ASerious obstacle to the progress of religion, or Christianity in its broad sense, is the assumption of an official authority from the outside. Not merely in religion, but in civil affairs, in science, ethics, and every department of life, there is a growing idea and ideal of freedom in the modern consciousness. The divine right of government by kings was an evolutionary stage of the past. Men are coming to decline allegiance to edicts which come from over their heads, but increasingly respect the promptings of conscience and the higher intuitions from within. The force of all authority, which may be termed arbitrary in its nature, is visibly weakening. Evidence and reasonableness are demanded. Credentials must be exhibited and imposition is giving place to free expression.
The ideal of civil and political government, is, that it shall be in and of the people, and that its proper origin is neither above nor outside of them. Official exponents of the law are more truly servants than masters. Their apparent domination is really but the instrumental channel for the self-expression of the freedom of the community. Back of the official, of whatever grade, stands the whole body politic. The ideal of a normal and inborn democracy is the distinguishing feature of the new time. It runs through every zone of life, spiritual, moral, ethical, political, and social. The arbitrary quality among the few remaining institutions which have a monarchical spirit, is rapidly being shorn away.
As evolutionary wheels do not turn backward, there is no probability that the general principle of absolutism will ever resume its sway. The human mind, as it advances in the search for truth, and in fuller self-manifestation, exults in its new-found freedom and overturns precedents, breaks over limitations, and questions traditional assumptions. If religion be a divine force in the soul, and the spiritual life an inward experience, it follows here, even more than elsewhere, that authoritative dictation is illogical. But a persistent conviction yet remains that a corresponding liberty should not supplant official Christianity. Man, instead of being a source, is expected to receive an alien application which has been prepared outside. He is to submit to a system which is imposed, and needs professional treatment. If he exercise his God-given quest for Reality and steps outside of certain fixed ecclesiastical limits, he is liable to be called a sceptic, or perhaps, even a "free thinker." To think without trammels may be noble and profitable, but in the past it meant opprobrium. Would it be strange if in due time it should be significant of honor?
Official Christianity is doubtless sincere in asserting the authority of Dogma. It may be even admitted that as a stage of growth it naturally precedes the consciousness of inner light and freedom. In the evolutionary order the higher development and spontaneous expression come later. Whatever is "under authority" must be immature. The fact that the thraldom of ecclesiastical sovereignty is in decay speaks volumes for genuine spiritual advancement. No longer hedged in by intermediate formalities, man may come face to face with the direct divine guidance, the indwelling God. That, and that alone constitutes pure democracy in the spiritual zone.
During the childish consciousness and crudity of human unfoldment, there is a place for gentle dictation. In its order it has been useful in the former time, and no contempt need be cast upon it. As a preparatory discipline it has done a work. But if the spirit of the present era seem unduly iconoclastic, it is but a natural reaction, a full swing of the pendulum. Reactions often go too far, temporarily, but the intrinsic elements of self-regulation from the subjective side, in due time, assert themselves. Reaction then reacts upon itself. Were it not for this compensatory law, it would seem desirable that dogmatic authority should not decline any more rapidly than the inner and truer guidance comes into evidence. A seething confusion caused by the mingling of these two counter currents characterizes the present period of transition.
In the ethical, civil, and political domain, it is also plain that the reaction from formal and instituted authority may have proceeded too rapidly. Here is the same disorderly transition. A true democratic self-assertion can come only from more lofty ideals, moral education, and a development of individual righteousness which shall bring up the collective average. Democracy is good, but when forced in advance of its evolutionary ripeness it may fruit in license, and a disregard of inner as well as external law and wholesome authority. New tyrannies introduce and install themselves in the name of liberty.
The ideal utility of every institution in its time and place, forbids blame upon the Church for holding on to its authority so long as possible. Its replacement not as an educational institution, but as a ruling Authority, will quietly be accomplished as rapidly as the nature of things will allow. Far better, belief tinctured with error, and even superstition, than no belief. Nothing is so doleful and barren as empty negation and indifference. The very activity of a strong dogmatic faith will tend to purify and broaden it.
