The note of the New Testament is exultant. There is keen sense of present evil, endurance, struggle; but there is a deeper sense of a great deliverance already begun and to be perfected in the future. The heart of this new energy, joy, and hope is love for a human yet celestial friend. This love was awakened by a personality of extraordinary nobility and attractiveness. The personal affection inspired imagination and ideality to their highest flights. Its original object became invested with superhuman traits and elevated to a deity. To trace with certainty and minuteness the historic lineaments of the real man is not altogether possible; but the essential truth concerning him is sufficiently plain.
The biographies which we possess of Jesus were written from thirty to a hundred years after his death. In these records memory and imagination are intimately blended. On the one hand, the power and loftiness of his character and words stamped certain traits unmistakably and indelibly on the minds of his followers. But on the other hand, he was so suggestive and inspiring—there were among his disciples natures so susceptible, responsive, yet untrained, and their community was soon fused in such a contagion of passionate feeling unchecked by reason—that the seeds of his words and acts fruited in a rich growth of imagination, which blent closely with the historic reality. And with the central inspiration of his life there mixed in his followers ideas more or less foreign to him, so that the result in the Gospels is a composite which often defies certainty of analysis.
If we read with open mind the Gospel narratives, the foremost, vivid impression we get is of a personage using superhuman power over natural forces for the benefit of mankind. As he is described, Jesus is before all a worker of beneficent miracles. He is a teacher, too, and an unexampled one. But he enforces his teaching by means utterly transcending the credentials of other teachers. He is a tender human friend, but he expresses his friendship by services such as no other friend can render. He allays tempests by a word. He creates bread and wine at will. He heals the fevered, the lunatic, the blind. He raises the dead. In a word, he constantly exercises superhuman power. It is this, not less than the excellence of his teaching, which has distinguished him in the eyes of his worshipers. What is the wisest word about immortality worth—what do we care for what Socrates or Plato said—when here is one who raised Lazarus from the dead and rose himself? What need for any argument or assurance about Providence, when here is one through whom the very order of nature is set aside at the impulse of beneficent love?
But the growing difficulty in really believing the miracles and the growing preference for the purely human elements of the story have led in our time to a different conception.
The secret of Jesus was the idea and reality of a pure and ardent life. His genius lay in showing the possibilities of the human spirit, in its interior harmony and its relations with the world about it. Love your enemies,—in that word he reached the hardest and highest achievement of conduct. The pure in heart shall see God,—with that he put in the hands of the humblest man the key of the heavenly vision.
The Hebrew idea was righteousness, in the sense of chastity, justice, and piety. Jesus sublimated this,—in him chastity becomes purity; in place of justice dawns brotherhood; and piety changes from personal homage to a love embracing earth and heaven.
Jesus taught in parables. A story—an outward, objective fact, something which the imagination can body forth—often facilitates the impartation to another mind of a spiritual experience. The soul has no adequate language of its own,—it must borrow from the senses and the imagination.
The central idea of Jesus is expressed in the saying, "No man knoweth the Son but the Father, neither knoweth any man the Father save the Son." That is, man is a mystery except to his Maker; he does not even understand himself. And correspondingly, "No man knoweth the Father save the Son:" only the obedient and loving heart recognizes the Divinity. God is not known by the intellect: he is felt through the moral nature. Peace, assurance, sense of inmost reality, comes through steadfast goodness.
Jesus impressed this idea by the figure of father and son. What symbol could he have used more intelligible? more universally coming home? Like all statements of highest truth, all symbols, it was imperfect; it did not furnish an adequate explanation of the workings of the universe. But, under the homeliest figure, under the guise of the nearest human relation, it expressed the greatest truth of the inner life.
Further, Jesus threw his emphasis where men need it thrown,—not on abstract ideas, but on action. His teaching was always as to conduct. Purity, forgiveness, rightness of heart were his themes.
Above all, he lived what he taught. He left the memory of a life which to his followers seemed faultless. And ever since, those who felt their own inadequacy have laid closest hold on his success, his victory, as somehow the pledge of theirs.
Jesus was a Jew, but in him there was born into the world a higher principle than Judaism. The historic lineage is not to be too much insisted on. When he said, "Love your enemies," "Forgive that ye may be forgiven," he brought into the traditional religion a revolutionary idea. Judaism was largely a religion of wrath. Jesus planted a religion of love.
The tender plant was soon half choked by the old coarse growth, and for many centuries the religion named after Christ had a vein of hate as fierce as the old Judaism. But blending with it, and struggling always for ascendency, was the religion of love, symbolized by the cradle of Bethlehem and the cross of Calvary.
Of the Judaic traits in Jesus, conspicuous was the prophetic feeling and tone. He was possessed with an absolute fullness of conviction, and spoke in a tone of blended ardor and certitude. "He taught as one having authority." He rarely gave reasons. If in his words we find appeal to precedent or argument, it is really as little more than illustration or picture to clothe his own intuition. His followers believed his words, either because of some conscious witness in their breasts, or because their love and reverence for him won for his assertions an unquestioning acceptance.
From Judaism he took the familiar idea of one all-powerful and holy God; a moral ideal which was chiefly distinguished from that of the Greek-Roman world by its greater emphasis on chastity; and also the belief in a constant divine interposition in human affairs, which soon was to culminate in the establishment of a divine kingdom on earth.
Jesus woke in his followers an ardor for goodness, a tenderness for their fellow men, and a supreme devotion to himself. His words went straight to the springs of character. He brushed aside religious ceremonial as of no importance. He sent the searching light of purity into the recesses of the heart. He made love the law of life and the key of the universe. He interpreted love, as a principle of human conduct, by illustrations the most homely, real, and tender. Love is no mere delicious emotion: it is giving our bread to the hungry, ourselves to the needy. It is not a mere felicity of kindred spirits,—love them that hate you, pray for them that despitefully use you!
Jesus was the greatest of poets. To every fact, to every idea, he gave its most beautiful and spiritual interpretation. When he speaks of God, his speech is the pure poetry of the soul. Yahveh becomes to him the All-father. His providence is over the lilies and the sparrows. His rain and sunshine are shed on the unjust as on the just. His inmost nature is set forth by the human father meeting his returning prodigal a great way off. His very life is shared with his children. It wells up in Jesus himself: the light in his eyes, the tenderness in his tones, the yearning in his heart,—it is my Father ye know in me!
How does that Divine Power appear in the procedure of the universe? What real providence is there for the slain sparrow? What is the actual destiny of those human lives which show only frustration and failure? Jesus does not answer these questions. It does not appear that he tried to answer them. His words are filled with a glad, unquestioning trust. He is not the philosopher seeking to measure life. He is the lover living it, the poet delighting in it.
The secret of Jesus lay in his sense of the "kingdom of God" within him,—of obedience, peace, and joy, which was in itself sufficient. Simply to communicate and impart that was to spread the Kingdom among men.
A teacher like John the Baptist—possessed by the idea of righteousness, and of the world's deficiency, but without tranquillity in his own heart—could look only for a divine interposition, a catastrophe. John is a sort of Carlyle. But Jesus, hearing him, and brooding the deeper truth, goes about proclaiming a present heaven.
The marks of this inner state defined themselves against the conditions of life he saw about him.
Thus, he shows his estimate of wealth in the story of the young ruler. "Sell all that thou hast and give to the poor!"
Toward the other prize which men most seek, reputation, his feeling is expressed to the two brethren asking chief places: "He that will be chief among you, let him be your servant."
As to learning, intellectual attainment, his characteristic word is, "Thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes." "Be as little children."
The prevalent forms of religious observance he quietly acquiesced in, except where they barred the free play of human charity. Then he set the form aside, as being only the servant of the spirit. "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath."
Such was his attitude toward wealth, honor, intellectual wisdom, ceremonial.
Toward the outcasts, the publican and harlots, his attitude was of pure compassion. Toward the Pharisees it was denunciatory. Wealth of ceremony and poverty of spirit, self-complacency mixed with scorn for others and with hostility to new light and love, roused in him a wrath which broke in lightning-flashes. "Woe unto you! whited sepulchres full of dead men's bones, children of hell!"
In the ethics of Jesus chastity has a high place, yet he has few words about it. His is an exalted and ardent goodness, of which purity is an almost silent element. His effect is like that of a noble woman, whose presence is felt as an atmosphere. When he speaks, his words set the highest mark,—"Be pure in heart."
We may contrast the scene between Jesus and Mary Magdalene with that between Socrates and the courtesan Theodota. The philosopher is proof against allurement, and gives kindly advice, which clearly will have no effect; Jesus, without conscious effort, wakes a passion of repentance which transforms the life. So again we may compare the check which Epictetus prescribes against undue tenderness, "Say while you kiss your child, he is mortal," with the habitual attitude of Jesus toward children,—taking them in his arms, and saying, "Of such is the kingdom of heaven." It is in such scenes as these—in his relations especially with women and with children—that we best see the genius of the heart, the newness which came into the world with Jesus.
