The flesh profiteth nothing; it is the spirit maketh alive. Lo! I am with you always.New Testament.
It is the fate of every notable man to suffer from misrepresentation. His good and bad qualities are equally exaggerated. Perhaps no absolutely correct biography has ever been or ever can be written. Doubtless Boswell overpraised Johnson and Abbott overpraised Napoleon, but other writers have as much under-rated those great characters. Speaking of Aristotle, Hegel said :
“He penetrated the whole universe of things and brought its scattered wealth to the human mind.”
Speaking of the same philosopher, Luther said :
“‘He is a histrionic mountebank and juggler of souls, who from behind a Greek mask, bewitches the church. If I did not know he was a man I would think he was a devil.”
It is difficult to decide whether a great person suffers most from malicious foes, who see in him only wrong, or from adoring friends who see in him unqualified right. A slander can be refuted or ignored; but when one is given an excellence he knows he does not possess and is assigned a rank he has not attained, he is powerless. It is much easier to avoid becoming an absolute villain than to become a spotless saint. The superlative degree is a form of untruth; and flattery is more to be feared than abuse. Both are a kind of libel ; but the former is so comforting a falsehood that it is difficult for its object not to believe it is truth. Hence the prayer : `Save us from our friends.”
Point of view determines many things ; and our own personality insinuates itself into everything we do. If several persons play or sing the same piece of music there will be as many results as there are per-formers. The temperament of each one will reveal itself. Not only so, but every listener will modify the result. We hear what we are fitted to hear. Jesus used to say : “Let him that hath ears hear,” doubtless knowing that there were always some present who had no ears fitted to hear what was said. Once, having made a statement of his intention, it is written that a note of approval was heard in the sky. In speaking of the incident afterward, some of those who were present said an angel had spoken to him : others affirmed that it was thunder they had heard. Of music Carlyle said: “It is a kind of inarticulate, unfathomable speech, which leads us to the edge of the infinite, and lets us for moments gaze into that.” With that fine tribute compare the verdict of Samuel John-son: “Music is nothing but the least disagreeable of noises.” 0In noting the transit of a star, allowance is always made for a certain amount of error in the observer. This is called “personal equation.” But there is personal equation needed outside of astronomy ; and allowance must be made for error in all observations of events. The most candid of witnesses is partly untrustworthy, because he cannot avoid mixing himself with what he has seen or heard.
As it is with events, so it is with great men. What our heroes are, somewhat depends upon what we, ourselves, are. We admire in them what we are, or would love to be. Ideals are a revelation of a man’s true character. Our conception of God is a reflection of ourselves.
“First God made man, and straightway man made God.
What wonder if the tang of that same sod
Whereout we issued with a breath should cling
To all we fashion? We can only plod,
Led by a starvling candle, and we sing
Of what we can remember of the road.”
The Founder of Christianity has not escaped misunderstanding and misrepresentation. His character has been made to conform to the prevailing characteristics of the people and of the age. Those who loved metaphysical speculation, made him an idea to be de-bated. Those who admired conquest and imperialism, made him a King. Those who resolved religion into form and elaborate ritual, made him a high priest. He was Pope of all the popes. Adapting a famous passage from Max Müller it may be truly said : Like all men, Christ has had his history; the Christ of the twentieth century is not that of the Middle Ages; the Christ of the Middle Ages was not that of the early Councils ; and the Christ of the early Councils was not that of the Gospels.
Our days are trying to go back of all these partial and passing forms to find their original and enduring source. They are passing by the Christ of the creeds, that they may arrive more quickly at the Christ of the spirit.
When a precious metal is assayed its baser ingredients are separated and thrown away. The original mass is thereby made smaller, but that which remains is more valuable. So our rational age is assaying the mass of theology. Its bulk is reduced, but that which is left is more precious. The cutting of a diamond is severe, but it is necessary. Only thus is its concealed lustre revealed. So the task of rationalism is painful, but it is inevitable. When the mass of encumbering dogma is removed, the spiritual beauty of Christ that remains will more than compensate for the labor and pain.
Every historic religion is, in part, a product of reformation. Christianity is an amended Judaism; but Judaism is not, itself, an original religion. It came out of something older than itself. The same is true of Mohammedanism and Buddhism and Confucianism. They are all amendments. Those whose names these religions bear were all men who had become dissatisfied with the old. They thought they saw something better for the world ; and that which, in moments of illumination, they beheld, they tried to realize. That they failed, in part, is common history. A stream, crystal in its purity when it starts from its mountain home, long before it reaches the sea is stained by the soil through which it flows. So when the dream of these Alpine souls descends to the common human plain it loses a part of its purity. Defects of thought and insight, sometimes joined with worldly aims and selfish motives on the part of those who receive it, so mar and change it, that, after a few generations it becomes almost unrecognizable. The simple melody that once had such power to touch the heart and awaken tender memories and longings is hidden beneath brilliant, but perplexing and tiresome variations. Purest air suffers from being breathed but once; and noblest thought degenerates by passing through a single generation of smaller minds. Physical health demands that each breath be drawn directly from the great, uncorrupted atmosphere; and spiritual health demands that all inspiration come to the soul from a pure and original source. Thus it is better to appeal from the partial to the universal in religion ; to minimize the customs and doctrines of Christianity and magnify the spirit of Christ. Beneath all variations made by the performer it is well to listen for the original melody.
