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Character-building : sermons and poems online

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done, between natural and revealed, profane and
sacred. But, as "rn^^ holy temple not only the altar
but the threshold is sacred, so in the creation where
God is all in all, each power and element is holy in its
own degree. It is never a question between God and
no God, but between the partial revelation and the
bright, unclouded glory. Where all is speech and
symbol, we may cherish, above every other, the word
or sign that is easiest read; but none the less we may
revere the self-uttering spirit in all. In the book of
God, which is creation, some pages to us are clearer,
but all are written by one hand.

This truth of God as all in all, leads on to the
affirmations of the liberal faith concerning evil and
sin. There is no substance or power in existence
which is essentially evil. Evil is good perverted or
good in the making. Earthquake and eruption
fashion the unfinished globe. The same combustion
which bursts forth in conflagration and ruin is the
common carrier and house-servant of us all. The
same passions which devastate society with crime
are the force and joy, the liberators and upbuilders,
of the highest manhood. Such a faith in the non-
substantiality of evil is not only the highest phi-
losophy, but the joy and courage of every believing
soul. It attacks every problem, grapples with every


situation. It casts out fear. It is never discouraged
or impatient. It believes forevermore that the ideal
is the only reality, that right is might, that the king-
dom of heaven is always at hand.

One affirmation remains, — the relation of the
liberal faith to Christianity. It holds to Christianity
only as the broadest statement of spiritual truth. If
there be any truth about God and the soul which Jesus
has not touched, we would gladly welcome it. With
us the authority of the Master is the authority of
unmatched wisdom and love. If you do not see these
in Christ, he is not yet the Christ to you. Though
you should exalt him to the throne of God, he can
have no other authority than his goodness and truth.

He cannot rule the world by celestial place or
power, but by celestial qualities. His doctrine shall
drop as the dew upon the tender grass.

To liberals, Christianity means the religion of
Jesus, the spirit of his life, the mode of divine com-
munion which his character stands for.

For myself I can say I have never known any truth
concerning God which is not included in Jesus'
prayers. I have never known anything about duty
and love, which is not in his life. His authority is
tliis, — that in him "the thoughts of many hearts are

There are some who feel a contradiction between
the assertion of the authority and leadership of Jesus
and the claim of liberty. I do not feel it. He calls
us not servants, but friends. Whatever errors may
have received the sanction of the Christian name, it


stands in the world to-day for all its Founder died
for, — the highest aspirations for man, the purest love
of God.

Who so ready as the liberal, to believe that a
human soul has lived on earth who fulfilled the hope
of righteousness that burns in every human heart,
who had no wilL^hut God's, no desire but unselfish
love, and could say because of such a holy character,
" I and my Father are one" ?

Finally, we believe in immortality, because we
believe so much in God and in men. A soul that can
commune with God, can never die. Our faith in the
law of progress leads us to expect in another state of
being a fulfilment of all that is imperfect in our
earthly life. But the faith in immortality is not a
leading motive in our conduct. We do not plan or
speculate much concerning a future state. Whatever
it may bring will be the orderly and wholesome devel-
opment of what we now are. We do not believe it
requires any special preparation to die. We do not
think of heaven as strange and far-away. Heaven, as
Jesus speaks of it, is always ready to open and send
down upon consecrated heads the white wings of the
Holy Ghost. We try to think of the life to come as
a glorifying of what is best in this; namely, the ful-
filment of love, the peaceable fruit of righteousness.
There is no immortality worth having but an eternity
of spiritual life, an eternity of goodness, of brother-
hood, of divine communion. And so our path to
heaven lies right through the holy places of this
earthly life. We would look on death and the grave,


not with the horror a perverted Christianity teaches,
but as the little child who feels that heaven and earth
are not divided. In short, we believe in the life to
come, because we so much feel the richness of this
present life that the short earthly term seems incon-
sistent with its generous scheme.

