by Lord Hugh Cecil
The question is seldom asked, "What really makes us Christians?" We see and know all sorts of degrees of faith and unbelief. Some people are Christians without doubt, some have been Christians but have lost their faith; some have not lost their faith, but feel it to be in certain respects precarious; some mean on a future day to look more closely into the matter; others, caring but little, drift along without anxiety, uncertain and indefinite; - in short there are all sorts of degrees of orthodoxy or unbelief or doubt or vagueness, made practically tolerable because the unbeliever or doubter still clings to the main consequences of religious belief in respect to morality. But how do all these people get where they are?
A man accepts the Christian faith either from training in childhood or by conversion when he is grown up. Nearly everyone in our country who holds the Christian faith, holds it because he was so taught as a child. Sometimes there is no disturbance of this religious faith; sometimes the experiences of life, new currents of opinion, and, it may be feared, moral faults and deficiencies, beat against religious faith and shake it and wholly or partly overthrow it.
For some men there has been an attack in the mind on faith, and it has been repelled, it may be at once or after a time. The man who goes through such an experience will usually persuade himself that his opinion has been ultimately determined by a process of reasoning; but acute observers often find that the reasoning processes of the mind are in fact themselves determined by inclinations or prejudices of which the mind may be totally unconscious or only half aware, but which, in fact, decide the conclusion to which reason comes. Here is found the power of any moral inconsistency with Christian teaching, and here also the very strong influence of what may be called intellectual fashion, a sense of the congruity of an opinion with the general system of thought which prevails.
We do not reject belief in fairies because we have carefully investigated the question of their reality, but because that sort of belief is incongruous with our general habits of thought. This may be a safe way of deciding, but is not always so. A great many people, for example, rejected mesmerism, as it was called, because it sounded like an hysterical imposture. But they were in this mistaken, and, under the name of hypnotism, mesmerism has come to be recognized as a real experience and part of the physical system.
At any rate, whatever may determine the decision of the mind about religious faith, the sequence of experience is that the child receives and accepts Christianity on the authority of his teachers, that if he does not retain belief unshaken it is because of a hostile influence of one kind or another which occasions disturbance of mind and leaves him altogether without faith or with faith in some degree shaken or upset.
Let us here ask a further question, with which we might have begun, What is the Christian religion? Or a still more rudimentary question, What is religion? This question seems to me to be often answered amiss. The word connotes a bond and means essentially (I suggest) a personal relation with the unseen. The relation may be a reality or a delusion. Religion, as we speak, may be true or false, but its essence is in this relation through the veil that hides from us the invisible world.
And Christianity purports to be a relation with a person, with a personal God. God has, as Christians believe, revealed Himself to man in some degree through nature, in a greater degree by a progressive revelation to the Jewish people, culminating in the incarnation of God Himself as a man in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. And it is through Christ that we enter into relation with God.
Moreover, we are taught to believe that it is by the power of God that we are enabled to enter into this relation. God is thus manifested to us after a threefold mode: He is the ultimate object of our devotion; He is the Saviour and Redeemer by Whom we, in spite of our sins, can obtain access to His divine nature; He is the Spirit Who, from within us, shapes our purpose and faith and leads us to be saved by Him, the Saviour, and to adoration of and union with His perfect divinity. This relation is not merely individual; it is essentially social: the Divine Spirit incorporates the individual in a society of which the Head is Christ and in the corporate life of which man draws near to God.
All this expresses a mystical experience; by "mystical" I mean an experience which is partly and only partly intellectually intelligible. A mystery may be defined as a half-disclosed truth, like a mountain with its summit in the clouds. And the Christian religion is such a mystery. The mystical relation of the worshiper to God is a perfectly real experience, though it is not an experience of which a complete intellectual description can be given.
But though the intellect cannot describe the experience, it can partly explain and justify it. The personal relation which constitutes religion is sustained by a certain body of theological opinion expressed in our creeds. The doctrines can be stated; and though the statements are avowedly incomplete and must be put in a form which presents a contradiction or at the least an inconsistency, and are therefore incapable of complete rational assimilation, yet they make paths down which we can spiritually move and achieve the experience which is the essence of our religion; that is, we can enter into this relation with God after the fashion that our theological rules direct us.
