Possible Methods of Revelation.
WE can put our question now: How far can we state beforehand the purpose and chief end of a special or central revelation? At first sight all is thick darkness. God will send it, it will do his pleasure and not return to him void: and that is all that can be said. So there are many who tell us that we ought not to form expectations, but simply to wait till it comes, before we begin to study it. There is a side of truth in this view, for expectations have often been made too definite; but how can we recognize it when it does come if we form no expectations at all? Surely we must have some idea beforehand what sort of a message may be divine, and what cannot be divine. A central or special revelation is at any rate a revelation of some sort; therefore we must expect it to be serious, rational, and moral. Even William Law would have granted so much, though he rightly objected to the presumption of dictating at what time or to what persons it shall be given, or what shall be its precise contents. These questions may be quite above us. But allowing all this, and remembering that there must be an element of mystery in revelation as in all knowledge, and very likely a deeper mystery in a special or central revelation, it does not follow that we can make no forecast at all of its general character.
In the first place, it is by supposition a revelation which goes beyond the general revelation through the natural and the spiritual order as that revelation appears to the generality of mankind. This fact of itself tells us a good deal. We have twice already discussed the probability of such a revelation, and both times found that much might be said on either side. The fundamental fact of experience is that we have done that which is evil, and disobeyed the moral law which was set before us. What then? If our first impulse was to suppose that God would of his goodness give us any further help we wanted, our easy optimism was checked by the fear that our sin may have brought on us his permanent displeasure. Yet however we might deserve this, there was again a possibility that the misery we have brought on ourselves by sin might of itself be a successful appeal to perfect goodness. The more we looked at this last point the stronger it seemed; but upon the whole we agreed not to make the venture of faith that time, but to leave the question open.
Now, if such a revelation has actually been given (which we are now supposing), we know for certain that we have not permanently estranged him from us. Our sin he cannot but hate as rebellion against the order he has made: to ourselves we learn that he is good notwithstanding. We might have hoped it from his continued goodness in the natural world, where the sun rises on the evil and the good, and the rain falls on the just and on the unjust. We might also have hoped that if mercy is not unknown to men, neither is it impossible to God. But a faint and chequered hope, more fitful dream than reasoned thought, is a poor thing to set against the bodings of conscience, the iron bonds of natural sequence, the overwhelming horrors of remorse. Yet if there be such a revelation, our hope is true. If God speaks in it, he can only speak in mercy, and the first word of it will have to be, So God loved the world. Had it gone on, that he gave the Koran to Mahomet, and sent him forth to preach life and paradise to all that would receive him, this might very well have been primâ facie the special revelation we were looking for, though we could not have said more without knowing something about the Koran. In any case, such a revelation must be a message of goodness, in the sense that God's goodness is not an incidental fact, or one fact among others, but the ground and meaning, core and centre, of the whole.
In the next place, though its immediate occasion must be the fact that men have gone wrong in spite of the general revelation as generally known, we cannot safely make this the only reason for such revelation. It might possibly have been given even if men had not gone wrong, though very likely not in the same form. We cannot say but that the action on God's part best fitted to deal with the broken unity of will and conscience might also have been best fitted to deal with man if he had never gone astray. So while such revelation must be the answer of God's goodness to the misery of sin, we cannot shut out the possibility that it may have further aims.
We can see some of these, if the evolution is not to stop short of the ideal; but of others it is not unlikely that we are wholly ignorant.
We may take it that if there be a special revelation God will deal in it with sin. Physical evil, so far as it is not complicated with sin, is his creation, and calls for no special action on his part; nor would the satisfaction of our curiosity about another world be worthy of any. But sin is our creation, not his, for what he gave us in freedom was not licence to do wrongonly the power of doing wrong involved in the power of doing right. Moreover, if there is any forward evolution possible for us as beings of the spiritual order, sin plainly bars the way. Whatever the future may have in store for us, we cannot receive it till we are on better terms with the order of things. Therefore in a special revelation God will deal with sin, whatever further ends he may have in view.
