Movements of Thought Affecting Christian Beliefs

[This is taken from Henry Sloane Coffin's Some Christian Convictions, originally published in 1915.]

When King Solomon's Temple was a-building, we are told that the stone was made ready at the quarry, "and there was neither hammer nor axe nor any tool of iron heard in the house." The structures of intellectual beliefs which Christians have reared in the various centuries to house their religious faith have been built, for the most part, out of materials they found already prepared by other movements of the human mind. It has been so in our own day, and a brief glance at some of the quarries and the blocks they have yielded may help us to understand the construction of the forms of Christian convictions as they appear in many minds. Some of the quarries named have been worked for more than a century; but they were rich to begin with, and they have not yet been exhausted. Some will not seem distinctive veins of rock, but new openings into the old bed. Many blocks in their present form cannot be certainly assigned to a specific quarry; they no longer bear an identifying mark. Nor can we hope to mention more than a very few of the principal sources whence the materials have been taken. The plan of the temple and the arrangement of the stones are the work of the Spirit of the Christian Faith, which always erects a dwelling of its own out of the thought of each age.

Romanticism has been one rich source of material. This literary movement that swept over Germany, Britain, France and Scandinavia at the opening of the Nineteenth Century, itself influenced to some degree by the religious revival of the German Pietists and the English Evangelicals, was a release of the emotions, and gave a completer expression to all the elements in human nature. It brought a new feeling towards nature as alive with a spiritual Presence—

Something far more deeply interfused
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean, and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things

It baptized men into a new sense of wonder; everything became for them miraculous, instinct with God. It quickened the imagination, and sent writers, like Sir Walter Scott, to make the past live again on the pages of historical novels. Sights and sounds became symbols of an inner Reality: nature was to Emerson "an everlasting hint"; and to Carlyle, who never tires of repeating that "the Highest cannot be spoken in words," all visible things were emblems, the universe and man symbols of the ineffable God.

To the output of this quarry we may attribute the following elements in the structure of our present Christian thought:

(1) That religion is something more and deeper than belief and conduct, that it is an experience of man's whole nature, and consists largely in feelings and intuitions which we can but imperfectly rationalize and express. George Eliot's Adam Bede is a typical instance of this movement, when he says: "I look at it as if the doctrines was like finding names for your feelings."

(2) That God is immanent in His world, so that He works as truly "from within" as "from above." He is not external to nature and man, but penetrates and inspires them. While an earlier theology thought of Him as breaking into the course of nature at rare intervals in miracles, to us He is active in everything that occurs; and the feeding of the five thousand with five loaves and two fishes, while it may be more startling, is not more divine than the process of feeding them with bread and fish produced and caught in the usual way. Men used to speak of Deity and humanity as two distinct and different things that were joined in Jesus Christ; no man is to us without "the inspiration of the Almighty," and Christ is not so much God and man, as God in man.

(3) That the Divine is represented to us by symbols that speak to more parts of our nature than to the intellect alone. Horace Bushnell entitled an essay that still repays careful reading, The Gospel a Gift to the Imagination. One of our chief complaints with the historic creeds and confessions is that they have turned the poetry (in which religious experience most naturally expresses itself) into prose, rhetoric into logic, and have lost much of its content in the process. Jesus is to the mind with a sense for the Divine the great symbol or sacrament of the Invisible God; but to treat His divinity as a formula of logic, and attempt to demonstrate it, as one might a proposition in geometry, is to lose that which divinity is to those who have experienced contact with the living God through Jesus.

A second quarry, which Christianity itself did much to open, and from which later it brought supplies to rebuild its own temple of thought, is Humanitarianism. Beginning in the Eighteenth Century with its struggle for the rights of man, this movement has gone on to our own day, setting free the slaves, reforming our prisons, protesting against war and cruelty, protecting women and children from economic exploitation, and devoting itself to all that renders human beings healthier and happier.

