Freethought Archives > G.W. Foote > Arrows of Freethought (1882)


(January, 1880.)

Christmas and Easter are fruitful in panegyrics on Jesus and the religion which fraudulently bears his name. On these occasions, not only the religious but even the secular newspapers give the rein to their rhetoric and imagination, and indulge in much fervid eloquence on the birth or the crucifixion of the Nazarene. Time-honored platitudes are brought out from their resting-places and dexterously moved to a well-known tune; and fallacies which have been refuted ad nauseam are paraded afresh as though their logical purity were still beyond suspicion. Papers that differ on all other occasions and on all other subjects concur then, and "when they do agree their unanimity is wonderful." While the more sober and orthodox discourse in tones befitting their dignity and repute, the more profane riotously join in the chorus; and not to be behind the rest, the notoriously misbelieving Greatest Circulator orders from the profanest member of its staff "a rousing article on the Crucifixion," or on the birth of Jesus, as the case may be. All this, however, is of small account, except as an indication of the slavery of our "independent" journals to Bumble and his prejudices, before whom they are obliged to masquerade when he ordains a celebration of his social or religious rites. But here and there a more serious voice is heard through the din, with an accent of earnest veracity, and not that of an actor playing a part. Such a voice may be worth listening to, and certainly no other can be. Let us hear the Rev. J. Baldwin Brown on "The Reign of Christ." He is, I believe, honorably distinguished among Dissenters; his sermons often bear marks of originality; and the goodness of his heart, whatever may be thought of the strength of his head, is sufficiently attested by his emphatic revolt against the doctrine of Eternal Torture in Hell.

Before criticising Mr. Brown's sermon in detail I cannot help remarking that it is far too rhetorical and far too empty of argument. Sentimentality is the bane of religion in our day; subservience to popularity degrades the pulpit as it degrades the press. If we desire to find the language of reason in theology, we must seek it in the writings of such men as Newman, who contemplate the ignorant and passionate multitude with mingled pity and disdain. The "advanced" school of theologians, from Dean Stanley to the humblest reconciler of reason and faith, are sentimentalists almost to a man; the reason being, I take it, that although their emotional tendencies are very admirable, they lack the intellectual consistency and rigor which impel others to stand on definite first principles, as a sure basis of operation and an impregnable citadel against attack. Mr. Brown belongs to this "advanced" school, and has a liberal share of its failings. He is full of eloquent passages that lead to nothing, and he excites expectations which are seldom if ever satisfied. He faces stupendous obstacles raised by reason against his creed, and just as we look to see him valiantly surmount them, we find that he veils them from base to summit with a dense cloud of words, out of which his voice is heard asking us to believe him on the other side. Yet of all men professional students of the Bible should be freest from such a fault, seeing what a magnificent masterpiece it is of terse and vigorous simplicity. Mr. Brown and his "advanced" friends would do well to ponder that quaint and pregnant aphorism of old Bishop Andrewes—"Waste words addle questions." When I first read it I was thrown into convulsions of laughter, and even now it tickles my risibility; but despite its irresistible quaint-ness I cannot but regard it as one of the wisest and pithiest sentences in our literature. Dr. Newman has splendidly amplified it in a passage of his "University Sermons," which I gratuitously present to Mr. Brown and every reader who can make use of it:—"Half the controversies in the world are verbal ones; and could they be brought to a plain issue, they would be brought to a prompt termination. Parties engaged in them would then perceive, either that in substance they agreed together, or that their difference was one of first principles. This is the great object to be aimed at in the present age, though confessedly a very arduous one. We need not dispute, we need not prove,—we need but define. At all events, let us, if we can, do this first of all; and then see who are left for us to dispute with, and what is left for us to prove."

