Christianity in the Process of Evolution
George Augustus Thayer
Berry Street Lecture, 1890
Read before the Ministerial Conference
In one of his fascinating volumes upon the Renaissance in Italy, Symonds thus speaks of St.Peter’s at Rome: --"raised by proud and secular pontiffs, in the heyday of renascent humanism, it seems to wait the time when the high priests of a religion no longer hostile to science or antagonistic to the inevitable force of progress will chant their hymns beneath its spacious dome.”
It is, perhaps, possible only to the latter half of this nineteenth century fully to conceive the hope that the Christian Church which some seventeen or eighteen hundred years ago emerged from the wreck of social order attending the collapse of the Roman empire, and which, like its most splendid temple, was built in part by secular hands, should more nobly occupy the place of the Ancient City in giving unity to the race, to its spiritual aspiration, and its intellectual conquests; that it should everywhere draw man closer to man, and make the kingdoms of this world become indeed the kingdom of God and of his Christ!
True, the thought has from the beginning been dear to an elect few among scholars and mystics. It appears in the endeavors of the early Christian apologists to show that the Greek masters, Socrates, Plato, and the rest, were in the prophetic line. The remarkable authority attached to Aristotle by the mediaeval schoolmen, who drew parallels between the philosopher of Stagira and John the Baptist, making Aristotle the forerunner of the Christianity of nature and John of the Christianity of grace, was an evident attempt to show that the faith of the true Church was identical with the vision of the eternal reason.
Erasmus has generally received unstinted abuse—as the man always does who detests partisanship – for keeping aloof form Luther’s break with Rome, though no one hated the corrupt Church more intensely, or more effectively set its stupidities upon the pillory for all time. But he foresaw that a revival of dogmatic fanaticism was to be the immediate result of the Protest, that "new Presbyter would be but old Priest writ large,” to the lasting detriment of the spirit of reverence for truth and goodness for their own sake. Genuine rationalist as he was, he expected that such a spirit would in due time, if bigots could keep their hands from trying to steady the ark of God, take full possession of the Church. Who has not some time pondered over the difference there might have been in the course of civilization for the last four hundred years of unprecedented activity of man’s spirit, if such leaders as Erasmus hoped for had been raised up within the Roman Catholic Church to recognize that the function and opportunity of Church was not to domineer over the intellect, but to educate and guide the moral nature; if, in other words, the creed of Christendom had been made so flexible and comprehensive that, without receiving a single shock to its proper claim of being the noblest friend of sinning, sorrowing man,- the finest revealer of divine realities, - the Church could take in every principle of science, every legitimate deduction from history, every accomplished fact of politics, as fast as these became the property of the best intelligence of the time? The Roman Church of the fifteenth century, alas! was not gifted with prophecy: it was the child of the worst age-spirit: and all it did was to purge and live cleanly as to common morality. There were no vile popes and no flagrant offences against decency in the church after the Reformation. As to the spiritual movements of mankind, it has been for the most part blind and doggedly resistant. To this hour the Pope sulks in the Vatican, grumbling that Italian unity, one of the most admirable steps of modern statesmanship towards the elevation of man into the divine image, is a rebellion against the law and will of god, and a premeditated insult to Christianity. Thus, in his hatred of political liberty, he typifies that insensibility to the presence of the Divine Spirit in living society which has ever characterized Christian dogmatists—sticklers for the letter of an ancient creed – in the Protestant as well as in the Catholic Church. For Luther, Calvin, and their friends were not much further ahead of their age than was Loyola. They acted quite as offensive a part in repudiating the real meaning of the Reformation, which was on the one hand the restoration of man to his native right of freedom of thought, and on the other the recognition that the voice of God is ever in the soul of man, waiting to be heard when pride, passion, and ignorance will consent to be silent, revelation being progressive, not delivered once and for all.
Erasmus was the type of the genuine seer, of whom there were a few whose voices were now and then heard above the din of the creed-makers and sect-builders. But most such through the centuries only dimly guessed what is now coming to be frankly recognized: that, if Christianity is to continue to stand as the best exponent of instituted religion, the churches must omit from the essentials of Christianity, its articles of standing or falling, many of the beliefs to which until now many liberals as well as most of the orthodox have clung tenaciously. Rather, instead of using the imperative must, ought I not to say that the Christianity set forward by a large number of orthodox as well as liberal leaders as the body of faith which truly inherits the spirit of its originator, and is alone likely to fulfill the legitimate functions of a church, has already dropped a considerable number of dogmatic propositions and historical assumptions long deemed a vital part of Christianity?
