100 Years Ago… – Signs of awakening sense among Christian communities

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The Review of Religions (English), August & September 1920

The doctrine of atonement is avowedly the main plank of all shades of Church Christianity. We are, however, pleasingly surprised to find that some of the members of the Church are themselves awakening to a sense of the innate baselessness and vulgarity of the doctrine.

A recent book of Dr Rashdall, the Dean of Carlisle (Macmillan), The Idea of Atonement, has traced the history of the doctrine from its first appearance in St Paul to the modern times.

The book is a monument of scholarship and proves that the doctrine of atonement is another illustration of debasements and vulgarisation of an idea to accommodate itself to a debased and vulgarised public.

What was a metaphor in St Paul, became a dogma in Tertullian and St Augustine. One by one, the firm shades and subtle distinctions became blurred and then obliterated till with Luther, the process of salvation seems to lose every trace of ethical meaning and with Calvin, God becomes an arbitrary despot whose whim could make wrong right.

Dr Rashdall continues that there is no authority for the doctrine in the Gospels and concludes that the idea has very little content left in it for modern Christianity, since it has always been either more or less of a perversion – a caricature – of the teaching of the Master.

The elimination of the doctrine of atonement brings Christianity one step nearer to Islam. In the first place, it disproves the Godhood of Jesus, because without the need for atonement the advent of a God to serve as an example of good life for men is superfluous and hence incredible. With the disappearance of the plurality of Godhead and atonement, will disappear two main points of doctrinal difference between Christianity and Islam.

Matrimonial Causes Bill

The Matrimonial Causes Bill has passed through the House of Lords. It extends the grounds of divorce to include desertion for three years, cruelty, habitual drunkenness and incurable insanity. Here is another authoritative rebuff to Christianity and a tacit complement to Islam.

In pushing the Bill through the House of Lords, the promoters openly declared that they based themselves on a higher moral and religious standard than that hitherto professed by organised Christianity. The assumption of many of the promoters during the debates was that the Christian Churches were obstacles in the path of progress and morality.

“If I were asked to state in one word the cause of the failure of our civilisation, I should answer ‘secularism’,” writes Dean Inge in the Hibbert Journal.

“There must surely be some very deep ground for the universal discontent and malaise which has overtaken Western civilisation. There is but little happiness and content anywhere, and the reason is that we have lost faith in the values, which are the motive force of our social life.”

Decay of Puritanism

“Capitalism is in danger not so much from the envious attacks of the unpropertied as from the decay of that Puritan asceticism which was its creator. The glory of subduing the earth and producing something – no matter what – on a large scale; the accumulation of wealth not for enjoyment but as the means of increasing power and the instrument of now enterprise – this conception of a worthy and God-fearing life no longer appeals to men as it did. The capitalist now is too often an idler or a gambler and as such he can justify his existence neither to himself nor to others.

“The working man also has no pride and no conscience in his work. He works in the spirit of a slave, grudgingly and bitterly and then ascribes his unhappiness to the conditions of his employment. He is becoming well-educated; but he twists everything round, even religion, to his alleged economic grievances, and nothing else really interests him. Industrialism drags on, because the alternative is starvation; but the life and joy have gone out of it, and it seems likely to pass into a state of gradual decay.

Dying at the roots

“Civilisation presents the spectacle of a mighty tree which is dying at the roots. When masses of men begin to ask simultaneously, ‘Is it all worthwhile? What is the use of this great Babylon that we have built?’ we are reminded that the medieval casuists classified acedia, which is just this temper, among the seven deadly sins. We had almost forgotten acedia, and few know the meaning of the word; but it is at the bottom of the diseases from which we are suffering – the frivolous and joyless emptiness of life among the rich and the bitter vindictive sloth of the handworkers.”

Awaiting a new age

A correspondent writes in the London Times:

“Daily, it would seem, the movement of life is accelerated. Though the processes of nature continue, as from the first, slowly and surely, in all that affects our moral and social standards we feel hurried to new situations and to almost kaleidoscopic changes. New nations have suddenly appeared, ancient ones have collapsed, others remain stunned or distracted.

