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Part III. Ethics and Belief

Chapter IX: Rationalism and Christian Ethics (I)


1 We have been discussing the tensions between reason and faith. Revelation and church authority have frequently said one thing while secular reflection has demanded another. The tensions that have concerned us have arisen for the most part over theological dogmas. But the discussion will be incomplete unless we go on to deal with similar tensions over the precepts of Christian morality.

Between the dogma and the ethics of traditional Christianity no sharp line can be drawn. The teaching that the morality taught and exemplified by Christ is a perfect one is as truly a part of the Christian system of belief as any clause of the Nicaean or Apostles’ Creed; and hence it would be strange if the tension between reason and belief extended only to the factual parts of the creed and stopped short of its moral injunctions. Furthermore, in Christianity creed and conduct, theology and morals, are inextricably bound up with each other in their meaning. The two main commandments, love God and love man, have always been taken as interdependent. God is conceived as a father, loving and brooding over the children he has brought into being; loving him entails seeking to know his will for man and doing it; and this means treating mankind as brothers. Similarly, to love man is to love God, for he is the source from which the beloved community sprang, and his will supplies the ideal end which the love of man seeks to embody. In the original Christian teaching, morality and religion were thus inseparable. If one considers, for example, the Sermon on the Mount, and that essential kernel of it, the Lord's Prayer, it would be grotesque to find in it a conscious passage from one field, theology, to another field, morals. ‘Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven.’ In such a passage religious belief and its attendant morality form one seamless whole. For anyone who takes these words as they were plainly meant to be taken, to be religious entails being moral, and to be moral implies being religious.

Any tension, then, that develops between reason and the more fundamental Christian beliefs is bound to extend itself to Christian ethics. Many questions at once arise here. Is ethics logically dependent on religious truth? What is the proper place of the appeal to authority in ethics? Is morality dependent on religious belief for its practical motivation? What in fact has been the influence of such belief on moral practice? These are important inquiries, and our proposed answers to them will appear as we proceed. But the question that must now concern us is this: Is Christian ethics also a rational ethics?

The question is in a sense unfair. We have just admitted that, as traditionally understood, Christian morals and Christian belief are interdependent, and if so, any attempt to examine the ethics by itself will do violence to the way it works in living minds. We shall attempt the examination nevertheless, and for more than one reason. Though moral and theological teachings have always in fact been closely combined in Christian teaching, it is still possible in thought to distinguish theory from precept, and to consider each in the light of the criteria appropriate to it. We have already done this for some dogmas of the creed, considering how they would fare if removed from the shelter of revelation and placed intellectually in the open. A similar inspection should be possible for the moral components of the creed. For such examination there is another and more immediate reason. It lies in Lord Gifford's famous injunction to his lecturers, already quoted: ‘I wish the lecturers to treat their subject as a strictly natural science… without reference to or reliance upon any supposed special exceptional or so-called miraculous revelation.’ The kind of examination here proposed, however inadequate, will at least be of the kind Lord Gifford seems to have desired.

There are many persons, of course, who will still think such an examination inappropriate and even obnoxious, since to inquire into the justifiability of the Christian ethic implies that it might not be justifiable, and in view of the importance the Christian ideal has in the lives of millions of people, it is thought better not to raise such questions at all. Here I can only dissent, though not without respect for the objectors’ uneasiness. I have already agreed that it is odious manners, even if nothing worse, to be flip and glib with positions that, for many, lie at the centre of their hope and faith. There is more to life than logic, and a great deal more to ethics than logic-chopping. On the other hand, for the person who is trying to see things for himself and as they are, there is no forbidden question. And for the philosopher, the more central a question, the plainer it is that he ought to raise it; that is his business. Of course rights, here as always, involve duties. The right to examine either Christian theology or Christian morals implies the obligation to do so with consideration for the very deep feelings involved and with such objectivity as one can command. The present writer feels the same dislike for the emotional attacks on the Christian ideal by Nietzsche as for the irrational defence of it by Kierkegaard.

2 There is another difficulty we face at the outset. We have been told by some contemporary theologians, of whom the leader was none other than Albert Schweitzer, that Jesus himself did not offer his ethics as a pattern for the future of mankind because he did not believe that mankind had a future. He thought that the current chapter of human history was about to close with a tremendous pageant, in which sun and moon would be darkened, the stars would fall from the sky, and the Son of Man would be seen coming in judgement in clouds of glory. This was no far-off divine event; ‘this generation shall not pass till all these things be done’. For a time there was a tendency among theologians to take the passages about the coming kingdom to mean a spiritual kingdom, the reign of Christ in the hearts of men, and to dismiss these statements about the imminent end of things as poetry or metaphor. Schweitzer rightly objected to this. After all, these predictions of the early end of the world are given unequivocally in all three of the synoptic gospels. We cannot overlook them or explain them away. In his exposition of Christian ethics, Dean Inge has to admit that

‘a strange blindness about the future pervades all the Ethics of the New Testament, including the Gospels… in many of our social problems we cannot find the help in the Gospels which we should have welcomed, because the early Christians never thought about an earthly future for the human race.’1

There seems to be no denying that Jesus did expect the end to come within a few years, and that in this expectation he was mistaken.

How does this affect the validity of his ethical teachings? It does show that he was susceptible to error on matters of importance in theology and science, and hence that his pronouncements are not those of omniscience. This does not prove his moral judgements to have been faulty, but it does pose a question about them: if he believed that the end of the world was imminent, would not his teaching be an Interimsethik as Schweitzer says, a set of rules to live by in the brief interim before the heavens finally opened? Some of the rules offered do suggest this, for example, ‘Take no thought for the morrow’ and ‘Sell all thou hast and give to the poor’. These would be easier to accept if the morrows we had to provide for were known to be few. Men's lives neither would nor should be the same if they knew that this year or the next would be the last in human history. Who, for instance, would found a college or start an encyclopaedia? It has sometimes been replied that while the belief in an imminent end of things would affect one's long-range plans, it would not affect the order of priority among one's intrinsic values; that wisdom and beauty, for example, would still retain exalted places among the values most worth seeking. But this is true only with qualifications. Wisdom and beauty require for their realisation the sort of discerning eye that can be achieved only by long cultivation, and their value would certainly be less if only so much of them counted as could be achieved in a week or a year. Again, Jesus’ values were bound to be affected by the sort of final judgement believed to be imminent. This judgement was exclusively moral and religious. Men's election to an eternity of bliss or pain would not depend on the extent of their knowledge or their aesthetic responsiveness, but on whether they were righteous or unrighteous. And it is idle to say that the expectation of such a judgement would not affect profoundly the goods one would consider it best to pursue in the brief and precious time at one's disposal. How much the eschatology of Jesus did influence his views of the good life it is now impossible to determine; it was probably decisive at some points and all but irrelevant at others. What is important for us in any case is not the origin of his teachings in his own state of mind but their degree of permanent validity, and this can be made out only by applying to each that test of reasonableness which throughout this study has been our court of final appeal.


3 Very well, what was his ethical teaching? In detail, we shall never know. Jesus wrote nothing, and he spoke in a language, Aramaic, that is now almost extinct. The reports of what he did and said were translated after his death into Greek, and translated again for our use into beautiful but archaic Elizabethan English. No contemporary record of him remains. Mark, the earliest gospel, was probably written about a quarter century after his death, Matthew and Luke a half century, John three-quarters of a century. Our chief sources are Mark and a lost document called Q (for the German Quelle or source) which was drawn on for much of their material by Matthew and Luke. This material consists in sayings, stories, fragments of sermons, reports of miraculous events, which were current in the early Christian community and transmitted by word of mouth. This community was a simple one, with no notion of science in our sense, and very little of history or critical biography. Each compiler of fragments had his own special interest: Matthew in Jesus’ relation to the Jews, Mark in his messianic sonship, Luke, who was a gentile, in the wider outreach of the new gospel, John in rethinking the message in a way acceptable to the Greeks. These men, of whose very identity scholars are uncertain, often disagree. Furthermore, the Jesus that comes through to us from their writings had no interest in philosophic argument or in putting his teaching in systematic form; his mind was not Greek but Oriental in its preference for teaching by poetry and parable. His principles have to be extracted precariously from his reported sayings and character, and when we have extracted them we do not find them always consistent. One teaching about divorce, for example, is given in Matthew, another in Mark and Luke; Jesus came to bring peace on earth and good will among men, but he also said that he came to bring not peace but a sword.

4 Still we can discern clearly enough where his main emphases lay. There was a negative emphasis and a positive one. On the negative side was a strong reaction against the official teaching of his own people. The good man had come to be thought of as the man who kept the commandments, and the commandments had been ravelled out into a set of regulations governing conduct in minute detail. These regulations told people what they should wear, what they should eat, what kind of dishes it should be eaten from, when they should work and not work, how they should say their prayers, and how they should treat friends, women, strangers, and enemies. For the Pharisees particularly, who were leaders in scholarship and piety, the Mosaic law had become a complicated straitjacket of requirements. Jesus broke this straitjacket deliberately and publicly. He broke the rules about the Sabbath, saying that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. He broke the rules about ceremonial cleanliness, about eating and drinking and fasting and praying, and about association with social outcasts. He had his hatreds, and one of them was for hypocrisy. He saw that it was possible to achieve high standing in this ethics of conformity and still be a hollow man, and he launched at the very people who were proclaiming their own piety some of the most scorching denunciations on record: ‘Ye whited sepulchres, full of dead men's bones and all uncleanliness, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?’

5 When he rejected the ethics of conformity, what did he put in its place? Strangely enough, one will find no statement or discussion of the Christian ethics in the ordinary ethical textbook, often indeed no mention of the moral teaching that has had most influence on Western civilisation. Why is this? Chiefly, no doubt, because philosophers are analysts and reasoners, not prophets or practical counsellors. They belong to the tradition of Greece, not of Judaea; they are interested in a precise and reasoned account of what makes an action right, and this they do not find in the New Testament. Still, it is not impossible to assign the approximate place of Christian teaching in the framework of traditional ethics, and it will tend to clarity if we try to do so at once.