The Christian religion is in the current of that process to which every body of ideas and working principles is subject, of adaptation to conditions of knowledge which have never before been so unmistakable in their influence upon the creeds. The changes to which it has been subject have been so many as to raise the question: Is it indeed Christianity which is undergoing the evolution, and not some substitute dressed up by a fond affection for antiquity in something of Christian garb, a changeling in the familiar cradle? Is Christianity, honestly so called, capable of evolution? Is it not rather a fixed, immovable point of view? At least, is the time not close at hand when the characteristic Christian stream, whatever we may find that to be exactly, will so plainly join the larger river of the faith or reason, to which every religious system dear to a race of man has made its important contribution, that it must become simply religion?
The wisdom of the pioneers gave to the mighty stream which divides our Union midway the name of Mississippi: but it is urged by modern geographers that the great drainage artery of the broad basin between the Alleghenies and the Rockies is, in truth, the Missouri, its honors having been usurped by tributary.
There are some who insist that there has been alike confusion of names of religious systems. However this may be, what has been called Christianity for eighteen centuries has steadily undergone evolution. From the simple apostolic creed to that of Athanasius or that of Arius: from the Pauline exhortation to refrain from marriage and secular entanglements, in view of the immediate dissolution of all earthly institutions, to Hildebrand’s summons of Henry IV to Canossa to confess the Roman supremacy in Europe, there is an immense stride. The movement is by no means wholly backward. In some respects, it is but the inevitable adaptation of a religious society of the most guileless, unsophisticated type to the enlarging demands of a world becoming more complex and tremendous in its exactions every day. A fixed and immovable Christianity must have died with the collapse of the Jewish nation. It would have had no word of inspiration for any community except that to which Jesus preached. The actual evolution began with Paul, and it has gone on until this hour.
It is irrational to clamor for the Christianity of the apostolic age as the typical Christianity, or, on the other hand, to insist that the development has culminated in the Roman Catholic Church, with its nineteenth-century assumption of papal infallibility, Protestantism being a pseudo-Christianity. If it were conceivable (as it is not) that an absolute religion could be revealed to some person specially endowed to receive it, the moment of its transfer to another mind less perfect, or to a multitude of minds, would mark the beginning of an endless process of transformation. After the lapse of nineteen hundred years, who is capable of reproducing exactly the primitive Christian faith? And by what authority of reason is it asserted that the genuine Christian type of devotion and morality was fixed at the Council of Trent in 1563, and its final touches given by the Papal Bull, Ineffabilis Deus, of 1854?
The process of adaptation of Christianity to its new world of ideas is going on in our time as it has always gone on. But to-day it is prodigiously accelerated by the modern methods and conclusions of physical science, of historical science, of the sciences of language and of race origins.
The earliest and most effective of reconstructive influences upon Christian beliefs was the Copernican theory of astronomy. This not only undermined many of the doctrines which the Church had drawn in part from Scripture, in part from the current Ptolemaic science, but it also seriously shook the authority of the Bible. The Christian scheme of redemption had, and still has, its historical support in the bodily ascension of Jesus into the skies, and in the emphatic assertion of his approaching second advent in like bodily form upon the clouds. The new science absolutely destroyed that naïve conception of material sky overhead. "Up” and "down,” as applied to the relation of earth to the surrounding universe, are the words of childhood. So the ghostly underworld of Hades, where the spirits in prison waited for the trump of judgment-day, and which was once visited by the Sod of God as a part of his atonement; and the Gehenna separated from Paradise by a gulf, impassable to the body but not to the vision of the tormented, were relegated to the realm of fiction. Yet these were features of the Jewish cosmogony received by Jesus and his disciples. The ordinary reluctance of the mind to replace old notions which very well fit the conclusions of every-day observation by new ones which revolutionize all its settled theories was not the reason of the relentless warfare waged by the Church against Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler. The Church appreciated the act that Christianity, upon its dogmatic side, was challenged in its fundamental pretensions. If Copernicus was right, the Christian Church was a child of the human reason: it was not an infallible revelation of systematic truths. In that battle, the Church was routed. But practically, in its recitation of the so called Apostles’ Creed, in its injunction to receive meekly every utterance of apostle and Master, the Christian Church to this hour sides with Ptolemy against Copernicus. It still teaches the ascent into the skies, the descent to the underworlds, and visible judgment day. But so much the worse for the Church!
