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What is Christianity? Lectures Delivered in the University of Berlin during the Winter-Term 1899-1900.
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LECTURE III

IN the previous lecture we spoke of our evangelists and of their silence on the subject of Jesus’ early development. We described in brief the mode and character of his teaching. We saw that he spoke like a prophet, and yet not like a prophet. His words breathe peace, joy and certainty. He urges the necessity of struggle and decision—“where your treasure is, there will your heart be also”—and yet the quiet symmetry of a parable is over all that he says: under God’s sun and the dew of heaven everything is to grow and increase until the harvest. He lived in the continual consciousness of God’s presence. His food and drink was to do God’s will. But—and this seemed to us the greatest thing about him and the seal of his inner freedom—he did not speak like an heroic penitent, or like an ascetic who has turned his back upon the world. His eye rested kindly upon the whole world, and he saw it as it was, in all its varied and changing colours. He ennobled it in his parables; his gaze penetrated the veil of the earthly, and he recognised everywhere the hand of the living God.

When he came forward, another was already at work among the Jewish people: John the Baptist. Within a few months a great movement had arisen on the banks of the Jordan. It differed altogether from those messianic movements which for several generations had by fits and starts kept the nation alive. The Baptist, it is true, also proclaimed that the kingdom of God was at hand; and that meant nothing less than that the day of the Lord, the judgment, the end, was then coming. But the day of judgment which John the Baptist announced was not the day when God was going to take vengeance upon the heathen and raise up His own people; it was the day of judgment for this very people that he prophesied. “Who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham. And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees.” In that day of judgment it is not being children of Abraham, but doing works of righteousness, which is to turn the scale. And he, the preacher, himself began with repentance and devoted his life to it; he stands before them in raiment of camel’s hair, and his meat is locusts and wild honey. But it is not in the levying of a band of ascetics that he sees his work, or at any rate his main work. He appeals to the whole nation, busy with its various trades and callings, and summons it to repentance. They seem very simple truths that he utters: to the publicans he says: “Exact no more than that which is appointed you”; to the soldiers: “Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely, and be content with your wages”; to the well-to-do: “He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none, and he that hath meat, let him do likewise”; and to all: “Forget not the poor.” This is the practical proof of the repentance to which he calls, and it embraces the conversion which he has in view. It is not a question of a single act, the baptism of repentance, but of a righteous life in the face of the avenging justice of God. Of ceremonies, sacrifices, and the works of the law, John did not speak; apparently he thought them unimportant. It was on a right disposition and good deeds that everything turned. In the day of judgment it was by this standard that the God of Abraham would judge.

Let us pause here for a moment. Questions force themselves upon us at this point which have often been answered and still are again and again put. It is clear that John the Baptist proclaimed the sovereignty of God and His holy moral law. It is also clear that he proclaimed to his fellow-countrymen that it was by the moral law that they were to measure, and that on this alone everything was to turn. He told them that what they were to care about most was to be in a right state within and to do good deeds. It is clear, lastly, that there is nothing over-refined or artificial in his notion of what was good; he means ordinary morality. It is here that the questions arise.

Firstly: if it was only so simple a matter as the eternal claims of what is right and holy, why all this apparatus about the coming of the day of judgment, about the axe being laid to the root of the trees, about the unquenchable fire, and so on?

Secondly: is not this baptism in the wilderness and this proclamation that the day of judgment was at hand simply the reflection or the product of the political and social state of the nation at the time?

Thirdly: what is there that is really new in this proclamation and had not been already expressed in Judaism?

These three questions are very intimately connected with one another.

