"In the attrition of theological thought, the harvests of centuries are ground up, and in the winds of discussion a good deal of chaff is blown away. But the elements of the bread of life still remain, and the world was never more hungry for it than today."
Whither are we drifting? There is an irresistible movement in the realm of religious thought which any careful estimate will show to be of remarkable magnitude. Many are anxiously watching the drift, and some are apprehensive as to the security of what they feel to be foundation principles. Are there substantial verities? and, if so, how shall we distinguish their solid outlines from those temporary forms which are liable to dissolve while we gaze upon them?
There is a growing conviction that the organized church, by slow degrees, is losing its hold upon the community, and that its influence, as a force to mould society, is waning. The utterances of the pulpit are becoming less authoritative in their tone, and less weighty in their impressiveness upon human thought and conduct. The Bible is receiving such exhaustive criticism and analysis as formerly would have been deemed sacrilegious. The tribute paid to creeds, dogmas, and ceremonial religion, is lessening; and the reverence which environed scholastic theology in human consciousness is slowly fading. Faith in the importance and efficacy of external symbols, ordinances, and rituals, is perceptibly weakening, and ecclesiastical assumptions are being re-examined.
That there is such a general tendency will hardly be questioned, either by those who regard it as salutary, or by others who believe it to be fraught with disaster. Is the world drifting into materialism, and are the spiritual and divine elements in human character losing their power? or is it only a fusing and recasting of old forms to meet the burning conditions and necessities of the present age? Watchman! what of the night? Do the unrest and confusion presage the dawn of a brighter day?
To determine the significance of the transition, the divergence must be noted between the formulated thought of the past and the actual thought of today, which, as a rule, is yet unexpressed in formal statements. The distance already traversed from the decaying but still authoritative ancient creeds varies materially, even among the subdivisions of that great composite body known as the Protestant Church. The influence of the drift in permeating the Roman system is less pronounced, because its unified organization and traditional conservatism render it more impervious to progressive influences. As the tendency of advanced thought is most noticeable in what are known as the Evangelical branches of the Protestant Church, the transition, as seen among them, will mainly be considered.
The letter of formulated theological standards, with few trifling exceptions, has not been modified so as to correspond with actual present belief. The great creeds of Christendom include the Nicene of the fourth century, the Apostles' and the Athanasian which were formulated a little later, and that which is known as the Westminster Confession of the seventeenth Century. Some less important doctrinal statements have obtained limited acceptance, but the basis for them is generally found in one or all of these great systems. Here and there some minor organizations have rounded the angles; but, generally speaking, nineteenth century theological thought has no authoritative form except such as was cast by councils which gathered from two to sixteen centuries ago. The great conservative Presbyterian Church of the United States has felt enough of the "ground swell" to cause it to begin the task of revising its Westminster Confession, which, until recently, was regarded as too sacred to be questioned. Its revision committee, however, has been instructed against any change which would in any degree impair the "Calvinistic system." Time will determine whether or not the tidal wave can be stayed at that point.
While knowledge in every other department is expanding so constantly that new text-books replace old ones in rapid succession, is it possible that during centuries the loftiest of subjects has received no new illumination? Truth indeed is unchangeable; but the human apprehension of it is ever growing and brightening.
The great drift has opposite meanings to those who view it from different standpoints. There are those who cling tenaciously to the Old because it is old, and others who reach anxiously forward to the New because they see in it progress and higher development. The ultra-conservatives are confused by the movement; and to them it is only loss, because they are not plastic to new light and revelation. To their anxious gaze the drift is from a sound theology towards an uncertain and unsound theology; from an authoritative Bible towards a rationalistic Bible; from a solid, compact, religious system towards a negative and sentimental one. Not delving beneath the troubled surface of the drift, they behold an obtrusive materialism and skepticism, but fail to recognize these as the logical and natural reaction from their own past strained institutionalism. The new theology looks to them like a limp, boneless body, destitute of form and authority, but yet as persistently iconoclastic in its temper.
