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CONFLICT BETWEEN THE EVANGELISTIC AND MODERN OUTLOOK
YET the Cross itself would be of no avail if it happened that in seeking our moral goal we had to look beyond Jesus Himself: Along the path of duty He must always be our Guide. This implies not only certainty on our part that He offers no opposition to duties indisputably self-evident to us, but, further, the ever fresh experience that it is the power of His Spirit which actually reveals to us those duties. If we were divided from Him in the work in which we ourselves recognised moral necessity, it would mean a separation radical indeed. We can continue to be Christians, only if we can honestly confess that the growth of moral earnestness and liberty within us brings us into closer touch with Him. Once we perceive any civil obligation of our age to be due to a moral necessity, we must be able to discern in it the victory of Jesus Christ. Otherwise 155we are indeed severed from Him, and circling already round another sun.
To many, however, at the present time it seems impossible in this kind of work to be reminded of Jesus as a power, and especially so to those who refuse to take the words of Jesus lightly, and possess such a view of the duties of our Age as people can only possess when they are not merely looking on, but are themselves taking part in its work. By rendering to themselves a clear account of the meaning and aim of their exertions, they soon become aware of their remoteness from Jesus, if indeed they think of Him at all.
Many of us devote our life-work to matters in which Jesus not only displayed no interest, but which He could not even know of, since they were not yet in being. Natural science was still unheard of; hence no glimmering conception of natural law enabled men to see an intelligible order in the realities around them; and systematic investigation had not yet extended the dominion of man over nature. In short, every kind of work arising out of natural science, with its own particular forms and aims, was for Jesus non-existent. It may, indeed, be said that both His attitude and ours towards morality are unaffected by that fact. Just as 156a peasant of to-day may, as regards moral development, put to shame a natural philosopher, so Jesus might still be our Guide in all matters of morality, even though he lived in a world of narrow limitations, whereas to us there is an infinite depth of meaning in realities constituted in accordance with fixed laws.
We cannot, however, fail to note something else which made Jesus quite different from us. He betrayed no stronger interest in those departments of labour and business in which at that time able men were engaged. He was, indeed, acquainted with the husbandman toiling for the fruits of the earth and caring for his live stock. He was familiar also with the banker and the power of capital; yet there is not a word to show that He realised the importance of all these forms of work. He does not seem to have thought that the worth of a man is, as a rule, dependent upon his serving the community in some such way. Had He been as firmly persuaded as we are, that fidelity in this work of the world is the foundation in many a man of eternal righteousness, He would, one would think, have referred to it in some way, since His aim was to help men in their moral needs. Yet the Gospels nowhere relate that He did so; and it may 157therefore be presumed that in His sight it was not in faithful performance of such work that true righteousness consisted. It necessarily followed as a result of His energy, that He sought to release men from the burden of toil, and set them free for the one thing needful.
There is no need to advance this as our own conclusion, for in every ear those words resound in which Jesus seems to deprive His disciples of the motive for remunerative work in general.
We are not to be anxious. But the origin of all work of the above description is anxiety concerning food and raiment; and the efforts to secure these are incumbent upon man because, since he is a man, he has outgrown a purely animal existence. In proportion as we really desire to be of more value than many sparrows, we develop wants which unaided Nature is not able to satisfy. Thereupon follows anxiety as to how they can be satisfied; and yet we are told: “Be not anxious.” We cannot escape the force of this saying by supposing that in the land where Jesus lived the lavish gifts of nature sufficed for the daily needs of man; for it was just the same there as here. The seed, indeed, grew of itself, but it had first to be sown; and though one man might 158support life on locusts and wild honey, all could not have done so. People were just as little able as we are to live without work—the result of anxiety with regard to food and clothing. Anxiety is always, moreover, the concomitant of labour. We must take thought for the safeguard of our possessions, in order to assure the success of our work, and we must consider whether the means we can command are sufficient for the task before us. It matters not whether these means of work are implements, landed property, capital; or the intellectual and physical powers we have inherited and developed, and the time at our disposal: such distinctions do not affect the main issue, as to the possibility of performing, without anxiety, the work imposed upon us the day we became men. We must resist the claims of the moment when they threaten to rob us of those instruments of work which will be required by the future. Yet Jesus tells us the reverse. We must, He says, be willing and ready to lend, and not only satisfy requests trenching upon our worldly possessions, but give even more than we are asked; and we must act in like manner with that which is often more precious to us than any goods—our time and our strength.159
It is obvious that in this workaday world such principles are impracticable; no business can be conducted on these lines. Yet that is just what Jesus seems to want. His disciples must separate themselves from the world of business transactions; for the proceeds of such work are once for all made obnoxious to them by His words concerning riches: “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth.” Accordingly, if a man has great possessions, the best thing he can do is to get rid of them in the form of alms; and to resist such counsel is to renounce perfection. Still, in the ultimate issue, all possession is wealth as compared to the penury of others; so that, if I try to retain for myself any such advantage, I am in bondage to riches. Nevertheless; “Ye cannot serve God and Mammon.” How then can a disciple, who owns allegiance to the words of Jesus, be a citizen of that world where people work for gain and for possessions?
