Three Guardians of Supernatural Religion
by the Reverend Morgan Dix
New York: Edwin S. Gorham, 1901
As Lecturer on the Bishop Bedell Foundation, I must begin by thanking you for the patience with which you have borne a long delay. More than two years have passed since I was honored with the invitation to deliver these lectures; I deeply regret that I was twice prevented from meeting my engagement at the time fixed. From the first I had misgivings as to my ability so to discharge this duty as to help the brethren and edify the Church; but when your invitation reached me, we were approaching the end of the nineteenth century, then attenuated, and worn out, and ready to pass away, and it occurred to me that the time would be opportune for words suited to the descent of the curtain on one more act of the drama of this strange and perplexing world. That time has passed. Having crossed the threshold, we are within another cycle of history, nor is the hour apt for valedictory speech, such as I had in mind; yet, in my own case, a personal consideration comes in, to which you must be kindly indulgent. "Near as is the end of day, so too is the end of life," saith Launcelot Andrews of blessed memory; and for myself, looking back on threescore years and ten of pilgrimage, and forty-nine in Holy Orders, it seemed then, and seems now, that one in my position might welcome an opportunity of bearing testimony to an ancient faith and old truths, more true, more real, to him than ever, and to convictions confirmed by each event of life, and more precious for the opposition which they encounter. We sometimes hear of fossils among the clergy, hide-bound ecclesiastics, men who have stopped growing and walk with eyes shutcomplimentary epithets applied to those of us who believe that the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is an everlasting Gospel; that whatever else may be in flux, the Word of God is not in flux, and that not one jot or tittle of the Catholic Faith can pass away. To confess ourselves of the company of those at whom the shafts of satire are directed is a pleasure, and not a pain; while an occasion to bear witness to the Eternal Son of God, the system of the Christian religion, and the in-defectibility of the Church seemed one which ought not to be lost.
No one can tell what the twentieth century is to bring forth; as little can it be doubted that wonderful things are in the near future. Among the signs of the times is a very great and widespread interest in religion. That is not, in itself, a sign of health; it may coexist with doubt, uncertainty, and delusion. The Athenians were credited by St. Paul with an extraordinary interest in religion, and yet they had gods many, and lords many, and were densely ignorant; nor could the higher minds among them agree on anything better than to set up an altar to the Unknown God. Is it not thus in a measure with the people to-day? Consider the aspect of the times, the scope of modern discussion. Changes are taking place with great rapidity in the religious field; old things are passing away, new things crop up; the air rings with prophecy of movements more radical than any now afoot, Christ, the Bible, the Churchthese are the subjects of incessant debate; while in each case we observe a strenuous effort at readjustment of ideas on the assumption that the discoveries of science and the conclusions of philosophy render it impossible for intelligent men to believe what Christians have taught and held and still hold.
The line of this proposed readjustment is significant; in each instance the aim would seem to be to take out of the subject of the process the quality which constitutes its life. It is proposed to clear the Bible of everything offensive to modern thought, and treat it as literature merely; as a book like other books, but not as the work of writers inspired by the Holy Ghost. The Church can no longer be regarded as a divine institution, but as a society, like others, of human origin; shapeless, incoherent, composed of scattered groups of people styled Christians, yet agreeing in few points of faith, and disagreeing in every point of discipline and order; the main business of the said society being to inculcate morality, promote benevolent feeling, and ameliorate social conditions. As for Christ, He is not to be considered any longer as the Christ of dogma and theology, but rather as a widely diffused and impersonal influence, making for philanthropy, individual improvement, and general reform; not as a Person capable of being described and identified, like the mock Christ of the Creeds, but as a centre of ethical tendency; nor should mention be made any longer of such superstitious notions as those of a virgin birth, an atonement for sin, a literal resurrection, and a return to judge the world in righteousness.
