liberty and tolerance; side-glances at the contrasts of national gifts
and destinies and futures in the first century and in the nineteenth;
felicitous parallels and cunning epigrams, subtle combinations of the
pathetic, the egotistical, and the cynical, all presented with calm
self-reliance and in the most finished and distinguished of styles, may
veil for the moment from the audience which such things amuse, and even
interest, the hollowness which lies beneath. But the only meaning of
the lectures is to point out more forcibly than ever that besides the
obvious riddles of man's life there is one stranger and more appalling
still - that a religion which M. Renan can never speak of without
admiration and enthusiasm is based on a self-contradiction and deluding
falsehood, more dreadful in its moral inconsistencies than the grave.

We cannot help feeling that M. Renan himself is a true representative
of that highly cultivated society of the Empire which would have
crushed Christianity, and which Christianity, vanquished. He still owes
something, and owns it, to what he has abandoned - "I am often tempted
to say, as Job said, in our Latin version, _Etiam si occident me, in
ipso sperabo_. But the next moment all is gone - all is but a symbol and
a dream." There is no possibility of solving the religious problem. He
relapses into profound disbelief of the worth and success of moral
efforts after truth. His last word is an exhortation to tolerance for
"fanatics," as the best mode of extinguishing them. "If, instead of
leading _Polyeucte_ to punishment, the magistrate, with a smile and
shake of the hand, had sent him home again, _Polyeucte_ would not have
been caught offending again; perhaps, in his old age, he would even
have laughed at his escapade, and would have become a sensible man." It
is as obvious and natural in our days to dispose of such difficulties
in this way with a smile and a sneer as it was in the first century
with a shout - _"Christiani ad leones."_ But Corneille was as good a



Online LibraryR.W. ChurchOccasional Papers Selected from the Guardian, the Times, and the Saturday Review, 1846-1890 → online text (page 15 of 31)