Moralists have commonly distinguished three components of an action: the motive, the behaviour, and the consequences. And the main types of ethical thought differ from each other chiefly as to which of these components is made the principal element in right conduct. Consequences are stressed by the schools of teleological ethics, the ethics of ends or goals to which action is instrumental, though the kind of consequences chosen as intrinsic goals vary greatly, from pleasure and power to wisdom and self-realisation. Some form of teleological ethics is held by the majority of modern moral philosophers. In common sense ethics the stress is rather on behaviour, and rightness consists in conformity to such rules as ‘Pay your debts’, ‘Tell the truth’, ‘Keep your promises’. A minority of moral philosphers, of whom Kant is the most distinguished, have placed their stress on the motive. It is in this last class that Christian ethics falls.

But between Kantian and Christian ethics there is a profound difference in how the motive is conceived. Kant held that only those actions are right which spring from a good will, and this has, indeed, a Christian sound. But what Kant meant by a good will had little in common with the New Testament meaning. Kant was a rationalist; Jesus certainly was not. For Kant good will was loyalty to reason. In deciding how to act, one must first see what the principle was that a proposed action would embody, and then ask whether one could will consistently that everyone should act in accordance with it. The good will was thus for Kant respect for rational consistency. Such a conception would certainly have repelled the unintellectual fishermen who were the first apostles of the Christian evangel, and probably their Master also.

It is true that the Christian ethics, like that of Kant, was an ethics of inwardness or of motive; both stood at the opposite pole from Marx, who taught that the outward circumstances determined the inward. Jesus taught the contrary view: cleanse the inside of the cup, and the outside could be left to itself. But between the Kantian and the Christian there was a difference, so to speak, in the seat of the motive; for Kant it was in the head, for the Christian in the heart. ‘For from within, out of the heart of man’ proceed all moral goods and evils. ‘Be this’ was the typical Christian teaching, rather than ‘Do this’. What man needed was new feelings and dispositions. If we could free ourselves from anger and hatred—that is, hatred of persons, for hatred of some attitudes Jesus entertained himself—we should get rid of violence; if we could exclude undue pride, we should be slow to take offence; if we would rid ourselves of adultery and theft and cruelty, we must uproot the lasciviousness and covetousness and hard-heartedness out of which these actions spring.

6 Jesus’ programme, then, was the reconstruction of the attitudes of the inner man. He was reluctant to lay down rules of behaviour; if one had the right inward attitudes, one could be left to make one's own rules. What, then, were the new inward attitudes that were to supplant the old evil ones? They were laid down in the Beatitudes, which form the opening words of the Sermon on the Mount. These have a strange sound to modern ears and need some interpretation. Blessed are the poor in spirit, that is, the humble, the teachable, those of open mind, as opposed to the conceited and the self-righteous. One is reminded of Santayana's remark: “There is hope for a libertine; there is no hope for a prig.” Blessed are they that mourn, which does not mean to praise the lugubrious, but in the context seems to mean, Blessed are they that mourn their defects, who are aware of their moral shortcomings and are repentant of them. Blessed are the meek, those who know how to bear and to forbear as opposed to the aggressive and the irascible. Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness, not as a means to success or approval in men's eyes, but as an end in itself. Blessed are the merciful, that is, the compassionate and understanding as opposed to the hard and the indifferent. Blessed are the pure in heart, those who are single-minded and not devious and divided in their devotion to goodness. Blessed are the peacemakers, as opposed to the makers of suspicion, enmity, and strife. Blessed are they that have been persecuted for righteousness’ sake, those who are ready to persist and pay the price of loyalty to duty. Notice that these are qualities of character rather than prescriptions of behaviour.

When Jesus was asked by a lawyer to put the gist of his teaching in a nutshell, his answer was: love God and love man. If we were concerned here with the religious as distinct from the ethical outlook of Christianity, we should have to say much about the first of these, but our concern is with the second. What did he mean by the love of man? Not an emotion merely, for it is not in our power to have a feeling on command; we cannot say, I will love Jones, blackguard as he is, beginning tomorrow at seven. Love was, rather, a settled good will, a permanent concern for the good of other people. That kind of love was already enjoined by the prophets toward one's family and one's own people; the originality of Jesus lay in universalising it, in saying that if it was called for toward friends it was also called for toward enemies, toward men as men, without regard to race or sex, and whether they were Jews or Gentiles.


7 This, I take it, is the essence of the Christian morality. In the churches of the West, it has been presented as the final morality from which nothing can be taken away and to which nothing can be added. A much respected moralist, Dean Rashdall, writes: ‘the ideal alike of human life and of the divine Nature actually to be found in the critically sifted records of the life and teaching of Jesus Christ is, in its essential principles, the ideal which the moral consciousness of Humanity still accepts and proclaims.’2 Goethe spoke for millions when he said: ‘Let intellectual and spiritual culture progess, and the human mind expand as much as it will; beyond the grandeur and moral elevation of Christianity, as it sparkles and shines in the Gospels, the human mind will not advance.’ What is a rationalist in morals to say about this claim?

The first thing he would want to say is that he has felt, like those millions of others, of every intellectual hue, the fascination of this moral genius, so familiar and yet so remote. The figure of Jesus is unique. There has been only one Christian, said Nietzsche, and he died on the cross. He tried the impossibly beautiful and touching experiment of trying to love everyone, in the trust that they would respond in kind. He seems at the end to have regarded the great venture as a failure, but the world has not been willing to let it die. From a tiny point of light in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire, his influence has risen like the sun and changed the aspect of the entire Western world. If Tacitus or Pliny, who dismissed him in a few words, or Marcus Aurelius, who regarded him as a seditious fanatic, were to be told that he would have a place in history that none of the Caesars could rival, they would have thought the idea absurd. But so it has been. No other figure in human record has approached him in the veneration and devotion he has aroused. Most of us can at least understand what Charles Lamb meant when he said that if any of the heroes of literature or history should enter the room, he would rise; if this Galilean workman entered, he would kneel. Even those who have deplored what he stood for have had to admit his supremacy, as the reluctant Swinburne did: ‘Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean, The world is grown gray with thy breath.’

But having acknowledged the immense attraction that the figure of Christ has exerted on the imagination and aspiration of mankind, the rational moralist must return to his appraisal. He would perhaps agree that the core of the Christian ethics was sound and not likely to be invalidated by criticism. At least, if love may be taken as implying benevolence, that is, being habitually solicitous for others’ good as having an importance as great as one's own, it is an attitude hard to challenge on rational grounds, and in making it central to the moral life the ethics of Jesus may well be an ultimate ethics. Certainly the ideal it proposes is exacting in the extreme. Some contemporary theologians think that no intensification of strength and no widening in the area of natural affection could ever carry men up to the level of Christian love; such love, they hold, is different in kind from anything in the natural man; the eros of Plato has an element of self-seeking in it, while the agape of the New Testament is self-giving, and is to be achieved only by an ingress into the soul of a divine insight and power. We have looked at various forms of this transcendentalism in Protestant thought between Luther and Barth, and seen how difficult it is to draw any line between the human and the superhuman that does not run into insupportable paradox. But it is not necessary to take Christian love as a miracle in order to see how exalted is the standard it proposes. We may have met a few persons who exemplified it in brief spells, but certainly no one whose life as a whole did so; and we can see that if men in general took it seriously their lives would be radically transformed.

8 I have said that the attitude of Christian love is hard to challenge on rational grounds. It may be asked how any attitude can be either challenged or defended on rational grounds; love and hatred are not true or false; only propositions are; and hence only they can be disproved or established by evidence. I agree. If Christian love is to be shown by reason to be a valid component in the good life, it must be in virtue of some principle implicit in it which is itself capable of rational support. I have ventured to conceive this as the principle of benevolence. It has been recognised by many moralists as self-evidently true. What is this principle? It has been put by Sidgwick as follows: ‘one is morally bound to regard the good of any other individual as much as one's own, except in so far as it is less, or less certainly knowable or attainable.’3 Sidgwick considers this and certain other highly abstract propositions of ethics as self-evident; he says of them: ‘I regard the apprehension, with more or less distinctness, of these’ abstract truths as the permanent basis of the common conviction that the fundamental precepts of morality are essentially reasonable.’4

Questions are bound to arise here. Is love necessarily benevolent, in the sense that the lover seeks the good of the person beloved? There are kinds of love—sexual love, for example—that seem to provide exceptions to the rule, but a love that sought the harm of the beloved, or was indifferent to his good or ill, would not be accepted as Christian. Is the good sought for the beloved person that which is really his good, or what the lover thinks is his good? The answer is: inevitably the latter, but, unless the lover is mistaken, the former too. Is the good of one man really as important as the good of another? No; equalitarianism of that kind is sentimentality. Both intrinsically and as a means to the general good, it is more important that Shakespeare or Beethoven should exist and achieve what is in them to achieve than that an idiot or moron should do so. But the principle of benevolence does not deny this; what it says is that if the intrinsic good of one man is the same in amount as that of another, the two persons must be treated accordingly; if they are treated differently, as is sometimes necessary, it must not be done arbitrarily, but on reasonable grounds. A parent is not unchristian, for example, who concerns himself more with the good of his own children than with others; there are obvious reasons why he should. This suggests the answer to another common question: How can one love all men, particularly if that means actively concerning oneself about their good? The answer, once again, is that love need not exclude common sense. There is no inconsistency between a genuine regard for the good of all men and a recognition that this good is most effectively furthered by each man's concerning himself most with those whom he can best serve. No one but Mrs Jollyby would feel bound equally to her own family and to the natives of Borrioboola-Gha.

