The Christian Progress of a Generation
Berry Street lecture, 1874
Read before the Ministerial Conference
May 27, 1874
The invitation to speak to you came late. I was not willing to decline it; but I could have wished more time to make my acceptance of some use. Let this be my excuse if, instead of bringing light, I shall be found to be the author of confusion.
I understand this to be an experience meeting. It may even be expected that the chief speaker should say a word about himself; at all events, I shall make no apology for bringing to you what is little more than a few leaves from my autobiography.
Let me recall a delicious summer’s evening, thirty-six years ago come July, when I made one of the company which was gathered in the chapel of the Cambridge Divinity Hall to hear an address by Ralph Waldo Emerson to the graduating class of the Theological School for the year 1838. My own undergraduate course in Harvard College was just closing; it was my purpose to begin my studies in the theological department of the University with the opening autumn; and, as you may suppose, I was an eager listener to a discourse which was singularly bold, and made no small stir at that time. Hinting very plainly at much which was negative and destructive, it was also rich in moral and spiritual affirmations; and, whilst it awakened grave anxieties in the minds of the elders, the young men were greatly moved by the words of the speaker. Under the first impression of the discourse it seemed to me that, if I should carry out my purpose of theological study, I should be preparing myself to be one of the last of the New England ministers; for, however I might be fascinated by Mr. Emerson's words, I could not suppose that the old sacred office would long continue to be exercised in a community which had come to be of his mind as to sacred things: the preachers must presently become with him lecturers and essayists. History makes rapidly in our day, but it has not made so rapidly as that; for, as I have said, nearly thirty-six years have come and gone, and I suppose that I am as likely to find a successor in my parochial charge as my predecessor was: indeed, Mr. Emerson, who is still, according to my record, a member of First Church, is reported to have said that my congregation by their style ofchurch architecture have put back the cause of Liberalism at least forty years, which is considerably more than my time.
And I have recalled this experience of my opening manhood because the thing which I then feared has not come to pass; but, on the contrary, has been put much farther off by that very transcendental movement, as we called it, which was then assuming such formidable proportions. I have recalled this experience because I wish to say to you how much more real, positive, and significant our religion has become to me in the light of this very movement. I wish to say, as one who would acknowledge his honest debts, that the positive side of that very transcendentalism was precisely what the Unitarianism of my childhood needed; and that, strange as it may seem to one who looks only at the surface, I owe it to this that in my small way I have always lived and labored as a conservative amongst liberals,— not so pleasant a position in any times as a liberal amongst conservatives. The transcendentalists helped to make it plain that Christianity must be more than a miraculously confirmed Deism; that it never lives long in any generation merely as ancient history; that, indeed, the Divine Providence has provided no place here on earth for the unspeakable gift save in the minds and hearts of living and growing men.
And when I compare the Christian generation which is passing away with the Christian generation which is coming, the increase of Christianity as it lives in the minds and hearts of men is something marvelous. Spite of all that is said, and in a sense truly said, of skepticisms and infidelities, our religion becomes more real in our world every day; more and more it is seen to be at once the root and the offspring of humanity, not to be sought for or shut up in any little corner of man's history, and so grand in its substance that we may be much at ease as to its accidents. Let me in a few words, and only in the way of hints and suggestions, remind you of some of our most modern gains or recoveries in the understanding and use of our religion.
I. And I hold it to be an immense gain that we have come to look upon our religion as a ministry of the Spirit; to understand that, in the beginning, the gospel was not taught from a book, but was committed by faithful lips to faithful men who might speak as they should be moved by the present God. We have found that Christianity possessed and pervaded the world to which it was given, passing from heart to heart and from mind to mind like sparks amongst the stubble: that the Christian body, with its indwelling spirit, is older by a score of years at least than any portion of our New Testament records; and that Jesus, whilst he was careful to gather a living society, and to sow in the hearts of men the seed of the word, made no direct provision for those writings which were sure to be in due time a part of the fruit of the spirit. So far as they relate to any moral and spiritual facts, the Scriptures of our religion have not fallen below the old estimates of them; but the sense which many now cherish of the inspiration of the Christian church formed no part of the heritage of our generation. We did not see, as we now see, how saturated the world presently became with Christianity. That is the real explanation of the difficulty we find, and always shall find, in making up our New Testament canon. Plainly the line between the canonical and un-canonical was not so significant in the second century as it s to the modern Protestant. The early Christians could hardly say who wrote the Epistle to the Hebrews, whether Paul or Apollos, or Clement or Barnabas; they were uncertain about the authorship of the letter attributed to James; they have left very little testimony in support of their statement that Peter was the author of even the First Epistle which bears his name, and it is exceedingly difficult to place historically the pastoral epistles of Paul; but what matters it, they seemed to have said, the spirit plainly breathed through those words; let them stand instead of some which Paul wrote, but which unhappily have perished, a strange fate, by the way, for a sacred book, if it be indeed what a sacred book is commonly held to be! Our earliest Christian literature, as we have been led to study it, has brought before the eyes of this generation, as somehow it did not before the eyes of our fathers in these churches, a living, growing, organized, efficient community, of which this literature is not the cause, but the fruit; the faiths, hopes, charities, are already there; the little books, when as tracts for the religious times they come to be written, rather describe these facts. and take them for granted, and refer to them incidentally, than argue for them, as when Paul in writing to his Corinthians assumes the rising of Jesus as a thing notorious and by them unhesitatingly received, and only wonders that with such a persuasion they can say, as so many of them did, that the dead rise not.
