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Lecture Sixth. The Religion of Jesus.

The Reconciliation of Man with God — Difference of the Christian from the Pantheistic Reconciliation — “Die to Live” — Negative and Positive Aspect of this Idea — How far it was a New Idea — Anticipations of it — Theoretical and Practical Consequences of it — How it contrasts with the Despairing Subjective Views of later Judaism — The Purification of the Jewish Messianic Ideas by Jesus — The Tragic Crisis which was its consequence — The Idea of Development in the Teaching of Jesus.

IN the last lecture I endeavoured to show that Christianity at once realised and transcended, fulfilled and abolished the religion of Israel. For it carried the subjective tendency of that religion to the point where the subject frees itself from all relation to an objectivity which is external to itself, and thereby becomes capable of recognising an objectivity which is not external. Withdrawing from the natural as opposed to the spiritual, the subject comes for the first time to understand that the natural in its ultimate reality is itself spiritual Recoiling from the life of the state as worldly and evil man awakes to the idea of a kingdom of heaven, which is to be set up, nay, which is already set up, on earth. At the same time, all the national limitations under which the universal meaning of religion was hidden are abolished; all the outward forms under which the spiritual was half concealed and half revealed, are cast aside. God becomes the God of all men and nations, the God who is revealed in nature and history alike; and the whole process of finite existence is viewed as one connected evolution, in which God manifests Himself in and to His creatures, that ‘in the fulness of time He may reconcile all things to Himself.’ The spiritual idea of God which, in the Jewish monotheism, had been reached by the harsh breach of His connexion with nature and with man, is retained; but in place of the purely negative elevation of the Divine Subject above all objects in the finite world, we have the positive idea of God as a spiritual principle manifested in the organic unity of that world with all its differences and antagonisms, and in the process of evolution whereby all these differences and antagonisms are reconciled and overcome.

That such ideas lay directly in the line of the development of Christianity, and that they began to show their power very early in its history, we do not need to look farther than the New Testament to see. It is, however, not at once easy to show in the teaching and life of Jesus the germinal principal out of which they arise, or to discover the line of filiation between it and later developments. The Christian idea is so complex and fertile that it admits into its movement the most diverse elements; and it cannot, therefore, be developed except by antagonism and controversy. For no complete reconciliation between opposing aspects of truth can ever be made, unless each of them is drawn out to its utmost consequences, and set in clear antithesis to the others. Hence the history of Christianity renews within itself all the conflicts of earlier religions; and it seems at first almost as difficult to detect any dominant unity in it as in the general history of religion itself. Even in the New Testament, as I pointed out in the last lecture, we are met by the great contrast between that generalised and idealised view of the relations of God and man—that philosophy of religion, as we may almost call it—which is expounded in the Epistles of St. Paul, and the direct aphoristic and parabolic lessons embodied in the words of Jesus, and bound up in close connexion with the incidents of his human life and death. In some degree, indeed, this contrast is softened for us by the fact that these records were not written a considerable time after the events they narrate; and that therefore, they have been considerably modified by the refracting influence of the ideas of a later period. Those who wrote the account of the actions and words of Jesus were looking back upon the beginning of his ministry in the light of its end; and they could hardly, even if they belonged to his earlier disciples, recall the memory of a period when they had not known him as the Messiah, or even as one greater than the Jewish Messiah. Still, when we pass, say, from the Sermon on the Mount to the Epistle to the Romans we are undoubtedly sensible that we have come into a different intellectual atmosphere; and we do not find it altogether easy to draw any lines of connexion between things that seem to lie so far apart. Now, it is not, of course, my intention to examine the details of this contrast, which has been elucidated by many able writers; but it is necessary in following out the idea of religious evolution, which it has been the purpose of these lectures to illustrate, that I should endeavour to explain a little more fully what I have called the germinal idea Christianity, and show how it is related to those later forms of thought and life which have arisen out of it.

