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Fragments of a Faith Forgotten

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Author Topic: Fragments of a Faith Forgotten  (Read 1167 times)
Peggie Welles
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« on: December 25, 2008, 03:12:39 am »



Prolegomena

MYSTERIOUS Time is once more big with child and labouring to bring forth her twentieth babe, as the The Creed of Christendom. Western world counts her progeny; for, according to the books, just nineteen children of her centenarian brood have lived and died since He appeared to whom all Christians look as Teacher of the Way to God. The common conscience of the General Church flows not only from the fact that all believe He is the Teacher of the Way, but from the faith, He is that Way itself. This is the common bond of Christians the world over, and this has been the symbol of their union throughout the centuries. Some nineteen hundred years ago the Illuminator appeared and light streamed forth into the world--such is the common creed of the adherents of the great religion of the Western world.

As the honorific inscriptions said of the birthday of the Roman Emperor Augustus, so said after them all Christians of the natal day of Jesus:

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"This day has given the earth an entirely new aspect. The world would have gone to destruction The New Era Two Thousand Years Ago. had there not streamed forth from him who is now born a common blessing.

"Rightly does he judge who recognises in this birth-day the beginning of life and of all the I powers of life; now is that time ended when men pitied themselves for being born.

"From no other day does the individual or the community receive such benefit as from this natal day, full of blessing to all.

"The Providence which rules over all has filled this man with such gifts for the salvation of the world as designate him as Saviour for us and for the coming generations; of wars he will make an end, and establish all things worthily.

"By his appearing are the hopes of our forefathers fulfilled; not only has he surpassed the good deeds of earlier time, but it is impossible that one greater than he can ever appear.

"The birth-day of God has brought to the world glad tidings that are bound up in him.

"From his birth-day a new era begins."

 

So runs the most perfect of a number of inscriptions lately found in Asia Minor and set up to commemorate the introduction of the Julian Calendar by the Emperor Augustus. It bears a date corresponding to our B.C. 9 (See Harnack's article in Die christliche Welt, Dec. 1899).

The hope of the adherents of the Emperor-cult was speedily shattered; the expectation of

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[paragraph continues] Christendom remains in great part unfulfilled, for the nineteen centuries which have passed away have The New Hope of To-day. severally grown old in years of bitter strife, of internecine and most bloody wars, of persecution and intolerance in things religious which no other period in the world's known history can, parallel. Will the twentieth century witness the fulfilment of this so great expectation; can it be said of the present time that "the whole nature travaileth together waiting for the manifestation of the Sons of God"?

Can any who keenly survey the signs of the times, doubt but that now, at the dawn of the twentieth century, among Christian nations, the general nature of thought and feeling in things religious is being quickened and expanded, and as it were is labouring in the pains of some new birth? And if this be so, why should not the twentieth century witness some general realization of the long deferred hope by the souls that are to be born into it? Never in the Western world has the general mind been more ripe for the birth of understanding in things religious than it is to-day; never have conditions been more favourable for the wide holding of a wise view of the real nature of the Christ and the task He is working to achieve in the evolution of His world-faith.

Our present task will be to attempt, however imperfectly, to point to certain considerations which Our Present Task. may tend to restore the grand figure of the Great Teacher to its natural environment in history and tradition, and disclose the intimate points of

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contact which the true ideal of the Christian religion has with the one world-faith of the most advanced souls of our common humanity--in brief, to restore the teaching of the Christ to its true spirit of universality. Not for one instant would we try to lessen the reverence and the love of any single soul for that Great Soul who watches over Christendom; our task will rather be to point to a soil in which that love can flourish ever more abundantly, and ever more confidently open its heart to the rational rays of the Spiritual Sun. That soil is rich enough for the full growth of the man-plant; it is part of the original soil, and gives nourishment to every branch of man's nature, emotional and moral, rational and spiritual.

With many others we hold there is but One The One Religion. Religion for humanity; the many faiths and creeds are all streams or streamlets of this great river. This may perhaps seem a hard saying to some, but let us briefly consider its meaning. The Sun of Truth is one. His rays stream forth into the minds and hearts of men; surely if we believe anything at all, we hold this faith in the Fatherhood of God! Must we not then believe that our common Father is no respecter of persons and that at all times, in all lands, He has loved and loves and will love His children? We should be dull scholars indeed if nineteen hundred years of the teaching of the Christ had not taught us this. And yet how few really believe it? The whole history of the Churches g of Christendom is a record of disbelief in this

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fundamental dogma of universal religion, and no greater foe has dogged the footsteps of Christianity than the evil genius of Jewish particularism, which has ever instigated it to every outbreak of intolerance and persecution. This same spirit also infused itself into Mohammedanism, and we can trace the results in the bloody pages of its history.

