Project Canterbury

Some Defects in English Religion and Other Sermons

By John Neville Figgis

London: Robert Scott, 1917.
Milwaukee: The Young Churchman, 1917.

[51] V

Alive Unto God

[Preached at S. Mary's, Primrose Hill.]

ROM. vi. 11.

THE words of to-day's Epistle show the psychological insight of S. Paul. The end of the Christian hope is to make us "alive unto God." That is our problem now, not whether people are to be religious, but whether they are to be "alive unto God."

Religion is now in fashion. Religious experience has become a recognized part of investigation. People don't mind discussing religious problems at the luncheon table.

They are proud of having a religion. (Not all are, but many.) The mystic has come into his own. The intimate self-communings of rare souls are now displayed, and read with eagerness. We might almost say that it was a new drawing-room game. Dainty editions of their work with nice ribbons come out. Books about mystics are even more in demand. In a great bookshop in New York I was told that there was a demand for serious books, and less novels were [51/52] bought. Little books, sermons, bits of history, lives of saints, essays in religious philosophy, are read in thousands, provided they are none too weighty. All this had begun before the war. Since 1914 it has increased.

Here is a danger. People are rediscovering religion. They find the process exhilarating. Besides, nothing narrow nor dull interferes with their delight. They can have any religion they like. If they invent a new one, plenty of people will hail them prophet, or prophetess! A few years ago, if you wanted to be thought really superior, you had to be an unbeliever and let people know the wrench it involved. No such thing is needed now. It is more piquant to be a Christian of some new type, like Christian scientists, or better still to uphold one of those cults which still have the charm of Oriental mystery. Inside the Church parties are so strong that it is possible to make a hobby of your religious attachments. So people treat their religion like a pet, and grow enthusiastic over their special brand, just as a food crank does over the things he tells you not to eat.

All that I have been saying amounts to this. Our religion is man-centred. Subjective caprice rules almost every part of it. You and I share the great life of the grandest society in history. We look before and after. We are not tied down [52/53] to our own century or even to the Tractarian revival or the Caroline.

We can range at will among the centuries and make friends with the saints of many ages. We do not suffer from these eccentricities, for "do we not recognize Church authority?" Well, we think we do. So did the Jews when they said they had Abraham to their father. We must remember that the Pharisees were the High Churchmen of their day. Yet they were the worst foes of the Spirit of God. It is possible to have all the right opinions and hold by Catholic order, to share in Catholic practice and prate of Catholic authority, and yet to do all this in a narrow, individualist way. In his work on Catholicity Mr. Lacey shows the difference between the true Catholic temper, and a mere adoption of certain Catholic shibboleths. Many so-called Catholics make of the grandest and most all-embracing union in the world a thing, of their own private taste, a sort of property.

That is the danger, not that men should fail to recognize religion, but that they should treat it as a matter of taste, something that belongs to them? Can you deny that that is what they do.

Religion, to be worth anything, must leave off being man-centred and become God-centred. The test of all this talk about revival lies there, not as some people think, whether or [53/54] not it ropes in larger numbers of those outside, but whether it makes "people alive unto God." Religion is not our creation, our invention. It is our response. "We love Him because He first loved us." There is the truly Christian notion of religion. All the trend of present-day movements is the other way. We think of religion as the crystallization of the ideal dreams of men, man at his highest. True, it is that. But it is that only because it is something very much more than that. It is man's recognition of the "splendour of God," his acceptance of the great act of Love on the Cross. Calvinism is dead. We smile at its crudities. We condemn as barbarous its notion of a God, creating countless souls only to give Himself the pleasure of damning them. Yet Calvinism had strength. Its strength lay in the truth it sets forth, not in the falsehoods with which a narrow logic encumbered those truths.

The strength of Calvinism was its terrific sense of God, the sense of election, not of choosing, but of being chosen; the sense of grace, power given from without, not evolved from within. These ideas were the strength of Calvinism, and these, if stated in due proportion, are the strength of Catholic doctrine. Baptism and the Holy Eucharist, and the whole cycle of sacramental principles, do but serve to emphasize it. They prevent us thinking that our membership in the Church is due to ourselves. They show us [54/55] that the grace which forgives and sustains is a gift, not a merit. "Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit," saith the Lord of Hosts. All systems which minimize the sacraments ultimately make of religion a personal thing, a matter of feeling, the inner light, or else they explain it away into a rationalist utilitarian ethic. In one age you may have, as with the early Quakers, a vivid sense of God's call and personal revelation. By and bye this will vanish. Since no sacramental faith is there to insist on the element that comes from without, religion, even in the very act of repudiating mediators as getting between the soul and God, sets up the most dangerous of all mediators, namely the picture of ourselves. Religion to-day is greatly concerned with sublimating our own self-consciousness, and setting that up as an idol. Then it preens itself on its enlightenment as having no more use for these vulgar errors of Church and priests and sacraments, mere forms.

My friends, what we want is God; not this cult or that party, this experience or that movement, but God. Only as we get back to God and to the awe of God, only as we get away from self, and think about Him, are we likely to make real progress either as a nation or as individuals. Enter the rock, hide "thee the dust for fear of the Lord and the glory of His majesty." That is the [55/56] last thing most people want to do. That is why they care so little about worship. The notion of offering our best to God as a public society is not so much rejected as never entertained. To go to church is to get some private benefit. We judge the service by its capacity to express and heighten our feelings. Religion develops personality. But it develops it in the only proper way, the personality of each as members one of another, and of the whole family of God. The bane alike of preachers and people is the attempt to use religion to exploit personality as a private thing. Let us have done with egotistic particularism and fall on our knees before God.

"The lofty looks of man shall be humbled, and the haughtiness of men shall be bowed down, and the Lord alone shall be exalted in that day. For the day of the Lord of Hosts shall be upon every one that is proud and lofty and upon every one that is lifted up; and he shall be brought low: and upon all the cedars of Lebanon, that are high and lifted up, and upon all the oaks of Bashan, and upon all the high mountains, and upon all the hills that are lifted up, and upon every high tower and upon every fenced wall, and upon all the ships of Tarshish and upon all pleasant pictures." Much that we have known since 1914 makes these words fresh to us. Let us see to it that we take them to heart.

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