One may, indeed, try to explain the saying about anxiety in such a way as not to disturb the current mode of thought—Jesus only meant, it may be said, that amidst all anxiety about his earthly calling, a disciple must always keep his heart at liberty; and to no Christian need that ever be impossible. I share this 160mode of thought, but I cannot agree that Jesus meant this by “Be not anxious.” He could never have spoken so had He not thought it fitting that at that particular time the aims of industrial life should be left out of view; and this fact is shown even more clearly by His words concerning capital. The saying, “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth,” calls upon men to choose between directing their whole attention now to the good things of eternity, and allowing themselves to be tied down to earthly things. Any attempt to interpret this saying as capable of being obeyed while we retain our capital, would merely confirm the anticipation of .Jesus, that riches are stronger than those who fancy they possess them. According to the view taken by Jesus, the earthly treasure we acquire becomes our master, hindering us from serving God. We cannot eventually escape from the oft-repeated reproach: Christendom as a whole is not sincerely Christian so long as it declares itself willing and bound to obey the traditional words of Jesus, but remains in possession, or, as Jesus would say, in the service, of capital. If we allow ourselves to take up a doubtful position on this point, the compromise will paralyse our whole Christian life. We shall assuredly be 161separated from Jesus, not so much by seriously declining to obey some particular saying handed down to us as pronounced by Him at that particular time, as by assenting to the sum of all His words, if in practice that involves the refusal to obey them severally. It is inconsistency of this kind that insinuates into our trust in the Redeemer the constant doubt of His ability to redeem us if we do not really follow Him, though professing our willingness to do so.
For many of us even now, work that is simply remunerative has no real moral character. We may indeed wonder what the result would be if all Christians were to decide for the perfection required of the rich young man in Luke xviii.; but we do not feel the demand to he one that compels us to withdraw from our moral duties. The words of Jesus, however, which urge us to forsake earthly possessions, do also strike at the root of moral obligations that bind us all—namely, the arrangements of human society. Such an attack is implied in the demand that we should, in order ourselves to attain to a higher grade of morality give away the goods, the time, and the strength that we possess; for we are well aware that all these belong, not to ourselves alone, but also 162to those who are more or less nearly related to us by the established order of society. When Jesus speaks as though these possessions were our own absolute property, and might therefore without scruple be given away, He disregards the social institutions by which we are particularly bound to individual men. The fact that He treated these institutions as of slight account, of itself separates Him from us. But He goes much further than that; for with incisive words he summons men to loose themselves from these bonds. Consequently, those who proposed to follow Him would soon feel that family ties are fetters to be cast off; and failure to throw them off would mean separation from Jesus. He who does not find something to hate in his father and mother cannot be Jesus’ disciple (Luke xiv.).
To us the repudiation of the State by Jesus is even more impressive, because more easily understood. Those who disallow the use of force, and authority based upon power, not only take no part themselves in civil life, but are fundamentally opposed to the State, since it must, according to their view, of necessity be wrong. The dissemination of such views tends to the downfall of the State, for to act on the principle of non-resistance to evil, and 163so refuse the legal remedies offered by the State, is to reject the State itself as devoid of any value.