Christianity is widely believed to provide an ultimate morality. So far as it founds itself on the principle of benevolence, I see no grounds for disputing the claim, since that principle itself seems to be a dictate of reason. There is, of course, no school of morals that can claim exclusively to represent what reason would say in ethics; but many of the modern moralists who have applied rational methods most rigorously to the problems of morality would accept the rule of benevolence as fundamental—such utilitarians as Mill and Sidgwick, such ‘ideal utilitarians’ as Moore and Rashdall, such self-realisationists as Paulsen and Bradley. Mill, for example, who rejected Christian belief unequivocally, says of Christian morality: ‘I believe that the sayings of Christ are all that I can see any evidence of their having been intended to be; that they are irreconcilable with nothing which a comprehensive morality requires.…’5

9 At the same time Mill did not think that the original Christian teaching provided a comprehensive morality itself; excellent in its leading principle, it was incomplete and fragmentary. To criticise an ethics for what it is not, rather than for what it is, may seem unfair. And so it would be in any ordinary case. But Christian ethics is not an ordinary case. It has been presented, if not by its founder, at least by authoritative church teaching, as the guide to a perfect life, offered by one who exemplified perfection in his own life. The ‘imitation of Christ’ has been enjoined in numberless religious manuals, whose burden is that in the degree to which anyone approaches the life of Jesus he is approaching the ideal, that so far as his motives and values embody those of the Sermon on the Mount, he is achieving the best life possible for man. It is believed, furthermore, that this moral teaching is guaranteed errorless by nothing less than Deity, whose will it reveals, and who, as perfectly good and wise, cannot mislead his creatures. Many scholars have thought that Jesus himself made no claim that his teaching was an ultimate or errorless or even adequate guide to the good life. Fortunately we need not enter the controverted territory. Suffice it to say that the claim has been continually made for him, and by high authority. It is that claim that we must try to appraise.

The strongest emphasis in his ethics was on love, and we have seen that the natural tendency of love is to seek the good of the persons beloved. But what goods should love promote? Sooner or later, that question must have an answer. One may say that the good of A lies in promoting the good of B, and that of B in promoting the good of C, but sooner or later there must be some indication of what the good of these persons consists in. The point of the service of others is that it enables them to realise the intrinsic goods of life, and the business of ethics is less to exhort us to service than to enlighten us about the ends toward which that service should be directed. Though the Greeks had a great deal to say on this matter, the Christian ethics said comparatively little. As it stands, it must therefore be admitted to be a truncated ethics requiring large supplementation. Insistent, and rightly so, on the importance of the springs of action, it all but ignores some of the great goods of human life.


10 Consider one intrinsic good that the Greek thinkers were inclined to put at the head of all goods, that of knowledge or understanding. There is one point in Aristotle's writings, and apparently only one, at which that sober thinker breaks out into something like a paean of praise, and that is when he comes to the joy of the philosopher in looking before and after, and seeing in intellectual vision the eternal why of things. Modern science and philosophy are largely the product of the Greeks. We are justly proud of such theoreticians as Newton and Einstein, Russell and Whitehead, and it seldom occurs to us to ask whether the quest to which these men were committed has the sanction of Christian ethics. Does it? There seems to be no good ground for saying so. The record discloses no interest on the part of Jesus in the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, or in anything that we should now call science or philosophy. It may be replied that he had no occasion to express judgements on this kind of pursuit, and that one cannot argue from his silence to his indifference or disapproval. These demurrers may be true. On the other hand, one can hardly hold at the same time that Jesus’ ethics provides an adequate guide to life and also that it is confined to the issues that would arise in a relatively primitive Eastern community. Furthermore, as a matter of fact the Greek language and influence did swirl around him; in his own Galilee there were two Greek cities, one of them, Tiberius, not many miles from Nazareth, and the values of Hellenistic culture were hotly debated among his Jewish contemporaries. He seems to have remained untouched by it nevertheless. If a dialogue between Jesus and a Socratic defender of the life of reason could be unearthed in some Dead Sea scroll, it would be a priceless addition to our understanding of him. There is a bare possibility that it would justify the exclamation of Erasmus, ‘Saint Socrates, pray for me’.

But the nearest thing we have to an early Christian estimate of the Greek love of reason is the attitude of St Paul, who knew Greek and who visited Athens. Paul's attitude is not one of praise or even of indifference, but one of outspoken contempt. ‘Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this world? Hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?’ In accordance with this attitude, the church for many centuries regarded faith as a duty and doubt as a sin. Some magnificent intellects have been placed at the service of the church, above all that of Aquinas, but St Thomas found his philosophical warrant and model not in the gospels but in Aristotle; and too often when the intellectual in the church attempted to follow the argument where it led, as Descartes for example did, he found himself on the Index. To those who thought that with every passing day their eternal destiny was at stake, the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake was bound to seem of small importance. When John Wesley visited the British Museum, he wrote:

‘Seven huge apartments are filled with curious books, five with manuscripts, two with fossils of all sorts, and the rest with various animals. But what account will a man give to the Judge of quick and dead for a life spent in collecting all these?’

The pursuit of truth for its own sake, however, is not the only business of intelligence. Many moralists would consider that its main use falls in the middle ground between motives on the one hand and remote goals on the other; it is the means of implementing desire in such a way that its ends may be achieved. Here foresight and inference are called for, and many kinds of special knowledge. We should feel sympathy for the sick, but if that sympathy is to be fully effective, it must be guided by medical expertise. We should feel charity for the poor, but if they are to be efficiently relieved, we must call in aid the knowledge of the economist, the sociologist, the psychologist, and the large-scale organiser. An admirer of Whistler's pictures once asked the painter what he mixed his paints with, to which Whistler replied, ‘With brains, sir’. This is not the reply one would expect from an early Christian if asked about his morals. The sympathy Jesus showed and taught was personal and immediate; he was the tactician, not the strategist of charity, dealing with each case as it arose, and—according to the record—resorting in emergencies not to the expert but to miracle. This stress on love and this understress on knowledge remained characteristic of his followers for centuries. Bertrand Russell writes:

‘Neither love without knowledge nor knowledge without love can produce a good life. In the Middle Ages, when pestilence appeared in a country, holy men advised the population to assemble in churches and pray for deliverance; the result was that the infection spread with extraordinary rapidity among the crowded masses of supplicants.’6

The secular moralist of today finds this lack of interest in knowledge as end or means a defect in the plan of life sketched in the gospels.


11 To the Greeks, the play of intellect was a great good because it was the satisfaction of a deep hunger in human nature. The Greek was a naturalist, in the sense that he thought human goods to be appointed by human nature; they were all fulfilments of instincts, needs, drives of the natural man, and the ideal life was one in which these drives were fulfilled harmoniously. And they must be fulfilled in this life or not at all, for the Greeks did not look forward to any other. The Christians, however, did, and to them it mattered little how high a price they paid in the good things of this world if the sacrifice helped to secure salvation in the deathless world that was to follow. The goods of the natural man were therefore not so much evil in themselves as irrelevant—tempting rivals of true goodness, which it was best to ignore. Sometimes Jesus put it more strongly; ‘He that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal’. What were these goods of the natural man that the Greeks prized and the gospels prized so little?

First, there were the obvious goods of eating and drinking, good clothing and comfortable living. We all value them now, and think it part of our duty to diffuse them. How were they valued in the Christian ethics? There are some very unqualified statements about them. ‘Seek not what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink’; ‘Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat; neither for the body, what ye shall put on’. How far these injunctions rested on the expectation of an imminent end to the present order, it is impossible to say. In any case, on the ground of such sayings, of which there are many, Jesus has often been charged with teaching asceticism. This has been indignantly denied by able interpreters of his ethics, such as Dean Inge and Dean Rashdall. And it is true that by his own report he was accused by enemies of being gluttonous and a winebibber. He was certainly far from the asceticism of the second century, when many who called themselves Christians chose to live in caves or in the desert, half-starved and verminous.7 Nevertheless, by the standards of modern man his attitude toward these simpler goods was very severe. He appears to have had no home of his own; he commanded his disciples on their journey to take no bread and no money; he was poor himself; he repeatedly denounced wealth. His attitude toward the creature comforts of life was one of indifference, and many of his early followers took it as negative. On the other hand, the attitude of the modern moralist toward these goods is certainly positive. The satisfactions of good food, good clothing, and a comfortable house he would take as intrinsic goods of real though subordinate value, and instrumental goods of high order. He would say, furthermore, that if, by honest labour, a man can have round him books to dip into with pleasure, and some art and music to refresh him, he is the gainer, not the loser, by such possessions. Is he the less Christian? Many modernisers of the Christian ethics would deny this, but it is hard to see how they could reconcile the denial with the text of the New Testament.

The Greeks, I have said, were naturalists. So too is modern science, which tends to dominate modern thinking about everything it touches. Consider how it has affected our view of body and mind. It holds that the roots of the mind are in the body, and that only as those roots are well tended, only as the body is kept healthy and vigorous, will the mind be healthy and vigorous. Mens sena in corpore sano. That was the Greek ideal, and modern man is taking it over. He has revived the Olympic games; Americans in particular glorify physical prowess, and give more of their substance to their athletic heroes than they do to their foremost judges and scientists. The question was proposed a moment ago what Jesus would have made of such lives as Einstein's or Whitehead's, and if we can ask that, we can also ask what he would have said if confronted by such phenomena of modern America as Babe Ruth or Willie Mays. Would he have approved them or been repelled by them? Who knows? What one suspects is that with his quick and large sympathy he would have found something admirable in these splendidly embodied souls. But does not the very oddity of the question suggest that they are outside the orbit of the kind of life he contemplated? His interest in the body seems to have gone scarcely beyond the relief of the sick. Indeed he told men, as we have seen, to take no thought for their bodies, and it is not clear how Olympic games or Greek statues, American gymnasiums or fitness programmes are to be forced into accord with that advice. While the gospels do not decry bodily achievement, the seeds are there which quickly sprouted into that warfare of flesh and spirit which came out openly in St Paul, with his struggle to keep the body under. Here again the modern estimate has drifted far from this sort of anchorage. That estimate is not expressed in St Paul's ‘in my flesh dwelleth no good thing’. It is much closer to Browning:

‘Let us not always say

“Spite of this flesh to-day

I strove, made head, gained ground upon the whole!”

To man propose this test—

Thy body at its best,

How far can that project thy soul on its lone way?’