The Christian Church feels the fall force of the cataclysm. It has, moreover, its own troubles. Everywhere within its borders there is either a sense of feebleness or a great unrest. Men and women professing the faith in One Lord, and by that profession owning themselves to be charged with special responsibilities, as they have special gifts, for the advancement of the Divine Kingdom in the world, rise up for action to find themselves thwarted by their divisions, since they lack the courage to put an end to them. In addition, the revaluation of tradition, new methods of reading the scriptures, new interpretations of the historic creeds, new conceptions of the world order demand modifications or readjustments in the proportion of its teaching. Naturally, there is much hesitation, but as there is a time for silence, so there is a time for speech and a time for action.

“The Church has often been charged with failure when later times have proved it to have been most effective in its ministry to the world. And today, we are persuaded. Much of the present discontent within the Church is due to a re-quickened desire to make it more worthy of its high office. We are but repeating the experience of others in times past who toiled through chill mists to attain new visions of truth and found new opportunities of service. In the fifth century, when the fall of Rome found the Church most distracted and weakened, there came to it the vision of that city of god to which St Augustine pointed, and in the light of that vision the Church was roused afresh to its divinely appointed work. At the end of the first millennium of its history, when again everything seemed to mark the Church’s imminent decay, it rose out of the ruins of the holy Roman empire inspired with the conception of a ministry of grace among all nations wherewith to bind them together in a unity of life and order. And when Hildebrand’s ideal was in turn perverted and the Church was stricken by a widespread apathy, another crisis came at the reformation and loosed the springs of a new life for western Europs. Since that time, as before, the Church has alternately waned and revived in the ebb and flow of human life. And once more today, when we are conscious not so much of relaxed effort as of ineffective work, does not history bid us expect that out of our present sense of failure there shall emerge new visions of the truth and renewed vigour for the age which is dawning upon us.

“This hope is in the hearts of faithful people today. What are they looking for? Many would say that they are expecting a strong movement towards the reunion of Christendom; others will think rather of a federation of Churches; while others, again, desire a restatement of the faith. But we must go behind all these hopes of reorganization or reconstruction to the very sources of the Christian life if we are not to be disappointed in our eager expectations. The apostles waited in preparative prayer for the divine spirit. They were powerless until they were individually and corporately endowed by the gift of pentecost. That gift did not solve their difficulties. It made them all the more apparent. But it endowed them with the confidence of divine strength to solve them. This is our example. Awaiting the new age before us, we must share their confident expectation of a like gift.

The Church in these anxious days must, in dauntless confidence, look for the advent of the spirit, and with undistracted zeal in present duty, learn how to be ready to discern the revelation of the divine will as it was disclosed. But that can never be discerned in its fullness unless men are bold enough to welcome it and to respond to it with eager mind. We are at the threshold of a new age. Our right attitude is one of confident expectation. This spirit must be in the minds and hearts of those who are in positions of authority or leadership in the Church today. It must influence the deliberations, not only of the Lambeth Conference, but of all those assemblies, by whatever name they are called, which in different parts of the Church universal are appointed to instruct, to admonish, and to guide the life and faith of others. We can be as little satisfied with hesitant counsels for the future as with mere apologetics, however skillful, for the past. The verities of the Christian faith remain, and the sure mercies of God are guaranteed to us. We are called to tread new paths, to undertake new tasks, to appropriate new truths. In such times confident faith alone becomes believing men. Why should we be afraid?”

The [words in] italics are ours. It is a very happy sign that the above correspondent can see the futility of all officious activities for the reformation of Christianity and Christendom. The proper attitude is one of waiting with dauntless confidence “for the advent of the spirit and with undistracted zeal in present duty learn how to be ready to discern the revelation of the divine will as it is disclosed.”

The Church must be ready “to tread new paths, to undertake new tasks, to appropriate new truths.” It is unfortunate that in the consideration of religion as of more secular questions men are swayed so much by the spirit of egotism. Truth is never far from the sincere and single minded devotee.

The gift of the pentecost, “the advent of the spirit” or “the revelation of the divine will” are already amongst us if we will only have the eyes to see, ears to hear, and the heart to understand. The advent of Jesus, which was to usher the new age or the millennium, is already an accomplished fact, but it has not happened in that supernatural way in which it was expected by the ordinary Church man.

Just as [Elijah] reappeared in the person of John the Baptist, even so has Jesus the Christ reappeared in the person of Mirza Ghulam Ahmadas. It is time that thinking Christians should get rid of all prejudice and enquire about the new “Prince of Peace,” [who has] come to preach the truths of the religion of Islam or “Peace,” for it often happens as the book says that we dislike things which are good for us and love things which are injurious to us.

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