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FRANCES POWER COBBE.
From “Broken Lights: An Inquiry into the present Condition and future Prospects of Religious Faith.” Boston, 1864. P. 150 ff.
This is a spirited and interesting book, on the present aspect of religious controversy in England, by an English lady, admirer and follower of Theodore Parker. Miss Cobbe is disposed to attribute the supernatural portions of the gospel history, “if not to the invention, yet, at least, to the exaggerating homage, of adoring disciples; proceeding stage after stage to magnify the prophet into the Messiah, the Messiah into the Son of God, and the Son of God into the incarnate Logos,—himself a God” (p. 155). She speaks highly of Renan’s “Life of Jesus,” as transcending, “for power and skill, for vivid presentation of all the outward conditions of the life of Christ, all older books on the subject, heterodox or orthodox.” But she justly objects, that after all, in his principal figure, Renan has failed, owing to his semi-pantheistic standpoint, which ignores the personality of God as our moral Lord, with whom our souls must have the actual and real transactions of repentance, forgiveness, regeneration. She intimates, that “the treatment of a subject essentially spiritual, from a merely moral and æsthetic point of view, must inevitably be a failure” (p. 150). In many passages of the “Vie de Jésus,” she remarks (pp. 150, 151), “The intrusion of esthetic criticism into the profoundest penetralia of religion, is, in the last degree, painful, and surely must be held to betray a very slight sense of the sanctity of the ideas subjected to such criticism. That the story of the prodigal could be styled 'a délicieuse parabole,’ and Christ’s pity for the repentant Magdalenes be spoken of as a ’jalousie pour la gloire de son Père dans ces belles créatures,’ seems almost to reveal the inability of the speaker to comprehend the divinest thing in Christ,—his treatment of sin.” The question, therefore, still recurs: “What think ye of Christ? whose son is he? who and what was that great Prophet who trod the fields of Palestine nineteen centuries ago, and who has ever since been worshiped as a God by the foremost nations of the world?” Miss Cobbe then proceeds to give her own views of Christ from what she calls “the standpoint of Theism,” which, however, differs very widely from the Theism of the Bible, and is only a new phase of Deism and Naturalism, enlivened and improved by modern philanthropy and religious sentimentalism. We select the more striking passages as testimonies of a misguided but noble and highly gifted soul, groping in the dark after the unknown Saviour.
“The four Gospels have given us so living, if not so correct, an image, and that image has shone out so long in golden radiance before the dazzled eyes of Christendom, that to admit it may be partially erroneous is the utmost stretch of our philosophy. We still persist in arguing and debating as if it were absolutely perfect. Small marvel, truly, is it so, when even the confessed creations of the poet’s genius—a Hamlet or a Lear—become to us real persons on whom we argue and debate. Who shall say how real is that ideal Christ whom all of us hold in our hearts, whom nearly all of us have worshiped on our knees? . . .
“Of that noblest countenance which once smiled upon the plains of Palestine, we possess not, nor will mankind ever recover, any perfect and infallible picture, any sun-drawn photograph which might tell us, with unerring certainty, he was or lie was not as our hearts may conceive of him. Rather do we only look sorrowfully over the waves of time to behold reflected therein some such faint and wavering image as his face may have cast on the Lake of Galilee, as he leaned at eventide from the ship of his disciples over the waters, stirred and rippling before the breeze. Some features too often recur to leave us altogether mistaken concerning them, and the impression of the whole countenance is one 'full of grace and truth.’ But of the details we can decide nothing, nor pretend to speak of them as clear or assured.
“One thing, however, we may hold with approximate certainty; and that is, that all the highest doctrines, the purest moral precepts, the most profound spiritual revelations, recorded in the Gospels, were actually those of Christ himself. The originator of the Christian movement must have been the greatest soul of his time, as of all time. If he did not speak those words of wisdom, who could have recorded them for him? ‘It would have taken a Jesus to forge a Jesus.’ (Theodore Parker.) . . .
“That in him who assuredly possessed the deepest spiritual experience, and reached the highest spiritual eminence of all the sons of men, his disciples should have embodied the spiritual history of all humanity, is not a matter of surprise. It may be that his life did pass through all the phases of the inner world. It may be that there was a day when the first sense of independent religion awoke in his yet childish heart, and he asked his parent, ‘Wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?’ It may be there was a long period of lonely thought and ascetic practice upon those desolate, burning hills of the Quarantania, closing at last with the same fierce strife, with tempting passions and interests, which every strong soul has undergone, and every saint has ended with the same victorious word, ‘Get thee behind me, Satan!’ It may be there was an hour of transfiguration, when his soul became glorified in the full splendor of God’s love, and the spirits of the holy dead seemed not more heavenly than his own. It may be there was a dread night in Gethsemane, when the first warfare of the temptation had to be won again wit harder strife, and deeper prayers, and fast-falling tears of blood, till it, too, closed in victory, still holier and more complete,—‘Not my will, but Thine, be done.’ It may be there was one darkest moment of all, when, in the fainting agony of the cross, God hid his face, withdrew the conscious Presence which could make all torture endurable, and left him to that uttermost trial which wrung forth the cry (the bitterest which ever broke from human lips), ‘My God, my God! why hast thou forsaken me?’ It may be that the dread darkness of the passion passed away; and, as the end drew on, the Christ knew that his Father’s work, begun so long ago in the temple, was accomplished, and that his Father’s love should be his portion for ever; that not now Moses and Elias, but the poor crucified thief beside him, should that day be with him in Paradise; that he might pray for his cruel foes, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,’ and then look back over his whole life’s task, and bow his head, and say, ‘It is finished!’