12 Indifference toward food, drink, and comfort are not the same as indifference toward wealth, but they do tend to go together, and they did in the life and thought of Jesus. Here he is clearly opposed to the values of modern man. Most of the world's peoples are struggling for a higher standard of living, of which greater wealth is a condition. Those who have already achieved the higher standards, and Americans in particular, are often accused of being materialists, in the sense that they want money only as a means to material possessions or for the sake of the money itself. I doubt whether either charge could be made out. There is perhaps no country in the world where the tradition of substantial giving to non-materialist causes such as education, religion, and art is so ingrained. Nor does the quest of money in itself, as distinct from the comfort, power, and security that it can buy, seem at all common. Where it does exist, it is undoubtedly irrational. On the other side, the glorification of poverty as such seems as irrational as that of wealth. ‘But it remains true, nevertheless, that this glorification—the word is scarcely too strong—of poverty, or at least of the freedom from material possessions, as in itself a state of blessedness, is a note not only of all the Gospels, but of most of the other great religious books that have moved the world.’8

The emphasis is strongest in the gospel of Luke. In its first chapter is the song of Mary, described by Bernard Shaw as the most revolutionary of songs: ‘he hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree. He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away.’ Again, ‘Blessed be ye poor, for yours is the kingdom of God’. ‘Woe unto you that are rich!’ (6:20, 24). In the same book, ‘a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day,’ had at his gate a beggar named Lazarus, ‘full of sores’. At their death, Lazarus went to heaven and the rich man to hell, where his pleas to Abraham for release from the fire and a warning to his relatives were disregarded. There is no explanation of the disparity of treatment except that the one is rich and the other poor (Luke 16:19–31). In some other cases the explanation is added that one cannot serve God and Mammon, as it was when the young man of ‘great possessions’ was sent away and told to sell all he had and give the proceeds to the poor (Matt. 19:16–22). But the comment that follows, ‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God,’ suggests that it is not only difficult but impossible for the rich man to reach the kingdom. Wealth is repeatedly denounced as such, and poverty as such exalted.

At the same time the rewards held out for avoiding the one and espousing the other are surprising. When Peter heard the denunciation of wealth, he reminded his Master in the name of the disciples that ‘we have forsaken all and followed thee; what shall we have therefore?’ Two somewhat different answers are given. In Mark the answer is that everyone who has forsaken all for the Master's sake ‘shall receive an 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’ (10:30). In Matthew the hundredfold return is also promised, but with the further promise to the disciples that when the kingdom comes they ‘shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel’ (19:28). This leaves the waters less than clear. It encourages the cultivation of poverty less for itself or as a means to spiritual purification than as a step to preferment, enrichment, and power.

A rational moralist can hardly endorse any of these motives for avoiding wealth and embracing poverty. Wealth does, beyond doubt, increase the temptation to indolence, self-indulgence, and arrogance, but it does not by itself produce them, and in the freedoms it offers—freedom to educate oneself, freedom to choose one's own course of life, freedom from gnawing want and worry—its opportunities surely outweigh its disadvantages. There are those who would deny this and praise poverty, among them, strangely enough, the economist and moralist Adam Smith. ‘In ease of body and peace of mind,’ he wrote, ‘all the different ranks of life are nearly upon a level, and the beggar who suns himself by the side of the highway possesses that security which kings are fighting for.’9 His defence is unconvincing. Security is, above all, what poverty lacks. There can be no certainty about health where there is uncertainty about food and medical care; and it is sentimentality rather than experience that considers it an advantage to be without the means of travel, leisure, a library, an adequate diet, insurance against accident and sickness, and an assured future for one's family. The New Testament acclaim of poverty seems irrational unless made in the expectancy of an early end to the existing order, and in that case it sprang from an outlook so far from accordance with fact as to reflect doubt about other injunctions as well.

Modern man can hardly accept, then, the Christian teaching about poverty as a means to the enrichment of the spirit. Still less can he accept this so far as it appeals to the other two motives we have mentioned. Poverty in itself, like wealth in itself, is morally neutral; its values and disvalues are instrumental; and it is a mistake to seek either of them for itself. As for the end envisioned by Peter and the other disciples, namely a hundredfold windfall in the satisfaction of very earthly desires, it added to error a touch of ignobility.

We should add, in fairness to the first Christian teaching, that along with its theoretical exaltation of poverty went a noble practical effort to relieve it. Jesus was in the straight line of those Hebrew prophets who insisted on the duty of mercy to the poor and the suffering. ‘Is not this the fast that I have chosen?’ said Isaiah, ‘to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? When thou seest the naked, that thou cover him…?’ (58:6, 7). Nothing like this sympathy for the poor is to be found among the moralists of Greece; the charity of Aristotle's ‘high-minded’ man was a mere feeling of noblesse oblige, with an eye on the figure cut by the giver rather than on the needs of the recipients. Jesus inherited to the full the prophetic feeling of duty to relieve poverty while maintaining, with no apparent sense of inconsistency, that the poor were better off spiritually than the rich.


13 In contrasting Greek naturalism with Christian otherworldli-ness, we mentioned the Greek stress on art and music, and it is appropriate at this point to ask whether Christian and secular views agree on the place of these things in the good life. It must be admitted that there is almost as sharp a conflict here between the Greek and the Judaic strain in our civilisation as there is on the place of intellect. The Greeks were of course lovers of beauty. Where would one look, even today, for things more perfect in their kind than the Milonian Venus or the Victory of Samothrace, the plays of Sophocles or the architecture of the Acropolis? What would Jesus have said of these things, or of the artists who gave their lives to creating them? We do not certainly know. He was, presumably, never exposed to them. He was not, indeed, insensitive to things of beauty. He considered the lilies of the field, was familiar with the poetry of the Old Testament, and told parables that had a simple beauty of their own. But it seems not unfair to say that, in his teaching, that side of life which finds its flowering in the art and sculpture, the literature, music, and architecture of the world was left almost a blank. His immediate followers, indeed, read his attitude toward these things as negative; ‘the lust of the eye,’ construed by man as the love of visual beauty, as well as ‘the lust of the flesh,’ was condemned as ‘not of the Father, but of the world’. It is perfectly true, of course, that we owe to the Christian church the patronage of some of the most magnificent art in history, notably the great mediaeval cathedrals and the paintings that grace the walls of Italian churches. But these were hybrid products, due to the crossing of Christianity with the Renaissance, the Gothic spirit, and much else. In the early church no paintings were allowed except of plants and animals, and even in the years of the church's great power the leaders who remained closest to the pure and primitive teaching—St Francis, St Bruno, St Bernard, Savonarola—were puritans about the fine arts.


14 Any comparison of Greek with Christian ethics is bound to touch on their contrasting notions in another area, civic duty. Aristotle defined a state as ‘an association of similar persons for the attainment of the best life possible,’ holding that the individual man could achieve this life only in and through his service to the state. Plato also made the good life rest on one's station and its duties within the state. It cannot be said that the Greeks were very successful either in the theory or the practice of politics; even Athens, the most enlightened and democratic of their states, was far from democratic in the modern sense. At the end of the fourth century BC it had about four times as many slaves as citizens; ‘the slave,’ said Aristotle, ‘is a tool with life in it, and the tool a lifeless slave’. Women also were excluded from public life. Nevertheless, the role of persons fortunate enough to be citizens was dignified and exacting, and included the duty of serving on occasion as soldier, public speaker, political leader, and judge of the arts. According to Aristotle the business of a man lay in performing his function in the social organism just as the business of a hand is to serve as an organ of the physical body, and neither the hand nor the man would be what it is if amputated from the whole.

What was the Christian view of civic duty? It was certainly not a blank, for the comprehensive duty of good will toward one's fellows dictated the temper in which all political activities should be carried on. But it is notorious that men of good will may turn up on the political battlefield as enemies, and if one looks beyond the rule of good will for definite guidance from the teaching of Jesus, one will look in vain. ‘It never seems to have occurred to him that his moral principles could have any political application,’10 says James Seth; ‘It is impossible in the Gospels,’ says Percy Gardner, ‘to find any statement of men's duties to the organised state’.11 Dean Inge remarks that Jesus ‘never showed any interest in economic questions,’12 and laments that ‘the original Gospel leaves us with no clear guidance or encouragement in what for many men and women to-day is the purest and most disinterested of their aspirations—the desire to help in making human life in this world a better thing in the future than it is now’.13 Some thoughtful men have been outspokenly critical of Christianity for this lack of concern. Whitehead remarks that’ a sense of responsibility for the continuance of a social system is basic to any morality. Now this form of responsibility is almost entirely absent from Christianity. Jesus hardly mentions it, except for one or two remarks. ‘Christianity, Whitehead goes on,’ held that the externals of life are not worth caring about and at the same time insisted on types of moral conduct which cannot be observed—without perishing—unless the externals of life are sufficiently well organised. A society run on strictly Christian principles could not survive at all.’14 And Ernest Renan, discussing this political detachment, goes so far as to say that ‘Christianity, in this sense, has contributed much to weaken the sense of duty of the citizen, and to deliver the world into the absolute power of existing circumstances’.15

This is obviously not the whole truth, since it would be equally easy to show that Christianity has done much to deliver the world from existing circumstances. But the vagueness of gospel teaching here is undeniable.’ Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's. ‘But what things are Caesar's? The state commonly claims the right to dip deep into its citizens’ pockets and use the money thus gained to make war, to give or withhold education, to lay down and enforce the rules of marriage, of property, of freedom or restriction in speech, activity, and art, of justice between man and man, of the punishment of offenders, of the treatment of one race or sex or class by another. The state has the power to make or break any of its citizens. Do we owe loyalty to it or not? ‘Render unto Caesar’ sounds as if we did. And this is the interpretation placed on it by the early church. Indeed Paul went further and put divine patronage behind the state. ‘The powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power resisteth the ordinance of God; and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation’ (Romans 13:1, 2). ‘The teaching of the Early Fathers on the subject,’ says Lecky, ‘is perfectly unanimous and unequivocal. Without a single exception, all who touched upon the subject pronounced active resistance to the established authorities to be under all circumstances sinful. If the law enjoined what was wrong it should be disobeyed, but no vice and no tyranny could justify revolt.’16 Disobedience permissible, but not resistance! This is perilously close to self-contradiction, since disobeying a law and resisting it are commonly supposed to be the same thing. What is apparently meant is that one owes obedience to the law except where disobedience is required by conscience at the behest of a divine command. And even then violence is to be eschewed.