How he will deal with sin we cannot presume to say precisely beforehand, not only because we do not know those possible further ends, but for the still more serious reason that we do not fully know how the world appears to him. We are creatures of space and time, and our sight is limited by sense and dimmed by sin. Beings every way imperfect cannot scan the universe with the eyes of perfect goodness and perfect rightness wielding perfect wisdom and perfect power. Nevertheless, finite knowledge need not be untrue. An observer in London will see neither so much nor so well as if he moved his telescope to the clearer mountain air of Teneriffe or Arequipa; but what he does see need not be illusion. So in an infinitely higher way God must see all that we see, and an infinity more, and see with perfect clearness in their final meaning things we see dimly or not at all; but what we do see need not be illusion. So far as we are his imageand all thought is meaningless unless to some extent we arewe must in virtue of that affinity be able to see things to some extent as he sees them. True thought of ours is the deciphering of his thought, true goodness of ours is the copying of his goodness, and conscience is his voice within us, so that if we choose to follow it our will can struggle after his, and find in his service perfect freedom. It is neither finiteness nor sense, but sin alone that mars the image of God within us, and makes us the failures we feel we are.
If therefore we essay to see the world as it appears to God, our task is not the infinite presumption it may seem. We see in part, and know in part; but some things we do see, and some too we certainly know. Inconceivably as the infinity beyond our reach might enlarge our thoughts, if human weakness could bear to know it, it would not utterly change them. There must be some fixed points, as in a child's knowledge, for we should learn that the words of our profoundest wisdom are like the lispings of a child. As the child knows the things he needs to know, so do we; and if when he grows older he finds the world immensely larger and more wonderful than be imagined, he does not find it essentially different. If he hears of other families and foreign countries, they are still families like his own and realms of land and water like his own. The sun shines on all, and the freemasonry of human thought makes him more or less at home in all. Nowhere does he come upon enchanted ground, with other laws than those of common day. He never meets with gods ascending from the sea, or hears the words of might on which infernal powers wait. Go where he may, he treads the soil of middle earth, and meets but mortals like himself.
Like this it must be with his elders also. The unknown may bemust befar greater and more wonderful than we imagine; but if it is of the same creation as the known, it must be so far like it as to contain nothing finally irrational or inconsistent with perfect rightness and perfect goodness. As the thought in man which traces God's thought in the natural order makes us more or less at home throughout the world of nature, so the conscience which follows God's thought in the higher order makes us more or less at home throughout the world of spirit. Be the wonders of the unknown what they may, we shall never come to an enchanted ground where wrong is blameless, or malice duty. The laws of truth and right can no more fail than those of space and time. Go where we may, it is God's world still, and we know generally what it must be like; and therefore we know to some extent how the whole must appear to God's all-seeing eye.
Yet even here there is a metaphor that will mislead us if we are not careful. Though it must be true that he is the high and mighty, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who doth from his throne behold all the dwellers upon earth, this cannot be the whole truth. His view of the world cannot be taken simply from the outside, after the deistic fashion; though neither can we simply place him inside it as one person among others. He must be not only its outside sovereign but its inner life, working with and in the forces of Nature, and that not simply as one force which modifies the resultant of the rest, but as a living Person susstaining and preserving Nature, and in sustaining and preserving ever creating it afresh; and as a living Person guiding persons, working in them and through them, and by his voice in conscience ever labouring to call them back from the untruth and emptiness of sin. If conscience is real, he is not an idle spectator of the deadly struggle which threatens to wreck the moral issue of the universal evolution. He is himself our leader in the battle, ever pouring fresh courage into us and rallying our broken forces to the conflict, rejoicing with us in our victories and grieving for us, if not with us, in our failures and defeats. If even sinners can kindle with enthusiasm over enterprises pure and high, and flash down their indignation on doings base and vile, shall only God be cold and passionless? Is he the giver of all goodness, as on any theistic theory he must be, but himself a dweller in selfish bliss? A machine may be very admirable in its way, but a God who cannot be touched with a feeling of our infirmities is lower than a dog who can. The philosophers never made a more disastrous blunder than when they thought to magnify his dignity by setting him above the battle, like a Xerxes looking down on Salamis, instead of in its midst. This is what we come to from the dreary sophism of the via negativa, which has been the curse of speculative thought from the Upanishads and Plotinus to the monks and Herbert Spencer.