Such is the line on which the proposed readjustment of Christianity is to proceed; and looking at it closely, we are struck by something very peculiar in the plan. Evidently there is in the old conceptions of Christ, the Church, and Revelation something very offensive to the thought of the age; something which must be eliminated in order to prevent the modern, worldly man from breaking with Christianity; and further examination shows what that obnoxious element is. No terms are more distasteful to the ear of the readjusters than dogmatic theology and supernatural religion; at the sound of the words they grieve and are thrown into wrathful displeasure. I do not hesitate to say that the stimulus to the efforts to readjust Christianity will be found in a deep-seated hatred of what the word "supernatural" implies. It is nothing short of hate, however veiled under the mask of liberalism, which voices the prediction, that within a short time Supernatural Religion will be discarded throughout the civilized and enlightened world.
And next we note another striking phenomenonthe rise of new systems intended to meet the changed conditions of the time; tentative projets, experiments in religion manufacture, mainly philosophical; in part revivals of systems in vogue among the pagans, in part dilutions of Christian teaching; strange creations, showing signs and wonders, attractive to the curious and credulous, and even to persons who, confused and upset, are longing for peace and rest. This is the modern programme. It begins with the assumption that the world has outgrown Supernatural Religion, and that the old Gospel must go. Demands for a religion of some sort, however, must be met, and therefore it is proposed, retaining the name of Christianity, to exhibit a new Bible, a new Church, and a new Christa Bible in which is no more of inspiration than in the Zend-Avesta or the Koran; in the writings of Homer and Hesiod; of Tacitus and Livy; of Plato, Seneca, Bacon, or Emerson; a Church disclaiming authority or supernatural powers; a Christ such as the enlightened age can accept without strain on the reason or loss of self-respect. Let us not misunderstand or misrepresent the position of our learned and eager friends. The world is not to be left without a religion, or sacred books, or a Christ. But the new religion will be natural, rational, and progressive; and the books, strained clean of superstitious ingredients, will be treated like other books; and the Christ will be an improvement on Him of the Creeds and theology; a Man of the remote past, realized to us only as a widespread, broadly felt, impersonal influence, making for good, without regard to pedigree, genealogy, history, or name.
So are the lines drawn between the old faith and the new learning; and to stand in the face of this revolutionary programme, in defence of that religion which we have received from our forefathers in Christ, and hold in trust for the salvation of man, appears to me to be the duty of the hour. And yet this duty should be discharged in the spirit of that Master whom we follow, with deference to the progress of the age so far as it is real and in the right direction, and with a great yearning for the scattered and bewildered among us, and a wish that we knew how to help them.
And here be it observed that there are among ourselves some who should not only be pitied, but closely watched; brethren of our own who help the enemy; though, I feel sure, not knowing what they do. No one more distinctly aids and abets the common foe than he who, in fear of being considered illiberal and behind the time, compromises with that foe by one concession after another until little or nothing is left to concede. There are some among us who, while sorrowfully deprecating a coming catastrophe, hasten its approach by their irresolution. What shall be said of a man who, though sworn before God and on the Holy Gospels to teach what the Church has always taught, stands like a reed shaken by the wind, seeking, yet not knowing, how to reconcile his ordination oath with a secret appetency for the gospel of progress as taught in the modern metaphysical and rationalistic schools?