15 Here one comes to the most definite crystallisation of the law of love in the sphere of civic duty. Whether in dealing with the demands of the state or the malevolence of other persons, one is never to resort to violence, however unreasonable the demand may be. Resist not evil; give the soft answer; if a man strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other; forgive seventy times seven, that is, indefinitely. The assumption is that if the person offended is able to meet his offender with a wholly genuine good will, the good that is in the offender, as it is in all men, will be stirred into life and his malevolence be disarmed. This was a new element in moral teaching. Good will to one's neighbour, even the love of one's neighbour as oneself, was an old injunction of the Mosaic law, but to love your enemies, to do good to those that despitefully use you and persecute you, this was an immense extension by Jesus of the older morality. That it does in numberless cases have the effect of shaming the offender and turning him to reason again is in no need of argument here.

Non-violence was so firmly taught in the early church that soldiers were excluded from membership and were admitted only three years after their discharge. ‘When the Lord deprived Peter of the sword,’ said Tertullian, ‘he disarmed all’. Firm as this teaching was, however, it must be added that neither the personal example of Jesus nor the later teaching of the church was wholly consistent with it. Jesus overturned the tables of the money-changers and drove them out of the temple with a whip. The attitude of most churches, Catholic and Protestant, is probably expressed in the 37th article of the Church of England: ‘It is lawful for Christian men, at the commandment of the Magistrate, to wear weapons, and to serve in the wars.’17 In the course of time Christianity drifted far from its original moorings. St Louis and St Joan of Arc were sainted in spite of, or because of, being military heroes; Oliver Cromwell and ‘Chinese Gordon’ and Stonewall Jackson were formidable Christian warriors. But they were certainly not Christians in the New Testament sense.18 The Hindu Gandhi was nearer to the spirit of Christ than any of them.

16 Our interest, however, is not in historical changes but in how the teaching of Jesus stands in the eyes of philosophical moralists. It is clear that such moralists, while deprecating in most cases the resort to violence, would not do so universally. They would depart from a thoroughgoing pacifism, I suspect, in at least three respects. The first has to do with the relation of person to person, the second with the relation of the group to the individual, the third with that of groups to each other.

(1) It was with the first of these, the relation of man to man, with which Jesus was exclusively concerned. An attitude of good will toward one's brother man seemed to him incompatible with a readiness to harm him. The secular moralist, while agreeing that gentleness is normally the right approach, points out that there are some men in any society who take such gentleness as an invitation to exploit it to their own advantage—the bullies, the sadists, the moral morons, persons who are mentally and morally diseased—and that reasonable men are not called upon to capitulate to these outlaws. Gandhi could use moral suasion on such an ‘enemy’ as Lord Halifax because Lord Halifax was also a man of good will, who invited Gandhi to come and pray with him for joint guidance; but what did non-resistance gain for the Jews as against Hitler and his thugs? When one is faced with a ‘mugger’ in the streets or a gunman invading one's home, it is no doubt often the part of prudence to offer no resistance and comply with his demands, but is it one's duty to do so if resistance is feasible? Popular judgement would not say so, nor would the judgement of the secular moralist. The case becomes stronger if the attack is made not on oneself but (say) on a member of one's family; for here the very principle of love for others may dictate the stronger line. Passive surrender to thieves and thugs is more likely to enlarge their ranks than to win them over to reasonableness.


‘Christianity, faithfully presented,’ says Dean Inge, ‘is a creed for heroes’;19 and so it has often proved, if the heroism called for is that required for facing persecution or even martyrdom. How then can it have attracted such jibes as Mencken's about its ‘weakness for weakness,’ or Nietzsche's compendious insult to ‘cows, women, sheep, Christians, dogs, Englishmen, and other democrats’? The answer is that while the standards of Jesus regarding the courage of endurance and sacrifice were lofty and exacting, he seems to have had no use for the kind of courage that the world most admires. ‘For him’, says Warner Fite, ‘the all-important thing was that the impulse to self-assertion be completely rooted out.’20 And this takes a great deal with it. The courage of the Greeks at Marathon, which saved the civilisation of the West, the courage of chivalry, with its strange blend of Christian charity and Gothic combativeness, the courage that sprang, in Burke's panegyric, from ‘that chastity of honour which felt a stain like a wound,’ the courage that carried Lindbergh across the Atlantic, the courage of the athlete, the astronaut, the pioneer, the soldier—courage of all these kinds fell outside the interest and attention of the gospels. The courage they inculcated was not that of the natural man, standing on his own honour and intelligence, but one that rested on faith in a supernatural power; not one that bent nature and human nature to its ends, but one that seemed to imbue frail men and women with a will not their own, through which they could keep the world, the flesh, and the devil at bay. It was the courage of a double passivity; by being passive to the divine influences, they achieved the power to meet passively temptations of the flesh and the affronts of the world. Indeed there was little point in any other kind of courage if the end of all things was imminent; and some have thought that Jesus’ coolness toward worldly courage reflected his views on the impending fate of all things worldly.

However that may be, the rational moralist would not depreciate natural courage. He would admit that it is a dangerous quality, which may intensify vice as well as virtue, and has been displayed in generous measure by criminals and brigands. Nevertheless, it has held a central place in men's admiration, as is suggested by its very names; the Greeks called it andreia, manliness, the quality of being a man; the English name, ‘courage’, comes from the Latin cor, the heart. It connotes self-respect and self-reliance, trust in one's own values, seriousness in a cause while not taking onself too seriously to incur risks in its behalf. ‘Courage,’ said Emerson, ‘is that virtue without which one cannot be sure of retaining any other’. Courage of this kind is more closely akin to pride, which Christianity would put low, than to humility, which it places high. The low estimate of this secular courage is part of that general transvaluation of worldly values which makes the Christian ethics at once so challenging and so difficult of acceptance.21

17(2) The second point at which Christian pacifism runs counter to modern thought is the relation of state to individual. Most political philosophers have thought that a chief aim of the state is to protect the life, liberty, and property of its citizens. One outlaw at large in a community can terrorise all the rest, and the only practicable means by which such persons can be restrained is a police force, acting on behalf of the citizens generally. And if it is to deal with criminal behaviour, such a force must be prepared to use coercion, sometimes in violent form. How is a Christian to act who is a member of this force? As a Christian, he must follow the injunction to resist not evil; as an officer of the law, he is committed to resisting it to the limit. The two duties cannot be reconciled. Most theologians would now agree that the prime Christian duty of loving one's fellows requires protective action on the community's part; the restraint of malefactors by force is an indispensable means to the general good.22 (That is why the attempt of extremists to brand the police generally as ‘pigs’ is an affront to the community whose agents they are.) The argument is so irresistible that one can hardly conceive that Jesus would reject it. He could accept it, however, only by abandoning his sweeping mandate against violence. Is there any way of saving Christian consistency here? Only, one suspects, by holding that Jesus did not envisage his followers in political office at all. In his own time, there was no call on them to enter it, and the vast complex of modern government, with its public servants in tens of thousands, was wholly beyond his horizon. But to say this is to admit that his ethics was a prescription for a simpler age, which does not necessarily apply under the conditions of modern society. That conclusion seems beyond escape.

18(3) The third field where the injunction against violence might apply, the relations between groups, is even farther from the sort of situation Jesus had in mind. Deeply concerned as he was about the conduct of individuals toward each other, he had nothing to say about the conduct of states toward each other, and hence nothing about war. He might very naturally have expressed himself on it, for in the Old Testament, with which he was familiar, there was much on the glories and atrocities of war. He never mentions them, and we can only arrive by inference at his judgement on making or participating in war. His disciple Peter once had an interview with the centurion Cornelius, who commanded a cohort in the Roman army, but there is no hint in the record of any disapproval of the soldier's calling. There can be little real doubt, however, of Jesus’ teaching on this matter. War involved the killing of human beings, often of innocent and helpless human beings; and the firm mandate against violence to the individual would hold with multiplied force against the mass slaughter of war.

Whoever realises what an elementary modern bomb did to Hiroshima and what a war on a modern scale could do to New York or Moscow must look with sympathy on any sort of proposal for preventing such a conflict. Even if war is admitted to have made sense at Marathon and Tours, it does not follow that it would make sense now; in a war between America and the only power that could threaten it, victory would be hardly distinguishable from devastating defeat. But an argument straight from this to the primitive Christian conclusion of complete non-resistance and the acceptance of dictation by an enemy is not convincing either. The logic of the case is the same as that of conflict between individuals. There are nations, as there are men, who trample upon the rights of others, usually proclaiming that they are acting in self-defence; the longest war in American history was fought in ‘self-defence’ against a small power on the other side of the earth. When one individual is attacked by another, it is often the part of prudence to capitulate; the same is true when one nation is attacked by another; it would have been futile for Czechoslovakia to try to throw back the Russian tanks. But a general capitulation to ruffians would be intolerable, and on the individual level, reasonable men have solved the problem in an obvious way. They have organised themselves into a community, commissioning certain of their number to draw up equitable rules, and to enforce them with all necessary vigour. Foreseeing the difficulties on occasion of identifying the lawbreaker, they have set up courts to resolve such difficulties. The problem has thus been solved simply and rationally. The same reasoning is applicable to that larger community in which the units are themselves communities. To employ war to settle disputes between nations is as mindless as a resort to mayhem to settle the borders of one's lot with a neighbour; any resemblance to justice that may be secured by either method is purely coincidental.

Can the same be said of war when it is of the very exceptional kind that is waged by an international government against a nation that has taken things into its own hands? Clearly not. The use or threat of force is as legitimate, because as necessary, to restrain national banditry as it is to restrain individual bandits, and if the international anarchy that has hitherto obtained is ever to be replaced, it will be by an organisation of this kind. The difficulties are of course enormous, but they are not difficulties of logic or ethics, where the case is plain, but of psychology. Nations must give up some part of their independence; they must believe in a reason that transcends prejudices and international boundaries; and they must be willing to hand over to a super-national government the control of the major weapons of destruction. That the 130 governments now in the United Nations, and particularly the half dozen most powerful ones, can be induced to take this line before the outbreak of Armageddon does not seem very probable. However that may be, there is only one way out of anarchy, whether individual or national.

