Main menu

The True Greatness of Christianity

No; the mystery hidden from ages and generations, which none of the rulers of this world knew, the mystery revealed finally by Jesus Christ and rejected by the Jews, was not the doctrine of the Trinity, nor anything speculative. It was the method and the secret of Jesus. Jesus did not change the object for men,—righteousness. He made clear what it was, and that it was for all men, and that it was this:—his method and his secret.

This was the mystery, and the Apostles had still the consciousness that it was. To 'learn Christ,' to 'be taught the truth as it is in Jesus,' was not, with them, to acquire certain tenets about One God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity. It was, 'to be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and to put on the new man which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness.' And this exactly amounts to the method and secret of Jesus.

For Catholic and for Protestant theology alike, this consciousness, which the Apostles had still preserved, was lost. For Catholic and Protestant theology alike, the truth as it is in Jesus, the mystery revealed in Christ, meant something totally different from his method and secret. But they recognized, and indeed the thing was so plain that they could not well miss it, they recognized that on all Christians the method and secret of Jesus were enjoined. So to this extent the method and secret of Jesus were preached and had their effect. To this extent true Christianity has been known, and to the extent before stated it has been neglected. Now, as we say that the truth and grandeur of the Old Testament most comes out experimentally,—that is, by the whole course of the world establishing it, and confuting what is opposed to it—so it is with Christianity. Its grandeur and truth are far best brought out experimentally; and the thing is, to make people see this.

But there is this difference between the religion of the Old Testament and Christianity. Of the religion of the Old Testament we can pretty well see to the end, we can trace fully enough the experimental proof of it in history. But of Christianity the future is as yet almost unknown. For that the world cannot get on without righteousness we have the clear experience, and a grand and admirable experience it is. But what the world will become by the thorough use of that which is really righteousness, the method and the secret and the sweet reasonableness of Jesus, we have as yet hardly any experience at all. Therefore we, who in this essay limit ourselves to experience, shall speak here of Christianity and of its greatness very soberly. Yet Christianity is really all the grander for that very reason which makes us speak about it in this sober manner,—that it has such an immense development still before it, and that it has as yet so little shown all it contains, all it can do. Indeed, that Christianity has already done so much as it has, is a witness to it; and that it has not yet done more, is a witness to it too. Let us observe how this is so.

Few things are more melancholy than to observe Christian apologists taunting the Jews with the failure of Hebraism to fulfil the splendid promises of prophecy, and Jewish apologists taunting Christendom with the like failure on the part of Christianity. Neither has yet fulfilled them, or could yet have fulfilled them. Certainly the restoration by Cyrus, the Second Temple, the Maccabean victories, are hardly more than the shadows of a fulfilment of the magnificent words: 'The sons of them that afflicted thee shall come bending unto thee, and all they that despised thee shall bow themselves down at the soles of thy feet; thy gates shall not be shut day nor night, that men may bring unto thee the treasures of the Gentiles, and that their kings may be brought.' The Christianization of all the leading nations of the world is, it is said, a much better fulfilment of that promise. Be it so. Yet does Christendom, let us ask, offer more than a shadow of the fulfilment of this: 'Violence shall no more be heard in thy land; the vile person shall no more be called noble, nor the worker of mischief worthy; thy people shall be all righteous; they shall all know me, from the least to the greatest; I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; the Eternal shall be thine everlasting light, and the days of thy mourning shall be ended'? Manifestly it does not. Yet the two promises hang together: one of them is not truly fulfilled unless the other is.

