The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 8
The Old and the New
The Old and the New.
Indisputable as is the fact that all organised bodies, whether belonging to the animal or to the vegetable kingdom, are destined to perish and pass away, we yet know, as a matter of the commonest observation, that the resulting disintegration of their physical structure, is sometimes indefinitely postponed. A tree, for example, on succumbing to the whirlwind or the axe, will, under favouring circumstances of climate, retain for many, indeed for untold, years its original toughness of fibre; and even appear, by the production of a twig here or an excrescence there, to reassert the life of which, by the prostration of its stem, it was permanently dispossessed. We say permanently, seeing that these irregular and, as it were, post-mortem displays of the vital principle, always take place within certain limits, as they are always traceable to local and, to some extent, fortuitous agencies. Of the upward and downward movement of the sap in which, formerly, the life of the tree consisted, there is a total and permanent stoppage. The prostrate trunk has ceased to grow. It is no longer a living organism, and the dissolution of its integrant parts, by the chemic and mechanic forces of nature, is, in face of the defiant durability of the woody texture, a mere question of time.
Now on turning from these and kindred phenomena of external nature to the moral and mental activities of man, we find an analogous set of facts awaiting our recognition. Our systems of belief, for example—is it not a fact that their disruption by the investigating spirit is generally followed by periods of slow decay, during which they exert a more or less vigorous but gradually relaxing hold on the popular mind? Is it not a fact that the old Paganism which Christianity eventually supplanted was, for at least three centuries after the Prophet of Nazareth delivered his message, the dominant faith of the Roman Empire? page 9 History, indeed, bears uniform testimony to this sturdy and lingering resistance to truth on the part of exploded systems of doctrine. Cursorily glancing at the great moral and intellectual reforms of which history is the record, we readily accept the dictum that truth prevails over error; but to the careful student of history no fact is more patent than that truth may, in contesting with error, fight a losing. battle for centuries. The time, however, must sooner or later come, when the issue of such a contest no longer remains doubtful, truth becoming more and more triumphant, while the opposing error, loosening its hold on the minds of men, gradually sinks into decrepitude and death.
Applying these observations to the purpose we have in view, it can hardly be doubted, we think, that the Popular Christian Theology of our time, when measured by its agreement, or rather disagreement, with the highest and devoutest thought of the age, is, analogously, in much the same condition as an old tree which, though sapless and decaying, is still equal, for an indefinite period, to certain displays of life. It can still plant churches by the hundred, and find worshippers of one sort and another to fill them. For the furtherance of its ends, it can inspire its votaries with a zeal, a vigour, and an enthusiasm, in themselves all too commendable, save, indeed, that by being diverted into worthier channels they might be used for the accomplishment of higher results. It can start associations, organise domestic and foreign missions, deluge society with its literature, and raise vast sums of money for the prosecution of any and every enterprise that it chooses to honour with its smile. But these laudable activities of the religious spirit need not, and should not, blind us to the fact that the theological system with which they are associated is slowly but surely receding before the advance of a faith which, while embodying infinitely higher conceptions of Man, of Nature, of the Universe, of Providence, and of God, will, in accordance with the law which provides for the conservation of the true and good amid the perpetual decay of the false and the worthless, assuredly incorporate the many imperishable excellencies of its predecessor, and use them, perhaps with greater efficiency than ever, for the progressive welfare of mankind. To the priest, whether Catholic or Protestant, who thinks himself the guardian of a supernaturally-communicated, and therefore unimprovable, scheme of doctrine; to the churchman who, under priestly misguidance, identifies his narrow creed with all that man can know or is entitled to know; to the weak or lazy-minded who, not page 10 daring to trust what is highest and best in their souls, must have some external and established authority to lean upon; to all, in short, who, by their arrogance, conceit, ignorance, indolence, or fear, have fairly involved themselves in the reproach of loving Christianity more than Truth,—there is, of course, nothing very comforting in the prospect of the probable or even possible dispersion of their favourite and, to them, indispensable dogmas. But what does their uneasiness prove? It proves that they either cannot or will not mark a distinction which, when duly recognised, is amazingly influential in the way of liberating the mind from its religious doubts and misgivings. We mean the distinction between the few deep trusts and aspirations of the human soul which constitute Religion, and the complicated web of metaphysical speculations on divine things which forms Theology; the former being inherently characteristic of human nature, and therefore fated to survive the last investigations of thought, while for man's speculations concerning God, varying as they do from age to age, and dealing as they do with an absolutely indefinable Essence, it is impossible to set up any fixed standard. What would be more hopeless than