The Creed of Christendom
The Theosophist, July, 1888
“The fairy tale of the three supernatural persons, woman can verify.”—Matthew Arnold.
Three centuries ago, the main tide of thought which distinguishes the modern world from previous epochs, was ushered in by Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum and the method of Induction.
Under the banner of experiment then raised, we have marched triumphantly forward for three hundred years.
On every hand the earth is strewn with trophies of our victories; iron roads have spread their network over the globe, we have harnessed to our chariots an agni more powerful than any in the Arabian Nights; the lightning caries our domestic news round the world; across the ocean even we may hear the voice of a friend.
But this triumphal march through Nature’s domains has not taken place without stamping its effects deep on the thought and character of the modern world.
We have carried the banner of experiment so long that it has ingrained itself m our nature; everything must be tried and tested before we can give it our allegiance.
As surely as water finds its level, so surely does a new element introduced into human thought expand and spread till it has found a place in every corner of the mind.
This tide of experimentalism, with its irresistible tendency for examining and arranging, has already spread into many strange books, revolutionizing all things by its solvent power.
In the world. of literature its influence has been potent; under the strong light it casts into the remotest regions, has vanished Homers claim to the authorship of Homer, has vanished Shakespeare’s claim to his own plots, the claim of old Roman History to be history at all.
In other fields of knowledge, the magic touch of experiment has worked similar transformations.
Its advance became so general, that at last the incoming tide could no longer be kept back from regions even the most sacred and august.
At last even our religion, and the God we worshipped, could no longer escape the test of this universal touchstone. In our wide roamings and expeditions through the broad fields of nature, we had imbibed certain ideas, of order, of symmetry, continuity, and cohesion.
Our conception of the Universe had shaken into shape; had assumed a certain regularity and form.
But with this conception, that other interpretation of the universe known to us as “theology” could not be brought accurately to fit.
We became conscious of a certain awkwardness and crampedness.
Loving the old and yet unwilling to abandon the new, we endeavoured to make the inequalities and discrepancies disappear; but strain as we would, we could not bring the two views into harmony. When our experimentalism led us first to probe the depths of starry space, we proclaimed aloud the glory of the heavens as a fitting illumination of the Mosaic account of creation; but we finally came to the Nebular hypothesis, ruling Moses and Genesis out of court altogether.
So in the region of Natural History. We began by fortifying the cosmogony of Genesis with comparisons of Genesis and Geology, of the Book and the Rocks; and ended with the Darwinian evolution theory, which abolished the Creation and old Father Adam along with it.
These outworks of religion, so to speak, were the first to be attacked.
But after hovering thus on the outskirts of Theology for a while, pausing and hesitating before entering the Holy of Holies, awe-struck like the Gaul before the throned majesty of the Roman senators,—our acquired momentum carried us irresistibly onwards.
Even the Holy of Holies was doomed to invasion; there were no Olympian thunderbolts to hurl the rash intruder from the steps of the temple; the invading horde swarmed into the sanctuaries, and in the most sacred place of all was found—What?
The conclusion of the intruders is summed up in these words: “The fairy-tale of the three supernatural persons, no man can verify!”
From this conclusion no sudden and direful results followed: the temple was not torn down, nor its site made a desolation; those who had entered the temple returned from it again, and the worshippers continued as before to pay honour to the empty shrine.
And this was as it was, because a certain tardiness or inertia has always characterised the human mind, has characterised preeminently those Germanic nations which now lead the world. Heaven has gifted them and us with a dull imagination.
The effect of this quality, which has been absent from no period of history, shows itself in the extreme slowness with which we realise the full extent to which some theory or idea we have espoused may eventually carry us.
Not till near two thousand years after Ptolemy had attracted straws by rubbed amber, did we think of putting our amber or sulphur on an axis, and making an electric machine.
Thunder storms had been going on for geologic ages before Franklin sent up his kite and tamed the lightning.
This inertia, or sluggishness of imagination, has carried us over many a crisis in human history, and will carry us safely through all the changes which must inevitably follow the full realisation of the fact that “the fairy tale of the three supernatural persons no man can verify.”
Great changes must follow, but this inertia insures that their operation will be as gradual as the changes of nature herself.
Nature, it is true, ha her cataclysms, and in history we have their counterparts, as, the French revolution; but nature prefers to build a tree by the addition of microscopic cells and to wear away a mountain by rain drops and zephyr-breaths.
And yet, though the whole of Christendom, and those Germanic nation to which we belong, in particular, may take years and even centuries to adjust themselves to the new order of events, by careful analysis and comparison we may be able to see, at least dimly, what form this new order will take when it arrives.
All we require is a sufficient number of facts to base our inducion upon, and a wide enough field of view to correct possible irregularities and to include possible variations.
By these observations the astronomer can map out the comet’s orbit, months before it is traversed, and so, by an adequate series of observations and comparisons we may map out the orbits of history.