In the first place, then, the teaching of Jesus contrasts with that of the greatest Jewish prophets, and even with that of his immediate predecessor, John the Baptist, in so far as it is a preaching of reconciliation with God, and that, not in the future, but immediately in the present; and not as something to be added from without to human life, but on the basis of an original unity. God is represented, not in a passing figure, but in the title which is supposed to express His essential nature as the “Father” of men; and it is declared that the time has come for Him to be known as their Father. The declaration made in the beginning of the ministry of Jesus that “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” passes with scarce a break into the announcement that “The kingdom of God is among you”; and the importance of this announcement is asserted to be such that it makes, so to speak, a difference in kind between the greatest saints and prophets who lived under the previous reign of division, and the “least in the kingdom of heaven.” The highest ideal is brought close to men and declared to be within their reach: they are called on to be “perfect as their Father in heaven is perfect.” The sense of alienation and distance from God, which had grown upon the pious in Israel just in proportion as they had learned to look upon Him as no mere national divinity, but as a God of justice who would punish Israel for its sin as certainly as Edom or Moab, is declared to be no longer in place; and the typical form of Christian prayer to the abolition of the contrast between this world and the next which through all the history of the Jews had continually been growing wider: “As in heaven, so on earth.” The sense of the division of man from God, as a finite being from the infinite, as weak and sinful from the omnipotent goodness, is not indeed lost; but it can no longer overpower the consciousness of oneness. The terms ‘Son’ and ‘Father’ at once state the opposition and mark its limit. They show that it is not an absolute opposition, but one which presupposes an indestructible principle of unity, that can and must become a principle of reconciliation. Jesus, as the ‘Son of Man,’—to use the characteristic title which he gives to himself,—is conscious that man is capable of being at one with God; nay, that this is the sole attitude of consciousness in which man can be at one with himself. And what Jesus felt in himself, he could call upon all men to share, not as one who summoned them to a task alien to their natures, or laid upon them a yoke, a foreign yoke, like the legal service of the Pharisees, but as one who invited them to be what they really are. For he who is at war with God and goodness is regarded as at war with himself and alienated from himself; and for man to be reconciled to God is to come to himself, and to give up the endless and fruitless struggle with the very principle of his own life. “Come unto me, ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”1

Such an idea of union with the divine and rest in the divine, as the real ground of all our finite life, was not a new thing in the world; but it was new in the form which was now given to it. It was not new; for it had been the very essence of the Indian pantheism. The pantheist also could say, “Acquaint yourself with God, and be at peace.” Rise above your own finitude and the finitude of things around you. Seek not the objects which perish with the using. Regard them, and even your own finite existence, as the unrealities which they are when seen sub specie aeternitatis, and turn your eyes and your wishes from their illusions. Abstract from that which exists only in the dream of finitude, and lose your shadowy joys and sorrows in the contemplation of the Infinite Being. Learn the lesson of Spinoza, that “all happiness and unhappiness depends upon the nature of the object on which we fix our affections. For, except on account of that which is the object of love, no contentions can arise; no sorrow, if it perishes; no envy, if it is possessed by another; no fear, no hatred, and, in short, no disturbance of mind—all which feelings are continually stirred up within us by the love of those things which perish, such as wealth, honour, and pleasure. But love to that which is eternal and infinite feeds the soul with unmingled joy, a joy untainted with any sorrow. This, therefore, we ought to desire and seek after with all our powers.”2

This kind of pantheism, however, reaches the unity of the finite with the infinite solely by denying the reality of the former. It reconciles man with God simply by the negation of all that makes him man. But such a negative deliverance is, as we have already seen, no real emancipation. If it brings rest to the weary, it is but the rest of the grave. Nay, as the Buddhist recognised, with the absolute negation of the finite, the infinite also, which is known only in relation to it, is deprived of all meaning. Its God ceases to be a living God, just because He has absorbed all life into Himself.

