The Parents' Review
A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture
"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
The Imperative Demand.
The Sermons of Eugené Bersier.
We live in an age when many serious souls are liberating themselves from the bonds of recognised religion. So far as external, formal religion goes, their protest against that is at an end; they bow the knee and worship, and say it is fit that they should; but they decline to have their beliefs bound by the dogmas, their ideas inspired by the teachings, of the ancient creed. This attitude of many thoughtful minds need not fill us, to whom He is all-in-all, with despair for the cause of Christ. Above all, we need not keep a dark closet wherein lies, perdu, the possibility of "Doubt." If we do this, if we go about with a secret unnameable dread lest, if we open our eyes to all that is to be known, we, too, may pass over to the ranks of the Unbeliever, why, perhaps we may "save our own souls" if we care about it, but we have sold birthright and blessing, we have nothing to pass on to our children of the golden heritage of Christian hope. No man can give what he has not got; and this is true, above all, of the certainties of the faith. But we are in the dark hour before dawn; such a Christianity is coming upon us as neither the world nor the Church has ever dreamed of; even now we begin to see our way out of the darkness, because we begin to see why it has fallen upon us. To use the language of philosophy, "religion" as we know it, is subjective, not objective; that is, our religious idea is directly opposed to the genius of Christianity. Oh, the appalling egoism of "Christian" literature! while, of that name,
"Which whoso preacheth
of that enthralling Personality which is capable of ever-fresh unfoldings to meet the needs of all the ages, we hear, only, as it is subservient to our poor uses. "For me" is the key-note of one great school of religious thought; "By me" that of another; but how seldom is Christ Himself, for Himself--not for what He is for us, or has done for us, or worketh in us--placed in the foreground of religious thought!
Possibly it is for this that many consciences are in revolt against religion as it is taught. "What think ye of Christ?" is the question that is searching all hearts, and it is only as we are able to ring out our answer in the clear glad tones of passionate conviction, that we have any sure and certain hope to communicate to the children.
It is for this reason that parents are profoundly indebted to a prophet who is able to lift the veil and give us any living thought of Christ; such thoughts, for example, as are scattered, "few, faint, and feeble" it may be, through the pages of The Christian Year; such simple image as of--in the words of another poet--
"Jesus sitting by Samarian well,
is very precious to us. If any teacher is able to measure the surging shallow thought of our day, and show us how Christ still sitteth above the water floods, a king for ever, he does an unspeakable service to parents, many of whom are suffering under an anxious sense that they are the conservators of Christianity for their children, and that they hold their treasure with uncertain grasp. How to communicate the treasure is not the question. Give them the idea, and none in the world knows so well as parents how to convey it to the minds and hearts of the little ones.
We think we have found such a teacher as our times demand in the late Eugené Bersier, pastor of the Reformed Church of France. His important works demand more than a brief notice; and we propose to introduce any of our readers to whom his teaching is not familiar to the incisive thought of one who has set himself to the solution of the anxious question of the age with profound insight and triumphant faith. Let us hear him, first, on "The Royalty of Jesus Christ," bearing in mind how much his nervous and eloquent language loses by translation:--
Men of the highest intellectual calibre, who, nevertheless, hold themselves for Christians and whose sincerity is beyond a doubt, believe that they will render Christianity more acceptable to our contemporaries if they can reduce it to the proportions of an historic fact produced by the religious conscience of humanity, and that the figure of Jesus Christ will attract the greater respect and sympathy the more it is divested of the bedazzling nimbus of a supernatural origin and of supernatural powers.
"Let go," they say to us, "all those marvellous incidents to which modern criticism has done justice, and which are repugnant to our reason, trained by the severe methods of positive science. Present Jesus Christ no longer as he appears to you, transformed by the enthusiasm of his disciples, elevated by them to the right hand of the Father, and participating in the worship which belongs to God alone. What do you lose thereby? There remains to Christ the unique glory of having been the greatest of the prophets, the preacher of a spiritual religion, the initiator of the Divine paternity, of human brotherhood. Alone among the children of men, he felt beat in his heart the certainty that he is a son of God, he gave God his true name, that of Father, he established between man and God the true relation which produces in our souls confiding faith and love. It is for this that he will always be in our eyes alike Master and model. In the incomparable precepts of the Sermon on the Mount, in his sublime parables, in the spectacle of his sufferings and of his death, he shows us what human life penetrated by the Divine love may become; and this example will be so much the more contagious when Christ, become truly our brother, shall appear to us no more in the diaphanous light of a legend belonging to the dawn of reason, and when we shall see in him a son of man, subject to the same temptations as we, and conquering, by moral struggles valiantly supported, his title and his dignity of Son of God."
