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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 27

Science Not Opposed to Christ's System of Religion

Science Not Opposed to Christ's System of Religion.

My mind has been led to a further conclusion. I believe—and I conceive that in the circumstances under which I am addressing you, I am called on to state to you my belief—that not only is there no opposition between modern science and religion, or natural religion, as it is sometimes vaguely and inaccurately called, but that there is no opposition between modern science and that system of religion which was communicated to the world by the founder of Christianity.

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What was that system? What was the truth which He, whom we heedlessly call the Great Teacher, diligently sought for and discovered for himself, and which He desired to communicate as the most, precious gift that mind can give to mind to every member of the human race? Is it presumption in a laymen to ask this question? I fear that many who aspire to control the mind of the laymen, while they are unable to teach or persuade it, really think that it is.

Now, I am very sensible that with regard to questions of this nature, I, and you also, my brother laymen, are unlearned and ignorant men, and extremely liable in consequence of our ignorance to fall into grave error. But why are we ignorant? I say that it is because the chaos of creeds and the babel of striving tongues in the Christian churches leave us ignorant and untaught, and compel every thinking layman to set out alone and unaided on the perilous path of inquiry.

And what shall a rational man who is constrained to seek truth for himself upon this subject do other than this, to close his ears resolutely against all others sounds and voices, and try to catch the sound of that one voice which alone above the din of nineteen centuries still makes itself heard as the voice of one that has authority? That it is more profitable to seek the fountain-heads than to follow the course of the rivulets is a canon of critical research peculiarly applicable to this inquiry. The precise words employed by a teacher are almost invariably the best exponent of his meaning; they acquire a supreme and exclusive value when differences arise as to what the scope and the effect of his teaching were, and when those who had the privilege of hearing him, and who might be expected therefore to be competent and concordant interpreters, have admittedly failed to comprehend his meaning and his mission, and do not agree with one another as to several particulars as well as to the general spirit of his doctrine.

The words of the Great Teacher of which the gospels are not the exclusive depositories have come down to us by tradition only. No contemporary record of them exists, or has ever existed. Not more than two of His immediate followers committed to writing His remembered words, and the Gospel of St. John—assuming as I do that it is genuine—was not written until more than thirty years, or, according to another authority, more than fifty years after his Master's last words had been spoken. The general accuracy of His reported utterances, spoken in one language and recorded in another and a very different language, depends largely in respect to both form and substance on what has been called "the uncertain testimony of slippery memory." But an answer conveyed almost wholly in a quotation from an old and still existing book has a very special claim to be regarded as an authentic and probably accurate report of His actual words. Such an answer we find in a passage that occurs in all the three synoptic gospels, with some unimportant differences in each. The full meaning and force of this passage—the most weighty and significant, I think, that is to be found in all Jewish and Christian literature—will be apparent if we page 16 remember the main tendency of Jewish philosophy during all periods of the history of that people.

The highest philosophy amongst the Jews appears to have consisted in the search for a comprehensive rule of life and conduct, founded upon and capable of being traced to a principle or a fact accepted by the understanding. That this thought pervaded Jewish literature and is a key to its historical meaning is shown by a curious and instructive passage quoted from the Talmud by Emile Deutsch, which with your permission I will read to you:—

Six hundred and thirteen injunctions was Moses instructed to give to the people. David reduced them to 11 in the 15th psalm. The prophet Isaiah reduced them to six (c. 33, v. 15); the prophet Micah reduced them to three (c. G, v. 8); Isaiah once more reduced them to two (c. 5G, v. 1); Amos reduced them to one (c. 5, v. 4); but lest it might be supposed that God could be found in the fulfilment of His holy law, Habbakuk said (c. 2, v. 1), "The just shall live by his faith."

"What is your doctrine? What is the truth sufficient, according to your teaching, for the guidance of the life of man?" This was in effect the question put by the jurist or scribe to Him who as a boy appears to have proposed questions of a like nature to the learned doctors of the Jewish law. You know the answer that was promptly given to the question. It was quoted from the early records of Jewish history, where it had lain neglected for fourteen centuries, buried under heaps of ecclesiastical traditions and forms. It states the central principle or dogma of the existence of one God and His relationship to man, together with the primary and secondary rules of human conduct founded on and springing out of that relationship. And on these rules, the answer proceeds to state, "hang all the law and the prophets;" they contain the whole practice and theory of the universal religion which the Teacher had himself sought for and had found; none more comprehensive than these exist.

With the exception of a few, a very few, discordant notes, which a just and fearless criticism may and must either moderate or reject, all His other utterances are in complete harmony with and merely elucidate this one. I believe that no student who reads with an unpreoccupied mind the records of the sayings of Christ can doubt that it was this simple and sublime idea, realised in his life as an idea never before or since has been realised, that possessed, controlled, and animated it all; that it was this that gave great and enduring authority to His words, and has gained for his person the tender reverence of millions of men who have never accepted only because they have never been enabled to understand His doctrine; that this was the good news which he wished to extend from the Semitic to the other races of mankind; and that the transmission and the teaching of this truth, and the application of it to all the varying circumstances of civilisation in the course of its development was the wise purpose of the commission which He gave to His church.

If my inquiries upon this subject have led me to conclusions not wholly erroneous, it will be evident that there is no opposition or conflict between the religion of Christ and modern science. The page 17 resulting conception of both is the same. "God is a Spirit" is the single central dogma of the first; it is the highest generalisation towards which the latest and grandest discoveries of the second seem to be conducting the human mind.

"When we have really penetrated," a recent writer, Mr. Greg, observes, "to the actual teaching of Christ, and fairly disinterred that religion of Jesus which preceded all creeds and schemes and formulas, and which we trust will survive them all, we shall find that so far from this, the true essence of Christianity, being renounced or outgrown by the progressive intelligence of the age, its rescue, re-discovery, purification, and re-inthronement as a guide of life, a fountain of truth, an object of faith, a law written on the heart, will be recognised as the grandest and most beneficial achievement of that intelligence."