The more important effects of the new astronomy, and the consequent new physics, were in preparing the way for the supercession of the idea of a limited mechanical deity by the conception of God who transcends the boundaries of sense, and is immanent in the universe. A tiny world, a few thousand miles in area, was correlated to a local God, and the drama of incarnation had no improbability. But the death of God, the mighty Maker, for man the creature’s sin, when the cosmos was seen to be of infinite extent, with countless worlds probably as precious as our own, and certainly of more enormous bulk and longer age, was a conception too grotesque to be entitled to be called by courtesy a symbol. A recent historian has epitomized the great movements of thought of the fifteenth century as the discovery of the world and the discovery of man, the former made by Copernicus and Columbus, the latter by the revival of passion for classic literature and art, -- a revival which not only gave a new idea of man in the past in downright contradiction of current Christian dogmas with regard to antiquity, but awakened also a tremendous confidence in the sufficiency of the native reason to find all necessary truth. This consciousness of a hitherto unsuspected relation of the human spirit to its world was sure to transform all ideas of the relation of the Infinite Spirit to his universe.
All that lay in germ in these early scientific discoveries has been more fully developed in our later day. Geology has proved that the earth and man have an immense antiquity. Darwin’s Origin of Specieshas shown that there is no impassable barrier betwixt man and the lower orders of life, and hence that there has been no special creation of either man or other animal forms. The problem of sin and evil has thus found a solution far removed from that laid down in the theology of the schools. A personal devil and demoniacal possession in all its supposititious shapes have joined, of course, the realm of superstitions, in which dwell the were-wolves, nixes, and goblins of the mediaeval age.
The stage upon which the drama of the evolution of morals and faith has been enacted has thus been wonderfully enlarged. Presumed special divine interpositions have been greatly reduced in number. The subject of Christian miracles – whether the inclusive miracle of the solitary place of Christianity among human ideas and institutions as a perfect revelation of God or the special prodigies brought forward to demonstrate the peculiar Divinity of Jesus – is undergoing thorough reconsideration. Dean Stanley told his American Episcopal brethren in 1878 that "the question of miracles has at last reached this point, that no one would now make them the chief or the sole basis of the evidence for religious truth.” Professor A. V. G. Allen enumerates among the positions which are to be abandoned "the necessity of miracles as the strongest evidences of the truth of a revealed religion”; and a representative of the Scottish school maintains that "argument from the New Testament miracles to the divine origin of Christianity is justified by no necessity of thought, and is contradicted by every-day experiences.”
Such utterances are the result in part of the scientific spirit of our age, which Lecky has so forcibly exhibited in its effects upon the miracles of the Catholic Church, and in part of a candid weighing of facts bearing upon the historical value of the Gospels, -- facts which have long been singularly ignored. One of the positions of Strauss, which is generally accepted in dealings with modern narratives, is that a miraculous interruption of the laws of nature stamps a story as unhistorical, or at least hampers it with extreme improbability. Every one must assent to this proposition so far as to demand that the evidence for the New Testament miracles should be of unimpeachable strength, -- the testimony of first-hand witnesses of clear judgment and high character.
But, before we ask who wrote the Gospels, the antecedent improbability that any observer in the first century could deal with what we call miracles in a judicial spirit is made apparent when we consider that in Jewish circles as in Pagan, throughout the ancient world, and even down to recent times, the miraculous was the commonplace. So far as the assertion of honest minds of contemporaries could prove the raising of the dead, the healing of the sick, and the control of the powers of physical nature, these miracles were wrought constantly by saints of the Catholic Church. Yet to these alleged facts the vast majority of Protestants reply, "The witnesses were incompetent to see and tell the facts!” But is not this simply an echo of Strauss’s phrase, "hampered with extreme improbability”? The word "impossible,” we are often told, is unwarrantable in dealing with even the most extraordinary narratives. "In the domain of history,” as Balzac says, in vindication of the minute detail in his works of fiction, "the impossible must be accepted for the sole reason that it did happen.” Give us unimpeachable testimony, and we have a law. The same amount of testimony, however, which satisfies us that the Lord’s Prayer or the parable of the Prodigal Son was uttered by Jesus would not beget an atom of faith that the sun was eclipsed or that the dead arose from their graves as a consequence of the Crucifixion.