While dwelling in an inner realm of joy, he had the keenest sense of the sin and sorrow in men's lives. "He was filled with compassion for the multitude, as sheep having no shepherd." Their epilepsies, leprosies,—the hardness of heart, the insensibility to the higher life,—these moved him with a great pity. Scarcely save in little children did he see the heart-free joy, the natural freedom and happiness, which was his own. The hard-heartedness of the rich, the scorn of the self-righteous for the outcasts, moved his indignation. Thus the holy happiness of his own life was mingled with a profound sense of the trouble of other lives.
His reading of the trouble was very simple: there were but two forces in the world, moral good and evil, God and Satan, and God was shortly to give an absolute triumph to the good.
Among the chief impressions he made was that of commanding power. He must have been full of healthy and majestic manhood. Women and children were attracted to him, as the weak are attracted by the strong. In the storm on the lake, his spirit so rose above the elemental rage—as if upborne with delight by the sublime scene—that his companions forgot their fears, and in the remembrance it appeared to them that the sea and wind grew calm at his word. His strength seemed to impart itself to the weak, his health to the sick. The stories of marvel which richly embroider the whole story are partly the halos of imagination investing a personality which commanded, charmed, inspired.
Sometimes evil was considered the work of wicked spirits,—so especially in cases of lunacy. Over some such cases Jesus had a peculiar power. He even imparted this power to some of the disciples, who caught his inspiration. The disciples, and probably Jesus, believed that this power extended to other sicknesses. Of the uniformity of nature there is no recognition in the New Testament. Man's power over events is believed to be measured by his spiritual nearness to God. "If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed," ye can cast mountains into the sea.
When the soul exchanges its solitary communing for the actual world, it needs to see manifested there the divinity it has felt. Jesus found this manifestation partly in his power through faith to do "mighty works," partly in the expectation of the near coming of the Kingdom.
These in one sense typify the forms in which the religious soul always and everywhere finds the divine presence. Man himself masters the forces of nature, and as he does so has the consciousness of some higher power working through him. And he looks for a better future for himself and for mankind.
But the peculiarity of Jesus—looked at from a modern standpoint—was that he combined the most ardent, pure, and tender feeling and conduct with a simple belief that in the course of events only moral and spiritual forces are to be reckoned with; that man has power over nature in proportion to the purity and intensity of his trust in God; and that the whole order of society is to be speedily transformed by a divine interposition. These ideas were inwrought in Jesus, and blended with his ardor of goodness, his tenderness, his sense of a mission to seek and save the lost.
In his teaching, God feeds and clothes his children as he feeds the birds and clothes the grass. There is no need that they should be anxious about their physical wants. Their troubles will be banished if they will pray in faith. Disease, lunacy, all devilish evil, will vanish before the presence of the trusting child of God. All the injustice and wrong of the world are speedily to vanish through the direct intervention of God. It is the old anthropomorphic idea of God—the idea of the Prophet and Psalmist, wholly untouched by the questioning of Job; become tender, through the mellowing growth of centuries; sublimated in a heart of exquisite goodness and tenderness; and mixed with a visionary interpretation of the world.
What the ruling power of the universe will do he infers from the most attractive human analogy. If even an unjust human judge yields to the importunity of a petitioner, much more will the divine judge listen to the cry of the wronged and suffering. If a human father gives bread to his children when they ask, much more will the divine father.
We are to remember that Jesus shared the inheritance, the education, and the beliefs of the Galilean peasantry of his time. The force in him which winnowed the ideas of his people, selecting and sublimating the higher elements, was an exceptional moral and spiritual insight. This insight guided him far upward in truths of conduct and of emotional life. But it could not suffice to disclose those broad facts as to the procedure of the phenomena of nature which we call science. To the Jew of the New Testament period,—to Paul as much as to the fishermen of Galilee,—the world was directly administered by a personal being who habitually set aside for his own purposes the ordinary course of events. The higher minds of the Greek-Roman world had reached a different conception. Thinkers like Aristotle had assumed the constancy of nature as the basis of their teaching, poets like Lucretius had proclaimed it. But the great mass of the Greek-Roman world still believed, as the entire Jewish people believed, in the habitual intervention of some divine personality. What distinguished and dignified the Jewish belief was that it attributed all such interventions to a single deity who embodied the highest moral perfection, instead of to a mixed multitude representing evil as well as good impulses. All Jewish history was written on this hypothesis. The only records of the past which Jesus knew were the Old Testament and its Apocrypha, in which each crisis of the nation or the individual displayed the decisive interference of the heavenly power. The occurrences which we name miracles were hardly distinguished by the Jew as generically different from ordinary occurrences; they were only more marked and special instances of God's working. That a man especially beloved of God for his goodness should be given power to heal the blind and the lunatic seemed as natural as it was that his loving compassion should win the outcast and his fiery rebuke appall the hypocrite.
It seems clear that Jesus, not less than his disciples, regarded his power over physical ills as just as truly an incident of his character and mission as was the power to inspire conduct and reclaim the erring. What differentiated him from them was that he held the physical marvels of far less relative account than they did. Obscure as the detailed narratives must remain to us, it seems unmistakable that he habitually discouraged all publicity and prominence for his works of healing. His spiritual genius showed him that the stimulation of curiosity and expectation in this direction diverted men from the principal business of life, and the essential purport of his message,—to love, obey, and trust.
The point at which the idea of divine intervention most seriously affected his work seems to have been in his growing expectation of a speedy consummation which should in a day establish on earth the kingdom of truth and righteousness. His earlier teachings include striking utterances upon the gradual development of character in man, the slow ripening of society, as in the parables of the leaven and the sower. Here he was on the firm ground of his own observation and consciousness. But as the problem of his own mission pressed for an explicit solution; as the lofty passion of the idealist, the yearning tenderness of the lover of men, were thwarted and baffled by the prodigious inertia of humanity,—so he was thrown back more and more on that promise of some swift catastrophic judgment and triumph which was the closing word of ancient prophecy, and which seemed to answer the cry of his soul.
The later chapters of the synoptic Gospels are intensely colored with this anticipation of a divine judgment close at hand. The promise, the threat, the tremendous imagery, were dear to the heart of the early church. They fed the imagination of the mediaeval church. But that modern Christianity which finds in Christ the source and embodiment of all its own refined and exalted conceptions is inclined to look away from all this millennial prophecy; to weaken or ignore its significance, or to attribute it to the misconception of the disciples. This modern Christianity fastens its attention on those teachings of purely spiritual and universal truth in which Jesus indeed spoke as never other man spoke. This exclusive insistence on the ethical and spiritual element may suffice for those to whom Christ is an ideal or a divinity. But if we are to study the historical development of our religion, and not merely its present form, it seems necessary to recognize this belief in the Judgment and Advent as a very important factor in the story.
Unless we attribute to his disciples and biographers a misunderstanding almost inconceivable, he identified himself with the Son of Man whom the prophecy of Daniel and the popular belief expected to set up a divine kingdom on earth. The whole story in the later chapters of the Gospels is pervaded by this idea. The powerful imagery of a Day of Judgment, the splendid promises and lurid threatenings, the specific incidents of teaching and event, the overstrained eagerness,—which will not suffer a son to wait to bury his father, or allow a fig-tree to refuse miraculous fruit,—all agree in the presentation of Jesus as absorbed with this tremendous expectation.
That he was on the whole so little unsteadied by this anticipation seems due to his profound, sympathetic sense of the sad and sorrowful elements which somehow mingle with human destiny. He was not thinking chiefly of himself,—not even though he was to be God's vicegerent. What filled his heart, was the destiny of men. He wept over Jerusalem,—he mourned for those who would go away into darkness. The realities of human experience, widened by sympathy, came close home to him.
It seems plain—so far as anything can be plain in the details of the story—that as his mission went on his temper of a pure spiritual idealism changed into a controversy with the leaders of the established religion. He went to Jerusalem, foreseeing that the controversy would there take an acute form, with the gravest issues. At times the presage rose of his own defeat and death. Suppose that were to happen? Still—so spoke his victorious faith—God's cause would triumph. And it would triumph speedily and visibly. So he heartened his followers for any event. "Be prepared—you who are to me brothers and sisters and mother—be prepared even for my death. All the same, my truth will vindicate itself, God will triumph, you shall be saved!"
Jerusalem, it is plain, struck him much as Rome did Luther. Gorgeous buildings, splendid ceremonies, august authorities, and along with it a mass of greed, formality, worldliness.
A solemn sense comes over him that this cannot endure. The disciples childishly marvel at the splendid Temple, but its gorgeousness strikes him as earthly, sensuous, perishable, and he says, "There shall not one stone be left upon another."
His indignation rises and seeks expression in some outward act which shall blaze upon the dull multitude the sense of their sinful state. He goes into the courts of the Temple, drives out the money-changers and merchants, overthrows their tables, scatters all the apparatus of trade. This is the turning-point in his career; he has given an effective handle against him to the formalists and bigots who already hated him, and they speedily bring about his ruin.