Theology regulates religion and justifies it against the imputation of being a mere imaginative delusion; but theology is not itself religion. Theology is a function of the intellect. Like other sciences, it is pursued with most success by the most able minds, and skill in it is attained by study and learning. But religion is experienced without elaborate study or learning or more instruction than is needed to be able to enter upon a relation with the unseen. The relation is the reality; theology is only the explanation of it.
For example, a person is overcome with a deep and depressing sense of his own sinfulness. By prayer and confession to God he receives a sense of forgiveness, redemption, and salvation. The whole experience seems to him of indisputable reality, and it does in fact change both his happiness and his conduct. He is, however, not necessarily able to expound a word of the theology which relates to his experience. The theologian will tell him about the Incarnation and the Atonement and how sin is destroyed by the righteousness of Christ. This explanation will give the converted penitent confidence and stability. He will feel the more sure that he has not been the dupe of emotion or fancy which has misled him to mistake delusion for truth. But while theology thus shelters and rationalizes the actual experience, it is the experience itself that constitutes religion and is the true bond which connects the individual with God.
And if theology is not the same thing as religion, neither is morality. The penitent who has turned from his sins and been converted, who has been instructed that his sins have been atoned for and that he is redeemed, goes forward to a life regulated by moral rules and sustained in whatever lapses by a settled purpose to strive toward the righteousness of God. This new moral life is the consequence of religion; it is at every point sustained by a persistence in religious practice and the enjoyment of religious experience; but the moral conduct thus achieved and strengthened only manifests religion and depends upon it; it is not religion itself.
It is important to insist upon the truth that religion is a personal relation to God, and the Christian religion a personal relation through Christ to God, because other ways of defining it have led to confusion and, it may be feared, to a good deal of unreality among those who have been brought up to be religious, but have never really understood what religion means.
Writers who have either lost belief in Christianity altogether or accept only vaguely and in part the full creed of Christendom, often seem unaware of what religion really is and how to seek it. And the whole process of apologetic controversy becomes confused because the disputants begin, so to speak, at the wrong place. They do not start with the relation and expound it, and then discuss whether it is most likely to be a real relation or a delusion of the imagination, and go on to arrange the whole body of Christian apologetics by way of support to the proposition that the experienced relation is a reality and not a dream; they begin, on the contrary, by arguing this or that part of Christian theology as though it were a proposition to be proved, and if proved, to be accepted, and that religion would somehow or another spring out of that intellectual acceptance.
But this way of presenting the matter is not the way in which the human mind does, as a matter of fact, commonly become religious. The most that such a way of proceeding can really do is to make a man try after religion, and it very seldom achieves even this. A great sorrow, a vivid sense of the difference between good and evil, and of the appalling power of sin - these things are much more potent to make people try and find religion by actually entering into the religious relation than any intellectual argument.
Even mere assertion, if it be obviously sincere and confident, does much more to induce the doubting to make trial of the religious relation than a process of reasoning.
And those, again, who are satisfied with a certain standard of godly conduct and suppose that that is all that matters in the religious life, are the enemies of their own happiness. It may well be that such lives, when they are thoroughly lived, are sufficient to make a person have that desire for approach to God which is, I suppose, the essence of salvation. But a merely moral life is certainly not sustained by the comfort, peace, and joy of the true religious relation. Those who are satisfied with what they call a straight and honest life do, in fact, walk in desert places, and, whatever mercies they may hereafter receive from God, do not now know the quenching of the inward thirst which man has for God. They may be righteous, but they are not happy.
If, then, it be admitted that religion is in itself neither opinion nor conduct, but a mystical relation with an unseen presence, the all-important question follows: Is this relation a fanciful delusion, having no existence outside the mind of the person who believes in it, or is it a true access to the unseen world, to the person of the external Creator, Saviour, and Sanctifier? Is the Christian religion true or fanciful?
Those who would give the answer that it is the work of fancy hardly seem to feel how difficult their answer is. For it is the undisputed fact that people have for nineteen hundred years past entered into this relation, which we call the Christian Religion, and believed in it, and have acted upon it, and been transformed in character by it, and have made sacrifices and efforts in response to it as though it were real. All sorts of people have done this, of all sorts of temperaments, and they have done it alike in primitive and medieval and modern times, notwithstanding the immense revolutions in mental outlook that have taken place.