Such is the language we hear about us, and which from sincere lips cannot leave us indifferent; for, in an epoch troubled as ours, when so many minds turn with cold disdain from all eternal hope, it is something, it is much, to recognise in Jesus Christ the initiator of religious truth. Wherefore, to those who speak thus, we would not respond in the well-satisfied accents and with the sententious affirmations of an orthodoxy which believes itself infallible. But, on the other hand, we should be blind did we not see the immense impportance of the concessions which they demand of us. Whether Christianity is a gift of God made to humanity, or is only the supreme effort of the human conscience, is a fundamental question. Instead of seeing in Jesus Christ, with the whole Church, divinity revealing itself in a man, they demand that we see in him humanity made divine, because it has arrived for the first time by him at the full possession of the divine. To those who believe that at this price they can save the cause of Christianity, we say, with the ardour of profound conviction, in the first place, their illusion is enormous; and next, that their Christ, reduced to quite human proportions, is a being far more incomprehensible than ours, of whom they will none.
I have said their illusion; let me explain. They believe--do they not?--that the Gospel, despoiled of all supernatural elements, reduced to the simple proportions of a moral life, of which the Sermon on the Mount should be the eternal code would impose itself henceforth on the conscience, and would no longer excite any revolt of the reason. Now I appeal to all who have studied the movement of contemporaneous thought--is it true that their hopes are realised in any degree whatever? Where are the proselytes gained to this new gospel? Where are they who find in it peace of mind and of heart? Would you know what I observe to-day? It is, that, that which is attacked the most bitterly, the most disdainfully, at this hour, is precisely the whole conception of morality of which the Sermon on the Mount is, in our eyes, the sublime and popular expression. Ask of our Positivists--I do not say only of those who, in the silence of the study, follow with inexorable logic their system to its final consequences; I say of the popular leaders, of those whose words I heard recently applauded with frantic enthusiasm by our Parisian workmen--ask them what they think of a God of Providence who nourishes the birds of the air and clothes the lilies of the field, who counts the hairs of our heads, and to whom we should pray with the simple trust of a child. Ask them what they think of the Beatitudes. Ask these apostles of the redemption of humanity by science how they conceive of the promises addressed to the poor in spirit. Ask these politicians how they regard the triumph which Christ announces to the meek. Ask of these social reformers what judgment they form as to the eternal compensation assured to the afflicted and the persecuted. And, when you have collected their answers, given in a frenzy of wrath and scorn, you will tell us if it is sufficient to abandon this folly of the Cross and of supernatural Christianity in order to win to the Gospel the generations of the future.
I have a right, then, to say that the illusion of those I combat is profound. I add that the Christ whom they present to us is an imaginary Christ, of whom history knows nothing. When we would know what Jesus Christ was, there is one whom we should interrogate before all others--Jesus Christ himself. Let us hear his testimony. Lest we accord too much to the enthusiasm of his disciples, let us consult, not Saint Paul, whose letters, however, of incontestable authenticity, are the most ancient historical documents of primitive Christianity; nor Saint John or his school, whose mystic thought has, we are told, idealised Jesus. Let us hold to the three first Gospels, which are the faithful echo of the ministry of Christ in Galilee and its bloody epilogue in Jerusalem. You know them by heart; for I appeal to that first impression within you which no critical analysis has been able to affect. Is it true that Christ, such as he there appears to us, is no more than an humble Israelite, attaining, by means of the moral struggles of life, and by the study of the ancient prophets, to feel vibrate for the first time in his heart the certainty of the Divine paternity and of human brotherhood, and founding thus, by the spontaneous effort of his genius, that magnificent reality which he calls the kingdom of God? I do not prejudge your response, but this is mine: in my eyes, the Crhist of Matthew, of Mark, of Luke, as that of Paul and of John, is a Being who, from the first, acts and speaks as a king.
The domain in which Jesus Christ moves is a domain exclusively religious; in all that he teaches and in all that he does he occupies himself solely with the relations of man with God, and of man with man. He touches neither social nor political questions. Never is he engaged in that region of things terrestrial and transitory; nor yet with those scientific truths which God has delivered over to the free investigations of men. And let us say in passing, it is because the Gospel has contracted no alliance with the powers of this order, it is because it has espoused no policy, no social system, no cosmogony, no philosophy, that it proves itself to be addressed to man himself in that which man has of central and of essential; that it is able to adapt itself to all ages and all races; that it is universal; and that it is always actual.