It is not such a God, or such a union with God, which Jesus proclaims as the refuge of man from his own finitude and sin. God is to him a living God, who, for that very reason, is the ‘God not of the dead but of the living.’ If he bids men abstract from the finite, it is not that they may lose themselves in the infinite, but that by losing they may truly find themselves. If he bids them to give up everything to God, if he calls upon them to renounce house and lands, father and mother, wife and child for himself, it is not in the ascetic spirit that denies any value to the gifts of fortune and the ties of natural affection, but only in the sense of the saying: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.”3 And in the words, which more than any others seem to sum up his theory of life he declares that the renunciation of self, and of every finite good which is attached to the life of the self, is demanded, not in order to lift man above the loss and decay of all that is finite, by renouncing it once for all as hollow and illusive, but in order that by the sacrifice of His immediate life a fuller life may be attained. If “he that saveth his life shall lose it,” it is also declared that “he that loseth his life shall save it.” The death to self which he requires is thus only the death of the seed—the loss of the immediate form of its finitude—that the principle of its life may have opportunity to manifest itself in a form that is more adequate. “Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone; but, if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.”4 It is this idea that gives unity and consistency to the words of Christ through all the antithesis, and even apparent contradiction which is to be found in them. Without it, we cannot apprehend that teaching as a whole, or see its true originality; for that originality lies not in any single unprecedented word or thought, but just in the fact that all special aspects of man's life are brought under this one principle, and that the principle itself is carried out with a resolute consistency which faces all difficulties, and even turns them into new illustrations of its truth. I hesitate here to introduce the names of philosophic schools, for they are apt to bring with them confusing associations: otherwise I should be inclined to say that Jesus was the most consistent of all idealists,—one who worked out his idealism not in abstract theory, but by the unflinching application of a spiritual measure alike to the simplest and to the most mysterious facts of our existence. No one ever lived and died in more constant defiance of the fainthearted maxim, that “that which is true in theory is false in practice,” or that there are things which are ‘too good to be true.’ Even Plato tells us that it is “in the nature of things that practice should fall short of theory,” and flinches from recommending the realization of his ideal state. But Jesus not only treats the ideal or universal as the divine, and so as the highest reality; he maintains that it can and must be realised by and in man in this life; and further, that it must be realised, not by the agency of an external miraculous force compelling man against his will, but by the penetrative attraction of a love that draws forth the hidden energies of his nature, and so brings him back from his wanderings to the divine principle of his own life.

This will become clearer, if we follow out a little farther the meaning of the Christian antithesis, “Die to live.” The first point involved in it is the absolute surrender of self—and with it of every finite good, every outward advantage and even every narrower relation of human affection—to God, the God who is revealed by Jesus as the Father of spirits. No, pantheist, no ascetic ever expressed the demand for the sacrifice of the finite life in broader or more uncompromising terms. “If any man come to me, and hate not his father and mother and wife and children and brethren and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.”5 “Follow me, and let the dead bury their dead.”6 Nothing but what we might even call a reckless abandonment of self, which never counts the cost or keeps anything back, is regarded as sufficient, if the first step is to be made in the new life. And, what is further to be noted, this surrender of self is not a mere Stoical or Jewish submission to God, which buys for the servant of God a complete independence toward men. On the contrary, as God is conceived as the Father of spirits, and, therefore, as a Principle of spiritual life in all men, He, with His Infinite claims, is directly present to us in our fellowmen, whenever and wherever we meet with them. The beginning of man's higher life is the recognition of a universal, in reference to which all the distinctions of particulars disappear, and as springing from which they are all one; hence, in this region the very idea of right as the claim of one against another, must be set aside. Duty absorbs right, and itself becomes illimitable. In the parable of the good Samaritan, the question, “Who is my neighbour?” Who has a claim upon me? is answered by the counterquestion, “Who was neighbour to him who fell among thieves?” “Who most fully accepted and recognised the limitless claim made upon himself by the sufferings of others?” The Christian is thus defined as one who not only with Plato counts it better to suffer than to do unjustice, but as one who, in the battle of life, begins by throwing away sword and shield; who refuses to use any of the natural weapons wherewith he is armed for the struggle for existence; who resists not evil, but “to him that smiteth on the right cheek turns the other also.” He is one who renounces antagonism and hate, and who meets evil, not with counter-evil but with good.

In all this we see the negative side of religion—the negation of the finite in relation to the infinite, carried out as unflinchingly and consistently as it ever was carried out by any Buddhist ascetic, But there is an essential difference. With the Buddhist the universal swallows up the particulars, and as it is simply their negative, it disappears with them. With Jesus, whatever claim of right on the part of the finite being, as against his fellowmen or against God, is given up, is to be restored in another and higher sense. “There is no man that hath left house or brethren or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for My sake and the gospel's, but he shall receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brethren and sisters and mothers and children and lands with persecutions; and in the world to come eternal life.”7 In other words, the charities of social life, which are renounced, shall come back multiplied in the tenderer and purer ties of Christian brotherhood; and even the outward goods of this life, though their possession may be rendered precarious by the hostility of the world, will be enjoyed in a higher way by those who have learned their deeper spiritual meaning, and to whom, as to Jesus, the natural life has become a parable of the spiritual. The Christian surrender of life and of all its immediate interests to God is not, therefore, the emptying, but the filling of it with deeper and wider interests. In breaking through the narrow walls of his individual, his domestic, his national existence, in giving away everything which he has for himself as against another, in surrendering every exclusive good, he is widening, not narrowing, his life. In ceasing to contend for his rights against others, he has made all their rights his own. The sacrifice of selfishness is the birth of the true self. The universal, which seemed to swallow up the individual life, for the first time gives it possession of the good for which it exists.