The promises were made to righteousness, with all which the idea of righteousness involves. And it involves Christianity. They were made on the immediate prospect of a small triumph for righteousness, the restoration of the Jews after the captivity in Babylon: but they are not satisfied by that triumph. The prevalence of the profession of Christianity is a larger triumph: yet in itself it hardly satisfies them any better. What satisfies them is the prevailing of that which righteousness really is, and nothing else satisfies them. Now, Christianity is that which righteousness really is. Therefore, if something called Christianity prevails, and yet the promises are not satisfied, the inference is that this something is not that which righteousness really is, and therefore not really Christianity. And as the course of the world is perpetually establishing the pre-eminence of righteousness, and confounding whatever denies this pre-eminence, so, too, the course of the world is for ever establishing what righteousness really is,—that is to say, true Christianity,—and confounding whatever pretends to be true Christianity and is not.

Now, just as the constitution of things turned out to be against the great unrighteous kingdoms of the heathen world, and against all the brilliant Ishmaels we have seen since, so the constitution of things turns out to be against all false presentations of Christianity, such as the theology of the Fathers or Protestant theology. They do not work successfully, they do not reach the aim, they do not bring the world to the fruition of the promises made to righteousness. And the reason is, because they substitute for what is really righteousness something else. Catholic dogma or Lutheran justification by faith they substitute for the method and secret of Jesus.

Nevertheless, as all Christian Churches do recommend the method and the secret of Jesus, though not in the right way or in the right eminency, still the world is made partially acquainted with what righteousness really is, and the doctrine produces some effect, although the full effect is much thwarted and deadened by the false way in which the doctrine is presented. However, the effect produced is great. For instance, the sum of individual happiness that has been caused by Christianity is, anyone can see, enormous. But let us take the effect of Christianity on the world. And if we look at the thing closely, we shall find that its effect has been this: Christianity has brought the world, or at any rate all the leading part of the world, to regard righteousness as only the Jews regarded it before the coming of Christ. The world has accepted, so far as profession goes, that original revelation made to Israel: the pre-eminence of righteousness. The infinite truth and attractiveness of the method and secret and character of Jesus, however falsely surrounded, have prevailed with the world so far as this. And this is an immense gain, and a signal witness to Christianity. The world does homage to the pre-eminence of righteousness; and here we have one of those fulfilments of prophecy which are so real and so glorious. 'Glorious things are spoken of thee, O City of God! I will make mention of Egypt and Babylon as of them that know me! behold, the Philistines also, and Tyre, with the Ethiopians,—these were born there! And of Zion it shall be reported: This and that man was born in her!—and the Most High shall stablish her. The Eternal shall count, when he writeth up the people: This man was born there!' That prophecy is at the present day abundantly fulfilled. The world's chief nations have now all come, we see, to reckon and profess themselves born in Zion,—born, that is, in the religion of Zion, the city of righteousness.

But there remains the question: what righteousness really is. The method and secret and sweet reasonableness of Jesus. But the world does not see this; for it puts, as righteousness, something else first and this second. So that here, too, as to seeing what righteousness really is, the world now is much in the same position in which the Jews, when Jesus Christ came, were. It is often said: 'If Jesus Christ came now, his religion would be rejected.' And this is only another way of saying that the world now, as the Jewish people formerly, has something which thwarts and confuses its perception of what righteousness really is. It is so; and the thwarting cause is the same now as then:—the dogmatic system current, the so-called orthodox theology. This prevents now, as it did then, that which righteousness really is, the method and secret of Jesus, from being rightly received, from operating fully, and from accomplishing its due effect.

So true is this, that we have only to look at our own community to see the almost precise parallel, so far as religion is concerned, to the state of things presented in Judæa when Jesus Christ came. The multitudes are the same everywhere. The chief priests and elders of the people, and the scribes, are our bishops and dogmatists, with their pseudo-science of learned theology blinding their eyes, and always,—whenever simple souls are disposed to think that the method and secret of Jesus is true religion, and that the Great Personal First Cause and the Godhead of the Eternal Son have nothing to do with it,—eager to cry out: This people that knoweth not the law are cursed! The Pharisees, with their genuine concern for religion, but total want of perception of what religion really is, and by their temper, attitude, and aims doing their best to make religion impossible, are the Protestant Dissenters. The Sadducees are our friends the philosophical Liberals, who believe neither in angel nor spirit but in Mr. Herbert Spencer. Even the Roman governor has his close parallel in our celebrated aristocracy, with its superficial good sense and good nature, its complete inaptitude for ideas, its profound helplessness in presence of all great spiritual movements. And the result is, that the splendid promises to righteousness made by the Hebrew prophets, claimed by the Jews as the property of Judaism, claimed by us as the property of Christianity, are almost as ludicrously inapplicable to our religious state now, as to theirs then.

