E. Belfort Bax March 1910
Source: New Age, 3 March 1910, p. 423-424;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.
The modern view of the reign of law in history, and of the “historical relativity” which is its outcome, often leads the unwary to a kind of mechanical fatalism in the estimation of historical phenomena. The truth that everything is relative to the general conditions of a period leads with some to a sort of sacramental necessity being assumed as attached to the whole of the concrete reality of an age which it is conceived must have happened so, and could not have happened otherwise.
For example, in discussing the question of the origin and success of the Christian propaganda in the lands constituting the Roman Empire, during the first three centuries of the Christian era, the average modern rationalist is apt to assume the Christian religion in all its aspects to have been the necessary form for the ethical and theological thoughts of mankind to take at this period; and hence that its success was, as it were, preordained by the general conditions of historical evolution. NOW this view belongs to that order of ideas which consciously or unconsciously treats the real world as being wholly composed of, or dominated by, determinate and determining concepts, rules, and laws; in a word, by its logical aspect alone. This view ignores the truth elsewhere insisted upon by me with considerable elaboration (c.f. The Roots of Reality); to wit, that all really consists au fond of two elements or aspects, an alogical as well as a logical; that the farmer can never be completely absorbed by the latter or legitimately treated as reducible under it, notwithstanding that in our experience we find both elements in indissoluble union.
Now, if we are to form a correct judgment upon the content of history as a real process in time, it is essential to distinguish between the element in that content which is determined by the inner necessity of the whole historical movement at the period dealt with, and that other element which, while forming part of the total result, is nevertheless per se accidental, and hence which might have happened otherwise – which, in short, belongs to the alogical side of the historical process.
Reverting to the instance before mentioned, which forms the main subject of the present article, as to the way in which we regard the functions of the Christian religion in history, the problem would seem to stand as follows: – In how far are we to attribute the success of the Christian Church in the Roman Empire to its answering to certain intellectual and moral aspirations forming part of the mental atmosphere of the then world, and hence in how far may we regard it as a necessity of the historical process itself, and in how far it was an event which consistently with the general trend of that process need not have happened or might have happened otherwise?
If we take an impartial view of the conditions of the first three centuries we shall find that the general consciousness was moving along certain lines, and was becoming dominated by certain beliefs and aspirations. The serious-minded man of all classes and of all countries (in the first and second centuries), coming within the range of the civilisation of the ancient world, was eminently introspective – i.e., his chief object of interest was his own soul and its welfare, which he connected with some mystical relation it bore to the supreme power of the universe as personified by him. His whole theory of life was based on the supernatural and the belief in magic. Hence for him questions of God and personal existence after death were questions of very intense and practical moment indeed, just as for the serious-minded man of to-day are political and economic questions. Of the course of social life and thought from earlier times which led up to this state of things, of the contemporary political and economic condition which contributed to intensify the general intellectual attitude, it is unnecessary to speak here. It is sufficient that it existed, that notions derivable from this thought and atmosphere belonged to the social consciousness of the time, and that some religious system formulating them, together with the needs and aspirations bred of them, was inevitable. Every philosophical and religious theory of the universe which was then current endeavoured to meet these demands in its own way. Christianity did this, and gradually absorbed, or successfully competed with, the rest, owing to reasons which, with our scant and imperfect data, it is impossible at present fully to determine.
Now the main point of interest for us here is that the element of “inevitability” in the historical success of Christianity consisted solely in its expression of the aforesaid tendency of thought and aspiration. But there were other features specially characterising the Christian faith and church as such, which we have no reason to regard as inevitable – i.e., as necessarily given in the conditions of the time, but which might well have been otherwise. First and foremost among the features which from out all the creeds and cults of the Roman Empire is peculiar to Christianity alone is the idea of religious intolerance, of compulsory assent to dogma, of disbelief in a theory as being criminal. There is no difficulty in conceiving that (let us say) the religion of Mithras, that Neoplatonism, that Manicheeism – all of which systems embodied the same general tendencies as Christianity – might have succeeded in ousting their rival. In fact, it is well known that there was a time during the third century when, to the modern scholar looking back, it seems to have been a mere toss up which the world should become, Manicheean or Christian. Now, had the former alternative happened – had, indeed, any one of these other claimants for the suffrages of the serious-minded man of the first three centuries succeeded in over-coming the Christian church – the element of dogmatic intolerance, and with it of religious persecution, which was otherwise alien to the ancient world, would never have arisen to stain the pages of subsequent history.