Now, in a sense, this lesson is as old as morality. For all morality is a losing of our exclusive self-hood to find it again in the wider life of a self which is not exclusive. The morality of the family consists just in this, that in ceasing to compete as individuals, in becoming instruments of the family life, these very individuals make that life their own, and so take the first step to enlarge their own existence. What they surrender comes back to them multiplied a hundredfold in the wider interests in which they are made to partake. Just because they seek not themselves, but are the instruments of an existence more comprehensive than their own, their individual lives become extended to the compass of that which they serve. For, as a self-conscious being, man can never become a mere instrument of what is foreign to him; but in giving himself up to any end, it, he identifies himself with it and it with himself. Thus he becomes not an instrument but an organ of that which he serves; i.e. it becomes his, as he becomes its. And the same may be said of every form of man's social life. In it he always gets back multiplied what he gives away—no doubt, “with persecutions,” for he cannot have the joys of a wider life without suffering its sorrows. But such loss is incidental to every higher gain, and he who did not suffer it would be confined to his own bare physical existence. In seeking his own interests as against others, he would empty his life of all interests whatsoever. He who cares for nothing but his own pleasure is soon bankrupt even of that.

But, while this is so, and while every step in the enlarging and elevating of man's life is in this sense a self-realisation which is purchased by self-sacrifice, this does not interfere with the essential originality of the Christian idea. For, in the first place, the mere fact is one thing and the recognition of its principle is another. That the nature of man's moral life was such, did not imply that before Christ it was recognised as such. Even if it be admitted that there was any recognition of the principle at all, yet such recognition was partial, and counteracted by the equal recognition of another and opposite principle. Before Christianity, the morality of the family and the nation was not put on a universal basis, but partly, or even mainly, on the basis of the physical fact of blood-relationship; and it was limited, therefore, by such relationship. The individual grew up in a natural society, from which he never learnt to think of himself as separated; and when he came to his maturity, his own interests and rights were so closely bound up with those of the society that he could hardly, even in thought, disjoin them. Thus the process whereby his personal interests were widened and identified with those of the community was all but unconscious, while, on the other hand, he was constantly made vividly conscious of the antagonism of his own to other similar communities. His devotion to kindred and country was to him like a wider egoism, which be was constantly called upon to assert against the egoism of others. The narrow sphere of peace within which he learnt to ‘die that he might live,’ was for him surrounded by wide world in which the primitive law of self-seeking prevailed. If in his eyes citizen was the natural friend of citizen, yet man was the natural enemy of man; and his life was alternately swayed by two distinct principles of morality, by a social and an unsocial principle.8 In such a state of things, it was impossible that the natural law of the struggle for existence should be definitely subordinated to the spiritual law of love, or that the consequences of such subordination should be recognised. Hence the Greek philosophers, Plate and Aristotle, who first expressed the organic idea of the State, were hindered by their national prejudices from applying it to mankind in general; and even their application of it to Greek politics was hesitating and imperfect. Their ideal Stats was one in which only Greeks could be citizens; and even in its inner structure it was not completely organic, for it made the slaves and even the lower classes the instruments of a life in which they did not partake. On the other hand, if the later philosophic moralists of Greece, and especially the Stoics, rose to the idea of a universal, principle of ethics, yet in their application of it they allowed it to remain too abstract and individualistic. If they gave to the individual a high sense of his worth and dignity as a spiritual being, and emancipated him from the limits of a merely national morality, yet they did not make the tie of humanity which they put in its place, an effective social bond. At a still earlier time, the Jewish prophets had, as we have seen, freed their religion, and therefore their morality, from national limitations; but up to the time of Christ their ideas remained in the main negative, and therefore sterile. For the same movement of thought, by which God ceased to be to them merely the God of Israel removed Him almost to an infinite distance from the life of man. And the Law, which was brought in to mediate, as it were, between God in His remote holiness and man in his finite existence, could not, either by its moral or its ceremonial prescriptions, supply the place of a binding social force. The Law, indeed, had relation almost entirely to the life of the individuals, and it held them together so far as it held them together at all, merely for the purpose of a common religious worship. With Jesus, however, the principle breaks away from these limits, and shows its positive value. God is again brought near to man as the Father of all, the universal principle of social unity. All solute exclusions of individual by individual, or of nation by nation, are abolished, and the morality of war and self-assertion is in principle rejected. There ceases to be any man or nation towards whom we are authorised to be selfish, in order to secure that the social sphere within which we shall be unselfish. Morality is now, so to speak made of one piece, instead of being divided between conflicting laws. For, though God has ceased to be regarded as a respecter of persons or of nations, yet He is no longer lifted high above man as an object of fear; rather, He is brought near to him as an object of love, as a God who reveals Himself in and to all men, and binds them all as brethren to each other. At this point, therefore, it becomes possible to teach the pure lesson of self-realisation through self-abnegation in all its depth and width. For it is now based not on the natural fact of kinship, but on the nature of man as a spiritual or self-conscious being, a being whose nature is rooted in God, as the universal principle of spiritual life, and who, therefore, is at war with himself so long as he is at war with any of his fellowmen.