And this, we say, is again a signal witness to Christianity. Jesus Christ came to reveal what righteousness, to which the promises belong, really is; and so long as this, though shown by Jesus, is not recognized by us, we may call ourselves Christendom as much as we please, the true character of a Christendom will be wanting to us, because the great promises of prophecy will be still without their fulfilment. Nothing will do, except righteousness; and no other conception of righteousness will do, except Jesus Christ's conception of it:—his method, his secret, and his temper.

Yes, the grandeur of Christianity and the imposing and impressive attestation of it, if we could but worthily bring the thing out, is here: in that immense experimental proof of the necessity of it, which the whole course of the world has steadily accumulated, and indicates to us as still continuing and extending. Men will not admit assumptions, the popular legend they call a fairy-tale, the metaphysical demonstrations do not demonstrate, nothing but experimental proof will go down; and here is an experimental proof which never fails, and which at the same time is infinitely grander, by the vastness of its scale, the scope of its duration, the gravity of its results, than the machinery of the popular fairy-tale. Walking on the water, multiplying loaves, raising corpses, a heavenly judge appearing with trumpets in the clouds while we are yet alive,—what is this compared to the real experience offered as witness to us by Christianity? It is like the difference between the grandeur of an extravaganza and the grandeur of the sea or the sky,—immense objects which dwarf us, but where we are in contact with reality, and a reality of which we can gradually, though very slowly, trace the laws.

The more we trace the real law of Christianity's action the grander it will seem. Certainly in the Gospels there is plenty of matter to call out our feelings. But perhaps this has been somewhat over-used and mis-used, applied, as it has been, chiefly so as to be subservient to what we call the fairy-tale of the three supernatural men,—a story which we do not deny to have, like other products of the popular imagination, its pathos and power, but which we have seen to be no solid foundation to rest our faith in the Bible on. And perhaps, too, we do wrong, and inevitably fall into what is artificial and unnatural, in laboring so much to produce in ourselves now, as the one impulse determining us to use the method and secret and temper of Jesus, that conscious ardent sensation of personal love to him, which we find the first generation of Christians feeling and professing, and which was the natural motor for those who were with him or near him, and, so to speak, touched him; and in making this our first object. At any rate, misemployed as this motor has often been, it might be well to forgo or at least suspend its use for ourselves and others for a time, and to fix our minds exclusively on the recommendation given to the method and secret of Jesus by their being true, and by the whole course of things proving this.

Now, just as the best recommendation of the oracle committed to Israel, Righteousness is salvation, is found in our more and more discovering, in our own history and in the whole history of the world, that it is so, so we shall find it to be with the method and secret of Jesus. That this is the righteousness which is salvation, that the method and secret of Jesus, that is to say, conscience and self-renouncement, are righteousness, bring about the kingdom of God or the reign of righteousness,—this, which is the Christian revelation and what Jesus came to establish, is best impressed, for the present at any rate, by experiencing and showing again and again, in ourselves and in the course of the world, that it is so; that this is the righteousness which is saving, and that none other saves. Let us but well observe what comes, in ourselves or the world, of trying any other, of not being convinced that this is righteousness, and this only; and we shall find ourselves more and more, as by irresistible viewless hands, caught and drawn towards the Christian revelation, and made to desire more and more to serve it. No proof can be so solid as this experimental proof; and none again, can be so grand, so fitted to fill us with awe, admiration, and gratitude. So that feeling and emotion will now well come in after it, though not before it. For the whole course of human things is really, according to this experience, leading up to the fulfilment of Jesus Christ's promise to his disciples: Fear not, little flock! for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. And thus that comes out, after all, to be true, which St. Paul announced prematurely to the first generation of Christians: When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory. And the author of the Apocalypse, in like manner, foretold: The kingdom of the world is become the kingdom of our Lord and his Christ. The kingdom of the Lord the world is already become, by its chief nations professing the religion of righteousness. The kingdom of Christ the world will have to become, it is on its way to become, because the profession of righteousness, except as Jesus Christ interpreted righteousness, is vain. We can see the process, we are ourselves part of it, and can in our measure help forward or keep back its completion.

