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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 29

Concluding Lecture

Concluding Lecture.

After a preliminary reading, taken from Greg's "Creed of Christendom," and a brief re-statement of the principal points of his preceding lecture, Mr Bright said they wore informed in Professor Salmond's last lecture that the Church never affirmed that the Infinite became finite. It was true that this was nowhere affirmed in so many words, as the absurdity would thereby be made too conspicuous; but it was declared in effect when it was asserted that God became a man, that Jesus of Nazareth was God. The only ideal they could form of God was, that He was infinite. He was described in the Westminster Confession of Faith thus :—" There is but one only living and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection." Man, they knew, was finite in being and perfection. Hence to say that God became man, or that a man was God, was to assert that the Infinite became finite. It would not be worth while to dwell upon such a self-evident proposition wore it not that people were dogmatically told that they must think as the Church thought, or stand in peril of eternal torment. Women and children were still frightened by the Church's thunder, so that it became important to show that the Church's thought was, with our enlarged ideas of an infinite Deity, simply impossible. A single finite man, as a manifestation of the whole of an Infinite God, was an impossibility of human thought. Even the whole of humanity, Jesus included, was too limited; and that was felt by rational minds to be the weakness of Comte's system of religious philosophy. In order to facilitate their conception of the union of God and Man in one person, their attention was directed by Professor Salmond to the union of soul and body in ordinary men. There was an immense difference, they were told, between the body "which suffered pain" and the mind "which worked a problem," and yet both were united in one person. Without doing more than pointing out that there were no dogmas on this question,—that they were loft free to work out the problem as facts might direct,—he would beg of them to remember that they knew nothing concerning mind or soul except through the manifestations of matter. To speak of "the body which suffered pain and the mind which worked a problem" was most unphilosophical, excepting in go far as they might speak of the body of a dog which suffered, and the mind of a dog which went for a buried bone. They discerned mind developing in matter as matter might shape itself, from the protozoan to the man. They knew little yet of the potency of matter which might include all they were in the habit of speaking of as mind or spirit. So far as the science of spiritualism had been investigated they were led to believe that in all future lives they would only know of what they termed "mind" by its manifestations in matter, though matter not of a kind to become cognizant through their existing avenues of sensation. And as we knew of mind only by its manifestations in matter, of every atom of which it probably formed an essential part, so we only knew of God by His manifestation in the Universe, and from those saw that He must be different to a man. Mind acting in matter, operated according to a given conjunction of atoms. An oyster acted like an oyster; never like a lion. There was a uniformity apparent in nature from an observance of which they were enabled to systematise their thoughts, and to speak of a God-man was, to scientific thought, just as absurd as to speak of a lion-oyster. But, it was impressed upon them that the page 6 whole of the Bible in a marvellous way led up to this thought, that without it the prophetic writings became unmeaning. If this were so, was it not strange that the Jews, through whom those prophecies were given, and to whom they wore addressed, entertained a different conviction ? They regarded the Messianic prophecies as definitely indicating a Prince of the blood royal, an earthly sovereign, one who was to restore the sceptre to Israel, revive the national grandeur of the Jews and enable them to triumph over their enemies. The Old Testament gave the Jews no idea of a God-man, an idea which they still rejected with scorn. They insisted that they held by the Bible in declaring that God was the only Redeemer and the only Saviour. The explicitness of the Bible on this point had probably insured that Jesus should be declared to be God whenever he came to be worshipped as Messiah. But it was asserted that he was worshipped in his lifetime. That learned writer Dr Vance Smith pointed out that the Greek word for religious worship was never used towards Jesus in his lifetime, but merely the word with the old English sense of worship—respectful obeisance. Take the sentence, for instance, in Matthew—"Then came to him the mother of Zebedee's children worshipping him," it was the same word as was used in the parable in the same gospel of the servant who owed money to his master—"The servant therefore fell down and worshipped him, saying, Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all." Even on Jesus' reappearance after the resurrection when his disciples were said in the book of Matthew to "worship" him, the word for obeisance was adopted. But assuming that they could become confidently aware of the opinion entertained of Jesus in his lifetime, they would not be justified in binding the thought of this age by the thought of the past. Through the advancement made in a knowledge of the operations of nature, the leading minds of this day were in a position to form a safer judgment of a question of this description than people could form in times when the incarnation of a deity was regarded as a by no means unlikely occurrence. After a quotation from Justyn Martyr's 'Apology,' showing how that writer appealed to the ignorant prepossessions of the Greeks and Romans on this subject, the lecturer contended that it was for this age to consider and judge the problem, and not to be bound by the superstitious belief of an inferior epoch. When it was affirmed that the miraculous achievements of Jesus attested his divinity, it must be remembered that we did not know what achievements a gifted man could perform, and what needed a God to accomplish. Moreover, there was no scientific testing of the alleged marvels of those days to discover their significance. There was also this tremendous weakness in the evidence on which they were believed—a weakness reference to which was carefully avoided by orthodox lecturers. The alleged marvels took place in a portion of the great Roman Empire in an age of historical research and philosophical observation. Yet secular history was silent regarding them. On this head he would quote the following passage from Gibbons' 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire':—