What has been said may be already sufficient to show the agreement of Christianity even in its earliest germ, with the third and highest type of religion, which we have characterised as religion in its own proper form. For we saw that in this highest type of religion God must be represented not merely as an object or as a subject, but a what in idea He is, the spiritual principle of unity which is above the distinction of subject and object as it is above all other distinctions, and which is at once the presupposition and the goal, the beginning and the end, of our finite lives. Now, true idea of God as the object of worship, and if it is in the Christian religion that if first became explicit, then we can understand the antithesis, which is peculiar to that religion,—its negation of the finite in one point of view, and its reassertion of the finite in another. The error or illusion of our ordinary consciousness is that it takes the finite as if it were the infinite, and therefore looks at the world as a collection of independent existences, without realising the unity presupposed in them all—the unity of all finite objects with each other and with the mind that knows them. And the corresponding moral defect lies in this, that finite ends and objects are sought directly as ends in themselves; or, in other words, that the realisation of the self is sought in them as particular ends. Now the first principle of Christian thought, in which it agrees with pantheism, is to refer the finite to the infinite, and to regard the former as nothing in itself as apart from the latter. And the first principle of Christian ethics is to condemn the love of the world, to set aside absolutely all desire for the ‘treasures that moth and rust doth corrupt,’ and all care and anxiety about “what we shall eat and what we shall drink, and where withal we shall be clothed.” It thus begins by bidding us die to self and to all personal aims, that we may live to God. All this is a natural consequence flowing from the very idea of religion. For, if the consciousness of God is the presupposition of all our consciousness both of the object and of the subject, then to treat the latter as independent of the former is to deal with abstractions as if they were realities, and to give an illusive semblance of infinity to the finite. We begin, indeed, with a consciousness of the finite, of finite objects as such, and of the self as a finite subject as if these were res completae—things rounded and complete in themselves; but we come to ourselves, that is, we discover what objects truly are and what we ourselves are, only when we become conscious that they live and move and have their being in God.

But, again, the same view of religion shows us how to explain the positive turn of thought which belongs to Christianity both on its practical and on its theoretical side. For, if the consciousness of objects and also the consciousness of the subject are illusive, in so far as they are separated from the consciousness of God, yet they are the necessary expressions of that consciousness. The unity reveals itself in the diversity, and cannot be divorced from it. Hence, in the theoretical sphere, we are obliged to reinstate the finite as the manifestation of the infinite; and, in the practical sphere, we have to recognise finite ends as elements in the infinite good, or forms in which it has to be realised. It is thus only that we can understand how the same teacher, who seems to bid us avert our eyes altogether from earth and look only to heaven, was he who turned all nature into a parable of the kingdom of God, and taught his disciples to call God Himself by a name derived from the simplest and most fundamental of natural relations. It is as if he was constantly saying, “Separate nature and man from God, and they become less than nothing, worse than non-existent: refer them both to the divine, regard nature as the garment of deity, and man as the Son of God, and they become as real as God Himself.” Again, the same teacher, who calls upon us to hate father and mother and our own life also, yet bids us regard every act of service done to a human being as done to himself and to God. “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” All this casting down of the finite, this utter divine recklessness and disregard of the ends of ordinary ambition, and even of the very existence of man, and, on the other hand, this raising of nature and humanity into the place of types and manifestations of divinity, become intelligible, when we consider them as the necessary consequences of the highest idea of religion; for, in accordance with that idea, religion must humiliate man in himself that it may lift him to a consciousness of what he is in God. It must treat nature in itself as an illusive semblance, in order to lead us to recognise what it is as a divine revelation.