When the prophet, indeed, says to Israel, on the point of being restored by Cyrus: 'The nation and kingdom that will not serve thee shall perish!' the promise, applied literally, fails. But extended to that idea of righteousness, of which Israel was the depositary and in which the real life of Israel lay, the promise is true, and we can see it fulfilled. In like manner, when the Apostle says to the Corinthians or to the Colossians, instructed that the second advent would come in their own generation: 'We must all appear before the judgment-seat of Christ!'—'When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory!' the promise, applied literally as the Apostle meant it and his converts understood it, fails. But divested of this Aberglaube or extra-belief, it is true; if indeed the world can be shown,—and it can,—to be moving necessarily towards the triumph of that Christ in whom the Corinthian and Colossian disciples lived, and whose triumph is the triumph of all his disciples also.

Let us keep hold of this same experimental process in dealing with the promise of immortality; although here, if anywhere, Aberglaube, extra-belief, hope, anticipation, may well be permitted to come in. Still, what we need for our foundation is not Aberglaube, but Glaube; not extra-belief in what is beyond the range of possible experience, but belief in what can and should be known to be true.

By what futilities the demonstration of our immortality may be attempted, is to be seen in Plato's Phædo. Man's natural desire for continuance, however little it may be worth as a scientific proof of our immortality, is at least a proof a thousand times stronger than any such demonstration. The want of solidity in such argument is so palpable, that one scarcely cares to turn a steady regard upon it at all. And even of the common Christian conception of immortality the want of solidity is, perhaps, most conclusively shown, by the impossibility of so framing it as that it will at all support a steady regard turned upon it. In our English popular religion, for instance, the common conception of a future state of bliss is just that of the Vision of Mirza: 'Persons dressed in glorious habits with garlands on their heads, passing among the trees, lying down by the fountains, or resting on beds of flowers, amid a confused harmony of singing birds, falling waters, human voices, and musical instruments.' Or, even, with many, it is that of a kind of perfected middle-class home, with labor ended, the table spread, goodness all around, the lost ones restored, hymnody incessant. 'Poor fragments all of this low earth!' Keble might well say. That this conception of immortality cannot possibly be true, we feel, the moment we consider it seriously. And yet who can devise any conception of a future state of bliss, which shall bear close examination better?

Here, again, it is far best to take what is experimentally true, and nothing else, as our foundation, and afterwards to let hope and aspiration grow, if so it may be, out of this. Israel had said: 'In the way of righteousness is life, and in the pathway thereof there is no death.' He had said: 'The righteous hath hope in his death.' He had cried to his Eternal that loveth righteousness: 'Thou wilt not leave my soul in the grave, neither wilt thou suffer thy faithful servant to see corruption! thou wilt show me the path of life!' And by a kind of short cut to the conclusion thus laid down, the Jews constructed their fairy-tale of an advent, judgment, and resurrection, as we find it in the Book of Daniel. Jesus, again, had said: 'If a man keep my word, he shall never see death.' And by a kind of short cut to the conclusion thus laid down, Christians constructed their fairy-tale of the second advent, the resurrection of the body, the New Jerusalem. But instead of fairy-tales, let us begin, at least, with certainties.

