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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 8



Assuming no editorial oversight, the appearance of Rabbi Wise's alarmingly heterodox estimate of Jesus of Nazareth in a journal of such orthodox proclivities as the Sydney Morning Herald, is in itself a proof that, religiously speaking, we live in progressive, if not in revolutionary, times. Both editor and proprietor of the oracle in Hunter Street are reputed and professed believers in Jesus as the Son of God in a sense in which this appellation can be applied to no other man that has ever lived. They are known subscribers to the doctrine which affirms that God, for the accomplishment of his inscrutable purposes, determined that Jesus, as a pre-existent and celestial being, should be born into the flesh of an earthly woman by conception of the Holy Ghost, or in other words of Himself, and that in Jesus—by believing in and accepting Jesus, that is, as the miraculous and, of course, morally and intellectually faultless revealer of the will and attributes of God to man—guidance, truth, salvation and future happiness are alone obtainable. Believing all this, however, Messrs. Fairfax and West, deferentially we presume to the spirit of the age, are prepared to incur the responsibility of circulating broad-cast such propositions as that "Jesus of Nazareth was not the author of Christianity "—that he was "a Pharisean doctor, an eminent patriot, a fervent enthusiast, determined to rescue his country from the clutches of a bloody despotism"—that he was "crucified by the Roman Authorities, to the chagrin and profound regret of the Jews"—that the notices of his life as contained in the Gospels, are "few, meagre, contradictory, and overloaded with miracles, stories of exorcism, and wonderful cures"—that Jesus reluctantly fell in with the idea, first mooted by impulsive Peter, "that the best catchword for a political revolution would be 'Messiah,' and that he accordingly allowed himself to be proclaimed as such among his disciples and followers"—that "the scheme was ingenious but highly impracticable"—that nevertheless, with a view to its accomplishment, they (Jesus and his disciples) resolved to "appear suddenly and unexpectedly before Jerusalem, and accomplish a coup d' état that would change the face of things "—that they in this manner hoped "to surprise and confound the priests and Roman officers, take possession of the temple, proclaim the kingdom of heaven, and regenerate the whole government before the priests and Romans could recover from their surprise"—that the page 162 kingdom of Heaven," as understood by Jesus and his co-reformers, was a purely political and republican conception, signifying "independence of prince and priest, independence of foreign invaders and home corruptions, freedom, equality, and the sovereignty of God's laws"—that Jesus, with a view to precipitate this kingdom of Heaven, "rode on an ass as Jewish superstition wanted the Messiah to come, and was led in triumph to the city, the disciples shouting Hosannah, waving their palm-branches, and pouring forth all the enthusiasm of their souls "—that "the thing wouldn't work"—that Jesus thus "played for high stakes and lost"—that "he knew that his lofty project had failed, and that he must die"—that he passively "accepted the situation," and that "the Romans captured and crucified him as thousands of Jews were crucified in those days by the same Pilate." We, of course, are far from complaining that the Herald should have found a place in its columns for Rabbi Wise's lecture : rather would we congratulate our Contemporary on his having, inadvertently or otherwise, shed a little More Light on what the mass of emancipated religious thinkers consider to be "the truth as it is in Jesus." With satisfaction, at any rate, will our readers reflect that the time has at length come, when a journal like the Herald may, in spite of its private doctrinal leanings, be found propagating the rankest doctrinal heresies, without raising a storm of pious indignation on the one hand, or at all disturbing the editorial conscience on the other. As for the Rabbi's theory of the origin of Christianity, we have just now neither the space nor the inclination to criticise it closely. We dissent from his statements bearing on the early life of Jesus, such evidence as we have going, in our opinion, to show, that up to the time of his commencing to labour with the Baptist, his co-reformer, he was one of the humblest and obscurest of his countrymen. With the Rabbi's doctrine in the main, however, we cordially coincide. We agree with his conception of Jesus as a lofty-souled patriot, who yearned for the redemption of his people from the grip of the despotic Roman invader, as well as from the moral and religious degeneracies—the formalisms, the hypocrisies, the mammon-worship, the sensuality, the reverence for a traditional, to the distrust of a living, God—under which the national character had long been deteriorating. The Gospels themselves undeniably authenticate the statement, that "Jesus was one of the many who were baptised by John, who saw in the youthful enthusiast the man in whom God's spirit was well pleased, who should bring to perfection the work of restoring the kingdom of Heaven and the redemption of Israel." Strong too is their testimony in favour of the statement, that Jesus after the death of the Baptist, as a "fugitive sage and patriot, with all the great pain in his soul, which the misery of his people, the decline of Zion, and the rise of Rome inspired, with the enthusiastic zeal on his lips to save God's people and God's word, to verify God's promises, attracted the attention of the multitude which followed him to his distant retreats, caught sparks from his fire, and the spirit of John was resurrected with tenfold vigour. 'I must save my people and its sacred heritage : I must restore the kingdom of heaven to Israel,' was the great thought, the sublime ideal which elevated persons to that high stand-point where the earth and her charms are forgotten, peril, danger and death lose their terror, manhood and Godhead meet as closely as the finite and the infinite can touch, and man excels himself." The latter sentences of this quotation sufficiently indicate the extent to which Rabbi Wise, doubtless repre- page 163 senting a large and increasing section of his co-religionists, has broken away from an ancestral faith which can only conceive of the Jesus as an aspiring but contemptible impostor who was deservedly put to death. Nor can it be doubted that the liberal and progressive Judaism of the present day is des-tined to assist, and that largely, in alienating orthodox Christianity from a pernicious superstition which, by relegating the Reformer of Nazareth to the realm of the superhuman and the supernatural, is notoriously a stumbling block to thousands.