And when we pass from the Epistles to the Gospels, and are surprised to discover that writings so weighted with the immortal words of Christ, and with facts of his life so precious, should be at the same time so unmethodical and fragmentary, and only tell the least part where we long to hear the whole, — old prophecies where we look for recent facts, — and imply all along a knowledge on the part of the reader which the written page nowhere supplies, the explanation is found in our reviving persuasion of an unwritten word, committed by the living God in Christ to living witnesses, apostles, evangelists, pastors, teachers, sons and daughters of consolation, not wanting long in any considerable city or village of that redeemed world. Moreover, what was true in the beginning is true now and will be forever true, — true in the new fruits as in the old, with only this reasonable qualification, that the Scriptures and other instrumentalities which are needful in the beginning of a great spiritual movement may not again be demanded for the renewal and guidance of this movement in after-times. If we hesitate sometimes about the old affirmations as to one and another book of our New Testament canon, it is only because the authorship is in doubt, and we would put first those who were nearest to the Lord. In the beginning of the new creation, as of the old, God said, "Let there be light! and there was light,” and this before the light was gathered into certain particular stars and shone out from great orbs. The letter was killing us; the spirit came again to give us life. We had our Scriptures, and they were read in our synagogues every Lord's day; but, as George Fox said to Cromwell, we had lost the spirit that wrote them, and were in the condition of certain Eastern communities that are said to possess astronomical tables which they are wholly unable to construct and scarcely are able to use. It has been a great gain to find that Christianity was never meant to be in the keeping of the collators of manuscripts and the makers of grammars and dictionaries. The word goes forth from the mouth of God, not from any convent, on Mount Athos or monastery on Mount Sinai; it proceeds froth hearts never cold, by lips never silent; day uttereth it unto day and night unto night. The records are not the society. The constitution is not the polity. By one spirit we are all baptized into one body. We all eat the same spiritual meat and we all drink the same spiritual drink. Of too many of our New Englandchurches of the last generation it might have been said, They have heard of Lardner, and Paley, but they have not heard that there is a Holy Ghost; they hear and see through the ears and eyes of a people more believing than they, they have no share in the gospel which is the Revelation of the thoughts of many hearts. Thank God, we are again his people.
II. As it has been with the church, so has it been with him whom we revere as the Head of the Church. There has been a great gain during years which have seemed to some only years of doubt in our conception of the Divine in Jesus. As the more thoughtful Trinitarians have been steadily leaving behind the Unitarianism which set forth as the Saviour of the world a superhuman man. We are coming together from all sides in a Christianity which sees God in the man Jesus, and so has faith and hope in God. It has been a surprise and an offence, sometimes, when it ought to have been a relief to us, to find that the humanity of Jesus was intensely real; that God took our nature upon him and not some angelic or preter-nature; that our Master was a veritable man, bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh, one capable of growing in wisdom as in stature and in favor with God and man, one whose knowledge was limited, one who learned obedience by the things which he suffered, who was weary at the well, who lifted to God a human heart in piteous human cries for help. The Unitarian of the former generation had lost this reality of Jesus almost as much as the Trinitarian who had lost it altogether. We have been reminded, sometimes very ungraciously, that our Jesus could not be found in the Gospels. We have been compelled by pitiless realists to see him in his human limitations, and to restore to him his proper human personality. We have admitted, somewhat reluctantly, that it is even more reverent to take his own word for what he was than to substitute our own fond imaginations. We see that, however strange it may be, he did love and fear and hope and believe and rejoice and mourn as a man. But what may well have seemed to some at first a loss, turns out to be a gain; for this man Jesus will not, though they call it blasphemy, and threaten his life, yes, and take it, withhold from us the mystery of God in him, or bate one iota of the marvelous self-assertion which assures us that, unless we stand in,the presence of a madman, God has come at last fully into the light of a human consciousness. This is what we wanted. The light shines clear now, from that human face, and the revelation of Divinity is the glorification of humanity; we see that what is impossible for man is possible in man when God is with him. Between God and man there is no moral incompatibility. It is according to our highest nature to be sinless. It is according to our highest nature to overcome evil. The hiding place of Divine power for our world is found in a sweet, simple humanity. In creation God impresses us strangely as striving to create and only at last succeeding. It is so in redemption, and Christ is his success, and since Christ is Son of Man is success for man. God finds us in him.
