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The supreme crisis of Christianity throughout the ages, it has been maintained, was not the Reformation, but a movement two centuries nearer our own time. The French and Germans passed through it as an acute fever and, knowing it to be a crisis, gave it a name -- the French Illuminisme, the Germans Aufklarung But we, the first to begin and the last to end, never realised its significance enough to make us invent for it a native designation. Had the title not acquired a cheap association, we might have called it The Age of Reason, but, as it is, if we wish to convey some meaning even at the cost of precision, we must call it Rationalism, and if we wish to be precise even at the risk of conveying no meaning, we must borrow from the French and call it The Illumination.

The Reformation, it is maintained, was a mere breach in outward organisation, which left the old foundation of external authority unassailed in principle, and the body of dogma which rested on it unquestioned in fact. A portent it may have been, but only as an indication of a much more radical movement of individual emancipation, which, though its beginnings can be traced as far back as the twelfth century, first reached clear understanding of itself in Rationalism.


In this country, at least, Rationalism is thought of mainly as an attack upon all external, traditional authorities. Its criticism of tradition was made formidable by the use of an apparatus of serious historical inquiry never before available : and this has proved to be a work of far-reaching consequences. But the new and revolutionary development was the positive assertion that nothing is either true faith or right morality which is not our own; and that, in consequence, external authority is, in principle, an unsound basis, and individual judgment, not merely a right, but a duty.

The greatest thinker of the movement conceived it to be the arrival of the race at the stage of manhood, when we must take on our own shoulders responsibility for our own convictions, as well as for our own actions, because we ought to know that even a true belief is not for us truth, unless we ourselves see it to be true, and even a right action not moral, unless we ourselves discern it to be right.

This estimate is unconsciously conceded by the usual criticism of the Reformation, for what is deplored is less its own work than the ills which seem to have followed in its train. Had it not first opened the breach, it is argued, the cold waters of scepticism might never have flooded our fruitful fields.

And the loss in finality is obvious.

A doctrine both of God and of man of the utmost simplicity and definiteness was possible on the old dogmatic basis. God was the absolute and direct 5 might and all He did without error or failure; and man was the creature of His hand, directly fashioned and needing nothing for his making but the word of power. Then to deal with the Omniscient was to have infallible truth, to deal with the Supreme to have absolute legislation, to deal with the Omnipotent to have irresistible succour. Faith was acceptance of infallible truth, justification coming to terms with absolute legislation, regeneration the inpouring of efficacious grace; and the whole dogmatic edifice stood solid and four-square.

With the undermining of this structure, definiteness and certainty seemed to have vanished; but this effect was made more complete by the age of Evolution which followed. Then everything was seen in flux, with nothing fixed about which we could have decision or conviction: and, as the easy temper of a time of abundant material prosperity interpreted evolution as a fine flow of even upward progress, decision and conviction were also regarded as unnecesary. Thus all distinctions tended to be toned down, and not least moral and religious distinctions. Religion softened into vague lines and dim chiaroscuros and timid approximations, till truth seemed mainly a business of suspending judgment, and goodness of meaning well. Absolute distinction between truth and error, good and evil, even at the centre, disappeared from a territory where lately all had been absolute. It was not merely that creeds and customs, which had come unscathed through ages of 6 controversy, began to suffer change. The dogmatic form itself began to crumble. Suggestion, hypothesis and practical persuasion took the place of definition and decree.

Historical investigation also wrought to the same end. The old dogmatic method had been to argue a priori from what becomes Omnipotence and Omniscience: the historical method is to inquire, without presupposition, what God actually has done. Under this solvent all the infallibilities began to crumble. An infallible Orthodoxy followed an infallible Vicar of Christ, an infallible Scripture an infallible Orthodoxy, an infallible Christ an infallible Scripture.

Many, for whom finality alone is security and peace, could see in this only a desolating inundation of human error and wickedness, destroying the fruits of the Spirit, undermining social order, and blotting out the landmarks of morality. So far from regarding the movement as the emancipation and enlightenment of mankind, they saw men condemned by it to wander in perpetual twilight amid shadowy ghosts of former faiths, which could neither be expelled nor embraced. Assuming that God's truth ought to be infallible and God's grace irresistible, they concluded that it was mere human perversity which rejected and denied, and were assured that, some day, God would display all this questioning as nakedly wicked. As this iniquity was ascribed mainly to soft living and material prosperity, new hopes have been stirred by years of misery and war. When the intellectual 7 ferment dies before the stress of living and the nearness of dying, and the confidence in progress changes to a fear of desolation and returning barbarism, and joy in every aspect of human activity passes into a sense of the futility of human endeavour, will not all this pride of intellect be laid low? If we are forced to say once again, It is not in man that runneth, but all victory is only of God, what else is the true lesson of the ages? What is our need, if not that God should direct amid human blindness, and rule amid human folly, and uphold amid human weakness? May not what many have hailed as liberty, therefore, only have been the temper of an easy, worldly, intellectually curious time, which the temper of an age burdened with the practical stress of life and death will repudiate?

The rebuilding of the ancient dam of a united Church on the old foundation has, from this interpretation of history, been the dream of many individuals and the inspiration of more than one movement: and so long as the dam alone is considered and the flood ignored, the project seems hopeful. But, if the Reformation was only an effect and not a cause, only the first plain indication of a greater movement, and if its stream is still rising, the stoutest ecclesiastical barrier is a feeble hope. Nay, greater strength might only be an added danger, for the longer it holds, the more devastating will be the inundation.