To the perverted vision of the atheist and materialist, the drift has the appearance of nearing their own position. Having for so long looked upon ceremony and dogmatism as constituting religion, the decadence of the former seems like the ending of the latter. Color-blindness to spiritual forces incapacitates them to interpret the mystery of a hidden and higher life. All the shafts they have hurled would have fallen harmless had they been aimed at religion itself, instead of at its externalities, excrescences, and shams. The materialist is utterly unable to cognize the spiritual life, because he is familiar with no plane higher than that of the intellect.
The religion of external and conflicting systems, ecclesiastical assumption, and sectarian loyalty, is giving place to that which is a renewing and vital force in character; a power to lift mankind out of selfishness and animalism into divine sonship. It is only by such fruits that it shows its harmonious and heavenly proportions. The tremendous significance of the great transition can hardly yet be estimated, but it is safe to assume that nothing intrinsic can be moved. All truth is anchored to the throne of God, and it will forever remain unshaken. Only the external, the temporary, and the unreal are being sloughed off. All that bears the divine monogram will stand out in bolder relief than ever before. Man is finding his way nearer to God. He is feeling the warm glow of divine oneness within, and no longer uses a telescope in a search for the Father.
A radical divergence between the Old and the New is seen in unlike conceptions regarding the seat of authority in religion. The emphasis of the former is upon that which is external to man, while the latter finds the law of God written in man's own nature. In the primitive church, before ecclesiastical and political policy dominated, the seat of authority was clearly the Spirit—the illuminating internal witness and "Teacher." Says Paul in his First Epistle to the Corinthians, "But he that is spiritual judgeth all things, and he himself is judged of no man." Spiritual perception comprises the only "inerrancy." As that was displaced in the early church by the scholastic and controverted formulas of schools and councils, they usurped the original and divinely constituted source of authority. The church lost its spiritual freedom, and the influx of divine life and love was obstructed. That which men were at liberty to believe was set forth and enacted by the capricious vote of great councils; and by the same method the canon of the Scriptures was selected from the accumulated mass of sacred Hebrew literature. The voice of God in the human soul was drowned by the discordant chorus of theological "hair-splitting" logic and intellectual sophistication. From the second century down to the nineteenth the Christian Church, as a rule, both Roman and Protestant, has yielded homage to human dictation in the shape of external and ecclesiastical "rules" of faith.
The Roman hierarchy, with the Pope at its head, constituted the supreme and unquestioned authority in Christendom down to the Reformation, and still so continues to its millions of real and nominal adherents. Spiritual and political authority early became mingled, with the necessary result that the former was degraded, and brought down to the level of the latter. Following the Reformation, among the Protestants the Bible—or rather that interpretation of it contained in the creeds—was installed as authority in the place of the Pope. When the separation took place, the Papists continued to have an infallible Pope, and the Protestants found it necessary to proclaim an infallible Book. But it was thought necessary to furnish the Book with props, stays, and bandages, as though it could not be trusted to interpret itself. Its proper agency as a mirror and educator—as "profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for instruction, which is in righteousness"—was displaced; and it was made an oracle, whose utterances could only be grasped through external systems which have practically been crowned with authority over the Scriptures themselves.
A fundamental declaration of the creeds is that, "The Bible is the only infallible rule of faith and practice." The Bible nowhere makes such an exclusive claim for itself, but uniformly exalts the Spirit as Guide, Inspirer, Illuminator, and Teacher. If the statement of the creed does not dishonor the Spirit, it is difficult to imagine what declaration could do so more effectually,—"The only rule." If it be the only rule, then no other guide exists now, and there was no guide whatever before the Scriptures were collected and canonized. Where did the patriarchs and prophets find their "faith" or determine their "practice"? Was Melchizedek, "King of Righteousness" and "Priest of the Most High God," destitute of any rule of "faith"? Is every divine influence which kindles the faith and guides the practice limited to this one "infallible" channel? But to whom is it "infallible"? Not certainly to the scores of different denominations who find unlike doctrines and build up antagonistic creeds from its sacred pages. Is it "infallible" to the Calvinist and the Arminian who each find what is contrary to the other?
