Thursday, 22 August 2013

THE FUTURE BIAS OF CHRISTIANITY.

THE TIME SPIRIT OF THE CENTURY.

A striking article appears in tho new number of the "Edinburgh Review," called "The Time Spirit of the Nineteenth Century." The paper is suggested by Mr. Balfour's Cambridge address on "The Nineteenth Century." The main object of the "Edinburgh" Reviewer (says the "Spectator") is to trace the growth of the new synthesis which has arisen during the past hundred years—i.e., the new "mental framework in which we arrange the separate facts in the world of men and things." The destruction of the old mental frame work, which was theological, began, he tells us, with the Renaissance, when for the first time the guesses of thinkers and the discoveries of science ceased to "be referred to theology, the one certain science, since its conclusions are inspired, as it was then thought. Protestantism asserted, though it did not constantly allow, the right of private judgment, that right which led the reformers to refuse to "be carried away by the large presumptions ratified by church authority." They steadily exercised, in an ever-widening field, "the weapon of independent criticism, which was later on to be melted down and forged afresh, and then skilfully wielded by freethinkers against the inspiration of Scripture and against Christianity itself." By the eighteenth century "theology, dethroned, stood apart," retaining its hold on the masses, but having ceased to guide the thought of Europe. "The phenomena of life and history thus tended to become meaningless and disconnected. The old canvas on which the history of the world had been depicted as an ever-present scene before a God external to time justifying his ways, exhibiting his providence and his judgments, was by some set aside as an interesting but unscientific relic, in part venerable ; by others it was rent and put away with contempt."

Hume and Gibbon are instances of this view of history. "Hume," says Mr. Leslie Stephen, "having abandoned the old theological and metaphysical synthesis, has reduced the race to a mere chaos of unconnected individuals." The theory of evolution at last offered a wide road out of an "inexplicable maze" of individualism, and the scientific temper of the nineteenth century eagerly accepted the new scientific synthesis. But science, which, as Mr. Balfour says, is ultimately reducible to physical science, will not explain the whole world. Men begin to feel that "its very completeness and internal consistency would establish its inadequacy." The last word by way of explanation cannot be said by science. At this point the "Edinburgh" Reviewer reaches the crux of his article, "Does the growth of evolutionary science, which the century has applied to all knowledge, tend to exclude religion, or even finally to dethrone Christianity?" he asks. "Is Christianity justifiable as a faith though no longer as the teacher of all knowledge? Can Christ himself rule as He ruled over the Greek apologists, to whom faith was imparted not by a world wide Church subduing the imagination, but by the intrinsic nature of the Christian message?"—that is, we take it, without a Church claiming to represent His authority, without a Book of infallible reference, without the intellectual subtleties of dogma. This last question is not clearly answered in the pages of the "Edinburgh Review." That Christianity will continue to rule, the writer of the paper evidently believes, but not, we gather, in its simplest form, for while Catholic in sympathy he is apparently Roman in predilection. Protestantism, he declares, shows a tendency to return to authority, a turning away from "an individualism which is in itself mere anarchy." On the other hand, the spirit of individualism has, he believes, worked a species of internal reform in the Roman Church—"strenuous individualism being an important factor in intellectual developments which are in their ultimate analysis corporate." He quotes with apparent agreement Sabatier, who thinks dogma is the expression of religion in various ages, and is necessary to the transmission of religion as language is a necessary vehicle for the expression and communication of thought ; but the Catholic dogmatic system leaves room, he adds, for the existence of individual faith. We are not quite sure to what conclusion the writer would lead us, but the upshot of his argument seems to us to be this. The authority of the "living organism" of the Church must be acknowledged by the thoughtless many, and even by the thoughtful few, if Christianity is to be preserved as a common source of moral enlightenment, hope, and enthusiasm, but the minority may seek in mental reservation the freedom necessary to their wider outlook. We hope in thus interpreting the writer of this article we are not imputing to him a view he does not hold, but all his arguments point in the direction we have indicated, though the position is nowhere stated in so many words, the writer preserving his non-committal attitude throughout with surprising ingenuity. For our own part, we do not believe that the intrinsic message of Christianity requires to be wrapped up in all these doctrinal commandments of men in order to retain its vitality—that is, its power "to save the people from their sins." We agree, however, that among certain religious minds there is a noticeable tendency to return to authority, side by side with a still more marked tendency to a Quaker-like individualism and reticence in the matter of religious dogma, a tendency to look at Christianity almost wholly on its ethical side. Both these states of mind we believe to be largely traceable to what Mr. R. H. Hutton called "the spiritual fatigue" of the present day. Religious speculation is for a moment at a standstill. It seems well-nigh impossible to modern thinkers on religious subjects that the question of the acceptance or rejection of minute points of theology once convulsed Christendom. A discussion on such subjects of minute divinity would not be listened to with patience to-day even by strict churchmen. The discussions of the schoolmen have become ludicrous in our eyes. It is not the damnatory clauses alone which impose silence on an average congregation when the Athanasian Creed is read in an Anglican church, it is a want of interest in the theological subtleties therein discussed. Many religious people—those, we mean, who not only acknowledge the Christian standard in matters of conduct, but who look to the Christian faith to console them in all "the troubles and trials of this transitory life"—would be puzzled to explain to a pagan inquirer the exact tenets of their own church, and where these tenets differ from or coincide with those of other churches in Christendom. We do not, therefore, conclude that Christianity is losing power, but only that the spirit of the time is against both authority and theological subtlety, those few who return to the shelter of the former being actuated by nothing but a desire to find rest from wearisome argument. Mr. Balfour (in his address at Cambridge) instanced as one of the characteristic notes of the transformation which the present century has witnessed "the close connection between theoretic knowledge and its utilitarian application, which in its degree is altogether unexampled in the history of mankind." In a sense this remark applies to the present attitude of the thoughtful towards Christianity. They have fixed their eyes on the close connection between the spiritual and the practical teachings of Christ—a connection which in the "ages of faith" was well-nigh forgotten. The "white robe of the Church," described with so much enthusiasm in the paper we have been discussing, certainly whitened a good many "sepulchres full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness" before it was "rent"  by the advent of liberal discussion. Men are as enthusiastic as ever they were for the Christianisation of society, but they think less of Christian dogma and more of Christian duty than hitherto.