Mr. Brown's sermon on "The Reign of Christ" is preached from a verse of St. Paul's first Epistle to Timothy, wherein Jesus is styled "The blessed and only Potentate." From this "inspired" statement he derives infinite consolation. This, he admits, is far from being the best of all possible worlds, for it is full of strife and cruelty, the wail of anguish and the clamor of frenzy; but as Christ is "the blessed and only Potentate," moral order will finally be evolved from the chaos and good be triumphant over evil. Now the question arises: Who made the chaos and who is responsible for the evil? Not Christ, of course: Mr. Brown will not allow that. Is it the Devil then? Oh no! To say that would be blasphemy against God. He admits, however, that the notion has largely prevailed, and has even been formulated into religious creeds, "that a malignant spirit, a spirit who loves cursing as God loves blessing, has a large and independent share in the government of the world." But, he adds, "in Christendom men dare not say that they believe it, with the throne of the crucified and risen Christ revealed in the Apocalypse to their gaze." Ordinary people will rub their eyes in sheer amazement at this cool assertion. Is it not plain that Christians in all ages have believed in the power and subtlety of the Devil as God's sleepless antagonist? Have they not held, and do they not still hold, that he caused the Fall of Adam and Eve, and thus introduced original sin, which was certain to infect the whole human race ever afterwards until the end of time? Was not John Milton a Christian, and did he not in his "Paradise Lost" develope all the phases of that portentous competition between the celestial and infernal powers for the virtual possession of this world and lordship over the destinies of our race? If we accept Mr. Brown's statements we shall have to reverse history and belie the evidence of our senses.

But who is responsible for the moral chaos and the existence of evil? That is the question. If to say Christ is absurd, and to say the Devil blasphemy, what alternative is left? The usual answer is: Man's freewill. Christ as "the blessed and only Potentate" leaves us liberty of action, and our own evil passions cause all the misery of our lives. But who gave us our evil passions? To this question no answer is vouchsafed, and so we are left exactly at the point from which we started. Yet Mr. Brown has a very decided opinion as to the part these "evil passions" play in the history cf mankind. He refers to them as "the Devil's brood of lust and lies, and wrongs and hates, and murderous passion and insolent power, which through all the ages of earth's sad history have made it liker hell than heaven." No Atheist could use stronger language. Mr. Brown even believes that our "insurgent lusts and passions" are predetermining causes of heresy, so that in respect both to faith and to works they achieve our damnation. How then did we come by them? The Evolutionist frankly answers the question without fear of blasphemy on the one hand or of moral despair on the other. Mr. Brown is bound to give his answer after raising the question so vividly. But he will not. He urges that it "presents points of tremendous difficulty," although "we shall unravel the mystery, we shall solve the problems in God's good time." Thus the solution of the problem is to be postponed until we are dead, when it will no longer interest us. However convenient this may be for the teachers of mystery, it is most unsatisfactory to rationalists. Mr. Brown must also be reminded that the "tremendous difficulties" he alludes to are all of his own creation. There is no difficulty about any fact except in relation to some theory. It is Mr. Brown's theory of the universe which creates the difficulties. It does not account for all the facts of existence—nay, it is logically contravened by the most conspicuous and persistent of them. Instead of modifying or transforming his theory into accordance with the facts, he rushes off with it into the cloud-land of faith. There let him remain as he has a perfect right to. Our objection is neither to reason nor to faith, but to a mischievous playing fast and loose with both.

Mr. Brown opines that Christ will reign until all his enemies are under his feet. And who are these enemies? Not the souls of men, says Mr. Brown, for Christ "loves them with an infinite tenderness." This infinite tenderness is clearly not allied to infinite power or the world's anguish would long since have been appeased and extinguished, or never have been permitted to exist at all. The real enemies of Christ are not the souls of men, but "the hates and passions which torment them." Oh those hates and passions! They are the dialectical balls with which Mr. Brown goes through his performance in that circle of petitio principii so hated by all logicians, the middle sphere of intellects too light for the solid earth of fact and too gross for the aerial heaven of imagination.

It will be a fitting conclusion to present to Mr. Brown a very serious matter which he has overlooked. Christ, "the blessed and only Potentate," came on earth and originated the universal religion nearly two thousand years ago. Up to the present time three-fourths of the world's inhabitants are outside its pale, and more than half of them have never heard it preached. Amongst the quarter which nominally professes Christianity disbelief is spreading more rapidly than the missionaries succeed in converting the heathen; so that the reign of Christ is being restricted instead of increased. To ask us, despite this, to believe that he is God, and possessed of infinite power, is to ask us to believe a marvel compared with which the wildest fables are credible, and the most extravagant miracles but as dust in the balance.

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