Another speciality of the faith propagated by the Christian church, but the inevitability of which cannot be concluded from the general historical process, is the imperfection of the character-ideal embodied in its central figure. I am aware that many hold the Jesus-figure to have been the great Pièce de résistance of the Christian faith, that which enabled it to successfully outbid rival systems and cults. While it is often admitted that the morality of the Gospel discourses is not original, since it is to be found in earlier and elsewhere in contemporary thought, the Jesus-figure is supposed to have exercised a unique charm on that most uncritical stratum of the population of an uncritical age from among which the converts to first and second century Christianity were mainly drawn. It is possible that there may be something in this. But the relative success of other religious systems – the success of one at least very nearly approaching that of Christianity – which had no historical or quasi-historical figure as an object of devotion, would tend to show that such a figure was not essential or inevitable to the religious consciousness of the time. I therefore contend that both the principle of religious intolerance – i.e., of the culpability of disbelief – and the Jesus-figure, with all its imperfections, belong to the accidental side of the history of the time, and not to its essential and inevitable trend, that they are special characteristics of the Christian church and its doctrine, and not given in the general tendencies of the age; and that hence we are justified in charging them, for good or evil, to the account of the Christian religion per se namely, as a particular product of the human mind, and judging it with regard to them as an isolated phenomenon. It is from this point of view that I hold we are justified in pronouncing Christianity as on the whole a bad religion ab initio, just as I pronounce a man to be a bad man who has certain bad personal qualities over and above those attributable to his age, class or race. But it will be said, What do you mean by alleging imperfection of the holy and sinless personality depicted in the New Testament? I reply, on holiness and sinlessness I am no authority as implying theological virtue which loses its savour for all but theologically-minded persons. But if challenged as to the super-eminent human virtues of the Jesus-figure as presented in the Gospels, I am ready with my answer. I do not rest my case on my non-appreciation of particular traits – e.g., of a young person who at twelve years takes to “disputing” with his learned elders – or of the wisdom of heaven-sent teachers who use strong language at trees for not bearing fruit at the wrong time of year as a vent to their ill-humour at being unable to satisfy their hunger. Neither do I press home too severely on this occasion the question as to the reasonableness of basing a dogmatic estimate of personal character solely on an avowedly partisan recital of certain selected events or speeches alleged to have happened or been made in a three-years’ propaganda tour. What I do say is, that the character pourtrayed in the Gospel narrative, so far as one can form a judgment on it from the data given, conveys to me the impression of a real self-idolatry combined with a mock humility which is singularly unpleasing, and which, elevated to the rank of a model, has, I conceive, been a fruitful source of that vice of hypocrisy to which the Christian religion in all ages has so readily lent itself. In the above-mentioned impression I am so far from being alone that an eminent divine of the Scottish church, in an article in a leading review some two or three years ago, admits the self-idolatry, but saves his ecclesiastical face by trying to forge out of it an argument for the dogma of the divinity of Jesus. We are, says he in effect, on the horns of a dilemma – either Jesus was a vanitous person and a quite imperfect character, or else he was God, and as representing divinity in human form he had a perfect right to “put on side” (so to say). Our Scotch theologian, if I remember rightly, even adduces the case of the ambassador of a great Power who has to remind the foreigner perpetually of his importance and dignity. The naïve animistic suggestion of the eminent Scotch divine of the habits of thought of our savage and barbaric ancestors will hardly fail to excite a smile with many persons, I venture to think. But, anyway, the concession of the imperfection of the character from a purely human point of view is significant indeed as coming from a luminary of the Christian church.
Who of us have not known, or know of, propagandists of to-day who alike without personal exaltation, without parading the fact that they have no certainty of a night’s lodging, and without ostentatious “humility,” have carried on their work for a lifetime (e.g., the protagonists of the Russian revolutionary movement)?