To God's all-seeing eye the universe as a whole must appear a true realization of his purpose, so far as that is yet developed. The vast substructure of the physical order has been built up in the course of ages with unfailing accuracy, and has now completed one great cycle of its history. The planets in their orbits and the dewdrops in the morning sun fulfil his word; and though physical evil is terrible to men who can brood over it, the animal world is notwithstanding a bright and joyous world. The physical order cannot of itself go wrong, for it is entirely subject to him, except so far as he has given freedom of action to other moral beings. Thus there is no room for failure in the universe except by the wrong action of those other beings. If there be devils, they are defined as devils by such wrong action. But the only failure certainly known to us is our own. The evolution of the ages went wrong at the point where it passed in man from the necessity of the physical order to the freedom of the spiritual; and if this wrong is not in some way righted it means the wreck of all. Measure first the prerogative and dignity of man by the length and complication of the vast evolution which has not only ended in him as it has ended in all existing species, but led up to him as the completed issue of the entire cycle, and the centre of a higher order than the physical. Of such a being even the daring words of the writer to the Hebrews are not incredible, that not unto angels did he subject the world to come, but to man. At all events it is evident that the issues of the new order in this world will be shaped more and more by the new force of human choice, and less and less by the old force of natural selection, which men are more and more deflecting and reversing. Man, in short, is the appointed guide and ruler of the new cycle, God's viceroy knowing good and evil, and gifted with the power of creating both. So much the greater must be the disaster, if he has gone aside and created sin. He is a ruler still, but a ruler out of sympathy with the true estate and order of the world entrusted to him.
If then there is any word from God beyond the general revelation as generally understood, we cannot doubt that he will deal in it with sin. If we cannot presume to say precisely how he will deal with it, Natural Theology does warrant us in saying some things. It is not likely that he will suddenly sweep the sinners out of existence, or compel them to be good. Either of these plans would seem a confession of failurethat he began to build, and was not able to finish. Either of them (supposing the former thinkable) would be a discontinuous leap downward and backward from the new order of freedom to the old order of necessity, and therefore a complete abandonment of the method of evolution. Such a blow would be destruction, not development, and if it came at all, as sheer might from the Almighty1
it would have to come.
If the sinners were swept out of existence or forced to be good, there might be an end of sin; and if the process was gradual, there need be no breach of continuity; but sin would in either case be rather put of sight than cured, and the mischief it has already at done in the world and among men would remain to be further dealt with. If indeed we consider the destructive work of sin on other men and on the order of nature, we may be tempted to think that the larger part of the work would still remain to be done.
It would be much the same if men were frightened into good conduct, with the further difficulty that unless their fright amounted to actual compulsion it might not even diminish the amount of sin. It might suppress bad acts; but no mere fright can touch the evil will. This is of itself a fatal objection to the old idea that hell is a deterrent from sin; for if sin be in will, and only so far in acts as they express will, it is clear that no man ever sinned a sin the less for fear of hell. The utmost that can be granted is that as bad actions confirm bad habits, something might be gained if men could be frightened out of them, though much might also be lost if the danger of wrong action stimulated wrong desire, as it commonly does. At best, however, the gain would in no case amount to any cure for sin or for the smallest of its evils.
Crude ideas like these which mask the difficulty instead of overcoming it, assume that God is essentially power, and that his methods of government are those of an Eastern sultan. The sultan is very good to his people, and may overlook a good deal of disorder; but he is capable of ordering a massacre if he is provoked too far. Better wipe out a village than have it in chronic disturbance. If he does not go that length he will be content with forcing it to keep the peace, and perhaps inflicting tremendous punishments pleasure on some of the rebels. This, I think, is no unfair account of the method still ascribed to God by some who count themselves correct believers. But the analogies of human government must always be imperfect when applied to a God of perfect goodness. Yet even so, they seem to point to something better than this. The best of kings may have to put down a revolt and punish some of the offenders according to law; but he counts the use of force an evil necessity, punishes no further than he is obliged, and never thinks his work thoroughly done till he has turned his rebels into loyal subjects. If an earthly king can try to do as much as this, we may be sure that God will do no less than this.