When the tide of experimentalism flowing towards theological dogmas had produced the conclusion that the “fairy tale of the three supernatural persons, no man could verify,” we were led to annex the corollary that whoever had first given in their adherence to this belief, had done so without due evidence and on insufficient grounds; we were consequently driven to put it aside altogether from our mental baggage, pending further information.
This “fairy tale of the three persons” however does not stand alone; It has worked itself into all our thoughts, ideas, and institutions; and is no isolated fact like the authorship of the Homeric poems, which may be decided one way or the other without any particular result. This doctrine of the Trinity is no lonely desert-obelisk, which may either stand or fall without any one being the wiser or the worse; but is like the pillars of the house of the Philistines thrown to the ground by Samson; when this falls, the whole house falls with it.
The simile, however is ill-omened; for let us hope that in its fall dogmatic Christianity may not overwhelm more than all its life has seen destroyed.
This doctrine of the Trinity is the foundation stone on which the whole edifice of dogmatic theology rests.
When the Germanic nations, having set aside the old medæval notions of their religion, were compelled to formulate confessions of faith, and creeds of things to be believed by all devout Christians, this doctine always took the first and principal place; as in the first of the thirty-nine articles of the Church of England. On it rested all the rest, and nobody had the slightest doubt as to its truth—not even the heretic burned at the stake—and this for the simple reason, that it never occurred to anyone to doubt its truth, just as it never occurred to any one before Columbus to sail beyond the setting sun, and discover new continents and tribes before unknown.
But the truth of this doctrine has now been doubted and with this doubt came the doctrine’s inevitable dissolution.
Now that the foundation is shaken, the conclusion is irresistible that the whole edifice is doomed and cannot long continue to stand; or, to drop the language of metaphor, that it is impossible for us in the future to believe in our religion as we did in the past.
Something must be done, some change’s and alterations must assuredly take place; no skill or strength of effort will suffice to replace this fundamental doctrine in its old position.
It stood like a logan-stone, balancing on a pinnacle, where the gradual action of centuries had placed it. So long as its equilibrium was undisturbed, so long as the position of balance was not passed, it remain perched on its lofty sea; but once the balance was lost, no power on earth, no ingenuity or skill of engineering could replace it on its pedestal.
The philosopher Pascal, when asked to advise what one should do when unable to believe the doctrines of the Church, answered that “you should act as if you believed it, go to Church with the other people, get sprinkled with holy water, do as they do, and you will come to believe it yourself in time.” However good when it was given, this advice is likely to prove ineffectual at the present day, for “the other people” are now in the same strait with ourselves.
In the words of Emerson we “have broken our god of tradition,” and no cement has yet been found of sufficient strength to repair the damage.
Disbelief in the dogma of the Trinity—and we cannot fail to see how unwilling this disbelief must be—will work like leaven until the whole edifice of Christianity is changed by it. It will be a force constantly present in men’s minds and impelling them to look differently on all things, especially on those things associated with their religion.
To try to foresee the direction of the change, to make the change as smooth as possible, to provide for possible contingencies, is now our duty; not to waste our energies in vain endeavours to repair the irreparable.
The conclusion is irresistible as the force of gravity, and must of necessity triumph, that the “fairy-tale of the three supernatural persons, no man can verify,” and the fairy tale must consequently be displaced.
Though this doctrine cannot be verified, it may be said, it may nevertheless be true; just as no one living will be able to verify the reality of transits of Venus, and yet no one doubts for a moment that transits of Venus occur.
Though unverifiable, this doctrine may nevertheless be true; in what light then will our questioning his reality and our conclusion of disbelief, appear to that God whose fall and discomfiture we have been discussing so confidently? Will he not inflict speedy and terrible vengeance on us for our disbelief? From this threat even, our three centuries of commune with nature has taken away its terror. We have learnt to believe that, if such a God there be, he will look down on the waywardness of this wilful child, Humanity, With a smile and not with wrath.
“Forty and six years was this temple in building.”
To even the commonest objects age lends a certain reverence and charm: fossils, ruins, coins of the Roman Empire, all antiquities attract our minds. Our interest in them redoubles, if they have any human associations attached to them. The flint weapons of the cave-man, an elk-horn with rough figures of animals etched on it, the houses of the lake-dwellers, with these things we feel a certain affinity and kinship; they belong to us and form a part of our history.
How reverent and venerable should appear an Institution, about which has clung for centuries all that is rightly considered most sacred in the human heart! If mere human interest can touch with a tinge of romance even the most common-place things how much more endearing and universal is that charm which religious feeling confers.