At a Friend’s meeting, many years ago, there was a controversy concerning the personality and mission of Jesus, some contending for his divinity and sacrificial work, others for his humanity and spiritual example. As the discussion was drawing to its close, with the disputants as far apart as when they began, Elias Hicks rose and calmly said :
“To the Christ who was never crucified, who never died or was buried, and who had no need to rise from the dead, I commend you all.”
This sentence is as full of meaning as it is of eloquence. In these days of criticism and skepticism and unsteadiness of conviction, its significance comes with added force. We should all remember that there is a Christ who cannot be helped or hurt by debate ; who cannot be imprisoned either in Joseph’s sepulcher or in Nicene Creeds; who is superior to all customs, all times, all changes; and to whom, for guide and inspiration, no soul ever turns in vain.
Some of us can recall a time when the evidences of Christianity were nearly all external. The moral argument was largely absent. Christ’s value and standing were proved from his miracles. Becoming a Christian did not consist in being like Christ, but in acknowledging his Deity or his wonder-working power or his atonement.
We now see a great change in this respect. The evidences of Christianity are more internal. They are more moral than physical. Not so much what he did as what he was makes Christ dear to the race. Greater than the few years of his bodily existence are the many centuries of his spiritual influence. There is perhaps as much of an oak tree in the ground as there is in the air. So the world of hidden thought equals the world of visible action. The way to come to Christ is not by studying theology, but by studying his soul. Not by accepting church doctrines, but by becoming imbued with ‘his spirit makes a Christian. A Mohammedan saint said: “What is the Kaaba to me? I need God only.” So the Christian may say: “What are miracles and doctrines and sacraments to me? I need Christ only,”
Even those who, in theory, retain traditional doctrines, in practice, confess how weakly they are held. More and more they are detaching Jesus from a meta-physical Trinity and are bringing him closer to actual humanity. He is not related so much to the creation of a material universe as to the creation of a moral civilization. The current sermons of the orthodox pulpit contain much less of the Christ of theology than of the Christ of ethics, of philanthropy, and of all forms of goodness. The Christ of miracle is declining, while the Christ of spiritual influence is rising. The cross is still used as a symbol of Christianity, but it is no longer stained with the blood of an atoning sacrifice to appease the wrath of Deity. It is wreathed with the flowers of perpetual human duty and all human ministry. It is more an emblem of life than of death. The blood-stained cross stands only for the event of a day; the flower-decked cross stands for all the centuries. The one represents a defeated body; the other a triumphant soul.
Principles are more important than persons. Every-where, in nature, we find magnetism and gravitation, air and sunshine ; and everywhere, in humanity, we find love and laughter, hope and memory, tears and terror. They are not dependent on particular places or peculiar races. So, although we may sail away until our roof-tree, our church spire, every accustomed headland disappears below the sky-line, as if sinking into a fathomless sea, and we resolutely hold our course toward most distant, unknown shores, yet, wherever we land, we shall find that justice and truth have pre-ceded us. They are no more dependent upon names and places than gravitation is dependent upon one star, or growth upon one tree, or chemistry upon one substance, or beauty upon one rose. The moral law is universal and eternal; events and persons are local and temporary.
Of this law, Jesus of Nazareth is pre-eminent illustration. For centuries, to millions of humankind, his name has been so allied with it that no distinction was made between them. The symbol and the thing symbolized were inseparable. Nevertheless, we must re-member that there was virtue in the world before he came. He is doubtless a cause, but he was first an effect of goodness. Thinking of summer, we recall sunshine, but sunshine creates summer, not summer the sunshine. So thinking of Christ recalls religion, but religion made Christ and not Christ religion: He was a Palestine illustration of a world-wide principle.
For great persons we have nothing but admiration.
Through them truth, goodness, and beauty find an inlet to the world. Of original insight, of high aims, of steadfast purpose, among all confusing noises of earth they detect the voice of heaven ; piercing all swathing veils they have glimpses of something beyond sense and circumstance; among all entangled roads they find the one leading to the excellent. These are they who sing anew the songs for their coming and going nation ; reproduce its forms of beauty ; re-state its laws; reform its religion; and disclose higher ideals to their countrymen. To them we freely give our praise.