Faith is a vital element in life and not a "rule." The creed probably means by faith, that which it is not, a system of doctrine; but numberless systems are founded upon the one Bible. The Scriptures are "profitable" rather than infallible. They are not a revelation, but a record of divine revelations in the souls of men. God is ever in contact with human souls. The one direct and supreme authority is the tribunal of the Spirit in the heart of man's nature. There is the divine image and that is the perfect model. The Bible is of untold utility; but it extols, as above itself, the "teacher which shall guide you into all truth." The loftiest biblical phraseology must receive soul-assimilation before it can be more than ancient history, or external moral experience and theory. If the Bible came down from the skies as an inerrant communication, without any human element or imperfection, it would lose its utility as a reflector and interpreter of human nature and its needs.
Man need not mistake the significance of the Scriptures. If God's voice in the soul be not stifled by external authority, the interpretation of truth will be clear and self-attesting. Practically the Bible can be read in no other way. Touching this point an eminent divine1 in a recent essay said:—
"Who is at the reader's elbow, as he reads Exodus and Leviticus, to tell him what is of permanent authority, and what was for the Mosaic dispensation only? Who whispers to us, as we read Genesis and Kings, This is exemplary; this is not? Who sifts for us the speeches of Job, and enables us to treasure as divine truth what he utters in one verse, while we reject the next as Satanic raving? What enables the humblest Christian to come safely through all the cursing Psalms and go straight to forgive his enemy? What tells us we may eat things strangled, though the whole college of Apostles deliberately and expressly prohibited such eating? Who assures us, we need not anoint the sick with oil, though James bids us do so? In a word, how is it that the simplest reader can be trusted with the Bible, and can be left to find his own spiritual nourishment in it? Paul solves the whole matter for us in his bold and exhaustive words, 'The spiritual man [the man who has the spirit of Christ] judgeth all things.' This, and this only, is the true touchstone by which all things are tried. Let a man accept Christ and live in his Spirit, and there is no fear that he will reject what Christ means he should receive."
The church "standards" were formulated in an age of great limitations when compared with the present, and remain fixed, while actual belief is constantly changing. The two should agree, but there is an ever-increasing divergence. In many cases the gateway into the church is barred by the required solemn affirmation of dogmas which are practically obsolete. Should dead formulas which are not believed remain inscribed upon its banner? Some say, "Let them stand, but give them new interpretation." But this would be a specious diplomatic stretching and straining of language unworthy even of a secular organization. Positive statements abound, which, while unaccepted, continually receive official and formal assent. The unequivocal dogmas of divinely inflicted endless punishment, election and nonelection, pretention, the literal judgment, and the material resurrection, are examples of the untruthfulness of the actual to the theoretical. The Church cannot afford to be more careless and self contradictory—not to say dishonest—than the world. The latter has a contempt for sophistry, and looks upon sincerity as one of the primary elements of religion, in which opinion it is quite correct. The examination of a candidate for ordination, in which a creed must be evaded, and, at the same time solemnly affirmed, is a humiliating spectacle. Religion is a growing, living force. As well thrust an active, vigorous animal into a cast-iron mould as to exactly define all truth in external formula. In either case life is extinguished.
But perversion which retains abandoned statements because human and sectarian pride will not admit past misapprehension has a subtler degrading influence than is often recognized. It not only forfeits the confidence of the world, but actually darkens Christian character. Hypocrisy is more dangerous than skepticism. Christ never condemned honest doubt, but he did denounce Pharisaism. Sincerity is a gem of the first water, but shams are odious. If one, in the interest of policy, begins a course of plausible concealments and conformities towards a creed that he does not truly accept, his spiritual perception becomes blurred, and moral degeneration sets in. The eye must be single, otherwise darkness follows. A gospel with mental reservations, yea, that is not obviously transparent to the most impartial convictions of truth, is without vitality. The subjective effect of insincerity is decided. One has been taught that certain beliefs are essential to salvation. He finds it impossible to really accept them, but dares not make the admission even to himself. He tries to force himself upon external and traditional authority, to believe that which his God-given spiritual perception rejects. He makes believe believe. He stifles the decision of the sacred tribunal of his own soul for the sake of supposed present or future reward. This is immoral because the moral sense is humiliated and degraded. God's law, deeply written in man's constitution, will never condemn him if he honestly seeks truth for its own pure sake. Such an one has a guidance which will never lead him out of the way. That skepticism which is the product of sin or selfishness is not sincere skepticism; but there may be honest doubt about some things which have been called religion, but hardly concerning its vital principles. Whether one be classed as orthodox or heterodox, whether his creed be simple or complex, above all things let him be true to himself, and loyal to his deepest convictions. Any salvation which has no foundation of sincerity and transparency is not salvation at all.
