The Need For The Restatement Of Christian Theology
The tumult recently aroused in the Church of England by the controversy regarding the proposed alterations in the Prayer Book has reverberated through Christendom; and both in the British Dominions and also in Episcopalian circles in the United States of America, the interest in the questions raised, if not so intense as in England itself, is very marked. In England the lay public, which on the whole, was quite indifferent to ecclesiastical matters, has suddenly realised in the light of these dissensions how bitter is the warfare which is being waged between the Low Church and the High Church parties, or the Protestants and the Anglo-Catholics, as the two factions are usually termed; but the non-partisan layman, unless he has chanced to be by habit a church goer, has found it no simple matter to decide which of the two delivers the greater insult to his secular intelligence – the bigoted Evangelical “Fundamentalist,” or the strange and subversive “Sacramentalist.” In this dilemma, therefore, his interest has been directed rather to the matter of keeping the Church as national as possible, in which endeavour he has found himself mainly engaged in attacking practices considered to be of a Roman Catholic character; for the average Englishman has been taught from his youth up, as the eminent Professor George Santayana has said,(1) that any spiritual journey Rome-wards is tantamount to a renunciation of English nationality.
The Church of England is a State institution and although a large part of the nation is Non-conformist, this Established Church is supposed to supply the kind of service and teaching most suitable to the English temperament at large, allowing, however, that degree of latitude necessary in the case of a race of such mixed origin and such varied mentality; and the dominant wish of the English layman, as expressed in Parliament and elsewhere, has been to prevent this national institution passing under the influence of a clerical party not thoroughly representative of traditional English opinion since the Reformation. He has been met, of course, with the threat that the interference of laymen in ecclesiastical affairs will lead to disestablishment, that is to say, to the releasing of the clerical horses from the secular reins; but this threat he has never regarded with any anxiety, for it is obvious that a secession of the Church from the State, against the wishes of Parliament, could only be affected by the clergy’s abandonment of the ancient cathedrals and churches in the country and by the building of new places of worship, the historic edifices being national monuments belongings to the English people, too dear sentimentally to them to be handed over to a faction secularly in a minority.
In England, in fact, the layman finds himself in control of the ecclesiastical situation; but, in making use of his powers, he is mainly concerned with this matter of the national character of the State Church, and he is inclined to give little thought to the intellectual questions involved. The whole fight, however, in its doctrinal aspect, is relatively unimportant, because it is over-shadowed by the much more serious fact of the growing indifference of educated people throughout the world to church-going to all. On all sides one hears it said that the dogmas of Christianity can no longer be accepted by the modern mind there being such a woof of nonsense interwoven across the warp of Christian belief that the intelligent layman must needs weave his own religious fabric. Not merely the English Prayer Book in England, but the whole scheme of Christian theology as taught throughout the world by the various sects and churches, is now under criticism; and though such questions as have agitated the Church of England so violently of late are of great interest to English church-goers and to those who, without actually going to church, are concerned with its doings as a national institution, the really important question today is one which is not local not factional, but is being asked all over the Christian world in all denominations, namely, whether or not the entire creed is obsolete. The fear that Christianity will collapse before the dread tribunal of modern rationality is widespread; and it is perhaps for this reason that the layman in England shrinks from investigating too closely the theological matters involved in this great Prayer Book dispute, and confines himself, as I say, to a somewhat blind opposition to the reintroduction of any foreign practices ejected at the Reformation.
In these chapters I want to bring that lurking fear into the open. As an Englishman I write, of course, with a mental eye chiefly directed towards the Church of England and its twin, the Episcopal Church of the States; and I must confess to a certain prejudice in its favour due to a fact which fairness compels me to admit, namely, that I happen to be respectively the stepson, the grandson, the nephew, and the cousin many times over, of English clergymen. But the present turmoil in Anglican circles does but give point in one country to discussions which are the outcome of modern thought in many lands and amongst persons of many denominations; and I want here to bring Christian theology of all kinds lay criticism, so that the secular mind may be aided in forming an opinion as to the worth or worthlessness of the Faith. The question as to whether certain practices of the Church of England are “Roman” or not is of but local interest and passing moment: It is the question as to whether Christian theology in general can have the approval of Twentieth Century brains or not is of real importance.