Yet how can he do it? Mere preaching is as useless as mere terror, unless there be some power in the message itself; and it is not easy to see what sort of a message would have power to turn man's heart from sin. A philosophy might touch reason, a religion feeling, a law action; but none of them would appeal to human nature as a whole. We are coming now to the dark places of Natural Theology, and shall have to pick our way with double caution, and with a sobering consciousness of our ignorance. Yet we are riot without experience in the work of recovering them that are out of the way; and that experience would seem to suggest certain lines of action as possibly hopeful. The problem of revelation may be infinitely harder than our common rescue work in the slums, but it cannot be entirelydifferent in kind. Whether any of these lines of action or all of them together will suffice is more than we know; and whether or in what manner God may have used any of them is a question of history which a Gifford Lecturer must leave to others. But in any case and against all difficulties we are bound in all theistic hope to hold fast our trust that perfect goodness is not without the means of overcoming sin. To give up that hope would be intellectual as well as moral suicide.
Personal influence is the first of these lines of action, and the chief, for the others depend on it. When we have to reclaim and train to better things some degraded creature who is living in rebellion against the order of society, we begin with neither the teachings of philosophy nor the services of religion, nor with the commands of a law. These may all have their use later, and the last in particular may have a provisional use from the first, in keeping him from temptation, and temptation from him; but our first and principal aim is to get him under the influence of a better man than himself. Till this is done, practically nothing is done. Teaching is useless without example, feeling is empty till it has gathered round a living person, and obedience to right commonly begins with loyalty to one we love. So it begins in the home; and if the home has failed to do its work, we have to provide some other guiding influence. For a little distance on the downward course we may possibly be able to right ourselves; but we soon reach a point where there is no recovery without the gracious drawing of one who loves us more worthily than we love ourselves. Nothing else can give hope to the despairing and self-respect to the degraded. Such drawing requires rather kindliness and sense of duty than commanding genius. Many a man has been conquered by the winning goodness of his intellectual inferiors; and sometimes the innocence of a child has been the salvation of its elders from evil ways. A vast amount of experience has gone to shape the rescue agencies around us; and it has shaped them into agencies for bringing personal influence to bear. Any other aims they may have are either helps to this or likely to prove mistaken. Nor is personal influence limited to personal intercourse, though that is its most vivid form. It may work for ages when embodied in writings or institutions. The good and bad effects of Buddhism and Islam largely represent the personal influence of their founders; and so far as Christian churches have done good work on the face of the earth, they seem to have done it by bringing men under the personal influence of Christ. In this the student of history will read the secret of their strength, and in lower ideals and meaner aims the causes of their weakness.
Personal influence, good or bad, comes from our real selves. Our concealments and hypocrisies are never very successful in disguising it, and in the long run fail entirely. This is why it is so great a force in the world. A man of clear and resolute purpose has a marvellous power of overcoming opposition, even when his purpose is a bad one. But with equal resolution and a lofty aim that overawes the consciences of all around him he is irresistibleat least for the moment. The time-servers, the cynics, the schemers, and the rest of the weaklings count for nothing in the day of decision. He may have great faults, he may make great mistakes, he may see but one thing, though that he will see with intense and vivid clearness; but he will be a living and creative power. Eusebius saw dangers which Athanasius overlooked; but Athanasius is the hero of the fourth century. Erasmus had more culture and a wider view than Luther; but Luther is the giant of the German Reformation.
But the personal influence of such a man is more than a living soul. It is a quickening spirit. As the nature of life in the natural order is to gender life, so also is it in the spiritual. As fire kindles fire, leaping from one point to another, so spreads the sacred flame across the barriers of selfish pride and selfish interest. Enthusiasms may die away, scribes may take the place of prophets, and Pharisees may sit in Moses' seat; but the memory of that which once has been remains a power in the land.
The mountain peaks are made of common rocks, and the great scenes of history are no more than the open manifestation of the common forces of common life. The quiet man in a cottage, the patient woman at her daily toil, the very invalid on a couch, tray be a quickening spirit as truly as the prophet on whose word a nation hangs. The power which draws the outcast to better things is the same that lifts common men above themselves. The purpose is the same, the method is the same; only the difficulties are a little greater. Let us look at them.