It found itself at odds with current theological opinions at a number of points. Preachers of religion were emphasizing the total depravity of man; and humanitarians brought to the fore the humanity of Jesus, and bade them see the possibilities of every man in Christ. They were teaching the endless torment of the impenitent wicked in hell; and with its new conceptions of the proper treatment of criminals by human justice, it inveighed against so barbarous a view of God. They proclaimed an interpretation of Calvary that made Christ's death the expiation of man's sin and the reconciliation of an offended Deity; in McLeod Campbell in Scotland and Horace Bushnell in New England, the Atonement was restated, in forms that did not revolt men's consciences, as the vicarious penitence of the one sensitive Conscience which creates a new moral world, or as the unveiling of the suffering heart of God, who bears His children's sins, as Jesus bore His brethren's transgressions on the cross. They were insisting that the Bible was throughout the Word of God, and that the commands to slaughter Israel's enemies attributed to Him, and the prayers for vengeance uttered by vindictive psalmists, were true revelations of His mind; and Humanitarianism refused to worship in the heavens a character less good than it was trying to produce in men on earth. These men of sensitive conscience did for our generation what the Greek philosophers of the Fifth Century B.C. did for theirs—they made the thought of God moral: "God is never in any way unrighteous—He is perfect righteousness; and he of us who is the most righteous is most like Him."

From this movement of thought our chief gains have been:

(1) A view of God as good as the best of men; and that means a God as good as Jesus of Nazareth. Older theologians talked much of God's decrees; we speak oftener of His character.

(2) The emphasis upon the humanity of Jesus and of our ability and duty to become like Him. Spurred by Romanticism's interest in imaginatively reconstructing history, many Lives of Christ have been written; and it is no exaggeration to say that Jesus is far better known and understood at present than He has been since the days of the evangelists.

A third quarry is the Physical Sciences. As its blocks were taken out most Christians were convinced that they could never be employed for the temple of faith. They seemed fitted to express the creed of materialism, not of the Spirit. Science was interested in finding the beginnings of things; its greatest book during the century bore the title, The Origin of Species; and the lowly forms in which religion and human life itself appeared at their start seemed to degrade them. Law was found dominant everywhere; and this was felt to do away with the possibility of prayer and miracle, even of a personal God. Its investigations into nature exposed a world of plunder and prey, where, as Mill put it, all the things for which men are hanged or imprisoned are everyday performances. The scientific view of the world differed totally from that which was in the minds of devout people, and with that which was in the minds of the writers of the Bible. A large part of the last century witnessed a constant warfare between theologians and naturalists, with many attempted reconciliations. Today thinking people see that the battle was due to mistakes on both sides; that there is a scientific and a religious approach to Truth; and that strife ensues only when either attempts to block the other's path. Charles Darwin wisely said, "I do not attack Moses, and I think Moses can take care of himself." Both physicists and theologians were wrong when they thought of "nature" as something fixed, so that it is possible to state what is natural and what supernatural; "nature" is plastic, responding all the while to new stimuli, and the title of a recent book, Creative Evolution, indicates a changed scientific and philosophical attitude towards the world.

From this scientific movement we shall find in our present Christian convictions, with much else, these items:

(1) The conception of the unity of all life. When Goethe in a flash of insight saw the structure of the entire tree in a single leaf, and of the complete skeleton of the animal in the skull of a sheep, he gave the mind of man a new assurance of the unity that pervades the whole creation. And when scientific men asserted the universality of law, they made it forever impossible for us to divide life into separate districts—the secular and the sacred, the natural and the supernatural. Principles discovered in man's spirit in its responses to truth, to love, to companionship, to justice, hold good of his response to God. There is a "law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus"; and it must be ascertained and worked with. But "laws" are recognized as our labels for the discoveries we have made of God's usual methods of working, and they do not stand between us and Him, barring our personal fellowship with Him in prayer, nor between Him and His world, excluding His new and completer entrances into the world's life.

(2) The thought of development or evolution as the process by which religious ideas and institutions, like all other forms of life, live and grow in a changing world.

(3) The abandonment of the attempt to prove God's existence and attributes from what can be seen in His world. We cannot expect to find in the conclusion more than the premises contain, and "nature" as it now is can never yield a personal and moral, much less a Christian, God.

And not from nature up to nature's God,
But down from nature's God look nature through.

(4) A readjustment of our view of the Bible, which frankly recognizes that its scientific ideas are those of the ages in which its various writers lived, and cannot be authoritative for us today.

(5) A larger view of God, commensurate with the older, bigger, more complex and more orderly world the physical sciences have brought to light.