There is a third point regarding Christianity as a special and particular manifestation of the religious tendency of the age in which it arose over and above the necessities of that tendency itself, and which is also reflected in the recorded conduct of its founder. I refer to the apparently unacknowledged plagiarism of the precepts of the Gospel discourses precepts which we all (at least up to a certain point) recognise. We all know that the morality called Christian had been preached before, and was being preached at the time by Stoics, Buddhists, probably by the Essenes, and certainly a little earlier by the Rabbi Hillel. Now, whatever may be the case with the other sources mentioned, it is hardly conceivable that a Jew of Palestine in the time of Augustus, interested in religious matters, should not have heard of the Rabbi Hillel and his teaching. Hence it is very difficult to acquit the author of the Gospel discourses of appropriating fine and noble ideas without acknowledgment.
The foregoing are certainly defects in the Christian system viewed as a special phenomenon of human culture. The reply of the Christian to such a criticism (apart from personal abuse of the critic, his usual weapon) I can very well foresee. “By its fruits ye shall judge it,” he will say. (1) How came it that such an imperfect creed, as you picture it, gained over other systems also embodying the general religious aspirations of the first three centuries? And (2) how was it that such a creed purified and regenerated the world?
The rejoinder to the first question is that in the absence of any even approximately adequate data as to the inner social and intellectual life of the period, above all our almost total absence of knowledge of the feelings and aspirations of the masses, it is a sheer begging of the question to assume that the success of Christianity was due to its intrinsic merits. Even as it is we can see many external causes which undoubtedly contributed to that success (e.g., a skilfully devised and carried-out system of agitation and organisation, the latter including eleemosynary relief). The conversion of the Roman world was a slow process, moreover, and its greatest numerical extension, it should be noted, took place precisely at a time when it is admitted by most Christians themselves that their religion had lost its original purity and was, indeed, advanced far in the path of corruption.
The second question, as to the purifying and regenerative effects of Christianity, may be answered by a simple denial of the facts. To make good this denial at the present time and place is obviously impossible, but the open-minded reader may be referred to two popular and succinct statements of the case from this point of view, in the late Cotter Morison’s Service of Man and in Mr. McCabe’s recently published work, The Bible in Europe. In short, it can be very easily and conclusively shown that not a single one of the beneficent effects ascribed to the advent of the Christian religion in the Roman Empire are really due to it, but, in so far as they rest on facts, are traceable to quite other causes – causes in most cases already in operation before Christianity dawned on the world.
On the other hand, two things Christianity has undoubtedly given to the world, viz., religious persecution and religious hypocrisy. A Catholic bishop had the effrontery, after the murder of Ferrer, to talk in an encyclical about the antagonism of the wicked world to “Christ and his church.” Yes, there has been, is, and will continue so long as a vestige of organised Christianity remains an antagonism between all that is best in the world, all that is worth living and fighting for in human affairs, and the solid phalanx of opposition to knowledge backed by cruelty, toadyism to wealth, privilege, and lust of oligarchic power, for which in the main “Christ and his church” have always stood. The men of movements are, after all, largely symbols. It may well be that the Idealist, the Socialist and the Freethinker, of the future will oppose to the memory of the self-praising Galilean of what by an arbitrary convention (as reckoning from the 27th year of Augustus, A.U.C. 753) we term the first century, that of the self-effacing Catalonian of what by the same reckoning we term the twentieth century.
1. The unscrupulously partisan nature of the Gospel narrative is strikingly exemplified in the treatment of a rival agitator to Jesus. “ Barabbas,” whose name is now a byeword, but which simply means the son of Abba, is abusively styled a “robber,” and is accused of “committing murder” in an insurrection. The data given would simply seem to indicate that this son of Abba was a leader of one of the numerous abortive émeutes occurring in Jerusalem at the time, and that his worst crime was probably an excess of patriotic zeal and religious enthusiasm. Insurrections are not generally made with rose-water, and that lives were lost in street-fighting is likely enough, but to charge “Barabbas “ with “murder” looks like sheer malignancy. How about the attack on the persons lawfully engaged in earning their livelihood in the forecourt of the Temple by Jesus and his followers? For, as Mr. Sturt has recently shown, it is quite clear that this incident, if historical at all, implies the armed raid of a band, by whom the Temple authorities were for the time being overpowered. Would lives lost in this case have meant “murder"? It would seem from the narrative that the parallel between the cases of Barabbas and Jesus was obvious alike to Pilate and the Jerusalem mob.