Thoughtful men often look askance at religious institutions, and avoid the Church, because Christianity is presented as a coercive system, and as an element which is not native in their nature. Its appeals come in the light of an unwelcome necessity. It does not seem to be the emancipator which is ideal, and has not the aspect of "good news." In this era, when men are saturated with the spirit of democracy, whatever is arbitrary is received with suspicion. The distrust of the workingmen as well as the more highly educated part of the community is symptomatic. Whether or not this feeling is well founded, it exists. In view of prevailing conditions, shall Dogma continue its assertiveness? In this connection it seems fitting to trace, briefly, something of the tendency of Authority, as shown in some of the broad ecclesiastical movements of the past. Whether tested upon an extensive or limited scale, principles and systems measure themselves upon humanity.
The Eastern, or so-called Orthodox Church most perfectly represents the spirit of absolutism. The dominant and all-embracing idea is Dogma. The grand purpose is to preserve intact, and impose certain forms and statements which are assumed to be final. The system, complex and fitting in every detail, has been closed and sealed, once for all. There is no room for growth or improvement. The natural outcome is moral paralysis and spiritual decay. Its ceremonies are dramatic and sensuous, and their observance punctilious and formal. Its human product is superstition, ignorance, and a slavish subserviency. The political autocracy of Russia meets and becomes one at the apex with the Orthodox absolutism. Such a system of Authority exercises little shaping force upon the morals and ethics of its votaries, being quite disconnected from practical life.
After the Greek Church, next in order of towering Authority comes the Roman establishment. Tradition admits of no modification of Dogma, and truth is assumed to be a completed quantity. Free thought and expression for the individual is dangerous and prohibited. A spiritual and religious monarchy is the result. The Pope is the only divine channel and the highest duty is submission. As God's Vicegerent and infallible interpreter, obedience to him furnishes the only security. Logically, it is a most complete mechanism, and all its parts and details fit their places.
It is evident, at a glance, that the Roman, like the Eastern Orthodox establishment, lies athwart the path of modern religious democracy and individual free expression. It belongs to a former era when men could not be trusted, and when even the Bible could not be popularly received except as filtered through the channels of priestly interpretation and dogmatic shaping. It is a spiritual cosmology of the Ptolemaic era, a natural correspondence. That there is a rapid decline in the power and prestige of the Apostolic See is evident. From the early centuries down to the sixteenth, the Roman Hierarchy employed all available means to extend and consolidate its imperious sway. At the end of that period its supremacy was seemingly complete. The high and low, the king and peasant alike were humble suppliants. But it was soon to lose Great Britain, and most of the northern part of the Continent. Much more recently its dominion has been put off in Mexico and a portion of South America, and finally in Italy and France. The unnatural combination of Church and State has been repeatedly severed, and the process seems likely to continue. The width of the breach in France is significant. The expulsion of religious orders, the civil absorption of religious property, which was the result of long accumulation, with many other indications are all eloquent of the march toward complete disestablishment. Everything points toward religious liberty in the near future in all the countries of the civilized world. It is an interesting problem whether the Anglican Establishment will be wise enough to mark the universal trend toward religious emancipation, and gracefully bow to the inevitable, or cling tenaciously to the reign of a regime which belongs more properly to the past.
With all its faults and by-gone intolerance, the exponents of the Roman Church have been mainly sincere and its general work in its allotted time has been conserving and beneficent. As a great restraining moral and ethical force, and as a bulwark against paganism, polytheism, and a blank atheism, it has been an important saving influence in the world. The higher evolutionary philosophy puts a beneficent interpretation upon the utility, or at least, the negative goodness of Dogma. Any system, even if mingled with grave errors, that is primarily designed to minister to the spiritual nature, will find a satisfied following on the plane of its own distinctive quality. No religious system is bad per se. As an institution of varying quality, the Papacy has received more painstaking devotion in past ages than is accorded to it today. Such as it was, it was thought to be so indispensable for salvation that people must have it forced upon them whether they would or no. This feeling, rather than any inherent love of cruelty, doubtless was the mainspring of much of the former religious persecution. The feeling was: "Save their souls," the most intrinsic and valuable part, even if, as a means, their bodies must be sacrificed. If baptism and assent meant eternal life, and non-compliance endless torment, it were a logical kindness to force submission, even with knife and fagot. Thus, the real savagery was in Dogma rather than in human nature and intention. From this point of view, the Inquisition was a humane and beneficent institution. What was the value of bodily integrity for a few short years compared with an eternity of indescribable suffering?