Since the word "supernatural" seems to carry in it the leading issues of the day, and since our religion without the supernatural element would be no more than a desiccated remainder of what once was, but had ceased to be, I claim that the subject is urgent. Moreover, it may be possible, and I think it is, to trace the abhorrence of the term to its source. Movements in the social sphere are the outcome of teachings which quietly prepare for the result. The current discontent of the laboring classes, their indifference to religion, their loss of belief in a future life, the dreams of the communist, the sanguinary crimes of the anarchistthese are, in fact, the outcome of the work of men who for years have been studying, writing, and quietly propagating their theories of social reform unnoticed by the public. It is so with movements in the religious sphere. Current discontent with the old faith, desire for readjustment on radical lines, are traceable to their source; they are due to the revival and spread of a philosophy well known to students and attractive to the natural minda philosophy which identifies God and the universe, annuls the distinction between the human and the divine, and regards men as the product of evolution in a primal and universal substance working according to some unknown law. If we mistake not, the effort at a reconstruction of Christianity by theorists, whether within or outside of the Church, is the outcome of a quiet, silent leavening of modern thought with the principles of that philosophy, and large numbers of persons, without being aware of the fact, have been inoculated with the germs of that speculative scheme, and are now under its weird and fascinating influence. It is therefore proposed to speak of supernatural religion, to define the term, to consider certain divinely constituted agents for its defence and propagation, to show the solemn obligations of the ministry of the Church to maintain it as the power of God and the wisdom of God, and to do this with reference to the subtle force which is now engaged against the souls of men and the life of Christianity.
The question about supernatural religion contains the Credenda and Agenda in their entire range, with whatever makes a Christian man and differentiates him from other men. It includes our relations to God, the lower orders of creation, society, self; to this world, and if there be another, to that which is to come. It is a primary question, the question of all questions, determining our views of morals, faith, and worship; our conclusions as to the origin, past history, present position, and future of the human race. The character of the assault on those who believe in such a religion indicates the temper of the assailants and the value of the interests at stake. Some break forth into jibe and jest, mocking at the sound of the word as the Athenians mocked when they heard of a resurrection of the dead. Others, more serious, resort to argument, endeavoring to show that there is no distinction between creature and Creator, the human substance and the divine, God and man. This is the gist of the philosophy to which I referred a little while ago; and I shall try to show to what it would lead if its truth could be established, and how vital are the issues between its uncertain statements and negations and the clear-cut definitions and fearless assertions of the Catholic faithso vital that the faith must kill the philosophy or the philosophy will kill the faith. To quote the words of an English theologian, "Christianity is saturated with the supernatural"; take that away, and Christianity would fall as dead as the corpse which they wrap in grave clothes and lower into the tomb. Yet that would be the end if it could be established that there is but one substance in the universe; that man, and every one that ever bore the form of man, are products of an evolutionary movement in that substance; and that God and man, for all present and practical purposes, may be considered as interchangeable terms.
And here we need a definition, which I shall try to give, not in the terms of metaphysics, but in words intelligible to the people, avoiding verbiage, which darkens counsel and confuses thought. The word "supernatural" as we use it conveys a simple idea. It means above nature. And by nature the plainer folk understand the universe, so far as it is accessible to our observation. The physical process, the worlds above us in the depths of space, the solar system, the earth and its various kingdoms, man considered as a tenant of the earth, the laws and forces by which the vast system is governed and kept in orderthis is what the average person means when he speaks of nature, and such a definition will suffice to point some questions and bring some matters sharply to the front.
Is there anything beyond this, outside of it, above it? Is there aught else, not of this natural order, substantially distinct from it, which may impinge on, interfere with, or in any wise affect its conditions? Is there, outside of this stupendous process of which we speak as nature, any power of which account must be made? Is there any Personal Agent, able to retard, accelerate, or modify the movements of the spheres, suspend existing laws, and impose others at will? Is there, in short, an intelligent First Cause and Author of what we see, diverse from the world, never commingled or coagulated with other forms of being, not to be identified or confused with the universe as if part and parcel thereof? And, to speak of man particularly, is he alone in the system in which he exists, having no relation to any powers or persons invisible, for the reason that no such powers or persons exist; one in substance with the things on this planet and beyond its orbit; of kin to beast, bird, fish, plants; but without a Creator, Father, Friend, and living in and to himself alone?