Strange that liberalism, in so many minds, should
be only a system of negations! True liberty is the
spirit that affirms. We believe not less, but more, — •
more of God, more of Man. We trust the universe.
We trust every faculty of the human soul. Our
Bible has no end. We do not reject the prophets of
the past. But we look for prophets yet to appear.
We think the mysteries of God and Man have never
any final expression. Our creeds are always open to
amendment. We affirm that it is the very nature of
the self-revealing God to make no pause in his educa-
tion of the human soul, but ever to lead us onward
into more satisfying knowledge of his Will.


A HUNDRED leagues of land and sea,
A boundless reach of sky,
Closed round the singing soul of me,
And woke this proud reply:

" I marvel what such vast expense

Of power is nourished by,
And how my microcosmic sense'

Such height and depth can spy.

" Yet where my eyes the fragments scan,

Or view the glorious whole,
I find free harmony with man,

And truth which feeds his soul.

Not all your powers, earth, sky, and sea,

My watchful heart appall:
The same just laws guard you and me,

One life sustains us all.


" What think ye of Christ ? " — Matt. xxii. 42.

Critical students of the New Testament have
clearly shown that even within the limits of the
sacred volume different views are given concerning
the nature of Jesus. To the earlier group of disciples
— to Matthew, to Peter, and to James — he is simply
the Hebrew Messiah, the Son of David, and the
Redeemer of Israel, attended by angel legions, about
to seat his disciples upon judgment-thrones above the
"nations," and to fulfil all that the prophets have

To Paul he is the second Adam through whom not
Israel alone, but the whole human race, are to enter
into a new heritage of divine life, and, passing
beyond the power of sin, to become the "Sons of
God," and "walk in the Spirit."

In the Fourth Gospel we see an order of ideas,
expressed in the language of Greek philosophy and
almost without a trace of Hebrew imagery, in which
Christ is represented as the divine Word, giving light
to the world and life eternal to faithful souls. In
this Gospel, as Dr. Carpenter has said, "the Jewish
Messiah is divested of his robes of sovereignty; and


the writer has thrown round him the ethereal splendor
of the Greek logos. ''^

But all these varying conceptions have their origin
in the life of Jesus and the impression which it made
upon the world. The Jewish fishermen of Galilee,
the learned doctor of Jerusalem, and the Greek dis-
ciple who gave to the Fourth Gospel its final form,
each has before him \^q same facts, — the life of Jesus
and the spiritual experience of Christian men; and
each in his own way explains and rationalizes these
facts, to bring them into harmony with his other

Such is the nature of all Christian doctrine: it is
an attempt to bring intellectual order into the Chris-
tian mind.

It is therefore natural and inevitable that forms of
doctrine should be modified or changed as human
knowledge enlarges.

We live in a time when the expansion of human
thought and discovery makes it necessary to readjust
the intellectual conditions of Christian faith. Faith,
indeed, may live on in many minds divorced from
reason. The ideas of men on the subject of religion
may stand apart from all other truth, and permit no
thoroughfare between. But such a state of things
cannot be permanent. A religion which ceases to
think can have no authoritative place among mankind.
For, unless reconciliation is achieved between the
truths which immediately concern the soul and the
truths which lie in the secular sphere, there must be
on both sides a loss of seriousness. If religion is


true, it must be rational; and, if rational, it cannot
contradict any truth elsewhere established.

How evident it is, then, that in any sincere state-
ment of Christian truth we must depart widely from
the language and the ideas of the past! If we still
speak of Jesus as the Christ, it must be only in the
purely spiritual sense of his moral and spiritual sov-
ereignty. The drama of human history, as it lay in
the Hebrew mind, began with the creation of the
world, progressed through the fall of Adam, the call-
ing of Abraham, the separation of Israel, and the
giving of the law and the prophecies: it was to cul-
minate in the advent of the Messiah, the glory and
terror of the Judgment Day, and finally to cease in
the New Jerusalem, wherein Christ and his elect
shall reign forever in heaven. This dramatic concep-
tion of the spiritual progress of the human race, mag-
nificent as it is, can no longer be accepted as literally
true. It has exercised a solemn power over many
generations: it inspired the genius of Dante and
Michel Angelo and Milton; and the hymns of the
Church still resound with phrases and ideas which
come to us from this superseded cycle of thought.
As poem, as drama, as symbol, its significance can
never die; but as reality, as a view of the universe to
be held by thinking men, it is an "unsubstantial
fabric," and must certainly dissolve.