Who, then, are the witnesses to the New Testament miracles? Common rumor and universal belief are out of court: their reputation is shaken. Of the Four Gospels, only two are supposed to be direct work of the disciples, -- those ascribed to Matthew and John. But that Matthew and John were the authors of these books is so much more than doubtful that the burden of proof lies with the defenders of their genuineness. The earliest mention of Matthew is by Papias, about A D. 150, to this effect: "Matthew put together the oracles in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as best he could.” This tradition is several times repeated in Eusebius’s ecclesiastical history, and is reaffirmed by Jerome. It is as good a tradition is we have in regard to any Gospel. Who, then, is responsible for our Greek Gospel of Matthew? A translation in those days of free handling of texts meant a wider departure from the ideas of the original than now, when criticism exacts some sense of moral responsibility in literary work. Even upon the supposition that our Gospel of Matthew existed as early as A.D. 70, its composite, second-hand character remains probable. The disposition of moderate scholars like Bleek and Keim to reject Papia’s tradition, and still to hold that the Gospel of Matthew is an anonymous book, leaves the question of its competency as a witness to miracles in the same condition.
Whatever side we may take in the controversy as to the date when the Fourth Gospel was recognized as canonical Scripture, the internal evidences are overpowering that its narrative is entirely subordinated to a philosophical purpose. It unites what is practically a new life of Jesus, compared with the biographies of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, with "the Alexandro-Philonic philosophy of religion”; and in this union history is dealt with in the most arbitrary fashion.
The author of the Gospel, John the Baptist, and lesser persons figuring in the story, express themselves in the same mystical phraseology used by Jesus with regard to the union of the Father with the Son. This is one evidence of the free play of the writer’s fancy. But, if the Master’s words are unhesitatingly transformed, what likelihood is there that his acts were treated with greater reverence?
The conclusion of the great majority of New Testament critical students is that our extant material for the study of the Christianity of the first century consists of authentic traditions of Jesus’ contemporaries embedded in later biographies written with more or less dogmatic purpose. That the personality of Jesus can be extricated from these dogmatic embellishments sufficiently to give us an impressive human character and the elements of a lofty spiritual religion is universally granted. But, in the endeavor to assign its proper historical value to original Christianity, nothing is gained and much is risked in tying its moral pretensions to a body of unprovable legends and fragments of literature apparently composed with no such strict truth as our century insists upon in the most ordinary history. In constructing a reasonable theory of the rise of a religious system, we are bound to accept only the probabilities. If its different stages of progress are entangled with many things which we are compelled to pronounce delusions or even willful perversions of fact in the interest of a dogma or of a stroke of policy, it is not our business to show precisely how these errors became so involved in the system. Let that work be for the scientific historian. If I am told that the miracle of Jesus’ bodily resurrection was universally believed by the early Church, and that, if the resurrection were not an irrefutable fact, primitive Christianity is an imposture, I can readily accept the statement of history that the miracle was held to be at the roots of the life of the Church; but I stoutly deny that the conclusion is necessary. What is and what men think they see, or make it for their interest to see, are quite different things.
We are learning in these later days to apply what Matthew Arnold calls "intellectual seriousness” to our study of Christianity. To this frame of mind, some of the so-called evidences of the divinity of the Christian system which seemed irresistible to former days are not likely hereafter to commend themselves.
It it not a commonplace of history that men may be honest, may have keen intellectual sagacity and profound spiritual insight, and yet have much ignorance and many positive moral shortcomings? Marcus Aurelius, Fenelon, Pascal, and Francis Bacon, to take at random certain typical strong minds, will remain great, after we have made all necessary allowances for their defects in judgment or in character.
It is the actual past we want, with all its imperfections on its head, to gain our correct picture of the divine in the education of the human race. In this phrase, the education of the human race,first given us, in its modern meaning, by Lessing, rather more than a hundred years ago, we have another of the great transforming ideas.
The work of the fifteenth century renaissance in kindling reverence and enthusiasm for Greek and Roman literature, as containing a noble revelation of spiritual truth, has been carried on by that large company of scholars of our own century who have introduced us to the religions of India, Persia, Egypt, and Arabia. An acquaintance with these ethnic faiths has taught us to drop the old-time arrogance, born of ignorance, that only in the Jewish-Christian religion is there any conception of God, spirit, and duty which can redeem humanity from sin and despair, arouse generous ardor or impel to sacrifices for right:--
"Which has not taught weak wills how much they can?
