The Impossibility of Knowing
What is Christianity.
["Another Conundrum.—Professor Salmond has been lecturing on the question, 'What is Christianity?' We are afraid that the Professor will feel some difficulty in giving a proper definition. Unless there is some system—some creed elaborated, we fail to see how an answer can be given."—Echo, 19th June, 1880. The Professor did give an answer, but it will be seen from the following paper that the Rev. Peter Dean "gives it up" and why.]
Trying to know what is Christianity is like trying to catch the Will-o'-the-Wisp,—the longer we seek to do so the longer and more it eludes us. He who starts in pursuit of the ignis fatuus feels positive, at first, that he knows its exact locality; and he who begins to try to realise what is Christianity feels sure that either he can know or does know. Pursuit, however, enlightens both: it makes the one less and less able to say where Jack-o'-the-Lantern is, and the other less and less able to say what is Christianity. That which is looked upon by the less informed class of Christians as one of the plainest things in the world, is to the candid and intelligent thinker a perfect mystery.—As great a mystery as, "Why does evil exist?" or, "How far has man free will?"—And the longer he thinks and ponders the more has he to say of all three, "I cannot know."
Now intellectual difficulties are of two kinds. They are those we seek, and those which seek us. "Why does evil exist?" and "freedom and necessity," are questions of the latter class; and so is What is Christianity? and the phases of our mental attitude towards all three have much in common. Most of us have had theories explanatory of Evil and Free Will which allowed us rest and satisfaction in them for page 2 a time. By and by, however, we have come across something which has altogether upset our position, and put us once more at sea. So of What is Christianity? At one time we have persuaded ourselves that Christianity is such and such a thing, and in this, for a time, we have felt satisfied. Then our moorings have been again unloosened, and we have concluded—"O! Christianity is not what we thought before, but it is so and so:" and again we have found rest for a time. But only for a time. Again and again the irrepressible questions—Is what I believe to be Christianity really Christianity? and, am I, or am I not, a Christian?—have arisen to trouble us, and set us afloat on the wide sea of doubt and uncertainty. Now I cannot in this brief paper deal with all these halting stages of Christians,—with all the intellectual positions which various men and parties respectively assert to be true Christianity. I can, however, notice some few of them, and of these (as of all I have yet been made acquainted with) I am compelled to conclude that they are altogether unsatisfactory; and that the most philosophical attitude towards the question of to-night is that implied in answering—We cannot know.
I. Now, the first position I shall examine—with a view to show its unsatisfactoriness—is the position of a great many Christians, that Christianity is Christ. These people have no idea of Christianity apart from the personality of Jesus—of his nature and office. Their view has been well summed up by Dr. Green, Principal of the Rawdon Baptist College, when he sail in a sermon—"For what is it, my brethren, that makes a Christian? Is it not the sincere and hearty acceptance of this revelation of the Divine: I believe in Christ?" With this class of Christians Christianity means Christology. But when we have got at this, we have only removed the difficulty, not solved it. We can no more know what is true Christology than we can know what is true Christianity. The Christ of every age, the Christ of every Church, the Christ of every sect, the Christ of every man is a different Christ; how, then, is it possible for any to know which is the true Christ, what is Christianity? May be we are told that by searching the New Testament the true Christology, the true Christianity is to be found. Well, some of us have done this, and we have found, not one, but at least six or seven different and irreconcilable Christs or Christologies there. There is the Christology of Christ's contemporaries, the Christology of the First and Third Gospels, the Christology of the Epistles of Peter, James, and Jude, the Christology of Paul's Epistles, and the Christology of the Johannic writings, and they are all different. They cannot all be true; which is the true one? I reply that it is utterly impossible for us to know. We cannot know which is the true Christology; and, if Christianity is Christology, we cannot know what is Christianity.