The Renaissance has come and the Reformation and the Democratic Movement and the Humanitarian Movement and Rationalism, and all the discoveries of science; and yet, though Christian people have in some respects modified their theological opinions, the essence of their religion remains unchanged. They still worship as Christians, still feel that they know Jesus Christ as a living person, still confess sins, still believe themselves to be redeemed and forgiven, still feel that by the power of the Spirit they are led nearer to Christ, still make that approach by the ordinances of the Church, still receive Holy Communion and are sustained and uplifted by it; and they who do these things still include persons of all sorts of temperaments, and among them sober, unimaginative, and learned men, as well as others of a more emotional and enthusiastic type.
Christianity is not in the least dead; it is, on the contrary, vigorously alive, strongly influencing human action, of vast importance in the inner life of countless multitudes. If all this spring out of fancy and delusion, how surprisingly strong and how surprisingly valuable is the influence of fancy and delusion. The world has been transformed by it.
By common agreement it has been the strongest of all the influences at work since Christ preached and died. If the stories of His nativity and His resurrection and all the miracles of His ministry, of that Ascension by which He passed out of this world, and of the coming of the Divine Spirit to bring Him and His disciples forever together, united as Head and body, till the end of time - if all this be folklore and legend, how highly must we value folklore and legend. Men, it seems, would be poor and miserable without their delusions. Except for the capacity of mankind to believe falsehood, all that is best in our civilization would not have existed.
I find this a very incredible position; yet it seems forced on those who deny the truth of Christianity. I suppose they would rejoin that much of what I have said about Christianity might equally be said about Islam; yet no one thinks Islam true. To that I should rejoin that in so far as Islam is concerned with elementary fundamentals - that there is a God and that it is possible to be in relation with Him - it does indeed speak the truth. All religions, Christian and non-Christian, are so far in agreement: they claim that there is an unseen world and that it is possible to have relation with it. And I should press my opponent to admit that you must either say that all mankind are under delusion or that at least it is true that there is a God and that you can have relation with Him.
The main conclusion of a survey of the phenomena of religious belief remains unshaken; that if you reject Christianity as untrue, you must first attribute to delusion a degree of power which is both surprising and alarming, and secondly, you must recognize that this power of delusion is most beneficent. Yet this is against one of our most confident moral intuitions: we are so made that we cannot believe that falsehood is a good thing and has a good influence in the world.
One may carry this appeal to experience further in another way. According to the Christian faith, God, having made men and the world, revealed Himself to them through the Jewish race and ultimately, in the person of Jesus, He became man. If this happened, clearly it would be the greatest event in human history; and precisely the coming of Christ is the greatest event in human history. If the incarnation of God happened, it would be the turning-point on which everything else would depend; and precisely the life and death of Christ is the turning-point on which everything else depends.
On the negative hypothesis, the greatest event in history, the turning-point on which everything else depends, is the appearance of a remarkable peasant Jew with an unusual talent for epigram and parable, who taught sublime morality and was persecuted by the Jewish priesthood and unjustly put to death by the Roman governor - surely a surprisingly commonplace series of events to be the greatest thing in human history.
Christian theology fits into history like a wanted piece into a dissected puzzle. The Christian hypothesis makes it possible to tell the story of human history naturally and without strain. If we believe in a God Who made men, it is certainly natural to believe that He wished to save and sanctify, them. Only, indeed, by some such belief are we able to satisfy our instinct that God is good, - in face of the terrible experience of the evils of creation.
The goodness of God becomes credible if He Himself, the Creator, has come down to suffer with His creatures, and to endure that wicked men should treat Him, as Christ was treated, and should die as Christ died. And that perfect goodness should be so rejected and persecuted is what our knowledge of human nature would lead us to expect. That the incarnate God and perfect Man should be hated and cruelly killed by wicked men is most natural. That He should not be forever conquered by their wickedness, but should ultimately triumph over them, is what the believer in righteous omnipotence would expect; and the whole course of history from the Crucifixion downward witnesses to and agrees with this expectation.
"If Christ be not raised then is your faith vain and ye are yet in your sins" is, in all its implications, a strong argument. That vast structure, the conversion of mankind to be Christian, rests on the resurrection of Christ. Is it credible that so great a thing can really rest on fiction?