It is in most cases more easy to tickle with a straw than to strike down with a sledge hammer. There is usually far less labour in picking to pieces another's theories than there is in giving us something better in their place. And so we may well allow Buttevant's wit to pass, and permit him to be as facetious as he will respecting the "Descent of Man according to Mr. Darwin." In the meanwhile let us confess we were scarcely prepared for an antipodean criticism on this European ornament of Natural Science, howbeit, by this time, somewhat accustomed to the temerity of genius that blinks at nothing, and holds it contemptible to be wanting in that verbiage and flow of idea that may possibly be accepted by many as a substitute for more worthy matter. And we might suggest to Buttevant that, as Man's Descent must be a subject of great interest to every intelligent person, there is the more need to treat it with a becoming sobriety, and to discard any approach to flippancy as out of place. The desire of man to magnify his descent does not give him one whit more of supernatural origin. Nature, so far as we can gather, is in the habit of working according to fixed rides; and we have no more reason for supposing peculiarity in the descent of man than we have in that of any other animal on the earth. If Mr. Crosse's well-authenticated and guarded experiments could produce live worms out of matter previously subjected to a life-destroying heat, and deposited in air-tight cases, by the sole power of chemical combination, why should we infer the defect of any organs in an artificial creation, where the weight of testimony would prove just the contrary? There was no ground for supposing the absence of such organs as the eye, mouth, ears, even before ocular evidence was fully furnished of their existence. And so we see no absurdity in supposing the eye to have been developed from some simple atoms under some sort of chemical combination, and ever retaining, after the first result, a more and more perfect type of the orignal. After the discoveries made of late years in chemical science, we are scarcely justified in limiting the skill of Nature's great laboratory. For aught that we can gainsay, man may have existed millions of years before any memory of ours; and the present race may be a gradually deteriorating stock, to be in the course of further ages developed into some lower type of being. Looking at the animals of a long bygone era—at the Megatherion, the Megalonyx, the Plesiosaurus, the Mastodon, and the Moa—what are the brute creation of the present day compared with the colossal forms of many ages back? And by parity of reasoning how can we do otherwise than suspect that the corporal build of the present generation may be far more puny than that of ten thousand years ago, and that diminution may be gradually but most assuredly going on in obedience to a law whereby every phase of the present is yielding to the stern fiat of decay. To attempt to connect the page 164 links that unite us to the first principle of being, would be an impossibility. We, so far, have named some of Mr. Darwin's ideas mere theories. But with all their licence they are entitled to our respectful attention as containing the germ of a great deal both to interest and allure. There is no occasion for man to plume himself on any peculiar anatomy, while the bones of the ape, chimpanzee, and gorilla, amply testify against such assumption. The secrets of Comparative Anatomy are no longer veiled, but speak to us with a force that only ignorance or prejudice is found to withstand. And what does man's atomic and chemically-combined formation infer? Not necessarily that he is excluded from the operation of one fixed law that affects, so far as we know, the whole universe; but on the contrary, that Fate idealised into Divinity subjects him to the same evanescent condition as the meanest annelids. Again, if, without at all countenancing the scriptural accounts of extreme patriarchal longevity, we may be allowed to believe, on the authority of historical statements, that human life was once of somewhat longer duration than now—if myth and fable, we repeat, tell us how Nestor lived thrice the life of man, and Scripture, that men in remote ages considerably out-spanned the term of living at present vouchsafed to us—how else are we to account for the alteration than by supposing that our modern human frame is not so strongly knit together as it once was, or so able to resist those outward aggressions, whether in the shape of toil or pleasure, that are constantly battering and deteriorating the human organisation, rendering it less able each succeeding generation to bear the shocks incident to worldly existence. Our humanity may and should feel comfort in the persuasion of a divine superintendence, although such supervision may not be especially directed towards man more than towards the rest of the animal world over which man claims dominion. In fact the feeling may be very ill-defined, and strongly bordering on that which moved the old poet:

"Omnis enim per se divum natura necesse est
Immortali ævo summa cum pace fruatur,
Semota a nostris rebus sejunctaque longe;
Nam privata dolore omni, privata periclis,
Ipsa suis pollens opibus, nihil indiga nostri,
Nec bene promeritis capitur, nec tangitur ira."