II. Well, leaving that, we pass to the next most common answer—Christianity is the Teachings of Christ. And here again we find ourselves in a perfect labyrinth of difficulty and impossibility. Even so good a Christian believer as Dr. Channing had to feel this, for he page 3 says in one of his sermons: "Go to Jesus Christ for goodness, inspiration and strength in your office. This precept is easily uttered, but not easily obeyed. Nothing, indeed, is harder than to place ourselves near Jesus Christ. The way to him is blocked up on every side. Interpreters, Churches, Sects (past and present), Creeds, Authorities, the influence of Education all stand in our way." But these difficulties are nothing compared with others which the good Doctor might have mentioned. If Christianity is the teachings of Christ it is utterly impossible for any one living now to know what those teachings were, and, consequently, utterly impossible to know what is Christianity. Some, however, will tell us that Christianity is the teachings of Christ as recorded in the New Testament. But this also is to surround us by impossibilities. We can never know which of these are Christ's teachings, and which those of his reporters. We can never know the true meaning of many of the statements of the Gospel records. And, above all, we are troubled to know whether or not Christianity is the whole or only part of Christ's teachings there recorded? whether it is the good or the bad, or both combined? If Christianity means the whole of those teachings, there is very little real Christianity amongst us; for I find very few so foolish as to try to carry them out. Those who "Take no thought for the morrow," but act as if they "considered the lilies of the field how they grow, and neither toil nor spin," are to be found in the back slums of Whitechapel and St. Giles', rather than in churches. And all human progress has been made by disobeying this precept. Those who (according to the Christ of the Gospels) act much more nobly than they who marry—those who "Make themselves eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven's sake"—are confined chiefly to Priests and Nuns. They who "Swear not at all" are neither the God of the Old Testament, the Paul of the New, and but few of modern professing Christians. Even the New Testament Christ himself could not obey that part of Christianity which says, "Resist not evil," for he made a whip of cords and with it cleared the Temple. As has been well said by another, "To give one's cheek to the smiter, one's coat to the thief, one's life to the tyrant, is to make evil supreme and good impossible. It is to render the wicked (by successful villany) more wicked, and the penalty for being good too heavy for human goodness to endure." And (not to proceed further in detail) Theodore Parker—great admirer of Jesus as he was—has pretty couclusively shown that the teaching of the Jesus of the Gospels was mistaken in points of the greatest magnitude, in the character of God, the existence of the devil, the interpretation of the Old Testament, the doctrine of demons, in the celebrated prediction of his second coming and the end of the world within a few years. Further than this, Mr. Rathbone Greg, in the Creed of Christendom, has shown that the teaching of the Christ of the Gospels is defective in its self-interested motive for resignation, its view of forgiveness, its ascetic contempt for this world, its idea of the future life, and of heaven as God's dwelling place far inferior to the description of the Psalms and Job, its notion of compensation, of the un- page 4 changing character of future pains and pleasures, excluding the idea of progress, and of the eternal duration and physical nature of the pains of hell. Now are these mistaken, these untrue parts of the teaching of the historical Christ, parts of Christianity? Some say they are, some say they are not. Some say that to give up a single recorded statement of Christ's is to sacrifice a part of Christianity; others, that all these mistakes of the historical Jesus may be given up, and Christianity still remain intact. How are we to know which is right? We cannot know, we have no means of knowing, and therefore (through this avenue of the recorded teachings of Christ) we cannot enter into what is Christianity? Individual surmises, individual opinions, we may gain; but decisive knowledge, none whatever.
Another matter which ought to have some bearing upon this connection is the fact that Christianity, as Christ taught it, contained nothing that was original. This is a point to which I think our friends the Supernatural Revelationists ought to direct their attention a little more than they appear to do. I should like them to say how what Jesus taught could be a supernatural revelation when he taught it, and not a supernatural revelation when others taught it long before him. For we know of nothing in any of the kinds of Christianity held up before us which cannot be found outside Christianity altogether. Our friends the Textual Unitarians are fond of talking about "Christianity as Christ preached it." They might also speak of the self-same Christianity as preached by Democrates, Epictetus, Terence and many others. For I am ignorant of a single doctrine in the teachings of Christ which is not to be found elsewhere, as I am ignorant of a single example of bis life which is not to be found in other lives. We are told that Jesus taught the fatherhood of God, so did Epictetus; the oneness of humanity, so did Terence; love of God and man and striving to be perfect even as God is perfect, so had many before him, the golden rule, so had Confucius; that goodness is the greatest of all treasures, so had Pythagoras; that men sin by lusting to do a thing as well as in doing it, so did Democrates. Equivalants of all he taught are to be found in the Jewish Talmud, even of the sentences of the Lord's Prayer. While his description of the last judgment is to be found almost word for word in Plato. And that "Christianity as Christ taught it" contains nothing not before known and taught, has been admitted in all ages since its introduction. Tindall proved "Christianity" to be "as old as creation." It was part of the policy of the early Christians to show that they were introducing no innovation. Lactantius declared that all the doctrines of Christianity were taught before Christ, but not before collected into one mass. Dr. Reginald Peacock, in the fifteenth century, wrote:—"Christianity added nothing at all except the sacraments; "which is equivalant to saying Christianity added nothing at all, for that it did not add the sacraments is quite certain. And as the prophet of the Absolute Goodness of God—Theodore Parker—has well summed up the matter, "The great doctrines of Christianity were known long page 5 before Jesus, for God did not leave man 4,000 years unable to find out his plainest duty. There is no precept of Jesus, no real duty commanded, no promise offered, no sanction held out which cannot be paralleled in writers before him." But, if all this be true, what becomes of Christianity as a separate system, and who can possibly know it as such? Who can show us the dividing line—who tell us where Paganism ends and Christianity begins? Or what right has Christianity to arrogate to itself as its own what it has borrowed from previous systems? Why should men call themselves followers of Christ, when they are more truly followers of those of whom Christ himself was a follower? There may be satisfactory answers to these and similar questions which arise in this connection, but some of us have not yet heard of them, and their absence makes it still more impossible for us to know What is C'hristianity?
