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ONE can hardly have too many aids to be "ready always to give
answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear, having a good conscience,” and at the same time heed Shakspere's hint that “your reasons be "sharp and sententious, pleasant without scurrility, witty without affectation, audacious without impudency, learned without opinion, and strange without heresy."
Of books whose theme is the birth, the life, the death, and the character of Jesus Christ, the name is legion. None of them, except one or two of limited scope, seem to present impartially the most advanced thought extant on the fifty principal topics of that theme. Most of the authors evince that “self-interest, the long habit of looking mainly at one side, and steady training in opposition to the other side, are influences for casuistry too powerful to be matched by the best intentions. They have each,” adds Moncure D. Conway, “brought his little block of stone, under impression that it was the whole temple, to a point where comparative study may take it up and fit it to every other block, that the sacred edifice of humanity
The success of the writer or reader who has in hand this fitting will depend much on how little he strains to avoid mal-adjustment of his spiritual stature to the proportions of any Procrustean creedbed; on how impartially he selects his appliances; on how, readily he draws his weapons for Truth from the whole religious armory of Christendom. Nay, even heathendom will be brought under tribute, and Seneca shall testify that "he who determines anything without
hearing both parties, though he may have determined justly, has not himself been just.”
Indeed, the old Hebrew admonition against so answering a matter has cumulative corroboration in the codes of legislatures and the decrees of judiciaries; in the insight of the philosopher testifying, with John Stuart Mill, that “he who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that”; and, in the reflection of the divine, observing with the Anglican that “no man who knows nothing else knows even his Bible.” To form an opinion is not always to form a judgment. Many people treat their beliefs as Don Quixote treated his armor. He first tried it by a heavy blow of his sword against his helmet, cutting off the visor, and undoing in a moment the work of a week. So he mended it, and made it stronger, but concluded not to try it again; to let it pass for a good, strong helmet, without further experiment. And thus the adage : “That man does not believe his creed who is afraid of hearing it attacked.”
In studying the life of any historic personage, — that of Jesus not excepted,- the proper selection, arrangement, and treatment of the subjects have been well suggested by a premise in President Garfield's Memorial Address on General George H. Thomas: “Given the character of a man, and the conditions of life around him, what will be his career? Or, given his career and surroundings, what was his character? Or, given his character and career, of what kind were his surroundings? The relation of these three factors to each other is severely logical. From them is deduced all genuine history."
The word "severely” was here well chosen. Imagination is so much easier than reasoning that, even when we revert to the scenes of Galilee and Judea, it requires effort to divest ourselves of indolent habits of assuming. Few of us can sincerely disclaim appreciation of the surprise voiced by the society woman at the first exhibition of Holman Hunt's picture of “The Finding of Jesus in the Temple,” when she exclaimed, “Well, I declare, if Mr. Hunt hasn't made Jesus look just like a little Jew boy.” Few of us there be who do not need to substitute thinking for day-dreaming.
And if, incidental to the study of Jesus' character and teachings, we desire to trace the identity of his doctrine of “the kingdom of heaven” with that of “religious evolution,” it certainly is best to avail ourselves of the matured thoughts of sages thereon, which, crystallized in terse, aphoristic form, have outlasted the centuries : verdicts on which judgment has been entered up and affirmed on appeal to humanity at large.*
The proportion of such aphoristic matter can hardly be too great in a book whose function is principally for meditative and leisurely reference. Or, as George William Curtis felicitously expressed it,f to “break the fetter, not with the might of the trip-hammer that shatters, but with the touch of the sunbeam that melts.... Channing once declared that God has not intrusted the reform of the world to passion. The calm statement is the permanent one, the argument that our children's children will read and feel to be invincible. It may not have the glow, the fervor, the palpitation of speeches, and appeals wherein the trumpet mingles above the fute ; but it will shine always with the calm light of the stars in heaven.” A "sunbeam" reminding us of John Milton's “Truth is as impossible to be soiled by any outward touch as the sunbeam.” Or, as Dr. James McCosh puts it, “In the end, thought rules the world, though at times impulses and passions are more powerful." Or Merle d'Aubigné, “Ideas make their way in silence, like the waters that, filtering behind the rocks of the Alps, loosen them from the mountain on which they stand.”
And this, too, without diffuse transitional matter, if any. Robert Southey testifies that “it is with words as with sunbeams : the more they are condensed, the deeper they burn." And George Herbert,And Alexander Pope, “Half our knowledge we must snatch, not take.” And Francis de Voltaire, “The multiplicity of facts and writings has become so great that everything must be reduced to extracts.” And William Wirt: “The age of ornament is over, that of utility has succeeded : the pugnæ quam pompe aptius is the order of the day; and men fight now with clenched fist, not with open hand, — with logic, and not with rhetoric.” Dr. Samuel Johnson's remark, “Classical quotation is the parole of literary men all over the world,” applies to other quotation and to the “community of mind” among all thinkers.
A verse may find him who a sermon flies.
* For such store of pertinent aphorisms, both in
poetry, the surviving author would here acknowledge his indebtedness to his deceased coadjutor, his wife, Celeste, daughter of Rev. Henry Shute, born at Columbia, N.Y., 1830; died at Boston, 1880. Her rare spiritual intuition had rendered her — what James T. Fields calls Leigh Hunt, in comparing him to the African bird that befriends the bee-hunter-"a honey-indicator" in religious literature. The longer quotations (wherein book and page are cited) are made with consent of the respective authors or publishers. In these, later authors, writing under superior advantages for reviewing and comparing, are preferred to earlier ; for instance, Dr. Geikie, to any one in the list of nearly two hundred authors consulted by him in the preparation of his Life and Words of Christ. So, also, as to Drs. I. Hooykaas, J. F. Clarke, James Strong, etc., and recent encyclopædists. (Compare the Analytical and the Quotation Indexes.) For some unquoted matter in chapters upon the Sermon on the Mount, Prayer, and Immortality, acknowledgment is due to skeleton notes of sermons delivered forty years ago at North Yarmouth, Me., and Groton, Vt., by Rev. Benjamin Burnham, born at Rumney, N.H., 1791; died at Groton, Vt., 1875. *In his response at the Brooklyn Channing Centennial.
In some chapters herein, especially those upon the “Sermon on the Mount” and the “Immortality of the Soul,” it seems best to let certain trite abstract matter yield place to concretions, and not to ignore the fact that an age of thought has succeeded to an age of sentiment, and prescribes to theology new conditions, unlike researches under systems "framed,” as lately remarked Dr. Frederic H. Hedge, “when this earth was supposed to be the centre and the only rational body of the sidereal universe, and sun, moon, and stars were believed to be movable lanterns circulating around it,the heavens a solid frame fitted to it like a cap,— the whole created at one stroke a few thousand years back, and destined to last a very few years longer; framed when men believed in dragons and griffins and devils with bats' wings, and a jail underneath the earth for the damned, and a palace above the sky for the blest.”
Both writer and reader must recognize the tendency of modern philanthropists to throw mere unpractical, controversial matter into the background, nor longer animadvert upon the famous “Item xxi." of Stephen Girard's will, enjoining that no ecclesiastic hold any station in his orphans' college; he would "keep their tender minds free from controversy, until the purest principles of morality be planted therein." He believed with Milton that to know that which before us lies in daily life is the prime wisdom. A young girl was lately asking a very common question as to the ethics of horse-car tickets, and, on being asked in return if such questions were not taken up in her Sunday-school class, answered that they were learning only about the kings of Judah, It recalls a line or two in Mr. Chadwick's Ode on Channing :
Still making with their war of texts