In this recognition of God in Christ there is rest with large companionship even of those who may speak more freely than we see cause for speaking of much which is commonly held to be essential in letter and form. That testimony of Jesus to a being penetrated and possessed by the Infinite Life of love ecumenizes the world, becomes man's religion; the seed of Divine Life is planted in the soil of earth. How much the Incarnation may have carried with it in the earthly life of Jesus may not yet have been fully ascertained: much less it may seem to some of you than to me. Happily five or six books in the New Testament, certain epistles of St. Paul, have escaped all questioning, and they point to this wondrous mystery of God in Christ with a clearness which cannot be obscured. They disclose a kind and amount of faith in Jesus, a measure of discipleship which lifts the Master who has called it forth into heavenly places. He has indeed done as the Jews charged; though not in their sense of the words, being a man, he has made himself God; and the clearer and more real you present his humanity, the more resplendent is the essential brightness of the Divinity as it shines in his life. And here there is room to add that when the Incarnation is once accepted and verified the story of Jesus as evangelists have told it, and as it was received in the early church, is no longer incredible. In face of all skepticism, one, to whom God in Christ has certified himself waits, confident that the marvels of nature will be seen to be only counterparts to the marvels of spirit, hoping meanwhile that he who said, "If ye believe not me, believe the works,” is equally ready to say, "If ye believe not the works, believe me.”
III. I find yet another gain in the necessity which is laid upon us inour religious times to accept our religion chiefly as a new life in our souls and our world. We are coming to a more intelligent and deeper apprehension of the old teaching that God took himself not simply the nature of one man Jesus, but the nature of all men, our nature. It was at least the beginning of the consummation of that deepening purpose which runs through the ages, Jewish and Gentile alike,— only in the Jewish dispensation more conspicuously, — so wondrously hidden at times, and then coming into more light, until at last the day dawns and the day-star rises in our hearts, and it is the Lord's Day evermore. We understand Christianity not as contained and in some sort concluded within a few months of the Lord's ministry, but as a step forward and upward in the education of man which is never to be retraced, a continuous fatherly act of God. It is a failure save as it goes on, save as it is reproduced; a failure when it becomes memorial and commemorative. It is an abiding Incarnation. What the word was in Jesus the word is in the church. Our religion is the mind of Christ in us. It is the spirit which he has given us. As it spake by the prophets, so now it speaks in us. Had he in his transcendent way a consciousness of God, we are to have this consciousness in our humbler way, still seeking to sit down with him in heavenly places, and to be lifted by the Divine Grace into his perfect light. Our Christianity must speak in the present tense. It must create new words, forms, and methods. It must be able to say, "I know.” It must keep alive the old sacred dialogue between God and man. Its God must not be the Unknown God. It must find not seven sacraments only, but seventy times seven. It is, says Novalis, "the capability of everything earthly to become the bread and the wine of a divine life.” It is a line of light threading the ages. It makes all things new. It is a treasure which is committed to an earthen vessel: the vessel may suffer harm, but the treasure is safe. God comes to stay. God comes to create.
And it is very satisfactory to note that our Christianity as it becomes less traditional and more experimental, less theoretic and more living, recognizes afresh its mission as civilizer and humanizer of society. Starting from a higher plane, finding us in a way Christian, it seeks ways more excellent. It is no more content with things as they are than were the missionaries who carried the cross amongst the nations of Northern Europe. It takes up the great Sermon on the Mount as it fell from the lips of the Teacher, and refuses to have it regarded as akin to the dream of a republic which Plato dreamed. It does not despise prophesyings. It has much to say in the spirit of the Master about human affairs. It claims that there may be such a reality as Christian legislation, that business and pleasure are to be consecrated, that Christianity is to be the life of all our living: it does not compliment the next world at the expense of this world, but holds this world to be convertible. What we call church work, a kind of Christian activity scarcely known in my childhood, is the beginning of this new embodiment of Christianity; it is sure to lead on and out, to bring us into contact with labor questions and amusement questions and education questions, and all the various problems of every day life that are plainly too much for the mere economist, and which can be solved only as we are indeed one body in Christ St. Chrysostom, St. Jerome, Lanfranc, Archbishop of Canterbury, were hospital builders as well as preachers and theologians. The first artists, artisans, horticulturists were monks. Many of us can remember when a house of worship was of no use save as a weekly gathering place for what was called divine service. Nowour chapels and vestries are often open through the entire week, and filled with workers bound in the spirit to finish on earth the work which Christ only began, and to fulfill his promise, "Greater things than these shall ye do, because I go to the Father.”