When I affirm that Jesus Christ pretended to royalty, it is to royalty neither of the order temporal nor of the order intellectual. We must, to quote a sublime saying of Pascal's, elevate ourselves to a sphere beyond that of Alexander, as of Archimedes; we must place ourselves on grounds moral and religious. It is there that Jesus Christ appears to me a king.
Let us consider Jesus Christ in the character of a teacher. Compare his attitude with that of the philosophers, of the greatest of all, of Socrates, for example. We remember the famous parallel between Socrates and Jesus Christ which Jean Jacques Rousseau traced. On one point this parallel is erroneous; the death of Jesus Christ was not more calm than that of the Sage of Athens. It is not of serenity that one can speak before the Cross of Calvary, echoing still the Eli sabachthani which escaped the expiring Redeemer. Let us have courage to confess it--the death of Jesus was a death full of anguish; but it is this very anguish which has become for all the faithful an eternal source of ineffable peace. But between the teaching of Socrates and that of Jesus Christ, how striking it is still! Socrates is a man who has measured his own ignorance, and who, with the candour of an elightened conscience and of sound sense elevated to the point of genius, essays to discover the law of his destiny. What course does he take? He observes, he analyses human actions and the motives which inspire them; he seeks for the true moral laws underlying the syllogisms of the sophists; he collects the materials upon which his disciple, Plato, should erect a philosophy, admirable indeed, but full of subtle hypotheses, ingeniuous conjectures, wild phantasies, and which is, in the end, no more than the most sublime effort of human curiosity seeking to fathom the infinite.
After Socrates, let us hear Jesus Christ. Where find you in him the effort of the inquiring reason? By what signs do you recognise in his language the travail of the intelligence labouring after truth? Where are the hesitations, the conjectures, the anguish, the doubts, which accompany with all men the conception of profound convictions, and which appear even by reason of the intensity of these convictions? From his first word, Jesus affirms. Never does his word mount from the earth as the supreme elaboration of a holy soul in travail; always, it descends from on high with the authority of a revelation. It is this accent of authority which strikes the crowd on the mount of the Beatitudes, and which retains through the ages its character, distinctive and sovereign. That which he predicates of God, of His nature, of His holiness, of His mercy, of the true worship which is owing to HIm; that which he declares of man, of the eternal value of each soul, of obedience interior and spiritual, of the law of justice and chairty by which human beings should be bound; that which he declares of our immortal destiny, of the life to come, and of the final judgment, Jesus speaks as a master. On each of these subjects he speaks the true and definite word which awakens an echo in the depths of the human conscience in all times, among all races, in all quarters of the world.
We shall be told, no doubt, that this accent of authority is not foreign to the lips of a son of Israel, that from this race, formed upon the law and the prophets, one cannot demand the language of philosophy, nor the methods of the dialectics they have never acquired. Let us admit that the criticism is legitimate--compare Jesus, as a teacher, not with the greatest of the Greeks, but with another son of Israel whom we Christians hold to be inspired, and who has an unparalleled intensity of conviction in his own inspiration, with that disciple of the law and of the prophets named Saul of Tarsus. If ever man were convinced of his divine mission, if ever man laid at the service of his faith a sincere and ardent soul, surely it is he whose zeal has in these days won for him the glory which, in his eyes, would have been a blasphemy, of having been the true founder of Christianity. It is as we compare him with his Master that we are able to measure all the distance which separates him who possesses the truth to the point of saying, 'I am the truth,' from him who was possessed by the truth to the point of becoming the most ardent of the apostles.
Yes, it is in Saint Paul that we can study that travail of mind, that anguish, that spiritual drama, which I look for in vain in Jesus Christ. Read those letters, whose style, so original, so personal, so vivid, guarantees for ever their authenticity. Under this style, striking, palpitating, sometimes incorrect, under these tortured phrases, under this language which bursts as a vase too slight to contain the new wine, effervescing and running over. I perceive a soul, inspired, indeed, but a soul of man after all, which finds itself compelled to recount, in such poor words as it has, the mighty things of God. Of a surety, I bow before the apostle; I recognise in his words the message of a faithful witness of the Gospel; but, with the apostle himself, I bow before him whom Paul calls his Lord and his Master; before him who opposes to the ancient law his own sovereign authority, who speaks of heaven as a son would speak of the house of his father; who says, "No one knows the Father save the Son," who affirms that the heavens and the earth shall pass, but that his words shall never pass; before him who, in a word, in the order of the revelation of religion, speaks always and acts always as a king.
