Security for a Failing World
Christianity Builds a Kinder World
CHRIST was born into a world filled with sin. All the evil of ancient Nineveh and Babylon had been gradually seeping through into Syria; had corrupted the Greek civilization; and was now beginning to infect the hitherto sound and sturdy culture of the Roman people. The virtues of primitive peoples — simplicity of living, loyalty, hardiness, hospitality, religious devotion and faithful performance of ethical obligations in the name of religion — had given place to a spiritual apathy, to extreme sensualism, to an attitude of cynicism concerning the claim of any duty. Greed, envy, and hatred held terrible sway upon the hearts of men. The race was to the swift and cunning. Others fell by the way and lay there, as in the story of the good Samaritan, with little chance of help.
This was the world into which Christ came, bringing a message — not new, because spiritual truth is always pristine — but vitally renewing; resurrecting in the hearts of men the ancient truths of simplicity, of faith, of charity.
2It was not easy for Christ, with all his spiritual potency, to make saints out of His disciples. Peter,
giving way to anger and violence in the garden of Gethsemane, overcome with fear and disloyalty at the trial of Christ; John, apostle of love, urging Christ to call down from heaven fiery battalions of angels to consume their enemies, — hardly could we recognize in these disciples the glorious devotees they were later to become when the leaven planted in them by their Teacher had had time to work and bring about amazing results of character development. The episodes during the lifetime and mission of Christ form but an introduction to the colossal work of developing Christian living, of slowly forming Christian communities in the Mediterranean world.
3It is fascinating to trace in The Acts and in the letters of Paul and the other apostles the work which these men did in planting, developing, and training the early Christian communities.
Paul, the flaming apostle, introduces a new psychology, a psychology as efficacious as it is true. It had been known to esoteric groups among the Greeks, followers of the Orphic and Eleusinian mysteries. It had been perceived and expounded by Plato. But Paul gave to the whole world this great and pregnant truth, that man has a dual nature.
In one aspect man belongs to the world of the animal and tends to be bestial. On the other hand,
by reason of his spiritual heritage man tends toward the world of angelic perfection. He has that within him which enables him to be patient, to be self-restrained, to be charitable, to be self-sacrificing, to give his life in loving service to others.
These two diverse beings Paul calls the carnal and the spiritual man; and his gospel consists chiefly in the exhortation to avail oneself of the aid of the Christos for the all-important task of putting off the garment of carnality and putting on the garment of spirituality. He urges the overcoming of the flesh, with all its disintegrating impulses.
If in this doctrine there was too much of asceticism, this fault is to be laid to the personality of Paul rather than to the teaching of Christ. Yet perhaps even an excess of asceticism had its function in a world so completely given over to evil and to sensualism.
4"Howbeit that was not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural; and afterward that which is spiritual. The first man is of the earth, earthy; the second man is the Lord from heaven. As is the earthy, such are they also that are earthy; and as is the heavenly, such are they also that are heavenly. And as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly. Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit
the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption."
"This I say then, walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary the one to the other; so that ye cannot do the things that ye would. But if ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these: Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness. Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies. Envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like; of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance."
Thus does Paul train his flock, directing them, exhorting them, encouraging them in ways of nobler living-always the true psychologist, man of insight into human as well as divine truths.
5The apostle James emphasizes another aspect of spiritual living — the development of character by action rather than by ecstasy. Like his co-appelate of nineteen centuries later (William James, the psychologist)
his ethical message is to transform emotion into action, aspiration into deeds of kindness. Religion is not an end in itself — only a means to illimitable degrees of character growth. What we become, not what we believe, is the justification of our faith and the salvation of our souls.
"Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, and receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls. But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves. For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass : — For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was. But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed. If any man among you claims to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue but deceiveth his own heart, this man's religion is in vain. Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this:--to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world."
"My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons. For if there come unto your assembly a man with a gold ring, in goodly apparel, and there come in also a poor man in vile raiment, and ye have respect
to him that weareth the gay clothing and say unto him, 'Sit thou here in a good place,' and say to the poor, 'Stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool': — are ye not then partial in yourselves, and are become judges of evil thoughts? Hearken, my beloved brethren, hath not God chosen the poor of this world rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which He hath promised to them that love Him? But ye have despised the poor. Do not rich men oppress you, and draw you before the judgment seats? Do not they blaspheme that worthy name by the which ye are called? If you fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, 'Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,' ye do well."
James gives a characteristically Hebrew denunciation of the rich and powerful who exploit the poor--a vivid picture of economic evils of his day — a picture and a prophecy which might apply to the Twentieth Century: — "Go to, now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you. Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver is cankered; and the rust of them shall be a witness against you, and shall eat your flesh as it were fire. Ye have heaped treasure together for the last days. Behold, the hire of the laborers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth:--and the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth. Ye have lived in pleasure on the earth, and been wanton;
ye have nourished your hearts, as in a day of slaughter. Ye have condemned and killed the just; and he doth not resist you."