Which has not fallen on the dry heart like rain?
Which has not cried to sunk, self-weary man,
‘Thou must be born again’?”
Touch Christianity at any point of its faith, and we find its thought paralleled by the yearnings of other bodies of religious belief to make the life of man a channel of the eternal spirit of righteousness and truth.
Comparisons have become odious betwixt the civilization which has been the outcome of Christianity, or rather has gone side by side with the development of the Church, and the influence of other systems born in the Orient (cradle of all religions) on the world’s progress. Unpleasant pictures of barbarism, of foul crimes, of hideous delusions, of monstrous oppressions, might easily be drawn from almost any epoch of Christianity. Many of these horrors have been the legitimate consequences of doctrines still preserved as characteristically Christian. Occidental civilization is too complex a thing to be ascribed wholly to any religion. Such factors as race-temperament, climate, and relative position of land and sea, helping to determine the preponderant activities of nations, have had quite as important a part as the hand of the Christian Church in the humanizing tendencies of twenty centuries. We arrive at a more just view of the case by considering what would have been the probable destiny of Christianity if, instead of being transplanted from its Syrian cradle into the practical and energetic West, there to obtain a moral vigor unknown to the East, its career had been confined to India and Arabia.
Christianity is a leaven, the effective working of which depends very much upon the meal into which it is put and upon the fitness of the atmosphere to promote the right fermentation. A judicial estimate of the place of the Christian ideal among spiritual forces would rate it as easily foremost. But since we have learned that it has many admirable rivals, none of which we are disposed to recognize as other than the product of simple human thinking, and all of which can be favorably compared with it in many features, not only in their nearness to what we deem the truth, but also in their influence upon the lives of their adherents, the conclusion must follow that
"God fulfils himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world,”
and that his good way of Christianity is not essentially different in its origin or in its sanctions from the other more or less good ways. Such a view was not possible in any wide degree a hundred years ago. Of course, at the time of formation of the theological traditions which dominate Christendom it was absolutely inconceivable. Ecclesiastical Christianity has been in its day as thoroughly provincial in its estimate of the moral worth of the extra-Christian civilizations as Mohammedanism is at this hour. Francis Newman has related how, in his orthodox youth, he was taught to see himself as he saw the heathen by a Mohammedan carpenter of Aleppo. "I will tell you, sir, how the case stands,” said the devout Mussulman, after listening patiently to Newman’s defence of Christianity as the divine revelation. "God has given to you English a great many good gifts. You make fine ships and sharp pen-knives, and good cloth and cottons; and you write and print many learned books, -- dictionaries and grammars. All this is of God. But the knowledge of the true religion by which one may be saved God has withheld from you and has revealed to us.”
The complacent Mohammedan is a type of the vast majority of Christians at the present day. It is not unnatural that the faith which has stood to us for all that is holiest should seem the only divine revelation, just as to the little child there is but one true mother in all the world. But as we learn to know other men’s faiths and other children’s mothers, and discover that assurance of the perfect light and the perfect love is as general as human aspiration and human need, our complacency is merged in admiration of the infinite bounty, which gives of itself so fully to each soul that the soul feels it must have all there is, and yet there is enough for every other. So Saint Augustine prayed, "Thou good Omnipotent, who so carest for every one of us as if thou caredst for him alone, and so for all as if all were but one.”
The Christian Templar in Lessing’s Nathan the Wise exclaims, in reverence for the Jew’s sublime magnanimity under cruel wrong, "By heavens, Nathan, you are a Christian!” Nathan answers, "That which in your eyes makes me a Christian makes you in mine a Jew.” The comparison of religions makes us see that all (or none) must be human productions. The revelation of God is substantially the same in them and in all other systems of thought by which human culture has been furthered.
"Draw if thou canst the mystic line
Severing rightly his from thine,
Which is human, which divine.”
The human is the divine. Revelation comes through the evolution of man’s intelligence. This conviction is forcing itself upon orthodox Christendom, and partially explains the disposition among its leaders to make their last rally on the incarnation in Christ.