The life of Jesus culminates in the scenes of the last night. At the supper, sure now of his impending fate, his willing self-devotion expresses himself in that poetry of humble objects which was characteristic of him, and with passionate intensity. "This bread is my body." "This wine is my blood." "I give myself for you."
The scene in Gethsemane shows the dismay and recoil of the hour when his ardent faith met full the stern actuality. God was not to interfere, defeat and death were before him. All was hidden, save a fate which rose upon his imagination in dark terror. "O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me!" Then comes the victory of absolute self-surrender, "Not my will, but thine, be done."
The birth-hour of the religion of Jesus was that in which he began to declare forgiveness to the outcast and good tidings to the poor. But the birth-hour of Christianity, as the worship of Jesus, was that in which Mary Magdalene saw her master as risen and eternally living.
The impulse which caught up and gave wings to his work just when it seemed crushed came from the heart of Mary. In a spiritual sense the mother of Christianity was a woman who had been a sinner, and was forgiven because she loved much. The faith that sent the disciples forth to conquer the world was the faith that their Lord was not dead but living, not a memory but a perpetual presence. That conviction first flashed into the heart of Mary. It was born of a love stronger than death, the love of a rescued soul for its savior. It sprang up in a mind simple as a child's, incapable of distinguishing between what it felt and what it saw, between its own yearning or instinct and the actualities of the outward world. It took bodily form under a glow of exaltation that knew not itself, whether in the body or out of the body. It crystallized instantly into a story of outward fact. It communicated itself by sympathetic intensity to other loving and credulous hearts. They too saw the heavenly vision. Its acceptance as a reality became the corner-stone of the new society. About it grew up, in ever increasing fullness and definiteness of outline, a whole supernal world of celestial personalities. But the initial fact was the heart's conviction—Jesus lives! Our friend and master is not in the grave, nor in the cold underworld; he is the child of the living God, and he draws us toward him in that divine and eternal life.
To get some partial comprehension of how the belief in Jesus' resurrection took possession of the disciples' minds, we are to remember that during the last months of their master's life he was in a state of tense, high-wrought expectation, which communicated itself to them. Something wonderful was just about to happen. There was to be a sudden and amazing manifestation of divine power, by which the kingdom of God was to triumph and thenceforth to reign. But the way to this consummation might lead through the valley of the shadow of death. In the soul of Jesus a sublime hope and a dark presage alternated and mingled. It is not to be supposed that he held a definite and unchanging conception. Cloud-shadows and sunbursts played by turns across him, with the intensity natural to a soul of vast emotions. Constant through it all was the fixed purpose to be true to his mission, and with victorious recurrence came his confidence in the divine issue. His sympathetic disciples were vaguely, profoundly stirred by this elemental struggle and victory. They too became intensely expectant of some great catastrophe and triumph. After the first shock of the Master's death, all this emotion surged up in them afresh, with their love heightened as death always heightens love, with the fresh and vivid memories of their leader sweeping them on in the current of his purpose and hope and faith. His words were true,—he must, he will, conquer and reign. If he has gone to the underworld, he will live again. "Will,"—nay, is he not here with us now? Is he not more real to our thought and love than ever before? And first in one mind, then in another, the conviction flashes into bodily image. Mary has seen the Master! Peter has seen him! And for a little time—for "forty days"—the electric air seems often to body forth that luminous shape. The story, as it grew with years, took on one detail after another, became definite and coherent, was accepted as the charter and foundation of the little society.
To rightly understand the faith of the disciples in the risen Christ, we must look below the stories of sense-appearance in which that faith clothed itself. What they essentially felt—what distinguished their faith from a mere opinion or dogma—was not a mere expectation, "The dead will rise;" not a mere fact of history, "Some one did rise;" it was the conviction and consciousness, "Our friend is living." It was an experience—including and transcending memory and hope—of present love, present communion, present life.
Sight and speech lent their forms to clothe the ineffable experience of Mary and the disciples. For us, the story of outward events—the visible form, the eating of bread and fish, the conversations, the floating up into the clouds—all this fades away as a mirage. The reality below this symbol—the sense of the human friend's continued and higher life—this abides and renews itself; not as an isolated historic fact, but as an instance and counterpart of the message which in every age comes to the bereaved heart—of a love greater than loss, a life in which death is swallowed up.
The religion of the followers of Jesus became a centring of every affection, obligation, and hope, in him.
For the first few years all this was merged in the eager expectation of his return. While this lasted in its fullness, even memory was far less to them than hope. They did not attempt any complete records of his earthly life,—what need of that, when the life was so soon to be resumed? The bride on the eve of her marriage is not reading her old love-letters,—she is looking to the morrow.
That first eager flush had already passed when the earliest gospels were written. By that time hope had begun to prop its wavering confidence, by looks turned back even to a remote past. Hence the constant appeals to the supposed predictions of the Old Testament; hence even the imagining of special events in the life of Jesus to fulfill those predictions.
The Old Testament as conceived by the writers of the New is fantastically unlike the original writings. The Evangelists found Messianic prophecies everywhere. The writers of the Epistles, Paul and the rest, dealt with ceremonies and histories as a quarry out of which to hew whatever allegory or argument suited their purpose.
In Luke's Gospel we first see fully displayed the idea of Christ which took possession of the common mind, and has largely held it ever since,—a personal Savior,—a gracious, merciful, all-powerful deliverer. It is a gospel of the imagination and the heart—inspired by the actual Jesus, but half-created by ardent, adoring imagination.
This conception grew up side by side with Paul's. It is far closer to the popular mind and heart than Paul's idea,—his was philosophic and metaphysic; this is pictorial. Paul has been studied by theologians, but the Gospels have given the Christ of the common people.
The early church was divided into two parties, of which one was led by Paul, who stood for the free inclusion of all who would accept Jesus as the Messiah, and would impose no further requirement of ceremony or dogma, trusting all to the guidance of "the Spirit"—the Spirit of which the sufficient fruit and evidence was "love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance." The other party, led by disciples who had known and followed Jesus himself, maintained that the entire Jewish law was still in force, and treated Paul as a dangerous heretic. To narrate the struggle and the final reconcilement is beyond the purpose of this book, but we must pause a moment on the figure of Paul.
It marks the extraordinary force and vividness of Paul's character, that in a few pages of letters, in which the autobiography is only brief and incidental, he has so displayed himself that few historical characters are more familiar.
We see him,—deep-hearted, vehement, irascible, tender, self-assertive; intensely bent on the higher life; thwarted in that aspiration by unruly passion,—lust of the flesh and pride of the spirit; stumbling, stammering, conquering; a nature full of internal conflict, brought into harmony by one sublime spiritual affection; thenceforth throwing its whole energy into the diffusion of a like harmony throughout this world of troubled conflict.
We see a mind guided in its deepest workings by the realities of personal experience, but wholly untrained in logic, unversed in accurate knowledge; acquainted with history only through the Old Testament; ignorant of the philosophy of Greece; taught by intimate association with many men and women in their deepest personal experiences; familiar by travel and observation with the broad life of the time, and judging it from a lofty ethical standpoint; wholly credulous as to miracle; wholly confident in its own theories—theories gendered in the strangest wedding of fact and fancy; using constantly the form of argument, which often is pure fantasy; illumined by gleams of spiritual insight, which sometimes broaden into pure radiance; striving always to express the conscious fact of a great freedom of the soul which binds it fast to all duty; aiming at a human society dominated wholly and solely by the same spiritual principle; but often clothing both the personal and social ideal in forms of thought which have become obsolete, so that for us to-day his truth has to be stated in other language, and broadened by other truths.
Where Paul has always touched men closest is in the earnestness and difficulty of his struggle for the good life, and in the sense of a celestial aid,—he calls it "the love of Christ,"—which somehow brings habitual victory in the conflict, and sheds peace in its pauses, and gives assurance of ultimate triumph and perfect fruition.
The main theme for which Paul contends in most of his epistles was vital to the life of the early church,—that its members were not to be held to observance of the Jewish ritual. In support of that theme, Paul develops his philosophy of the universe. The main lines of that philosophy are essentially these: that when God had created man, man's sin incurred the penalty of death; that God chose the Jews as his peculiar people, and gave them the code of laws contained in the books of Moses; that the law was too difficult for weak human nature to perfectly obey, so that death still reigned on earth, with dire penalty impending in the afterworld; that God then had recourse to another plan. He sent his Son into the world, who became a man, taking on him that fleshly nature which is the occasion and the symbol of human transgression, but which he wore in perfect holiness. God then caused this fleshly nature of Jesus to die upon the cross, while the spiritual nature outlived the perishing body, appeared in radiant form to men, and returned to the eternal realm. By this visible sign God made proclamation to mankind, "Die unto sin by forsaking sin, and I will give you holiness which issues in eternal life. The death and resurrection of my son, Jesus Christ, are the token and promise of my free gift, which only asks your acceptance. Accept it, by turning from sin, and you shall receive the sense of companionship with Christ, and the consciousness of a divine power working in you and in the world. Of set laws you have no longer need; rites and ceremonies were but the type of the reality which now is freely given to you. Your sole obligation is to love; your fidelity to that shall constantly merge in the sense of joyful freedom; the imperfect attainment of earth shall issue into the eternal felicity of heaven."