6John's message is one of love and good will. He offers as his contribution toward nobler living an exhortation to his Christian communicants to express to their fellowmen some of that love which Christ has shown toward them.
This was to prove a very moving doctrine, one which during the next two thousand years was powerfully to stir the hearts and consciences of men. It was perhaps the keystone in the noble arch of Christian ethics through which were to march whole tribes and races of wild and semi-savage people. The figure of the Christ practicing always love and forgiveness and finally giving His life upon the cross has made a more vivid appeal to the ethical consciousness of the human race than any theological claims of religion. Many a man proud in his cruel strength was to find his character transformed into charity and gentleness as this penetrative power of the Christ — love went down the ages, melting men's hearts as the sun melts icy crags in spring.
"My little children, this write I unto you, that ye sin not. And hereby. we do know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. He that saith, 'I know Him,' and keepeth not His commandments,
is a liar and the truth is not in him. But whoso keepeth His word, in him verily is the love of God perfected; hereby know we that we are in Him. He that saith he abideth in Him ought himself also so to walk, even as He walked.
"Brethren, I write no new commandment unto you, but an old commandment which ye had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word which ye have heard from the beginning. Again, a new commandment I write unto you, which thing is true in him and in you: — because the darkness is past, and the true light now shineth. He that saith he is in the light, and hateth his brother, is in darkness even until now. He that loveth his brother abideth in the light, and there is none occasion of stumbling in him. But he that hateth his brother is in darkness, and walketh in darkness, and knoweth not whither he goeth, because that darkness hath blinded his eyes.
"Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof; but he that doeth the will of God abideth forever."
"And this is God's commandment: That we should believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ,
and love one another, as He gave us commandment. And he that keepeth His commandments dwelleth in Him and He in him. And hereby we know that He abideth in us, by the Spirit which He hath given us."
"For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments: and His commandments are not grievous. For whatsoever is born of God over-cometh the world: and this is the victory that over-cometh the world, even our faith. — And we know that we are of God, and the whole world lieth in wickedness."
7All of the apostles, in striving to train these little groups of early Christians, emphasized the necessity of keeping one's self "unspotted from the world." Particularly did they urge the importance of considering the body as the temple of the spirit, and of preserving its purity and integrity.
And what a need there was for some effective doctrine of purity! For paganism was permeated with sexual depravity similar to that traditionally associated with the cities of Gomorrah and Sodom. Sexual laxity and indulgence was eating like a cancer into the core of the vitality of the Mediterranean culture. It had ruined the Greeks and was now reaching into the very heart of the Roman world,
vitiating its ancient moralities and starting a current of degeneracy which Pagan moralists were unable to stem. (Is there not a similar decadence in sex-morality pervading the civilization of today?)
Now in the midst of all this evil there began to grow up little communities holding ideals dazzling in their beauty of spiritual love and chastity.
The ideals were there in shining glory. But it took several generations for even these Christian communities to manifest real purity of living. This they did achieve in time, by dint of utter segregation from the current of life of the Pagan world about them.
There was no possibility of reforming the Pagan world. Therefore the injunction of the apostles to their little flocks was to withdraw from the life of the world. The Christian communicants must begin to lead new lives wholly distinct from the Pagan life about them. They must be born not of the flesh but of the spirit. They must endeavor to live the Christ-life — relying for help, in their pilgrim's progress, upon prayer and a sense of unity with the Christos.
What a marvelous appeal the message of the Nazarene made to the innate spark of nobility in every man and woman! The poor, the downtrodden, the sensualist, the drunkard heard it and responded. Many in positions of social superiority, of wealth, of luxury, heard it and became attached.
Gradually complete little communities grew up, isolating themselves from the Pagan life about them.
Communities well-balanced; economically self-sufficing; representative of every strata of society, of various vocations, of various degrees of wealth.
Harmoniously and perfectly these early Christians learned to live together, in their common love for Christ and their earnest desire to follow in His steps.
No such vital endeavor toward character-growth is recorded in all the world's history, unless it be in similar communities of the early Buddhist church. Nobility of action became with them a habit, nobility of soul an acquirement constantly joy-giving.
8Humanitarian institutions began to blossom out in these communities as a direct expression of the Christian doctrine of the love of God and man. The early Christians put forth every endeavor to bring it about that their communal life satisfied the ideals of service and cooperation which their souls acknowledged as divine truth.
Committees were formed for the care of the sick and needy: committees to distribute food and necessities to the poor; institutions to care for the orphans and widows.