Nevertheless, they belong to time and cannot command forever. Moses may fill the horizon of Palestine for ten, and Confucius that of China for twenty-four centuries, but neither ten nor twenty-four centuries are all of time. Paul left the stamp of his mind on the new religion of Palestine,an impression so deep that the rains and frosts of eighteen hundred years have not effaced it. But the end of human history is still far away, and he may become as unreal and spectral as Cadmus or Melchizedek. Time devours all his children. The brightest star will at last burn out and only reflect a borrowed light. So the most lustrous name finally becomes so dim that it can cast no ray across the awful expanse of darkness lying between it and the present affairs of mankind. Although he may be among the greatest that ever lived and by his feats of art or arms filled his age with his fame, what is a person but an agent of something greater than him-self? He is chosen to do a certain thing. But when his life work is accomplished, what is he? He was clay moulded into form to hold a sacred fire. But when his work is done, the flame goes out and the form mingles with its native dust. He is remembered for a time because of the flame that once burned with-in and then he is forgotten.
“Can storied urn, or animated bust
Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?
Can honor’s voice provoke the silent dust,
Or flattery soothe the dull, cold ear of death?”
But the flame itself? It is self-nourishing, inextinguishable, and lo! it is seen shining as brightly in some other mortal form.
By which is meant that, with the perishable person, there is an imperishable spirit. Life halts ; but its purpose goes onward. Many of the historic and legendary heroes have become pale and shadowy forms and some have long since vanished into indistinguishable mist and gloom. But that which made them heroes shows no sign of disappearing. It is ruddy and strong with immortal youth. Hercules has fallen out of history into mythology, but the strength and bravery, of which he was illustration, in that old fore-world, have not fallen with him. Homer is in the realm of shades, but poetry is still in the land of perpetual brightness. Zeuxis and Apelles now exist only as names, but the beauty they sought to realize is as powerful as ever it was. Jubal and Orpheus are now only used for illustration. They are symbols of ancient music. But there is always music in the world. Its presence is universal and unceasing. The birds in the trees are its agents. So are the winds in the woods ; and the brooks among the hills ; and the waves beating against cliffs or rippling over sedgy sands; and those unwritten harmonies which, in blessed hours, seem to come from afar and sound in the heart like choirs of angels. Our modern composers only retune and retouch a harp that has always been and shall forever be in the world. Should the names of Beethoven and Mozart become as fabulous as Apollo and Arion, other hands will come and sweep its marvelous strings. Far away is Gautama Buddha. In his career fact and fable are so commingled that they cannot be untangled. But the spirit of self-renunciation, which made him willing to be the lowliest and loneliest of mortals that he might find the supreme illumination for himself and his countrymen,this is not far away and can never become fabulous.
The same law applies to Christianity. Names and persons may be spared, if only its divine meaning remains. The reputed followers of Christ have some-times exalted form above spirit. In their zeal to make prominent incidents and anecdotes connected with his brief career they have too much neglected his divine motives and sentiments. Understanding his relation to the Mosaic age, or his genealogy, or his place in a Trinity has been made of far more importance than his inspiration to holy living. Holding an established and conventional theory concerning his personality, or his relation to a covenant of grace, or atonement, or his birth, or his resurrection, has been made a test of worthiness to be called his follower, rather than par-taking of his noble character and, fired by the enthusiasm of a brave example, gladly sacrificing ease for duty and private aims for universal good. When he said: “The flesh profiteth not, it is the spirit that giveth life,” it was to prevent such mistakes.
Here may none of us help perpetuate that error. Christianity is not a name, nor a creed, nor a ritualism, nor a ceremony, but a divine Spirit to regenerate and refine and exalt civilization. For its authority and influence it is not dependent upon texts or traditions or majorities. Its power is in itself. Knowing that the early years of Christ are partly veiled from sight, that many reported incidents cannot be read as history and that opinions concerning him have come and gone, we must despair of finding certainty in the great case. It is seen that the Christ of middle-age Catholicism, of sixteenth century Protestantism and of nineteenth century Revivalism is partial and formal. It is therefore the duty of the twentieth century to find a Christ that is universal and spiritual. It need not look for him in Palestine, for he is not there. Nor in church history, for he is not there. Nor in creeds and catechisms, for he is not there. Rather must it look for him in the noble motives and duties of humanity, present and future. Where slaves are freed, where the fallen are lifted, where the sorrowful are comforted, where the weak are protected, where happiness is gained through righteousness,looking there for the Christ no one will be disappointed.
Motive and goal of all high endeavor, mediator between warring factions of mankind, refiner of civilization, and sole creator of a divine Kingdom on earth, this Christ is worthy of great exaltation. Of his final triumph, prophets may confidently utter their predictions. In his praise, inspired bards may chant their noblest strains. To him, for motive and method, re-formers may always repair. Symbol of the moral and spiritual Ideal, to him saints may breathe their prayers and sing their hymns as to a God. Uncreated and immortal, the same yesterday, to-day, and forever, to this Christ we may well commend each other and commend all coming generations of humankind.