In such language we try to restate Paul's philosophy. Thus, or somewhat thus, he thought. Just how he thought we can never be sure, nor does it matter. The mould of his belief was so different from ours that all which closely concerns us is to discern if we can what was the kernel of genuine experience, the permanent reality and truth, which vivified this world-scheme.
In Paul before his conversion we see the man who struggles to conform to a standard of conduct so high, exacting, and minute, that it touches every particular of life, and who yet is beset by a constant sense of failure and disappointment. From this slough of despond he is lifted—how? By the sense of a love which extends to him from the unseen world. It takes form to him as the personal love of one who has lived, has died, and in some inexpressible way still lives. This friendship in the unseen world is the sufficient, the absolute pledge of a God who loves and saves. No matter what be the theory about it, of incarnation or atonement, here is the reality as it comes home: the man Jesus, highest, noblest, dearest, makes himself real and present to me, though long ago he died and was laid in the grave. This one fact carries answer enough for all the craving of heart and soul. That I shall at last triumph over all besetting evils, that the ruler of the universe is my friend, that earth is the vestibule of heaven,—all this I can joyfully believe when once I have the sense of that single human friend still befriending me in the unseen world.
This was what the risen Christ meant to the early church. This was the common belief that bound its two parties, the Jewish and the Pauline Christians, at last into one. This was what gave the full meaning to all the stories of Jesus told over and over and at last written down. This was what fired the common heart of mankind as not the wisdom of Plato nor the nobility of Epictetus had touched it.
Paul's experience is the more remarkable because he had never even seen Jesus in the flesh. He had borne in a sense a personal relation to him, in the fact that he had hated and persecuted his followers. The conviction that he had been in the wrong came to him with a tremendous revulsion of feeling. The poignancy of remorse was followed by an exquisite sense of forgiveness, which shed its depth and tenderness on his whole after-life. In him we first see the power of the personality of Jesus to touch those who never had seen him.
At such points we feel how shallow is the plummet-line with which our so-called psychology measures the "soul" it deals with. The influence, the presence, the living love, of one who has died,—how paradoxical, how unintelligible, to our human science; how significant to our human experience!
What concerns us historically as to Paul is that he was the conspicuous agent in transforming this sentiment into a moral force. The belief that Jesus was risen had great emotional power, but that emotion might easily waste itself, might even undermine the solid foundations of character. Paul held the belief in its literal form, but it had for him a further significance, as the symbol and type of the soul's experience in its every-day walk. The death we are most concerned about is the extinction of evil act and desire. Life—the only life worth thinking of, here or hereafter—is lofty, pure, and tender life. Die to sin, live to holiness, and present or future is safe with God.
Paul's theology is in one sense a passage in a long chapter of pseudo-science. It is one of a series of attempts to explain the universe from a starting-point of fable. These have been the accompaniment—sometimes as help, sometimes as obstacle—of a spiritual life far deeper than the stammering language they found. And it is to be noted that Paul himself when at his best rises above his theology or forgets it. The words of his which have lodged deepest in the world's heart are the vital precepts of conduct, and the utterances of love and hope. In one matchless passage, he celebrates "charity"—simple human love—as the one sufficient, supreme, and eternal good.
Some misconceptions in his philosophy became the fruitful seeds of mischievous harvests. One such seed was the ambiguous sense of "faith"—the confusing of intellectual credence with moral fidelity. This misconception—which underlies much of the New Testament—was an almost inevitable incident of a religion generated as this was. Christianity based itself, in its own theory, on the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead. This was offered as a basis for the whole appeal which the church made to the world. Thus Belief—or Credulity—usurped the place among the virtues which of right belongs to Truth.
Another misconception lay in the use of "flesh," the antithesis of "spirit," as the name of the evil principle. Paul indeed uses "the flesh" in no restricted sense of merely sensual sin. With him it equally includes all other forms of wrong, like malevolence and pride and self-seeking. But the nomenclature and the way of thought which it reflected put a stigma on the whole physical nature of man. In that stigma lay the germ of asceticism, hostility to marriage, depreciation of some vital elements of man's nature.
Paul's conception of the church never was fully realized. He expected to see the whole body of believers filled with a "holy spirit," a divine-human inspiration, which should of itself guide them into all truth and duty. Outward law or doctrine there needed none, beyond the acceptance of Christ as God's son who had lived and died and risen. Accept that, and the divine spirit would be given you. No need then of circumcision or sacrifice, of Sabbath or fast, of written code or human ruler. The saint is free from all law but that of love; the company of saints needs no control or guidance but that.
The beautiful ideal shattered itself against a stubborn fact. Love of Christ did not guide his followers into all truth, or into harmony with each other. Paul's life was half spent in a bitter contest with men who loved Christ as well as he did. His epistles are full of the struggle with that great party of Christ's followers who called him a heretic and sought to win away his converts. Suppose any one had asked him: "You say the spirit of Christ will guide his followers into all truth,—why does it not guide these Christian Jews and you into so much of truth as will make you friends instead of foes?"
Paul was hoping too much. The new impulse in the world—sublime, beautiful, full of power and promise—was by no means sufficient to lead the world straight and sure to harmonious perfection. There was no such gift of "the spirit" as to supersede all search, all struggle, all human leadership and human groping. That hope was almost as exaggerated as the expectation—with which in Paul's mind it mingled—of Christ's bodily return. The road to be traveled by mankind was still long and arduous.
Any complete history of the early church must deal largely with the stubborn and bitter contest between the Jewish and Pauline parties,—the champions of the law and the champions of liberty. That contest gave its stamp to the epistles of Paul, and was indeed their most frequent occasion. At a later time the attempt to harmonize the two parties seems to have given birth to the book of Acts, in which history mixes with fiction. But we are here concerned only with such features of the history as made the most vital and permanent contributions to religion, and for this purpose we need only specify the Epistle to the Ephesians.
This epistle opens the heart of the early church. It assumes to be written by Paul, but there are some indications that this name was borrowed by the real author. This assumption of a great name, so common in this age, as in the books of Daniel, Wisdom of Solomon, Enoch, and others, marks a timidity, a deference to authority of the past. Only the greatest, like Jesus and Paul, dared to speak in their own name.
Primarily the epistle is a plea for unity between Jewish and Gentile Christians,—broadening into an appeal for unity between all classes and individuals, an appeal for purity and holiness, in the name of Christ the head. Occasional sentences and phrases will sufficiently show its tenor and spirit.
"That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith, that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth and length and depth and height, and to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fullness of God."
"There is one body and one spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is above all and through all and in you all." "Endeavoring to keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace."
Each has his appointed place, some as apostles, some as prophets, some for humbler service,—for "the building up of the body of Christ," "till we all come into the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ."
"Putting away lying, speak every man truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another." "Let him that stole steal no more, but rather let him labor, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth."
The note of purity is far higher than in Stoic or Platonist. Uncleanness is spurned with the horror which pure love and holiness inspire.
"Fornication, and all uncleanness or covetousness, let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints. Neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting, which are not becoming, but rather giving of thanks. For this ye know, that no whoremonger nor unclean person nor covetous man, who is an idolater, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no man deceive you with vain words, for because of these things cometh the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience." "Be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess, but be filled with the spirit."
There is a tender exhortation to husband and wife, based on the likeness of their union to Christ and his church. There is a special word to children, servants, masters. The sweetness is matched by the strength. "Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might."
The epistle is full of the spirit of a present heaven. There is scarcely any thought of the future, no reference to the second coming, no dwelling on the hereafter. It is all-sufficient, all-uniting love,—Christ, a spiritual presence, as the head—God the Father of all. The love of Christ is a pure spiritual passion. There is no theorizing about him, not even much personal distinctness,—only the consciousness as of some celestial personality. The seen and unseen worlds seem to blend in a common atmosphere.
Even as an ideal, this transcends the philosophy of Epictetus, and outshines the vision of Plato. As one of the charter documents of a society which had come into an actual existence,—as the aim toward which thousands of men and women were struggling, however imperfectly,—it marks the coming of a new life into the world.
The Pauline idea of Christ is shown as it worked itself out in the brain and heart of Paul himself. In the Fourth Gospel we have, not the experience of an individual, but an idealized portrait of the Master.