It is social and spiritual, as contrasted with the purely dogmatic, side of Christianity which will, we believe, be the more prominent and the more powerful in the coming century. The danger is lest the doctrine of the future life should fall out of due prominence as the chief item in the Christian philosophy. For ourselves, we do not think this will be the case. But the standpoint of religious people is altering in this matter. Already belief in the life of the world to come is looked upon by many persons as the crown rather than the root of the spiritual life, and developments and elaborations of Christ's teaching hitherto regarded as essential parts of the faith are now considered, even by those who would call themselves orthodox, as "pious opinions." The many mansions of the Christian faith have sheltered from the beginning, and no doubt will continue to shelter, men of very varying views in the matter of dogma. The writer of St. John's Epistles declared that they who "love the brethren" have "passed from death unto life," and in those chapters of St. John's Gospel wherein our Lord alludes most explicitly to the life after death and to His own divine mission He enjoins the love of the brethren with constant reiteration. It is His special commandment, and appeals, He teaches, to something in man's nature, for He declares that they that keep His words "shall know of the doctrine whether it is of God or whether I speak of Myself;" and for the encouragement of those people without spiritual imagination who cling only to the practical side of the faith He adds, "He that keepeth My sayings shall never see death." It is part of the divine nature of Christianity that every age is able to realise the faith from a slightly different point of view. We do not believe that the Christianity of the coming century will be more imperfect than that of previous ages, but we think we see signs of a return to charity rather than a return to authority, a desire to save rather than to condemn the world. Towards such a Christianity as we think we see growing around us science can have no possible hostility, though with an infallible Church we believe science can never be reconciled. Religion does not offer scientific proof of the existence of the Spirit of God—or of man—but "the fruits of the Spirit are manifest, which are these, love, peace, goodness, faith, temperance," and it is as true now as it was 1900 years ago that "against such there is no law."

 The Brisbane Courier 26 November 1901,

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