Such a way might involve a war of all against one, and therefore consistent Christian pacifists would have to oppose it, just as they would oppose war between individual nations. They would no doubt remind us that war involves killing, and that if every soul is of infinite value in the sight of its Creator, no gain can be worth the price. But unless two souls of infinite value are of no more value than one, the argument proves the opposite of what was intended. If the nations that disapproved of Japan's invasion of Manchuria in 1931, or of Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, or of Hitler's invasion of the Ruhr in 1936, had acted instantly and jointly against the aggressor, the aggression either would not have been carried out or would have been thrown back by overwhelming power. Such action would have halted the wave of aggressions which, because permitted to continue, mounted into the deluge of World War II. It might have cost thousands of lives, but it would have saved millions of lives. And a million lives of infinite value are worth more than a thousand. A thorough-going pacifism seems to me inconsistent with a Christian love that is really directed to the good of mankind.

To summarise what we have said on Christianity and force: Jesus believed that in personal relations good will would disarm malevolence. There was far more truth in this than had ever before been discerned, and his own life gave moving evidence of it. But the truth did not prove to be universal; it did not, indeed, disarm the malevolence of his own enemies. As for the relation of the state to its citizens, or of states to each other, he taught nothing directly, and if one tries to solve the problems of these fields through merely personal good will, there is little or no likelihood of success.


19 Let us look now at some of the barriers that continue to divide men from each other, and the Christian teaching about them. Christianity, with its doctrine of good will toward all men, has been a potent influence in lowering the ancient fences of nationality, race, and sex. The opposition of Jesus to these barriers has been taken so much as a matter of course that it may be well to remind ourselves of his actual words.

There is a tradition in the church that Peter was the apostle to the Hebrews and Paul the apostle to the Gentiles, and so far as this means that Paul was the first Christian spokesman to give the gospel explicitly a cosmopolitan application, it is true. Perhaps it will be objected that this universal application was implicit from the first in the injunction to love one's fellows, and this too may be true. But Jesus’ own words do not consistently yield that interpretation. On one of his journeys, a woman who was ‘a Greek, a Syrophenician by nation,’ came to him and begged his aid, saying that her daughter was ‘grievously vexed with a devil’. Here is the passage that follows:

But he answered her not a word. And his disciples came and besought him, saying, Send her away; for she crieth after us. But he answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Then came she and worshipped him, saying, Lord, help me. But he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children's bread, and cast it to dogs. And she said, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table (Matt. 15:23–27). And he said unto her, For this saying go thy way; the devil is gone out of thy daughter (Mark 7:29).

The commentators have not known what to make of this passage. It expressly limits the mission of Jesus to the Jews, and seems to accept the Jewish national feeling of separation from other peoples. Nor does it stand alone. When Jesus sent out the twelve Apostles, he ‘commanded them, saying, Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not: but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (Matt. 10:5, 6). Again, when after the death of Jesus Peter was invited to visit the home of Cornelius, he felt it necessary to explain to his friends that though it was ‘an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to keep company, or come unto one of another nation,’ God had just granted to him a special vision saying that he ‘should not call any man common or unclean’ (Acts 10:28). Would this explanation have been necessary to a Christian group who had already been taught by Jesus that all such barriers were down?

The German Orientalist Reimarus thought the conclusion inescapable that Jesus shared the Jewish nationalism of his time. Passages may be cited on the other side, notably the injunction of the risen Christ, ‘Go ye, therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost’. But Reimarus showed that this was probably an addition to the gospel, made by the church at a later date. The reason is not merely that it commands the baptism of converts, whereas Jesus did not himself baptise anyone;23 the difficulty is that Jesus is represented as inculcating the dogma of the Trinity, a dogma of which the synoptic gospels knew nothing. How are the universal and the rationalist aspects of his teaching to be reconciled? Probably they cannot be. He may well have accepted both. Nothing is more certain about his teaching than the injunction to love mankind; but love was an inward attitude which, when translated into practice on different occasions and toward different persons took very various forms. Good will would flow most easily into the channels already marked out by the law and custom of his people. If these channels were too narrow, it is not impossible that they should have held back and even tainted the clear waters at the source. There is evidence of struggle in the mind of Jesus to overcome the obstacles imposed by the prejudices of his time. Of course if he was omnipotent Deity, such a struggle would be meaningless. On the other hand, if he was merely a great man, his struggle and imperfect success would be intelligible and natural. It is the lot of mortals, even the best.


20 Did Jesus offer any teaching about race? No, except as implicit in his doctrine of love. Nor did he take any stand on an institution that has often been associated in history with racism, namely slavery. If he had turned his attention to the issue, would he have spoken more clearly about it than he did on nationalism? It is less than certain. Slavery had been a common practice among his own people, and in the Old Testament there were regulations governing it. ‘Both thy bondmen, and thy bondmaids, which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are round about you; of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids’ (Lev. 25:44 and cf. Exod. 21). It is hard to suppose that Jesus would have approved slavery, as Aristotle did, but though he suspended a number of Old Testament teachings, there is no record of his having repudiated this one. Nor does it seem to be challenged elsewhere in the New Testament. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians urged ‘servants’, a term translated by Ballantine and Goodspeed as ‘slaves’, to ‘be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ…’ (6:5); and the brief book of Philemon is a letter of Paul's, transmitted by a runaway slave to his master, in which the apostle returns him to his owner with a plea for generous treatment.

Many persons have been shocked by this acquiescence in a custom so repellent to the modern mind. But it must be remembered that this custom was widespread in both the Greek and Roman empires and that to most of the ancient world it seemed eminently natural. The Christian spirit, though in the long run a principal agency in destroying the custom, took more than a thousand years to achieve this in Europe, and many centuries more to achieve it elsewhere. The attitude of the early Christians was curiously ambiguous. On the one hand, they were committed by the express teaching of their master to sympathy with the poor and the oppressed, and this sympathy was the more genuine because many of them were themselves former slaves or even still in bondage; it has been pointed out that most of the names that Paul salutes in the epistle to the Romans are names borne by the servile classes. The attraction of Christianity for those in servitude was increased by its exaltation of the virtues that a servant class had of necessity to acquire—meekness, obedience, resignation, the patient bearing of ills and affronts. Slaves who became Christians and found their peculiar virtues—so remote from pagan virtues—now a badge of moral distinction felt a new self-respect, and some of them went on to become leaders in the Christian community. By the end of the first century a slave, Evaristus, had ascended every level of the Christian hierarchy, becoming successively deacon, priest, bishop, and finally Pope of Rome.

On the other hand, these very Christians were so accustomed to the institution of slavery that they found it natural. They conceived their mission as less to destroy it than to humanise it by imbuing the masters with charity and the slaves with loyalty. ‘Slavery,’ says Lecky, ‘was distinctly and formally recognised by Christianity, and no religion ever laboured more to encourage a habit of docility and passive obedience’.24 The church fathers, though they regarded the manumission of slaves as meritorious, remained curiously acquiescent in the institution. As late as the sixth century Gregory the Great, who was the first of the temporal princes of the church and who was elevated to sainthood, was the master of a great number of slaves, though he also freed many as an act of piety. The incongruity with the Christian spirit of buying and selling one's fellows entered more acutely with time into the awareness of the church, and after the twelfth century slavery in Europe was melted down into mediaeval serfdom, which, to be sure, was not always an improvement. The institution lingered for long, even within the boundaries of Christian powers—in the British Empire until 1833, in the United States until 1863, in Brazil until 1888.


21 A more ineradicable division of mankind than that arising from either nationality or race is that of sex. Here again the account of the Christian attitude must follow a line by now familiar; a teaching on the part of Jesus that is hardly more than a spirit or tendency crystallises itself in course of time into a set of rules that are far more questionable.

The attitude toward women supplied to Jesus by his inheritance was Oriental, not European; and the contemporary Jewish view of woman was not high. Westermarck points out that the Jews ‘both permitted and practised polygamy in the beginning of the Christian era’.25 The Old Testament taught that through the agency of woman sin and death had come into the world, and both the Jewish prophets and the church fathers regarded her as a standing source of temptation. The wife was not considered the equal of her husband either in fact or in right; her business was to minister to him, to bear him children, and to attend to the details of the household. Even in the paean of praise in the book of Proverbs to ‘the virtuous woman’ whose ‘price is far above rubies’ (31:10 ff.), there is no intimation of equal companionship or romantic love: ‘She layeth her hands to the spindle, and her hands hold the distaff.… She looketh well to the ways of her household, and eateth not the bread of idleness.’ Indeed the singer of these praises may have purchased her from her father with hard money. This seems to have been common practice among the ancient Hebrews, though if a man could not produce the purchase price he could offer the girl's father the equivalent in work, as Jacob did in buying Rachel and Leah from their father Laban (Gen. 31). Divorce was, for the husband relatively easy, though for the wife all but impossible. ‘When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her, then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house’ (Deut. 24:1). There is no mention in the Hebrew law of a right of divorce on the woman's part, though it seems to have been occasionally recognised in later times for leprosy or extreme disfigurement in the husband. It was assumed that a woman needed a male guardian; and as Hobhouse points out, if she lost her husband, ‘the husband's brother, in fact, had the duty of marrying the widow, and, failing the brother, the obligation fell on the kindred’.26 In the book of Ruth, often thought of as a Hebrew love story, Ruth, who has lost her husband, becomes the ward of her rich kinsman Boaz, who first offers her to a relative and then, when the offer is not accepted, announces that he has ‘purchased’ her himself. No doubt the law of a country is not an adequate reflection of what happens among actual men and women, and Hebrew customs mellowed with time. But in the Palestine of Jesus’ day, the position of women was still a grimly subordinate one.