The log hut of the Ionic peasant was by this fervour of religion converted to the magnificent temple of Athena on the Acropolis, splendid with white marble pillars, and adorned with the loveliest sculptures that human art has ever produced. And far greater is the charm which Christianity bears for us; historic associations, the early martyrs, the deaths in the Roman amphitheatre, rapt saints gazing with radiant face to heaven from the midst of the flames rising red around the stake, fervid preachers of the gospel who risked and lost their lives in distant lands and amongst savage peoples, the lessons on the Galilean hills, the early apostles to Rome or Britain, the noble exploits of the crusaders, the heroic battles for God and country, the struggles against the tyranny over reason and conscience, the brave martyrdoms endured at every step in the advance of Christianity, the massacres of the Covenanters, all these things have helped to endear Christianity to our hearts, have identified it with our best and noblest feelings. For two milleniums the Christian religion has supplied an idea of love and mercy to the most vigorous and powerful nations in the world; has warmed the hearts and purified the minds of countless peoples and generations; in sickness it has consoled; In happiness it has added a blessing. Its shadow rested on all the most momentous events in the life of men and the life of nations; by the ministers of this faith the new-born babe was received into the Christian fold; from this faith marriage gained its chiefest sanctity; and from the dread presence of death its holy influence was not absent. From the hands of the Church’s representatives princes received their crowns, and with them the right to rule; tyrants drew back from their cruelties, and princes from their oppressions, because the Church forbade them to go on. Victory and success were marked by the Te Deum and the service of the thanksgiving to the Christians’ God, while disaster and defeat had their fittest symbol in a general humiliation before Him of penitence and prayer. Famine or storm, plague or sickness, were calls for a special ministration of the Christian faith. Into the greatest as into the least, it brought its softening, purifying, and uplifting power, in the terrible calamity which overwhelmed thousands of men and women in a moment, the eye of Christian faith saw the chastening hand of the loving father. The beauty of the spring, the golden fruits of the harvest, the solemn glory of the stars, raised in the Christian’s heart a joyful song of praise “we thank thee, oh God! for all thy wondrous works!”
And if the fervour of faith added a brighter glow to all that was delicate and beautiful in the world around us, its sanctifying light fell also on the dark and gloomy mysteries which overshadow human life. Over the inexorable enemy who cuts down strong and weak together like the flowers of the field, over death, destroyer of peoples, swift separator of friends and lovers; relentless ruiner of the heart’s dearest hopes; cruel desolator of the happiness of homes; over this threatening and gloomy form the Christian faith threw a wreath of tender flowers, changing the sombre and malevolent spectre into a kindly though rough-handed benefactor, who threw open the door from a world of incessant suffering to a never-ending realm of joy, brilliant with glorious light and radiant with the splendour of the river of life.
The poorest wretch under his lifelong burden of woe; the unfortunate doomed to perpetual imprisonment in the dreary dungeon, the tortured victim of the tyrant’s wrong the weary sufferer on a bed of agony; above all, the aged, who, after a life of misfortunes and mortifications, felt the tide of strength ebbing away and the colours of life swiftly fading; all these heard the whisper of the Christian faith “there is a bright and blissful heaven in store for you, where you will find a recompense for all your woes, where tears shall be wiped away from all faces.”
The faith that thus spread its holy influence through all the sorrows, thoughts, and yearnings of the human mind, has placed its mark indelibly on all the achievements of genius and all the outward and visible surroundings of our lives.
Some of the most precious gems of art some of the most splendid achievements of science, have from this source drawn their inspiration and impulse. Kepler spending the night in prayer before discovering the laws of the solar system; Michael Angelo adorning with the most splendid fruits of his genius the Sistine Chapel or Saint Peter’s at Rome.
Our picture galleries teem with the incarnations of this Faith; Madonnas, Crucifixions, the Holy Family, the Divine Child, Saint Jerome, the Transfiguration, cover every wall.
As in ancient Greece, so in Christendom, our noblest successes in architecture and art have been raised to the glory and honour of our religion, our splendid cathedrals, majestic abbeys and Gothic churches are not less beautiful and sublime than the Grecian Parthenon, the Theseum, and the temple of Olympic Zeus.
What sculpture, what fresco, owes to this influence, let the splendid monuments of Italian art testify!
Nor has this all-pervading power been less potent in the world of poetry and music. The two greatest epics the last twenty centuries have produced find here their source, the contemplation of the Christian faith moved Dante and Milton to loftier strains and nobler imaginings than the ancient Homer and Virgil had ever reached. Alfieri’s Saul and Racine’s Athalie testify, that in dramatic art, this power of religion was not inoperative. To learn its influence on music we have only to call to mind the names of the “Messiah,” the “Creation,” the “Ascension,” the “Elijah.”
As we look back over the last two thousand years, we find that whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, have received from Christian faith a sanctifying and verifying touch; figure after figure, history after history, hero after hero, saint after saint, step forward majestic in long array; by each and all we hear pronounced the words “From the Christian faith I drew my brightest glory.” In the background of the picture, overshadowing all the rest, stands a dark and gloomy hill; on its summit are raised three crosses; on the highest cross, which stands between the other two, a figure already dead; his side is pierced; nails transfix his hands and feet; on his brow is a crown of thorns; and above his head is this inscription—“Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews,” a splendid, tragic, and matchless picture; whose lesson has woven itself into the innermost core of the life of Christendom.
And yet this wondrous edifice, like a stately temple built on a morass, is doomed inevitably; for it is built and founded on the dogma of the Trinity, and “the fairy-tale of the three supernatural persons, no man can verify.”