Thus Jesus brings us into conflict with social duties to which we all wish to cling. Our ambition is greater than merely to care for our own family, and so vindicate the sanctity of special ties that bind us to particular people. We wish also to preserve intact family life in general, as an indispensable means of morally developing every member of the human race. We call by the name of Father the eternal Power of Good, and so suggest the idea that the relation of parent and child reflects that light and warmth in which alone the youthful soul may grow and thrive. We see quite clearly too that the highest relationships, and those most full of meaning, between the individuals of any considerable group of human beings could not come into being, if their social life did not lead at the same time to the growth of the State.
Had human nature not recognised as rational the existence of the State, the varied powers of individuals must have been mutually destructive, instead of complementary. While, however, establishment of law conduces to liberty as a whole, by affording free scope to social morality, it will, in particular instances, be felt 164to be a constraint. Consequently, it becomes permanent and effective only when subject to a ruling power. We are the more ready to serve this power, the more we realise that the good we desire in our own hearts is helped to win its way without by enforced order. At the same time we know that law itself has a right to exist only as a means designed to promote contemporary social life, and so we are anxious to co-operate in the alteration and expansion of the law. Not content with bemoaning the hardships that exist, we make use of the power at our disposal to change the rules of the State and make them more or less stringent, to suit our needs. But to Christians who wish not merely to reverence the words of Jesus, but also to obey them, withdrawal from this struggle between rival powers in the State appears to be necessary, because no political measure can be carried that is not oppressive to some. Yet how reconcile this with the temper that hopes through meekness to prevail? It is a strange way of obeying the words of Jesus: “So shall it not be among you.” A Christianity that enforces its own advance seems to admire what Jesus says, and to do the opposite.
Such ideas as the foregoing have again and 165again been mustered afresh, and addressed as passionate reproaches to the Church, on the ground that, while venerating Christ as God, it treats His words as though He were powerless against the world he claimed to have overcome. Even in our own Evangelical community at the present day there are ready listeners to such complaints. There are always amongst us still those who regard as mutually exclusive, obedience to the words of Jesus, and a compliance on serious moral grounds with civil obligations. We know no magic spell able to calm and clarify this ferment of confusion, but our own effort may enable us quietly to recognise the antithesis, without letting it separate us either from Jesus, or from those civil pursuits to which we are sure that God has called us. It is a vital question for Christianity, whether we can acknowledge Jesus Christ to be indeed our Leader. Yet neither the primitive Church, nor Protestantism in its early days, was able to explain how we could all, with an open heart, follow our Leader; and even now, it is from the very men who clamour loudest for absolute earnestness in following Jesus, that the beginnings of a right understanding of the matter meet with the most violent opposition. One obstacle to such understanding is a misuse 166of the moral directions of Jesus, secured in its position at an early date by the appearance of being a particularly zealous form of Christianity. With regard to this misuse, two things must be kept distinct—the circumstances, namely, to which it owes its origin and its support. Its main support is to be found in the fact that there was no clear knowledge of that historical situation from which the words of Jesus—viewed as the words of a sincere and earnest man—in large measure derived their meaning. Its origin is due to an extraordinary neglect of the Person of Jesus Himself.
In the early days of Christianity, the first step was the perception of the fact that life and work in civilised society are in blunt contrast to many directions of Jesus. The Church proceeded to deal with this fact by assigning the two indispensable and irreconcilable sets of duties to two distinct classes of Christians. One of these was, within certain limits, to devote itself to the acquirement of power and possessions, while the other was to apply itself to obeying seriously the directions of Jesus. The former provided the necessaries of earthly life, but received something higher in exchange; for, in order that they too in their station, and in spite of their extremely defective obedience, 167might be saved, by the help of the second class, they were brought into union with Christ and into touch with salvation. Thus the very contradiction which at first had threatened to make the Christianising of society impossible, was afterwards used to promote it. This expedient has two great advantages which explain the fact that to many Christians it still gives satisfaction. In the first place, it is easily understood, in common with the whole system of Roman Catholic ethics, which, according to the “Grenzboten,” is distinguished by intelligibility. In the second place, such an arrangement keeps alive the idea that a life spent in imitation of Jesus is something excessively great, calling for efforts surpassing the power of the common run of men. This was a decision equally pleasing to the serious-minded and the frivolous; and as Christian society is usually composed of both classes, it was, and is still, a useful notion. Such a device for embracing two very opposite tendencies is, like Catholicism in general, excellent policy; but the most perfect contrivances of statesmanship are powerless to solve moral problems. The question of morality, for whose supremacy Christendom was supposed to be ripe, was for the time completely shelved.168
The conflict between rival claims, the battlefield of which must be the individual conscience, had made way for a conflict of institutions, which was adjusted by the world-dominion of the Church. Acquiescence in this political solution of a moral question, means, however, for serious as for thoughtless men, that they cease to be moral. The flagrant immorality that was always reappearing in the monastic orders, among the would-be “perfect” class, was no mere degeneracy, but was actually a result of the want of discipline inherent already in the principles of monasticism, the worst feature of that life being its very ideal of perfection. Luther it was who first presented in this light the religion and morality of Catholicism, thus bringing discredit on its solution of the problem now before us.