Firstly, then, as to the whole dramatic eschatological apparatus about the coming of the kingdom of God, the end being at hand, and so on. Well, every time that a man earnestly, and out of the depths of his own personal experience, points others to God and to what is good and holy, whether it be deliverance or judgment that he preaches, it has always, so far as history tells us, taken the form of announcing that the end is at hand. How is that to be explained? The answer is not difficult. Not only is religion a life in and with God; but, just because it is that, it is also the revelation of the meaning and responsibility of life. Everyone who has awakened to a sense of religion perceives that, without it, the search for such meaning is in vain, and that the individual, as well as the multitude, wanders aimlessly and falls: “they go astray; everyone turns to his own way.” But the prophet who has become conscious of God is filled with terror and agony as he recognises that all mankind is sunk in error and indifference. He feels like a traveller who sees his companions blindly rushing to the edge of a precipice. He wants to call them back at all costs. The time is running out; he can still warn them; he can still adjure them to turn back; in a single hour, perhaps, all will be lost. The time is running out, it is the last moment—this is the cry in which, then, in all nations and at all times, any energetic call to conversion has been voiced whenever a fresh prophet has been granted them. The prophet’s gaze penetrates the course of history; he sees the irrevocable end; and he is filled with boundless astonishment that the godlessness and blindness, the frivolity and indolence, have not long since brought everything to utter ruin and destruction. That there is still a brief moment left in which conversion is possible seems to him the greatest marvel of all, and to be ascribed only to God’s forbearance. But certain it is that the end cannot be very far off. This is the way in which with every great cry for repentance the idea of the approaching end always arises. The individual forms in which it shapes itself depend upon con temporary circumstances and are of subordinate importance. It is only the religion which has beer built up into an intellectual system that does not make this emphasising of the end all-important without such emphasis no actual religion is conceivable, whether it springs up anew like a sudden flame or glows in the soul like a secret fire.

I pass now to the second question: whether the social and political conditions of the time were not causes of the religious movement. Let us sec briefly where we are. You are aware that at thf time of which we speak the peaceful days of the Jewish theocracy were long past. For two centuries blow had followed upon blow; from the terrible days of Antiochus Epiphanes onwards the nation had never had any rest. The kingdom of the Maccabees had been set up, and through inner strife and external foe had soon disappeared again, The Romans had invaded the country and had laid their iron hand upon everything. The tyranny of that Edomite parvenu, King Herod, had robbed the nation of every pleasure in life and maimed it in all its members. So far as human foresight went, it looked as if no improvement in its position could ever again be effected; the lie seemed to be given to all the glorious old prophecies; the end appeared to have come. How easy it was at such an epoch to despair of all earthly things, and in this despair to renounce in utter distress what had once passed as the inseparable accompaniment of the theocracy. How easy it was now to declare the earthly crown, political possessions, prestige and wealth, strenuous effort and struggle, to be one and all worthless, and in place of them to look to heaven for a completely new kingdom, a kingdom for the poor, the oppressed, the weak, and. to hope that their virtues of gentleness and patience would receive a crown. And if for hundreds of years the national God of Israel had been undergoing a transformation; if He had broken in pieces the weapons of the mighty, and derided the showy worship of His priests; if He had demanded righteous judgment and mercy—what a temptation there was to proclaim Him as the God who wills to see His people in misery that He may then bring them deliverance! We can, in fact, with a few touches construct the religion and its hopes which seemed of necessity to result from the circumstances of the time —a miserabilism which clings to the expectation of a miraculous interference on God’s part, and in the meantime, as it were, wallows in wretchedness.

But although the terrible circumstances of the time certainly disengaged and developed many ideas of this kind, and easily account for the wild enterprises of the false Messiahs and the political efforts of fanatical Pharisees, they are very far from being sufficient to explain John the Baptist’s message. They do, indeed, explain how it was that deliverance from earthly things was an idea which seized hold of wide circles, and that people were looking to God. Trouble makes men pray. But trouble in itself does not give any moral force, and moral force was the chief element in John the Baptist’s message. In appealing to it, in proclaiming that everything must be based on morality and personal responsibility, he took a higher point of view than the feeble piety of the “poor,” and drew not from time but from eternity.