A farther light is cast upon the way in which Christianity negates the finite in itself and re-asserts it in relation to God, when we consider its connexion with. Jewish monotheism. The teaching of Jesus continues and even intensifies that deep subjective spirit of piety which was the ultimate result of Jewish religion, while it rejects that individualistic isolation which had accompanied it In some of the Psalms religion tends to become a solitary dialogue between God and the soul of the individual, a dialogue from which all the world beside is excluded; and the external worship of the temple and the synagogue, if it kept alive the idea that religion had a national aspect, yet did little to make it an effective social bond. We might even say that it showed that religion had ceased to be effective as a national bond, while it had not yet become effective as a universal bond of charity. At best it united the devout worshippers only by the consciousness of a common inner experience, and it did not make this sympathy the source of any new order of their outward lives. Rather, it made pious souls draw back from the contagion of the world, in order to protect the purity of their inner lives in the service of what we may call the church. And with this withdrawal upon the inner life, the Jewish belief in a God of justice became darkened, till, as we have seen, it remained only as the hope of a Messiah who, by a violent revolution, should overturn the present reign of evil, and bring about the ‘restitution of all things.’ Now Jesus at once did justice to this dualism, and set it aside, at once fulfilled and destroyed it, by the doctrine that the very trials and sufferings, which had seemed a proof of the triumph of evil, were the necessary means to the development of the principle of good. Thus even the powers that opposed and persecuted the good were secretly its instruments, and even the malice and hatred of men were no real hindrances, but rather the opportunities required for its manifestation. For as, in warring against the good cause, men were warring against themselves, against that which was deepest in their own nature, they could use in the contest only half their strength; and their weak and divided efforts could offer no permanent resistance to the united and self-consistent force of goodness. Beelzebub was divided against himself, and therefore his kingdom must fall before the power of the kingdom of heaven, whose servants were at one with themselves, with the inmost tendency of the universe, and with God. It is this simple confidence in the omnipotence of good and the impotence of evil which breathes in such words of Jesus as these, “I saw Satan as lightning fall from heaven. Be-hold, I have given you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over every power of the enemy and nothing shall by any means hurt you.” This exultant faith at once changed the spirit of the self-concentrated piety of the Old Testament saints, and turned their reserve and fear of casting their pearls before swine, into an invasive charity which rejoiced in communicating itself, and believed that there was no heart so stubborn as to resist its self-communicating power. Under this new inspiration the good no longer withdrew as into a cloister, from fear of the contamination of the world; but conscious of union with a prevailing power which ruled even the hearts of their enemies, conscious of a spring of life and love in their own souls which no sorrow could kill and no hate resist, they advanced to a conflict with all the gigantic evils of the time, and all its mightiest social and political powers, in the spirit of conquerors for whom the battle was already won. “In the world ye shall have tribulation, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”9

It is necessary that we should realise to our selves this absolute assurance of Jesus and of his immediate followers, in the first spring-tide of their faith, before Christianity became what it has in some measure remained ever since, a religion of the other world. As it came from the lips of its founder, Christianity was nothing less than an absolute practical idealism, which weighed all the greatness of the world in the balances of the spirit; and which, therefore, rejecting all the judgments of sense and immediate experience, all the fears and calculations of worldly prudence, regarded moral forces as practically omnipotent. To the vision of Jesus the powers of truth and love, purity and goodness, were not only immeasurably superior to all that could set itself against them—to all the deceit and malice, all the foulness and selfishness of the world—but they were capable of turning even these into the means of their own triumph. With this there was no doubt mingled even in the best of the early disciples, some of the old Jewish leaven, some of the Jewish hope of the external interference of a conquering Messiah; and this hope, when immediately disappointed by the crucifixion, attached itself to the idea of a shortly expected second coming of Christ in glory. The Messianic faith was the outward symbol, lying ready in the consciousness of the time; it was the prophetic form and image under which its highest aspirations clothed themselves; it was to it, therefore that Jesus had to appeal, and to it that he had to attach the new idea of the kingdom of God on earth which he was seeking to introduce. For “ideas,” as it has been said, “must be given through something,” and the figures and forms through which they are to be given are in great measure determined in every age by the consciousness of the past out of which it is developing. The whole teaching of Jesus might be described as one continuous effort to extract the kernel from the husk in which it had to grow; to detach the deeper spiritual truth he sought to convey from the form in which he was obliged to convey it; to raise the Messianic idea above the accidents of its prophetic; vesture and the cruder sensuous interpretation, which the popular mind had attached to it. Whatever view we may take of the miracles of the Gospel, we can at least clearly see that Jesus was constantly struggling against the crude supernaturalism of his day; that he sought persistently to silence the report of wonder working that attended him (and which, we may say, could not fail to attend anyone who profoundly stirred the spirits of men in such an age), and that he refused with indignation and scorn the demand for a sign from heaven, regarding this demand as an indication of the corruption and perversity of those who made it. “An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign, and there shall no sign be given to it but the sign of the prophet Jonah,” i.e. Luke interprets it, the sign involved in the preaching and life of Jesus himself.10 These were the natural signs in which a pure mind might be expected to read the truth, as clearly as a practised eye could detect in the sky the promise of fair or stormy weather. “Ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern the signs of the times?”11