But behold how Dogma has softened. With traditions and edicts almost literally intact, as officially preserved, what a change in their spirit and life! It shows that language matters little, while its interpretation is vital. The rigidity of Dogma is dissolving at its fountain head. The Roman Church of today, with all the retention of its absolutism and infallible authority, in form, is practically mild and apologetic, and undoubtedly is a wholesome power for good to the great majority of its adherents. Dogma in its modern mellowness is more wholesome than materialistic negation. It is far better to believe something than nothing. Then, if error be mingled with faith, the combination will gradually purify itself in spirit and practice.
The Roman Church has been likened to a watchful mother, within whose arms its children can securely rest. They come to a place where there is no controversy, and where everything has been completely wrought out for them. There is no necessity for thinking. Long ago that has been done for them. Graceful conformity, which may sit lightly, is all that remains. It cannot be denied that temperamentally, there are many who wish to have all ultimate questions fully settled for them. Why should they trouble themselves about such things? There are those who are far wiser, and whose official duty and privilege include a professional application of the Church's saving ordinances. But to what extent can one be "saved" by proxy? Are the avenues Godward entered through toll-gates, and can these be swung open by keepers of a certain official order. Does St. Peter, or any other saint, carry the keys? To what extent can priestly absolution transform unfitness into fitness, and turn the scales of righteousness and spiritual character. Here again, the evolutionary principle intervenes, and suggests: If direct effort and advancement be wanting, may not that at second hand be better than none? Yea, verily.
To such as accept churchly, or any other outside Authority, the Roman communion is the logical finality. John Henry Newman honestly believed in the location of an infallible ecclesiastical Authority between God and man, and therefore his surrender to Rome was entirely logical. The sacerdotal movement in the Anglican Church is Rome-ward by virtue of a psychological law which is as constant as gravitation. It is but a halting place on a direct highway. Between free and spiritually democratic Protestantism with its spontaneous expression, and full-fledged dogmatic Authority there can be no intermediate finality. The latter discredits nature and the mind of man, and assumes that unbelief is inherent. It postulates the world as alien to God, and teaches that he can be approached through an outward organism, especially set up for the purpose. Once introduce infallibility in any department of religious life and it must go into all. The infallible Bible must have an infallible interpretation by an infallible Church, with an infallible Head. But there is a missing link. The lack of an infallible people to receive it, brings fallibility into the whole.
In Protestantism, using the term as inclusive of a great movement, there was a general rebellion against Authority. The protesting, or independent spirit in man against absolutism, in some degree has always asserted individuality, but in the sixteenth century it became a wide-spread coherent movement. The human conscience refused longer to be bound, and the revolt against Authority became formidable. The Roman Pontiff tried in vain to suppress it, and there began a conflict between traditional absolutism and free human expression which is yet far from ended. In a word, the crucial question: Where is the real seat of Authority? is ever repeated. Is human reason to be fettered and religion shut up in a sealed abode with certain exclusive keepers? Is the most vital and sacred department of life to be forever barred against progress? Are the only men, or orders of men, who are capable of receiving a divine revelation dead and turned to dust? Is man in his Godward aspiration to be held back, not only to second hand inspiration, but to the forms and limits imposed during the very dawn of religious development? Luther, and soon after some other brave souls, answered this question in favor of the right of private judgment.