It is scarcely a century since Fichte delivered his memorable orations here in Berlin, after the terrible defeat which Germany had suffered. What did he do in these lectures? In the first place, he held up a mirror to the nation, and showed it its sins and their consequences,—frivolity, godlessness, self-complacency, infatuation, weakness. What did he do next? Did he simply call them to arms? Arms were just what they were no longer capable of hearing; they had been struck from their powerless hands. It was to repentance and to inward conversion that he called them; to God, and therefore to the exertion of all their moral force; to truth and to the Spirit, so that by the Spirit everything might be made new. By his powerful personality, and in union with friends of a like mind, he produced an immense impression. He succeeded in opening up once more the choked fountains of our energy, because he knew the strength from which help comes and had drunk of the living water himself. No doubt the necessities of the time taught him and steeled him; but it would be foolish and ridiculous to maintain that Fichte’s orations were the product of the general woe. They are the antithesis of it. Not otherwise must we think of John the Baptist’s message, and—let me say it at once—of the message which Jesus himself delivered. That they appealed to those who expected nothing of the world or of politics—of John the Baptist, however, this is not directly reported; that they would have nothing to do with those popular leaders who had led the people to ruin; that they turned their gaze altogether from earthly things, may also be accounted for by the circumstances of the time. But the remedy which they proclaimed was no product of those circumstances. Nay, was not calling people to ordinary morality expecting everything of it bound to seem a hopeless enterprise? And whence came the power, the inflexible power, which compelled others? This leads us to the last of the questions which we have raised.

Thirdly, what was there that was new in the whole movement? Was it anything new to set up the sovereignty of God, the sovereignty of the good and the holy, in opposition to all the other elements which had forced their way into religion? Did John the Baptist, did Christ himself, bring in anything that had not been proclaimed long before? Gentlemen, the question as to what is new in religion is not a question which is raised by those who live in it. What is there that can have been “new,” seeing that mankind existed so long before Jesus Christ and had seen so much in the way of intelligence and knowledge? Monotheism had long been introduced, and the few possible types of monotheistic religious fervour had long made their appearance here and there, and had taken possession of whole schools, nay, of a whole nation. Can the religious individualism of that Psalmist ever be surpassed in depth and vigour who confessed: “Lord, when I have thee, I ask not after heaven and earth”? Can we go beyond what Micah said: “He hath showed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee but to do justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God”? Centuries had passed since these words were spoken. “What do you want with your Christ?” we are asked, principally by Jewish scholars; “he introduced nothing new.” I answer with Wellhausen: It is quite true that what Jesus proclaimed, what John the Baptist expressed before him in his exhortations to repentance, was also to be found in the prophets, and even in the Jewish tradition of their time. The Pharisees themselves were in possession of it; but unfortunately they were in possession of much else besides. With them it was weighted, darkened, distorted, rendered ineffective and deprived of its force, by a thousand things which they also held to be religious and every whit as important as mercy and judgment. They reduced everything to one dead level, wove everything into one fabric; the good and holy was only one woof in a broad earthly warp. You ask again, then: “What was there that was new?” The question is out of place in monotheistic religion. Ask rather: “Had what was here proclaimed any strength and any vigour?” I answer: Take the people of Israel and search the whole history of their religion; take history generally, and where will you find any message about God and the good that was ever so pure and so full of strength—for purity and strength go together—as we hear and read of in the Gospels? As regards purity, the spring of holiness had, indeed, long been opened; but it was choked with sand and dirt, and its water was polluted. For rabbis and theologians to come afterwards and distil this water, even if they were successful, makes no difference. But now the spring burst forth afresh, and broke a new way for itself through the rubbish—through the rubbish which priests and theologians had heaped up so as to smother the true element in religion; for how often does it happen in history that theology is only the instrument by which religion is discarded! The other element was that of strength. Pharisaical teachers had proclaimed that everything was contained in the injunction to love God and one’s neighbour. They spoke excellently; the words might have come out of Jesus’ mouth. But what was the result of their language? That the nation, that in particular their own pupils, condemned the man who took the words seriously. All that they did was weak and, because weak, harmful. Words effect nothing; it is the power of the personality that stands behind them. But he “taught as one having authority and not as the Scribes.” Such was the impression of him which his disciples received. His words became to them “the words of life,” seeds which sprang up and bore fruit. That was what was new.