This royalty--so unquestionable in Jesus Christ when he reveals the truths of religion--I find, in the second place, in the attitude which he takes, brought face to face with the human conscience, of which, above all, he proclaims himself the Master and the Judge.
Let us consider for a moment, from this point of view, the thesis which I combat. They tell us that Jesus, simple son of Galilee, by his experiences and his struggles, conquered, little by little, the possession of the internal peace and the religious truth of which he was the initiator, the witness, and the martyr; they tell us, that the more we bring ourselves to regard him in this light, divesting ourselves of every supernatural preconception, the better shall we be able to comprehend him and to love him. Here, again, let us interrogate Jesus Christ himself, and see what is the true impression which he produces upon our souls.
We are all agreed upon one point--that the moral law preached by him is the most spiritual and the most holy that the world has yet heard. It judges not only the words or the actions of men: it reaches the hidden, the hardly-conscious thoughts; it is an inexorable illumination, which penetrates into the last folds of the heart; it sees murder, not only in the act, but in the hatred--what say I?--in the egotism which leaves him to perish whom we are able to save; it discovers adultery in an impure look; it ordains a sanctity and a justice of which God is called to be the secret witness.
Whilst worldly livers, frivolous, or sold to the servitude of a culpable passion, say that we exaggerate, that we calumniate human nature in speaking thus, they accuse themselves the first who accomplish in silence the hidden works of holiness and of charity. It has ever been thus. If you would collect avowals the most poignant, confession the most heartbroken of human misery, it is of the souls of the élite you must demand them; the very vision which reveals to them the immaculate summit of moral perfection shows them at the same time the profundity of the abyss which separates from it; witness, among thousands, this Saint Paul of whom we have been speaking, surely one of the most valiant, the most holy, and the most loving souls the world has ever known, and who, in the impressive description he gives of the internal struggles between the law of the spirit and the law of the flesh, lets this cry of anguish escape him, "Miserable that I am, who shall deliver me from this corpse?"
Now let us examine the phenomenon in face of which we are placed. We see before us a Being who without hesitation, without research, without a doubt, announces to men this law of perfection which, since his coming, can never more be relegated by the human conscience. This man, in preaching this so perfect law, has the absolute conviction that he has always accomplished it. He who wrings from humanity the avowal of its misery, who troubles even the consciences until then the most peaceable, he never confesses his sins, he never lets escape him a word of remorse, a cry of repentance, an avowal of regret. Not a ripple, even the slightest, ruffles the surface of his own conscience. He believes himself holy, absolutely holy, and his disciples, witnesses of his most intimate life, have called him the Holy and the Just. In the records they have left us of his ministry--records of which the simple style, artless and unstudied, testifies abundantly that the writers have followed no preconceived plan--we perceive that they describe a life in which the penetrating eye of the critic has been unable to discover, I do not say any crime, I say any fault, any defect, a single weakness, one vulgar trait. Every act, every thought, every sentiment of this man was the constant realisation of the ideal law of love and holiness. Not only does this Being affirm his own perfection, but from the moment of his appearance he erects himself the absolute master of consciences; he binds and he unbinds; he sends away sinners absolved by a sovereign sentence; he saves or he condemns; it is before his tribunal that all souls shall one day appear, and it shall suffice that he say to them "I never knew you" for that word to decide their eternal future.
. . . What becomes, before this figure, of the theory of the young Galilean, arriving by slow interior travail at the possession of peace, pardon, of the sentiment of adoption and of Divine filiation? If he is only a man, let them tell me how he has conquered moral peace; let them show me the traces of those internal struggles, the inevitable anguish of the birth-throes of perfect sanctity! Let them explain to me this róle of Judge and Master pronouncing on all men a supreme sentence of which eternity shall see the accomplishment! Since eighteen hundred years the Christian conscience has resolved this question, and its verdict is final. It has felt that here are a sanctity and an authority which do not belong to the earth; it has saluted in the Christ its Prophet and its King.
(To be continued.)
Typed by Pamela Hicks, Feb 2013