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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 8

The Origin of New Truths

page 88

The Origin of New Truths.

There is a class of persons who identify Jesus with religion, because, as they assert, he was the first to teach its higher truths. The fundamental error of such persons can hardly escape detection. They have formed an idea of what Jesus said, not from a study of the remains which have been preserved, but in accordance with the theological theory of the Church to which they belong. The theological doctrines they take to be his, and hence their assumption that his teaching was peculiar and essentially new. The truths he taught were, however, the very opposite of what they conceive; for he was about the last of men to frame a system. He hated systems, because he knew how they operate to cramp the mind, and thus it was that he did not write out a religious code, or build up a Church. Had his successors imitated his example, we should never have had the tales of persecution to read which now disfigure the pages of history. Calling themselves his followers, they enslaved themselves to a system and set of doctrines quite foreign to his conceptions and utterly at variance with his idea of a real religious life.

But apart from this, it must be objected, that they who declare he was the first who taught the higher truths of religion, either intentionally or ignorantly ignore the fact that the moral and spiritual truths to which he gave utterance had all been previously taught. Not the whole of them by any single person, but by many; one teaching of brotherhood, another of immortality, and so on. Jesus blended many into one system, but created none. Travelling through the Vedic Hymns, the ancient books of Persia, the Hebrew Psalms, the poems of Homer, the dramas of Æschylus, the discourses of Socrates and Plato, we glean every truth that he taught. Hence we are enabled to say that God is no respecter of persons or nations; for all who pondered the mysteries of Nature were enriched by discoveries. But even when these truths have been found, it is difficult for the inquirer to decide by whom they were first brought to light.

There is nothing so interesting as to study the growth and reception of a new truth, but to discover its origin is generally impossible. We are able distinctly enough to mark its progress after it has once taken form, and as it goes on widening its borders; but how and when it sprang out of nothingness into life, how and when as a floating indistinct idea it entered a mind to become a clear thought, it is hard and, perhaps, impossible to till. Its rise and early progress lie, like the sources of the Nile, beyond our ken. The birth of a river is not loudly published by nature—it is not born in the presence of a crowd. High up among the hills it gushes forth as a little secluded spring, which sends its waters onward without noise or commotion of any kind, to grow at last into a mighty river. And so is it with the birth of every truth; they are all born in seclusion, and then sent forth to grow great; but not, perhaps, for many ages after they who page 89 sent them forth are gathered to their fathers. And they are not numerous who add more than one truth to the common stock. There are men who absorb many truths into themselves as a sponge absorbs drops of water, but let us not mistake the fact that 'having' does not necessarily involve the idea of creating. There have been men—Shakesperes and Homers—who have poured forth a mighty stream of wisdom, so rich and fertilising, that, even if it would, the world could not let it perish. We read, and feel as we read, that what is before us is not the product of one mind alone, but the concentrated essence of millions. Their thoughts, their truths, their hopes, their poetic imagery, their philosophy, their pious aspirations, have been moulded by the hand of the master worker into the exquisitely beautiful form we are surveying; and thus while rendering all honour to his lofty genius, we recognise also the value of their gifts.

Justice demands that the same be said of Jesus! Was there no religious thought before he began to meditate? Was there no spiritual utterance before he began to speak? As we know by the fragments which have reached us, Psalms and Orphic hymns of imperishable beauty had even then accumulated. And what can we know of those which have been lost? Jesus fed upon such food, and poured it forth again in a rich and living stream to strengthen and enlighten those who would venture upon using their reason and retaining their freedom. He gathered up into his own mind all the noble truths and spiritual aspirations of his countrymen, and when these had become a vital part of his mental self, he went forth to speak them to the common people, who heard him gladly. And we do him no dishonour in thus recognising his dependence upon others; while, at the same time, we avoid treating unfairly the great mass of good men who preceded him. He had the eye to see what was valuable amid heaps of formality; he saw through that old Hebrew system, and understood the nature of its good, the extent of its evil. He preserved only the sound parts, with which he incorporated the truths which had their birth in a foreign soil. But when men forget the sources while looking only upon the wisdom of the one, when they beggar the previous history in order the more to praise him, they are guilty of a double folly and injustice. They grope as blind men and avoid seeing the real sources of his knowledge and wisdom, while they fall down to worship an idol of their own creation, impressed with the false idea that humanity cannot transcend the object of their mistaken adoration.