What was his own attitude toward this position? It must be gleaned not from his express teaching but from the few scattered anecdotes that touch upon his relations with women. What emerges most notably from such a gleaning is his freedom from convention or stereotype in his dealings with them. The scribes and Pharisees brought to him a woman taken in adultery, obviously with the intention of catching him in a dilemma. The Mosaic law said that a woman so taken should be stoned. If Jesus supported this law, he would be flouting his doctrine of love; if he opposed it, he would be giving his critics grounds for denouncing him as a heretic. He did neither. He said to the accusers, ‘He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her’; and one by one they vanished. When they had gone, and he was left alone with the woman, he said, ‘Neither do I condemn thee; go, and sin no more’ (John 8:7, 11). The implication was not that adultery was sinless but that he forgave her in spite of the sin. Then there is the story of how, when Jesus was dining with a friend, a woman of some notoriety for loose morals came in, impulsively washed his feet, dried them with her hair, and poured upon him an expensive ointment that she had treasured in an ‘alabaster box’. The disciples, complaining about her waste of means, apparently wished that he would rebuke her and have her thrown out. He rebuked the disciples instead. As for the woman, he said, ‘her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much…’ (Luke 7:36–50; Matt. 26:6–13). In the story of the Samaritan woman, as given in John, he astonished the disciples by talking with her freely, as Jews were forbidden to do. With Mary and Martha, sisters of Lazarus, he was on terms of easy familiarity. What these facts suggest is a freer intimacy with and understanding of women than were common among his people, a special responsiveness, sympathy, and compassion for them. He treated them not as servants or chattels or objects of desire, but as persons, and persons with whom, as having a special gift of affection, he could feel a special affinity.

This affinity in turn throws light on his own nature. If Christianity has always possessed a stronger appeal for women than for men, this is not an accident. The exalted position of the virgin mother has something to do with it, but much also is due to what may be called the feminine characteristics of Jesus himself. This side of his nature has been well brought out by A. E. Garvie.

‘It is supremely significant that love, the grace of the home, and not justice, the virtue of the State, is made the first and greatest commandment (Mk xii, 29–31). The child is nearer, means more, to the mother than to the father; and Jesus understood and cared for children (Matt. xi, 16, xviii, 2–3, xix, 13–15). Does not the modesty of the woman appear in His reference to the lustful glance (Matt. v, 28)…? His defence of the offering of love shows not only His active but also His receptive affectionateness, His yearning for, as well as bestowal of, the generosities of the heart. He was not only intensely emotional, but quick in expressing His emotions (Jn xi, 33, 38; Mk vii, 34, viii, 12…). His tenderness, gentleness, patience, and forbearance are more distinctively feminine than masculine graces. In His resignation and obedience to His Father's will (Matt. xi, 26, 29) is there not a womanly rather than a manly submissiveness? The prominence He gives in the Beatitudes to the passive graces of endurance rather than the active virtues of endeavour (Matt. v, 3–10) vindicates the distinctive excellence of womanhood.… The mind of Jesus was intuitive rather than ratiocinative; His moral judgment was swift and sure; His spiritual discernment direct; and these are characteristic of women rather than of men.’27

22 Though Jesus felt a certain comradeship with women, there is no indication of his having felt a sexual interest in them. Of course, one cannot draw any sure conclusion from such silence. It was the almost universal expectation and custom of Hebrew youths to marry before the age at which he began his ministry, and it has been argued with some plausibility that he too had followed the custom of his country. But this is speculation. What is not speculation is that he drew a line between agape and eros, between the Christian love of a woman as a person and the desire for a person as a woman, and that he exalted the first type of love and depreciated the second. The mere stirring of sexual desire, apart from any action upon it, he seems to have regarded as evil; ‘whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart’ (Matt. 5:28). One must note also the strange declaration: ‘there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the realm of heaven. Let anyone practice it for whom it is practicable’ (Matt. 19:12, Moffatt's trans.). Here one seems to see in the bud that teaching of the separation of flesh and spirit which was to grow under the influence of St Paul into a doctrine of war between two levels of human nature. The very different notion which was adumbrated in Dante, which came into an early bloom in the ‘courtly love’ of the Renaissance, and which has been familiar to all since Freud, that sex is the root of romance and that the romantic yeast is a leaven permeating the whole life of the spirit, is an idea quite foreign to the New Testament. The Greeks seem not to have developed the sense of sexuality as evil; Socrates acknowledged a debt to the instruction of a courtesan Diotima, and near his death, had a friendly discussion with another, Theodota, as to how she could ply her trade most successfully. But the Greeks did not hold the advantage over Christianity in this field that they held in some others we have considered, for in spite of their exaltation of the natural man, they tolerated sex practices that were notoriously unnatural. It is curious and tragic what a chaos has been made of sex by the chief contributors to Western culture. Greek naturalism was so permissive as to encourage perversions of sex, and Christianity so suspicious as to try to suppress it. In the life and teaching of Jesus himself, little is to be found about it, though that little is negative enough to carry the seeds of later trouble.

23 On one matter, indeed, Jesus forsakes the generality of most of his teaching and lays down a definite rule. This matter is divorce. In both Mark (10:11) and Luke (16:18) he declares against divorce unconditionally. But in two passages of Matthew (5:32 and 19:9) he is described as abandoning this sweeping prohibition and allowing an exception for adultery. The inconsistency is so clear as to nullify by itself any claim of the Biblical text to inerrancy. Does it commit us to the view that on this issue the teaching of Jesus was itself contradictory? Not necessarily. Mark is the oldest of the gospels, and a chief source for both Matthew and Luke. On Jesus’ teaching about divorce, Luke follows the rigorist line of Mark. The question, then, is whether to accept as authentic the joint teaching of Mark and Luke or the divergent teaching of Matthew. The former course is the more plausible. Matthew was apparently the latest of the synoptic writers; he is known in other cases to have introduced modifications of the original teaching to suit new conditions; in his report of the teaching about divorce he closely follows the passage in Mark except for the clause about adultery; and the most natural explanation of the inconsistency is that this clause was a later insertion, designed to ease the rigour of the original teaching. If this inference is correct, Jesus taught the strictest monogamy. Whether this teaching depended on his belief in an imminent end of the world is presumably beyond knowing.

24 Both the friendliness Jesus felt for women and his rigorist teaching about divorce suggest a respect for them that went beyond the attitudes of his time. There are two circumstances, however, which show that this advance had definite limits. One is that of the twelve Apostles he selected to carry his message to the world none was a woman. The other is of a different and unexpected kind, namely the treatment he accorded his mother. This may be a surprise to Catholics, among whom the adoration of the Virgin amounts almost to worship.28 The record shows a curious coolness toward her. At the wedding feast in Cana, she reminded her son that the guests had run out of wine. His reply began, ‘Woman, what have I to do with thee?’ When he was discoursing to a closely packed crowd, word was brought to him that his mother and brothers were on the outskirts of it and wanted to speak to him. ‘And he answered them, saying, Who is my mother, or my brethren? And he looked round about on them which sat about him, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren!’ (Mark 3:32–34). In the same chapter is recorded an attempt, by his ‘relatives,’ of whom his mother may or may not have been one, to place him under restraint for being out of his mind. On another occasion, a woman in his company pronounced a heart-felt blessing on his mother, on which his evasive comment was, ‘Yea rather, blessed are they that hear the word of God, and keep it’ (Luke 11:28). Even the last words to his mother from the cross are hardly an exception to the general tenor. Mary and the apostle John were present; he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold thy son!’ and to John, ‘Behold thy mother!’ (John 19:26–27). As the account of a filial relationship, the record seems strangely cold. Far from supporting the church's exaltation of Mary, it shows surprisingly little affection on the part of such a son for what we are told was such a mother. What it rather suggests is coolness of feeling and lack of understanding between them.


25 In sum, Jesus’ attitude toward women presents itself to the reflective observer as a set of rather faint pluses and minuses which scarcely admit of a confident interpretation. What determined the posture of the church, however, was less the attitude of Jesus than of Paul. And Paul's position was forthright. Women were inferior human beings. They were daughters of that Eve who ‘brought sin into the world and all our woe’; and they remained weaker vessels, prone to sins of the flesh, and an enduring temptation to such sin on the part of mankind. Intimate relations with them were best avoided. ‘It is good for a man not to touch a woman.… I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, It is good for them if they abide even as I. But if they cannot contain, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn’ (1 Cor. 7:1, 8–9). Marriage was, for Paul, a second best, a refuge from fornication: ‘to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and every woman have her own husband’ (ibid. 7:2). What was to be their relation within marriage? Paul answered: ‘Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord… as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing’ (Ephes. 5:22, 24). Women could be church members, but ‘Let your women keep silence in the churches, for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience.… And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home, for it is a shame for women to speak in the church’ (1 Cor. 14:34–35). They should know their place, and stay in it. ‘Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence’ (1 Tim. 2:11–12).

Silence, submission, subjection, obedience! It was not an inspiriting role for women, nor one that a rational ethic could endorse. How could Paul have approved it? He was a generous man, who was able to say elsewhere that ‘there is neither male nor female, for ye are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Gal. 3:28). But he was under a variety of pressures that forced him to defect from this insight. In placing women in an inferior position, he was yielding to the general view of the eastern Mediterranean in his time. Furthermore, he shared the early Christian expectation that the world was soon to end, which affected the apparent timeliness of marrying and giving in marriage. Again, he was swayed by a theology, largely the product of his own fervid brain, which represented humankind as sunk in sin and abhorred by its Creator, who nevertheless was offering it a second chance through a second Adam if it abandoned its wicked ways and walked in the spirit. Finally, walking in the spirit was linked in Paul's thought with a dualism stressed by the ascetics and neo-Platonists of his day, a dualism of spirit and flesh. Plato had held that man was a twofold being, a participant through his senses in the world of change and decay, but also a participant through his mind in an eternal world of ideas. Paul too believed that man was a twofold creature, whose life was under competing controls, that of bodily impulse on the one hand, and on the other that of ‘the Christ that liveth in me’, the indwelling Holy Spirit. The body was a temple of this spirit, which should be kept clean and consecrated, and it suffered pollution if the passions of the flesh were allowed to have their way with it. Of all these passions, sex was the most wayward and unmanageable. A firm discipline of the will fortified by religious dedication was required to bring it under control; ‘I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection,’ says Paul in a passage that Moffat translates ‘I maul and master my body’ (1 Cor. 9:27). That man was safest who did not compromise with sex at all. ‘He that is unmarried careth for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord: But he that is married careth for the things of the world, how he may please his wife’ (1 Cor. 7:32–33).