the attempt to identify the God of Moses, washing his feet in Abraham's tent preparatory to a bread-and-meat supper, or visibly and tangibly encountering the great Lawgiver himself, and trying on one occasion to take the life of Moses at a wayside inn (Exodus iv. 24.) with the God of Jesus, sublimely defined by him as the all-pervading but invisible Spirit of the Universe, who is to be worshipped not merely in this temple, or on that mountain, but wherever the awe-touched soul of man soars up in adoration of the Infinite Holiness? How far removed again is the little wooden fetich, over which the savage mutters his incantations, from the dread ineffable Presence which awes the soul of the Astronomer, scanning the astral spaces with his gigantic tube, into a reverence that cannot be spoken! Yet under all these conceptions there appears the common and seemingly irrepressible conviction of the existence of a Power, an Essence, a Will, a Personality, pervading and controlling the universe, and to which, or to whom, our humanity is bound by indissoluble ties of reverential love, and irrefragable obligations to devout service. Such is the religious spirit when fairly disentangled from the adventitious, and but too often false and damaging, accretions of the theological spirit. These accretions have no guaranteed permanency. A master soul, like that of Jesus or Luther, may page 11 at any time appear and sweep them away. They are not the unchanging and eternal substance of religion, but the mere temporary husk which the sword of the Reformer, "dividing asunder even to the joints and the marrow," eventually strips off. Christians forget this; and, for the peace and enlargement of their minds, have yet to recognise the truth of Emerson's profound remark, that "God builds his temple in the heart on the ruins of Churches and Religions."
Such, then, is the law, constant and indefeasible, which provides, by the gradual demolition or modification of the prevailing beliefs of successive periods, for a continuous growth of new and truer systems of doctrine at the expense of those which have had their day and ceased to be; just as the saplings of a forest subsist and thrive on the rotting trunks of their ancestors, and will themselves, in turn, grow old and die, while new plants spring up and take their place. Such, in other words, is the law by which the human mind, thirsting for truth and impatient of the social and political restrictions that would pin it down to the old traditional beliefs "periodically grows too large," as Mr. Huxley aptly observes, "for its theoretical coverings, and bursts them asunder to appear in new habiliments, as the feeding and growing grub, at intervals, casts its skin, and assumes another, itself but temporary." But, then, the sudden blaze of light—if we may venture to expand Mr. Huxley's metaphor—thus thrown upon the human mind can be borne by none but those whose trained mental vision, and disinterested love of truth for its own sake, have prepared for the new epiphany. To such brave and discerning spirits, the unveiling of new truth ever comes as a veritable revelation, as well as a reassurance of man's march, onward and onward, even to the shining, however distant, of truth's perfect day. But to the multitude, a new truth, especially a new religious truth, is always an affront, and some-times a nuisance, as in the persons of Socrates and Jesus, to be summarily put out of the way. It shocks their prejudices. It touches their vanity, and puts a strain upon their self-denial. It overhauls their time-honoured prepossessions, and disturbs their lazy dreams. Its light, puzzling or overpowering their feeble vision, is, in a word, too much for them. So, disowning their leaders, they refuse to quit the old familiar skin, where they remain, decorously rehearsing their shibboleths and as-it-was-in-the-beginnings, until the growing luminosity of its walls necessitates an adjustment of their inner and sluggish to the outer and page 12 progressive world of thought. It is to these periodical emancipations of the human mind from the bondage of superannuated incrustations of belief that we are indebted for all the great reforms, whether in art, science, philosophy or religion, which have made history famous and the world what it is. The Christianity of Christ—and observe that we draw a distinction between the religion of the Founder of Christianity and that now professed by the mass of his followers—was itself the product of one of them. The great religious resolution of the sixteenth century—triumphantly vindicating, as it did, the rights of the human mind and conscience against the insolent assumptions of the powerful Ecclesiastic-ism which had for a thousand years impeded and debased the civilisation of Western Europe—was the upshot of another. So the world moves on; is actually moving on; as may be inferred from the fact that, in our own day, another skin is being cast, involving no loss a result than the total severance of spiritual from dogmatic Christianity and the relegation of the hitter to the limbo of used-up and inoperative beliefs. We do not expect acquiescence in this statement from the mass of professed Christians: still less do we expect it from their accredited religious guides. But their verdict—the verdict of the priesthood—in the matter, as being that of a class of men who are notorious for their adherence to doctrines that are merely venerable or established, at the cost of all open-eyed reverence for truth, irrespective of doctrines in any shape or form, is weightless, or nearly so, when confronted by the well-nigh unanimous decision of able and independent thinkers in all walks of learning that Christianity, as now generally taught and received, is without a future. For the future of Christianity, regarded as a masterly enthronement of the living spirit on the ruins of the mere letter of religion; as a noble