In these Christian circles no longer did the law of the jungle hold — that the race was to the swift and that the devil could take the hindermost. Now a livelihood was assured to every communicant. No one should suffer dire want while others possessed abundance. In the name of God the Father and of
Christ the Son, all members of the living Church were knit together in a brotherhood as efficacious in practice as it was glorious in concept.
9At first these benevolent practices of the early Christians had to be carried on in secret because of the persecutions to which Christians were liable. But as the rigor of these persecutions lessened and a general Pagan tolerance developed, we find the Christians manifesting their kind deeds in a more public way.
Soon their unique humanitarian works began to attract the attention of Roman moralists. "We must," they said, "emulate the benevolence of the Christians if we would prevent this sect from growing to the point of absorbing the whole Pagan world!"
These writers realized that the universal practice of love and service which characterized Christian communities was proving a very tempting attraction to Pagan peoples in whose midst these Christians existed; especially attractive to all who were in suffering or misfortune. These charitable practices formed one of the chief factors of the rapid spread, during the second and third centuries after Christ, of the doctrine of the Nazarene.
"Galen the Greek physician and philosopher who lived in the second century A. D. wrote a treatise upon the civilization of nations. He was not a
Christian but he has borne testimony that religious beliefs exercise an extraordinary effect upon the problems of civilization. In substance he says, 'There are certain people among us, followers of Jesus the Nazarene who was killed in Jerusalem. These people are truly imbued with moral principles which are the envy of philosophers. They believe in God and fear Him. They have hopes in His favors; therefore they shun all unworthy deeds and actions and incline to praiseworthy ethics and morals. Day and night they strive that their deeds may be commendable and that they may contribute to the welfare of humanity; therefore each one of them is virtually a philosopher, for these people have attained unto that which is the essence and purport of philosophy. These people have praiseworthy morals even though they may be illiterate.'"
10It was far easier for the Christians to practice moral living than for Pagans even possessing the highest ideals. For the Christians had that greatest of aids to ethical living — the motivation of religion. They believed that they possessed, each one, an immortal soul; that this soul was their real self; that the proper development of the soul was the chief aim of life upon this planet; that all their deeds here built into character which is soul-structure and would bear fruit in one way or another in the future life. This pitiful handful of years forming their
destiny upon this planet was of infinitesimal value, they thought, compared to the great stretch of eternity which lay before them. How childish, how foolish, how even tragic, therefore, to waste the rich spiritual opportunities of this life in riotous or selfish living and thus incur immense liabilities toward the future existence!
Therefore the Christians, prompted by the most efficacious moral motives which anyone can have--the love of God and the desire to grow more perfect — endeavored to express righteousness in all their thoughts and deeds. They knew that the greatest reward for doing right is to grow more noble and more near to God; and that the greatest punishment for doing evil is to grow more evil and more densely veiled from that Truth which the Initiated know as Love.
11Compare this noble path of progress onward and upward forever with the doctrine which held the lives of the contemporaneous Pagans. "Carpe diem!" sang Horace. "Let us seize the day, spend it in profligacy, enjoy ourselves, make merry, for we know not what the morrow will bring!" So the pagan world of today in our great cities (replicas of the ancient Babylon) have as their motto: "We are a long time dead! Let's live while we live!" Such tends to become the guiding motive in the lives of those who have no belief in future existence. Rewards and punishments are not clearly seen to follow
in kind, in this brief existence here. Although a few of the dishonest become detected and punished, others flourish like the green bay tree; have beautiful homes in city and country; travel widely and mingle with the leading people of the world; in fact, possess all that the heart of man longs for as regards material things. On the other hand, men of principle who stand for truth regardless of what sacrifice it may cost are often seen to lead lives extremely limited and impoverished as regards external circumstances.
Thus to the crass materialist the moral of it all is to seize the most one can of the life about one today. Be a "good fellow"; be loyal to your friends and ruthless to your enemies; capture all you can of this world's goods and let the morrow take care of itself — this is the creed of the soulless. The greatest moralist in the world would pour out his words in utter futility upon the hearts and consciences of such as these.
What is to save this paganistic world of today? A world without faith, without guidance, without moral standards! A despairing world seeking in pleasures of the senses an anodyne to doubt!
12Into the sensualistic materialism of the pagan Roman world the vivid faith of the early Christians irrupted like a volcanic stream burning its way and purging the countryside of evil. Finally this stream of Living Force overpowered the great Roman Empire
until we find the whole Mediterranean world flooded and dominated by it.
In 325 A. D. Christianity became the state religion of Rome. For the next few centuries its work is not mainly that of proselyting, but that of trying to salvage the broken forces of what had once been so powerful an Empire. Totally lacking in unity and coherence because of the terrible exploitation, greed, and cruelty which was practiced on every hand, the Roman Empire fell in 410 A. D. before the onslaught of a fresh, a vigorous, and a morally wholesome race — the Teutons.