In the popular Christianity the incarnation implies the fall of Adam; the hereditary alienation from God of his descendants; the indispensableness of an Infinite Mediator, who therefore becomes God in a man, Jesus the Christ, who atones for the sins of so many of our race as believe in him; the liability to eternal anguish in hell of the unbelievers, the majority; the Bible as the infallible statement of the scheme of redemption; and the organized Christian Church as the living instrumentality for diffusing the right knowledge of this scheme. These are the principal links in the chain of reasoning upon which the creed of Christendom is supported. To break a single one of these destroys the whole chain. Several of these links, depending on historical premises, have been hopelessly broken. Adam has disappeared from the pages of the book of science. If there was thus no fall from original innocence, but rather a steady rise from original savagery, then there is no universal hatred of God and no occasion for a special atonement. If, moreover, there is no Messianic prophecy in the Old Testament, properly speaking, no exact foretelling of the miraculous birth, if the opening chapters of Matthew and Luke are poetical additions by a later generation, and the doctrine of the Logos in the Fourth Gospel is the speculation of a disciple of Philo, the historical proofs of the incarnation are gone.
Many of the positions of the later criticism concerning the authenticity of the Gospels are not yet absolutely established so as to be accepted by orthodox leaders. But there are some who confess the force of these criticisms, and yet maintain that the only refuge of Christian theism from the assaults of the materialistic philosophy is in the doctrine of the incarnation. If this idea of the incarnation of God in man be made a principle of reason, and not a fact of history, if for a man we substitute Man, then those who say that in that doctrine is the only corrective of scientific atheism are upon strong ground. Dr. Hegde has taught some of us that in the irony of Providence the Unitarians who believe in the immanent God are the spiritual descendants of Athanasius, not of Arius. The controversy between the two ecclesiastics was over the old problem of theology, -- how to bridge the gulf between the Infinite and the finite so that man could truly know God as providence, as Love, as comforter and Guide. Arius said that something of God was revealed in his supernatural Christ, but this Son of God was still distant from man, -- not God and not man. Athanasius asserted that God was in Christ; that the two natures were in union; that God and humanity wrought together in Christ to accomplish the divine redemption. The ideal man, then, is God’s revelation of so much of himself as mortals can know. The defect in the application of this Athanasian doctrine is that it does not permit a genuine identity of the human Jesus with the God Christ: it is because Jesus is not properly human, not a struggling, erring will, that he became the atoning Christ.
The process of reasoning, again, which was behind this old solution of the connection of the Infinite with the finite, belongs to the period of belief in special creation. God steps out of his eternity, from time to time, to shape a world, a living species, an individual. This is a by-gone belief. The evolution of the visible universe is now the only doctrine which physical science will recognize. Under this conception the religious mind must believe in the Divine Intelligence as present everywhere in the process of the universal unfolding. As Joseph J. Murphy has expressed it, "The same intelligence which in an unconscious form guides all organic formation and all motor instincts finally becomes conscious in the brains of the higher animals and conscious if itself in man.”
The genus man is as truly descended from an ancestry as the individual John or Mary. Because this lineal descendant of the lowest organic structures (and possibly of inorganic shapes) is intelligent, is good, is loving, it appears plainly that a guiding intelligence and goodness has been implicated in the universe from the first. In these latter days, speaking after the manner of geologists, with whom a hundred thousand years is a latter day, there has arrived a manifestation of that hitherto hidden intelligence in the human race, with its mixture of the base and the angelic, with its "Bursts of great heart and slips in sensual mire.”
The present state of the argument for Divine Intelligence in the visible universe, as I understand it, is that, though the details often seem at hap-hazard, though there is no-where a perfect adaptation of a creature or an organ to its place, but only a comparative adjustment, yet there is a definite and traceable progress, there is a purpose which has worked surely, if circuitously, from the beginning until now. The last result of the evolutionary process is an intelligent being, man; and the lesser intelligence implies the greater intelligence as its source.
The moral argument for God is that this man works, in the main, for good things; he grows in unselfishness, in sympathy, in devotedness to abstract principles of right and goodness. Does any one say nature is brutal, immoral, destitute of affection? We answer that man is a part of nature, and that the finest men aim to abolish brutality, to increase benevolence, to live to bless the whole. In this philanthropic man God reveals himself as Love. He shows that the far-off event to which the whole creation moves is that love of which, already, man has established much upon the earth. The nobler individuals of our race are types of eventual man. These prophets of our destiny do not exhaust, but suggest human possibilities.