The tragic crisis of the life and death of Jesus lay just in this, that while he satisfied the deepest spiritual want of his time, he absolutely contradicted and, we might almost say trampled upon, all its vulgar ambitions. Hence the same penetrating magnetism of spirit which drew to him those whose hearts were set upon a, moral deliverance, repelled with the utmost force of antipathy all those whose hearts were set upon a supernatural gratification of worldly passions. For the essence of the teaching of Jesus was that, here and now, in the ordinary course of the world, and without any supernatural interference, the only real power is the power of goodness and of God; and that if goodness is resisted, it is only because it is not yet mature, and needs resistance to mature it. It is because the death is not yet fully accomplished, through which alone spiritual life can be developed, that that life seems still to be feeble and oppressed by hostile powers. And, however we are to explain the prophecy, that ‘this generation shall not pass away till all these things be fulfilled,’ the words of Jesus show that the Jewish apocalyptic form in which he had to express the idea of the ultimate triumph of good, did not hide from him the truth that it is only by a gradual process of evolution, and not by one sudden manifestation of divine omnipotence, that such a spiritual victory is to be gained. Take, for instance, that remarkable parable contained in what is now believed to be the earliest of the Gospels, the Gospel of St. Mark, but which is omitted in the other evangelists,—perhaps because its full significance was not seen by them:12 “So is the kingdom of heaven, as if a man should cast seed into the ground, and should sleep and rise day and night, and the seed should spring and grow up, he knoweth not how. For the earth bringeth forth fruit of herself; first the blade, then the ear, then the full corn in the ear. But when the fruit is ripe, immediately he putteth in the sickle, for the harvest is come.” Could any symbol more definitely express the slow natural process of growth by which a new spiritual faith must ripen in the hearts of men? A similar lesson is contained in the parable of the mustard-seed, and in that of the leaven which was “hid in three measures of meal till the whole was leavened.”13 And it appears even more clearly in the apocalyptic discourses of the Gospel of St. Luke, where the warning is given that “the kingdom of God cometh not with observation,” and that the disciples of Christ will not need to say, ‘Lo, here! and Lo, there!’ for tins kingdom of God is already in the midst of them,14 already present and growing in their own hearts, so that they do not require to look beyond themselves for the evidences of it. Its evidence lies simply in its existence as a as a power that lives and develops in the spirit of man.

  • 1. Matthew xi. 28, 30.
  • 2. De Intellectus Emendatione, i. 10. “Sed amor erga rem aeternam et infinitam sola laetitia pascit animum, ipsaque omnis tristitiae est expers.
  • 3. Matthew vi. 33.
  • 4. John xii. 24.
  • 5. Luke xiv, 26.
  • 6. Matt. viii. 22.
  • 7. Mark x. 29, 30.
  • 8. Cf. Mr. Herbert Spencer's view of the dual morality which necessarily prevailed in the militant as contrasted with industrial stage of social life. Data of Ethics, § 93.
  • 9. John xvi. 33.
  • 10. Luke xi. 29. Matthew's interpretation of this saying (Matt, xii. 39) is a curious instance of the tendency to turn even the words that denounce the miracle-seek ing spirit into nutriment for that spirit.
  • 11. Matt, xvi. 3
  • 12. Mark iv, 26.
  • 13. Matt. xiii.33.
  • 14. Luke xvii. 21; cf. Matt. xxiv. 23.