To Luther the radical evil of monastic life was the undisciplined arbitrariness of its aims. Especially noteworthy is the fact that Luther’s first thought in the matter was not of disobedience to the commands of Jesus. To him the essential point seemed to be that we should each one consider what are the duties laid upon us simply by the particular powers given to us in our definite place in the world; failure to do so was in his eyes very deplorable self-will. 169He felt that for any man to despise the obligations arising out of his natural position in the world means revolt against the will of the Almighty, to whom he owes his existence. The object of the monk is to show perfect obedience; but by evading calls which he cannot but recognise as the voice of God, he becomes wholly disobedient and undisciplined. Other people, faithfully pursuing their ordinary business, do remain in the school of God; but their life, too, is poisoned by the Church, since they are compelled to bear the secret reproach of having failed to choose the way of perfection, though it was open to them to do so. The Church, indeed, encourages them to stifle such self-reproaches; their mode of life is necessary, or at least useful, to the Church, and the perfect way is only recommended, not required. For a considerable time, too, men’s consciences may be satisfied thus.
Sooner or later, however, those to whom a measure of Christianity has hitherto sufficed, will have to face the question as to what is absolutely necessary for themselves. If monastic withdrawal from the world is perfection, a man, though admitting the fact, may for a season be satisfied by the doctrine, that God has not done more than counsel such perfection. 170But in the end he cannot fail to perceive that this God is a phantom. For the living God of the conscience is inexorable in His demand, that we ought to do what in our own mind we recognise as perfection. He Himself is perfect, and we are to be even as He is. Moral corruption is more intense among the monastics, because, in their dream of perfection, conscience is lulled to rest; amongst the Christian laity, conscience may be actively alive, though only in a state of restlessness and uncertainty. Both lack the open-hearted submission to necessity, that constitutes moral obedience. Self-will leads, in the one case, to vain-glory, in the other to uncertainty.
Although Luther recognised this fact, he had not yet succeeded in solving the problem. He had only pressed home once more upon the conscience of the individual Christian the question as to how he was unreservedly to follow Jesus, and yet take his share of strife and struggle in the world of secular work. Luther had, moreover, found courage to face this question through faith in the Father of Jesus Christ, but he could not show how to settle it. The result of the Reformation on this point was to promote not progress entirely, but also 171a reaction, as compared with the Church of Rome.
An Evangelical Church, trying to maintain its position in the world, without the means of coercion Rome had employed, had all the greater need of coherent strength within. But this it could not have, if it was the duty of the evangelical Christian to give himself up to work in the world, and at the same time to hearken to the words of Jesus which forbade him to do so. A Church that had to fight for its very existence could not afford to harbour such an unexplained contradiction. The individual unrest and the battle of intellects caused by tormenting questions, seemed altogether opposed to the resolute bearing so urgently required. Our fathers, therefore, endeavoured to save the Evangelical Church by exhibiting such a dogmatic certainty as also obliged them to suppress to the utmost any idea that, in the sphere of morality, there were questions still unsolved by them. The consequence was that in dealing with the present question they went to even lower depths than Catholic ethics had done. The tendency became habitual to hide, as far as possible, the contrast between the words of Jesus and the secular life upon which men were entering with such vigour. Practically 172the same kind of thing is still prevalent among us to-day. But as long as it continues we lack a very important factor in the vital energy of the Church of Rome—an element that is founded on truth, namely, a vivid sense of the above contrast, and an unrest on the part of Christians in their dealings with the world.