In this sense, God becomes the Redeemer of human sin and sorrow. Without these few sublime should, he would appear hard and pitiless (since a great deal of human history is a picture of the foul and cruel); but in them he reveals something of himself, of his holiness, of his loving kindness, of his absolute impartiality and justice. This is the revelation of the spirit; and in its contemplation the hard-beset children of men take courage, and dedicate themselves to noble aims. The incarnation which fits into the hypothesis of evolution is, then, the revelation of God in all humanity, his most inspiring revelation in the elect souls of humanity. Place Jesus where we will, -- where the evidence warrants our placing him in the human line, -- and he is indeed God with us.
Here we touch the essence of Christianity, which does not depend upon uncertain historical evidence.
The Christian consciousness, so often dwelt upon by theologians, is simply the conviction, nourished by meditation, and pure living, that the life of God is in the soul of man, and that Jesus, through his intense conviction of oneness with God, has given special reality to this great truth.
Through the long, dreary wilderness of sectarian bitterness and strife, through the bloody wars, the tortures of soul and body, the suppression of truth, the hatred of free inquiry, and all else that is sickening in the background of Christian history, the redeeming spirit, taking now one and now another dogmatic garment, has been the sense of the soul’s union with God, essentially one with him even in waywardness and wickedness, consciously one with him when most pure and unselfish in common tasks and duties. Such a spiritual sense has been kept alive quite as often by the heretics as by the orthodox. Its origin cannot be confined to Christianity; yet from the New Testament it took its mightiest impulse.
The Christian Church, in its lucid intervals, -- which, I suspect, have constituted a larger proportion of ecclesiastical history than the written records would make us believe, -- organized this sense of God-with-man into great charities, great systems of education, great missionary enterprises, in which the spread of civilization had as prominent a place as the salvation of the heathen from the wrath to come.
When the Church has been led captive by the devil of sensual lust, of lust for secular power, or by intellectual blindness, the undertone of reverence for man, for man’s reason, for man’s right to work out his individual genius, has made itself heard, and done much to recall the Church to its true office of leading man to knowledge of himself and of God in him. When Christendom has had most to say about the person of Jesus, and has been most strenuous in exalting him in the order of being, it has also been most truculent and inhuman, most contemptuous of any divine image in man’s nature, of any divinity in man’s reason.
Outside of the Fourth Gospel, Jesus appears in the primitive tradition as the retiring prophet, whose sole aim is to reveal God; and the legitimate consequence of his spirit has best appeared whenever love for man and reverence for truth of every type have been set above the opinions of the understanding.
To this effect, Amiel wrote in his Journal: "Jesus will always supply us with the best criticism of Christianity; and, when Christianity has passed away, the religion of Jesus will in all probability survive. After Jesus as God, we shall come back to faith in the God of Jesus.”
Certainly, when we remember how many so-called fundamental doctrines, how many so-called premises of Christianity, have disappeared in the march of intellectual and moral progress, -- when we recall in how many instances the moral sense of men, not waiting for proofs to satisfy the understanding, has thrown dogmas to the winds in scorn of intellectual consequences, -- we must come to the conclusion that something deeper than forms of thought or explicit creeds constitutes the heart of Christianity. The faith in the human God is that heart. Whatsoever pertains to humanity, whatsoever increases man’s spiritual power, whether art or literature or science or industry, fits into the true Christianity. Its simple creed of God in man is flexible enough to take in any newest discovery or achievement that reveals man to himself, and gives a hint of some hitherto unsuspected attribute of god. The salvation of Christianity, the secret of its survival when so many poisons have been taken into its first principles. The contact of God and man, their kinship, the duties of brotherhood which constitute the recognition and appreciation of that relationship, the immortal hope because man is divine, -- these are the ideas which have survived all changes of knowledge. They are not of the Christian tradition alone, they are not impossible without the New Testament; but for us, born into Christian heritage, they run their special roots through that region of geography which is called "Christendom,” and through the saints and martyrs who have known no other name than "Christian.”
If St. Peter’s is the noblest edifice we know in which to chant God’s praises and to prophesy man’s glory, let us be grateful that we have so impressive a work of art in which to worship, not thinking disparagingly of the humbler places of adoration dearer to other souls, or scorning them who rejoice that the groves were God’s first and greatest temples, and yet not in haste to abandon the cathedral which has so many venerable associations and so many possibilities of touching the heart with a sense of the greatness and the nearness of God.