The same antiquated character belongs to much of
the language of theology, even when clothed in the
phrases of philosophy that are borrowed from the
Greek. The metaphysical terms which once sought


to express the relation of the Father to the Son
become daily more remote from the real thoughts of
the Christian world.

The rank of Jesus in nature, his relation to God
and to the human race, are subjects which need recon-
sideration and restatement. Let me ask you, then,
to observe some of the tendencies of liberal theology
in these regards. ^^^~

If it be true that the history of the human race
shows us no clearly marked beginning, but the grad-
ual emergence of human powers, of thought, of
morals, of religion from some dim background of an
animal order : if it be true that there never was a fall
of man, but rather that the entering consciousness of
sin marks a higher level in the development of man's
spiritual nature, — our whole view of sin, of redemp-
tion, and of the office of Jesus in the process of man's
moral education, must be shaped accordingly. If we
can no longer conceive of the scheme of Divine
Providence and the inspiration of a diviner life as
confined to one chosen race, but rather can see all
over the world a reaching upward of the human soul
to God, and that here and there in every land the
voice of prophecy is heard, the qualities of love, wis-
dom, and holiness, shine forth in other true shepherds
of the sheep, — we can no longer, in the light of this
larger horizon, set Jesus upon an unapproachable pin-
nacle, and separate him by infinite degree from all
the "elder brothers" in the family of man.

How, then, shall we make a statement of the place
of Jesus in human history? Did he pay to the Al-


mighty the debt contracted by centuries of sin? Did
he restore a ruined race, or bring down from heaven
some bread of God men never knew till then? For
these artificial and irrational conceptions we substi-
tute a far grander. Jesus is simply perfect man, —
man's moral nature consummated, and therefore
thrown open to the life of God, therefore revealing
that the goal and aim of all the wanderings and the
sorrows of man, is to enter, by a life of brotherhood,
of service, of self-devotion, into very fellowship with
God, in conscious partaking of the joy and peace of
the universal Spirit. Jesus, then, is the herald of
the race to be, the bright and morning star. The
heart of Christ is the deep heart of humanity itself;
and he in his life and by his death is a pioneer in the
higher life of the world. He shows us what man will
be when the beast is eliminated and the human fully
realized. He is altogether man, and therefore Son of
God. He speaks to us in a holy and loving voice,
from which every tone of passion or greed, every
harsh note that comes to us from the scream of the
ape and the cry of the tiger, have wholly died away.
The sorrows which he bears are those which were laid
upon him by the evil that is in the world. The
agonies which so fiercely burn in a heart at war with
its brothers or in rebellion against God were never
experienced by the Son of Man. His sufferings are
the sufferings of love. They have in themselves a
healing balm, and end at last in fulness of joy,
because they lift up the life to God.

How mistaken, then, to separate Christ from the


human race by surrounding him with miracle and
dividing him by an abyss of metaphysical distinction
from all other holiness the world has ever seen! Oh,
no! The Man of Nazareth is one of us, and in the
least of these our brethren, something of his divine
nature abides. His place in history is that in him
we see the goal toward which is tending man's age-
long strife with nature and with himself. The varied
discipline of man's life in the family and the nation,
in the sacramental offerings of toil, heroism, and
love, in the aspirations of worship and the unfolding
of knowledge, — all this constitutes a providential
education of our race, which is leading the human
soul to God and making it God-like. Whosoever
dwelleth in love dwelleth in him. Where there is
the Christ-spirit, — the spirit of self-devotion, the
spirit of faith toward God and of love unquenchable,
— there is the Christ-nature, an Incarnation and a
Christophany which is a part of the Divine Revela-
tion upon earth. We see in much of the language of
the New Testament this ideal doctrine of Christ as
the fulfilment of humanity, the first-fruits of a process
going on through the whole order of human history,
the clear forth-shining of the light which lightens
every man that cometh into the world, the herald of
that age to be when the meek shall inherit the earth,
and all the peacemakers be called the sons of God.
This conception, which is implied in the theology of
the Fourth Gospel and in the higher and freer portion
of the reasonings of Paul, is one that requires for its
support no distortion of history, no impugnment of


rational methods. The evidence for it is not, like
the doctrine of the Trinity, hidden away in obscure
scriptures or in the inaccessible counsels of God. It
is a truth confirmed alike by witness of history and of
conscience, and in conformity with the highest and
dearest hopes that inspire a lover of humanity.