There is no surer sign of a degraded character than a vague habit of suspecting our neighbours without definite and reasonable grounds. In general we judge them by ourselves till we see reason to the contrary, so that if we are ourselves false or vile, our impulse is to set down the fairest of actions to the foulest of motives, and in the noblest of men to see no more than the most successful of hypocrites. This is our first difficulty with the undesirableif we may slightly generalize a word of recent origin. He is so used to selfishness in himself and others that the unselfish kindness of a better man comes to him as a surprise. At first he suspects a cunning design, or simply does not understand it. He may take his good things willingly enough; but he needs time to get over his recurring doubt whether we are quite disinterested, and a much longer time before he fully realizes that we do not want simply to relieve his distress, but to make him strive to be a better man.
For here conies in a second and greater difficulty. The powers which ought to have been developed in healthy life have been weakened by rebellion against the order of things. The undesirable is commonly a poor creature in mind and body. He may have picked up a good deal of knowledge, though by this time it is usually rusting, and he may have plenty of cunning for base purposes; but outside these limits he is likely to be stupid. Feeling and conscience are in most things callous; and if the worst men sometimes have strange scruples and points of honour and touches of sensibility, such inconsistencies only shew that they have not entirely succeeded in making devils of themselves. Least of all can the will escape debasement. If the indesirable has any firm purpose left, it must be bad. He will be like Milton's Belial.
To vice industrious, but to nobler deeds Timorous to I slothful.
A few of these men are active enough in pursuing base ends, though their plans are rather clever than far-seeing; for like Napoleon they overlook the moral forces, and the moral forces usually foil them in the end. But they are more commonly weak as water, yielding to the first temptation, and shielding themselves behind the first lie that comes to hand. Even when we have won their confidence and made them as willing as such creatures can be to lead a better life, they are continually falling back from sheer weakness. The old temptation was too much for them; yet they are likely to resent the discipline which keeps them out of its way. Still, it is much easier to keep them right by undertaking their entire guidance, like the Jesuits in Paraguay, than to teach them to keep themselves right. It may be long before the best of them learn to stand alone; and some of them never learn to stand alone at all.
If it is the noblest of all work, it is also the hardest, to make a new man of the erring and fallen. The change is rightly compared in some religions to a new birth. It calls on us as guides, for wisdom and sympathy, unquenchable hope and never failing patience, not only of the lower sort which bears with toil and suffering, but of that higher which is not soured by failures and disappointments. These are qualities which cannot be acquired on a sudden, or hired for a consideration. Unless the work itself inspires them, it cannot be done; but if we do it with all the strength of heart and soul and mind, it will inspire them. So those tell us with one voice who have a right to speak. They tell us that there is no work so full of suffering and disappointment, but none where suffering and disappointment are so transfigured into pure and lofty joy. Those who patiently receive them find that they have entertained angels unawares. The suffering and disappointment cannot be spared, for redeeming power is just in these. The one thing which more than any other is a charm to reach the erring and the fallen is the sight of others bearing willingly and lovingly the consequences of his own misdeeds. Suffering for others is a law of nature, and the loving acceptance of it is the fountain of the higher life.
The world has an easy standard, for it is content with forbidding certain actions as harmful to society; but if we take the higher standard of our own conscience, I am afraid we shall all find ourselves more or less of undesirables. If any one fact in life is clear and undeniable, it is that by our own fault we come far short of what we might be. Whether we do wrong boldly, or whether we make believe that it is right, or at any rate only a little wrong, we cannot do it without debasing conscience and mind and will together. If conscience admits upright, our sense of right is dulled; if mind makes excuses for it, our perception of truth is dimmed; if the will consents to it, our power of resistance is weakened for the next temptation. Our difference from the undesirable is not so much that we are morally better, as that we avoid certain offences against society. But other forms of wrong-doing debase character in the same way, and perhaps quite as much. The man who never cherishes an unselfish thought is no better than the husk of a man; but if his actions pass muster, the world receives him without hesitation as a decent and respectable person. The world is right in doing so: the wrong is when we take its judgments of the needs of society for judgments of men. It may be that the open sins of sense we sin like beasts are less destructive to character than the sins of mind we sin like devils. The drunkard in the street may be less deeply depraved than the great leader of thought who has gambled away his conscience.