Answer these questions and you have answered the question of the day. The conceptions of the universe and our own place in it part asunder, and now is disclosed the secret cause of the prevalent efforts to overthrow our faith in God and Christ. For if there be nothing above nature, then all is nature and nature is all. And if nature be all, the word "God," as we Christians use it, is a misleading term, for nature and God are one. And if this be so, it follows that man, being part and parcel of nature, is part and parcel of God, and that God is man and man is God. The denial of the supernatural would appear to involve that conception of the universe commonly known as pantheistic. It is no reproach to any one to call him a pantheist, for pantheism is a philosophy of great antiquity, with a roll of eminent names as its professors; let us add that it gives the only rational explanation of the universe if Christian dogma be not true. At the same time we insist that it is impossible to reconcile the positions of pantheistic philosophy with the Articles of the Christian Faith. Yet this is what the loose and broad religious teachers about us seem to be trying to do. The relation between the neo-pantheist and the readjuster of Christianity is close, the resemblance startling. I do not go so far as to identify these two actors on the stage of our time, but I do say that they may be considered cousins-german, and that they seem to be working towards a common end, and that this will appear when we place side by side the propositions of the pantheistic creed and the new meanings which it is desired to read into the symbol of the Catholic faith.
Let us run over certain propositions, without assigning to each its place, but with a view to see whether they are not so mutually in accord that the man who holds any one of them is not out of touch with him who holds any other. Some of them are distinctly pantheistic; some are affirmed by the professors of that neo-Christianity which aims at taking the place of the Gospel; but each may be taken as consistent with all the rest.
First. There is no God essentially distinct from the universe, the earth, and man.
. All things are in flux, evolving and developing from form to form under a mysterious law with which no outside power interferes, or ever has interfered, and over which men have no control.
. Man must have come up from lower forms of material life by a process of evolution which has made him all that he is to-day.
. God is in all things that exist, and substantially identical with them.
. There can be no such thing as sin, because men, whatever they do, are simply following a law which ever works for good; and the slight amount of friction that may occur involves no guilt, and is corrected in the general movement forward.
. Death is neither a penalty nor a punishment, but a step in one harmonious process, a means of advance, and the mark of a change to something higher and better.
. As there is no such thing as sin, in the theological sense of the word, there can be no need of an atonement.
. Religion is the natural outcome of fear or desire, the alarm of the credulous, or the emotions of the enthusiast. All religions have a common origin; none can rightly claim superiority to the rest; each is the best for those who profess it; none has authority over its professors, beyond what they may be pleased to concede; the people are at all times free to correct, amend, and remodel their religions, and they ought to do so according to the demands of the age, the conditions of society, and the changes in human thought.
. The reason is the sufficient guide to men, the ultimate authority in religion, and the supreme power in human judgment and action.
. There is no kingdom greater than that of this world, nor any king greater than man, who, sitting in the temple of gods once potent, but now disgraced and expelled, shows himself that he is God.
. There are no interests superior to those which centre in this world and this present life.
. There is no personal immortality; humanity alone is immortal.
. As for Christ, it must be held that such Christ or Christs as have been or may hereafter be seen among us were men like ourselves, advanced by virtue and character above their fellows, and in one instance exceptionally far above them, yet with no more of divinity than there is in us, who are also the sons of God; and that the particular individual known in history as Jesus Christ of Nazareth was an outcome of natural evolution, that he was long since buried and turned to dust, and is now influential only through the impression made by his incomparable life, his profoundly spiritual teaching, and his lofty example.
, and finally. Of sacred books and writings: all religions have works of that class. These should be regarded as literature of the times in which they were written; uninspired productions, subject to criticism, not only as to form, but as to entire contents; to be appreciated by each age according to its lights, and valued at whatever estimation scholars may put on their merits.