The mission of the gospel is the building of a divine manhood; the purifying and perfecting of life so that robust spirituality may be developed. The human soul is more precious than church or temple, and the inner voice is more infallible than doctrine and dogma. The crucial religious test must be spiritual life and purity, rather than mechanical doctrine, because living, breathing man is of far greater moment than the dry bones of past ages. Individual liberty is sacred. If heresy be honest it will grade higher in the moral scale than sophisticated traditional acceptance. The chanting of the Credo as a spiritual accomplishment must give way to something of the transparent simplicity of the primitive church.
The drift is moving away from the special and supernatural towards the orderly and natural. Nature, in its widest sense, being a translation of God, religion must be natural. Man is the crown and climax of nature, and through it is bound to God. All truth, whether designated as sacred or secular, is divine, and has infinite oneness, relation, and harmony. As well attempt to divide God by hard and sharp lines as to run partitions between related realities. Law, which is unifying and vital, marks out the path along which the divine economy manifests itself.
The old theology was historic and scholastic; but the consensus of present thought emphasizes unselfishness and character. The former was intellectual, the latter intuitional. One was a complicated plan or system outside of man; the other traces the divine outlines within him. The former was argumentative, intolerant, and artificial; the latter, attractive and normal. Human conduct was regulated by the metes and bounds of "Thou shalt not," more than inspired by supreme motive. The old appealed to motives of obligation, duty, and fear, while the ultimate goal of the new is that measure of love which eventually will outlaw the law.
God, from being a jealous, imperious Sovereign, capriciously pleased to select and elect a few of His children, is being exalted by an infinitely higher perception. The human heart warmly responds to the Great Loving Ideal, because the law that love begets love is divinely implanted in man's nature.
The essential Christ is the everlasting manifestation of God's love to man, of which the historic Jesus was an expressive incarnation. The emphasis, from the local and temporary, is being transferred to the unchanging and unseen. Jesus of Nazareth was a divine translation to material man; but the spiritual man, as Paul declared, does not necessarily need to know Christ "after the flesh." His mission was not to placate, purchase, nor to act as a substitute, but to bring abundant life; to interpret divine love, and awaken the already existent divine image.
The Atonement is seen to be an At-one-ment, which on God's part is eternally complete. All the reconciliation is on the part of man. When he practically recognizes God as Love, reconciliation is complete.
The Church is viewed less as an "ark of safety," and more as a means in the development of a higher life. It is useful to just that degree in which it awakens spiritual consciousness, and transforms character into harmony with the divine standard.
The drift is away from a Bible which is an oracle and a fetish, and towards the more honorable concept of a Book which is profitable and progressive. It is the record of glimpses and perceptions which eminent men of old had of God, and of human relations to Him. It is a literature which contains human limitations, but underneath and through them shines the Spirit of Truth. Literalism has dishonored it, and so wrought its letter into external systems that numerous opposing sects all claim the same foundation.
Heaven is changing in human conception from place to ideal spiritual character. It is less a boon, outside of man, gained by purchase, and more a condition of inward oneness with God, reached through pure aspiration and spiritual growth.
Religion is less of a ritual, profession, or accepted creed, and more of an inner unfoldment. Not an unhappy alternative, but a normal human development.
Retribution is no longer vindictive and from without, but an inward condition which we make for ourselves.
The higher life is finding new forms for manifestation, many of which are outside of the boundaries of the organized church. The "Fatherhood of God" and the "brotherhood of man" are brightening in human consciousness. The channels for mutual brotherly aid and sympathy are being deepened, and the links of interdependence are growing stronger. The term neighbor is broadening in significance, and the exuberant overflow of the altruistic spirit is submerging selfish limitations.