And now Christianity is able not only to bind up the wounds of the fallen, but also to conquer the conquerers. Its doctrine of the gentle Savior, the good Shepherd, the glorious Messiah giving His life upon the cross — this sacrificial doctrine produced a miraculous effect upon these vigorous Teutons who had known only aggression and force in their lives. Miraculously that tremendous tide of violence which secular Rome could not stem spiritual Rome was able to capture and to guide. Out from Rome then went missionaries to all quarters of Europe, permeating the very heart of the Teutonic world, putting an end to cruel Druid rites, softening savage hearts and winning whole tribes to Christ.
Meanwhile education and culture, which had fallen into decay, were resurrected in the monasteries and clerical communities. It was the Church which kept alive learning during those Dark Ages. It was the Church which held before the people ideals of kindness, of tenderness to the suffering, of chastity, of service.
13But now a strange thing happens. Christianity in conquering the world was spending and losing much of its vital force. The farther it spread out the more attenuated became its vitality as regards its power to change morals and to sanctify human emotions. Saintly lives become the exception rather than the rule.
As centuries slip by, the vitality of this great faith seems to be growing feebler and feebler. Religion, which had been the chief unifying force of Europe, becomes weak in its hold; while politics and commerce more and more absorb man's attention and will-power.
The farther we get away from the century of its origin, the more lifeless do we find Christianity becoming. Its doctrines are not now the guiding force among masses of people. Nationalism, the new religion, has taken its place. We find the church divided, broken up, expressing too much the thought of the world and too little the thought of Christ. Whatever country breaks forth into war, we find the Church in that country lending itself to such aggression. We find the individual church hesitant, almost utterly negligent, in the face of grave social and economic ills in its midst. True, the church still attempts to ameliorate the lives of the poor, but it makes no attempt to prevent their exploitation by the powerful. The Church has become an appendage of Caesar, rather than an appendage of Christ.
14Interrupting this general decadent trend of the Christian faith, there appear from time to time vivid eruptions of a volcanic force similar to that which prevailed universally in the early days of Christianity. Thus we behold a succession of great spiritual reformers, who by charging their own lives from the cosmic battery of Christ's spirit are able to charge the lives of many thousands and millions of followers, not only contemporaneous but for many decades or even centuries.
We see St. Francis of Assisi rise from his dead dissolute self to a life of extreme saintliness, founding the Order of the Franciscans which became the chief expression for centuries of that charity and service which so strongly characterized early Christianity.
We see Ignatius Loyola — a nobleman turned saint and consecrating his life to the service of the Church and of humanity — lay the foundations of the most powerful religious order known to Christendom, the Jesuits, who were to achieve work of enormous scope in the field of world-wide proselyting and education.
We see Martin Luther and John Calvin shake all Europe with the force of a religious zeal that feeds direct upon the Gospels, reverting from a corrupt ecclesiasticism to the original teachings of the Christ. We see their inspired religious thinking lead to the overturning of thrones, to the establishment of the idea of social and political democracy, and finally
to the founding of a great nation dedicated at its inception to righteousness and to God.
We see John Fox — a common man whose life expresses the miraculous, the saintly, the apostolic--following his Inner Light and founding the sect of Quakers who were to display a conscience and a heart superior for decades, nay, for centuries, to those of any other sect of Christendom. (There was scarcely a French traveler to England during the Eighteenth Century who did not report that the Quakers were the most interesting group of people to be seen there.) We see Quakers instituting vast humanitarian reforms; putting an end to the world's slave trade and then abolishing slavery; bringing about prison reform in England; compelling a more decent treatment of the insane; establishing the doctrine and practice of universal free public education.
It is worthy of note that the important reform movements of the Nineteenth Century were not so much the result of a general moral evolution as they
were the expression of a particular spiritual enlightenment and zeal. It took a great deal of effort, of sacrifice, of ridicule, and even of persecution to effect these reforms. Only a religious fervor such as animated the Quakers was able to create a force sufficient to fight against the current evils of the epoch, before which communicants of other churches stood neutral or resistless.
15Many other vital reform movements have arisen within the Christian Church. Many noble qualities enter into our daily lives today as the result of two thousand years of Christian indoctrination. Earnest missionary zeal gives evidence of a great deal of religious vitality still left in Christendom.
But has the institution founded upon the message of Christ — the present Christian Church — sufficient spiritual power to eliminate the organic evils of the world? To ban war, to suppress economic exploitation, and to establish universal peace and brotherhood? Has it the capacity and vitality to inaugurate a world-wide ideal civilization?
Or must we await a new spiritual dynamic — more potent, more universal, more capable of winning the allegiance of all races, creeds, and nations?