As the Protestant movement became more general, well-defined efforts for its spread multiplied. With the Roman Hierarchy set aside, as final and ultimate Authority, there soon became a natural inquiry for a successor. Where now are your credentials? What is the binding force for your teaching? If not one kind of infallibility, there must be another. The time was not yet ripe for any general understanding of an indwelling God, or for the consciousness of a divine light or leading in the soul. The authority demanded was yet to be arbitrary, and from the outside. The evolutionary level for democratic ideals, in religion, was still above and beyond the reach of that time. God's authority must still have visible form, and be backed by human prestige. For the Protestants, the Book was the only available answer to the demand. Infallibility was a required condition. Thus the inerrant Book, as an Oracle, took the place of the inerrant Pontiff. Whether or not divinely reasonable, you must believe so and so because God demands it in the Bible. It is his own voice and language. Thus, the human joy and inspiration of a direct approach to God was set aside, and scholastic and theological barriers imposed. The idea that God is a great King upon a throne — with human passions and limitations— and that the Bible is his literal proclamation, was the fundamental thought. What kingship — with a Roman background — implied in that age may be imagined. It was law, not love, imperious demand rather than Fatherly likeness and drawing.
These, with a surrounding cluster of dogmas to match, defined the religion of that period. Nothing different could have been logically expected. Man's higher nature was repressed and outlawed. The Protestant movement soon took on the same spirit as its predecessor. The private conscience was seared, and to think freely about the truth which the Bible richly contains was impiety.
To give the Book free course and let it speak for itself, was simply impossible to the intolerant thought of that age. In reality, it was not the Bible which was declared infallible, but only a certain interpretation of it. Thus the sixteenth century became noted for the rise and spread of theological abstractions which were strongly enforced. In the century following, these decrees and doctrines were gathered into creeds and confessions in rigid form. The most important one, the Westminster Confession, has come down to us as "a standard" and is still widely defended. It would be as reasonable for us to retain the sixteenth and seventeenth century standards in philosophy, ethics, physics, astronomy, science, and invention, as in those of religion. The fact that tenfold more light has come since those days, even upon the history and construction of the Bible itself, is widely ignored. The anathemas of the Almighty, forged by official ingenuity, descended upon the heads of those who failed to conform in this life, and were positively promised for the next.
But the Protestantism of the present day is far more liberal. At least a considerable minority — perhaps majority — of its adherents do not insist upon biblical inerrancy and infallibility, a limited atonement, total depravity, or a doom of eternal torment. Those, also, who retain these dogmas, as a matter of form, hold them with a mildness and apologetic consideration which were formerly unknown. The re-interpretations made by the orthodoxy of the twentieth century would be unrecognizable by the ancestors from whom it came. Dogma rapidly declined during the nineteenth century, especially during its closing decades. Its aggressiveness has been turned into ineffectual defense. Instead of "speaking with authority" it seeks to find excuses for its existence. But yet, it often says, in substance: Believe the Bible as we believe it, or you do not believe it at all. But ecclesiastical censure now bears but a faint resemblance to the thunder-bolts of the past. Most of the deeper thinkers in the Church now admit that all biblical interpretation and conclusion logically converge and ultimate in the spiritual perception of men. It must find not only its home but even its rise in the soul.
Dogmatism requires that the admission of biblical Authority be granted preliminary to the study of the Book, and thus every statement is judged in advance. Other literature is taken in its general tenor, while the Sacred Writings are often textually disjointed, and in arbitrary combinations made the foundation for theological systems. The unreasonable use of "proof texts" and general suspension of all literary usage has rendered the Book unreal and unpractical to much of the trained thinking of our time.
The scattered manuscripts from which the Bible was finally compiled make no claim of unique authority as a whole, for that was impossible. Who then knew what the Bible was to be? That question was to be decided centuries later, after heated and hair-splitting argument, by a vote of the majority of a Council. Errors, mistranslations, and interpolations were evident, but they were ruled out. Reason must be suspended and an arbitrary dictation put in its place. Has not the time now arrived when the good old Book should be taken for what it really is? Is it not plain that it is not a fetish, not a breastwork for the defense of dogma, not an abnormal or miraculous missive, but a Book, grand in its merit, superlative in its truth, and inspired for the reason that it inspires life?