III. I remember some years ago, when I was myself being very much troubled about the question of this paper, and not knowing whether I was a Christian or not, seeing that I had ceased to believe in many of Christ's recorded teachings, I received great comfort from hearing a brother minister remark, "Whoever is Christlike is a Christian," and for sometime forward I rested in the position, Christianity is Christ-Likeness. That is a position of many Christians, notably that of men like Henry Ward Beecher. But, as I soon found, it is not a satisfactory—it is not a true position. For, first of all, if Christianity is likeness to Christ's good qualities, it must also be likeness to the self-same qualities when shown by other men; and as Christ did not show a single good quality which cannot be paralleled in others, Christianity on this hypothesis comes to mean not something new and distinct, but simply piety and benevolence—two things which it has no right whatever to arrogate to itself. Another difficulty occurs when we come to ask the question, In what are we to be like unto Christ? Are we to be like Christ in all he did, or only in those things we ourselves think good and excellent? Does the Christianity of Christ-likeness include cursing fig trees for not having fruit on them out of their season? Does it include whipping those we think impious with a whip of small cords? Does it include denouncing the inconsistent as "whited sepulchres," "hypocrites," and "generations of vipers?" Does it include saying to one's mother, when she has failed to appreciate him, "Woman, what have I to do with thee, mine hour is not yet come?" Does it mean that we are to tell women of other districts when they ask us for our benevolence, "It is not meet to take the meat of the children and cast it to the dogs?" Does it include that we are to exercise our powers so as to destroy 200 swine belonging to an unoffending man? Or does it mean that we are to be so little the friends of temperance as to produce 200 gallons of good wine for our guests after they have already well drunk? It appears to me that those who say Christianity is Christ-likeness—is having in us the mind and spirit which was in Christ Jesus—will And (as I did) some difficulty in disposing of questions such as I have just put. Some will say page 6 that Christianity does not include such conduct; others that the conduct was not what the words say, but something different. Some will say one thing about it, and some another; and we shall be driven to conclude that Christianity can no more be made into Christ-likeness than it can be made into Christology, or the teachings of Christ; or, that if it can be, there is no one can tell us what it truly is. And, once more, we have to satisfy ourselves by saying, What Christianity is, we cannot know.
IV. Now I will not waste your time by examining the plea—Christianity is What the Christian Church Says it is. If there was only the Roman Catholic Church in existence, this would deserve examination; but in the face of sixty different and differing Churches and sects, each claiming to have the nearest approach to Christianity in its doctrine, and in the face of the impossibility of anyone ever being able to know which one of them has the most right to what it claims, it must appear clear to all that it is hopeless to try to find out what is Christianity in that direction. A kindred plea, however, the plea that Christianity is What all Christians Teach in Common, is worth a remark or two. And the remark I make is, that what all Christians teach in common is Theism, pure and simple. For the moment you step beyond this—the moment you begin to say what Jesus was or did—what the Bible is,—the differences begin. Theism is the common Christianity, but what right have you to call Theism—that which is derived from the name of God—something lower than Christianity, that which is derived from the name of a man? As Theism is a much more euphonious term than Christianity, so it has a more just right to express what it represents.
V. Due limits will not permit me to notice all the assertions made as to what Christianity is, which I had intended. I will simply sum up those others by saying that their great underlying fallacy is that they claim that for Christianity which rightly belongs to religion. Now Christianity is not Religion. Whatever it is, it is simply a system of Religion; and Religion is more and higher than any (or all) systems of Religion. When the Rev. John Hunt in a recent magazine article said "Christianity is to do justly, love mercy, and to walk humbly with God," what right had he to call that which existed long before Christ was born, Christianity? When some of our friends say, Christianity is not A System, but a Spirit and a Life, are they not speaking of Religion itself rather than Christianity? Canon Barry is now preaching a course of sermons at King's College upon such topics as "Christianity an Intellectual Power," "Christianity a Moral Power," "Christianity a Spiritual Power." I imagine that if he were to say Religion is these different powers, he would more truly express what he means. Systems and theories are not the same with the powers they evoke or aid, any more than are spectacles the same with the eyes.
VI. In conclusion, Christianity either can be known, or it cannot be known. If it can be known it ought to be an easy thing for a gathering of intelligent men like this to say clearly what it is. I ven- page 7 ture to predict, however, that this meeting will not to-night succeed in defining what Christianity is, and if we met every night for a twelvemonth the result would be the same. We shall have Mr. A's Christianity, or Mr. B's Christianity, or Mr. C's Christianity, but what is Christianity will still remain unsolved. And why should we be so anxious to cling to the undefinable and non-understandable? Surely the terms "Religion" and "Religious Man" are much grander than the terms "Christianity" and "Christian." Why not keep to them? Doing this would give us width and depth, freedom and liberality. For historical Religion contains a larger affirmation than historical Christianity; the brotherhood of prophets than that of a solitary revealer; progressive enlightenment than special revelations; evolution from the beginning than developement from a single point of history; truth to be attained than truth once delivered; God incarnate in humanity than God incarnate in Christ; the inspiration of Reason than the inspiration of a few Apostles and Evangelists; and redemption by truth and love than redemption by Jesus.
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