The germ may have lain in some genuine tradition of his words, as they were caught and treasured by some disciple more susceptible than the rest to the mystical and contemplative element in Jesus. These words, handed down through congenial spirits, and deeply brooded; these ideas caught by minds schooled in the blending of Hebraic with Platonic thought,—minds accustomed to rely on the contemplative imagination as the discloser of absolute truth; the waning of the hope of Messiah's return in the clouds; the growth in its place of a personal and interior communion with the divine beauty and glory as imaged in Jesus; a temper almost indifferent to outward event, too full of present emotion to strain anxiously toward a future, yet confident of a transcendent future in due season; an assumption that in this belief lay the sole good and hope of humanity, and that the rejection of this was an impulse of the evil principle warring against God; the crystallization of these memories, hopes, and beliefs into a dramatic portraiture of acts and words appropriate to Christ as so conceived; a temper in which a portraiture so inspired was identified with actual and absolute truth—some such genesis we may suppose for the Gospel which bears the name of John.
The writer shows no such close contact with the actual struggle of life as vivifies the other biographies of Jesus and the impassioned pleadings of Paul. He is a pure and lofty soul, but he writes as if in seclusion from the world. His favorite words are abstract and general. The parable and precept of the early gospels give place to polemic and metaphysic disquisition. The Christian communities for which he writes have left behind them the sharp antagonisms of the first generation, and have drawn together into a harmonious society, strong in their mutual affection, their inspiring faith, and their rule of life, and facing together the cruelty of the persecutor and the scorn of the philosopher. To this writer, all who are outside of the Christian fold and the Christian belief seem leagued together by the power of evil. The secret of their perversity and the seal of their doom is unbelief. Let them accept the Christ he portrays, and good shall supplant evil in their hearts. The ground of the acceptance is to be simply the self-evident beauty and therefore the self-evident truth of the Christ here set forth.
And so we have a portrayal of Christ which at many points profoundly appeals to the heart, yet which constantly dissipates into a metaphysical mythology; together with the admonition that only a full belief can save the soul and the world from ruin. The ethical and emotional elements of the new religion have thoroughly fused with the elements of dogma and exclusiveness.
A kind of self-exaltation is by this writer imputed to Jesus, which is as much less attractive than his attitude in the Synoptics as it is less genuine. "All that ever came before me are thieves and robbers"—this is the word of an idolatrous worshiper; far different from him whose only sense of superiority was expressed in a longing to impart his own treasure: "Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest."
But the writer rises to a lofty plane where he conceives the parting words of Jesus to his friends. Here he is on the ground of what we know did in some wise really happen—a last interview between the Master and his disciples, when clouds of defeat and death lowered close before him, and his words deepened in their hearts the devotion which animated all their after-lives. That parting scene, preserved elsewhere in delineations brief and impressive, was now expanded by the brooding, creative thought of some one in closest sympathy with the occasion and with the vital impulse it had given. Literal and historical fidelity the description may lack, but it is in close accord with the realities of experience. The tender assurances, the prophecies beyond hope, which the Master is here supposed to speak, had indeed been fulfilled. The loss of his earthly presence had been more than made good to those in whose lives he had been felt as a saving power. The Comforter had truly come. The mutual love of the disciples, and their loyalty to the Master as they understood him, had planted a new social force in the world, and was working slowly to transform the world. Thoughts which had been the possession of philosophers in the schools were become working forces in the lives of common men and women and children. That deliverance from the fear of death which thinkers had vainly sought had been won even by the poor and lowly. All this and more was set forth as in a psalm or prophecy, in the parting words ascribed to Christ.
"Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you, not as the world giveth give I unto you." "Ye shall see me again, and your hearts shall rejoice, and your joy no man taketh from you."
The predominant notes of the New Testament are tenderness and ardor, but inwrought with these is a vein of terror and sometimes of fierce wrath. It is like the denunciation in the Old Testament, to which the vision of a future world has added a more lurid hue. "Asia's rancor" has not disappeared, even in the presence of "Bethlehem's heart." Among the words attributed to Jesus are the threat of that perdition where the worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched. To him is ascribed (whether truly or not) the story of Dives in hell, and father Abraham in whose bosom Lazarus is reposing denies even his prayer for a drop of water to cool his tongue. Here is the germ of all the horrors of the mediaeval imagination. The germs bore an early fruitage in that book which bears the name of "Revelation." It mirrors the passions which spring up amid the heats of faction and of persecution. Fell hatred fills its pages for the persecutor and for the heretic. The few gleams of Paradise for the saved are pale in comparison with the ghastly terrors. It is the first full outbreak of that disease of the imagination, bred of disease of the heart, which was to be the curse of Christianity.
We have dwelt upon the central facts and ideas in which Christianity took its rise. We shall pass with a few brief glances over a tract of many centuries. Our special concern in this work is with the birth-periods of the vital and lasting principles of man's higher life. One such phase was the Greek-Roman philosophy of which the best outcome was Stoicism. Another critical era was the birth of Christianity from its immediate lineage of Judaism. The next great epoch is the marriage of rational knowledge with the spiritual life—which is the story of these last centuries, in mid-action of which we are standing.
Viewing man's higher life upon its intellectual side, the common characteristic of the period between the time of the Apostles and our immediate forefathers is the prevalence of what may be called the Christian mythology. In other words, the moral rules and spiritual ideals were almost inextricably bound up with and based upon the conception of a supernatural world, certainly and definitely known, and disclosed to mankind through a series of revelations which centred in the incarnation of God in the man Jesus Christ. Upon this basis was reared a vast intellectual and imaginative structure—embodied in many creeds, pictured in visions of Dante and Milton and Bunyan, enforced by multitudinous appeals to emotion and reason, to love, hope, and terror.
It is the dissolving of this elaborate supernaturalism, and the growth of a different conception of the spiritual life, which is now going on before our eyes. To measure the essential significance of the change, we need not linger long upon the successive steps by which the mythology expanded and solidified itself. We have seen its germs in the story of Judaism, of Jesus and his immediate successors. The method and nature of its growth may be briefly indicated.
We are following only a single thread in the vast web of history. All the threads work in together, but we must be well content if we can trace the general line of one or two. It is the history of the moral ideas which have most directly and closely influenced the life of men, that we are trying to pursue. There was a wonderful embodiment and outshining of such ideas in the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. The truth he taught and lived was in some ways made more applicable and transmissible by his followers, and in some ways lowered. There grew up the society of the Christian church. Gradually it took its place among the important forces of the Roman empire. It won at last the nominal allegiance of the civilized world. Aiding or thwarting it, coloring and changing it, were a thousand influences,—side-currents from other religions and philosophies, social changes, Roman law and tradition, the new life of the barbarians; old ingrained habits of blood and brain; the constant push of primal instincts—hunger and sex; tides of war and trade and industry; slavery and serfdom; strong human personalities, swaying a little the tide that bore them; all the myriad forces that are always at work in history.
One can scarcely pass by a leap of thought from the age of Paul to the age of Dante without an instant's glance at the intervening tract. There are the early Christian communities, bound together by tender ties of brotherhood; storms of persecution fanning high the flame of courage and faith; a new purity and sweetness of domestic life spreading itself like the coming of the dawn. There are wild vagaries of the mind, taking shape in fantastic heresies. There is the degeneracy of a faith held in pureness and peril into a popular and fashionable religion. There are enthroned monsters like Nero and Commodus; "Christian" emperors, like Constantine, ambitious, crafty, and blood-guilty; and noble "heathen" emperors like Trajan and Aurelius. There is the peace of the Empire in its best days, with some wide diffusion of prosperity and content. There are incursions of barbarians—the strange, little-known life of nomadic tribes—with pristine virtues of valor and chastity, half-pictured, half-imagined, by Tacitus. There is conquest, rapine, subjugation, suffering. There are ages in which violence is master, and in the disordered struggle of the violent among themselves the weak are trampled under foot. There are scenes of humble happiness and content, the toiler in the fields, the family about the hearth-stone, which scarcely are seen by the chronicler busy with kings and popes. There are superstitions and mummeries; wild fears of spectres and devils; sentimental piety handed with cruelty and debauchery. There are inward struggles, sorrows, achievements; rapturous glimpses, tender consolations; the ministry of faithful priests; the comforting of women and the purifying of men by the thought of the Virgin Mother and the saints. There are civilizers in state and church,—Alfred, Charlemagne, Hildebrand. There is the emergence of a social and ecclesiastical order; the ranking of kings, barons, and vassals; of priests, bishops, and popes; the establishment of laws and charters; the growth of liturgies and cathedrals.
The contrast is great between the simplicity of a high moral ideal, like that of Jesus or Paul, which claims, and with such show of reason and right, the whole allegiance of man, and the vast complexity of good and evil in which the ideal works only as one obscure and partial element. How simple, how clear, how sweetly inviting sounds the call,—how strange and discordant the response!
That inconsistency was explained by the church fathers, like Augustine, as due to the inherent badness of human nature. That universal badness flowed from one sin of the common ancestor. That sin was induced by the machinations of Satan, arch-enemy of God, and practically dividing the rule of the universe with him. A logical and symmetrical explanation in its day, but it no longer explains.