“It may be that all these things were absolutely true; that, in the life of Jesus, the great Allegory of Humanity was a real fact taking place under the sun. We can believe that so it was; or, if not, then that it had another and more spiritual reality in the souls of those millions who have ever since recognized it as bearing an eternal truth under the vail of holiest parable.
“But, whether these or any other passages in the life of Jesus be or be not historically true, we yet possess a means of forming an estimate of his character independently of them. We may ‘measure him by his shadow: nay, rather say by the light he has cast on the world.’ We may judge what great results he effected by his words and his life. What was the world before his time? what has it been since? In these inquiries, we can not go very far wrong. The broad and general facts of the results of the Christian movement are clear enough, and do not depend on questions of authenticity or veracity of special books. Let us obtain the measure of the change introduced into the world by Christianity, and we shall, at the same time, obtain the best measure of the greatness of Christ. . . .
“The greatness of the sovereign, the statesman, the economist, the commander, the metaphysician, the man of learning, the scientific discoverer, the poet, the historian, the artist,—not one of these forms of outward, and, as we might say, tangible greatness, belonged in any degree to Christ. It is altogether in the inward world that we must find the traces of his work, and take the measure of his altitude. But here we may greatly err also; for there are many different aspects in which the inward world may be regarded. A moral reformer is one thing, a spiritual regenerator another,—a very different one. Because the exalted spirituality of Christ included (as, alas! lesser spiritual eminence has not always done) a transcendentally pure morality, it has happened that those who have regarded him from the rationalist side, and sought to give him the peculiar human dignity he deserved, have commonly fixed their attention on his moral teachings, and have proclaimed him the supreme moral reformer of the world. He was so, indeed; but he was surely something more. . . .
“If we admit the truth of all this, then it appears that the fact of regeneration must be admitted to be the most important of all the phenomena of the moral world. Nothing else can compare with it for influence on the whole life and character of man. In judging; then, of the greatness of such a religious teacher as Christ, this one most important fact must not be left out of sight. We must not pass over it, and inquire only of his ethics or his theology. We must ask, Had he influence in this matter also? Did he do aught toward aiding mankind to take that one greatest step,—from the unregenerate to the regenerate life?
“Now, it would appear, that, if we actually estimate Christ by the influence he has had in the life of humanity, we shall find that it is precisely here that we come on the largest traces of his work. Taking the whole ancient world in comparison with the modern, of the heathen with the Christian, the general character of the two is absolutely analogous to that which in individuals we call unregenerate and regenerate. Of course, there were thousands of regenerated souls,—Hebrew, Greek, Indian,—of all nations and languages, before Christ. Of course, there are millions unregenerate now. But nevertheless, from this time onward, we trace through history a new spirit in the world,—a leaven working through the whole mass of souls. In the old world, all was complete after its kind: man fulfilled his own ideal, and did that which he aimed to do of beautiful, noble, and devoted. In the new world, nothing is complete, but all is straining upward after God and an unattainable perfection of holiness. The language of the old world, speaking to us through its art, its poetry, its philosophy, is all the same: ‘It is well to create the beautiful, to discover the true, to live out the good and noble. I have created beauty, discovered truth, lived out the good and noble.’ The language of the new world, coming to us through the thousand tongues of our multiform civilization, is one long cry of longing aspiration: ‘Would that I could create the ineffable beauty! Would that I could discover the eternal and absolute truth! Would, oh, would it were possible to live out the good, the noble, and the holy!’
“The old world grew from without, and was outwardly symmetric. The new one grows from within, and is not symmetric, nor ever will be; bearing in its heart the germ of an everlasting, unresting progress. The old world built its temples, hewed its statues, framed its philosophies, and wrote its glorious epics and dramas, so that nothing might evermore be added to them. The new world makes its art, its philosophy, its poetry, all imperfect, yet instinct with a living spirit beyond the old. To the Parthenon not a stone could be added from the hour of its completion. To Milan and Cologne, altar and chapel, statue and spire, will be added through the ages.