We are, however, beginning to rise above the level reached at the Reformation. It will help us to do so if we consider the limitations by which Luther himself was bound when he dealt with the problem. These limitations, insurmountable by Luther, explain why we too still allow ourselves to be perplexed by the contrast between the meekness and compassion of Jesus and our own desire and ready use of power. Rightly understood, the contrast is of inestimable service to us—a fact that cannot much longer be ignored. For the limitations which prevented Luther from perceiving this are gradually being removed, in the case, at any rate, of those who are heirs, not only of his mantle, but also of his life and spirit.
To Luther it was the sacred duty of every man to work in the world to which he belonged, since God has planted him there. Luther’s thought was powerfully influenced by the fact 173that a Christian may, in the conduct of his life, and in the definite character impressed upon his existence by the force of nature, discern the will of his Creator and Father. The greatness of Luther lay in his keen sensibility towards this revelation of God, a revelation such as a Christian cannot find in the Bible, but must, by inward conflict, gain for himself. For a man to be induced by the statements of certain authorities, to refuse obedience to this revelation, was in his eyes godlessness. He had experienced the power of a faith that is neither custom nor illusion, since it begins when a man has the courage to consider his own position, and becomes serious enough to yield to realities.
In moral questions, on the other hand, Luther was less clear-sighted. The moral character, or religious sincerity, did indeed find in him free scope, but his actual ideas on morality were still essentially restricted by Catholicism. He only laid a heavy burden on the false ideals of Catholicism, making it hard for them to survive the due appreciation of that secular work which, according to his view, every individual is bound to recognise as required of him by God. Luther did not overcome that misuse of the moral directions of Jesus, which in the Church of Rome displayed 174it full and fatal strength. He, too, takes it for granted that a Christian at least is bound to obey every word of Jesus that has been handed down and was not expressly addressed to a particular individual; without inquiring if the demand it contains really concerns himself in his own particular circumstances. Obedience of this kind is, however, a monstrous misuse of the words of Jesus, and to a Christianity whose aim is to abide in the world, it eventually leaves no choice but a division into clerics and laity, to the moral detriment of both. Thus it is that even on Reformation soil the old weaknesses are wont to reappear, concealing under cover of moral earnestness an entire lack of discipline within. Yet, granted that where such use is made of the words of Jesus, the result is as stated above, we should still have no right to call it an abuse of words, if Jesus Himself so intended them, that every man must blindly obey, even without apprehending the truth they contain. Let us consider the facts.
Undoubtedly Jesus did make demands to which He expected from all His disciples unconditional obedience. But He never required any one blindly and hastily to comply with His words, without understanding them. He asked in every case for something more than this; not 175merely submission, but the inward obedience of a free agent. His words are binding upon those who really accept them; and this real acceptance they win by promoting the tendency to independence inherent in the will. Thus the true disciple of Jesus can never throw off the influence of His words, for they have become a revelation of necessary truths.
It is becoming easier for us than it was for our forefathers, or for Luther himself, to gain this right attitude towards the words of Jesus, because to us something has been given that at the outset may greatly depress us. We can listen to the Man Jesus, speaking in His own generation, and addressing His contemporaries. For Luther, on the other hand, it was as yet impossible to grasp the meaning of many of the words of Jesus, simply because the historical study of the Bible, started by himself, was in its infancy. We admire his argumentative skill in exposition, wherever religious vigour alone could reach the root of the matter; and we excuse his deficient explanations, where nothing could avail but the historical method —only developed since by the gradual work of centuries. As long as the Man Jesus could not be seen in historical perspective, it was possible to regard all His words as addressed 176to the people of to-day; but the historical research of the present time makes that impossible.
To many this is a source of pain. The Biblical scholar, indeed, the result of whose work has proved of special help to us in this matter, remarks, in reference to the needs of the moment, that we would give anything to have words of Jesus showing how to deal with the political and economic obligations of modern life; yet we possess no such directions.33J. Weiss, “Die Predigt Jesu vom Reiche Gottes” (“The Teaching of Jesus concerning the Kingdom of God,”) Second edition, 1900, p. 145. These sad words of resignation show how easily historians misinterpret the results of their own investigations of the past. The one great benefit conferred upon us by their studies is the way they help us to get rid of such longings and regrets. They show us why guidance of this sort cannot possibly be found in the words of Jesus. We may grieve if something possible is denied us, but we must reconcile ourselves to what, with our own eyes, we perceive to be impossible.