Consider these propositions one by one. I think it may be said that Catholics will deny them all, that pantheists will assent to them all, and that the leaders in the quest for an improved and revised Christianity will accept some and reject others. In the case of partial acceptance we trace the near relationship to radical philosophy. To force this fact on those who wish to revise, yet hope to save Christianity, is a duty to them and to ourselves. What they hold and would stealthily inject into the Catholic Creed and the formularies and articles of religion on the subject of the Deity of our Lord, the Incarnation, Sin, the Atonement, the Church, the Holy Scriptures, and the origin and progress of humanity accords, or may easily be harmonized, with the philosophy of pantheism, and is absolutely irreconcilable with the Faith as declared in the great General Councils, taught by the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and transmitted to our day. He that hath ears to hear, let him hear. In support of our thesis we refer to current literature of the serious kindto review, magazine, and daily journal; to essays on the need of new standards, new creeds, new statements of doctrine; to those depressing novels written in the interest of revolutionary movement within the Church. Everywhere the careful reader may trace the influence of the neo-pantheism, and perceive how deeply it has infected those who once were sound and orthodox believers, unsettling them from the base, and turning some of them into destructives who profess an intention to reconstruct, but give, so far, no sign of the way in which they are going to do it.
Nor is the decadence observable only in the place of the lecturer and popular preacher; it shows itself as clearly in the general aspects of society, in the alienation of great masses from the Church, in the growing neglect of public worship, and the secularization of the Lord's Day; in the concentration of effort on temporal ends, and the sluggishness of Christians in aggressive mission work and discipline of the individual life; in restlessness under the laws of Christ relating to marriage, home duties, the authority of parents, and the instruction of the young in the knowledge and love of God. All this runs back into the question about supernatural religion. A frightful game of hazard is played to-day, with these stakes to be lost or wonthe truth about man, his origin, substance, and destiny; the life of man as an individual, including the personal relations and duties around, above, below; the life of man in the aggregate, termed society; the general trend of public movements; the meaning of history; the value of religion; the character and mission of the Church; the place of the Bible among the sacred books of the nations; the relations of Christianity to modern civilization and outlying heathenism; the status of the individual man, his hopes and fears, his joys and sorrows, his limitations, and whatever may be learned about
''the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world."
For all these the old Church has her attested statements, and philosophy its equally distinct affirmations and denials; and between them is to come one knows not what, but some new and strange compound, professing to reconcile what cannot be reconciled, and to adjust the claims and position of the Holy Gospel and the human philosophy by a process destructive of all that has been done thus far for man's salvation and God's glory under the glorious banner of the faith once for all delivered to the saints.
But can this be done? Can such a disaster occur? I trow not, until every promise of God has been broken, and everything believed by us proved false. The truth is guarded under the promise, "Upon this rock will I build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it."
Let me repeat what has been said thus far: the current ideas about a Bible without inspiration, a Church without authority in controversies of faith, and a Christ incapable of being described or defined are intimately related to the philosophical theories that God and nature are substantially one, and that everything has come of natural causes by way of evolution and development, with no outside interference, and no superintending personal agent to guide, control, and modify the process. Moreover, recalling and adopting as our own the statement that Christianity is saturated with the supernatural, I invite you to a survey of religion from our standpoint, and an appreciation of the witness borne in our system of teaching, doctrine, and discipline to the truth of that statement. Proposing in the following lectures to speak of Christ, the Bible, and the Church in their office as witnesses to the truth, I shall add a few words and then bring this lecture to a close.
If the truth which is to make us free had been left to the custody of man in his actual state, with a reasoning faculty impaired by an original flaw, uncertain in its processes and fallible in its conclusions, a limited range of knowledge, strong prejudices, and an overweening conceit of his own powers, its stay among us would have been brief. But God has done better for us than that. He has not only made known to us the knowledge of His Will, but has provided the means to save it from loss among the broken lights of time.
By a supernatural religion we mean one that is not of man, but of God; not the resultant of natural causes, but the gift of a power above nature; a religion which, as supernatural, has authority over the natural man; authority over him through the whole range of his being, physical, intellectual, and moral; a law for the body, a rule for thought, a code for moral action; which brings him light in all his conditionslight for the intellect, guidance in morals, salutary discipline for the lower nature. There is but one such religion; its name is the Gospel, of which St. Paul spoke thus: "I certify you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached of me is not after man. For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ." The alternative is a religion evolved out of man's consciousness, carrying no authority higher than his own, and giving no help or light but that derived from within.