At all events, we Pharisees are so far like the Publicans that we cannot lift ourselves to a higher moral level without much the same helps. It is not exceptional depravity but common human weakness that calls for some gracious personal influence to set right our conscience, to brace our will, and even to clear our mind. That influence may come directly from one we love, or it may reach us indirectly from writings or through other men, or it may be the cherished memory of those whom death has parted from us; but in any case it must be an influence of human goodness, for it seems plain from experience that we cannot learn goodness to much purpose except from goodness in our fellow-men.
If then God should deal with sin, these are the lines of action which Natural Theology would seem to indicate as hopeful. Whether lie will follow them is more than we can presume to say. There may be hindrances, and there may be a more excellent way unknown to us. Whether as a matter of fact he has followed them is a question for the alleged particular revelations. All that can be said from the standpoint of Natural Theology is, that any such revelation which represents him as following them represents him as working on the deepest lines of human nature known to us, and is therefore so far perfectly credible.
Mediation must be a necessary part of any divine plan for dealing with sin, if there is meaning in the social order where man learns good and evil chiefly from his fellow-men. We must have the mediation at least of the prophet who speaks for God to men, and declares the divine significance of human thoughts and natural facts. A few systems, like Islam and Deism, seem content with this, as if mere preaching of truth were all that is needed. But if the analogy of ordinary rescue work is at all to be trusted, we shall be more inclined to follow religions generally in thinking that such divine plan will also include the mediation of the priest who speaks to God for men, and lays before him not only the needs of the natural life, but ever more and more the aspirations and struggles of a moral nature fast bound in sin but seeking to be freed from its bondage. Sin may be deeply rooted, and there are some who scarcely care to look below it; yet far below it spreads the real deep of human naturethat deep from which we cry for peace with the true order of things, and feel that all efforts of our own are vain to deliver us from our bondage. But the priest can give us no real help with his rites and ceremonies. They may set forth our need; but they cannot even make known to God anything unknown to him before, much less turn aside the natural consequences of sin. The only direct use possible for them is in moral action on ourselves; and that they can only have by setting forth and vividly expressing to us the loving self-devotion either of the priest himself, or of others for whom he stands, or more likely both, for one who is no more than a representative is a prophet, not a priest. Even the secondary priest who chiefly stands for another must himself have a measure of priestly self-sacrifice, if he is to do any priestly work at all.
Such mediation must therefore include the suffering of the innocent for the guilty. That which is the living power of all our own rescue work can hardly be wanting in the divine. But here we must pause to get our meaning clear. Suffering for the guilty may be for their benefit, but cannot be in their stead. In a very rough and inaccurate way it may be said that the rescuer toils and sorrows instead of the rescued, for without that toil and sorrow there could be no rescue. He toils and sorrows, and the guilty escapes toil and sorrow; and if that were all, the rescuer might be said to suffer in his stead. But the one toil and sorrow has little likeness to the other, except that it is a consequence of the same sin. There is not much relation of quantity between them; and in quality they differ entirely. A man cannot bear instead of another more than some of the physical consequences of his evil-doing. He may give up time or trouble or money to set them right for him, but he cannot take on him the bad health which it may cause; far less the sense of guilt and weakening of character which it certainly will cause. His troubles, however great, are different in character from those of the guilty. Least of all can he take upon himself the condemnation which right-minded men must pronounce on the wrong-doer, and cannot pronounce on another. If this be vicarious suffering, then vicarious suffering is common; but in any case vicarious punishment is pure injustice, and vicarious guilt pure nonsense.
To give a concrete illustration: there are various objections good or bad to the general belief of the Christians that Jesus of Nazareth died for us, in the sense of for our benefit (ὑπϵ`ρ ἡμω̑ν
, as always in the New Testament). But if we set these aside for a moment, there are further objections to the particular belief of some Christians, that he died in our stead (ἀντὶ ἡμω̑ν
, which is never found in the New Testament2
), and these further objections are not simply difficulties which might be explained, but sheer confusions of thought which no explanation can remove. If then there be mediation for men, it must be generally for their benefit; and we cannot say that it is in their stead, except in the very inaccurate way we have indicated.