The intermingling of divine and human love currents is becoming more complete by the melting away of man-made barriers. It is axiomatic that man is restless until he finds God, and this he often fails to do because he loses his way among the mazes of scholastic theology. Human systems instead of teaching the divine indwelling have built innumerable by-ways which lead outward. Poets, Mystics, and Quietists, by a more profound insight, have excelled theologians in their interpretations of the divine character. Notwithstanding all the anxiety regarding the great drift, the world is more truly religious to-day than at any time in the past.
The researches of modern science in astronomy, geology, and especially in biology, have greatly broadened recent religious thought. True science is becoming more religious, and religion is seen to be scientific. The traditional theory of the Creation has been obliged to give way to positive evidence that it is continuous and progressive. The grand cycle of progress is found to be a continual involution of primal energy from God, followed by its return in grand, ascending, evolutionary steps. Science is taking in the unseen, as well as the seen universe. Religion, Christianity, and spirituality are as amenable to Law as chemistry and molecules. Man can only be fully interpreted from an evolutionary standpoint. He is a creature of relations. The unit of his history, constitution, development, and destiny is racial in its scope. He cannot be disconnected from his place in the evolutionary scale, for he has vital ties both above and below. The microcosm can only be interpreted by the macrocosm. Evolution is the grand highway which leads to ideals, and ideals are divine standards. When, in the ascending series, man's place is reached, ideals from above become attractive, and he voluntarily co-operates and helps to lift himself; while lower in the scale the pressure is involuntary and from below.
The drift has broadened the domain of biology to a hitherto undreamed-of expansiveness. All life is now recognized as One Principle, differentiated and expressed in an infinite variety of forms and mediums, but still one in essence. God, when considered as Universal Life, is brought into His universe, and into man and all his relations. No new life is created and none destroyed. Life cannot die. Forms perish; but the great universal stream of vitality surges on, unspent and undiminished. Its outward manifestations are kaleidoscopic in swiftness and variety of combination, but there is but One Energy.
In what degree and quality must life be individuated to build up a personal consciousness which will survive the dissolution of its external form? When the form perishes, must not that peculiar personal quality which has identified itself only with outward expression perish also? Physical sensation vanishes, and, so far as that has been counted as the life, that life is "lost." All falsities must dissolve, but the real will survive. Only the true life, which is on a plane above and independent of the physical form, can have conscious personal immortality. None of the lower life-force is lost; but may it not be re-absorbed into the great stream of unconscious energy? It is not the life, but the consciousness, that may not endure. That which is linked to an environment must share its destiny. The divine image is man's ideal self. In the degree to which his ego is wrought into this indestructible part of his economy his personality has an immortal basis. When he says, "I," to what does he refer? If to his body, or to his external and sensuous mind, he is in danger of losing what, to him, is himself. The external and that which adheres to it is subject to disintegration. The ideal in man is immortal, and the ego must be bound to it—yes, be it—in order to share its divine permanence. As man links himself to God and Spirit, his ego takes on their eternal attributes. That life, if such there be, which is essentially base and external, when the form is dropped will gradually lose its unreal personality. Its unconscious vital force will mingle with the great current of energy which, in due time, will build up other forms and new personalities, until a fitness for survival is finally gained. Thus that familiar aphorism, "The survival of the fittest," when rightly applied, becomes of startling significance.
Religion is a binding to God, and that bond is normal. God-consciousness in the soul of man is the only force which can awaken and uncover the supremest ideal. God has entered human life, and by orderly steps is working out His grand design. The divine exuberance will flow in and fill every vacancy that is made ready in the human soul. Spiritual evolution is continuous, and life is growing richer, sweeter, and broader. Men are joining hands to lift each other over pit-falls, and mutually aiding each other to a higher outlook and firmer footing. In the ministry of loving service they are learning the process of saving their lives by losing them.
More and more that divine electricity called love is pulsating through man's nature and manifesting its redundant energy. It is overflowing the distinctions of caste, religion, nation, and race. Altruism is no longer a prosaic obligation, but an ideal privilege.
If the relentless drift is bearing away some traditional and conventional "household gods" and ecclesiastical sanctities, there is abundant compensation in the unveiling of higher ideals, the vitalizing of thought and character, and in the dispersion of rubbish which has almost hidden the divine lineaments of man's nature. Religious advancement is seen in the increased emphasis which is placed upon those living realities about which men cannot differ.