“This great phenomenon of history surely points to some corresponding great event, whereby the revolution was accomplished. There must have been a moment when the old order stopped and the new began. Some action must have taken place upon the souls of men, which thenceforth started them in a different career, and opened the age of progressive life. When did this moment arrive? What was the primal act of the endless progress? By whom was that age opened?
“Here we have really ground to go upon. There is no need to establish the authenticity or veracity of special books, or harmonize discordant narratives, to obtain an answer to our question. The whole voice of human history, unconsciously and without premeditation, bears its unmistakable testimony. The turning-point between the old world and the new was the beginning of the Christian movement. The action upon human nature, which started it on its new course, was the teaching and example of Christ. Christ was he who opened the age of endless progress.
“The view, therefore, which seems to be the sole fittings one for our estimate of the character of Christ, is that which regards him as the great regenerator of humanity. His coming was, to the life of humanity, what regeneration is to the life of the individual. This is not a conclusion doubtfully deduced from questionable biographies, but a broad, plain inference from the universal history of our race. We may dispute all details; but the grand result is beyond criticism. The world has changed, and that change is historically traceable to Christ. The honor, then, which Christ demands of us, must be in proportion to our estimate of the value of such regeneration. He is not merely a moral reformer, inculcating pure ethics; not merely a religious reformer, clearing away old theological errors, and teaching higher ideas of God. These things he was; but he might, for all we can tell, have been them both as fully, and yet have failed to be what he has actually been to our race. He might have taught the world better ethics and better theology, and yet have failed to infuse into it that new life which has ever since coursed through its arteries and penetrated its minutest veins. What Christ has really done is beyond the kingdom of the intellect and its theologies; nay, even beyond the kingdom of the conscience, and its recognition of duty. His work has been in that of the heart. He has transformed the law into the gospel. He has changed the bondage of the alien for the liberty of the sons of God. He has glorified virtue into holiness, religion into piety, and duty into love. . . .
“When the fullness of time had come, and the creeds of the world’s childhood were worn out, and the restless question was on every lip, ‘Who will show us any good?' when the whole heart of humanity was sick of its sin, and weary of its wickedness,—then God gave to one man, for mankind at large, that same blessed task he gives to many for a few. Christ, the elder brother of the human family, was the helper and (in the highest philosophic sense) the Saviour of humanity. . . .
“The manner in which Christ achieved the regeneration of the world, who shall now decide? Was it only by his great, holy words; telling men that God was the Father of all,—of the just as of the unjust,—the forgiving Parent of the prodigal; the Shepherd who would follow the wanderer even unto the utmost verge of the wilderness of his wickedness, and bring him home at last with rejoicing? Was it thus, and by telling man that to love God and his neighbor fulfilled all the law and the prophets,—was it thus that Christ touched the heart of the world? Or was it by his life, so pure and holy, that men saw, as in a visible parable, what it meant to be God’s beloved Son,—to be one with the Father, even as all men should be one with him? Was it thus that Christ awoke in human nature the unutterable yearning after such sonship and such unity with God? Or was it that words and life all found their crown and end in his martyr death,—that death which transformed for ever the world’s ideal of glory, and made for all time the cross of agony and sacrifice the type of somewhat so far above all earthly power and joy, that men ceased to deem it human, and adored it as divine? Was it on that cross Christ won the regeneration of the world?
“We know not: it concerns us not to know. One thing we must believe,—that he to whom was committed such a work, he to whom such a part was assigned in the drama of history by its great Author, must have been spiritually of transcendent excellence. Of ordinary genius, or powers of any kind, he may have had less or more; but of those hidden faculties by which the highest religious truths are reached, and of that fervent loyalty by which the soul is fitted to receive divine instruction,—of these Christ must have had a superabundant share. Strictly to define his spiritual rank, he must surely have been the man who best fulfilled all the conditions under which God grants his inspiration.
“Such are the views of Christ and his work which would appear most consonant with a Theism which holds by the absolute unity of God, and the unchangeableness of his natural and spiritual laws, but which, nevertheless, admits all the great facts of the religious experience of mankind, and seeks for their legitimate explanation. It is precisely in the interests of such Theism that the views of Christ’s character should be thus exalted; and he who deems to serve its cause by underrating him must surely be in error. God is best honored by the glad admission, that the man who has most deeply moved humanity was most fully inspired by his spirit. The regularity of his laws is best vindicated by the assertion, that it was not by any accidental synchronism of a corrupted and falling civilization, with the appearance of a specially gifted thaumaturgus, that the greatest moral revolution was accomplished, but rather by the providential mission, in the fullness of time, of that holiest soul whose fire was able to kindle in the hearts of man a flame which shall never be extinguished. The spiritual greatness of Christ is the necessary postulate for the whole rationalist theory of religion. Denying it, we leave the standing miracle of Christianity wholly unaccountable, or to be accounted for only on the exorbitant hypothesis of supernaturalism.”
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