In this suspicion and deprecation of sex, is Paul speaking the mind of Jesus? Dean Inge thought he was. ‘St Paul dwells on these [sexual offences] more than Christ ever did, but there is no reason to think that Christ would not have approved of all that he says.’29 I cannot think this is true, and if it is, the task of the Christian apologist in the modern world is certainly made more difficult. Bernard Shaw was perhaps nearer the truth, in spite of his characteristic exaggeration, when he said, ‘There has really never been a more monstrous imposition perpetrated than the imposition of the limitations of Paul's soul upon the soul of Jesus’.30

26 In any case, Paul's view of sex became the official view of the church. The early fathers dwelt with fascinated aversion on the dangers of sex, the wiles of woman, and the impurity of sex relations, regular or irregular. In his De Cultu Feminarum (i, 1) Tertullian spoke his mind to women:

Do you not know that you are each an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age; the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the devil's gateway; you are the unsealer of that [forbidden] tree; you are the first deserter of the divine law; you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God's image, man. On account of your desert—that is, death—even the Son of God had to die.31

Tertullian was not alone in these profound reflections. Lecky reports as follows the views of the church fathers generally:

‘Woman was represented as the door of hell, as the mother of all human ills. She should be ashamed at the very thought that she is a woman. She should live in continual penance, on account of the curses she has brought upon the world. She should be ashamed of her dress, for it is the memorial of her fall. She should be especially ashamed of her beauty, for it is the most potent instrument of the daemon.… Women were even forbidden by a provincial Council, in the sixth century, on account of their impurity, to receive the Eucharist into their naked hands. Their essentially subordinate position was continually maintained.’32

It would be a mistake to say that the ecclesiastical view of sex had no redeeming features. In making marriage a sacrament and likening it to the union of Christ with the church, it gave dignity and stability to the marriage relation; and when, after several centuries, the Virgin Mary began her ascent to a queenly position in the church, her less privileged sisters could feel a greater self-respect. Nevertheless, as Christianity prevailed in the Roman Empire and marriage became a religious sacrament rather than a civil contract, the ecclesiastical view became the standard view, and it prevailed through the Middle Ages. ‘In the whole feudal legislation’, says Lecky, ‘women were placed in a much lower legal position than in the Pagan Empire.’33 When the duty of submission to the husband's will is combined with a prohibition of divorce, women can scarcely be called free. Under the church's canon law, women's right of inheritance was narrowly limited, and since they were supposed to be weaker of mind as well as body, they received little encouragement to educate themselves or to qualify for a profession. Even within the church, though there were celibate sisterhoods that devoted themselves to admirable works of mercy, the priesthood and higher offices were reserved for men, and for that special class of men who were unsullied by marriage. St Jerome professed as one of his ends ‘to cut down by the axe of Virginity the wood of marriage’, though what he expected to remain after the wood was finally cleared is not quite plain. The Council of Trent, in its section on the sacrament of matrimony, decreed: ‘If anyone saith that the marriage state is to be placed above the state of virginity or of celibacy, and that it is not better and more blessed to remain in virginity or in celibacy than to be united in matrimony, let him be anathema.’ This was St Paul in formal dress. But Scriptural views on women were not confined to Paul's epistles, and the church took all Scripture to be inspired. Women were enjoined in Genesis to be fruitful and multiply; so in spite of its depreciation of marriage, the church opposed any artificial means of preventing conception. Genesis also said to women, ‘in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children,’ and this was enough to induce even some Presbyterians to inveigh against Dr J. Y. Simpson's introduction of chloroform to mitigate the pains of childbirth.

In the light of such attitudes as these, it can hardly be said that the line taken by Christian ethics regarding the relation between the sexes is that of a rational ethics. Some modern critics have been very emphatic about this. Bertrand Russell held that ‘Christian ethics inevitably, through the emphasis laid upon sexual virtue, did a great deal to degrade the position of women.… It is only in quite modern times that women have regained the degree of freedom which they enjoyed in the Roman Empire.’34 H. L. Mencken argued that ‘The emancipation of women… owes nothing to organized Christianity’.35 Both held that the recognition of women's rights sprang not from any religious vindication of those rights but rather from the free play of secular reason, which broke loose with the French Revolution and found expression in such writers as Mary Wollstonecraft and John Stuart Mill. If this contention is to be admitted, however, its bearing should be made more precise. ‘Christian ethics’ is a vague term. It commonly includes extraneous matter from three sources outside the teaching of Jesus himself: the Old Testament, which carries a heavy burden of Oriental legend and primitive morality, the teaching of St Paul, which on the issues in question was theologically warped, and the views of many religious leaders over the centuries. These views have varied greatly, but in too many important cases—those of the church fathers and Luther, for example—they were built on unexamined and untenable premises. To saddle the distortions that rose from these sources upon the original Christian ethic is scarcely just. Those distortions were neither produced by, nor consistent with, its central doctrine of loving consideration for all mankind. But then this doctrine, as we shall have further occasion to see, was not taught or applied with full consistency by Jesus himself. Its application to the great issue we have been discussing was vague enough to make misunderstanding inevitable.

  • 1.

    W. R. Inge, Christian Ethics and Modern Problems (N.Y., Putman, 1930), 55.

  • 2.

    Hastings Rashdall, Theory of Good and Evil (2nd edn, Oxford Univ. Press; London, Humphrey Milford, 1924), II, 293.

  • 3.

    Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics (2nd edn, London, Macmillan, 1877; p. 355), bk III, chap. 13, sec. 3.

  • 4.

    Ibid. (2nd edn, p. 356).

  • 5.

    J. S. Mill, Essay on Liberty (Everyman), 109.

  • 6.

    Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays, ed. by Paul Edwards (N.Y., Simon & Schuster's, 1957), 56.

  • 7.

    For an account of early Christian asceticism, see W. E. H. Lecky, History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne, II, 101–40, and Inge, op. cit., chap. 3.

  • 8.

    Paul Elmer More, Christianity and the Problems of Today (N.Y., Scribner's, 1922), 92.

  • 9.

    Adam Smith, Theory of the Moral Sentiments, pt IV, chap. 1.

  • 10.

    James Seth, Essays in Ethics and Religion (Edinburgh and London, Blackwood, 1926), 65.

  • 11.

    Percy Gardner, Evolution in Christian Ethics (London, Williams & Norgate, 1918), 236.

  • 12.

    W. R. Inge, Freedom, Love and Truth (Boston, Hale, Cushman & Flint, n.d.), 2.

  • 13.

    W. R. Inge, Vale (Longmans, Green, 1934), 93.

  • 14.

    Lucien Price, Dialogues of A. N. Whitehead, 262.

  • 15.

    Ernest Renan, The Life of Jesus (N.Y., Burt, 1897), 154.

  • 16.

    W. E. H. Lecky, Rise and Influence of Rationalism in Europe, II, 149.

  • 17.

    Bishop Henson points out, however, that the English versions leave out the essential word of the Latin text, which reads, ‘arma portare et justa bella administrare.’ H. H. Henson, Christian Morality (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1936), 255.

  • 18.

    Neither were the persons of whom Bertrand Russell, not very fairly, wrote as follows: ‘The First World War was wholly Christian in origin. The three emperors were devout, and so were the more warlike of the British Cabinet. Opposition to the war came, in Germany and Russia, from the Socialists, who were anti-Christian; in France, from Jaurès, whose assassin was applauded by earnest Christians; in England, from John Morley, a noted atheist.’ Why I Am Not a Christian, 203–4.

  • 19.

    Inge, Christian Ethics and Modern Problems, 41.

  • 20.

    Warner Fite, Jesus the Man (Harvard Univ. Press, 1946), 114.

  • 21.

    F. H. Bradley puts the point more uncompromisingly: ‘Universal love doubtless is a virtue, but tameness and baseness—to turn the cheek to every rascal who smites it, to suffer the robbery of villains and the contumely of the oppressor, to stand by idle when the helpless are violated and the land of one's birth in its death-struggle, and to leave honour and vengeance and justice to God above—are qualities that deserve some other epithet. The morality of the primitive Christians is that of a religious sect; it is homeless, sexless, and nationless. The morality of today rests on the family, on property, and on the nation. Our duty is to be members of the world we are in; to be in the world and not of it was their type of perfection. The moral chasm between us is, in short, as wide as the intellectual.…’ Collected Essays (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1935), I, 173–4.

  • 22.

    Cf. the following from Archbishop William Temple: ‘Force is entrusted to the state in order that the state may effectively prevent the lawless use of force; and from the moral standpoint the use of force to uphold a law designed for the general well-being against any who try to use force contrary to the general well-being is in a totally different class from the force which is thus kept in check.’ Christ and the Way to Peace, 15.

  • 23.

    The gospels, however, are contradictory on the point; cf. the denial in John 4:2, with the double affirmation in the previous chapter, John 3:22, 26.

  • 24.

    Lecky, History of European Morals (London, Longmans, 1882), II, 66.

  • 25.

    Edward Westermarck, Christianity and Morals (N.Y., Macmillan, 1939), 335.

  • 26.

    L. T. Hobhouse, Morals in Evolution (5th edn, Chapman & Hall, 1925), 199.

  • 27.

    A. E. Garvie, article ‘Womanliness,’ in James Hastings, ed., A Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels. Cf. Lecky: ‘The change from the heroic to the saintly ideal, from the ideal of Paganism to the ideal of Christianity, was a change from a type which was essentially male to one which was essentially feminine.’ History of Europeans Morals, II, 362.

  • 28.

    Pius IX in the bull Ineffabilis describes Mary as ‘the safest refuge for all who are in peril, the most trusty aid, and with her only begotten Son, the most powerful mediatrix and reconciler of the world.’

  • 29.

    Inge, Christian Ethics and Modern Problems, 80.

  • 30.

    Bernard Shaw, Preface to Androcles and the Lion.

  • 31.

    The passage from Tertullian is quoted from Westermarck, Christianity and Morals, 338.

  • 32.

    Lecky, History of European Morals, II, 338.

  • 33.

    Ibid., 339–40.

  • 34.

    B. Russell, Marriage and Morals (Garden City Pub. Co., 1929), 60–1.

  • 35.

    H. L. Mencken, Treatise on Right and Wrong (London, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1934), 41.

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