Feeling, as we have already observed, no inclination to follow Buttevant into the more humorous portion of his criticism on Mr. Darwin, we trust, in conclusion, we shall not offend him by asking him to exhibit in any future remarks he may offer on the Descent of Man—in any future attempt he may make summarily to demolish in a column or so of the Herald's largest type, the "wild dreams of Darwin," and all such "speculations of Science, falsely so called, which, like other follies, have their day"—to exhibit, we say, less drollery and more judgment—less conceit also, perhaps, and a somewhat more respectful attitude towards intellects that tower immeasurably above his own.

In his rejoinder on the Note and Letter which appeared in our April issue, Dr. Barry, New Testament in hand, reasserts, as our readers will observe, his inability to think of a Unitarian, or of any unbeliever of the Antitrinitarian type, as a Christian, taking, moreover, as he therein does, the liberty of congratulating himself on our having, with Nicodemus, conceded the very position for which he contends : the position, namely, that Christianity requires page 165 something more, as a basis of comprehension, than a belief in the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man. Dr. Barry, adducing the recorded teachings of Christ in evidence, defines this "something more" to comprise belief in the dogma of "New Birth by Water and the Spirit," in that of "Eternal Salvation by believing in the Son of Man," in that of "Christ's Messiahship," of his "Sole Mediatorship," of his "Pre-existence and Second Advent," which, with the dogmas of Atonement, Final Punishment, Resurrection, etc., were deemed essential by the immediate followers of Jesus at the very time when, in Antioch, they first assumed the Christian name as their distinguishing characteristic. All this may be true enough in the main, yet without being much to the purpose. We readily concede—if such be the concession to which Dr. Barry alludes, and we assuredly make no other—that the New Testament represents Jesus as holding and teaching doctrines which to the highest and devoutest minds appear both morally and philosophically objectionable. In doing so, however, we hold ourselves bound to investigate as to whether our New Testament is or is not a reliable transcript of the original writers; as to whether, supposing this point determined in the affirmative, the original writers, in recording the teachings of Jesus, did or did not consciously or unconsciously adulterate them with doctrinal peculiarities of their own; and as to whether, lastly, the first preachers of Christianity, an undoubtedly honest and well-meaning but ignorant and fanatical class of men, did or did not "distort and impoverish" the pure and simple faith of their Master by connecting it with deteriorating theological notions. Ignoring or undervaluing these to us all-important considerations, Dr. Barry is seemingly prepared to hold the Founder of Christianity responsible for every statement of morals or of doctrine which the New Testament ascribes to him, and these, again, as a full and unerring exposition of the will of Him whose Son Jesus is assumed to be. For ourselves, on the contrary, we insist on the Gospels and other writings of the New Testament being submitted to the freest literary criticism, uninterfered with by any dogma of inspiration or revelation, with a view to discriminating fact from fable, myth from history, truth from falsehood; and, in the last resort, on the teachings of Jesus, however unquestionably ascertained, being themselves brought for final adjudication to the bar of that Reason and that Conscience which constitute our highest court of appeal. To take an illustration, there can be little doubt that the New Testament represents Jesus as propounding that false and uncharitable article of the orthodox creed which affirms, in terms so dear to orthodox divines, that belief in him (Jesus) as the Son of God, the promised Messiah, and the Redeemer of mankind, is essential, and the one thing essential, to Salvation. "He that believeth," Jesus (Mark xvi. 16) is made to say, "and is baptised shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned." This language is no doubt explicit enough; but Dr. Barry, in preaching from it as a text, would probably deem it unnecessary to inform his hearers that the twelve concluding verses of Mark's Gospel form, on the authority of our oldest Mss. (the Vatican and Sinaitic), a spurious portion of that composition, and so allow them to believe that Jesus—in "a passage which, were it not happily spurious," as Mr. W. R. Greg remarks, "would suffice to damn the book which contains it"—actually countenanced and inculcated a dogma alike repugnant to devout reason and, fortunately, to the page 