It may possibly be that this crude particularism and exclusiveness in religion is a necessary factor The Sunshine of its Doctrine. in the development of certain classes of souls, and that it is used for ultimate good purpose by the Wisdom that guides the world; but is not a greater portion of our Father's blessing possible to us now? Can we not see that it matters not whether a man have learned of the Path from the teaching of Krishna or of the Buddha, of Mohammed or Zoroaster, or of the Christ,--provided he but set his foot upon that Path, it is all one to our common Father? He it was who sent Them all forth and illumined Them, that all might through Them have the spiritual food suited to their needs. Words fail even to hint at the sublimity of this conception, at the glorious glimpse into the stupendous reality of God's providence which this illuminating doctrine opens up. And to realise this--not to believe it in some half-hearted way and practically deny it by our other beliefs--how great the growth of the heart! It is in the sunshine of this most blessed doctrine of all the world-saviours that we would ask our readers to approach the consideration of the many forms of faith of earliest Christendom with which we shall have to deal in these pages. In this sunshine

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[paragraph continues] "heresy" and "false religion" frequently wear so changed an aspect that they seem quite beautiful alongside of the "orthodoxy" and "true religion" of their unsympathetic opponents.

But let us be on our guard against all exaggeration and strive to get things in their true proportions, The Comparative Science of Religion. for it is only thus that we can realise the eternal providence of God, who by His Messengers in His own good time ever adjusts the balance. It has been said by Professor Max Müller that we should not speak of the comparative science of religion, but should rather employ the phrase, comparative science of theology. This is quite true of the work that has so far been done, and done well, by official scholarship; the main effort has been to discover differences, and exaggerate the analysis of details. So far there has been, outside of a small circle of writers, little attempt at synthesis.

We are not, however, prepared to abandon the term comparative science of religion; we believe there is such a science--the noblest perchance to which any man can set his hand. But it is one of the most difficult. It requires not only an intimate experience of human nature as well as a wide knowledge of history, but also a deep sympathy with the hopes and fears of the religious conscience, and above all things an unshakable faith in the unwinking providence of God in all human affairs.

Supposing it possible that a man could love and revere all the great Teachers known to history as deeply and earnestly as each exclusive religionist reveres and loves his own particular Master;

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supposing that he could really believe in the truth of each of the great religions in as full The True Scholar of Religion. measure, though without exclusiveness, as the orthodox of each great faith believes in the truth of his own revelation; supposing finally he could sense the Wisdom of Deity in active operation in all these manifestations,--what a glorious Religion would then be his! How vast and strong his Faith when supported by the evidences of all the world-bibles and the exhortations of all the world-teachers! Persuaded of the fact of re-birth, he would feel himself a true citizen of the world and heir presumptive to all the treasures of the sacred books. Little would he care for the gibes of "eclectic" or "syncretist" flung at him by the analysers of externals and seekers after difference, for he would be bathing in the life-stream of Religion, and would gladly leave them to survey its bed and channels, and scrutinize the mud of its bottom and the soil of its banks; least of all would he notice the cry of "heretic" hurled after him by some paddlers in a pool on the shore. Not, however, that he would think little of analysis or less of orthodoxy, but his analysis would be from within as well as from without, and he would find his orthodoxy in the life of the stream and not in the shape of the banks.

The One Religion flows in the hearts of men and the Light-stream pours its rays into the The Just Method of Comparison. soil of human nature. The analysis of a religion is therefore an analysis of human-kind. Every great religion has expressions as manifold as

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the minds and hearts of its adherents. The manifestation of its truth in the life and words of a great sage must differ widely from the feeble reflection of its light which is all the dull intellect I and unclean life of the ignorant and immoral can express. It is true that its light and life are free for all; but as there are grades of souls, all at different stages of evolution, how can it be that all can equally reflect that light? How unwise is it then to compare the most enlightened views of one set of religionists with the most ignorant beliefs and most superstitious practices of another set! And yet this is a very favourite pastime with those who seek to gratify themselves with the persuasion that their own faith is superior to that of every other creature. This method will never lead us to a comprehension of true Religion or an understanding of our brother man.

Analyse any of the great religions, and you find The Analysis of Religion. the same factors at work, the same problems of human imperfection to be studied, the many who are "called" and the few who are "chosen,"--there are in each religion, as there ever have been, "many Thyrsus-bearers but few Bacchi." To compare the Bacchi of one religion with the Thyrus-bearers of another is mere foolishness. All Hindus, for instance, are not unintelligent worshipers of idols and all Christians fervent imitators of the Christ. If we compare the two at all, let us put the image-adoration of the Roman Church or eikon-worship of the Greek Church alongside of the worship of four-faced

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[paragraph continues] Brahmā and the rest of the figures of the pantheon; but if we would find the proper parallel to the holy life and best theology of Christendom, then we must go to the best theology and holiest livers among the Brahmans.

