Tuesday, 14 June 2016

MUST PARADISE DISAPPEAR?

If that electric preacher in the London City Temple, the Rev. R. T. Campbell, be justified in characterizing the story of the Fall of Man as untrue, Paradise is not only lost in the Miltonic sense; it must disappear among the inane fables which have so long bested and befooled children and primitive peoples. There would be no novelty in a modern minister of religion describing that simple and sublime drama of Eden as an allegory. Regarded as a legend it has, like manna from heaven, descended from a poetic past. A rare relic of  prehistoric civilizations it is as precious as a diamond in its many and distinctive reflections. From a literary standpoint, this first romance — this oldest tragedy — can never cease to charm or fail to illumine. With swift and sure touches of genius some old master of Oriental mystic colours has unfolded human nature, crowned woman with, passion and pathos, and exhibited man as a paradox of chivalry and cowardice. An Eastern philosophy of life is presented, marked by power and melancholy. Curiously intermingled with divine and human elements, the play develops the hostility of Nature manifested through the sweat of labour and the sorrow of motherhood; while humanity is last seen driven into the wilderness, to discover in suffering a lost ideal. Assuming that one function of revealed religion is to impart spiritual truths calculated to elevate experience, the form of the communication whether dramatic or didactic, parable or fact— is of importance only as it assists to convey the hidden meaning. As with drama, its enduring value is in relation to a potential sentiment of a universal nature. In impeaching the allegory of the fall, Mr. Campbell has created a sensation, and that not merely on account of the anomaly of a Christian preacher destroying the foundations of the Pauline dogma of the Atonement. He has indicated a growth of a Western mode of thought, the antithesis of that which made the Biblical legend possible. From the popularity of a doctrine may be deduced the psychology of a people, their social and political conditions. A racial catastrophe following a simple act of disobedience committed by one curious and impulsive woman involves a conception of hereditary guilt, of vicarious punishment consonant with aristocracies and castes, ancestor-worship, and transmission of glory and shame. There is ground for supposing that the acceptance of the scientific theory of evolution, which is quite opposed to the story of the descent of man, is being accelerated by the extension of popular institutions. As far back as 1875 Lecky predicted— "If in the sphere of religion the rationalistic doctrine of personal merit and demerit should ever completely supersede the theological doctrine of hereditary merit or demerit, the change will, I believe, be largely influenced by the triumph of democratic principles in the sphere of politics."
 Though, as Dr. Bevan has said, Mr. Campbell is not an academic theologian, and is responsible to his own church only, his popularity as a preacher and leader of men warrants the view that his heterodox sentiment represents a new and powerful tendency in the religious world, particularly as his latest declension from orthodox grace is in the nature not of a lapse, but of a development. Society clothes itself with doctrines, and when they are outgrown they are discarded for a new vesture of larger pattern. But science, which has apparently undermined many creeds, is not altogether a trustworthy guide to humanity. In a recent work on "The Reconstruction of Belief" Mr. W. H. Mallock has strikingly shown that scientific thought should not be allowed to land men in agnosticism. Theology and science are confronted with the same kind of difficulties; the only way out is a practical sense of things. Of agnosticism there are various forms. One of these declares with Herbert Spencer that God is unknowable; therefore it will believe nothing, and do nothing under the influence of any faith. Spencer showed, however, that by precisely similar strict reasoning man was unknowable. "A cognition of self implies a state in which knowing and known are one," and this is logically the annihilation of both. "If, respecting the origin of things in general and the nature of things in particular, we make some assumptions, we find that through an inexorable logic it inevitably commits us to ultimate impossibilities of thought; and this holds good of every assumption that can be imagined." It is as difficult, Mr. Mallock points out, to think of God's existence as to think of that of a halfpenny or of a train. Because, under, scientific reasoning, there is no escape from obstinate contradictions in relation even to our own personality and experience, are we to sit still in daily affairs, believe nothing, do nothing, stagnate, and encumber the ground? Physical needs compel us to form working beliefs and to act, effectively disregarding the logic of despair and vacuity. In the higher life, the calls of which are not so pressing, men may dally with superfine criticism; but, society cannot afford to fiddle while Rome burns, for its needs demand working beliefs and aggressive programmes. The Fall of Man implies moral freedom. Determinism denies the existence of such freedom. Scientifically, a man does what his character makes him do, and his character is made for him. Society could not endure under this implied doctrine of irresponsibility. Without rewards and punishments, and the imputing of personal merit and demerit, civilization would collapse in ruins, and men would become as beasts of prey. As an indispensable factor of self-discipline and useful government we recognise free agency, despite the ruthless logic which rules it out of the world as a contradiction of terms and as unthinkable. A rational religion consists, then, of a system of beliefs in which no attempt is made to reconcile the inevitable conflict between abstract thought and practical sentiment but in which those doctrines and truths are emphasized in their proved relation to the deepest needs of men and women.
 The current movement to adapt the creeds or the interpretation of creeds to modern modes of thought and conditions of life is in reality mainly intellectual. The heart of religion — the belief in an all-pervading beneficent Power making for righteousness and expressing itself with increasing distinctness in a larger humanity— beats more strongly than ever. Logically the theory of evolution knows no evil or sin, for what is called such is merely an expression of development; but those fine perceptions and spiritual instincts, whose trustworthiness is attested by practical experience realize that the Fall of Man is a drama which in its essential features is enacted in every life. "Man is either a free being, with an intelligent Deity as his counterpart, or else he and his fellows are a mere procession of marionettes, which strut or jig, or laugh, or groan, or caper, according as their wires are pulled by forces less intelligent than themselves." Professor James showed that conversion, the climax of religious sentiment was a faith of universal experience in all religions; and equally so is the growth from failure under law in perfection under grace, the educational sense of final goodness. Mr. Mallock suggests that the winnowing processes of the scientific attitude will bring Christianity into competition with other religions, in a test of practical usefulness, and he predicts a new religious eclecticism which will prune the tree of dogmas. This eclecticism will reproduce a new Paradise:— It will appropriate from Christianity its humanitarian virtues, much of its spiritual refinement; but, looking at the origin of man in the light of secular science, it will, while recognising the existence and the riddle of evil, accept it as something which is to be outgrown rather than atoned for, and which God deplores on man's account rather than resents on His own; and will consequently make religion a movement towards strength, beauty, and happiness, rather than a humble submission to the discipline of deserved pain.

The Register 19 Jan 1907

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