A fourth source of materials, which is but another vein of this scientific quarry, is the historical and literary investigation of the Bible. This has not been so recently opened as is commonly supposed, but has been worked at intervals throughout the history of the Church, and notably at the Protestant Reformation. Luther carefully reexamined the books of the Bible, and declared that it was a matter of indifference to him whether Moses was the author of the Pentateuch, pronounced the Books of the Chronicles less accurate historically than the Books of the Kings, considered the present form of the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Hosea probably due to later hands, and distinguished in the New Testament "chief books" from those of less moment. Calvin, too, discussed the authorship of some of the books, and suggested Barnabas as the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews. But the Nineteenth Century witnessed a very thorough application to the Scriptures of the same methods of historical and literary criticism to which all ancient documents were subjected. The result was the discovery of the composite character of many books, the rearrangement of the Biblical literature in the probable order of its writing, and the use of the documents as historical sources, not so much for the periods they profess to describe, as for those in and for which they were written.

We can assign the following elements in our contemporary Christian thought to these scholarly investigations:

(1) The conception of revelation as progressive—a mode of thought that falls in with the idea of development or evolution.

(2) The distinction between the Bible as literature, with the history, science, ethics and theology of its age, and the religious experience of which it is the record, and in which we find the Self-disclosure of God.

(3) An historical rather than a speculative Christ. We do not begin (however we may end) with a Figure in the heavens, the eternal Son of God, but with Jesus of Nazareth. This method of approaching Him reinforces the emphasis on His manhood which came from Humanitarianism. Christianity, like the fabled giant, Antæus, has always drawn fresh strength for its battles from touching its feet to the ground in the Jesus of historic fact. It was so when Francis of Assisi recovered His figure in the Thirteenth Century, and when Luther rediscovered Him in the Sixteenth. There can be little doubt but that fresh spiritual forces are to be liberated, indeed are already at work, from this new contact with the Jesus of history.

Still another opening in the scientific quarry is Psychology. The last century saw great advances in the investigation of the mind of man, which revolutionized educational methods, gave new tools to novelists and historians, and threw new light on every aspect of the human spirit. Psychologists turned their attention to religion, and have done much to chart out the movements of man's nature in his response to his highest inspirations. They have altered methods of Biblical education in our Sunday Schools, have shown us helpful and harmful ways of presenting religious appeals, and have given us scientific standards to test the value of the materials employed in public worship.

We may ascribe the following elements in our Christian thought to them:

(1) The normal character of the religious experience. Faith had been regarded as the product of deception or as an aberration of the human spirit; it now is established as a natural element in a fully developed personality. A psychological literary critic, Sainte Beuve, writes: "You may not cease to be a skeptic after reading Pascal; but you must cease to treat believers with contempt." William James has given us a great quantity of Varieties of Religious Experience, and he deals with all of them respectfully.

(2) The part played by the Will in religious experience. Man "wills to live," and in his struggle to conserve his life and the things that are dearer to him than life, he feels the need of assistance higher than any he can find in his world. He "wills to believe," and discovers an answer to his faith in the Unseen. This is a reaffirmation of the definition, "faith is the giving substance to things hoped for, a test of things not seen." And the student of religious psychology has now vastly more material on which to work, because the last century opened up still another quarry for investigation in Comparative Religion. An Eighteenth Century writer usually divided all religions into true and false; today we are more likely to classify them as more and less developed. Investigators find in the varied faiths of mankind many striking resemblances in custom, worship and belief. It is not possible to draw sharp lines and declare that within one faith alone all is light, and within the rest all is darkness. Everything that grows out of man's experience of the Unseen is interesting, and no thought or practice that has seemed to satisfy the spiritual craving of any human being is without significance. Our own faith is often clarified by comparing it with that of some supposedly unrelated religion. Many a usage and conviction in ethnic cults supplies a suggestive parallel to something in our Bible. The development of theology or of ritual in some other religion throws light on similar developments in Christianity. The widespread sense of the Superhuman confirms our assurance of the reality of God. "To the philosopher," wrote Max Müller, "the existence of God may seem to rest on a syllogism; in the eyes of the historian it rests on the whole evolution of human thought." Under varied names, and with very differing success in their relations with the Unseen, men have had fellowship with the one living God. It was this unity of religion amid many religions that the Vedic seers were striving to express when they wrote, "Men call Him Indra, Mitra, Varuna, Agni; sages name variously Him who is but One."

This study of comparative religion has gained for us:

(1) A much clearer apprehension of what is distinctive in Christianity, and a much more intelligent understanding of the completeness of its answer to religious needs which were partially met by other faiths.

(2) A new attitude towards the missionary problem, so that Christians go not to destroy but to fulfil, to recognize that in the existing religious experience of any people, however crude, God has already made some disclosure of Himself, that in the leaders and sages of their faith He has written a sort of Old Testament to which the Christian Gospel is to be added, that men may come to their full selves as children of God in Jesus Christ.