The Biblical knowledge of the present day teaches us that many duties of social morality, unavoidable by us, were quite unknown to 177Jesus. Thus to Him it was not yet a problem how far the State can give assistance in economic life. More especially, however, He held a view of the world that left Him no concern for the future of human society, for He looked upon this as having in store no future at all, but as being near its end. He saw the beginning of the destruction of the world approaching; He felt the final judgment to be near. This caused Him to overlook many ties whereby we of necessity are bound, and, since He aimed at preparing souls for this approaching glory, He was bound to make of them demands coloured by this expectation. In particular cases, perhaps, it can seldom be determined with certainty how far the words of Jesus are influenced by His expectation of the approaching end of the world; perhaps only one can be mentioned, namely, the prohibition to “lay up treasures upon earth.” Laying by so as to enhance our own existence by acquiring a wide control over circumstances is altogether meaningless if a complete transformation of existence and environment is actually imminent. But even with regard to this, every disciple, even though he did not share this expectation, must still have read in these words an urgent warning to himself. Unless he can 178detach himself from earthly gain, unless he can say that something incomparably great entirely fills his soul, he is a fool, like the rich man laying up his corn. Only in so far as it is our aim to press all earthly interests into the service of this one true good, as yet unrealised in the present world, can these interests themselves be objects of our desire.
The expectation of an impending change in the established order of things is further shown by the quietly negative attitude with which Jesus passes by the forms and claims of existing civilisation, not finding it necessary to emphasise any feature thereof as important for His followers.
In every other case isolated demands involve, indeed, not rules of universal application, but possibilities that may, under special circumstances, become matters of moral necessity, and are unaffected by the proximity or remoteness of the end of the world. Above all, eager though we may be to turn to full account, in explaining the words of Jesus, His eschatological standpoint, we must not be tempted thus to explain also the command to love our enemies. We cannot think to make this intelligible by saying that the approach of the last day would, with our other wishes, 179remove all desire for revenge. The demand to love our enemies is indeed tremendous, and necessarily beyond the comprehension of all but those who, in the Person of Jesus, have found the beginning of a new life; but the fact of Jesus Himself is yet more tremendous. Even to the disciple of Jesus to love his enemies is a task too great for his own strength; yet it is to Him an elementary and, beyond any doubt, morally a perfectly reasonable demand.
It is, indeed, certain that, once our attention is called to the eschatological standpoint of Jesus, we are compelled to make two admissions. In the first place, we feel that a barrier is raised between Him and us by our having honestly to confess that we do not share that standpoint—we are not very greatly affected by the idea of an approaching end of the world. Secondly, circumstances in which we see the promise of a better future, in His eyes were only harbingers of ruin. In Him there was nothing of the zeal of the political and economic reformer.
Grief at separation from Jesus due to these important features in His conception of the world is, however, as nothing compared with our joy at the benefits we receive from God in this knowledge. If one of our links with 180esus is removed, it is one which He denied us himself. By the dream now disturbed, all our powers are paralysed, even those that really unite us with Jesus, because given by Himself. Sympathy with Jesus and readiness to obey each word that bears His name, is beneficial when He Himself is working in us. It is therefore a rude awakening, when we perceive that Jesus does not respond to this sympathy, and that we must consider for our own selves our actual position. We feel as it were deserted, when first we realise that detachment from all earthly things, to which Jesus in those days invited His disciples, is for us impossible, in the different world in which we live. What for them was a vigorous pursuit of their whole conception of the universe, and consequently sincere, would for us be self-deception, because we do not feel ourselves to be face to face with the end of the world but with innumerable obligations imposed upon us by the world.
Now, historical research, by revealing this difference, prevents us from following Jesus in the same way that those who aim at perfection, in the Church of Rome try to do. The result is a great gain, for such supposed imitation of Jesus must eventually produce insincerity. Where it prevails, we find manly energy 181expended in restricting men to a childish existence. Seeking to emancipate themselves from the world, people sink into a barbarism that is in truth the highest degree of secularisation of human life. They wish to abandon all struggles for earthly ends, and to be free to serve God; in reality they do but exchange for petty tortures, in a close and narrow atmosphere, those exertions, worthy of their strength, for which God provides in His world such vast opportunities. Where is there more quarrelling than among those who, in all the world, find nothing worth their while to do? Endeavours to imitate Jesus in points inseparable from His especial mission in the world, and His position—which is not ours,—towards that world—efforts like these lacking the sincerity of really necessary tasks, have so long injured the cause of Jesus, that our joy will be unalloyed when scientific study at last reveals to every one the impossibility of all such attempts.