It will be well, perhaps, here and now to state my own opinion in this matter, so that the trend of my argument may be apparent. Christian theology, I believe, is in part quite acceptable and in part of its doctrines and beliefs as have the genuine authority of the historic Jesus Christ are unassailable and eternal, but those which are based upon the early Christians’ interpretation of our Lord’s nature and mission are largely untenable. I believe that much of the generally accepted Christian doctrines is derived from pagan sources and not from Jesus Christ at all, a great deal of ecclesiastical Christianity being, indeed, so definitely paganism re-dressed that one might almost speak of it as the last stronghold of the old heathen gods. I believe that the adoration of these ancient gods had never died out, and that in places of Christian worship today we still unwittingly maintain it, and solemnly recite the myths of heathendom. Yet the Jesus of History, as distinct from the Jesus of Theology, remains “the way, the truth, and the life” ; and I am convinced that concentration upon the historic figure of our Lord and upon His teaching can alone inspire in this Twentieth Century that fervent adherence and service which in former ages could be obtained from the average layman by the expounding of theological dogmas, the threat of hell, and the performance of elaborate rites and ceremonies. In saying this I may be accused of attempting to undermine the faith of those who believe, but, on the contrary, my object is to build up the faith of those who do not believe.
The widespread undercurrent of undigested criticism now circulating beneath the outward aspect of Christianity is dangerous in the extreme to the spiritual life of the civilised world, and a bold and rational restatement of the theology of the Faith is urgently called for. The present controversy in regard to the Anglican Prayer Book has revealed the state of religious thought in England; and though this dispute touches only one phase of the wider problem, it is instructive to understand the situation it discloses, which is as follows. The churches of the evangelical and moderate parties, except where the incumbent himself is attractive or provides attractive religious fare, are, on the whole, steadily emptying; but the Anglo-Catholics are managing to infuse some life into their benefices by emphasising the ritualistic and sacramental aspects of their worship, thereby introducing that general effect of colour, drama, mystery, and awe, which is purposely absent in the Protestant service. In doing so, however, they are recalling from limbo the tenets of paganism, and are resuscitating beliefs which can only temporarily galvanise religious fervour, because such beliefs cannot for ever with stand the assault of modern intellectual criticism. Yet so successful is the Anglo-Catholic party in arresting the drift from the Church that the proposed reforms in the Prayer Book have been framed with particular care to legalise certain of their rites and ceremonies, while at the same time setting a limit to the Rome-ward tendencies of the sect. This licence, however, has aroused the opposition of the Protestants, who, nevertheless, have nothing startling to offer the layman as an inducement to attend their services, and can only rely on the traditional practices and beliefs of the Reformation, many of which are quite unsuited to the modern mind.
Meanwhile, there is a growing body in intellectual clergy and laymen which feels that adherence to the Church is too dearly bought either by the maintenance of obsolete Protestant beliefs or by the introduction of Catholic doctrines and rites which, though they have a dramatic appeal, are of dubious orthodoxy, and which can be seen by any serious student to have their origin in paganism; and these men realise that, no matter which faction be successful in the present dispute, the future of the Church, and, indeed, of Christianity itself, depends on one thing and one thing alone: namely, the weeding out of such of its teachings as have not the genuine authority of Jesus Christ, and do not show that rationality which makes Him so acceptable to these latter days.
It is here that the local English problem merges with the wider issue. If the things which Christianity throughout the world preaches and the things it does are in accord with modern thought, are credible and acceptable to the critical mind of today, and have the authority of the Founder of the Faith, then all is well, and the Christian religion need have no fear of extinction; but if these things are not credible, and neither appeal to modern reason nor find support in the genuine teachings of our Lord, then all the ritualism and sacramentalism on the one hand, or all the evangelical fervour on the other, will not stop the gradual withdrawal of the layman’s allegiance to the Churches, and Christianity, as such, is doomed.
The advanced intellectual Christian of the Twentieth Century wishes to have the very creed itself pulled to pieces and rewritten, and he desires to see the removal of all those features which render his Faith open to the criticism that it is heathendom rehabilitated. The old gods, ousted by Jesus, have crept back, and have, so to speak, dug themselves in once more. Their temples being destroyed and their altars forsaken, they have come to church; and there you may find them today, receiving, under other names, the worship denied them in their own immemorial forms. Drastic measures are needed to rescue the sublime figure of our Lord from the press of this motley company, and to relieve the original doctrine from the stranglehold of a theology and a habit of religious thought which are to be traced to primitive paganism. The old gods have come to church; and, their presence beginnings at long last to be detected, the day will soon arrive when either they or the congregation must leave.
- Santayana, Soliloquies in England.