A final quarry, which promises to yield, perhaps, more that is of value to faith than any of those named, is the Social Movement. In the closing years of the Eighteenth Century social relations were looked on as voluntary and somewhat questionable productions of individuals, which had not existed in the original "state of nature" where all men were supposed to have been free and equal. The closing years of the Nineteenth Century found men thinking of society as an organism, and talking of "social evolution." This conception of society altered men's theories of economics, of history, of government. Nor did these newer theories remain in the classrooms of universities or the meetings of scientists; they became the platforms of great political parties, like the Socialists in Germany and France, and the Labor Party in Britain. Men are thinking, and what is more feeling, today, in social terms; they are revising legislation, producing plays and novels, and organizing countless associations in the interest of social advance. We are still too much in the thick of the movement to estimate its results, and we can but tentatively appraise its contributions to our Christian thought.

(1) It has given men a new interest in religion. The intricacies of social problems predispose men to value an invisible Ally, and such prepossession is, as Herbert Spencer said, "nine-points of belief." The social character of the Christian religion, with its Father-God and its ideals of the Kingdom, gives it a peculiar charm to those whose hearts have been touched with a passion for social righteousness. A recent historian of the thought of the last century, after reviewing its scientific and philosophic tendencies, makes the remark that "an increasing number of thinkers of our age expect the next step in the solution of the great problems of life to be taken by practical religion."

(2) It has made us realize that religion is essentially social. Men's souls are born of the social religious consciousness; are nourished by contact with the society of believers, in fellowship with whom they grow "a larger soul," and find their destiny in a social religious purpose—the Kingdom of God.

(3) It has taught us that religious susceptibility is intimately connected with social status. Spiritual movements have always found some relatively unimpressionable classes. In primitive Christian times "not many well-educated, not many influential, not many nobly born were called"; and in our own age the two least responsive strata in society are the topmost and the bottom-most—those so well off that they often feel no pressure of social obligation, and those without the sense of social responsibility because they have nothing. It is the interest of spiritual religion to do away with both these strata, placing social burdens on the former and imposing social privileges on the latter, for responsibility proves to be the chief sacrament of religion.

(4) It has brought the Church to a new place of prominence in Christian thought. Men realize their indebtedness for their own spiritual life to the collective religious experience of the past, represented in the Church; their need of its fellowship for their growth in faith and usefulness; and the necessity of organized religious effort, if society is to be leavened with the Spirit of Christ. Church membership becomes a duty for every socially minded Christian. And the social purpose renders Church unity a pressing task for the existing Christian communions. John Bunyan's pilgrim could make his progress from the City of Destruction to the New Jerusalem with a few like-minded companions; but a Christian whose aim is the transformation of the City of Destruction into the City of God needs the coöperation of every fellow believer. Denominational exclusiveness becomes intolerable to the Christian who finds a whole world's redemption laid on his conscience.

(5) It demands a social reinterpretation of many of the Church's doctrines, a reinterpretation which gives them richer meaning. The vicarious atonement of Jesus Christ, for example, becomes intelligible and kindling to those who have a social conscience and know something of bearing the guilt of others; and the New Testament teaching of the Holy Spirit is much more real and clear to those who have felt the social spirit of our day lifting them out of themselves into the life of the community, quickening their consciences and sympathies, and giving them a sense of brotherhood with men and women very unlike themselves. Vinet wrote a generation ago, "L'Esprit Saint c'est Dieu social."

We have by no means exhausted the list of quarries from which stones, and stones already prepared for our purpose, can be and are taken for the edifice of our Christian convictions. The life of men with Christ in God preserves its continuity through the ages; it has to interpret itself to every generation in new forms of thought. Under old monarchies it was the custom on the accession of a sovereign to call in the coins of his predecessor and remint them with the new king's effigy. The silver and the gold remain, but the impress on them is different. The reminting of our Christian convictions is a somewhat similar process: the precious ore of the religious experience continues, but it bears the stamp of the current ruling ideas in men's view of the world. But lifeless metal, however valuable, cannot offer a parallel to the vital experiences of the human spirit. The remolding of the forms of its convictions does more than conserve the same quantity of experience; a more commodious temple of thought enables the Spirit of faith to expand the souls of men within. In theology by altering boundaries we often gain territory. We not only make the map of our soul's life with God clearer to ourselves, so that we live within its confines more intelligently; we actually increase the size of the map, and possess a larger life with God.





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