The ultimate Authority in religion will be admitted by all to be God himself. If man be intrinsically detached from God, it is evident that the divine quality must be conveyed through external device. But if the divine and the human are in normal contact, Authority must come through the living channels of the soul and not through hearsay or outward constituted authority.
Protestantism, historically, in its essence was an avowed appeal to reason. In its larger sense, reason includes not merely the logical faculty, but all the higher perceiving and interpreting forces of the soul. Modern skepticism, now so prevalent, comes as the penalty for, and reaction from the claim of an unerring literalism which was the logical successor of the Papal assumption. The sceptic says to the literalist: Your Bible gives authority to hold slaves, practice polygamy, and it sanctions war and revenge, and the literalist cannot deny this from his own method of interpretation.
Truth never can be in conflict with truth. Over and over again, that which has been assumed to be truth taught in the Bible has been found to be in opposition to undoubted verity in science and exact knowledge. A series of ignominious retreats has therefore followed the champions of traditionalism. Persecution, long so bitter, now having been thrust out by the spirit of the age, the search for truth can be full and untrammeled. "The truth shall make you free."
There is a higher Authority than the world, or even the Church has generally recognized. It comes from God, or the Divine Spirit working through man. Jesus "spake as one having authority, and not as the scribes." The message of the prophet is positive, and carries intrinsic self attestation while the utterance of the priest, entangled in form and ritual is uncertain. The seer cuts loose from the trammels of environment and the uncertainty of tradition, and makes himself a channel for the divinity within. His message touches a responsive chord in the heart of every hearer. He deals with axioms rather than unknown quantities. But his is not an exclusive order, for the prophetic instinct is at least latent in every human copy of the "divine image." The temple of old was cleared, not by the fear of "a whip of small cords," but by the terrible dignity of truth. Barriers have been erected between God and the soul which must be burned away, even though they may have religious labels. The leadings of the seer need no supporting argument because they are armed with conviction. Although the Prophet of Nazareth fulfilled and endorsed all the truth which had come into expression before his time, he was regarded as the typical iconoclast.
It follows that that Authority which has the signet of the Infinite, needs no system of apologetics or exegesis, because it shines by its own light. That inner and self-attesting truth for which martyrs were willing to suffer was a matter of no uncertainty. "The pure in heart shall see God." Reality will stand out before them full orbed, subject to no doubtful quest. The radical transition in the recognized seat of the ultimate Criterion which is now in progress is a return, or rather an advance to the ideal of Jesus.
As man stands at the apex of the universal order, he must embody the truest and best of the divine creative fruitfulness. The authors of the Bible have their very important place, but to rank all the writings of other ages as relatively secular or profane is unwarranted. The full realization of truth and authority is an endless process, and we are in, and a part of that process. As Jesus severed the bonds of Jewish traditionalism and emancipated himself from the bondage of an external order and cult, so this wonderful age is lifting the banner of a spiritual democracy.
To cognize the Authority which is at the zenith, and feel its more vital relations, one must apprehend the great evolutionary spiritual trend, and realize that he, himself, is a product of the past. Things are both old and new at the same time. To move forward with the universal drift is to anchor consciousness to the Eternal. Real Authority is an assertion of the divine Inmost. To arrest its free expression and put it in the congealed form of dogma is to deaden its vital authority and smother its life.
Not the verbiage, but the glowing truth which flows through the Bible is infallible. There is but one form of captivity to which it is our privilege to yield, and that is a sweet subservience to spiritual ideals. They not only mold us into their image but also constitute our highest Authority. The higher selfhood is crowned with its own authority and is above theology and dogma, for these linger upon the subordinate intellectual plane. True authority is, least of all, arbitrary, and true liberty is not license or disorder. The ultimate and perfected form of government will not depend upon external legislation, civil or religious, but upon that which is graphically written upon the tablets of the soul. In the final outcome, submission to the supreme Authority will be neither more nor less than unrestrained self-expression. All objective pressure is to be relaxed and man is to shape himself to the divine Image and Likeness, as primarily installed.