Neither does it explain, but it may profit, if the wondering inquirer turns his thoughts for a moment on his personal history. He has had his hours of clear vision and high resolve,—why have they borne such poor fruit in his actual life? His own riddle is one with the riddle of history.
Again we may say, with no pretense of probing the mystery in its depths, but as gaining a touch of side-light, it is plain that what we look at as the strictly moral forces of mankind—the clear thinking, the definite purpose, the pure aspiration—must be reckoned with as only a part of the volume of force that carries along the individual and the race. Other elements of that force are the physical needs; the push and play of passions ingrained in human nature; the inherited bias; the strength of habits formed before childhood had begun to reflect,—the thousand forces which blend with reason and choice to make up our destiny. Man's noblest aim is to make reason and purpose the rulers in his little republic, but at the best those rulers must deal with a set of very vigorous and often mutinous subjects.
Let us not at least wonder, though for the moment we sigh, that neither did the kingdom of God at once establish itself on earth, as Jesus hoped, nor did the Spirit guide mankind by a brief and sure path into full felicity and holiness, as Paul hoped.
The disappointment is a blank contradiction only for those who assume a superhuman revelation in Scripture or in church, and then have to reconcile this infallibility with that most fallible groping by which alone mankind gets along. Unembarrassed at least by that difficulty, let us note one natural cause of the imperfect progress of Christianity, namely, the substitution of fancy for clear and sound knowledge of nature and man, which was inwrought from the beginning in its creed.
We may recall the piercing question of Socrates, "Can virtue be taught?" Can the best life be so clearly shown and so skillfully inculcated, that it may be transmitted from man to man and from generation to generation as surely and safely as the knowledge of a mechanical art or a physical science? Socrates owned that he knew of no such way to teach virtue,—that while Pericles could teach his son to be a good horseman, he could not so guide him but that he became a bad man,—and Socrates himself found no sure way to guide men into the heroic path he walked himself.
Now Christianity offered a sort of knowledge as the proper training to produce virtue. Its knowledge included certain genuine and precious elements, such as the essential blessedness of purity and love; the trust and peace which flow from duty done; the hope which springs from the grave of a holy man;—ideas not new in substance, but wonderfully vivified and vitalized. But along with this genuine knowledge, Christianity blended in ever-growing volume a pseudo-knowledge. It had a professed explanation of the nature of Deity, the nature of humanity, and their mutual relation, which was so unreal that when applied to the conduct of human life its fruit was often as ashes and the east wind.
To sum up the method by which Christianity wrought: its vital ideas of character were infolded in a triple crust of Authority, Ceremony, Dogma. Its ideas could scarcely have been propagated except under some such incrustation. Pure gold must be mixed with alloy before it can be worked. The new society would have quickly dissolved into chaos if it had not had established laws and usages and discipline and rulers. The craving of the average man for definite symbols fastened eagerly on the cleansing water of baptism and the bread and wine of the love-feast. The thoughtful mind must needs seek to assign to the Master his true place and relation as between God and man. Here were the germs of hierarchy, ceremonial, and dogma. Internal order, self-protection against persecuting emperors and then against barbarian invaders, led to a gradual strengthening and perfecting of the organization. The craving for intellectual consistency and symmetry urged on the elaboration of the creed.
That development of the Christian creed,—in one view, how natural and inevitable a process; yet what enormous waste of intellect, what diversion from sound inquiry! The original hypothesis being pure fancy, all the ingenious deductions are mere excursions into cloudland.
We need not follow in any detail these speculations. A certain purity and loftiness marks their early stages, in which the Greek theologians were occupied in blending a sort of Platonic theory of deity with the historic fact of a noble human personality. With the emergence of the church from persecution to power, we see that the intellectual degeneracy has set in along with the moral. The first great council, that of Nicaea, occupied itself in settling by a majority of votes whether Christ was of like substance with the Father or of the same substance with the Father. The assertion of his full equality was in due time followed by a similar definition of the personality and equality of the Holy Spirit, with the full doctrine of the Trinity; the double nature of Christ; the rank of the Virgin Mary. The authoritative interpretation of human nature had its source in the personal experience and later theorizing of Augustine. Himself emergent after long struggles from the tyranny of evil desire, by a transcendent experience in which he saw the hand of God,—he in effect generalized from this to the inherent and utter depravity of all mankind, and its entire dependence on a divine grace which might with equal justice be given or withheld. The lurid hell which had always shared with a radiant heaven the imagination of the church took from Augustine a grimmer horror: in the fearful thought of men, its foundations were now deep sunk in eternal justice, man being himself from birth a wretch so abominable that hell was his natural destiny, save as mercy might by inscrutable selection deliver some portion of mankind.
Later ages brought their own problems. What was the nature of the atonement,—a compact between God and the Devil, by which Christ was made a ransom for man, the Devil being unexpectedly cheated of his pay? Or was Christ's death simply the transfer of a debt on the books of divine justice? The sacraments, again, what was their precise nature? And so the scheme was worked out in all its details.
The triune God, Father, Son, and Spirit; a hierarchy of angels; the creation of man, his seduction by a revolted and fallen angel, and the exposure of his entire posterity to the just retribution of everlasting misery; an arrangement between the persons of the Trinity by which the incarnation and death of the Son became a ransom for mankind; the establishment by Christ of a visible church, divinely guided to reveal to men the truth, and impart to them the divine grace; the offer of salvation upon condition of faith, repentance, and obedience; sacraments which were channels of divine grace; an endless heaven of bliss for the submissive and obedient, an endless hell of torment for the negligent or rebellious,—this was the universe as it existed to the belief and imagination of the Christian world for many centuries.
Thus Christianity, instead of following a true inquiry into the facts of the moral life,—in place of cultivating that sound knowledge of man in which Socrates led the way, or that knowledge of the natural world in which Aristotle and the Greek physicists had wrought,—instead of such study, the church based its ideals, its appeals, its helps, on a purely fanciful interpretation of the universe. Its refined and ingenious speculations were wasted upon a fantasy.
This want of sound knowledge has for us here a twofold significance. It points to one cause of the imperfect success of the ideals of Jesus and of Paul. And by its defect it points us forward to a fulfillment, when at a later age Virtue and Knowledge should be wed.
But we need to distinguish and to reverence the deep utterances of the human heart which spoke with stammering tongue in these crude symbols.
The Catholic church was a second Roman empire in its extent and power, and with an inspiration loftier than that of the empire. For, judged by what was most essential to it, the Catholic church—human to the core, human in its errors and sins, human in its upward striving—was, at its best, a society for disciplining men in the higher life. And that creed which sounds so strange to our ears, we may best translate thus: Eternity bids you to goodness. However much there was of error, of misapplied force, of moral injury, there was a vast, multiform, mighty culture of men in chastity, in charity, in the victories and the joys of the spirit. The church set the Virgin Mother as a heavenly consoler, and showed as the divinest thing a man who died for love of men. Before the imagination of the oppressor, the robber, the licentious, it set a flaming sword of retribution. To the poor, the sorrowful, the broken-hearted, it offered the blessed assurance, This world and the next are God's. It opened to them a communion in thought and feeling with holy and blessed souls in the invisible realm. Life was hard and troublous; priests and bishops sometimes made the trouble worse; but there was the sense of a heavenly rule over all, the struggle toward a heavenly attainment.
The whole moral appeal of the church rested on the superterrestrial world which it asserted and pictured. It was a world whose existence was vouched solely by an inward assent of the mind. For outward government, there were bishops and popes, kings and magistrates. But all moral authority, all incitement to holiness, all spiritual joy and hope, rested on this unseen world as accepted by the mind. Disbelieve, and all was lost! And so, of necessity, belief was the fundamental, the essential thing. Obey the church, believe the creed,—that was the supreme double requirement.
That imaginations when believed as these were believed exercised a mighty power is beyond question. That the power was in a degree for good is also clear. But the vast dislocation between the supposed and the real worlds involved enormous failure and waste.
On the one hand, the whole tremendous imagery of the supernal world simply slipped off altogether from a great proportion of the men and women whose time and thought were absorbed in the toils and sorrows and pleasures of the world about them. To make a future heaven and hell take any hold of them at all, the church had to translate its mysteries and sublimities into a very material and crude ceremonial. It brought in penalties of a substantial sort,—penance and excommunication, the rack and the stake. It constantly appealed to fear. And after all, there remained always an enormous amount of stolid and mostly silent indifference and unbelief. The priest said these things were so,—the priests all said so,—and the priest was backed by the bishop, and the bishop by the Pope. Well, perhaps they knew—and perhaps they did n't. The chance that they were right made it worth while to go to church on Sunday, and to confession sometimes; to have one's children baptized; to avoid giving offense to the clergy; and to make sure of their good offices when one came to die. But the belief in their heaven and hell was not strong enough to very much expel the greed, sloth, lust, avarice, pride to which men were prone.
