aA
aA
aA
Sermons on Faith and Doctrine by the Late Benjamin Jowett, M.A., Master of Balliol College
« Prev II. Greek and Oriental Religions. Next »

II

GREEK AND ORIENTAL RELIGIONS44Preached at Balliol, Nov. 1877..

AND OTHER SHEEP I HAVE, WHICH ARE NOT OF THIS FOLD: THEM ALSO I MUST BRING, AND THEY SHALL HEAR MY VOICE; AND THERE SHALL BE ONE FOLD, AND ONE SHEPHERD. JOHN x. l6.

THE teaching of our Lord was originally designed for His own people. It was not a philosophy, but a life—the life of a private man standing in no relation to the political differences or to the religious controversies of his age. He was not a formal teacher who laid down abstract principles, but He went about doing good, and gracious words dropped from His lips which drew men’s hearts towards Him. The lesson was relative to the occasion, called out by some word of His disciples, by some want of the multitude—‘having nothing to eat’—by some incident happening in the temple of Jerusalem, by the changing aspect of His own life as the Jewish nation accepted or rejected His message, by the doom which He saw was impending over them. He went up once or oftener to the national feasts; He sat at meat with Lazarus and his sisters, with Zacchæus, at the house of Simon; He lived habitually among the common people. When men gathered to Him, He spoke to them—out of a boat, in a synagogue, on a mountain, in the courts of the temple; and His words were instinct with a divine love and power; when the eye saw Him it blessed Him, when the ear heard Him it gave witness to Him. He sought to create in men the feeling which absorbed His own being, that ‘they were the sons of God.’ So simple and natural is the life of Christ, like the life of any other man, only greater and better; and yet through this simple and natural life a light is shed which reaches the controversies of after ages and the history of the world. There is no reason to suppose that our Lord had ever passed beyond the borders of Israel or entered into any Gentile city. Hence He did not come across that great controversy which agitated the first century of the Christian Church, the relation of the Jewish to the Gentile converts. He had no occasion to lay down in so many words the general principle which thirty years afterwards was affirmed by St. Paul, that God was not the God of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles; yet by a sort of anticipation or inspiration, under a figure or parable, He implies the same when He says: ‘Other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, that there may be one fold, and one shepherd’; or again in a similar spirit, but with a still deeper meaning, carrying our thoughts beyond churches and controversies to the eternal relations of God and man: ‘Be ye therefore the children of your Father which is in heaven, for He maketh His sun to shine upon the evil and upon the good, and sendeth His rain upon the just and upon the unjust.’

Thus we may think of Christ not only as the founder of the Christian Church, but as the uniter or reconciler of many churches to Himself and to one another. We may think of Him also as restoring all men everywhere, the bad and the good, the just and the unjust, to the fatherhood of God. The divisions of Christians have passed into a byword. The hatreds of those who profess to be followers of Christ are deeper and more lasting than any others, handed down from generation to generation like blood-feuds among barbarous tribes. The same spirit of alienation is observable among nations, and among different classes in the same nation, even in our own humane and civilized age. There are not many persons who habitually regard all other men of all ranks, religions, races, as equally with themselves God’s creatures. Yet there is also an uneasy feeling among us that all this is not as it should be. The best men seem to be free from such enmities and narrownesses; in the hour of death there are few who retain them, and we sometimes dwell with satisfaction on the hope that in another world they will have passed away. There will be no more Jew or Gentile, Protestant or Catholic, Dissenter or Churchman, master or servant, but all one in Christ Jesus. We know also that our prayers and aspirations cannot in a day change the customs of society; that the deep lines which separate ancient forms of religion will outlast our lifetime. Nor can we say how far political or ecclesiastical measures may be able to effect the union of different religious communions. But one thing is clear that, if such hopes are to be realized at all, a Christian or Catholic spirit must have prepared the way for their fulfilment; then the walls of Jericho may fall down of themselves. And although the prospects of unity and peace in the Church and the world may be far off, yet every one may cherish them in his own heart; and it makes a great difference in our feelings and actions whether we think of a Church one and indivisible, embracing all ages and all races and classes of mankind, or whether our idea of the Christian Church is confined to that visible portion of it in which we worship, and vainly seek amid all varieties of circum stances to force upon a reluctant world.