Wrong turnings have been taken in human history: and they have at times had appalling consequences. 8 And the causes doubtless were human blindness and wickedness. But this rather seems to show that God does not govern His World by infallible direction and irresistible power. In particular, it does not seem a convincing way of defending the infallibilities of an omniscient and omnipotent God to suppose that He was as blind as the ecclesiastical authorities to the danger for them of an insignificant monk, or as incapable of removing it.

No windings, moreover, in the course of man's progress can obscure the fact that its general course is in the direction of a greater responsibility for his own beliefs and actions. Nor has the result been merely the rejection of external authorities, for on the foundation of direct consciousness of truth and conscience of right, men have been able to build with the security of the witness of reality to their own minds, and they have found in it a certainty not to be given from without. Nor is there any dubiety that, in religion also, we should have a securer foundation, could we but dig down to this direct witness.

In any case, the web of history cannot be unwoven, and we must accept our position in it as we find it. And the actual situation is that there is no more any infallible authority left on which to build, at least in openness of mind and with a sense of reality. Saying "Peace, peace," when there is no peace, or "This is the unassailable foundation," when already it is not only assailed but crumbling, is not to make ourselves secure, but only to make ourselves deceived.


This does not mean that the rationalist temper, which thought itself superior to the past because it could replace all that was true in it by its own unaided intellect, is right. This superior temper was the chief weakness of Rationalism. The interest of the age which followed was chiefly in history, but its temper also was not so free from superiority as to make it unnecessary for us to seek our true foundations in the past with reverence and insight. Yet, if we are to build on them to better purpose, it must be as discoveries of truth and righteousness, and not by mere acceptance of them as tradition.

We must distinguish between the temper of a time and its true lesson and call, whether the temper be intellectual or practical, overflowing with enthusiasm or cautious and critical. Only as we succeed are we true prophets. The false prophet is a shell gathering up and echoing the spirit of the age; the true prophet is no echo of the moods and passions of his age, but a living voice declaring what is its true lesson.

That is never easy. We do not advance merely by widening and correcting our outlook. The new can be won only at the expense of combating the old, and what we combat we are apt to misrepresent. New truth displays itself only as it dethrones ancient error, and new lessons are learned only as they overcome ancient habit: and in that task truth and right, which have been mixed with error and wrong, are not always distinguished and preserved. Concentration is an essential of all human endeavour, and a calm balance of 10 interests is often a mere juggler's trick inconsistent with urgent tasks and earnest purpose, yet this very concentration may cause us to overlook or deliberately set aside important issues.

Then comes a time when this limitation is discovered and when the losses have to be made good; and, as weariness and haste prevail after effort in most human affairs, the result is usually a reaction which condemns as worthless what is merely imperfect, and tries to ignore the obstacles which make a mere return to the past impossible. Nor is this kind of reaction anywhere so common or so disastrous as in religion. Blind reverence for the past is made a matter of faith, though the chief lesson of the past is that the face of faith is always forward; and blind adherence to its ways is made a sacred duty, though the chief result of the long and weary journey may have been to label them, "No thoroughfare." We have to subject all moods, it matters not what they are, to the spirit of truth and wisdom. And a mood which would suppress intellectual interests and obliterate the varied humanities is not least in need of that control. Nor, if we are to judge by the long ways of Providence in the past, will the true lesson be any less of patience, because our temper is of haste. If the short-cut of the infallibilities has been closed by inquiry and reason, we cannot follow it again by affirmation or even by the strongest conviction of its utility.

Many efforts have been made to rebuild on the old 11 infallibilities, and no doubt others will follow, because there are always persons encased in a jointless armour of obscurantism hard enough to turn the edge of any fact. But the value, for truth and beauty and goodness, of our own insight, choice and deliberate purpose, being once seen, can never again be wholly renounced. Whereupon, faith in the outward powers, which impose upon us what we ought to believe and set up for us what we ought to revere and prescribe for us what we ought to do, can never be an unwavering allegiance; and every attempt to defend them as a work of piety has in it a hectic unreality from start to finish. Once we clearly see that the highest possessions are valueless apart from our possession of them by insight, reverence and loyalty, we can never return by the way we came. Regrets for that straight and level and well-fenced road, with its solid, square dogmatic keeps for the shelter and protection of the pilgrim, may still linger, and the heart may tremble at the uneven, uphill, winding way into a great unmapped land, but we know it is cowardice not to seek along it God's better country.

Even if we return to the figure of the devastating waters of doubt and denial, which expresses better the sense of desolation in many hearts than a road, which, however forbidding, may lead to a land of promise, there may still be a surer hope than building ecclesiastical dams, hard to construct and little secure. When the Nile spread its obliterating deposit of black mud over the fields hardly won from the desert and 12 watered at such cost of patient toil, the victor over it was not the engineer stemming its current with his barricade, but the inspired peasant who, greatly daring, flung his precious rice into its forbidding ooze. May not that adventure in new discoveries of fruitfulness be the true answer to all life's ills, and, in particular, to all life's questions? May not the great perplexities of our time, as well as its great distresses, be simply a challenge to find in God's doings a loftier purpose and to win from His providence a richer harvest? Above all may not man thereby attain a better security than some uncertain authority outside both of the truth and of ourselves, even the direct witness of truth to our own souls? If on all other subjects we have found the only basis of truth which can bring us to final agreement to be the same witness of the reality to each one, religion is not likely to be an exception, seeing that in religion, as in nothing else, our whole spiritual worth is involved in believing only what we see to be true and following only what we discern to be right, and that the ground of this faith in man as the measure of truth and righteousness is the religious conviction that God made man in his own image, so that there is no place where this confidence has more right than in religion.

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