As a rule, when treating of this subject, ecclesiastical writers have forgotten that the times in which Jesus lived were times of great religious excitement, especially in Palestine. The popular theory that the age was shrouded in thick gloom, mental, moral, and spiritual, can only be maintained at the expense of truth and in defiance of history. There was an inquiring spirit abroad that stirred men's hearts, and made them meditate upon the great page 90 mysteries of Life and its duties—Death and its prospects. Reformers had risen up and gone forth to preach earnestly to the people, but not so effectually as John the Baptiser and Jesus preached. From the communities of the Essenes scores of men had been sent out to teach a practical Gospel of self-denial, honesty, and manliness, which, when acted upon, had brought comfort to the hearts of thousands; and through many successive ages it operated to preserve society from absolute ruin. These men, however, were not of the order of beings who are capable of perceiving grand principles beneath comparatively trifling events; they could not see mighty truths when wrapped up in simple words; and were unable to generalise great ideas from a number of dislocated and petty occurrences; hence the impossibility of their forming a new era, or in giving their name to a new order of things. They could work as labourers to prepare the way and no more; but when Jesus came all was well; for although he created nothing, and was not able to perform the lesser labour, he put a new value upon many things, and gave humanity a fresh start onward.

Are we justified in saying that Brindley created canals; that Watt created engines; or that Stephenson created the locomotive? Were not all these the outcome of the toil and endurance, the study and observation of thousands of men? From the times of the earliest village blacksmith down to that when the great blast-furnaces and rolling mills came into use, how many comparatively trifling improvements were quietly introduced, by now unknown men, into the systems of working iron! Smutty-men tried their little experiments and were proud enough of their improvements; all of which were available for the common purpose of improvement, and in the quiet march of ages all were used up. Then, again, what changes were made in the formation of roads, in the modes of travelling, what progress in the knowledge of mechanical forces, and what knowledge was gained regarding the motive power of steam! It seems as if for thousands of years ironworkers and others in their several callings had been working away to bring the locomotive into existence. Each intelligent toiler and discoverer bound up his iota of improvement with the iron, and then lay down to sleep with his fathers; not to die, for in truth in his discoveries he still lives, and is a part of the great mechanic force of the age. When the due time arrived when all the separate improvements had been made, and all the principles had been accumulated through which the new machine became possible, the new man walked in, and put them all together to form the locomotive engine. He could not have done this work if all those who preceded him had not done theirs, and made their separate discoveries. He could not have accomplished what they did, but when their part was completed, his became possible, and it was wisely done.

Was it not precisely thus with Jesus? He was not one of the page 91 plodding men who are capable of the lesser and lower labours, but he could generalise and use up the lesser. He perceived in the Essene teachings a new truth which others saw not; and so with all which at various times, and by lesser men, had been discovered and established. They who had gone out to teach were, more or less, defective; even John the Baptiser had fallen into serious errors; but, as by intuition, exactly as the true poet, moving in the world of nature, fastens instinctively upon the good and beautiful, Jesus perceived the deeper relations which the former teachers had overlooked, and comprehended truths which they were incapable of unravelling. But when or where the beginnings of those truths were first laid bare, who, now living, can discover? Far away from Palestine, and many ages before Jesus was born, meditative men had pondered the mysteries of Life, Death, and Human Sympathy, and had arrived at the knowledge of simple truths, which, eventually, formed part of his teaching. In the schools of Alexandria, as in a great moral and intellectual museum, the thoughts of the world's wisest men had been collected; from thence they had gone forth again to be as seed sown in foreign soil. They of the age of Jesus, who aspired to teach, had been influenced by this collective wisdom, and were capable of repeating it, but he of living it in all its beauty. He saw the deeper meanings; because he dared to use his own eyes he reached the truths which were hidden from them; and if, as I believe, he imparted a vitality to them, then, although we cannot be so unjust to his predecessors as to ignore their labours, it will still be our duty to study them in the unique form in which he gave them forth to the world.—P. W. Perfitt.