So then if we analyse a religion, we find that the lowest of the people know little of it and cling desperately to many misconceptions and superstitions, and that from this travesty of what it really is, rises grade after grade of higher intelligence and less erroneous expression of it, until we arrive at that class of souls who consciously seek to welcome the light in all its fulness and make this the one object of their lives. It is within this class of minds that we must seek for the true nature of a religion. Here then we expect to find the real points of contact between the religion and its sister-faiths, and here we sense the presence of the glorious Spiritual Sun, the parent of all the Rays of Light poured into the world.

Now of all the great religions none can be of greater interest to any student of the comparative The Beginnings of Christianity. science of religion in the West than the Christian Faith. It presses on him at every turn; it is a problem he cannot escape. He is amazed at the general ignorance of everything connected with its history and origins. How few are there who have ever really studied the subject, outside of the comparatively small body of scholars whose profession is to deal with such researches--and even among them how few have thrown any real light on the subject, in spite of their admirable industry.

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Indeed it is difficult for any one possessed of The First Two Centuries. the ideas we have endeavoured to express above, filled with enthusiasm for the unity of religion and with a living faith in the truly universal nature of the Christ's teaching, to gain much real help from the studies of either rationalists or apologists. For long he is confronted with libraries of books filled with mutually contradictory opinions, and only valuable as a means of sifting out material for future use. He finds as he prosecutes his studies, that every one of his preconceptions as to early times has to be considerably modified, and most of them indeed to be entirely rejected. He gradually works his way to a point whence he can obtain an unimpeded view of the remains of the first two centuries, and gazes round on a world that he has never heard of at school, and of which no word is breathed from the pulpit.

Is this the world of the Primitive Church of which he has read in the accepted manuals and been told of by pastors and masters? Is this the picture of the single and simple community of the followers of Jesus; this the one doctrine which he had been led to believe has been handed down in unbroken succession and in one form since the beginnings? He gazes round on a religious world of immense activity, a vast upheaval of thought and a strenuousness of religious endeavour to which the history of the Western world gives no parallel. Thousands of schools and communities on every hand, striving and contending, a vast freedom of

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thought, a mighty effort to live the religious life. Here he finds innumerable points of contact with other religions; he moves in an atmosphere of freedom of which he has previously had no experience in Christian tradition. Who are all these people--not fishermen and slaves  and the poor and destitute, though those are striving too--but these men of learning and ascetic life, saints and sages as much as many others to whom the name has been given with far less reason? They are all heretics, say later Church writers, very pestilent folk and enemies of the True Faith which we have now established by our decrees and councils.

But the student prefers to look to the first two centuries themselves instead of listening to the opinions and decisions of those who come after, who, as farther away from the origins, can hardly be expected to know more of them than those they anathematised after their death.

Now it is remarkable that, though such abundantly minute and laborious research has been expended on the problem of the origins of Christianity by the analysis of canonical documents, so little critical attention has been bestowed on the writings of these "heretics," although by their means great light may be thrown on many of the obscure problems connected with the history of the beginnings; it is only of comparatively late years that the utility of their evidence has been recognised and that attempts have been made to bring them into court. The "general voice" of the Catholic Church since its ascendancy has stigmatised these "heretics" as the "first-born

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sons of Satan," and the faithful have believed unquestioningly that that voice was "Sancto Spiritu suggerente." But for Protestantism at least such crude opinions can no longer satisfy the liberal mind in things religious at the beginning of the twentieth century.

For upwards of one hundred years liberal the Christendom has witnessed the most strenuous and The "Higher Criticism." courageous efforts to rescue the Bible from the hands of an ignorant obscurantism which had in many ways degraded it to the level of a literary fetish and deprived it of the light of reason. This policy of obscurantism is really one of despair, of want of confidence in the living and persisting presence of inspiration in the Church, a tacit confession that inspiration had ceased in the infancy of the Faith.

As is well known, the dogma of the verbal and literal inspiration by the Holy Ghost, in the fullest sense of the terms, of every canonical document was but lately universally held, and is still held by the majority of Christians to-day. The famous encyclical of Leo XIII. ("Providentissimus Deus "1893) formulates the orthodoxy of Roman Catholic Christendom in the following counsel of despair:

"It is absolutely wrong and forbidden, either to "Providentissimus Deus." narrow inspiration to certain parts only of Holy Scripture, or to admit that the sacred writer has erred. For the system of those who, in order to rid themselves of these difficulties, do not hesitate to concede that Divine inspiration regards the things of faith and morals, and nothing beyond, because (as they wrongly think) in

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