At this point two great questions rise before usquestions of the utmost difficulty, but questions which we cannot put aside. If we cannot answer them we can at any rate find the limits of our knowledge, and see whether Natural Theology points towards one answer rather than another. Indications that are far from conclusive in themselves may still enable us to say that one theory has a better a priori position than another.
Will then the mediation be singular or plural? Will it be one priest acting for mankind, or many priests acting for men? Certainly the latter. It rests on a broad analogy, presents no evident difficulties, and cannot in any case be dispensed with. The second Isaiah's conception, if it be rightly given as that of an ideal Israel the Servant of the Lord, whose sufferings were for the healing of the nations, is not untrue to human nature. Such a mediation might or might not be sufficient, and as a matter of fact it might be untrue; but we could not say beforehand that a divine plan might not take some such form. But given a class of mediators, the question may still be asked, whether such class can be summed up in an individual historically representing its ideal. If such an individual be possible, he would seem to represent the idea of mediation more perfectly than a number of mediators.3
It is not divine power that he would need, but a perfect manhood in perfect sympathy with everything divine, and therefore with everything in man but sinthough he would understand even sin better by resistance to it than other men by experience of it.4
Besides this, the spirit which would have to animate the class of mediators must in any case be accounted for, and may perhaps be most easily accounted for as the reflection of some one supreme example, such as the Buddha or the Christ. But if Natural Theology seems to point more or less in this direction, it also raises difficulties which it cannot solve. From the standpoint of Natural Theology it is not easy to see how the work of any one man could have the universal significance and universal power that is needed for such a work. For this purpose he would seem to require some deeper organic connexion with his fellowmen than can be allowed to a man who is no more than one among others. But when we come to such a conception as this we get beyond the scope of Natural Theology, and must leave the further discussion of it to the alleged special revelations, premising only that Natural Theology leaves the question open. Upon the whole, a class of mediators working with self-sacrificing energy certainly seems required; but on such considerations as we have before us we cannot venture to decide whether they will each be an independent centre of rescue, or whether they may not all draw their energies from the personal influence of some one supreme and central mediator.
The other question is likewise difficult, and closely connected with one that cannot well be asked on grounds of Natural Theology. So we must note carefully what it is. It is not whether the reversal of sin will require self-sacrifice on God's part, but simply whether Natural Theology has anything to say on the possibility of such self-sacrifice as is ascribed to him by some religions. The first question involves things so evidently beyond us that it can hardly be asked without presumption; but the second is quite within our reach. We are not concerned with the fact, if fact it be, of self-sacrifice on God's part, but with its possibility, and with that only in a general way, without reference to any particular form it may be supposed to have taken.
There can be no self-sacrifice without freedom to act, and goodness to inspire the action. The idea is therefore unmeaning to those who think of God in terms of necessary law, and impious to those who make inscrutable power the chief attribute of deity. Thus Islam has always rejected it with abhorrence; and Western Christendom has never been able to reconcile a fundamental belief that God is power with a fundamental fact that So God loved the world. Indeed the belief and the fact are flatly contradictory, and cannot be held together in clear and full consciousness of both. Whichever of them we choose to guide our thought, the other must be suppressed if it is not to become a disturbing force, and the more disturbing and confusing the more clearly we apprehend it. Very commonly the Christian fact has been subordinated to the Muslim belief; but it has never ceased to influence even those degraded forms of Christian thought which without formally denying it practically tolerate it only as an occasional eccentricity of the mystics.
Setting aside such meaningless conceptions of God as inscrutable power or necessary law, we fall back on that of perfect rightness and perfect goodness. We might ourselves be slow to suggest that the reversal of sin may require self-sacrifice on God's part; but others have suggested it before us, and there is much evidence that their belief is not to be summarily declared incredible. Consider first the peculiar dignity which man may claim in virtue of that likeness to God without which all thought would be futilea dignity further indicated by the vastness and complexity of the evolution leading up to him. On a far grander scale of space and time, it reminds us of the stately march of Rome to the empire of the world
Tantæ molis erat, Romanam condere gentem.