Some such message John the Baptist had already begun to deliver. He, too, had undoubtedly placed himself in opposition to the leaders of the people; for any man who tells people to “reform,” and at the same time enjoins nothing more than repentance and good works, always comes into opposition with the official leaders of religion and church. But beyond the lines of the message of repentance John did not go.

Jesus Christ then appeared. He first of all accepted and affirmed the Baptist’s message to its full extent, and he acknowledged the Baptist himself; nay, there was no one of whom he spoke in language of such warm recognition. Did not he say that among them that were born of women there had not arisen a greater than John the Baptist? Again and again he acknowledged that his cause began with the Baptist and that he was his forerunner. Nay, he had himself been baptised by him, and thereby put himself into the movement which the Baptist began.

But he did not rest there. When he appeared, he, too, it is true, like John proclaimed: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand”; but his message became one of joy as he delivered it. The traditions about him contain nothing more certain than that his message was an “evangel,” and that it was felt to bring blessing and joy. With good reason, therefore, the evangelist Luke began his narrative of Jesus’ public appearance with the words of the prophet Isaiah:—“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord.” Or in Jesus’ own words: “Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly of heart; and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” These words dominated Jesus’ whole work and message; they contain the theme of all that he taught and did. They make it at once obvious that in this teaching of his he left John the Baptist’s message far behind. The latter, although already in silent conflict with the priests and the scribes, did not become a definite signal for contradiction. “The falling and the rising again,” a new humanity opposed to the old, men of God these Jesus Christ was the first to create. He came into immediate opposition with the official leaders of the people, and in them with ordinary human nature in general. They thought of God as of a despot guarding the ceremonial observances in His household; he breathed in the presence of God. They saw Him only in His law, which they had converted into a labyrinth of dark defiles, blind alleys, and secret passages; he saw and felt Him everywhere. They were in possession of a thousand of His commandments, and thought, therefore, that they knew Him; he had one only, and knew Him by it. They had made this religion into an earthly trade, and there was nothing more detestable; he proclaimed the living God and the soul’s nobility.

If, however we take a general view of Jesus’ teaching, we shall see that it may be grouped under three heads. They are each of such a nature as to contain the whole, and hence it can be exhibited in its entirety under any one of them.

Firstly, the kingdom of God and its coming.

Secondly, God the Father and the infinite value of the human soul.

Thirdly, the higher righteousness and the commandment of love.

That Jesus’ message is so great and so powerful lies in the fact that it is so simple and on the other hand so rich; so simple as to be exhausted in each of the leading thoughts which he uttered; so rich that every one of these thoughts seems to be inexhaustible and the full meaning of the sayings and parables beyond our reach. But more than that—he himself stands behind everything that he said. His words speak to us across the centuries with the freshness of the present. It is here that that profound saying is truly verified: “Speak, that I may see thee.”

Our course in what follows will be to try to learn what those three heads are, and to classify the thoughts which come under them. They contain the main features of Jesus’ message. We shall then try to understand the Gospel in its relations to certain great questions of life.

I.— The kingdom of God and its coming.

Jesus’ message of the kingdom of God runs through all the forms and statements of the prophecy which, taking its colour from the Old Testament, announces the day of judgment and the visible government of God in the future, up to the idea of an inward coming of the kingdom, starting with Jesus’ message and then beginning. His message embraces these two poles, with many stages between them that shade off one into another. At the one pole the coming of the kingdom seems to be a purely future event, and the kingdom itself to be the external rule of God; at the other, it appears as something inward, something which is already present and making its entrance at the moment. You see, therefore, that neither the conception of the kingdom of God, nor the way in which its coming is represented, is free from ambiguity. Jesus took it from the religious traditions of his nation, where it already occupied a foremost place; he accepted various aspects of it in which the conception was still a living force, and he added new ones. Eudemonistic expectations of a mundane and political character were all that he discarded.