For, evidently, a fundamental question of religion
is, "What is man? " Shall we search for the laws of
our being, and find the key of our destiny, in the
instincts of the brute and the irrational passions of
the savage? Is our knowledge of human nature fin-
ished when the anthropologist or psychologist has
analyzed for us all the lowest specimens of our fellow-
creatures ?

Or shall we interpret human nature by the Christ?
Shall we see the heavenly image God would have us
wear in the glorious face of him who is so greatly
above our lowest nature that sinful men, like Peter
himself, have bid him depart from them, and set him
far away upon a throne in heaven?

The Christian faith is that the true man is the
Christ-like man; that all else within us is passing
away; that everything lower than Christ must yield
at last to him, and be filled and perfected by his spirit.

With this view of the place of Christ in history, as
the author and perfecter of our faith, the question
arises whether it is any added glory to accord to him,
as undoubtedly the Evangelists do, the possession of
miraculous powers over the laws of nature. A being,
born of a virgin, who could calm the storm and walk
upon the sea, wake the dead by a word, and raise his


own body from the grave, must, it seems to me, be
more than human. But the truth is that these mira-
cles which most transcend human experience are those
which even in the artless narratives recording them
bear the least scrutiny, and are evidently the growth
of wonder-loving legend around some original mis-
understanding or sorae spiritual idea clothed in sym-
bolic form. To those who identify Jesus with the
second person of the Trinity, no doubt the claim of
miracle is important; though I do not know why even
God himself, having ordained the laws of nature
beneficently, should suspend them in particular cases.
To expect a miracle for the disciples in the Galilean
tempest or for the weeping sisters in Bethany, — is it
not to question the universal mercies of Him who
exposes all other human beings to the vicissitudes of
climate, and to the discipline of mortality and grief?
But to those who accept the true humanity of Christ
the miracle brings an added difficulty. If Jesus is
our example, we cannot imitate him where his powers
transcend what is normally human. He evidently
accepted all other limitations of our lot: should we
honor him more if he refused to be bound by laws of
chemistry and gravitation and the stern realities of
life and death? Believe, if you can, that without the
intervention of human toil he could create wine and
bread by a sigh or a prayer, that he could restore the
widow's son to a desolate home. Such powers do not
show us what other pitying hearts may do in the pres-
ence of hunger or tears. It is the universal law of
our human existence that the hungry can only be fed


by labor and forethought, and that the death of those
we love must be accepted as the will of God. If the
character of Christ was not formed under these condi-
tions, his moral problem was different from ours, and
his example could afford us no inspiration.

The reluctance which many people and which I my-
self feel in abandoning the idea of m.iracle arises
especially from the fact that the "mighty works of
Christ " so fitly symbolize the beneficent purposes of
his mission among men. To heal the sick, to feed
the hungry, to save our fellow-men in the hour of
peril, and to comfort all that mourn, — yes, to make
even a mountain remove and the laws of matter yield,
rather than that a precious soul should suffer or sin,
— how characteristic of the spirit of our faith!