That Gospel of which we speak is amply safeguarded. First, we have a written document, or series of documents, of various dates and authorship, and constituting a revelation from Him in whom we live and move and have our being. Secondly, an organized society exists among us, described as "a kingdom not of this world," in which men are instructed in all that concerns them as heirs of immortal life; wherein they learn a wisdom above that of the temporal and secular sphere, and beyond scientific, economic, or political lines. Thirdly, One is present here on earth, divine and human at once; of this world and also of another; uniting in His person the finite and the infinite; alhqwV, telewV, adiairetwV, asugcutwV; Himself a mystery, and yet the Fact of all facts; inscrutable as to substance, origin, and person, yet very man; of us, but not from us; over all, blessed for ever, and yet in us; the hope of glory, the Way, the Truth, the Life.
We believe that these witnesses cannot be silenced. Christ, the Church, and the written Word are God's pledges to the human race that the true light shall not be put out, how hard soever the darkness may contend against it. But their worth to any man depends upon his ability to see what is their office, and what the qualification to fulfil it. To the man of faith the witness suffices; to him who barters faith for a mental process of private judgment and tries his hand at "reconciling" God's plain statements with his own opinions, it seems like no witness at all. We hear it said that supernatural religion will soon cease to find believers; and so it will when its safeguards are despised. Nothing is needed to that end but to rob the three witnesses of their essential character; to make of the sacred books a collection of myths, legends, and fables, of novelettes, songs, and garbled history; of the Church a secular society, useful chiefly, if not only, for ethical culture and social improvement, and possibly for police duty among the ignorant and vicious; of Christ a great and holy man, reformer, social philosopher, moral exemplar, and no more; and the work is done. The witnesses to the supernatural are killed simply by killing the element of the supernatural in the witnesses. To me it seems the duty of the hour to resist the attempt to harmonize things incompatiblean inspired volume with mere literature; a Christ who is God with a Christ who is not; a Church which is a kingdom with a Church which is a republic; Catholic unity with sectarian divisions; obedience to authority with stubborn independence; Christian simplicity concerning evil with addiction to worldly lusts. Every proposal to bring together things mutually destructive ends in the sacrifice of the higher to the lower. Go into the favorite work of the day. Deliver the Word of God to be torn up leaf by leaf by cold-blooded critics; stand and look on in silence while the Church is transformed, for social and economic ends, into a lyceum, gymnasium, free library, and lecture hall; make no protest while your Lord Christ is degraded into a man like us, liable to error, capable of sinning, and divine only in the sense in which we are divine; deprecate statements as to His nature, person, and offices, with a sneer at dogma and theology; and you have rendered a good service to those whose aim is to drive the old religion from the world.
I am sure that many are doing this without knowing better; nay, even with an idea that they are doing God and religion a good turn; but it is not so. The range of this melancholy activity varies with the harsher or milder temper of the age. To the timid it may appear sometimes that God's witnesses are in sorry plight, like those whom St. John beheld in his vision,1 who prophesied, clothed in sackcloth, and against whom the Beast made war, and overcame them, and killed them, and their dead bodies lay in the street of the great city, which spiritually is called Sodom or Egypt, where also our Lord was crucified. But though they that dwell on the earth rejoiced over them, and made merry, and sent gifts one to another, as is natural when relieved from the restraint of the law of the Lord, yet did they rise again, and stood up, and great fear fell upon the world which had rejected their testimony. We believe that our witnesses cannot be killed; that the Bible will come out of the furnace of criticism more precious and better appreciated than ever; that the Church will be reunited and resume her ancient seat as "Mother of saints, school of the wise, nurse of the heroic"; that the Catholic faith in Christ will be professed everywhere in the terms of the ancient Creeds; that the earth shall some day be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.