166 general spirit of his own teachings. To repudiate this abominable tenet, with others named by Dr. Barry as the essentials of Christian faith, is, according to him, to profess a Christianity wearing a "false brand;" the genuine brand being reserved for those, we presume, who, in their allegiance to New Testament orthodoxy, can be uncharitable and callous enough to contemplate "damnation" as awaiting those who cannot think of Jesus as the promised Messiah and their atoning Saviour. It is something to feel that Christianity, as we understand it, involves no such gloomy choice of alternatives; and that pass as we may the New Testament records through the alembic of critical research, there still appears in the person of Jesus of Nazareth—commanding our love, reverence, and, if we so choose, our discipleship—the noblest human soul that has yet worn flesh. As for the propriety of our assuming the Christian name, Dr. Barry will not expect us to consult him in the matter, any more than we should expect him to consult Dr. Folding as to the genuineness of the Evangelical "brand." It may be well, however, to remind Dr. Barry that the upshot of his sectarian exclusiveness, if generally acted upon, would be to discharge from the Christian communion the leading thinkers and doers of these and future times, to the eventual retention of none but puny and uninfluential intellects. Absit omen.

Hesitate as we may about ranking the Rev. John Graham with those proverbially foolish persons who, in speculative matters, are accustomed to "rush in where angels fear to tread," we assuredly cannot hold him guiltless of a disposition to deal in a much too glib and familiar style with topics of human destiny which minds of a purer religious type than his either scarcely venture to touch, or instinctively pass by in solemn silence. We are referring to the delivery, as announced in an advertisement that has just taken our eye, for at least the twentieth time since Mr. Graham's arrival in the colony, of his by this time famous stock lecture on "The recognition of friends in Heaven;" a subject, we feel assured, which none but an essentially irreverential and unspiritually-minded person would think of formally investigating, still less of reducing to a set of cut-and-dried propositions to be periodically aired in some public chamber. We do not question the validity of man's conviction of a hereafter,—of a life that is to be when all his connections with time and mortality shall have been dissolved; yet we hesitate not to say, that neither Plato's reasons, nor Paul's rhapsodies, nor Wordsworth's "Intimations," nor even the statements of a supposed heaven-vouchsafed and unerring revelation, can do aught else than elevate this conviction into "a sublime possibility, round which meditation and inquiry will collect all the probabilities they can." And precious as it may and should he to us as a matter of hope and earnest desire, a true religious as well as philosophical humility should withhold us from any rash or prying attempt to fix the conditions of the future life, or otherwise pierce the impenetrable darkness that surrounds, and will continue to surround, it until we have done with terrestrial affairs. But the Rev. John Graham, probably from having so completely set his affections on heavenly things, has evidently mastered the mystery of death in all its details. Heaven, as we gather from the title of his lecture, is a place where one's friends are to be recognisable and recognised by such characteristics as Mr. Graham, in the exercise of his profoundly penetra- page 167 tive spiritual foresight, is able to specify: and a place, too, involving, by implication, the existence of another locality where earthly friendships will be renewed under very different conditions. As the pastor of a thriving and well-to-do body of believers, Mr. Graham, naturally stands high in the Church's list of those who are to be saved. Deservedly so we hope. He confidently thinks of Heaven as his future home. We trust he will get there. It may be, however, that even hey before passing the celestial gates, will have to undergo a scrutiny of aims and motives for which he and millions like him may be anything but prepared, and that, as he will have his two localities, at least some of the recognitions he anticipates in the future life will have to be made from the opposite shores of a certain "great gulf" which, we are told, is "fixed" somewhere. We would at any rate counsel Mr. Graham to be as faithful as he can to known and present duties as the best possible preparation for what the future may, or may not, have in store for him; and, further, to abstain from presumptuous and irreverent speculations, which, to his disappointment, and possibly to his dismay, Eternity may scatter or reverse.