I purpose in this sermon to speak to you of the spirit of unity, which I shall consider in two ways. First, as it affects our feelings or attitude towards non-Christian races and religions, whether towards the classical nations of antiquity or to the great religions of the East. Both these are in fact very near to us; the literature and history of the classical nations forming the basis of our higher education; the other constantly crossing our path in foreign travel, in commerce, in the fulfilment of political duties. Secondly, I will consider, but on another occasion, the same principle as it touches our relations with other Christian Churches or sects who, equally with ourselves, acknowledge the Christian rule of faith and duty. These are nearer home; their members live among us, often in the same street or house; and the peace and political well-being of the community depends greatly on the feelings which we entertain towards them, and they towards us. But, lest I should weary you by crowding too many important topics into the space of a brief half hour, I will defer the second division of the subject to another day.

In former ages the religion of Christ was the antagonist of every other. Its attitude was necessarily one of hostility to the Gentile world. It waged an interminable war, not only against the vices of the heathen, but against their literature and philosophy. To the first Christians they were ‘knowledge falsely so called,’ and it was even debated among them whether any of the great teachers of antiquity had been saved. Soon the Church began to fight against the world, not with spiritual weapons, but empire against empire, the Pagan empire against the Christian, the Athanasian against the Arian. The struggle was renewed in what is called the conversion of the barbarians. Once more the banner of the Cross was unfurled against the Crescent, and the Moslem was for a time thrust out of the sacred places of Christians. Then, stimulated by victory, the arms of Christians turned upon one another, and for six centuries and more, in the Albigensian crusade, at the time of the Reformation, during the Thirty Years’ War, the history of Christianity has been an almost continuous tale of strife and bloodshed. And, inherited from these conflicts, which are not yet ended, there has been a sentiment or feeling of antipathy to those of a different faith which has sunk deep into human nature. Men have divided the world into heathen and Christian, without considering how much good may have been hidden in the one, or how much of evil may have mingled with the other. They have compared the best part of themselves with the worst of their neighbours, the ideal of Christianity with the corruptions of Greece or the East. They have not aimed at impartiality, but have been contented to accumulate all that could be said in praise of their own, and in dispraise of other forms of religion. At every turn such prejudices meet us, and often in this, as well as in former ages, have had a certain influence in our conduct towards half civilized or barbarous races. To make them Christians might be an object worthy of us, but until they become Christians we seem to have no duties towards them. The same narrow spirit has perverted our notions of education. Persons who had to explain the apparent anomaly of the youth of a Christian country being engaged in the study of the heathen writers, have maintained that the real advantage of a classical education was no more than this, that it teaches us by contrast the superiority of Christianity. Even the word heathen, instead of being regarded according to its etymology as the equivalent of Gentiles or nations, has received what logicians would call a bad connotation. Yet how unnatural is all this, and how unlike the true spirit of the Gospel. Christ Himself is the first teacher of toleration when He says of the prophet who was not numbered among His followers, ‘Forbid him not’; or again, looking for ward to the future ministry of His disciples, ‘Pray for them that persecute you.’ In a similar spirit St. Paul says: ‘Bless them that persecute you, bless and curse not’; and, instead of confining the grace of God to the elect or to the Jewish people, he lays down the broad principle that there is no respect of persons with God, but that, as is elsewhere added, ‘in every nation he that feareth Him and doeth righteously is accepted of Him.’ In the Church, too, of after ages there is a better voice heard at intervals; the corruptions of Christians are condemned by the virtues of heathens. When the truth was forced upon the early Christians that among the Gentiles also there was a faith in a divine mind, and a hope of immortality, and a desire to live above the world, then they began to recognize that here, too, there had been the spirit of God working; they found in Greek philosophy, as in the law and the prophets, a second witness to the truth of the Gospel and another schoolmaster to bring men to Christ. And since there has ceased to be a living antagonism between Christianity and the extinct religions of Greece and Rome, the two have ever been silently intermingling and marrying, so that we can no longer separate them, the old philosophy supplying some instrument of thought or some element of politics or ethics to the Catholic system, until in a Christian country we can scarcely distinguish which portion of the truth has been received by us from a Gentile, which from a Jewish or Christian source.