Next consider the wreck and ruin man has brought on himself and on the world by going aside and creating sin. Then listen to the voice of conscience that God is not an idle spectator of the deadly strife that bids fair to wreck the work of the ages. And if such a crisis as this has never arisen before in the earth's long history, there is nothing incredible in the assertion of some religions that he has dealt with it by means he never used before.
But how far can Natural Theology tell us beforehand what these means may be? Is there a charm in earth or heaven that can touch the roots of sin? Omnipotence has none. The tempest and the earthquake and the fire will pass in vain before us. They may rend the mountains and break the rocks in pieces, but they will never touch the heart of man. Personal influence would seem to be the only power that can do this,at any rate it is the only power we ever see doing it, and the only power we can seriously imagine capable of doing it. If the ways of rescue are almost as various as the ways of error, they all come back to this. But the personal influence that brings back the wanderer is the charm of winning goodness; and there is no goodness without unwavering loyalty to right and stern self-sacrifice in loving toil. We can do no good to others but at the cost of something to ourselves. If virtue goes out of us, we shall know it; and the more goes out of us, the more we are likely to feel it. Nor can we do any real good even to ourselves without self-sacrifice. If life lies chiefly in relations to others, all selfishness being disregard of those relations is so much weakness and lowering of true vitality. Where does the pulse of life beat higher than in the man who perils it for others, and lays it down if need be in the proud assurance that it has not been lived in vain? And this need and joy of self-sacrifice is no result of imperfection, but flows from the very nature of man as man standing in relation to God and man. As one said in the olden time, He that loveth his life is destroying it; and he that hateth his life in this world, to life eternal shall he keep it safe. The first clause at all events is profoundly true, whatever we may think of the second.
But if self-sacrifice is the law for man as man, and therefore as the image of God, can we extend it to God himself? I must confess that I for one dare no such thing without some clearer warrant than we can get from Natural Theology; but if others have done it, neither can I say oil grounds of Natural Theology that they are wrong.5
There is a good deal that seems to point in this direction; and so far as I can see, nothing clearly forbids it but a view of the divine which is plainly unsound. The highest ideal we can form of joy is not the monotonous bliss of self-centred perfection, but the perfection of self-sacrifice. I f there is no more toil in the ideal state, it is only because the toil is transfigured into the joy of willing service; and if there is no more sorrow, the reason is that we no longer run counter to the order of things; but the order of things expressing God's nature may still require self-sacrifice in all moral beings from the lowest to the highest.
If God has limited the undefined possibilities of omnipotence, first by giving properties to matter which he will not break through, then by giving freedom to men which he will not overrule by force, there is nothing of itself incredible in the idea that he may have limited them a third time and more narrowly by some further act of self-sacrifice for the recovery of the world's true order from the sin which is overthrowing it.
Suppose then some of the alleged revelations were to present certain historic facts as evidence of self-sacrifice on God's part for the reversal of sin. We might very well join issue that the facts were false, or that they would not bear the inference; but the idea that God might possibly act in this way is entirely true to the known order of things. By the highest of all examples it would set the seal of heaven on that unselfishness which is the true life of men; by the highest of all assurances it would give us the absolute and final certainty of God's goodness for which the deepest needs of human nature cry; and with the mightiest of all motives it would offer to common men that strength of moral purpose which so few can win from science or philosophy. Whether it be false or true in fact, the idea is at least profoundly true to everything we know of life, and everything we know of man.
There is one thing more to add. Would not such a revelation be reasonable and consistent if it summed up all ethics in true thankfulness for such supreme assurance? And no thankfulness is true unless it fills our hearts and guides our life; mere words are nothing. We know its power in common life to lift us above our baser selves. So far and so long as a man is genuinely thankful he cannot be anything else than true and pure and unselfish. Might not such a revelation quite reasonably declare that in thankfulness for such a benefit as this, if only it be real, there is a power strong enough to overcome the spirit of rebellion?