Let us confess we do not acquiesce in all the evils
under which human nature groans. We believe it is
in the power of a higher manhood and the witness of
the present kingdom of God, that it shall indeed sub-
due physical woes, and make the rude cruelty of nat-
ure's laws subservient to the desires of loving hearts.
Such, I believe, is the sentiment which underlies the
popular reverence for New Testament miracle. But
the true supernatural is the eternal supremacy of the
spiritual over the material, of man over nature, of
faith and hope and love triumphing over the obstacles
which surround our earthly life. These victories of
the Spirit are not won by setting aside the laws of
natural causation. With every will that is strong for
righteousness and with every heart abounding with
love and faith, a new and higher power does enter


into the ordering of human events; but this higher
power does not act lawlessly, does not achieve results
without adequate means. It triumphs over nature
only by using nature, and cannot manifest the law
of spirit except as the laws of matter are fulfilled in
every jot and tittle.

If miracle, thervJbejmderstood to stand for spirit-
ual victory, we do not lose what is vitalizing and sig-
nificant in the New Testament by rejecting the
miraculous narratives in their historic sense. The
central fact still remains, — that the spirit of Christ
"overcomes the world." The sign of the kingdom is
its power to cast out every evil thing.

Certain it is that the Christian of to-day, whatever
his opinions concerning the Master whom he follows,
expects to win his way, to save the souls of men, and
to save their bodies, not by prayer without work, but
by praying and working, too. Going out into the
highways and strongholds of evil, armed with un-
daunted love and hopefulness, he nevertheless uses
every aid of human science and human experience to
accomplish his spiritual aim. Why should we sup-
pose that the victories of the first disciples, or even
of the Master himself, were otherwise?

Whether we say that the age of miracles is gone or
that it never existed, let us keep the faith that mighty
works are always possible. Whenever men follow
Christ in his beneficence, whenever his disciples go
about doing good, burning with devotion like his,
with self-forgetfulness like his, and, as I believe,
with a wisdom like his to employ fit means for reach-


ing his ends, they accomplish again and again great
results for good, at which a cold and worldly mind
gazes with wonder or with unbelief. May no keen
analysis of science or criticism, no negations of liber-
alism, ever deprive us of that true miracle, the source
of all others, — a. faith that removes mountains, the
enthusiasm that counts nothing impossible which is
right, nothing impossible, though everything seem
against it, if only God be for it!

This ideal of a victorious faith brings us to what is
and must always be the central problem, — Where
does faith in Christ become faith in God? Even an
atheist may reverence the moral greatness of Jesus.
As to his place in history and the power of his influ-
ence uplifting the world, there can be little question
among thinking men. Then comes the question
which is deeper than all, — not the old question, Is
Christ of one substance with the Father? but simply
this, Is the Christ-life God-like? is the highest
human love and holiness a true symbol of the power
that rules the universe? They heard a voice from
heaven saying, "This is my well-beloved Son, in
whom I am well pleased." Was that a real message?
I mean, Does the Universe guarantee Jesus? Is a
life and soul like his an emanation from God, — ^not
in the sense that every atom and star is part of the
One in All, — but in the sense that the character of
Christ is a true image of the divine character? Who
does not see that this is the question of questions by
which our belief in God must stand or fall?

Now, as we study the character of Christ, — and the


same thing is true whenever we touch the highest
range of human goodness, — we find in him a profound
consciousness that his goodness is derived. The Son
can do nothing of himself but what he seeth the
Father do. This is the essential quality of Christ's
goodness, — that it is the revealing in him of a divine
will, a divine lov^^nd holiness, to which his nature
yields itself, and is quickened into ever greater ful-
ness of life. As the anointing of the head of priest
or king symbolized the descent upon him of divine
gifts, so the very name Christ conveys this perpetual
suggestion of the divine indwelling in the life of
Jesus, the anointed of God.

Is this inner sense of life from on high his excep-
tional privilege? On the contrary, this consciousness
of a derived and reflected goodness is the distinguish-
ing quality of the Christian life.

The saintly minds that are formed to the pattern of
the Man of Nazareth have neither the pride of self-
dependent virtue, nor the unrest and strife of mere
human struggle for a goodness ever unattained.

If, then, the highest human goodness, when giving
an account of itself, is

" Lost in God, in Godhead found,"

this revelation confirms and even supersedes all other
evidence that we can have of the goodness of God.

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Online LibraryTheodore Chickering WilliamsCharacter-building : sermons and poems → online text (page 14 of 18)