That same silent practical unbelief has been equally prevalent under all the forms of Protestant supernaturalism. Part of it, no doubt, may be referred to the difficulty with which human nature responds to any appeal to look much beyond the immediate present. But in great part too it springs from a suspicion of unreality in that supernatural world which the preacher so fluently and fervently declares.
It may be said that in a more ignorant and credulous age the mass of men did believe unquestioningly in the teachings of the church. But what hardly admits of debate is the misconception which the mediaeval church's doctrine involved as to some of the cardinal facts of life.
This religion dealt with such primary facts of real life as the human body and its laws, the passion of sex, productive industry, the organization of society,—in short, with all the impulses, instincts, and powers of man,—through a cloud of misapprehension.
The central misconception was the idea that this life is only significant as the antechamber to another. Hence its occupations, responsibilities, joys, and troubles are of little account except as they are directly related to the other life. This naturally bred a false attitude toward many of the subjects which both actually and of right do largely engage the attention of men.
The body was regarded as not the servant but the enemy of the spirit. The highest state was celibacy, and marriage was a concession to human weakness.
Study of nature was an unprofitable pursuit. The charter of divine truth was the Bible, and its interpreter was the church. Since this world was only the scene of a brief discipline, and was itself to pass away, it was idle to spend much study on it.
Speculative thought was profitable only so long as it was a mere elucidation of the dogmas of the church. As soon as those dogmas were even remotely questioned, the thinker's soul was in peril. In repressing heretical suggestions by the sternest measures, the church was discharging a plain duty.
Earthly pleasure was dangerous, but in suffering lay medicinal virtue. One mark of the saint was self-inflicted pain. The highest symbol of religion was the cross, emblem of torture and death.
The belief in a hell of endless suffering was the parent of a monstrous and ghastly brood of imaginations. How far the dread thus inspired acted as a wholesome deterrent we can only guess. Too well we know the torture it wrought in sensitive and apprehensive natures, the pangs of fear which mothers suffered, the sense of a curse overhanging a part of mankind, which even in our own day darkens many a life, and which in a more unquestioning age rested like a pall on countless hearts.
Such were among the beliefs, the consistent and logical beliefs, of the mediaeval churchmen. Thus the moral mischiefs which infested society had their roots partly in that conception of religion which in other directions bore noble fruit.
Dante shows the culmination of the Catholic idea; he shows emerging from it a new idealization of human relations; and he stands as one of the master-spirits of humanity, to whom all after-ages listen reverently.
There is in Dante a boundless terror and a boundless hope. Compared with the antique world there is a new tenderness and a new remorse. Hell, Purgatory, Heaven are the projections of man's fear, his purification, his hope.
Dante shows the vision which had grown up and possessed the belief of men—a terror matched with a glory and tenderness. But in Dante is a force beyond this theologic belief—the spiritual love of a man and woman. It is personal, intense, pure, sacramental. Thirteen hundred years of Christianity had inwrought a new purity. Out of chivalry, half-barbaric, had grown a new sentiment toward woman. If was truly a "new life."
Through Dante's early story,—the vestibule by which we are led to the "Divina Commedia,"—through this "Vita Nuova," there runs a poignancy which has almost more of pain than pleasure. Under an earthly symbol it is the vision of the ideal—the unattainable—the passion of the soul for what lies beyond its full grasp.
In form Dante reproduces the Catholic theology. In reality he lives by the ideal relation with Beatrice. For him the true Purgatory is his self-reproach in her presence. The boundless joy of reunion after a lifelong separation is checked on the threshold, that the intense light of that moment may illumine the soul's past unworthiness, and touch it with a remorse deeper than all the horrors of hell could awaken. The anguish purifies, and wins the boon of a Lethe in which the past wrong is absolutely forgotten. Then comes the full fruition, and the mated souls traverse a Paradise which still is dearest to Dante as he watches its reflection in the eyes of Beatrice.
Yet, what does Dante show as the actuality of the world after thirteen centuries of Christianity? He shows evil existing in its worst forms and in wide extent. The horrors of the Inferno are the retribution which seemed to Dante appropriate for the crimes going on about him. The sin whose punishment he depicts is not a figment of the theologians, an imaginary participation in Adam's trespass, or the mere human shadows against a dazzling ideal of purity. In the men of his own time and in his own community he saw flagrant wrong of every sort,—lust, cruelty, treachery. The physical hell he imagines in another world is the counterpart of the moral hell he sees about him in this world. In his Inferno, Hate and Horror hold high carnival. Much of it is to the modern reader like a frightful nightmare of the imagination.
In the progress of the centuries, along with the growth of ethical and spiritual ideals has been the movement of coarser forces—often seeming to destroy the ethical, yet giving power for the upward movement.
In the reconstruction of European society, the first power was that of military force. Out of this grew feudalism,—a kind of order, with its own code of duties; and chivalry, with an atmosphere of noble sentiment running into fantasy.
Next came the powers of wealth and of knowledge. Wealth grew first by the association of craftsmen,—the guilds, the free cities.
Then commerce spread, as in the trade of Italy and the Low Countries with the East.
A succession of discoveries and inventions in the physical world advanced society.
Gunpowder helped to overthrow feudalism.
Printing made the Reformation possible.
The Copernican theory had its practical result in the stimulation of discovery and commerce; its intellectual issue in the weakening of the church's cosmogony, and a discredit of the church's claim to real knowledge.
The growing wealth of the middle class gave freedom to England,—the merchants and cities were the strength of the Puritan and Parliamentary party.
A series of inventions has within the last century multiplied wealth—the use of canals, textile machinery, steam, electricity. This has created a new class of rich. It has improved the condition of the laboring man, not enough to satisfy him, but enough to strengthen him to demand more.
Thus, military force giving strength; its organization as feudalism, giving the chivalric virtues and training an upper class; commerce, discovery, invention, raising first the middle class and then the lower,—these forces, not on the surface ethical, have cooperated to realize the ideal.
Luther led a revolt which in its issue freed half Europe from the Roman court. He made the quarrel on a moral question. No man, he said, could sell a license from God to commit sin. If the Pope said otherwise, the Pope was a liar and no vicegerent of God. So he put in the forefront of the revolting forces a moral idea.
He showed that the spiritual life, with all its aspirations, struggles, and victories, was open to man without help from Pope or priesthood. He gave the German people the Bible in their own tongue. He taught by word and example that marriage was the rightful accompaniment of a life consecrated to God.
He had many of the limitations of the peasant and the priest. He was wholly inadequate to any comprehensive conception of the higher life of humanity. His ideal of character was based on a mystical experience, under the forms of an antiquated theology. He was narrow; he confounded the friends with the foes of progress; he had no clear understanding of the social and political needs of the time; he was full of superstition, and saw the Devil present in every mischief; he was often violent and wrathful. But he had a great and tender heart; he had the soldierly temper which prompted him to strike when more sensitive and reflective men held back; and he won the leadership of the new age when against all the pomp and power of Emperor and Pope he planted himself on the truth as he saw the truth: "Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise; God help me!"
Copernicus died in 1543—two years before Luther. For thirty-six years—all through the Reformation struggle—he was quietly working out his theory. The book containing it he did not venture to publish, till under Paul III. there was a lull in the storm. He was a loyal Catholic, but his teaching was sure to conflict with the church. He kept alive just long enough to see his book come from the printers—dying at the age of seventy. Tycho Brahe, Kepler, and Galileo came later.
The Protestants in the name of religion defied and set aside the Catholic church. They were impelled to do it because they saw that the church, claiming infallibility, was practically fallible and faulty in its morals, as in the matter of the indulgences. They found courage to do it, because men like Luther learned by experience that the sense of pardoned sin, of a divine communion, of peace and joy, of which the church had claimed the exclusive possession, were possible to them wholly without the church's intervention. That was one side of the revolt: the other side was that the civil society, as in England, had grown strong enough, and the monarchical and national temper bold enough, to be impatient of any foreign control.
But the Protestant reformers in an intellectual sense simply remoulded a little the old creed, detaching so much only as was inextricably blended with the authority of the Roman priesthood. Theirs was in no sense an intellectually creative movement. Politically and socially it had great effects. Intellectually it did hardly more than to set the door open. Even this it did unconsciously and unwillingly. The early Protestants found themselves face to face with elemental forces of human nature,—with misery, sin, and greed, with passions stimulated by the sense that authority was weakening. They saw no other resource, their own minds prompted no other thought, their spiritual experience brought no other suggestion, than to continue the old appeal to the supernatural world. The creed of Calvin is harsher than the creed of Rome; its spiritual world no less definitely conceived and authoritatively taught; its insistence on belief no less absolute. The traditional Protestant orthodoxy is only the Catholic theology a little shrunken and dwindled. Its appeal to the reason is hardly stronger, and its appeal to the imagination is less strong.