How shall we excuse the supine inattention of the Pagan and philosophic world to those evidences which were presented by the hand of Omnipotence, not to their reason, but to their senses ? During the age of Christ, of his apostles, and of their first disciples, the doctrine which they preached was confirmed by innumerable prodigies. The lame walked, the blind saw, the sick were healed, the dead were raised, demons were expelled, and the laws of nature were frequently suspended for the benefit of the Church. But the sages of Greece and Rome turned aside from the awful spectacle, and, pursuing the ordinary occupations of life and study appeared unconscious of any alterations in the moral or physical government of the world. Under the reign of Tiberius the whole earth, or at least a celebrated province of the Roman Empire, was involved in a preternatural darkness of three hours. Even this miraculous event, which ought to have excited the wonder, the curiosity, and the devotion of mankind, passed without notice in an age of science and history. It happened during the lifetime of Seneca and the elder Pliny, who must have experienced the immediate effects, or received the earliest intelligence of the prodigy. Each of these philosophers, in a laborious work, has recorded all the great phenomena of nature—earthquakes, meteors, comets, and eclipses—which his indefatigable curiosity could collect. Both the one and the other have omitted to mention the greatest page 7 phenomenon to which the mortal eye has been witness since the creation of the globe. A distinct chapter of Pliny is designed for eclipses of an extraordinary nature and unusual duration, but he contents himself with describing the singular defect of light which followed the murder of Cæsar, when during the greatest part of the year the orb of the sun appeared pale and without splendour. This season of obscurity, which cannot surely be compared with the preternatural darkness of the Passion, had been already celebrated by most of the poets and historians of that memorable age.

But not merely did the Roman historians and philosophers pass unnoticed the alleged miracles in Judea. Josephus, who wrote an elaborate history of that very province and time, was silent concerning them, though loquacious enough about incidents which were by comparison of the most common-place character. Added to this silence of historians, there was the undoubted fact that the early Christians were apt at invention and forgery—a fact which tended to throw additional disrepute over the existing narratives. The forged interpolation in Josephus was yet more eloquent than his own silence—an interpolation in which Josephus was made to suggest that Jesus was possibly Cod in person, and then to devote an obviously sandwiched paragraph of a dozen lines to such an astounding marvel. It was not merely a forgery, but an extremely clumsy one, to boot. Then there were no less than 132 scripture books, including 34 gospel accounts, referred to by different early christian writers, and none of them included in the established canon. All of them—and many of them were still extant—must now therefore be set down as spurious. "What else could be expected of an age when, to adopt the saying of one of the Fathers of the Church, men "believed because it was impossible?" To test the question for themselves, they should consider what evidence would be required at the present day before a man could prove that he was God. Suppose a mechanic in some outlying village of the British Empire—Nazareth was a place so insignificant that it was not mentioned in the Old Testament, or by Josephus—were to go to the metropolis of his country and desire to convince people that he was God, what evidence would be sufficient? Would any! If the still came and made obeisance to him, would it not be regarded as an optical illusion or a trick ! But if no testimony at this day would convince people of the truth of such an impossibility, how was it to be expected that thoughtful men should be convinced by the testimony of ancient traditions ! Look what an injurious effect the supposition that Jesus was God had, too, on any rational theory of God's moral government of the world. So long as he was believed to be man, however highly gifted and inspired, it was conceivable that God should have commissioned other gifted men to proclaim His Word to other branches of the great human family. Then, the myriads of mankind who never heard of Jesus of Nazareth were not left without the comforting assurance of their Infinite Father's love, but were all spiritually tended according to the needs of their various natures. Thus the Buddhists, who alone numbered at this day far more than the Christians, had their Buddha to tell them not to lie, or steal or kill,—not to partake of intoxicating liquors oven. Recent travellers through the great nation of Japan told how truth-loving, kindly-disposed, and sober the common people were, beyond anything known elsewhere, and that such a thing as a beggar was not to be seen in the towns. If Jesus were God, and the only God, the only way, too, to true goodness, how were they to account for these anomalies ? The fact was that some Christians, by declining to look at anything but Jesus and the Bible, "shut the universe and God from sight." The symbol of Christianity held in front of their eyes concealed creation. In Jesus' lifetime he was not accepted even as a prophet in his own country, and could there do no great works because of their unbelief, but now he was God Omnipotent! Christendom, itself, had been ever at war over this theological dogma; and at this moment, if the sect which still outnumbered all the rest possessed the power it once wielded, the lectures under review would not be allowed to be delivered, and Professor Salmond, himself, would be cast into prison and probably burned—not because of any immorality he had committed, but because he did not think correctly about this problem, and failed to concede due respect and rever- page 8 ence to her who was regarded as the mother of God. Surely truth was to be looked for, as Socrates indicated, in the region where mankind approached agreement, rather than in that where there was perpetual conflict. And so it would prove in respect to the life and teachings of the Prophet of Nazareth.

Jesus! when will mankind know thee aright?
When will thy struggling brethren reach thy height?
And see that love of all is lore of thee,
And man to man be bound in harmony ?
When all shall follow in the pathway trod
By one whose creed was love to man and God ?
Blest creed of creeds, throughout the nations given,
And all-convincing as the light of heaven !

Note.—Those desirous of studying the subject touched upon in the lectures; an abstract of which is contained in this pamphlet, should peruse Theodore Parker's "Discourse of Matters pertaining to Religion," Newman's "Phases of Faith," and Greg's "Creed of Christendom." For profounder and more recent biblical criticism, the reader might have recourse to the splendid series of translations from the German, now publishing by Williams and Norgate, under the auspices of Dean Stanley and other liberal-minded clergymen. As dealing with the origin of the religious sentiment, from the materialistic point of view, Herbert Spencer's last volume, "The Data of Sociology," and Lord Amberley's "Analysis of Religious Belief," would be found profitable; while as indicating the direction of latter-day inspiration, R. D. Owen's "Debateable Land," Hudson Tuttle's "Arcana of Spiritualism," and A. J. Davis's "Divine Revelations" and "Great Harmonia" would prove useful to those dissatisfied with the necessarily limited outlook of dogmatic materialism.