It is true that this impossibility is not yet recognised by all. Friedrich Paulsen44Deutsche Monatschrift für das gesamte Leben der Gegenwart (German Monthly Review of Contemporary Life). Berlin, 1903. October issue, p. 125. looks upon the name “Tolstoi” as in itself a 182proof that it is possible even now so to obey the words of Jesus that one would not shrink from condemning the basis of modern civilisation, the power of the State. It is mostly, we may add, among Protestants that the numerous and enthusiastic admirers of Leo Tolstoi are to be found. They extol him not only as a great artist, not only as a powerful and venerable man, thus according him rightful praise; but they further reverence him as a pioneer in the region of moral thought, as a prophet preparing the way,—and that expressly on account of his so applying the words of Jesus as to destroy the fabric of civilisation. Yet all this is no proof of the practical and moral possibility of absolutely obeying in our rule of life to-day, the traditional words of Jesus. It merely discloses the fact that even yet a want of moral clearness too often allows men to fancy such an attitude to be possible, or actually commanded.
Neither Tolstoi’s greatness nor our veneration of him, as a man, need suffer if he may be reproached with a certain lack of moral clearness. In our experience complete freedom from such limitations belonged to One alone,—Who is thereby exalted above us all, and in Whom it was inseparable from the 183consciousness of His dignity and mission as Redeemer. It is one of the most encouraging signs of the times that so many people are powerfully affected by Tolstoi’s moral greatness. He has given the world of civilisation a gift of inestimable value in the extraordinarily graphic descriptions,—contained, for example, in his “Confessions,”—of his struggle up out of the artistic life of glitter and amusement, and a mere luxuriating in fine feelings, and his decision for a life of action. Even more important are his deeds of sacrifice, and the emphatic witness they bear to the tremendous obligations of those who occupy high places in the world and hear, from depths of misery, the groaning of the multitude.
Nevertheless, we who are Evangelical Christians must not let our gratitude to Tolstoi prevent us from quietly insisting that he misuses the words of Jesus in a manner which, through a weakness in Christianity, has long been familiar to us. Evangelical Christians who extend their admiration of Tolstoi even to this matter are without excuse, except perhaps on the ground that others have not properly revealed to them that new understanding of the Gospel which came into vogue at the Reformation. For Tolstoi, on the other 184hand, there is every excuse: he bears the impress of the Russian State, of Russian civilisation, and of the Russian Church. The best feature in the Russian Church is its reverence for tradition, and in this respect Tolstoi is a true son of the Church. All its other restraints he was able by his strength of character to cast off, daring to trust solely in Jesus and His Word. But in the attitude which he takes up towards the precious gift of tradition, he is again overpowered by the forces of Eastern Christianity. Towards the Word of Jesus, where he cannot develop the truth of its meaning, his attitude is one of resignation; for he asserts the necessity of obeying the word of Jesus, as a rule of universal application: “Resist not him that is evil.” Yet he does not realise that he himself would be responsible for the disorder that must result from such voluntary endurance of wrong and such renunciation of the use of force. Such a responsibility does not press heavily upon a Russian Christian: it is overpowered by the consolations of piety; and though he should thus deny the State its right to exist, the matter is one that troubles a Russian less than it would trouble us. For he has obviously not yet reached that point of historical development 185where moral enthusiasts, such as the Apostle Paul, are the first to recognise clearly the moral value in the power of the State. Finally, it is easy to understand why a Russian is ready to accept the words of Jesus about renunciation of the world, for he cannot fail to see on every side the havoc wrought among his people by an exotic civilisation. But what, in the case of this powerful Russian, may be explained by the light of history, ought, for us Evangelical Germans, to be a moral impossibility. Even Friedrich Paulsen will admit that we cannot conscientiously follow a line of conduct suggested to Jesus by an expectation we no longer share. Historical research in this respect has helped to emancipate us.186
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