Jesus, like all those of his own nation who were really in earnest, was profoundly conscious of thee great antithesis between the kingdom of God and that kingdom of the world in which he saw the reign of evil and the evil one. This was no mere image or empty idea; it was a truth which he saw and felt most vividly. He was certain, then, that the kingdom of the world must perish and be destroyed. But nothing short of a battle can effect it. With dramatic intensity battle and victory stand like a picture before his soul, drawn in those large firm lines in which the prophets had seen them. At the close of the drama he sees himself seated at the right hand of his Father, and his twelve disciples on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel; so objective was this picture to him, so completely in harmony with the ideas of his time. Now we may take the view—and not a few of us take it—that in these dramatic pictures, with their hard colours and contrasts, we have the actual purport of Jesus’ message and the fundamental form which it took; and that all his other statements of it must be simply regarded as secondary. We may say that they are all variations of it more or less edifying, variations which were added, perhaps, only by later reporters; but that the only positive factor is the dramatic hope for the future. In this view I cannot concur. It is considered a perverse procedure in similar cases to judge eminent, epoch-making personalities first and foremost by what they share with their contemporaries, and on the other hand to put what is great and characteristic in them into the background. The tendency as far as possible to reduce everything to one level, and to efface what is special and individual, may spring in some minds from a praiseworthy sense of truth, but it has proved misleading. More frequently, however, we get the endeavour, conscious or unconscious, to refuse greatness any recognition at all, and to throw down anything that is exalted. There can be no doubt about the fact that the idea of the two kingdoms, of God and of the devil, and their conflicts, and of that last conflict at some future time when the devil, long since cast out of heaven, will be also defeated on earth, was an idea which Jesus simply shared with his contemporaries. He did not start it, but he grew up in it and he retained it. The other view, however, that the kingdom of God “cometh not with observation,” that it is already here, was his own.

For us, gentlemen, to-day, it is difficult to reconcile, nay, it is scarcely possible to bridge over, such an opposition as is involved, on the one side in a dramatic picture of God’s kingdom existing in the future, and on the other in the announcement that “it is in the midst of you,” a still and mighty power in the hearts of men. But to understand why it was that with other historical traditions and other forms of culture no opposition was felt to exist between these views, nay, that both were able to exist side by side, we must reflect, we must steep ourselves in the history of the past. I imagine that a few hundred years hence there will be found to exist in the intellectual ideas which we shall have left behind us much that is contradictory; people will wonder how we put up with it. They will find much hard and dry husk in what we took for the kernel; they will be unable to understand how we could be so short-sighted, and fail to get a sound grasp of what was essential and separate it from the rest. Some day the knife will be applied and pieces will be cut away where as yet we do not feel the slightest inclination to distinguish. Let us hope that then we may find fair judges, who will measure our ideas not by what we have unwittingly taken over from tradition and are neither able nor called upon to correct, but by what was born of our very own, by the changes and improvements which we have effected in what was handed down to us or was commonly prevalent in our day.

Truly the historian’s task of distinguishing between what is traditional and what is peculiar, between kernel and husk, in Jesus message of the kingdom of God is a difficult and responsible one. How far may we go? We do not want to rob this message of its innate character and colour; we do not want to change it into a pale scheme of ethics. On the other hand, we do not want to lose sight of its peculiar character and strength, as we should do were we to side with those who resolve it into the general ideas prevailing at the time. The very way in which Jesus distinguished between the traditional elements—he left out none in which there was a spark of moral force, and he accepted none which encouraged the selfish expectations of his nation—this very discrimination teaches us that it was from a deeper knowledge that he spoke and taught. But we possess testimonies of a much more striking kind. If anyone wants to know what the kingdom of God and the coming of it meant in Jesus’ message, lie must read and study his parables. He will then see what it is that is meant. The kingdom of God comes by coming to the individual, by entering into his soul and laying hold of it. True, the kingdom of God is the rule of God; but it is the rule of the holy God in the hearts of individuals; it is God Himself in His power, From this point of view everything that is dramatic in the external and historical sense has vanished; and gone, too, are all the external hopes for the future. Take whatever parable you will, the parable of the sower, of the pearl of great price, of the treasure buried in the field—the word of God, God Himself, is the kingdom. It is not a question of angels and devils, thrones and principalities, but of God and the soul, the soul and its God.

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