And so with ourselves, when we travel or read the accounts of travellers in any eastern country; our first impression is something like that of St. Paul when he stood upon the Areopagus, that the people are wholly given to idolatry. We see or read of temples full of idols, of cruel and barbarous rites still practised, of licentiousness in the garb of religion, of a shocking and degrading asceticism. But when we look a little below the surface we find, at any rate in all the great religions of the world, a higher witness still present with them. The conscience of men is not dead; they are feeling after God if haply they may find Him. Just as we often remark about individuals from whom distance or .prejudice has estranged us, that they are much better and more like ourselves than we anticipated before we knew them, so we may observe about these strange religions; as we approach them nearer, we find that they bear the lineaments of a common human nature. Many forms of organization, many disputes about doctrine which we fancied to be peculiar to ourselves, reappear in them. The distinctions of clergy and laity, the institution of monasticism, exist in several of them; the opposition of faith and works, the doctrine of a sacrifice for the sins of men, are not wanting in them. They too have their difficulties about necessity and free will, their reconciliation of philosophy and faith, their attempts to harmonize new thoughts with old writings handed down by tradition, their differences about inspiration; like the East in general, a little caricaturing our more sober Western thoughts; and the art of interpretation has been carried further by them than any of our Western commentators. At every turn the student of Brahmanism or Buddhism or Mahometism, or of the ancient records of Assyria and Egypt, with a thrill of interest comes across some striking parallelism with the language or thoughts of the Old and New Testament, or the practices of the Christian Church; and far more interesting than these parallelisms of literary style or ceremonial is the fact that in every great religion there have been a few who have sought to pierce through the outward forms of religion to its true nature, who, like the prophets in the Old Testament, have seen the truth of Christ under other names, who have cast aside the local and temporal, and rested in the invisible and the eternal.

There is probably no cause now working in the world, neither criticism nor the progress of natural science, nor the power of great political movements, which will so greatly affect the future history of Christianity as our increased acquaintance with other religions. Mankind have lived in comparative isolation hitherto; now knowledge coming from the ends of the earth, and from the most remote ages, pours in upon us like a flood, obscuring some of our ancient landmarks, but also creating in us a sense such as we never had before, that we are one family, to whom God has spoken at sundry times and in divers manners, of whom no one member has been altogether banished or expelled from Him. The mere feeling of this leads us to regard the world under a different aspect, no longer as lying under the shadow of His wrath, but as pitied and accepted of Him; no longer as dwelling in darkness, but with a partial light. The basis on which we rest seems to be firmer and wider than formerly: there are many more witnesses than we supposed to the first principles of religion. And there are other ways in which the knowledge of other creeds enlightens us about our own. Who that has his mind fixed on the great forms of religion which have endured for ages in the East can think much of the petty disputes which sometimes agitate the minds of Christians in our own day, and are carried on with such extraordinary heat and bitterness, concerning the use of a word, a vestment, a posture, a colour? Who can think much of these things, if he reflects on the greater differences which have divided the human race during so many ages, and remembers that the same trivialities which agitate ourselves have been rife in other times and countries? For the corruptions of religion, the illusions of religion, the external form of religion, seem in different degrees to be common to all of them; the true light which lighteth every man coming into the world shines only sparingly and at intervals.