Now I do not say that the religious movement of our day has been only and altogether into that light which shines more and more unto the perfect day. It has often been no easy task in our time to add manliness and knowledge to faith, to recognize every accredited fact even though for the time the admission might seem fatal to some cherished religious conviction. Truth was never a cheap thing; there are religious times when all the evidence seems to be against the predispositions of our diviner nature, and faith is more than ever the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not only unseen but darkened. Nevertheless the treasures of our religion have more and more rewarded Christian discipleship. Is it not noteworthy that Dr. Furness, after a life-long study of the Four Gospels in the freest possible fashion; finds no more authentic histories in all literature? As I review the years, — years of struggle though they have often been, — I am sure that I should have greatly erred if, yielding to the impressions of that summer evening address, I had turned myself out of the Christian church, and entered upon the good fight of faith as a free lance.
Be in no haste my friends to do anything of the sort. When Goethe was a very young man he was tempted to commit suicide, but reflected that suicide was something which would bear to be put off, which indeed, whilst it could be done only once, could be done at any time. When he knew more of this life on earth he liked it better, and was willing to live to a good old age, and at last would not hear any one talk about dying. Be sure you understand the thing you are parting from. In abandoning Christianity not without stir, there are those who are abandoning what they know less about than almost anything else. I speak not of all; God forbid; most intelligently and earnestly some disclaim our faith; but for the most part these are better Christians without knowing it than many a so-called professor. The temptation to turn one's self out of doors comes far more frequently from difficulties about the evidence of Christianity than from any intelligent discrediting of Christianity itself. A spiritual diagnosis of the self-doomed outlaw would give as its result, "Evidence on the brain.” As our religion has often been presented, it is so meager and so powerless that no endorsement of prophecy or miracle could make us think it divine. A divine thing ought to be known for divine without superscriptions. When it has all been made to mean little or nothing, when it has been comfortably explained away, when its fires are all safely covered, why bring proofs of it? What of it if it is true? Do not go away from God in Christ, because you cannot at once accept all that your fellow disciples tell you about the outward accompaniments of that wonder. Affirm the miracle as its stands forth in history and is verified to your own heart, though you may hesitate about what are called somewhat narrowly the miracles. Wait with Thomas those eight days until what the church calls the Octave of Easter, and the blessed presence shall bring from your lips also the adoring words, "My Lord and my God.” In the recognition of the mystery of the Incarnation as seen in the life of Jesus and in the life of Christian humanity, I find a confession which leaves room for the broadest churchmanship. In so grand a faith one can keep open house for all who will come. By their hearty recognition of God in Christ not a few are kept in the churches which are accounted orthodox, even though they have gone as far as any in rationalizing, and the free handling of the letter, and they honestly belong where they are; because through their one grand persuasion they are more in communion with the church of Christ spite of all their doubts and heresies, than with those whose doubts and heresies are unrelieved bythis Christian experience. Indeed, I can well understand that there are divines who might startle us with their freedoms, —yes, give even to us a new sensation in that way, — and yet would feel more at home in one of the old communions, and in the use of the old liturgies, than in fellowship with an altogether orthodox Unitarian with his jot and tittle Unitarianism of a singularly gifted and miraculously accredited Teacher. Happy are they who are adding knowledge to faith, and not reversing the process; who are carrying on the inevitable rationalizing in the faith and comfort of One who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was found in fashion as a man. It is the faith which makes the freedoms of such men as Stanley and Jewett as harmless as freedoms of those from whose minds this conviction has departed are threatening and dreary. Show me a man who is mastered by our Divine Lord, and therefore calls him Master, and I shall put no questions to him; I shall remember to forget to ask any questions about him; I shall only pray that what are grounds of faith to me may become objects of faith to him; and that by doing the will and work of Jesus more and more all things that are written concerning him may, for all of us, become significant and helpful and a part of the Holy Gospel.