And a certainty is the sense of life, of being truly alive, which accompanies righteousness. If this experimental sense does not rise to be stronger in us, does not rise to the sense of being inextinguishable, that is probably because our experience of righteousness is really so very small. Here, therefore, we may well permit ourselves to trust Jesus, whose practice and intuition both of them went, in these matters, so far deeper than ours. At any rate, we have in our experience this strong sense of life from righteousness to start with; capable of being developed, apparently, by progress in righteousness into something immeasurably stronger. Here is the true basis for all religious aspiration after immortality. And it is an experimental basis; and therefore, as to grandeur, it is again, when compared with the popular Aberglaube, grand with all the superior grandeur, on a subject of the highest seriousness, of reality over fantasy.

At present, the fantasy hides the grandeur of the reality. But when all the Aberglaube of the second advent, with its signs in the sky, sounding trumpets and opening graves, is cleared away, then and not till then will come out the profound truth and grandeur of words of Jesus like these: 'The hour is coming, when they that are in the graves shall hear the voice of the Son of God; and they that hear shall live.'

Finally, and above all. As, for the right inculcation of righteousness, we need the inspiring words of Israel's love for it, that is, we need the Bible; so, for the right inculcation of the method and secret of Jesus, we need the epieikeia, the sweet reasonableness, of Jesus. That is, in other words again, we need the Bible; for only through the Bible-records of Jesus can we get at his epieikeia. Even in these records, it is and can be presented but imperfectly; but only by reading and re-reading the Bible can we get at it at all.

Now, greatly as the failure, from the stress laid upon the pseudo-science of Church-dogma, to lay enough stress upon the method and secret of Jesus, has kept Christianity back from showing itself in its full power, it is probable that the failure to apply to the method and secret of Jesus, so far as these have at any rate been used, his sweet reasonableness or epieikeia,—his temper,—has kept it back even more. And the infinite of the religion of Jesus,—its immense capacity for ceaseless progress and farther development,—lies principally, perhaps, in the line of disengaging and keeping before our minds, more and more, his temper, and applying it to our use of his method and secret. For it is obvious from experience, how much our use of Jesus Christ's method and secret requires to be guided and governed by his temper of epieikeia. Indeed, without this, his method and secret seem of no use at all. The Flagellants imagined that they were employing his secret; and the Dissenters, with their 'spirit of watchful jealousy,' imagine that they are employing his method. To be sure, Mr. Bradlaugh imagines that the method and the secret of Jesus, nay, and Jesus himself too, are all baneful, and that the sooner we get rid of them the better. So far, then, the Flagellants and the Dissenters are in advance of Mr. Bradlaugh: they value Christianity, and they profess the method and secret of Jesus. But they employ them so ill, that one is tempted to say they might nearly as well be without them. And this is because they are wholly without his temper of sweet reasonableness, or epieikeia. Now this can only be got, first, by knowing that it is in the Bible, and looking for it there; and then, by reading and re-reading the Gospels continually, until we catch something of it.

This, again, is an experimental process. That the epieikeia or sweet reasonableness of Jesus may be brought to govern our use of his method and secret, and that it can and will make our use of his method and secret quite a different thing, is proved by our actually finding this to be so when we try. So that the culmination of Christian righteousness, in the applying, to guide our use of the method and secret of Jesus, his sweet reasonableness or epieikeia, is proved from experience. We end, therefore, as we began,—by experience. And the whole series of experiences, of which the survey is thus completed, rests, primarily, upon one fundamental fact,—itself, eminently, a fact of experience: the necessity of righteousness.

More Articles by This Author Matthew Arnold

Rate This Article
(0 votes)

Matthew Arnold

  • English poet and cultural critic
  • Born on December 24th, 1822 and died on April 15th, 1888
back to top

Get Social