The greatest lesson which the religious history of mankind teaches us is that, laying aside the ceremonial and external, we should cling to the moral and spiritual. For this is the high and permanent element of religion; it is also the element to the recognition of which in its fulness very few attain, and from these few a noble rule of life has been imparted to mankind, and the thoughts of many hearts have been reflected in them. Such a view of religion, instead of dividing the world more and more, is a peacemaker between nations and races; men more easily approach those with whose creed they have some degree of sympathy; they are more readily received by them when they can present them with a truth, not antagonistic to their own better thoughts, but in harmony with them. It is hard to transplant our sects and forms of worship to some Eastern land, to carry thither customs and usages which are familiar to us but have no root in other countries, to convey over the sea an ecclesiastical hierarchy and even the history of the English Church. But it is not really difficult, or at least the difficulty is of another kind, to appeal from the worse to the better nature of men, to quicken the higher thought which lies buried in them, to lead them onward through their own feelings of reverence, not in spite of them. This is missionary work in which every one may engage, and not the ordained minister only, which may be carried on by a private person, giving offence to no one, elevating and purifying the circle in which he moves. And if some one says that the distinctive character of Christianity is thus likely to be lost, and that we are approaching too near to the condemned doctrine ‘that every one shall be saved by the sect which he professeth, provided he be diligent to form his life accordingly,’ we may answer that such was in fact the way in which Jews and Gentiles both alike received the Gospel, not as a truth wholly new or antagonistic to them, but as confirmed by their own religion or philosophy. The law was a schoolmaster to bring men to Christ; and to Him bore all the prophets witness, and the new commandment was an old one. So in other nations there were antecedents of the Christian faith, the growing consciousness of the brotherhood of man kind, the increasing sense of the unity of God. For ideas must be given through something; men cannot in an instant lay aside all their traditions. The old and the new must be harmonized for them; the new wine cannot be put into old bottles, or the new cloth sewed on to old garments. In the second place this wider conception of revelation is forced upon us by a wider experience such as neither the first ages nor any other have possessed hitherto. Thirdly, in what I have said nothing is implied of which the germ is not already contained in many passages of Scripture, such as the words, ‘Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons, but that in every nation he that feareth God and doeth righteousness is accepted of Him.’

Yet higher and more ideal than any outward or visible Church is the invisible, of which our conception is more abstract and distant, and therefore more vacant and shadowy. It is described in the words of the Bidding Prayer as ‘the congregation of faithful men dispersed throughout the world.’ But who they are no eye of man can discern! For the wheat and the tares grow together in this world, and many are called but few are chosen, and many are hearers but not doers of the word, and the first shall be last and the last first; and there are other sheep not of this fold, and there are those who have not seen and yet have believed. There are nominal Christians who are in no sense real Christians; and, on the other hand, in distant lands there are those to whom Christ in His individual person was never known, who, nevertheless, have had the temper of Christ, and in a way of their own have followed Him: all these are included in the invisible Church. It is a great fellowship of those who have lived for others and not for themselves, for the truth and not for the opinion of men only, above the world and not merely in it. It is a communion of souls and of good men everywhere and in all ages, who, if they could have known one another and the Lord, would have acknowledged that they were animated with a common spirit, and would have loved and delighted in one another. And we, too, feel that in the thought of this there is comfort and strength; we rejoice in the consciousness that here in this congregation, and everywhere to the furthest limits of the world, there are those who stand in the same relation towards God which, as we hope, it may be granted to us to attain; and that, as many have gone before, many are coming after to work out His will in this life and in another.

But sometimes there has been a confusion in the minds of men, and they have sought to clothe the visible Church in the attributes of the invisible, or to narrow the invisible Church to the visible. The kingdom of God, which is without, has been lighted up with the glories of the heavenly kingdom, the Church of history has been transformed into the Church of prophecy. For mankind easily perceive that the true ornaments of a church are not gold and silver or any such thing, but the lives of believers; and they fancy that they can infuse into the outward temple some grace and beauty of another sort. So the ancient philosophers intentionally, and also unintentionally, confused the actual or possible constitution of the state regulated by law and custom with that ideal of the perfect state which existed in a dream only, or in the heart of man. So Plato in a well-known passage of the Republic55Plato, Jowett’s Translation, iii. 306., which reminds us of the transitions of the Gospels, may be said to pass from the kingdom of God which is without to the kingdom of God which is within us. At the end of the ninth book of the Republic he says: ‘Then if that be his motive he will not be a statesman?’ ‘By the dog of Egypt (the strange oath of Socrates), by the dog of Egypt he will! in the city which is his own he certainly will, though in the land of his birth, perhaps not, unless he have a divine call.’ ‘I understand,’ is the reply, ‘you mean that he will be ruler in that city of which we are the founders, and which exists in idea only, for I do not believe that there is such an one anywhere on earth.’ ‘In heaven,’ replies Socrates, ‘there is laid up a pattern of it, methinks, which he who desires may behold, and, beholding, may set his house in order.’


« Prev II. Greek and Oriental Religions. Next »

Advertisements


| Define | Popups: Login | Register | Prev Next | Help |