These considerations appear to me to create a strong, reasonable presumption in favor of the truth of Christianity. And it will be observed that the actual evidence for the reality of the Christian revelation has not yet been brought into consideration at all. What Christianity has done, what it is still doing, its effect upon the world and upon history, are indisputable; and the hearing of the evidence of its truth begins under the influence of the presumption that what has produced so far-reaching and wholesome an effect upon mankind and is still felt to be a reality by vast numbers of human beings, and by some of the wisest among them, cannot rest on delusion.
I do not propose to pursue the path of apologetics any further; there are plenty of books about Christian evidences accessible to anyone interested. Indeed, the purpose of this paper is more narrow. It is to remind readers that religion is neither a series of propositions to be accepted by the intellect nor a series of rules of conduct to be observed, but essentially a real but mystical - that is a half-understood - relation to an unseen Person. It follows that religion is a thing to be entered upon, to be achieved, to be realized, to be practiced, to be enjoyed, rather than merely to be believed in - though of course belief is necessary.
If a person desires to become a Christian, being satisfied, for example, that Christians are happier than he is, the way to do it is to attempt to become initiated into the relation with the unseen; and this is done, first, by a certain moral preparation. For though moral inconsistencies are not fatal to the religious experience if they are not deliberately acquiesced in, yet for anyone deliberately and consistently to follow a way of life he believes to be irreconcilable with a religious relation to Christ is fatal to the realization of that relation.
What is required is the adoption of a high and rigorous standard of Christian morals, notwithstanding any lapses through weakness. This standard must comprise the absolute rejection of all hatred, malice, and uncharitableness - which is the most mortal of spiritual poisons - and all unchastity and the unreserved acceptance of unselfishness as the rule of life to the degree that all mere self-assertion should be adjured. Given this moral preparation, anyone may say prayer, and prayer should express and support the moral standard of life; it should include prayer for grace and enlightenment and for a blessing on any person who might naturally be an object of hatred and resentment. Above all, the Lord's Prayer should be used.
I suggest that as time goes on the sense of a real personal relation with Christ will grow up and the seeker after religion will have achieved the first stage. He will be a Christian.
About subsequent stages Christians are not agreed; but as I believe, the Christian religion is sacramental, and the relation with Christ is most deeply and completely realized by the offering and communion of the eucharist. If, then, the question is asked, "How can I be a Christian?" it is thus that it may be answered.
But if a person, though anxious to be a Christian, is unwilling to become one so long as he feels intellectual difficulties or objections, or as long as his intellect cannot give assent to what is implied by the practice of religion, then such a person should advert to the considerations I have pointed out, which create a presumption of truth in favor of Christianity, and, having weighed that presumption, should proceed to study the evidence for and against the truth of the Christian revelation and any particular question which seems to him important.
It is quite right to do this if a man feels that loyalty to truth requires it. But it is well to remember all the time that it is not the way to become a Christian, but simply a preliminary required in order that afterward the way may be sought and pursued.
The investigation of truth may be a duty, but it is not entering upon the religious relation. Sometimes the two processes may go on side by side: a man may try to be initiated into Christianity at the same time that he is studying Christian evidences. This is not amiss, supposing he always keeps it clear in his head that the studying of Christian evidences is what he owes to his loyalty to truth and is not in itself part of the practice of religion.
Nevertheless, loyalty to truth is most precious. Even at the outset of the religious relation, the resolve to test truth is needed to save mysticism from developing into extravagance or superstition. And throughout the development of the relation the danger of superstition is always present and the discipline of an exact inquiry into truth is therefore never superfluous. The sense of obedience to the rational faculties which try and approve truth guards the mind from the inebriation of mystical experience and obliges it to hold itself in check, loyal to a standard external to itself which is recognized to be true. Truth arrived at by research disciplines religion; so, too, does the orthodoxy of theological formulas, respected because of the authority which has framed them.
Orthodoxy, like the candid investigation of truth, is a restraint on the emotions and fancies which easily mingle with the real religious experience. But, chastened by this discipline of truth, the essence of religion does lie in the relation to an unseen person and it is there to be sought.
Christianity is thus a thing to be experienced and practiced; it is a certain relation to be entered upon, and the function of inquiry and reason is to guard the religious experience from the danger of delusion and to discipline it into a strict faithfulness to truth.
Original text written in 1929. This text edited 2005. Please note: all applicable material on this website is protected by law and may not be copied without express written permission.
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