assertion of the absolute freedom of the human mind and conscience in all matters pertaining to religion; and as a scathing exposure of the utter worthlessness of professional piety when divorced from practical morality and purity of heart, we, for our part, are in nowise apprehensive; but for the future of the Christianity which systematically and provokingly overlooks this abiding essence of the religion of Jesus, and propounds a scheme of faith which cannot do without its infallible Bible and the supernatural revelation of which it is the presumed exclusive depository; its repulsive Devil, and the more repulsive Hell where that next to-almighty fiend is to reign for ever as the prince and page 13 tormentor of reprobate souls; its superhuman Christ, and the monstrous, not to say immoral, fiction of vicarious suffering for sin of which he was the divinely-ordained victim; its imperfect God, and his occasional suspension or modification of the laws of nature, as ascertained by science, for the infliction of his otherwise unimposable punishments or the unfolding of his otherwise incommunicable truth;—for the future of such a Christianity, except, indeed, as a lingering superstition in the minds of the ignorant, we unhesitatingly assert that the religious tendencies of our time afford no guarantees whatever. The truth is, that the progress of thought in removing this dogmatic Christianity from the court of mere ecclesiastical authority to that of reason and conscience, has, by the open verdict of the profoundest and devoutest thinkers, putting aside the secret verdict of thinkers equally profound but not equally honest, irrevocably sealed its fate. There are men of the highest standing who undisguisedly impugn it as an intruder on the domain of philosophy and science; others there are who deferentially shelve it as a once influential but now obsolete ethics and doctrine; but the fact is at any rate notorious, that among men of culture and information, taken as a class, there is a deep-rooted conviction that the Popular Christianity of our day, already detached in their estimation from the moral and intellectual forces which really move and mould society, can only regain its place among them by submitting to excisions which involve not so much a modification as a reconstruction of its theological scheme. In making these statements, we are fully aware that millions of earnest and intelligent Christians still accept and reverence the false and moribund dogmas to which we have just alluded as the essentials of their faith. We quite understand the strength and cohesiveness which belong to Popular Christianity as a system of doctrine hallowed by age, enriched by the grandest historical memories, ennobled by a glorious ancestry comprising some of the best and bravest spirits that have ever worn flesh, and still guarded by a jealous and powerful priesthood ready, at the least scent of heresy, to do fierce battle for it, just as if the cause—nay, the very existence—of religion and morality were staked on the issue. But knowing this, we are at least as well assured, that neither popular prejudice, backed by all the hierarchies in the world, nor the "refined mental conservatism which, like arsenic, preserves form, but is inimical to life and progress," is any match, in the long run, for that pushing and irrepressible spirit of free page 14 inquiry in the soul of man, which, constantly urging him forward in the quest of truth, is eventually fatal to the strongest and most popular forms of error. Entrench itself, then, as it may, in the blinding conceits, the strong passions, the sacred yearnings of human nature, it seems clear that the time must, sooner or later, and sooner rather than later, come, when the now dominant but visibly declining creed of Christendom will be as emphatically disowned by the leavened multitude as it is at present by the leavening few. On no point, perhaps, are the religious signs of the times more explicit than on this.
The foregoing observations will indicate, we hope, with sufficient clearness, the purpose which our litte Paper, the Australian Free Religious Press is, in a humble way, intended to serve. We wish it to be understood that our standpoint is distinctly and, indeed, emphatically religious. Our philosophy, such as it is, refuses to part company with those elements of human nature—wonder, hope, trust, resignation, reverence—which find their root in the conviction that the glorious Universe is but the ever-unfolding autobiography of an infinitely wise and good Being who, while transcending our utmost thought of his perfections, mysteriously reveals himself to our consciousness as the Author of all that we have and are, and to whom therefore, our devoutest allegiance is irreversibly due. In pledging ourselves, however, to the defence of this central and essential truth of all religions against the encroachments of Atheistic and other anti-religious forms of belief, we none the less declare that our main purpose is to assist in liberating Christianity itself from the false and pernicious dogmas which, without the slightest warrant from the pure religion of Jesus, are still taught and accepted in his name. Our standpoint, therefore, is not only religious, but Christian too; for we agree with Renau's observation, that Jesus "founded the pure worship, of all ages, of all lands, even that to which mankind, after having run through all the cycles of error, will return as the immortal expression of its faith and hope."
To die for Truth is to die, not for your country, but for the world. Truth may, like the Venus dc Medicis, descend to posterity in many fragments, but it will be re-united into a goddess. And thy temple, eternal Truth, which is now half-under ground, will be dug out of the graves of thy martyrs, raised out of the earth, and stand a precious monument, with the firmness of an adamantine pillar.—Jean Paul.