But for more than three hundred years the whole conception of a supernatural universe has been growing weaker and weaker in its hold on the minds of men. Shakspere paints the most various, active, and passionate world of humanity,—a humanity brilliant with virtues, dark with crimes, rich in tenderness, humor, loveliness, awe, yet almost unaffected by any consideration of the supernatural world. On Hamlet's brooding there breaks no ray from Christian revelation. No hope of a hereafter soothes Lear as he bends over dead Cordelia. Macbeth, hesitating on the verge of crime, throws out of the scale any dread of future retribution,—assure him only of success here, and
"We 'd jump the life to come."
It is impossible to pass the exhaustless Shakspere without some further word of inadequate comment. Apparently no one in his day guessed that among the jostling throng of soldiers, statesmen, and philosophers this obscure playwright was the intellectual king. But Time has more than redressed the wrong, for now he is not only reverenced as a sovereign but sometimes worshiped as an oracle. The prime secret of his power, compared with the men before him and about him, is his return to reality. It is the actual world, the actual men and women in it, that he portrays, and not the puppets or shadows of a made-up world. It is a change of standpoint such as Bacon made when he recalled philosophy from abstract speculation to the study of concrete facts, and calmly told men that their past achievements were as nothing compared to the truth they were to attain with the new weapons. Shakspere has no thought of mankind's advance, no method or system to offer, but as seer and artist he beholds and portrays the universe about him. We get some idea of what the change means when we compare the humanity which he depicts with the account of mankind given by a logical theologian like Calvin; the simple, sharp division between saints and sinners, against the mixed, particolored, genuinely human people who touch our tears and laughter on the dramatist's page. Or again, contrast his world with Dante's, where the profoundest imagination and sensibility project themselves into a phantasmagoria. In the change to Shakspere we are tempted to say that we have lost heaven and escaped hell, but have taken fresh hold on earthly life and found in it unmeasured richness and significance.
In reading Shakspere we are never confused or weakened as between virtue and vice. In simply showing us this life as it is acted out by all kinds of people, he shows perpetually the beauty of courage, truth, tenderness, purity, and the ugliness of their opposites. Measure him at the most critical point, chastity. His plays have plenty of coarseness; they have touches, though very rarely, of voluptuous description; but they always leave us with the sense that purity is noble and impurity is evil. It is striking to note the tone in this respect of his successive productions. His youthful poem, "Venus and Adonis," is touched with the disease which had blighted the literature and the life of southern Europe,—the infection of the imagination by sensuality, a sort of intellectual putrescence. In the frank daylight of the early dramas this nightmare has disappeared, yet in the generally clean atmosphere there occurs sometimes a touch of depraved Italian manners, as in "All's Well that Ends Well," the deliberate seduction attempted by Bertram, bringing little discredit and no punishment. Later in the great plays the note of chastity is always clear and firm. In his women, purity is nobly depicted; in his men there appears no such attainment, but often a passionate abhorrence of vice. In only one play, "Antony and Cleopatra," it might superficially appear that there is a glorification of lawless love; but in the action of the story their lawlessness ruins Antony's and Cleopatra's fortunes; then, with the imminence of death, their passion, escaping from the thralldom of flesh, soars into a sublimation that redeems Antony's error and half transforms Cleopatra.
In Shakspere's world the supernatural sanctions have almost disappeared, but the moral law is still supreme. Yet in some ways it is a very unsatisfying world. In its deeper aspects woe predominates over joy. All phases of suffering and anguish find their language here; but of rapture there are only transient glimpses, of great and abiding happiness there is almost none, and there is scarcely a suggestion of "the peace that passeth understanding." We sometimes feel the sharpest pressure of the problems to which Christianity had addressed itself, unlightened by any solution. There is the echo of Paul's cry, "O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from this body of death!"—as in the king at prayer, in "Hamlet;" but nowhere is Paul's note of triumphant deliverance. We see men overwhelmed by temptation, as Macbeth and Angelo; we nowhere see men rising over conquered temptation to higher manhood. Man in Shakspere is generally the creature of Fate. Man's confrontal by the mystery of existence is the real theme of "Hamlet." The true unity of that drama is not in the action nor in the characters; it is the underlying and unanswered problem,—man, in his finest sensibilities and noblest aspirations, beset by a world of trouble, of confusion, of unfathomable mystery. The ghost from the other world is a mere piece of stage scenery; to the real sentiment belongs the frank paganism of Hamlet as he holds the skull,—this is the end of Yorick, and that anything of Yorick may still live except these mouldering bones does not even occur to Hamlet as a question. Yet when he is tempted to take refuge in suicide, the possibility of "something after death" is sufficient to deter him. The thought suggests no hope, only a vague restraining fear. But to the guilty king there is a terrible reality in the divine law which he has broken; he struggles to reconcile himself with heaven, but his will seems paralyzed to retrace the path of wrong-doing. The incapable will, the baffled intellect, cast a gloom over the whole drama.
It is not only a clew to man's relation with the unseen and eternal that we miss in Shakspere. He fails to show one trait which belongs to human nature as truly as Hotspur's courage or Falstaff's drollery. He nowhere depicts a life controlled by a moral ideal, deliberately chosen and resolutely pursued. His world is rich in passion, but deficient in clear and high purpose and soldierly resolve. The metal of mastery is lacking. He shows us life as a wonderful spectacle, but he does not directly aid us to live our own life. His amazing treasury of wisdom seldom lends a phrase that flashes comfort into our sorrow, hope into our dejection, or strength to our wavering will.
Yet when this has been said, it remains true that Shakspere's atmosphere is wholesome and even invigorating. We are helped in our higher life by many influences besides direct moral teaching. One takes a twenty-mile tramp over moor and mountain, and no word of admonition or guidance comes from rock or tree, but he comes back stronger and serener. So from an hour among Shakspere's people one may well emerge with a fuller, happier being. It is the inscrutable power of real life truly seen, even though seen but in part.
The wish is as inevitable as it is hopeless that we might know the personality of Shakspere, the medium through which the light passing was thus colored. We get but rare and slight glimpses; the boyhood in the sweet Avon country; the stumble on the threshold of manhood in his marriage; the plunge into roaring London; the theatrical surroundings; the great encompassing drama of Elizabeth's England; the slow winning of a competence; the quiet years at the end, a burgess of Stratford town. There is a rich, tantalizing disclosure of a phase of the inner life in the Sonnets; what they seem to convey is a passion delicate and profound, striving to sublimate and satisfy itself, but baffled by unworthiness in the object, and perhaps by some unworthiness in the lover. More distinct is the outward closing scene; the retirement to the native country town, the modest prosperity, the business-like making of the will. Prosaic enough it sounds, yet in substance it has this significance, that this great genius and passionate soul bore himself among the materialities, where so many make shipwreck, with a practical sense and steadiness which brought him to the haven at least of a comfortable and honorable age. So much Shakspere certainly had in himself,—this homely yet vital self-command. With this is to be taken that he had also that intellectual mastery of himself of which the highest proof is the creation of great works of art. Self-control, prudential and intellectual, was one element of Shakspere, one secret of his sanity and strength.
One loves to see in "The Tempest" the crowning utterance of his maturity. How wise, how noble it is, and the wisdom and nobility set forth in what exquisite play of fancy and wealth of humor! As in Hamlet we seem to see Shakspere in his mid-life storm and stress, so in Prospero we think we recognize the ideal of his ripeness. There is the wise man torn from books and reverie, and rudely thrust upon treachery and the stormy sea; there is control gained over airy powers and ethereal beauties; struggle with bestial evil; forgiveness of the wrong-doer; happiness in the happiness of his child, and willing surrender of her to her lover; the admonition that love perfect itself by the mastery of passion. So wise, so beneficent, so lofty is Shakspere's latest creation. A shadow flits across, in the thought of mortal transiency:—
"We are such stuff As dreams are made of, and our little life Is rounded by a sleep."
Yet instantly Prospero marks this as the utterance of a disturbed moment: "Bear with my weakness, my old brain is troubled;" the coming encounter with Caliban has shaken him. Most Shaksperean, too, is this: alternating impulses of trust and doubt; now a sense of being led "by Providence divine;" an instinct of a "divinity that shapes our ends;" and again, the mood that sees beyond the present scene only blankness and the end.
Those elements which in Shakspere are absent or dim,—the belief in a divine rule and celestial destiny, and a high and fixed moral purpose,—these appear in full strength in men of Shakspere's time, the men of religion; but in their minds inextricably blent with a scheme of the universe which it is plain was to Shakspere as unreal as the mythology of the Greeks, and which he treats in much the same way, merely borrowing it for a dramatic purpose. The men of religion had no such consummate expression in literature as Shakspere, though they had their Taylor and Herbert and Milton; but to appreciate them we must look at them in action, and we may take the Puritan as their type.
But first let us note that in Catholicism as early as in Protestantism appeared the sharp rift between intellect and belief. Montaigne, a man of the world, is outwardly a conformist, but a real skeptic. A nominal Catholic, he corresponds to Shakspere, a nominal Protestant. Montaigne reveals the world of one personality as, frankly as Shakspere pictures a world of humanity, and in each the purely religious element is almost totally absent.